A/n: Hello, everyone! This is my first ever (complete) fanfic and I've literally just opened an account here, though I've been reading some amazing work on this site for a while now. I really enjoyed writing this – a scene that was stuck in my mind long after I finished the series. Hoping for your feedback and comments!
Disclaimer: Characters, setting, scenes and main story are the property of Suzanne Collins. Some dialogue has been lifted from Catching Fire for this parallel piece.
When Katniss' prep team wakes us, complete with howls and tears, it physically hurts to let her untangle herself from my arms. I couldn't freeze that moment on the rooftop, and now it's morning again, and it's lost forever.
I sit up on the edge of the bed and will my legs to support my weight. Today, I feel as if I have two metal legs instead of one. They threaten to drag me down, and then I think that maybe it's my mind that's controlling them.
Tomorrow, we go into the arena. Again.
No matter how many times I repeat that sentence, it feels surreal. Like I know that it's happening, and what it means and implies, but like it's happening in someone else's story. It doesn't cease to surprise me, and I keep wondering whether I'm in a nightmare I haven't been able to wake up from, because it doesn't make sense, and yet it does, and that's what's really horrifying.
I labour into the hall, my mind straining to catch up, and then it hits me. It's interview day, and for what feels like the first time, I have no strategy worked out. We were too busy trying to live in the present to prepare ourselves for tonight. Haymitch and Effie really did abandon us, but maybe there's nothing we can do anyway.
If we're marked, an interview won't help us in the arena.
But I promised to try my best to help Katniss stay alive. I know she's planning something and leaving me out of her plans again, but it's me who has to think of a way to get her in favour with the sponsors tonight. She fights, I perform. That's how it's worked with us. No, that's not quite true. I fight too, in my own way, I suppose – and she performed well enough to make me think she loved me. I'm still not sure it was all a performance, but – this is not helping!
I shake my head vigorously, willing myself not to fall into that web of doubt again. That can wait, and it probably won't even matter in the end.
My feet have taken me to the dining hall, and my prep team is staring at me.
"Peeta, you've got to eat something", says Portia, her gentle voice riddled with concern, her huge, dark eyes morose.
I sit down at the table and pick up a slice of toast to placate her. In my mind, I'm off again. I try a different tactic to will my sluggish brain to keep pace: I start with what I do know. I know that Katniss is already popular with the Capitol crowd, her victory – our victory – fresh in their minds; her wedding – our wedding – tragically interrupted. Many of the other victors are popular too, though, and have the added advantage that Haymitch pointed out, of already being allies. We decided to stay out of that, to stick together, and that's probably how the crowd sees and expects us, too. Our entry was bold and unforgiving, if effective, but something tells me we need to play up the tragic love story angle if we're to get any sympathisers. I'm just not sure how to do that without losing their wandering interest.
I'm also not sure how much Haymitch is going to help us when it comes to choosing us over his friends, but I am sure that any pacts he's made with either – or both – of us aren't morally binding. Well, they might be in his moral universe, but he has his own twisted rules and plans to follow. Which means I can't count on his promise to do everything he can to save Katniss again. I'm certain Katniss has asked him to protect me this time, because she feels she owes me. That she will never stop owing me.
I can't understand that. I would have been buried under a rock, or died of blood poisoning, or nightlock, or mutts, or blood loss from my leg. She saved me every time. I wonder what Haymitch promised her while they sat around getting drunk together, the night the Quell was announced.
He hobbles in then, flask in hand but quite steady. Maybe I should give him more credit. He didn't abandon us to hangovers, after all.
"Toast been poisoned, boy?" he growls.
I start at his harsh tone, and then glance at the barely eaten and now dry toast in my hand. Lost in my thoughts, I haven't noticed when Effie came in – she stares at me now, her lips pursed. The vibe at the breakfast table is going from bad to worse, and I don't seem to be helping.
"Too dry," I answer Haymitch shortly, abandoning it and picking up a soft roll instead. "Morning, Effie", I add. She nods at me, her eyes never leaving my face.
I eat hastily, resigning myself to the fact that no bright ideas are about to present themselves in the presence of such tense company. When I've finished the last of the hot chocolate, I reach out for a bowl of berries.
And I smell sleeping syrup, and I see a petite girl with red hair lifted by a hovercraft.
Stunned, I drop the bowl back on the table. The others are staring at me in confusion, and I don't think I could eat anything now even if I was starving. Excusing myself weakly, I stumble back toward the hall.
