AN: Major thanks to my amazing beta, Estoma! I own nothing. Hope you like it!
"Me! You're with me!" Delly practically lunges for Peeta's arm after their gym teacher orders everyone to pair up. She sticks her tongue out at Joel Brookfeld, who whines, indignant, having already been turning to the same boy. Peeta just chuckles at the two of them.
Once Joel has paired up with one of their other friends, Delly assures her gym partner, "We make the absolute best team! I can throw higher and create a distraction, and you'll knock their lights out while they're going to catch my ball." When Peeta reminds her that they still have the rest of their team, Delly just waves him off. "Only cannon fodder, my dear. Eyes on the prize - I want extra credit."
"You take this class way too seriously."
They face off with each other in a line of their classmates as the teacher directs pairs onto one of two teams. When he reaches Delly and Peeta, they're grinning and he sighs, shaking his head in mock disapproval. "Really, Delly, you need to set aside any bias in friendship and choose a better teammate. Peeta's a big boy, he can handle rejection."
Peeta likes the gym teacher, Mister Scott. No one calls him by his last name, Declan, at his insistence. He's in his mid-twenties and already going gray, which Mister Scott jokes is caused by his wife as well as kids like Delly.
"We're partners in crime, sir." Delly proudly tilts her chin up. "I wouldn't leave this boy if President Snow himself demanded I did."
The teacher shoots her an unusually stern look but continues waving other pairs to either side of the field.
The sun is shining, and Peeta shields his eyes as he walks over to his team with Delly. He tugs on the hem of his shirt, which has shrunk over the course of the school year, and wills the class to last while there's still some wind. It's too warm to change back into his school uniform, especially when the school is so stuffy.
Mister Scott goes over the rules for every single game before they can start playing. He's probably required to because he looks just as enthusiastic as the students this far into the school year.
The rules for their gym class games are often more complicated than the Hunger Games. In dodgeball, two teams throw balls at each other, and if a ball is caught, the thrower's out. Getting hit without catching a ball means elimination. Only their partner can bring them back into the game by eliminating the player who got their partner out. Each team must stay in their designated area on the field.
Dodgeball does have one similarity with the Hunger Games: last teammates left standing win. So does their team, which Peeta's noticed references how victors' districts benefit as well.
Also, it's damn brutal.
The gym teacher blows a whistle, and classmates Peeta has known since kindergarten turn into, well, contenders from another district who don't know him nor care to. It's probably intentional that they compete like this in school, though on a much smaller, gentler scale than the annual arena battles. Still, they're not as prepared as other districts; those training in the Career districts practice killing while they're throwing rubber balls at each other here in Twelve.
Peeta admits it's pretty fun, though. He's good at gym class.
He catches a rubber ball without effort as it soars toward his thigh. He flings it in another direction, knowing his assailant is already done, and Madge Undersee walks away rubbing her arm, out.
Beside him, Delly whoops something of a battle cry as she eliminates Joel using two well-thrown balls to… well. Delly is a very nice girl. She doesn't gossip or doubt people, and she's the most loyal friend Peeta has ever had. But place her in a competitive game and she becomes a conniving badass who will go to lengths such as using a male opponent's anatomy to her team's advantage. With tremendous accuracy, she throws a ball above Joel's head, which he would have caught, eliminating Delly, if she hadn't sent another straight to his groin.
Luckily, their classmate got at least a hand there for cushioning but he writhes on the ground. Watching him, Peeta remembers the time Delly asked why it hurts and he told her it was just how boys were made. He never suspected she'd use it as a strategic offense method.
Delly Cartwright, his short, plump friend Delly, wouldn't last long in the Games. There are no set teams, and alliances are only temporary. She's playful and competitive in gym class activities where no one could die, but she's too nice, too trusting, too easily hurt. So it's surreal to see her fall into the mindset the Capitol wants them all to.
Before Peeta can decide whether to congratulate her, he has to dodge an onslaught of rubber. Delly cries out as a Seam boy lands a ball on her side, none too softly. She stomps off, and on her way back to the sideline, she's hit again. Mister Scott is about to blow his whistle to reprimand whoever threw it but Delly assures him that she was just in someone's line of fire. She looks annoyed but smiles sheepishly at Peeta. "Avenge me!" she calls out over the field. Peeta sees Mister Scott snicker into his fist.
The revenge component was obviously included when the game was modified to suit Capitol-district principles, encouraging driven, tactical behavior that would bring more drama to the Hunger Games once some of these students are inevitably reaped. It promises entertainment without seeming to consider that revenge cannot always be controlled in an arena. Then again, no one is being rebellious for eliminating their partner's assailant to revive them; they're all still following the rules. Peeta realizes he detests that addition.
He's looking around, frowning, judging all of it, how they can all fall into that Games mindset, when he's completely drilled by a ball. The impact sends him sprawling and the sting doesn't come until he's flat on his back on the field.
Dazed, he looks up. Katniss Everdeen has her hands clapped over her mouth, staring at him and then Madge, who must have been her gym partner, as she jogs back onto the field, in the game again.
