This one started as a Trick or Treat fic for a concept I found sort of fascinating, but never really saw fanfic for before. This story explores what would have happened if Katniss's father had lived and Peeta's father had died, because I think that would change both of their characters drastically, Katniss especially.
On the first day of school he brings a box of cookies to share with the class. He hands them out, one by one, and she swears he saves the biggest one just for her.
It's the sweetest thing she's ever tasted, and it crumbles across her tongue leaving hints of cinnamon in its wake. She savors the flavors, and the way it fills her empty stomach, and the way he smiles with just the right mix of sweetness and shyness when she thanks him for it.
From that moment on, she knows she's a goner.
She likes the slope of his nose, and the way it turns up at the end — others tease him about looking like a pig, but she thinks it's perfect. Her nose is sharp and pointy like the beak of a bird. His features are soft and round, with golden eyelashes and sparkling blue eyes the color of sapphires.
She wants to tell him these things, but she doesn't know how. He sits with the merchant kids, with girls who wear pretty dresses and bows in their hair. Katniss is skin and bone and wears the ragged, moth eaten dresses passed down from her mother from when she was a little girl. He'll never look at her the way she looks at him.
She remembers though, that her daddy won a merchant girl, and thinks maybe a merchant boy can love her too.
The baker dies a week after her eleventh birthday. The sickness strikes him quickly, and his death is sudden.
It doesn't make sense to Katniss. Someone as young and strong as the baker shouldn't die this easily. He worked a safe job with plenty of food to stay healthy and money for medicine when he needed it.
"Some things we can't control," her mother tells her sadly.
Katniss thinks of Peeta. He still has his mother, and he has two brothers, who are young, but old enough to keep the bakery running. He'll be okay, she tells herself.
But when she closes her eyes and imagines her daddy going into the ground, she knows he never will be.
Rain cuts through the sky making it hard to see. She's out later than she should be, but her father has been working longer shifts in the mines, and now that she's older, he trusts her to handle trades in town.
She's halfway through the meadow when she hears his muffled cry through a crash of thunder.
Her eyes struggle to focus on his thin frame. His back is to her, knees drawn to his chest, and the water has turned his hair dark, matting his curls to his forehead.
She takes a few brave steps towards him, but pauses when she sees a dark red gash staining his drenched tee shirt.
She calls his name, but he's unmoving, like a statue. Even with her father's hunting jacket wrapped around her, the rainwater seeps through the seams — cold and brittle, sending shivers down her spine. He must be freezing, although he doesn't look it.
She reaches out to touch him, and he flinches. The cut on his shoulder looks bad, but shallow, and she decides it probably won't need stitches. It could get infected though, if he doesn't treat it.
She drops her satchel to the ground and pulls open the drawstring to retrieve a small jar. It's a special antiseptic. Her mother synthesizes something similar using a blend of herbs, but the process is laborious and the result isn't as potent. Katniss has been trading four squirrels a week for the past month with the new apothecary to save up for it. It was going to be her mother's birthday present.
Peeta needs it more than she does. She sets it on the ground, next to his boot and leaves without a word.
The next day at school he makes an effort not to look at her. Maybe it's always this way, but on this day in particular, it's painfully obvious. His eyes snap away, whenever he notices her watching him, and he keeps his head bowed when she passes, refusing to even acknowledge her.
At lunch, he isn't sitting with the merchant kids like he usually does. Instead she spots him on the far side of the schoolyard, sketching beneath an apple tree. He looks up at her, their eyes locking for a long moment. She wonders if she should go to him, but he drops his gaze, reaching into the dirt to pluck a dandelion, which he twirls in his fingers with a faint grin.
She tries not to think about Peeta Mellark anymore. He creeps into her thoughts less and less, and sometimes she even fancies the dark haired boy she catches in the woods, or the charming peacekeeper who patrols the Hob.
It's not until the reaping of the 74th Annual Hunger Games that she's forced to think of him again. Her name is called first, and then his, and they stand side by side on the stage along with Effie Trinket and Haymitch Abernathy.
She holds his gaze as they shake hands, but when she turns to face the crowd her eyes slip shut and she thinks, not him.
The train ride is silent, save for Effie Trinket who clucks along about the Capitol events that will take place in the coming days. There's a feast set out for them, with gold rimmed china, and more forks and knives at a single place setting than she has in her whole house.
