Animus

Interlude;

What is Love?

...

(Madge)

[One year aniversary of the bombing of District 12]

The invasive smell of disinfectant singes my nose as I stare down at him, at this thing they tell me is my oldest living friend. Even in the midst of his drug induced nap Peeta Mellark looks more like a corpse than the chubby little boy with whom my earliest play dates were scheduled; awfully superficial affairs where we'd both be tottered out like stage monkeys. Me usually in some lace and pastel pink monstrosity and Him stuffed into an itchy ill fitting little tweed jacket for a handful of minutes so pictures could be taken and sufficient goo-goo noises could be made.

It's funny now I think about it; I've known Peeta for so long I could not tell you when I first met him. He is as close to a brother as I will ever know, which you'd think would make me eager, desperate even to be here. To help him.

But the truth is, every neuron in my brain is screaming at me to flee, that this was a bad idea. Run. Run away from this kind of pain, this singular type of misery and never look back. But I'm here now and I can't.

Some sense of obligation to the shadow of a past I have long since left behind compels me I guess.

The cuffs they have strapped him to the bed with jingle and draw my attention to the raw rings around his wrists. Katniss said he fights them quite a bit. I don't blame him. The ward which passes for the nut asylum here in this glorified drainage pipe was never particularly to my tastes either. My gaze is next drawn to the shadow of stubble on his skull, where ash blonde hair had once rested. A line of numbers are inked in bold blocked letters across the left side of his forehead. My mouth twitches as I recall a period back when we were nearly fifteen and he had decided to forgo the dreary business of getting haircuts, partially I quite suspect, because he figured Katniss Everdeen maybe preferred guys with the whole scruffy, rebel without a cause thing. A la Gale Hawthorne. At the thought I can't help but shoot daggers towards my reflection in the blank glass of the two way mirror behind which Haymitch stands looking on with Katniss and her pet half-wit.

"Stop giving me the stink eye and get on with it Princess." A grainy voice, Haymitch, rasps from the intercom. "We're all very interested to see whether he's going to try knife you or not."

I grimace at the reminder. They tell me Peeta is a homicidal maniac these days. They say he is dangerous, that if he'll attack the Mockingjay, he'll attack anyone.

But I don't believe it.

Not Peeta.

That being said I am about 110% confident my presence here will not save him from whatever horrors they have carved out inside his mind. I'm no miracle worker and helping him to remember the miseries of our respective childhoods isn't going to fix this. Haymitch, who probably knows more about the circumstances of my life in 12 than anyone still breathing, should know that.

"This is not going to work." I mutter despite picking up a fancy automatic syringe from the table next to me and rolling it in my fingers. It's filled with an artificial stimulant designed to wake the patient from the induced slumber. Another one, filled with a sedative in case things go awry is stashed in up the sleeve of my jacket, strapped into the little compartment I use when I have a need to slip someone a particularly nasty surprise.

Haymitch, having palmed the sleep serum to me before I entered (just in case), is presumably the grand architect behind this plan. Said plan, in all its technical brilliance, is for me to stick Peeta with the wakey-wakey juice and then to see what happens.

Genius.

"And he's not going to love being woken." I continue nervously, seeking some relatively plausible excuse not to have to do this right now. "I mean, as a baker Peeta always did appreciate a sleep in when he could get-"

"Madge." Katniss' voice is not irritated but soft and pleading in a way that simultaneously breaks my heart and makes me feel like a gutless worm. "Please."

My eyes flicker again to my reflection in the mirror as though to draw comfort and strength from the people behind there but instead all I see is a girl reflected back at me who is nervous, indecisive and weak.

I straighten my shoulders defiantly at the thought. My eyes and nimble fingers have no difficulty picking out a suitable vein. I don't even need to fix up a tourniquet as I've been forced to do for myself occasionally of late; it's a clean hit. The needle slips in and out of his arm easily, with nothing but a droplet budding on his skin as evidence it was there at all. Something for which he won't-but should-thank me. There's nothing worse than slamming some junk and missing your shot, trust me.