Well, this is new. Ever since the first Games, I've been plagued by images from the arena, seeing them in nightmares but sometimes also in flashes when colours or associations trigger them. That's probably true of every victor. But berries? That has never happened before. Absolutely great timing, too.
Berries. The reason we're here. Here, alive. Here, facing death.
Get a grip on yourself.
I pass Katniss' room, where she is no doubt being put through more painful procedures than I will have to endure, and hating every minute of it. I slip into my room, and sink down on the bed. But I'm restless.
I open the drawer in my nightstand and withdraw the golden locket I'd had made two weeks ago. It feels a bit dramatic, but I'm quite sure I'm going to need it. I stare at the mockingjay, marvelling at how significant it's become since our Games – since Katniss wore it. Berries. Mockingjay.
I open the locket and find myself staring at Gale.
I'd been lucky to have found – borrowed, really – a picture of him without raising what would undoubtedly have been very awkward questions. I feel a pang of what can only be jealousy. But she did only kiss him once – if she's telling the truth. Still, that makes it one more than any real kisses we've had. All these nights I've held her, content just to have her next to me, but what I wouldn't give for just one kiss that no one else could see. To know that she was kissing me because she meant it, and not because…well, tomorrow we act for the audience again. Tomorrow, I will be allowed to kiss her.
I'll allow it. Her words come back to me, and despite the arc of my thoughts, I can't help smiling sadly. Perhaps we would have had a future together, after all. Perhaps we would have been forced to marry but would always just be friends and allies. Perhaps we would have been forced to marry and she would even have loved me, eventually. I hated the idea of having to be married against her will, of seeing her in those dresses and knowing she could barely keep the smile on her face – but then they had announced the Quarter Quell, and our sentence, and though wedding dresses would be voted on, she would never wear one again, for there would never be a wedding. For us.
I hear footsteps outside my door and hastily shove the locket back into the drawer. Then I chuckle, imagining what people would think if they saw me gazing that intently at a picture of Katniss'…cousin? Yes, that's what he's known as to the Capitol people – except Snow.
Snow. Tomorrow. Focus, Peeta!
My prep team finally knocks, after standing outside my door for a few seconds somewhat nervously, I'm sure. I let them in, and they set to work on my body, ridding it of what they describe as blemishes, wincing as they shine my metal leg. My mind is still going around in circles, stubbornly bringing up useless things like emotions and images instead of brilliant strategies.
Levia brings the laser device that I recognise from last year close to my face almost mechanically, hoping to rid it of the stubble she won't find because it did its job quite well the last time. I see Cato's face then, mangled and bloody, but they must have thought a beard would not improve his looks.
Finally, they fiddle around with my hair as I grow steadily desperate. Katniss and I have both angered the Capitol, and I almost regret that painting of Rue – though Katniss would have been in trouble irrespective with that stunt she pulled. I can't help chuckling again – what on earth is the matter with me?
My prep team smiles, mistaking my chuckle for a sign of approval at their handiwork. I grin back anyway, because they're just fools with good hearts, for the most part.
"Thank you," I say, smiling, "no one's ever going to make me look this good again."
They've got tears and frowns then, and I know that they think they'll never see me again, just like they did last year. It must be hard to be a stylist who is capable of getting attached to the people they work with – or work on, to be more precise, for this can hardly be called a collaborative effort. I give them a quick, consoling hug as Portia walks in.
She holds a grey garment bag stiffly in one hand, and doesn't smile at me, which is a bit disconcerting. Portia and I have always gotten along, and she's the only person from the Capitol I would consider calling a friend. I wonder what I did to annoy her – I did eat rolls and hot chocolate at breakfast and it's not really like her to be moody over my eating habits.
I watch as she unzips the bag to reveal a handsome black tuxedo, and it occurs to me that it's what seems to be causing her bad mood. It looks innocent enough, but maybe that's the problem. Cinna and Portia have always been in sync about how to dress us, and since we usually wear outfits that present us as a team, they always work together. Perhaps they couldn't agree this time?
I wonder what Katniss will be wearing, and I smile slightly. She'll look ravishing, no matter what.
Portia sees my silly smile, and it seems to anger her further. She throws the tuxedo down on the bed and gestures towards it, looking as if she'd like nothing more than to stab it repeatedly. Stab. Like I stabbed the girl from District 8 after the Careers left her to bleed. She had looked at me so pleadingly, I couldn't not do it.
