The night is dark outside, no stars, no moon, just the cold winds pouring through the window he left open.
Peeta wraps the blankets tighter around his body. It's still no defense against the freezing winter winds. Just like covering his ears does not stop any of the heated arguments between his parents from coming through the window. One of the many problems when your bedroom is right above your parents'. Peeta grumbles in the back of his throat.
'She just stopped by to apologize. There was nothing else going on.' His father's voice is low but cold. 'She said the girl is sick. She hoped we can forgive her.'
'Forgive? Your damned ex-girlfriend ordered? Are you out of your stupid mind?' The pitch of his mother's voice is rising. 'That bitch's daughter threatened to kill me in front of the entire Panem!'
'Why do you think she did it?' His father's voice is a little shaky, 'She thought you were going to hit the boy!'
So he does know. And all these years he has never said a word. Peeta rolls the ice cold pillow around his head. It does no good in muffling out any of it.
'That dimwit should have died in the arena to save me all the disgrace!' His mother grates the words out between her teeth. 'He lets that crazy little bitch make such a damned fool out of us! On TV!'
Peeta almost chuckled. It was their first day back in the district, and his mother asked him to help with the move. His new leg wasn't really working well and carrying a heavy cardboard box with both hands sent him slipping all over the place. He almost tripped. Katniss' family had fewer things to move, so her family and the Hawthorns were already settling around the kitchen table for dinner. So it really surprised him when she rushed out of her house waving a broom, sprinted across the lawn, broke down his door, kicked the boxes out of her way, and chased her mother around his new house while his completely stunned brothers and his father watching by.
'I did not risk my life to save him just for her to kill him again!' Katniss proudly told TV crew from the Capitol, who was busy capturing every second of it on film.
Prim said that Katniss is suffering from something called PTSD. That's why she's always on the edge, why she behaves as if they had never left the arena. Cato and Clove were still out there to take their lives and the mutts were still coming, ready to tear their throats out and eat them alive. One of the experts interviewed by Caesar said that she must have mistaken his mother as one of the many enemies they had in the arena, and has become obsessed with it. To her, the games have never ended. They are still in the arena. Everything and everybody around them has set out to hurt Peeta, hurt them. Worst and foremost of them is his mother.
But to most of the Capitol, Katniss is not this wounded little girl who is forever lost in the labyrinth of the arena. It's something else. Something simple and they can all relate to, something Caesar Flickerman called 'the most ancient never ending strife of human kind'-a classic fight between the mother and daughter in law.
'It is war.' Said the head gamemaker for their games, Seneca Crane. 'A serious one. The last battle our star crossed lovers have to fight to find their utmost happiness. Unfortunately, as we all know, it is the most difficult one.' He declared with a solemn face. 'So we the great people from the Capitol have to do whatever we can to help them. The games have not ended. I repeat. The games have not ended. The Games Central is still open for business and we are still accepting sponsorship and gifts. In fact, we will be holding a new sponsors party this weekend.'
Caesar added, 'And it will be broadcast live. All the luminaries of the Capitol will be there, including our favorite victor, Finnick O'Dair.' He winked at the audience, 'and a very, very special guest bringing us some very juicy insider details all the way from District 12, Haymitch Abernathy!'
The Capitol audience applauded and responded enthusiastically to Crane's call.
They have been showering Katniss with all kinds of gifts-bows, arrows, all types of weapons and personal armors that are enough to equip a full platoon. Due to popular demand, Seneca Crane wanted to add automatic assault rifles, grenade rockets, armored vehicles, and tanks on the sponsor gift list, but was vetoed by President Snow for national security reasons.
But he did manage to add professional reconnaissance equipment after the whole nation witnessed Katniss hiding like an ostrich in the brushes in front of his house to 'keeping watch'. When Peeta started to help out in the bakery again, they sponsored a 'watch tower' to be constructed up in the old apple tree in the backyard, fully equipped with all the luxuries the Capitol could think of. The funny thing is that this time Katniss is not the only one getting all the gifts. The good people of District 3 jumped in to send him specially designed wireless communication devices after seeing how he called Katniss down for lunch on TV—using both of his lungs as bullhorns.