I dart back startled before I can control the impulse as a groan rumbles almost immediately from his half-closed mouth, his fingers twitch and his eyes flicker rapidly beneath their lids. I hold my breath, acutely aware of the chains on his wrists and in spite of my earlier misgivings, curious to see what will happen now.

"Peeta?" I venture when two blue eyes crack open blinking several times against the harsh artificial light; confused and disoriented until they land on me. Awareness flickers across his face followed by more confusion, befuddlement and then finally against all hope; recognition.

"Madge?" He croaks through cracked lips, eyes squinting in the harsh light. "Madge...Undersee?"

"Peeta Mellark." I return, gentle and warm, as the small flicker of what can only be hope ignites in my chest.

Maybe miracles do happen after all.

(Katniss)

At the sound of his voice, cracked and exhausted, but still somehow Peeta I can't contain the small noise which escapes my mouth. A moan almost, surprised, relived.

My hands are braced against the glass and my knee's feel like they have decided that turning to jelly is a productive thing to do at the moment. I am glued to the window as I watch Peeta struggle to sit but unable due to his restraints. He pulls against them for the briefest of moments, frustrated and for a fraction of a second I fear this may have been a temporary relief; that he will snap back into the void of rage and hatred that has for all intents and purposes consumed him these last few weeks.

But then Madge is at his bedside murmuring gently for him to be still. Bending over she produces two long irregularly shaped pieces of metal from some unidentified place within her jacket. Behind me Gale hisses, catching on to what she is doing a second before I do. He moves forward to stand next to me, his nose like mine an inch from the glass. His posture is tense.

"He's going to fucking strangle her as soon a she-" He begins but sucks in a sharp breath, freezing at the slightly muted sound of rattling metal when the cuffs hit the white linoleum flooring.

"Thank you." Peeta rasps and my body liquefies in relief for a second time at the sound of his voice, so like it was before. So normal.

"Don't mention it." Madge tells him with a quirk of a smile as though this isn't the first intelligible sane conversation anyone has witnessed him participate in in just under a year. Helping to prop himself up against his pillows she holds a cup of water to his lips until he snatches it from her, drinking heartily. The tendrils which escape his mouth drench his chin and spot his hospital gown dark around the collar.

"You... remember me?" She queries hesitantly when he is finished, metal scrapes on hard linoleum as she drags the only chair in the room to a spot next to the bed and sits as Peeta places the cup on the side table; turned so the dent on its side is clearly visible. The last time they had let him drink from it himself he had tried, with varying degrees of success, to bludgeon three hospital staff with it.

"Madge; Margaret Maysilee Undersee." He rattles off like a child reciting their multiplications tables, his eyes unfocused. His hands creep unbidden up to his ears as though trying to block out noises, voices maybe, unfathomable horrors certainty. His voice continues to get louder, his form rocking back and forth so hard the bed begins to creak.

"You are left handed. You have green eyes. Your father is the Mayor. You play piano and you read and you watch. You are the smartest person I know. You like..." His breath hitches, he stills and his eyes snap up to where we are standing so suddenly and with such ferocity that I take a step back.

"Strawberries."

And then he hurls himself across the bed, snarling like a demon as he leaps from the mattress at the glass pane I am standing behind. There is no time to do anything but shout out a warning Madge cannot hear, as I am forced stumbling and pressed up against the bloodied glass when Gale pushes past me, about to slam his fist against the door that has not yet opened.

Haymitch, shoulders tensed, hisses for him to wait a moment.

There is a beat of heavy silence and a collective breath is almost released when his fist drops to his side, his whole body shaking as he breaths hard. That is until Madge takes a step forward, hands out cautiously, eyes looking a little wild. "P-"

"Not. Real." He snarls, rounding on her with raised fists.

A few moments later both Gale and Haymitch make some sort of sympathetic groaning noise and even manage to synchronize their respective winces.

...