Sienna. That was her name. Like the colour of her eyes, which were grateful. Unlike the colour of her blood, all over my hands.
I saw her in most of my nightmares, but I had never been able to paint her.
"Peeta!" Portia is shaking me by the shoulder, the anger on her face replaced by a more familiar concerned look.
I shake my head to clear it, knowing how my face must have looked as I got lost in my head. I'm angry now. I wish these memories would just leave me alone for once, especially when I can't afford to dwell on them. They seem so vivid today, and so persistent. I shake my head again, and Portia touches my shoulder again, softly.
"Let's get you dressed then, shall we? There isn't much time," she says, and her voice calms me.
She seems more like her usual self, though there is still an awful look in her eyes as she helps me into my tux. As if she's trying to help me figure something out, but she knows I haven't caught on. I look at myself in the mirror, and I'm a little pale, but my eyes are bluer than usual. The dark fabric of the tuxedo sits comfortably on my shoulders and I want to tell her it's a great choice, but then I see her holding out a pair of white gloves and the words get lost in my mouth as something falls into place. She sees the realisation in my eyes, and I see the pain in hers.
It seems I was wrong. Katniss will get to wear her wedding dress, after all.
And I'm not sure if I can take it, on top of everything else that has made my mind a wreck today, but then I think about how hurt Katniss must be feeling. So I force myself to walk, dreamlike, as steadily as possible, toward the elevator.
And then I see her, walking toward me from the end of the hall. She is a vision in white, and the moment's wrong, all wrong, and we are pieces in their game after all. Because I should have been grinning till my face and heart could burst, not forcing myself to stay upright. And she should have been gazing at me with happiness etched on her face, not walking with her head bowed to hide the pain that I can see anyway. There should have been flowers and family and dancing and she should have been walking to music, to our traditional song, not to loud silence.
Snow really knows what he's playing at, turning our last night before the arena into a reminder of everything we can never have. He wants us to go into his game broken, and we're making his victory so easy.
He's going to play us, but we don't have to make it so easy for him. My whole body shudders with energy, and I arrange my features, smiling warmly down at Katniss. She looks at me then, and she must see something in my eyes because suddenly she looks like she's shed a weight off her shoulders. She holds her head a little higher and takes on that steely look that says she hasn't been defeated yet. I love that look. She reaches out to clutch my hand as we step into the elevator, and I imagine our entrance and how it'll be received by the other tributes and the Capitol.
That's when it hits me. Without realising it, Snow has actually handed me the weapon I needed to play up our tragic act. Star-crossed lovers. He wanted to wound us, but now I think we might actually be able to use his twisted ploy against him. I feel an odd thrill at the idea.
Katniss looks at me curiously. I think I may have looked a bit excited, which would understandably confuse her. I smile at her again, and she smiles back this time, her entire face transforming. I've seen that happen a few times, not quite enough, but it feels wonderful to be the one to make it happen. The nervousness starts to come back as we near the ground floor, though, and I squeeze her hand reassuringly.
"I'm right here", I say.
As if she needed to know. She nods; and then everyone is staring at us like we've arisen from the dead.
Finnick is the first to catch my eye from across the room, and there's no mistaking the sadness on his face. That's when I know that he does, in his own way, care about us, even if he barely knows us. No one says anything, they just stare. Chaff looks murderous; Mags looks as though she would like to gather us up in her arms but isn't sure if she should. But some of the victors look unmistakeably jealous, which makes me more certain that my plan will work. They see it too, and they know they'll have to come up with something special to outshine our tragedy.
Snow has made us a team again.
Finnick walks over to us.
"I can't believe Cinna put you in that thing", he says, looking revolted. Katniss' hand stiffens in mine, and she answers harshly.
"He didn't have any choice. President Snow made him."
"Well, you look ridiculous!" Cashmere tells Katniss condescendingly, as Enobaria bares her creepy teeth at me.
I gently squeeze Katniss' hand again till she relaxes her grip, and then I notice Johanna. She looks beautiful, dressed in an orange gown – which is a definite improvement from being dressed like a tree or not being dressed at all – but she's looking at Katniss' dress much the same way Portia looked at my tuxedo. I know she loves Cinna's creations, but surely she can't be jealous of this one?
She walks over to us, still glaring, and I involuntarily step forward as she reaches for Katniss' neck – but she only straightens one of the pearl strings, and murmurs, "Make him pay for it, okay?" Then we're all shunted out into the harsh dazzle of the stage where the interviews will take place.