In a word, it has been a disaster since the day they disembarked the train.
Peeta sighs as he pulls out of the bed inch by inch—no matter how cold it is, it's still way better than walking in the cold. He stumbles across the room towards the window, shivering, and looks out of the window.
There is a thick layer of snow covering everything, the ground, the lawn, the bushes, and the roofs. The entire town is dark and quiet, deep in their sleep. Even the 'nest'—the mobile filming platform on the lawn—is empty. Three months after they came back from Capitol, the TV crew still haven't left. The Capitol audience love every minute of the footage they send back and keep on crying out for more.
Peeta shakes his head and bites his teeth down to keep them from chattering as the shivering snaking down his spine vertebrate by vertebrate. It's almost completely dark outside. The only dim lights still blickering are the few porch lamps in the Victors village. His, Haymitch's, the TV crew's and Katniss'. He looks down the lawn at her house. It's all dark. Katniss' bedroom is also on the third floor, an insurmountable height for him to conquer even if he still had both of his legs whole. Peeta knocks on the window sill, wondering if Katniss is still keeping her watch with the high tech binocular sent to her by Beetee, a victor inventor from District 3. There is no response. It's late. She must have already snuggled down comfortably in her bed wrapped in all the fluffy cozy blankets. Besides there is no need to spy on her mother tonight—they could hear her yelling all the way from the ruins in District 13. He pushes the windows close.
Peeta slumps back into the bed, staring at the ceiling, and pretends what he hears is the birds singing in the trees, as he has done since he was a little boy. It works. He drifts in and out of a dream... Clove waving her knives and charging down at Katniss… Cato has her neck locked within his elbow, ready for a twist… The green eyes of the mutt, cold, shining in the dark, staring at them…
Peeta suddenly jerks out of the 'dream'. Something is staring at the back of his head. He's almost sure. He leans on his arms, slowly turns his head around toward the window.
There they are, pressed flush against his window, just like the rest of the face, the nose, the cheeks, and the mouth. With the dim light from his porch, he can see that they are not green, but grey, the deep silvery hue of grey that haunts his dreams day and night. In the dark, he can tell that they are fixed on him, steady, as motionless as a pair of searching lights on their foci.
'Katniss!' Peeta almost falls out of the bed. He quickly scrambles up, rushes over, yanks the window open, pulls her inside and lifts her off the window sills. She's as cold as a block of ice. He carries her over and sets her down on his bed. What was she thinking? Her silk night gown is paper-thin and barely covers half of her body. It feels like an ice sheet in his hands when he pulls it off. 'What are you doing there?'
'Check…' Her teeth are chattering, 'traps…' Her shaking fingers point to his door.
The traps. The compromise their respective parents and Katniss agreed upon after she insisted that she couldn't trust his mother, especially not when he is sleeping. It beats her keeping vigil in his room, all night, with her bow and arrow aiming at the door.
Katniss takes the traps very seriously. She recruited the help of their instructors in the training center, talked for hours with Cinna and Beetee on the phone, but ironically, after all the trouble, she decided that the original designs contributed by Gale were still the best. It took her and Gale three weekends to have them fully set up, and they have been working on improvements every Sunday ever since, which has driven both of them crazy. For him, it's watching the girl he loves working side by side with her 'real boyfriend'. For Gale, it's spending every free minute he has working in the bedroom of his girl's 'pretended lover'. But Katniss just doesn't get it. She's obsessed with the traps. She comes in every morning before dawn to switch the traps off for the day, and comes in every night to reset them before they go to bed. He thought she would not come tonight-it was so cold and dark and his parents were still up, yelling at each other before he closed the windows.
He swears that he will never ever do that again.
'Why didn't you call me?' Peeta points to the gold communication device with the mocking jay and crossing star engravings on the night stand.
