One hour isn't much time and I'm not about to waste a second of it. I'm out the door and jogging – limping – my way back to Town the moment I can no longer hear the rotor blades of Snow's hovercraft. Haymitch is nowhere to be seen, and I make a note to hustle by his place before I'm shoved onto the train to do goodness knows what in the Capitol.
But first –
"Do pass along my regards to your parents and brothers when you see them."
I know a threat when I hear one. Katniss had been scared shitless of Snow for reasons beyond him being the President, and I'm pretty sure I just learned why. Suddenly, her decision to disappear makes a lot more sense.
It doesn't make it hurt less, but it makes sense. She hadn't wasted a moment before volunteering when Prim was Reaped. I wonder how much time it'd taken her to decide to leave District Twelve behind.
I hear the distinctive clacking of Peacekeeper boots behind me and turn slightly to find two of them, decked out in red, following me at a short distance. Snow clearly hadn't been kidding when he'd said his men would put me on the train themselves.
Town comes into view, and with it the reminder of Katniss' absence. Peacekeepers, all in white, are making themselves at home: knocking on doors, sitting on stoops, looking generally menacing. I duck my head and avert my eyes as I make a beeline for the bakery I'd left no more than thirty minutes ago.
Is that all it takes to turn a life upside down? The answer, I know, is it takes far less than that. Roughly however long it takes Effie to pronounce a name.
I stop my trek at the bakery stairs and turn to my twin shadows. "There's a door around back," I tell them. "I can't get out any other way." It's not like I can make much of a run for it anyway, but I'd prefer at least a semblance of privacy when talking to my family.
The Peacekeepers turn to one another for a moment before one strides toward the side of the bakery, no doubt to guard the back door. The other simply turns around and stares back out at the town square.
It's more than I'd hoped for.
I'm up the steps and in the familiar door a moment later. It's predictably deserted. It's too early for the bakery to close, there's another hour of daylight at least, but with the Peacekeepers patrolling, people are naturally skittish.
"Dad! Mom!" I call.
My father pokes his head out of the back at the sound of my voice. "Peet? I thought you were done for the day?"
"Where's mom?" I ask rather than respond. I'm not explaining this more than once.
"Upstairs. What's wrong, Peeta?"
I hustle to the stairs that lead to the small apartment above the bakery. "Mom!"
"What do you want?" comes her irritated call back. We're lucky enough to get a few Capitol channels on our television, and now is about the time of day my mother sits down to watch.
"We need to talk."
"We certainly need to speak about your manners, barging in here and screaming bloody murder. Haven't you seen the Peacekeepers, boy? You'll invite them right in."
I squash irritation with practiced ease. "President Snow just left my living room, mother. Get down here." My eyes flick over to my father, who stands with Rye by the doorway to the kitchen. Both of their mouths drop open at my proclamation.
My mother's head suddenly appears at the top of the stairs, face whiter than bleached flour. "What did you say?" she hisses.
"Please," I say gravely, and sweep back into the bakery proper. I barely register her footsteps down the stairs as I walk to the door and flip the sign from 'Open' to 'Closed.'
"The hell's going on, Peet?" Rye asks me as my mother comes to into the front.
"I've got about forty-five minutes before two Peacekeepers are going to put me on a train to the Capitol, so I don't have time for questions," I start.
"What are you–"
"But you just–"
"Katniss left District Twelve!" I shout over my family. Mercifully, they shut up, varying degrees of incredulity on their faces. "She disappeared over a day ago into the woods with her family and the Hawthornes."
My mother, of course, is the first to get her bearings. "She's the one responsible for all of this?" she asks, gesturing to the outside. I nod and she huffs. "I always knew–"
"Yes, mother!" I burst out, suddenly pushed over the edge. "Turns out Katniss is exactly the worthless troublemaker you always thought she was. She's gone, we're here, and I'm going the Capitol to do god knows what to make it better. Are you happy now?"
She blinks, stupefied. I've never talked back to her like this. I've never cared to. But the path of least resistance isn't going to do anyone much good right now.
"Son." I turn and see my father fiddling with his apron; he's nervous. "Just slow down. What exactly is going on?"