Caesar Flickerman is purple this time, and his smile looks even bigger.
We take our seats, Katniss and I at the very end of the semicircle, as Caesar calls us forward one by one for three-minute interviews. I tune out as the plan crystallises in my mind; occasionally, I catch a laugh or the sound of applause, but there doesn't seem to be much of it. I barely register this, though.
I have to play the heartbroken fiancé, which is barely an act for me, and if Katniss can manage to summon up a little emotion and be a weepy bride, it may be as easy as that.
I look over at her. Unlike me, she seems to be hanging on to what the others are saying. I sense the crowd for the first time then, and it's different. They seem…upset about something – surely not us? But I remember what Haymitch told us. The Capitol gets attached to its victors. Could they really be on our side?
"From District 12, Katniss Everdeen!"
This is it. I cross my fingers and toes, and lean forward in my chair.
The crowd is hysterical. They recognise the dress they voted for, and then Katniss is telling them she's sorry about the wedding being cancelled. It's working!
"But I'm glad you at least get to see me in my dress", she's saying, and she seems so much more at ease than last year. And then she's twirling again, and I stare at her, as mesmerised as everyone else.
But something is wrong.
Smoke starts billowing blackly around her as I scream out. Yet she doesn't seem hurt. She keeps on spinning, as silk chars and pearls fly everywhere, and then she is engulfed in a cloud of flame and smoke. She's the girl on fire again.
Her wedding dress has morphed into a million dark feathers, and my hand closes around the locket under my shirt. She looks down at herself in wonder as she realises what she's transformed into. Then she holds her head high, her face set and strong, and the crowd is completely silent.
She really has no idea, the effect she can have.
Cinna's done it again. Caesar calls for him to take a bow, and I just know he will face harsh consequences for this particular stylistic choice. For a minute, my heart clenches, as the crowd applauds wildly.
Shit. Well, there goes that plan.
They won't forget her now, but neither will Snow. I have about five seconds to formulate a new plan, and I can see that we're going to need it. We have no allies, and we both have training scores of 12 that are just begging the Careers to make us their main target. Caesar is trying to calm the crowd but they're having none of it, and Katniss looks slightly unsure again.
The crowd won't forget her, but why will sponsors want to keep her alive? She's the Mockingjay to the Districts, but this isn't the Capitol's war. And if I'm to help her, I need to stay alive long enough too. Think, Peeta, think! But there's no time. What will make them want to keep us both alive, for a while, at least? What will convince them that we're…entertaining enough to want to watch? Young tragic love cut short, no wedding, yada yada, I'm almost bored of the story myself, and Katniss didn't exactly come across as depressed, so how do I make them believe…
What? Where the hell did that come from?
"And finally, from District 12, Peeta Mellark!"
There's no time to think. I'm not ready, and my head reels from the idea my brain just vomited up. I wish it had worked half as well earlier. But there's no time to think and Caesar's blinding smile is inches from me as he holds out his hand.
"Peeta! Welcome back to the Capitol!" He grins enthusiastically. I plaster my camera smile on my face.
"Thank you, Caesar, I never thought this day would come!" I reply. The crowd laughs.
Black humour. A baby? Would that be pushing it?
"Well, it's certainly good to see you again, Peeta. Even though you smell like a kumquat."
Caesar seems to see the confusion on my face, and sniffs deliberately. Oh, this again.
"Come on, Caesar, this is better than roses!" I return, "give me some credit!" The crowd roars. They're not hard to amuse.
"Peeta, Peeta, Peeta. You may be a handsome lad, but you're not the smartest, are you? To think of someone being baffled by the showers for so long!"
"I think a few more trips here should do it!" I reply. Ha ha ha. Isn't that just hilarious. "At least I've figured out where the cold water comes from now!"
"Well, that makes one District 12 tribute that won't be engulfed in a puff of smoke then!"
"Yes, it does! Or be wearing feathers, for that matter."
"Feathers on fire! Never seen anything like it before!"
"Neither have I! Well, except for the time when I decided to cook an entire chicken without skinning it. I was five. I now know that throwing a chicken into the fire isn't the best way to make sure its edible…"
The crowd is hysterical. Nearly a minute of my interview has gone by, and we're doing poultry humour. Brilliant.
Something must show on my face, because then Caesar is all seriousness.
"So, Peeta, what was it like when, after all you've been through, you found out about the Quell?"