(Madge)

His swing is blind; all rage and no direction. I half-duck on pure reflex, dodging to the left as I move into him, twisting his wrist until I feel his frame curl around me and the world turns. The key is to use their own momentum against them; to put off their center of gravity. It's nothing but a gimmick to be honest; a cheap trick that looks far more impressive than it actually is – when I can actually put it off.

The gasp of surprise, the crack of a skull that is not mine hitting hard linoleum and then the obligatory guttural urrgh of pain signify thankfully this is one of those times.

The ceiling comes into view just as a particularly vulnerable body, one part typically found on those of the male persuasion, becomes the meat in a pain sandwich with the floor and my knee being the bread. My arm presses his windpipe into the floor, sedative in hand. I put my weight on the tender lower regions and squirm a little just for effect. I can practically see the circle of birds twittering around his head as he blearily looks up; focusing on the point of a needle weeping a droplet of sedative onto his cheek and then on my best in the mood to commit homicide smile.

"Mer-cy?" I suggest after a pause and he stills, blinking up at me owlishly. The sincere confusion is his eyes is the only thing that saves him from an artificially induced trip to sleepy la-la land courtesy of my dear friend Mr Syringe.

I'm breathing heavy as we gaze at each other, seemingly both recalling old memories from our times 'playing tribute' back when we had been about eleven and the games were looming in our minds for the first time. It's not uncommon to see kids around that age attempting some lame form of practice with sticks, stones or whatever was a hand. Well, I suppose not kids who actually stood a chance like Hawthorne or Katniss, but it was a pretty common 'game' for the rest of us.

Mercy had been our kill word, the word you say when the other person has beat you and you want to be let up to go home and cry a little over your cuts and bruises. I let up the pressure on his windpipe slightly, the syringe in my hand still held at the ready.

"It's…really…you." He breathes through long exhales. It is a statement and not a question. "This…this is actually real." He stares up at me unblinkingly and with wonder.

"Oh clever boy." I hiss as I push my knee in a little further for a moment just to re-enforce the point that no one should be needlessly throwing punches at innocent blondes just trying to help. His response is somewhat unintelligible although distinctly high-pitched, so I move my body up quickly and settle, straddling him with my knees like a vice and my full weight on his chest.

Not about to make the mistake of letting him up – just yet. Although I can't help the half guilty glance I shoot at the mirror, admittedly feeling a bit awkward about the whole situation. But then no one came in to save me from what I'm sure they all thought was my certain death, so really, I don't feel that guilty.

(Gale)

"Am I the only person who just saw that?" I splutter in disbelief, looking to Abernathy first who shrugs in a way that tells me he probably knew that was going to happen.

"Gale, hush." Katniss half-hisses, her nose pressed against the glass again; personally I'm surprised she hasn't yet warn a hole in it. Looking down at her reflection I see the expression in her eyes as she views the scene and do a double take at the intensity I find there, until Mellark's groaning draws my attention. Peering over Catnips shoulder we can't really see much of what is going on beyond a spectacular view of Undersees' ass. Only his legs splayed across the floor are visible. But even they seem to be in less of a psychotic rage than usual so it follows that maybe this, against all odds, is actually working.

"No one takes nutshots quite like you do Madge." The first intelligible thing we hear him say. Poetry.

Yeah, no fucking kidding, I internally agree ignoring the sharp intake of audible relief issued from next to me. Personally I'm more interested in contemplating how torn I am between being reluctantly impressed and now actually somewhat terrified. I mean Mellark was apparently Undersees' friend and she has no problem rendering him permanently infertile. Imagine what the crazy bitch would do to someone she was less disposed towards – Like say, me for instance.

Granted I wouldn't be taken down by such a cheap trick.

Beyond the glass a civil conversation appears to be taking place for the first time. Civil maybe, if you don't count Undersee with her legs around Mellark in a not so family friendly manner or the look I just now caught on my best friends face.

(Madge)

"So…" I venture after a moment's awkward pause, deciding that perhaps my oldest friend isn't going to be the person who murders me or vice versa. I push myself back so that my knees are no longer pinning his arms to the floor.