Katniss stares at him, as if her brain is too frozen for her to understand. After a couple of moments, her body starts to shiver under Peeta's constant rubs. 'You were sleeping…' She looks at him, still puzzled by his question.
Peeta understands. Sleep has been scarce for both of them since they came back. Nightmares. They have become so familiar with each other's nighttime screams. He wraps his arms around her shivering body, lays her down gently and pulls up the blankets, 'Let's warm you up.'
It's kind of hard to imagine that a person with feet as silent as a deer in the woods could be so loud and clumsy under other circumstances. But it is already too late when he is reminded for the three hundredth time of this side of Katniss.
'Peeta! What the hell are you doing up there?' His mother's high pitched screams pierce through layers of concrete, bricks and wood planks, and resonates between the walls.
He should have known it! Peeta wants to pound his fist on the bed. He should have known that neither of his parents could go back to sleep after a fight that like. He grunts and shouts back, 'Nothing. I...I fell from the bed!'
'Are you OK?' This time it's his dad, 'Did you hurt yourself?'.
'No. I am absolutely fine!' He shouts back, 'I am going back to sleep!'
'I am coming up,' His father insists, 'I will keep you company for the night. The floor here is so damned cold and uncomfortable!'
'There's no need. I can take care of myself!' Peeta tries to convince his father, 'I am totally fine! I have my windows open, and it's colder up here!'
'Is there someone else with you?' His mother has become suspicious. Peeta is not the kind that turn their head away and leave their father sleep on the floor.
'No, I am not here!' Before he could cover her mouth, Katniss shouts out.
'Is that the little slut?' Peeta can hear his mother storming out of her bedroom and running down the hallway.
'Who are you talking about? I am the only one up here!' It's kind of hard to yell these words back at his mother while struggling to keep Katniss' body trapped under his arms and legs.
'Don't you take me like a fool!' His mother shouts while running up the stairs, 'I can smell that stinky Seam brat ten miles away!'
No matter how much he wants to tell his mother that how great Katniss smells, especially now, her hair, her breath and her sweat, Peeta knows that he can't do it and has to think fast. He can't let his mother storm in, just like he can't let Katniss storm out. They would be charging at each other like two high speed Capitol trains heading toward a collision.
'Dad! Help!' Peeta yells for the only backup he can think of, 'Keep Mom back!'
'I am coming, I am coming!' Peeta can hear his father's footsteps coming quickly down the hallway and catching up with those of his mother's. But he knows better. His father towers at six feet two and weighs at least two hundred pounds, but he's still no match for his mother who's at least one feet shorter and a hundred pounds lighter. He has no choice but to use the strategy he has reserved as a last resort.
'Please!' Peeta kneels down on the bed, holds both hands up in front of his face like a squirrel, blinking his eye lashes, and begs with the puppy face he knows Katniss can't resist.
It works just as he has expected. Katniss' entire face melts and she nods her head like a little bird pecking on pine seeds.
Woops. Peeta swipes the sweat on his head, scoots off the bed and grabs a pair of shorts. It's only half of the battle, and the other half is even harder to win. He knows that his dad can't hold much longer, and rushes toward the bedroom door.
The door is snapped open before he could reach it.
'No!' Katniss cries out behind him, 'the traps!' But it's too late. Everything happens so quickly, before he knows, his mother is already hanging upside down from the ceiling, swinging from side to side.
'You damned idiot! Let me down!' His mother shouts at him, her face blue and purple from her struggles to get free. The ropes around her ankle and legs are just getting tighter.
Peeta knows it's not of his best interest to help. But the consequences will be a lot worse if he does not. He tentatively steps a foot out. "Don't! It's a double...' Katniss shouts out behind him, but it's too late. He has already put the foot down. As soon as his foot touches the wooden floor, his world is turned upside down. He is staring from the wrong angle at those beautiful long legs of Katniss, hastily wrapped in one of his sheets, tumbling toward his face. Just at the moment she reaches out for the switch on the door frame, she trips on the sheet entangled at her feet and fall, upwards, towards the ceiling.