I take a deep breath and try to get composed. I'm understandably on edge given, well, everything, but there's no time for me to feel sorry for myself.
"Exactly what I just said. Katniss and Gale took their families into the woods sometime in the past thirty-six hours." I ignore my mother's sneer with practiced ease. "President Snow came by to tell me the facts of life," I say with a macabre twist of my lips. "I don't know how long I'll be in the Capitol for, but while I'm gone, if you need anything, you go to Haymitch."
"Why would Katniss leave?" Rye asks, and I'm suddenly struck by just how little anyone knows about the Victory Tour.
I bite back the bitterness and anger trying to claw its way out of my stomach. "She has her reasons."
"And your fiancé didn't bother to tell you anything?" mother bites. My glower is answer enough, for she hisses, "Typical. Leaving you to clean up her mess."
Ignoring her being offended on my behalf for the first time in history, I turn to my father. "I need you guys to be careful, ok? These guys outside aren't our normal Peacekeepers."
My father nods slowly, and even my mother looks a bit spooked. She'd never admit it, but she enjoys the fruits of back alley trading as much as anyone in our family. There isn't likely to be much in the way of illicit activity happening with the District suddenly crawling with Peacekeepers, but I don't want them even thinking of pressing their luck. My father has a taste for beer and my mother dabbles in white liquor from time to time, both of which come from the Hob.
"Let Nick know, too," I say, turning for the door.
"Peeta," my father calls. It turn back to see him stepping forward. "Are you going to be ok?"
I have no idea. I plaster a smile on my face. "I'll be fine." At his raised eyebrow, I shrug sheepishly. "Eventually." My affection for Katniss isn't exactly a secret in this family. I'll sort out that can of worms once I've talked to Haymitch.
My father steps forward and envelops me in his arms. I've shot up and packed on weight since the Games – benefits of having too much food – but he's still broader than me. I take a moment in the safety of his embrace, wishing I never had to leave.
"You be safe out there," he tells me.
Rye steps up next. His hug is shorter, more of a two-handed clap on my back. "You do what you gotta do, little brother."
"I always do."
Mother is last. She grips my chin in her thin fingers and looks up at me. There's a battle being fought behind her eyes; she's never been an affectionate woman. "Don't do anything stupid," she says softly.
I grin in spite of myself. "We both know I'm a lost cause by now."
The ghost of a smile crosses her lips before it's gone in a flash. She pats my cheek and withdraws without a word. My father takes her hand silently as I back toward the door.
"I love you guys," I tell them, and make my exit before they have to say anything back.
I let myself into Haymitch's house without a word to my crimson shadows. They'll follow me or they won't, and I don't have enough time to concern myself with them.
"Haymitch!" I call, kicking an empty bottle aside. His living situation has improved tremendously since Katniss got Hazelle Hawthorne to be his housekeeper, but he still lives in abject squalor. A situation that'll only get worse now that she's disappeared with her son.
I'm rewarded with the sound of a crash, and my fearless mentor stumbles in from his living room. A glance down confirms he stumbled over a piece of debris; his eyes are remarkably clear and as serious as I've ever seen them.
"Tied up all your loose ends?" he asks rhetorically.
"Told my folks to let you know if they need anything."
I'm pretty sure he mumbles, "They better not need anything," under his breath, but I could just be projecting. He shakes his shaggy hair and sighs. "What'd Snow tell you?"
"I'm cleaning up Katniss' mess." That old anger from after the Games, when I'd realized they'd been keeping secrets, roars back. It evaporates a moment later, the reality of my situation clubbing me over the head. "What the fuck am I supposed to do, Haymitch?" I whisper.
Red clouds my vision for a split second before I reign myself in. "I've got a train to catch in less than thirty minutes. Is now really the time for jokes?"
"Who said I'm joking, kid?" Haymitch says. "I mean it. That's all you can do right now. There's no playbook. We're living in…" he waves his arms around wildly, searching for a word, "unprecedented times." His body sags a moment later, false bravado spent. The low light makes him look pathetic.
I'm reminded of how he was on our first trip to the Capitol. He'd been resigned to our deaths, making light of my attempts to plan, and only taking us seriously when Katniss all but threatened him. I feel my lips twitch up at the memory of simpler times.