He half-groans in response and heaves himself up on his elbows with the weight of my body on top of him he can't do much else but continue to look up at me as though he can barely believe I am here. The inky number of lines on his forehead stand out like a neon sign across my vision. PermaInk I would bet. Probably phosphorescent too. That's all the rage these days in the Capitol.

"I never expected to see you again." He whispers hoarsely. "She… the voices; they scream…she does not like …please don't make her angry-" His voice catches forcefully and shudders beneath me. I can't help the feeling of unease when for a moment something in his eyes twists much like it did just before his episode a moment ago. His lips twitch into a hateful expression I cannot identify as Peeta, even remotely. A strangers face looks out, mocking me from my oldest friends eyes but lingers for only a fraction of a moment which is so short that when his expression then jerks back and his hand reaches up to touch my cheek fondly, I would almost swear I had imagined it.

Almost.

Although I don't shrink from the gesture I inwardly shudder at his touch which feels like something fragile, sickly, broken and weak. Far from the psychotic rage monster he was but two minutes ago. Up this close the shallowness of his cheeks is nauseating, underneath me I can feel his hip bones jut painfully against my thighs.

But his eyes, his eyes are the same now. They have the same warmth in them, ragged and worn, but still somehow… Peeta.

Maybe this will work afterall.

….

(Katniss)

"Maybe that's enough for today."

I turn to Haymitch and put my back to the scene behind the glass. I attribute the clenching in my stomach to nerves and relief and ignore the raised eyebrow he gives me.

"We don't want him to overdo it. He's weak as it is, and-"

"This is the most progress we have seen him make in weeks." Haymitch points out gruffly, overriding me with a look. "If you're jealous sweetheart-"

"I'm not jealous." I interrupt heatedly until I feel Gale's gaze burn into me too and turn my face away from both of them, taking a moment to calm myself before I say something they will both regret.

I'm not jealous.

"Well good. Because you needn't be." Haymitch tells me but with something I could mistake for kindness in his eyes if not for the fact that it's Haymitch I'm talking to here.

"Yeah Catnip," Gale almost jokes, putting hand on my shoulder in what I'm sure he thinks is a reassuring gesture. "Apart from yours truly, Mellark is just about the last guy on earth that the Princess would ever-"

"I'm not jealous." I snap shaking him off, rounding on the both of them angrily putting particular stress on the word. Gale flushes and looks away, biting back whatever heated reply just popped into his mind.

"I just don't want to push him too far, that's all." I reiterate, trying hard not to sound petulant but with no desire to give in to their insinuations. I fold my arms and turn to Haymitch who locks gazes with me

"Any minute he could snap back and all this progress will be for nothing."

The lingering silence which follows indicates that I am convincing no one. I huff, glancing over at clock. The dark numbers on its face stand out in sharp relief against the sterile white walls and I seize upon yet another point

"It's nearly time for them to serve dinner in the mess anyway, so they'll be serving it here too. Peeta hasn't eaten a full meal in days."

Maybe they will let him use cutlery I think hopefully, and eat solid food. Or at the very least feed him nutrients via means other than by pumping them into his bloodstream through a drip.

Haymitch continues to have doubtfully raised brows while he eyes the scene behind me through the glass with a contemplative expression. Seemingly tempted to just let Madge set up camp and bunk there for her duration in 13.

"I'm sure Madge hasn't eaten either." I weedle trying not to feel desperate, hoping this information will sway the argument in my favor. Haymitch, I know, has always had a soft spot for Madge.

And he isn't the only one apparently, a snide voice in my head adds but I shove it away since this is about Peeta's wellbeing not mine.

The eyebrows continue to raise and I don't even need to look at him to know that Gale's are a mirror image.

"We haven't seen her in over a year, it will be good to catch up." Although that last part I can't say that I am particularly sincere about at the moment.

(Madge)

"I see the menu hasn't changed." I comment with a wrinkled nose as the serving lady spoons a glob of the nutrient enriched slop that passes for the synthetic mash potatoes (90% of the diet in this place) onto my tray. I cast a habitual 'am I right' in the direction of Katniss who doesn't appear to notice.