'Serve you right, you bitch!' His mother coughs up a full mouth of mucus and spits.
Thank the Capitol and President Snow that he manages to swing around just in time to intercept it with his own face before it lands on Katniss.
'Are you fucking kidding me?!' Katniss, who has been busy keeping the sheet wrapped at her breast and from falling down her legs, let everything in her hands go, swings her arm and fist around, and punches.
Peeta does not know whether his nose is broken, but from the hysterical way his mother laughs, he might have lost a couple of teeth as well.
'I am so sorry!' Katniss swings around to examine his face, smearing it with her tears and snots, his mother's mucus, and his blood. 'I wasn't aiming at you!' She cries. He knows. He knows that his face is the prize he has to pay to stop Katniss from destroying his mother's.
'Dad, can you get us a towel?' Peeta wonders where his father is, and why he is not hanging upside down just like the three of them. There are already three traps, why not add another one? He swings around and there his father is, standing about one or two feet away from the door, shivering, with little rivulets of dark liquid dripping from his hair, beard, face, mouth, pajamas, and puddling up at his feet.
Is that blood? He can't smell anything with the thick layer of mixed body fluids covering his face. 'Rye! Phil!' He yells at the top of his lungs.
Footsteps rushing up the stairs. All the honcus pocus must have waken them up, Peeta thinks, before he realizes that they might not be the only ones.
'Here! Right under the window! Up! Up!' Squinting his eyes towards the source of the voices, he can see them almost crystal clear-a couple of dark insectoid shapes rising up in the darkness, 'They are on the third floor!'
Crap. He has completely forgotten about the TV Crew, and underestimated their unwavering devotion to providing the Capitol audience with endless Hunger Games related entertainment. Thank God that he has the foresight to put on a pair of shorts before heading to stop his mother. Damn it. He turns his face to Katniss, who is completely unaware how sloppily the sheet drapes around her and entangles with the wires. She is too busy messing his face up with tears and snots.
'I am so sorry!' she catches his eyes looking at her, and bursts into another round of loud weeping, 'I didn't mean it!'
'It's ok. I know. I know. It's ok.' Peeta repeats the words half-minded. The director from Capitol TV has just climbed up onto his window sill, busy directing his crew to point their camera at... Peeta scrambles to get his hands free so he can help holding up the sheets around Katniss' legs.
Seeing the arrival of the camera crew and noticing what Peeta is trying to do, her mother gives a short laugh, and claws at Katniss to snatch the sheet away while fighting off her defending hands.
This is not good. It will be like pushing his father into a fire pit. His mother is going to kill his dad if he holds her back covered with the unknown liquid. But Peeta has no choice. How could he let Katniss' naked butt be broadcast on every screen in Panem, even if it were not his fault? Peeta bites his lip and calls out to his father, 'Dad...'
Before he could finish his request, his eldest brother, Phil, the first one down the hallway, yelling, 'Dad, I am here1', has already stepped into the puddle at the feet of his father, slips ahead, spins around, dances on one leg then another to regain balance, but fails while taking their father down with him, knocking both of them out.
He should have known it. The Damned Evil Gale must have used up all his mother's cleaning supply to make something so slippery. He rolls his eyes down and calls out again, 'Rye!'
'Hi, Peeta, what can I help?' Rye answers, peeking behind the landing of the stairs, refusing to come any closer than that.
'Katniss,' He stops her from spinning around, uses his body to block his mother's punches and asks, 'how can he set us down?'
'I don't know!' Katniss tries to circle her arms around his body but he is too wide-shouldered for her to manage it, 'even if I know I won't tell you!' She turns her head away, staring at his mother as deadly as she can, and refuses to speak again.
'What should we do now?' Rye waves at him from behind the wall and asks.
Peeta sighs. He hates it. There is nothing in the world that he wouldn't do to avoid the request that he has to make now. But his body is turning all purple and blue-both his mother and Katniss really put all their strength into every punch they throw. He has no idea how much longer he can hold. 'Go to the Seam and grab Gale.' The only thing he can do now is to pray that he's still alive when he comes.