She fills her plate with roast beef and fatty duck and a rich looking risotto. She's one of the rounder girls in the Seam, but that isn't saying much. Her father has kept their family from starving with his bounty from the woods, but her hip bone is still sharp against her skin, and she count the bottom few ribs.
She's seen the tributes from District 1 and 2. At her size, she won't stand a chance.
She shovels fork full after fork full into her mouth until the grease makes her sick. Peeta sits across from her, dipping a sweet roll into his mug of hot chocolate and chewing on it idly.
What's he thinking? she wants to know. Probably the best way to kill her. She doesn't want to think like that. She hopes that someone else kills Peeta Mellark before she's given the task.
"It's not about killing," her father had told her in the justice building, right after the Reaping. "It's about surviving. You're a survivor, my girl."
When she can't eat another bite, she switches to a creamy tomato bisque, leaving the spoon beside her plate and slurping it directly from the bowl. There are tears in her eyes by the time she reaches for the loaf of bread on her plate. She rips off small pieces and inhales them until it's gone, and she's so full, she feels delirious.
"You can't kill somebody by puking on them," Peeta says, his nose wrinkled at her display. He leaves the train car and she sits, staring at her empty plate.
She's still full from dinner, but she stirs heavy cream into her oatmeal and a spoonful of walnuts too. Haymitch Abernathy is slumped in the seat beside her, giving off a vile, sour odor that makes it difficult to keep her breakfast down. He'd probably be hungover if he still weren't so drunk.
Haymitch is the only living victor of District 12, a useless title, since in the 24 years of being a mentor, he hasn't brought a single tribute home.
Peeta looks bored across from them. "Well go on," he says, addressing Haymitch. "Isn't this where the mentoring begins?"
Haymitch chuckles gruffly and tops off his juice with a fowl smelling liquor. "Stay alive," he says.
"That's funny," Peeta says flatly. "You really are worthless, aren't you?"
Haymitch seems surprised by Peeta's tenacity. Katniss is too. Tributes usually come from the Seam, and it's not that they're taught to keep their heads down, they're just too hungry and tired to fight back. Survival for them is having a meal on the table, not selecting which weapon would suit them best in an arena.
Peeta has the build of a Career. His shoulders are impossibly broad for his age, probably from hauling heavy sacks of flour through town, and he's a skilled wrestler, giving him an advantage when it comes to hand to hand combat.
"If you plan on being a fighter," Haymitch says, sitting back in his chair and propping his hands behind his head. "Then by all means, fight."
"That'd be nice for you, I bet. To cross a tribute off your kill list for once. Anything to make you feel better," he says, then excuses himself from the table.
"He sure is chipper," Haymitch says dryly.
Katniss keeps her head bowed and eats a few scoops of oatmeal, but it's like glue in her mouth. Whoever this boy is, he isn't Peeta Mellark, at least not the one she thought she knew.
When they reach the Capitol, there isn't much time to take in its grandeur. They're quickly whisked beneath the Events Square, where they're bathed and groomed into something almost unrecognizable.
Katniss is dressed in a tight black bodysuit and her makeup is done with red and orange eyeshadow and striking black lipstick. She's guided towards the chariots where Peeta is already waiting, wearing a similar bodysuit.
The step into the chariot is a large one and she grabs tightly onto the railing to hoist herself up. The suit is tighter than she realized, and she looses her balance on her first attempt. Peeta sees this and extends his hand to her.
She hesitates to take it. She doesn't want to appear weak, not to him, but accepting help isn't the worst thing. She remembers her father's advice, to survive. In the arena, having an ally is a bit shortsighted, as only one will make it out alive, but in the beginning, 22 against 2 are much better odds than 23 against 1.
Their eyes meet. Peeta could snap her neck in a second if he wanted to. In this moment, though, his eyes are so soft and kind, and his smile has just a touch of shyness that Katniss feels dizzy beneath his gaze and has to take his hand before she falls over completely.
The chariot takes off, and she catches herself watching him, so charming and handsome as he waves to the crowd. The audience loves him and he knows it.
No. She will not find an ally in Peeta Mellark.
She does awful in her private training session. She hadn't picked up a bow in the three days of training, and when she tries this one - heavier than she's used to, with a less tensile string - she misses the target completely. She adjusts her hold, testing the string a few more times, and when she takes her next shot, she hits the center of the target perfectly.