Ah, that question. I felt very loved and not betrayed at all, Caesar, thank you very much.
"I was in shock," I reply. I saw Cato and Sienna and Katniss covered in blood and mutts and my head hurt and my stomach hurled and then I was running desperately to Haymitch's house, barefoot and slipping in the cold rain.
"I mean, one minute I'm seeing Katniss looking so beautiful in all these wedding gowns, and the next…" I'm seeing her dead. I shudder.
"You realised there was never going to be a wedding?" Caesar asks helpfully.
This is it. I look up at the crowd, and they're hanging on to my every word. This is my chance to sway them in our favour. I decide to go with my gut, and words I hadn't anticipated begin to fall from my lips as though they have a life of their own. I look at Caesar in the eye.
"Caesar, do you think all our friends here can keep a secret?" I ask conspiratorially. Weak laughter emanates from the audience. Black humour. Black humour.
"I feel quite certain of it," replies Caesar, playing along. I pray that Katniss will know enough to react appropriately to what I'm going to say, because it's going to come as a revelation to her as much as to anyone else.
"We're already married," I declare quietly. A collective gasp from the crowd, and I chance a look at the screen from the corner of my eye. Katniss has buried her head in her skirt to hide her confusion, but to everyone else it will seem as though she's overwhelmed by emotion. Perfect. She's going to break another vase later, probably over my head this time, but I can't worry about that now.
The words keep spilling out, and I'm soon telling Caesar about our secret, unofficial wedding and the toasting ritual.
"So this was before the Quell?" he asks.
"Of course before the Quell!" I exclaim. "I'm sure we'd never have done it after we knew. But who could've seen it coming?" I'm starting to be really distressed now, and I don't even have to act. We were supposed to go through hell, we were supposed to pretend to be lovers and be married against our will, and we were supposed to be mentors and help other little children not get massacred in the Cornucopia, and all of that would have been bad enough, but this? Still surreal. Distantly, I hear applause, and then I realise that Caesar has his arm around my shoulders. He's saying something.
"I'm glad you two had at least a few months of happiness together."
Happiness. If people being whipped and jumping over electric fences and broken ankles and raw emotions and finding out the girl you love has chosen someone else over you and fear and training to die and to kill mean happiness, then we have been happy indeed. Well, at least there were plant drawings and cheese buns to make up for it. But I can't tell Caesar any of this.
"I'm not glad," I state bitterly. "I wish we had waited until the whole thing was done officially." Which would have been never.
"Surely even a brief time is better than no time?" Caesar is saying.
Here it comes.
"Maybe I'd think that too, Caesar," I say clearly, deliberately, "if it weren't for the baby." The baby we'll never have. Because we may not live until the end of the week. Because Snow has taken everything from us, everything. Past, present, future.
It's done. There's no going back now. The hall erupts, and everything is chaos. People are screaming, weeping, sending pained glances my way. Caesar is shocked, and he makes no effort to quieten them. I don't think he could if he tried, but he doesn't seem to want to try. For once, his smile looks like it's painted on a face where it shouldn't be.
And Katniss and I are on every screen, and she looks devastated.
I walk back to my seat as the buzzer sounds, the din echoing in my head. I feel awful. I feel like I've betrayed us, and my love for Katniss, and even if we'd never have been together or had children, I still feel like I've betrayed them…and I'm not even making any sense anymore, and for some reason I can feel tears running down my face.
I sense Katniss turn towards me as she rises to the anthem, and her face contorts with pain as she sees me cry. I reach out for her impulsively and she doesn't hesitate to press her hand warmly into mine, her eyes still sadly searching my face. Then she bows her head and heaves a great shuddering sigh, and before I can fully register what's happening, she has extended her other hand to Chaff, and he clutches Seeder, and then all twenty-four victors are linked together in a chain of defiance.
I can almost feel the defiance like electricity. The pieces in the game are pieces no more.
The screens go blank, and then the lights go out. But it's too late to make people forget what they've seen. And there's no mistaking what this will mean for us. There will be consequences.
But what could be worse than what we're already facing?
Katniss and I are still linked by the hand and I guide us into an elevator. A Peacekeeper prevents anyone else from entering it as the doors close and we begin to rise. Urgently, I turn to Katniss and grip her shoulders.
"Is there anything I have to apologise for?" I ask.
She looks me right in the eyes and holds my gaze for a long moment, but as the doors are about to open on the twelfth floor, she shakes her head and replies, "Nothing."
The vases, at least, are safe.