He has no idea how long they have been suspended in the air. It must have been pretty long. His punch bag torso has become so numb that he can't feel any of the pains. Not compared to the throbbing pains in his leg. His prosthetic leg must be coming off.
He thinks about asking the camera men standing right in front of him to help. But the guys are so focused on making perfect documentary of how the blood oozes out where the prosthetic meets the flesh and how it drips down his leg. He is pretty sure that they are determined to capture how his entire leg being torn off.
'Mom! Hurry up! They are up here!' The little girl running into the house and up the stairs has a sweet angelic voice and two bouncing beautiful blonde braids. Prim. And Mrs Everdeen. Peeta wants to dig a hole in the floor and disappear into it. Or the ceiling—depends on your perspective of it.
'Be careful! Rye said it's very dangerous.' Mrs Everdeen warns behind her.
'Gale taught me how to walk around his traps.' The little girl shows no fears and skips gracefully around the entangled mess on the ground—his father and Phil, and stops right in front of his, well, legs, 'Are you ok?' She asks, knocking the camera men aside.
'He is not ok! He's bleeding!' Katniss cuts in impatiently before goes back to her punches.
'The ceiling is not very high. Go grab something to hold him up, it will release the stress on his prosthetic leg!' Mrs Everdeen puts her medicine bag down, rolls up her sleeves and quickly goes into her emergency mode.
Prim rushes to the bed, and tries to drag it along with her, 'this will hold all three of them!'
The bed does not even budge.
'The bed is too heavy for you. Get the chair!' Mrs Everdeen looks around the room, stares at the TV crew filling it up before she tears a corner off a bandage, soaks it up with liquid from a small glass bottle, and starts to rub it gently on the bleeding seam of his leg. It is cool, and a real relief to the shredding pains. Thanks God, she doesn't even bother to help Prim with pulling the bed. Otherwise she would notice the difference. Yes. He has nailed the bed to the planks of the wood floor. What other choices did he have? It was getting harder and harder to convince his mother that he was just doing jumping jacks up late at night. And it's an exercise prescribed by his physical therapists for his prosthetic leg.
By the time Rye comes back, everything has already started to settle down. His mother still refuses to talk to anyone in the room. But even she knows better than continuing her futile fist fight with Katniss. A great relief to him. His father is happily holding up a water basin for Mrs Everdeen while the latter bustling around fixing his leg. Prim runs back and forth, happily bringing anything her mother needs from the medicine bag. Katniss has already finished cleaning up his face with her sheet, and is working hard on avoiding her mother's life threatening stares.
'What happens to your face?' Prim jumps in front of Rye, points at his bloody nose and purple swollen eyes and asks.
'That's what happens when your little brother fucks someone else's…' He pauses after Peeta points out the TV crew, who are quietly filming the ongoing drama, and adds, 'cousin', with an exaggerated wink at Prim.
'Check your tongue, Rye! Prim is only 12!' Their father warns eagerly.
'No worries, Mr Mellark.' Prim replies happily, in a singing voice, 'I know that four letter word, and everything about it—I am Mom's little helper during her deliveries. Three times now.'
'Stop it! Prim,' Katniss yells at her little sister, 'not in front of everyone.'
'They are not everyone.' Prim beams her big white toothy smile across the room, 'It's only Mom, Peeta, Mr and Mrs Mellarks, Mellark Brother No 1, Mellark Brother No 2,' She stands on the tips of her toes to point above Rye's head, 'and our "cousin".'
Tall, square with broad shoulders, Rye looks like a giant staring down at the little girl's blonde head. But Gale, who's at least six feet five, still towers over him. 'Hey, don't talk about me like I am not here!' He waves his hand over Rye's head, at the TV crew, at everyone in the room, and then at Peeta.
Peeta has never dreamed that one day he would be so happy to see that dark, ugly, disgusting face until he sees all the heads popping up behind him in the hallway. The damned bastard has the whole town and half of the Seam following behind him...