No one is paying attention anymore, so she keeps on shooting, hitting the same spot over and over until the bulls eye is nothing but a bouquet of arrows.
"Time's up," Seneca Crane tells her, and she feels her heart drop into her stomach.
The Games start in two days and she already knows she'll have an awful score. Out of the rest of the tributes, the only ones she thinks she can trust will be dead before the end of the bloodbath, which is good, too, she supposes, since she won't have to be the one to kill them.
She considers Peeta again, but he's already in with the Careers. At this point, she wouldn't be surprised if he won.
Peeta scores an 8 and she gets a 7. He sizes her up when the scores are announced, his eyes flitting subtly over her, and she wonders where exactly she's ended up on his kill list.
Survive, she tells herself. Survive.
If he's the last one left, she'll kill him if she has to.
The strappy heels pinch her toes and fold her arches in uncomfortable ways. Cinna, her stylist, makes a few quick alterations to her dress, then hands her a pair of simple ballet flats.
"Don't want you twisting your ankle at a time like this," he says, after she thanks him.
She's been dreading the interviews most since arriving in the Capitol. She doesn't want to rely on sponsors, but she doesn't want to rule them out either.
She drowns out the other tributes while she waits for her turn. What would she even talk about? She can't talk about hunting with her father, that's illegal. Trading with people in town is illegal too. She can talk about her little sister and her funny little cat and the goat too. The sponsors would love that, she thinks rolling her eyes.
Caesar announces her name, and she's whisked onto the stage.
"District 12," he says. "You're quite lovely."
Katniss supposes she should take that as a compliment, but she knows what he's implying. The tributes from District 12 are usually gaunt and pale with rotting teeth and frail bones. The Capitol only cares about you if you're good to look at, and although she doesn't consider herself beautiful, she looks healthy, which is an advantage.
"Thank you," she says.
"The male from your district, he's a looker too, huh?" Caesar says, and he winks at her suggestively.
Her eyes widen and she can only imagine how red her cheeks are by how hot they feel. She would never dare admit that she had a crush on him growing up. That she'd find him attractive now, if he weren't actively plotting her murder. "He is, I suppose," she says. Then something clicks in her mind, something she can run with. She can be charming too. "Would you like me to tell him for you?"
Caesar loves this. "Oh no! I couldn't!" he says, pretending to be sheepish. The audience loves it and they laugh and cheer at their banter.
"District 12 is small, isn't it? Does everybody know each other there?"
"Pretty much. It isn't always a good thing," she says. It isn't good because that means almost every year she knows at least one of the tributes personally, and if she doesn't know them, she knows of them fairly well. She doesn't say this though, only forces her smile to be a little brighter to hide her thoughts.
"So you know the other tribute? Peeta. Peeta is his name right?" he says and the audience claps their hands in agreement.
"What are you getting at, Caesar?"
"Pretty girl like you, handsome boy like him, I think the audience would agree that you'd make a delightful pair."
The audience goes crazy at the thought, as if one or both of them won't be dead for their amusement in a few days.
Katniss is appalled and can no longer hold her dainty smile. "That will be hard, when one of us is dead," she says bluntly, but nobody recognizes the heat in her voice, instead they swoon and sigh at the tragedy of it all.
When her interview is over, Caesar excuses her from the main stage and calls Peeta out. Katniss thought that the audience may have taken to her, but they absolutely adore Peeta.
"We were trying to do a bit of matchmaking," Caesar tells him.
"Really?" Peeta says, looking out into the crowd in search of his possible match, which the Captiol women go crazy for. "I could be persuaded."
Caesar clucks his tongue and nods his head in Katniss's direction, recognition registers on Peeta's face, and his smile falters for a moment. "Oh," he says. It takes him a moment to recover, and Katniss almost feels joy that Peeta's finally showing some kind of weakness.
He turns to her, flashing one of those genuine grins he keeps hidden most of the time. "You look very pretty tonight, Katniss," he says, addressing her formally. Then he winks at her dismissively and turns his back to her.
She burns daggers into his back with her eyes alone. If looks could kill, Peeta would be the first cannon in the arena tomorrow.
She doesn't dare travel into the mouth of the cornucopia, not even for the bow and arrow which taunts her a hundred yards away. She's quick enough to grab a backpack and a piece of rope, and a knife that whizzes past her ear and plants into a tree. She takes all these things and she runs into the forest and she doesn't look back.