Switching gears – because he's right, damn him – I refocus. "What can I expect when I get there?"
He runs a hand through his hair and his eyes dart over my shoulder. I turn, finding one of my shadows lingering by the door, just outside. "Damage control," he says, drawing my attention back to him. "You're gonna have to denounce everything Katniss ever did with you. Play up how heartbroken you are."
Good news: that won't be hard. I say as much and Haymitch scoffs. "Have you ever said a bad word about her in your life, boy?" I blink. The closest to that I've come was just with my family. He takes my silence for what it is. "Exactly. Don't think this is gonna be a one-off deal. You two inadvertently stirred up a lotta trouble on that Tour. Wouldn't surprise me if Snow wants you back out on the road to undo it all."
I think of Eleven, of unrest and corpses. We'd gotten our proverbial shit together after the riot, to the tune of silenced crowds, but there was no telling just what was going on. Dread that has nothing to do with Katniss pools in my stomach. How on earth am I supposed to go out and tell people to stop rioting?
All I'd wanted was to not end up a piece in the Capitol's games, and somehow I'm about to be center stage.
"Great," I manage to choke out after a few moments of consideration. "Any tips?"
"Lay it on thick. Know you never had to play it up for the cameras before," Haymitch says, sending me an apologetic look that I ignore. "So be ready to be as pathetic as possible."
My lips turn up of their own accord. "Waterworks?"
"A tear or two may go a long way." He shakes his head and looks around, probably for a drink. "Actually this is good, we should practice. Gimme something good," he says, gesturing for me to start talking.
As absurd as it is, I'm brought back to the night before the interviews. We'd worked on my delivery for over an hour, matching facial expression to tone to get the Capitol audience as sympathetic as possible.
I mentally dive headfirst into the unbridled shock I'd felt at seeing Snow in my house. "I-I don't know what changed. We got back from the tour and things were good. Better than they'd ever been!" I say, the disbelief and anguish in my voice entirely genuine.
"More anger, kid," Haymitch orders. "She left you to die to run off with another man."
"They don't know she left me to die."
"The hell they don't! Everyone in the Capitol knows what happens if you cross Snow."
I nod. Less shock, more anger. My lips peel back in a sneer. "I don't know what changed. Things were good, better even, since we got back from the Tour. I knew they spent time together, that they were friends, but I trusted her."
"Good. Hammer the trust, boy. She betrayed you, and now you're left picking up the pieces," Haymitch bites out.
I sag a touch, and a mirthless chuckle makes its way past my lips as I shake my head. I regard my mentor, a man I'd convinced to let me die in the Arena. "Why'd she do it, Haymitch?" I whisper. "I know she didn't feel the same about me but…how could she?"
For all Katniss knew, Snow would kill me to make a statement. He still might.
"Hell if I know," Haymitch spits. "Always knew she was hardwired for survival but…" An ugly look crosses his face and I realize just how angry he is. How hurt.
I'm reminded that I'm not the only one Katniss left behind, and my gaze drops. There's every likelihood Haymitch's life is on the line here too.
A rough hand grasps my shoulder and drags my gaze up. He's grimacing, clearly looking for words to answer an unanswerable question.
"Look, kid…" he trails off, clearly trying to rein himself in. "You know I ain't got an answer for you. To be honest, I'm not sure she'd have an answer for you. Probably got spooked and decided to cut her losses."
"She's a survivor, that one."
My mother's words from visitation echo in my brain. It's nothing I haven't subconsciously considered ever since Snow left my house, but it doesn't make it any easier to swallow.
"We were supposed to be a team."
"You're telling me," Haymitch mutters.
"What'd Snow say to you?" I ask, switching gears. Unlike me, Haymitch is an adult. There's every likelihood that Snow would hold him more responsible than me.
"Just the facts," he grunts. "He and I go way back, which means he knows better than to think I'm in control of anything that happens in this place. He asked about you. Wanted to know if you were 'up to the task.'"
"What'd you tell him?"
"What he wanted to hear," Haymitch says with a pointed look that isn't lost on me. "You're the most persuasive Tribute I ever had, 'course you can talk a few Districts down from rebelling."