Everyone is looking at him. Mister Scott blows the whistle. "Foul! Undersee, stay out; no revival for you if we have to resuscitate him."
Peeta's entire face is red when he thumps his head on the cool ground.
"I've seen a lot of bruises in my fourteen years of living and that one looks the most painful by far," Delly says as she closes the door to the nurse's office and plops down beside Peeta on the cot.
He shakes his head because it would strain the swelling if he responds any other way and, no, this is not the worst bruise he's gotten, let alone seen.
This year, Delly has only found the small ones on his forearms and sometimes on his calves. She's stopped asking if they're from wrestling or his mother yet she's never even seen the marks from his mother. They're usually under his clothes, sometimes under his skin. Peeta hasn't been smacked across the face in years. It's better that way since Delly is such a worrier.
The school nurse says, "I'll get you some ice. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"No. I'm fine, really." He forces a small smile, and it hurts. He's used to downplaying injuries, though.
"Only because your head's still in dreamland," sniffs Delly. When the nurse leaves, she clarifies, "And I mean that two ways. First, Katniss hit you pretty hard. Second, Katniss hitting you was the closest thing to physical contact you've had ever with her."
Now Peeta's smile stretches until his face stings. "She has quite the arm." He pauses thoughtfully. "And the aim."
Delly laughs, unaware of her friend's sudden troubled expression. "Headshots don't count, anyway."
"They do with her squirrels," remarks Peeta as he struggles not to frown. The nurse returns and presses the icepack to Peeta's cheek. Wincing, Peeta switches hands with her on the icepack. "I just don't want her to worry about me."
"Well, she probably feels bad about it," Delly frowns. "I hope she's not too sorry over it; it really wasn't her fault, just an accident. Anyone could have hit a blockhead like you."
Peeta chuckles as the nurse shines a light into both his eyes. "Thanks."
"You recognize sarcasm," the nurse remarks, jotting down a hall pass. "No mental incapacity from a concussion, then."
"So wait, did she try to skin and gut you afterward?"
"You don't look like a wild dog to me. Then again, I've never seen one up close."
"Yeah, good thing it was just a ball and not an arrowhead!"
"Talk a little slower, why don't you? He can barely understand you with his concussion," Joel sneers. His incessant teasing since the incident - was it really an accident? - that morning has been a kind of punishment for Peeta for not partnering with him. At least it's directed toward him and not Katniss.
Peeta realizes the majority of his friends are jerks. They're impressed jerks but whatever.
"You going to redeem yourself tomorrow?"
"Aw, Mellark couldn't hit a girl."
"He couldn't even catch her, anyway."
The table laughs uproariously. He grumbles something mildly threatening around his mouthful of apple, then chugs half his milk, trying to ignore his friends by occupying himself with his lunch.
As he sits there with a less than revelatory battle wound, stealing glances at a mostly empty table in the corner, he has to admit he's become disappointed; she fell into that vengeful mindset rather effortlessly.
After all, she has quite the aim.
"I still can't believe you did that." Katniss has never heard Madge gossip but a conspiratorial tone has crept into her voice. She sounds shocked, though, not spiteful.
Rolling her eyes, Katniss says, "What, participate in gym class?"
"You didn't have to take his face off."
"Old habit from hunting, I guess. I was kind of angry he got you out."
"You sure left a mark," Madge remarks, biting into a strawberry. She eyes the table of rowdy Town boys with little interest, save for the stocky boy with the swollen cheek.
Katniss grunts noncommittally but casts a worried look over to the same table. In the same situation with a different contender, she'd think nothing of it unless they were seriously injured. She was mortified when it had been him. Adding to a face that has already endured enough ashamed her. Had she really thrown so hard? By the look of his face, she had.
She feels horrible. She should have thought before she threw, aimed for his arm or something.
After she's almost spotted by another boy, Katniss returns her attention to her small wheel of goat cheese. She internally chastises herself for not knowing what she'd have done if Peeta Mellark did look over.
Of course he's on opposite teams with Katniss again the next day. It'd be pretty anticlimactic if he wasn't. Now it's just uncomfortable.
Delly says as much as they walk off toward their team. "Watch yourself," she singsongs. "Good thing you don't look like a turkey."
"Delly, come on." It's a halfhearted rebuke; he's focusing elsewhere.
Katniss is standing on the edge of the field. The wind causes her dark braid to swing idly across her lower back and her issued gym uniform to outline the side of her lean body. She's talking with Madge, her arms crossed and her expression contrite. Madge nods assent at whatever she's saying.
They both look over at him. In an apologetic yet awkward manner, Katniss smiles and waves, and for a moment Peeta thinks he's going to fall down again.
Whether it was an accident or on purpose, she feels bad about yesterday. Peeta feels giddy with relief; she won't be a game piece this time.
One of his friends on his team points the girls out, how the game will start any minute and they won't be prepared. Peeta considers this: he could take out Katniss and then Madge, ensuring they're absolute elimination, and then the game would continue. All he'd have done was get two girls out of the game for the sake of petty revenge.
This could be the chance for redemption but he doesn't want it.
It's just a game.