"You're a survivor," her father's voice chants in her ears. She runs until her lungs burn and her feet begin to catch on roots. If there's an end to this arena, she'll hit it soon, she's run so far.
When she sees the sun has crested past its highest point, she decides to slow down. It looks like some animals are nesting in the area, and she sets up a few snares before spiraling around the perimeter in search of their water source.
The sound of a stream at the edge of the clearing is music to her ears. She slurps the running water freely from her hands, then fills the water bottle from her backpack, emptying it ravenously and filling it again.
There's a squirrel tangled in one of her snares when she returns and she cooks it over a small fire as quickly as she can before the sun disappears behind the hills. She sets a few more snares then walks uphill for about a mile, so that she'll have better vantage if someone is to discover her hunting grounds.
This becomes her routine. She sleeps in the trees on a high, sturdy branch, gathers plants that she recognizes, then clears her snares. As the cannon fire dwindles, she realizes how boring she must seem, and she knows that this peaceful time will end soon.
The next morning she wakes to fire everywhere. It climbs and flies in unnatural ways, a clear indicator that the Gamemakers are behind it. A burning branch falls and the flames catch her leg, sending a blinding pain through her entire body. She screams out in agony before she can stop herself.
The fire extinguishes itself abruptly, and the crackling embers are no longer there to drown out her whimpers. There are tributes nearby, she knows it, and she's already given up her location. She struggles to stand, dragging her feet through the forest floor, her body fighting every step. She needs to get out of there. Fast.
There's a holler in the distance and then another. She can't count how many footsteps are coming. More than three. Only the Careers travel in such a large pack.
She won't be able to outrun them in her condition, and she panics, scaling a nearby tree that only has smaller branches. Her only advantage now is her size, and she hopes the Careers, who are all heavy with muscle won't be able to reach her.
"Look Peeta, it's your girlfriend," the District 2 tribute, Cato nearly snarls.
"Oh, hello Katniss," Peeta says and she sees him smiling at her from the base of the tree. She wants to vomit at the sight of him. This is the sweet boy she thought she loved as a child. He had smiled at her, exactly like that, the first day she met him and she felt her heart sing. How foolish she had been.
"Do you think I could get a few minutes alone?" he says to the other Careers. "I'd really like to give her a proper goodbye."
"There will be plenty of time for that," the District 1 girl, Glimmer says. She has the bow that Katniss had so desperately wanted and she knocks an arrow and aims it at Katniss's head. "Once we get her down."
She lets the arrow fly and it's so far off that Katniss doesn't even have to dodge away from it. She loads another arrow and it doesn't land any closer.
Peeta steps away, his eyes looking off into the distance. "Did you see that?" he says. Katniss follows his gaze along with the rest of the Careers. She has a better view than him up in the tree, but she doesn't see a thing. "The male tribute from Eleven," Peeta says. "He was going that way, towards the cornucopia."
The District 11 Tribute was scored just as high as Cato, with a 10, making him high on the sponsors' lists as well as the Careers.
Cato doesn't need anymore convincing and begins to run towards the cornucopia. "Glimmer and I will get her down," Peeta assures the other Careers, who look to be itching to join the battle that District 11 promises.
When the sound of their footsteps have faded, Peeta steps beside Glimmer at the base of the tree. "Do you think you can climb it?" he says.
She tugs on a low hanging branch and it snaps in her hand. "Maybe," she says.
"Here, it'll be easier without the arrows," he says, helping her remove the quiver from her shoulder. He takes the bow too. "Maybe from here," he says, pointing to a medium sized branch, just out of her reach. "I'll give you a lift."
But he doesn't. His arms wrap around her and he pins her to the ground, jamming his forearm into her windpipe and blocking her screams with his hand.
Katniss watches, holding her breath the entire time as if she were being strangled too. She lets out a whimper when Glimmer's limbs stop twitching.
"Drop me the knife," Peeta tells her. It's the only weapon she has, as useless as it may be to her in combat, and she hesitates. "Drop it, Katniss," he says again, his tone warning. His eyes are so serious that her fingers loosen around the blade, sending it flying to the forest floor.
He uses it to slit Glimmer's throat. A cannon sounds. Then he turns the knife on himself, slashing it across his chest. He doesn't even flinch when the blade pierces his flesh.