"No really." I continue with a smirk, nudging her to try to get her attention. "I'm pretty sure that's the exact same batch they were serving last time I was here."

She gives me a wane smile in response and shuffles along in silence to the one-eyed pea lady who dumps a ladle of pale unappetising green pods on her tray. The leathery layers of potato lady's face show slightly more interest in my comment as she slops the ladle back into the pot after giving me my allotted lumpy mess, splashing what appears to be almost a second helping in my general direction.

"Oh, and some for later too." I jeer at her. "How kind."

She raises her lips in a silent grisly snarl, exposing all three of her teeth which as a lesson in dental care is terrifying and is successful is getting me to hurry to a place further down the line. Since my little tete-a-tete with Peeta I have received little more than small talk (with Katniss small talk is pretty well near infinitesimal) and silence since after Hawthorne slunk off somewhere to 'report to control' but not before giving me a nasty look as I snorted at the comment.

As if he's so integral to the war effort these days.

I mean as far as I know anytime they even let the Mockingjay or her famous 'cousin' outside it's with a camera crew and body guards in safe areas the real soldiers have long since captured and cleared. Well this is what they have done since that debacle in 8 a few months ago at least. Which is to be expected I guess – it would be stupid to place the Mockingjay in any real danger and most of the Districts and enlisted eat up the contrived rubbish they put out in the staged propos anyway, fooled into thinking their Mockingjay is experiencing the same 'war' they are.

'If we burn you burn with us.' Right. It's a little hard to burn people who spend the majority of their time miles underground.

Although to be fair just looking at Katniss with the shadow under her eyes and hunched posture I can tell things in 13 haven't exactly been a life of smiles and champagne and seeing me cosy with Peeta when he screams bloody murder anytime her name is mentioned after a year of being separated in the worst possible circumstances probably isn't helping. I fail to see how any of that, however, is going to be helped by getting pissy with me.

After a moments forethought I choose to skip pea lady who is giving me the literal stinkeye and cast my gaze down the various oozing, bubbling and boiling pots and their respective serving women and quickly conclude that I'm not really that hungry anyway.

"Seconds?" I ask a kid on his way past me to dump his empty tray into the appropriate receptacle on the far wall, I push mine in his hands rather forcibly.

"Wow, really?!"

"Knock yourself out kid."

"Thanks miss!" He chimes in a way that would make you think I was the one doing him the favour before running off back to his table.

I don't try to initiate conversation as I shadow Katniss down the serving line, since if witnessing Hawthorne's pathetic attempts to get in her pants last time I was here has taught me one thing it is that there's no real point in trying to talk to Katniss Everdeen if she doesn't really want to talk to you.

"Double helpings as usual Handsome?"

And speak of the devil I think turning as I hear a sort of crooning behind me.

Potato lady's face is puckered into what I believe is some sort of fossilized version of a smile although her eyes twitching; trying if I am not mistaken, to bat lashes that have long since disintegrated as he saunters up nonchalantly pushing into a position behind us in serving line, armed with unkempt hair, a generous five o'clock shadow grudging up his face and a pretty confident smirk.

"You know it Gladys." Hawthorne answers her with a wink, like she's miraculously dropped about 102 years in the last three seconds. "You do something new with your hair? I like it."

She giggles- giggles, and pumps a crusty hand into locks that looks like someone has implanted steel wool into her skull. She slops two whole lumps of mashed ooze onto his tray though.

Figures. I resist the urge to scoff out loud although internally I shrug off the immediate and weird pang of longing I feel for my crew back at base and especially for Dal, who can charm the pants off pretty much anyone when it suits him since obscenely outrageous flattery will evidently get you everywhere.

"Looking lovely as usual Miriam." Hawthorne turns then charm on pea lady, whose eye actually sparkles as she gives him a gummy smile and so on and so forth down the service line, although his technique, if you want my professional opinion, lacks subtlety but is nevertheless successful at earning him double helpings all around.