"Tch. Something like that." He wanders past me into the kitchen and snatches up a mostly empty bottle of white liquor. I can't say I blame him. "Good news is I wasn't lying to him."
My frustration boils over. "I'm seventeen, Haymitch! I fooled kids in an arena one time. How does he expect me to…" I trail off impotently, arms flailing as I try to grasp for words to describe the enormity of my task.
Haymitch burps loudly, having decided to chug his residual liquor. "It ain't right, it ain't fair, ok? I get that. But look where we live, kid. Any of this ever scream fair to you, I don't know, ever?" I glower at him. "You wanna cry about it? I don't remember you being this down in it back before the Games."
"Yeah, back when it was just my life on the line," I bite out. Mine and Katniss'. At least then I'd had some control over my life and death. Or so I'd thought, at least.
"Thinking about making a run for it too?" My furious glare is ignored with his usual indifference. "Can't say I blame you."
"I'd never make it with my leg," I say. And maybe that's why Katniss left me behind. My footsteps were heavy enough even without the prosthetic.
"A cripple and a drunk. Small wonder sweetheart left us behind." I settle for rolling my eyes. He continues a moment later, dead serious. "If you're gonna do this, Peeta, you've gotta believe you're necessary. And you are," he tells me. "Sure, you're seventeen, but don't sell yourself short. You're good with words and got…" Haymitch waves his hand at my face. "…charisma or some such. You're better prepared for this than you think."
"Thanks, I think."
"If it makes you feel better, I got the feeling Snow's gonna be keeping a pretty close eye on you for this whole thing." I blink. That's supposed to make me feel better? Seeing what is, no doubt, panic, Haymitch regroups. "I mean he's gonna be telling you what to say and how to say it. Ol' Coriolanus ain't get to where he is by letting teenagers say whatever they think is best."
Oddly enough, it is a comfort, if a microscopic one. Snow had tried to make Katniss quell whatever rebellion was brewing in the Districts, and where had that gotten him? I doubt he's about to make the same mistake twice, whatever his opinion is of my powers of persuasion.
I sigh and feel some of the tension escape my body. Just in time too, as my crimson shadow raps on the doorjamb loud enough to make me jump. I turn to find an empty red mask staring me down.
"Train leaves in ten minutes," the modulated voice says. I feel a brief moment of alarm – I haven't packed – but toss it aside. Portia is in the Capitol and will be able to help with such a trivial thing.
I turn back to Haymitch to find him an arm's length away. He grabs me by the shoulder and pulls me in for a hug that I return after a second of confusion.
"Keep your head on straight when you get there," he whispers to me. "I've got a friend in town who'll show you the ropes."
I nod, not trusting myself to speak. It's a relief to know I won't be completely alone.
"Don't mention it, kid. And remember…" He pulls back and looks at me plainly. "Stay alive."
I'm planning to. Giving him a nod, I turn back and stride to the door with as much confidence as I can muster.
The train leaves District Twelve exactly on time. There's no send off and I'm grateful for it. Per the Peacekeepers, the train will be making two scheduled stops – in Three and Five – and I'd be in the Capitol in less than twenty-four hours. They were quick to assure me that I'd be monitored heavily during the stops, not that I was planning to pull a runner anyway.
Something about everyone I still loved being in close proximity to Peacekeepers in Twelve was highly motivating. As much as I was still trying to wrap my head around Katniss' disappearance, I could give credit where credit was due. She didn't do things by half. And if she could keep me alive during the Games, there was no doubt she and Hawthorn together could do the same for their families.
Absently, I wonder how much convincing Primrose and Mrs. Everdeen needed. Well, I amend, Prim likely hadn't taken much convincing; she thought her sister had hung the moon. And while my father had always – fondly – described the latter as stubborn, he only knew her before her marriage.
If only my own family was as manageable.
My fingers clench around a glass of water as I watch the countryside fly by. Distantly, I'm appalled at my own thoughts. Katniss has abandoned me to uncertainty and, likely, death, and I can't help but commend her ability to get her family to listen to her.
This can't be healthy, I muse. Even now, I can't help wondering if I'm truly angry or just hurt that I didn't even warrant a note.