Before she can fully comprehend what has happened, he drops the knife and runs away, leaving the bow and arrow behind.
Peeta Mellark saved her life.
She thinks about this all through the night, trying to figure out what it means. It would have been so easy to kill her. He still would have gotten away with offing Glimmer, too, and have blamed it on Katniss if he had wanted.
It was for the ointment, she decides. Her one reprieve for being kind to him when he was alone and bleeding in the meadow.
The image of the knife scraping across his chest burns in her memory. It was as if he didn't even feel it.
She gathers herbs and creates a salve using one of her mother's recipes to treat the burn on her leg. Then she gathers the arrows that Glimmer had shot at her and arranges her weapons. She won't make the same mistake she made during her skills presentation. She selects a few targets and practices with the bow until its an extension of her own arm.
When the Careers come for her again, she'll be ready.
She doesn't know how much time has passed. Maybe a week. She can't even remember how many tributes are left. She's not sure if she wants to know. She's still alive, though. She's surviving.
With her arrows, she eats well. She can shoot the animals on sight instead of waiting for the vermin to wander into her traps, which means she has protein every night now.
She's just pulled an arrow from a rabbit's eye when a spear whizzes past her head. Blindly, she loads the arrow into her bow and shoots. It pierces the heart of the District 1 male, and he falls, lifelessly, to the forest floor.
She wants to scream. She throws her bow to the ground and backs away. A cannon sounds.
She tries to vomit, but all that comes out is a mixture of bile and mucus and tears.
There's another sound - too loud to be a cannon. Flames rise above the tree line in the direction of the cornucopia, and smoke bellows high into the sky. Katniss thinks the Gamemakers have set the arena on fire again, but then Peeta comes barreling through the trees, holding his thigh and limping as if he's been injured recently.
"Keep running," he tells her. "Cato," he adds, breathlessly.
She scoops up her bow and follows after him. She doesn't know if Cato's on his tail, and she doesn't want to wait around to find out.
They've only made it about a quarter of a mile before he's walking impossibly slow. The cut in his leg is deep and the leg of his pants has been stained a deep, dark red. She could kill him easily if she wanted to, or at least leave him and let another tribute pick him off like easy prey.
She looks at Peeta, bracing himself against a tree and wincing from the pain. "Go on, just do it," he says, sensing her dilemma. "You know you want to."
She holds his gaze through his heavy eyelids. He could have killed her before, but he didn't. He didn't even leave her to die, he left her with her weapon of choice. She doesn't care what debt he thinks he repaid, she can't let him die. Not right now.
"There's a stream at the bottom of this hill," she says. "Let's get you cleaned up."
She pins his soiled pants between some rocks to wash away the blood, and applies some of her burn salve to the wound to help flush it. He needs stitches, badly, but she has nothing in her supplies that could act as a needle and thread. She's trying to think up a paste she could use as an adhesive, when his hand touches her cheek, forcing her to look at him.
"What do you need?" he says.
She smiles wryly. "A doctor would be nice."
"Something that fits in a parachute."
"Sutures - anything to close this up, some antiseptic too, probably," she says.
"Don't get greedy," he says, shaking his head. His smile lingers and he looks at her lips. His eyes meet hers and he lifts his eyebrows expectantly, before his gaze is on her mouth again. He wants to kiss her? "Caesar must be so happy to see us together."
"The audience too," she says carefully. The perfect kind of sponsors, she realizes.
"Were we that obvious?" he says. "That everybody knew?" He's still staring at her mouth.
"I guess so," she can only whisper. She holds her breath and leans in closer. This will save him, if he gets the supplies he needs, and she owes that to him. He saved her. She wants to save him. She wants to kiss him.
His lips are soft and warm and her breath hitches when his fingers tangle into her braid to deepen the kiss.
They break the kiss as the parachute comes into view, gliding swiftly into her hands. She opens the hatch. "A needle and thread," she says.
"I'll be good as new," he says, his smile too bright. How can the world not see he's pretending?
"As long as it doesn't get infected," she says flatly. She's seen her mother stitch up patients a thousand times, but she's never done it herself. She tries a few stitches until she thinks she has the hang of it and soon the wound is closed. She applies some more salve, and rips away the bottom of one of his pant legs to use as a bandage.
She could leave him now. He couldn't climb a tree even before he injured his leg, and he's only going to slow her down from now on. She's stopped him from dying too, so she can erase that from her conscience.
As long as she's with him, though, she has sponsors. She hasn't needed them yet, but as the Games go on, even the smallest thing, like a loaf of bread can be an exorbitant fee.
The sky has grown dark, even though it's early in the afternoon. A storm has gathered and a bolt of lightening strikes the tree beside them, charring and smoking the higher branches in its wake. If this storm doesn't pass before nightfall, she won't have a place to sleep tonight. Not safely, at least.
"Looks like they made the decision for you," Peeta murmurs, too softly for the cameras to hear.
This storm isn't natural, nothing in the arena is. The sponsors are probably excited about her apparent reunion with Peeta and are paying big bucks to give them some time alone. No doubt, for as long as this storm lasts, they will be the only tributes featured on the live feed.
"There's a cave on the other side of the hill," she says with a defeated sigh. A rock slide has closed off most of the opening, which will give them decent cover.
"How many tributes are left?" she asks once they've settled into the cave. Already, his leg has improved, and although he walks with a slight gait, she doesn't have to drag him, as she did before.
"Eight, I think, maybe seven," he says. "The Careers won't last long though, they don't have any food."
The Careers had claimed the cornucopia when the Games first began, including all the food and supplies. They couldn't have eaten it all already.
"I blew it up," Peeta explains. "Hence the leg."
She raises her eyebrows.
"They didn't believe my story about you and the tree, so I decided to go out with a bang."
"Thank you," she says, feeling guilty again. "You didn't have to risk your life for me."
He takes her hand and looks at her earnestly. "Katniss, I would never let them hurt you."
She rolls her eyes. She can hear the women all the way in the Capitol swooning at his promise.
"If they don't have food, they'll probably separate, so they can hunt us more quickly," she reasons.
"They're not hunting anyone right now," he says, and he tugs on her hand so that she'll sit beside him.
She should kill him right now. The storm will end and she'll sit in a tree and she'll pick off the last tributes until the Games are done. He's still trying to kill her, she has to remind herself again and again. Only one of them will make it out of this arena alive.
"It's cold in here," she says instead. She unrolls her sleeping bag and lets him crawl in with her, zipping up the side to keep in their warmth. When she's pressed against his chest she inhales his scent. It would be impossible, after the number of days they've been in the arena for this to be true, but she swears, he smells like cinnamon.
Two cannons sound, but the rain doesn't end. The animals in the area have probably all moved to higher ground, well outside the radius of the cave, and when Katniss sorts through their rations - a rabbit leg, a pouch of dried fruit, and a handful of nuts, she knows they'll have to find another source for food soon.
The only benefit of the storm, is the time that allows for Peeta's leg to heal. He's still sore, preferring to sit most of the day with his leg propped, but his wound isn't infected, as she had feared, and there isn't much to do in the cave anyway.
She sits beside him. "Are you hungry?" she says.
Recognition flickers across his face. He looks at her mouth and she waits for him to kiss her. He hums an approving sound then pulls her into his lap.
It still surprises her, the feel of his lips against hers. She's kissed boys before, at parties behind the slag heap when she'd sipped on too much white liquor, but it never felt like this. She never liked it this much.
She tries not to appear too eager, stilling her hand when her fingers touch his hair. Clenching her jaw to keep her mouth from opening too wide.
Several minutes pass without a parachute appearing. Perhaps the Capitol isn't infatuated with their love affair as she had thought.
She touches her swollen lips shyly, and distances herself as far as the small confounds of the cave will allow.
Maybe they don't just want to see them kissing, she thinks.
She looks to Peeta and he gives her a perplexed grin.
"Tell me the story," she says. The sponsors may be looking for more, and Peeta is a far better storyteller than she is. "When we first got together."
"Again?" he says, his voice teasing like he's had to tell the story a thousand times.
She draws her legs to her chest and props her chin against her knees. "Again," she says.
"The very first day of school, when we were five years old, I remember my father pointed at you and said, 'See that Katniss Everdeen? Her mother was the prettiest girl I'd ever seen.'" He chuckles and picks at some ash on the cave floor with the pad of his thumb. "I didn't believe him. I didn't think it was possible for anyone to be prettier than you."
She narrows her eyes and tries to mask her surprise at his words. The story rolls off his tongue far too easily to be a work of fiction.