I can honestly say I don't begrudge Katniss choosing Gale over me. I'd been resigned to it sometime between getting off the train after the Games and a month later when I'd managed to get over myself a little. The reality was that, while Katniss had volunteered, she hadn't wanted to be in the Games any more than I had. I'd been a strategy for her the same way the Careers had been a strategy for me and hating her for that would be the height of hypocrisy.
It still hurt, but I could live with it.
I'm up off the couch and pacing as my blood runs white hot. I weigh the benefits of flinging my glass across the car for a moment before deciding that making a mess for an avox isn't who I want to be. I set it down on the table and hurl myself on top of the couch, pounding my fists into it hard enough that the fabric chafes against my knuckles.
I'm out of breath in ten seconds but I keep going. My vision is blurry with tears half a second later but I ignore them. The only thing that matters is the unbearable pressure that's boiled to the surface of my head and in my chest and I need to get rid of it.
I tear the largest pillow off the couch and toss it across the room, into the opposing window. The second follows, then the third, and I'm greeted with taut black canvas that I shove my right fist through. Stinging pain greets me, and I yank my hand back out to see blood dripping from my knuckles.
"God damn it."
Looking down, I see metal springs in the gap. In Twelve, our couch was stuffed with feathers and smashed down until it could barely be considered comfortable.
The wind suddenly gone from my sails, I drop to the floor in a heap and feel tears well up. Some part of me knows that there are cameras everywhere on this train and that Snow will almost certainly see my pathetic display, but I can't be bothered caring about it.
A second later and I'm sobbing like Cato just sliced my leg to the bone. My eyes are squeezed shut as hacking wails rip themselves free of my throat. I feel snot sliding down my cheek as I gasp for air.
Things were good! Not great, not even close to perfect, but Katniss and I finally understood each other. We were friends. Two people thrown in an unwinnable situation doing our best to make the most out of it. And we got along! Hell, she even laughed at my stupid jokes sometimes.
How sad is it that some of my best memories are working through a book about plants with her?
Did Gale even have to convince her to leave me behind? Was it even a discussion?
He'd have made a compelling argument, I know. He was smart, knew his way around the woods as well as Katniss, and he hated Town folks. A few choice words about how slow I was and an appeal to Katniss' survival instincts would've been all it took, I'm sure.
And just like I can't truly blame Katniss for choosing Gale, I can't blame Gale for convincing Katniss to leave. Because if there was a chance I could make a run for it without everyone I care about dying in the process, I'd take it in a heartbeat.
With that thought I'm at the root of the issue. Snow's words from my living room come roaring back amidst the clear evidence that Katniss never really cared about me at all. I've long since come to terms that the Games were an act, but the Victory Tour? All those nights we spent together, quelling each other's nightmares?
Maybe I just saw what I wanted to see. Maybe I was just a stand in for Gale when he couldn't be there.
Maybe it was both, maybe it was neither. Either way, I can't waste more time thinking about where everything went wrong.
"There'll be plenty of time for that on stage," I mutter. Having trauma shoved center stage for Capitol entertainment is the core of the Games; there's no doubt I'll be rehashing mine and Katniss' saga for the cameras ad nauseum for the foreseeable future.
At least until the Games come back around in six months. I quash the hope that threatens to bloom at a potential light at the end of the tunnel. There's no way life, or Snow, will be even that fair.
No, far more likely that I'll be trotted out regularly as a reminder. "This is what happens when you try to do the right thing, kids. God, you're so pathetic," I tell myself.
I sit up and wipe the residual snot and dried tears from my face. Rising, I look out the window at night falling. I'll be in the Capitol in a matter of hours, and I don't expect Snow will give me a few days to prepare myself.
Running a hand through my hair, I make my way back to the table. I'd left a pen and paper there, ostensibly to plan. I'd abandoned them to my dark musings.
Sitting, I pick up the pen and jot down a few words.
It's impossible to have a script for what I'm about to do – there are too many variables, too many things that can be asked of me. Like with Caesar before the Games, there are a few ways things can go, and it's up to me to get them where I want. The good news is, past what Haymitch thinks of my ability to badmouth Katniss, everything on the paper is genuine emotion.
And just like I dove into how I felt about Katniss during the Victory Tour, I can do the same now.
I'll have to.