"And then when my father died..." He shakes his head, internally debating his word play she can only assume, but then his eyes lift to meet hers, the cold steel crumbling from his gaze. "You were the only good thing in this world."
She shakes her head. The title is too big of a burden, one she does not deserve. "I'm not," she says.
"To me you are," he says.
It's only a game, she has to remind herself. A game that Peeta excels at. She watched him mercilessly strangle the girl from District One then slit her throat.
"What about your mother and your brothers?"
He looks away. "They have their moments," he says rather flatly. "When they don't need me to play their whipping boy."
She moves to sit beside him, and her hand touches the place on his shoulder where he was bleeding when she found him all those years ago in the meadow. He flinches like the wound is still fresh and shakes her away.
"Peeta," she says softly.
He's crying. Large, hot tears flowing down his cheeks. "I don't deserve you, Katniss. I could never deserve you."
She doesn't want him to think like that. He can't think that. Peeta Mellark is the most handsome boy she's ever known. She's loved him since she was a child, from the first moment she saw him, because when he smiled, he touched something so deep and wonderful inside of her, her heart is still singing.
Even now, after he's lied and manipulated and murdered to get to this place, her heart betrays her. She'll love him until she dies, there's no escaping it.
She kisses away his doubts, her arms wrapping desperately around his neck to pull him closer. He hovers above her, the heavy weight of his body pinning her to the cave floor. His mouth leaves hers, lips seeking purchase on the sensitive spot of her throat, eliciting a gasp.
His hand is on her hip, then beneath her rib cage, then brushing over her breast. She keens and he pulls his hand away, but moments later his touch returns, massaging and coaxing her nipple between his fingers through her clothing.
Her entire body aches for him. Every place his lips and fingers touch drawing new life. The buzzing between her legs can't be ignored a moment longer and she tightens her thighs around his hips, rocking against him to build the delicious friction. She wants him so bad, she can't stand it. It's too much. It's all too much.
"You're going to kill me," she cries, the constant realization so daunting.
"I'm not going to kill you," he says. "I won't," he says, his breath so ragged the words are nearly lost. "Let me have this," he pleads. "Just for a little bit longer."
Their bodies move with growing frenzy, hips bucking and hands disappearing beneath clothing. She's cresting something unfamiliar. Behind her eyelids she sees fire.
He stops abruptly. "Fuck, my leg," he grunts, rolling off of her.
She misses the weight of his body instantly. The feel of him hard in between her legs. Her heart is thrumming too loudly in her ears to assess his wound properly, and she stares at it uselessly for several minutes before any thoughts besides their kisses can register. He's bleeding through the dressing, and she realizes it's probably from her rubbing against him.
The flush in her cheeks grows deeper. "I'm going to make some more ointment," she says.
When she looks at the mouth of the cave, she sees that a parachute has landed, overflowing with a large feast.
The storm ends the next day. It rained for days but the arena is dry, as if it had been sunny for days. They have plenty of food from the feast, but Katniss will not risk a drought for hunting and gathering again.
She shows Peeta a few types of plants and leaves him to pick them, while she ventures further into the woods to hunt. She shoots two rabbits fairly easily and returns to help Peeta.
He has his jacket spread on the forest floor, and has neatly separated each type of plant he has collected into neat piles. She finds him picking from a wine berry patch, but the bush beside it gives her pause.
She plucks the fruit from its branch to inspect it closely. It's not perfectly round like a blueberry, and the skin is nearly black.
"Don't pick this one," she tells him gravely and hands the berry to him for him to see. "It's Nightlock, it'll kill you before it reaches your stomach."
His jaw tightens and he nods. He seems distracted, which makes her nervous. He glances over his shoulder then holds up the wine berries. "These are okay though, right?"
She nods, then looks down at his bandaged leg. "I'm going to pick some more herbs for your cut," she says.
Most of the plants she needs grow on the other side of the hill, not too far away. She is tying the sprig into a bundle when the cannon sounds. Her heart sinks in her chest and the fear is so real, she's paralyzed. "Peeta!" she shouts.
She finds him where she left him. His fingers are stained the color of Nightlock, but the cannon wasn't for him, it was for the fox faced girl from District Five. She lays lifelessly beside Peeta's jacket, her skin pale and her lips purple.
"She must have eaten them," Peeta says.
"I told you not to pick Nightlock, Peeta!" she says. Her heart is still beating too fast and she feels dizzy. She braces herself against a tree, and falls into his arms when he reaches to comfort her.
"It's okay," he whispers into her hair.
Her eyes are unfocused because of the tears that cloud them. She stares at the girl from Five and her lifeless eyes. Then to the jacket. Peeta had been picking wine berries, but there isn't a pile for them, just a heaping pile of Nightlock.
Realization strikes her. "You knew she was following us, didn't you?"
"I suspected it," he says.
She steps out of his arms, backing away from him with careful steps. "It was a trap."
"I knew you wouldn't eat the berries."
She shakes her head. "You killed her." She feels sick again. "Just like Glimmer."
"Katniss..." he says, his voice too gentle for someone so cruel.
She reaches for an arrow from her quiver and holds it to her bow.
"You know how the Games work, Katniss. Not everybody gets to go home, and I'm not taking my chances. It's us or them."
She laughs at this. "There's no us in the end," she says. "It's you or them, me included. What are you going to do after the 22nd cannon sounds?"
He looks away. "I haven't figured that out yet."
She keeps the tip of her arrow aimed towards the ground, but she's ready to shoot him in a second if she has to.
"What about you?" he says. "You're the one with the bow. What are you going to do with me?"
She drops her arrow back in its quiver and collects the berries from the ground - the Nightlock too, although she isn't sure why.
She kills Cato. He's the last tribute left besides them, and the three of them are chased by mutts towards the cornucopia for the grand finale. Cato is bigger than both of them, but he's wounded from fighting Thresh, and hungry from being without food. Peeta manages to overpower him until a mutt catches his leg, ripping into his calf.
Cato holds Peeta dangerously close to the edge of the cornucopia, using him as a shield.
"I'll make it easy for you," Cato tells her tauntingly. "A two for one deal."
She has her arrow trained on him. She could hit Peeta first, then Cato with time to spare. She can win. She's going to win.
She hesitates to let her arrow fly, and when it does, it pierces Cato right in the eye. He falls from the cornucopia for the mutts to take him away.
The 22nd cannon sounds, leaving her face to face with her final rival.
Peeta doesn't even have a weapon, and he can't stand on his own with the fresh wound in his leg.
"Come on, Katniss," he encourages her. "Aren't you ready to go home?"
Survive, Katniss, survive. Her father's words still echo in her ears. But how can she now? Every second of her life she'll be haunted by this moment. She can't take away the life of the boy who saved hers. She can't kill the boy that she's loved her whole life.
Her hands tremble when she knocks her bow. She holds her breath to trap the sob that threatens to rip through her chest. The tears that cloud her eyes make it too difficult to aim.
He staggers towards her, practically dragging his leg behind him. "Please, do it," he says, pushing the tip of the arrow into his chest where his heart is. "Do it Katniss."
The arrow goes limp and she drops the bow before falling into his arms. "I can't," she says. "I can't."
"I'm not going to make it much longer," he says. He winces, unable to stand for another moment and collapses against the cornucopia. "Do me a favor, put me out of my misery."
She falls to her knees beside him to inspect his wound. It's bad. Deep. Blood spurts from it, indicating that it's probably an artery.
"You need a tourniquet," she says, frantically searching through her supplies.
"I need to die," he says, stilling her struggle. He tips up her chin, forcing her to look at him, and then they're kissing desperately.
She presses her forehead against his and chokes back another sob. "Let me stop the bleeding," she says. "I'm not ready to let you go yet."
She looks through her backpack for a piece of rope, but pauses when her fingers wrap around the bundle of Nightlock. If Peeta can get to a doctor soon, they can save him. She can't keep him alive much longer.
She fills her palm with berries and brings them to her lips.
"Katniss, stop!" Peeta pulls her hand away. "I'm not leaving here without you," he tells her.
Their eyes meet and an unspoken agreement is made. He kisses her one last time with cold lips, slipping some of the berries from her hand as he pulls away. If both of them can't live, than neither of them will.
Her eyes don't leave his as she presses the Nightlock past her lips. "I love you," she wants to tell him, but he must already know.
"Wait! Wait!" The voice of Claudius Templesmith echos through the arena. They both spit the berries from their mouth and look up in surprise. "The Victors of the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark!"
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