Well successful right up until he gets to the last lady; who basically just looks like a pile of old leather someone has packed into a grey smock, although her eyes are that familiar shade of grey. His smile is absolutely stunning when he comes to her, which leads me to believe that this one is probably serving the meat. Well, I glance into her pot (and I swear something winks back), meat-ish.

"Sae, don't you look just-"

"Stow it boy, you gotta gain about 10 pounds and 50 years before you'll be able to handle all of this."

The infamous "Greasy" Sae queen of 12's questionable meat racket jiggles in her smock as if to illustrate her point and I lose it, snorting in a very unlady like manner very loudly.

Hawthorne and even Katniss turn to regard me with raised eyebrows as I gasp a pretty insincere 'sorry, don't mind me' at them and smooth my expression.

"Well, if it ain't the lil' Undersee girl, back safe and sound." Greasy Sae leers over the filthy perspex glass topping her counter before anyone else can comment. "Your ol' pappie would be thrilled."

Even through the folds in her age lined face her eyes are sharp and bright as she baits me. No doubt trying to spark some sort of petty conflict; I have come to recognise that most former citizens of 12 were none too fond of my father and do not miss an opportunity to express it.

"Your concern is touching Missus Rogers." I return evenly, keeping my face smooth. "Your grand-daughter is doing well I hope?" Her surprise that I know this much about her or even care enough to inquire is evident and I take her moment of confusion as a chance to steam roll the conversation before she can open her wrinkled old mouth or otherwise initiate any discussion about our former home or its former mayor.

"Excellent, well it's been a pleasure. We must do it again sometime. You both finished getting your-" I can't help the revulsion in my tone at the slop on their trays. I can't believe I would ever miss Myff's cooking. "-Meals?"

Katniss and Hawthorne both nod, exchanging eye rolls which I tactfully ignore, before leading me over to what I can assume is their table. Which they probably sit at, eating in miserable monotonous silence, every day. I'm not too overcome with sympathy for their situation though, since I just dropped my everything, left without an explanation hurting people I have found that I genuinely am starting to care about in order to fly down here with the sole purpose of helping Peeta and have so far received little more cold-shoulders and snide comments.

I sit idly pondering this treatment through a long uncomfortable moment of quiet not bothered in the slightest, in fact if anything dining in awkward silence sort of makes me feel at home. From the corner of my eye I see them both exchange glances again, almost guiltily and honestly someone needs to take them aside and explain the meaning of subtly, because I'm literally sitting right here.

"I didn't know you knew Sae."

"I didn't know Sae had a last name"

"She is from 12." I shrug answering both questions, raising my eyebrows at their still confused expressions. "You think my father walked around blind, deaf and stupid to what went on in his own district, to the- oh, what did you all call it – to the Hob?"

"Well…" Katniss begins, before she is cut off.

"Yeah, as a matter of fact." Hawthorne finishes

To my everlasting credit, I don't immediately laugh in their faces. "Right, because you two are such daring criminal masterminds."

"Never got caught." Hawthorne returns cocksure even as Katniss juts her chin out defiantly. Leaning into each other too as if to illustrate that they not only figuratively have each other's back.

"Being whipped within an inch of your life? That ring any bells?"

Because I can still recall it quite vividly.

Katniss at least has the decency to look away.

Hawthorne flushes but persists in meeting my eyes, sneering: "Proud of daddy's handiwork are we Princess?"

Yeah because that was more my Father's fault than your own stupidity and ineptitude, I want to snarl back but don't because I won't give him the satisfaction of knowing how much comments about Papa affect to me. Hawthorne has never been one to miss an opportunity to pull out the 'privileged majors daughter, had it to so good, poor me and mine, blah-di-blah" card.

"I'm not doing this with you right now." I tell him my bland tone also hopefully conveying more composure than I am feeling. More angry at myself that he can still get to me this way even after a year of separation. "So bait all you want Hawthorne or go play your tiny violin to the lunch ladies if you want someone's pity, I'm sure they will accommodate."

"I'm not after anyone's pity." He all but snarls across the bench indicating that I am not the only person taking the conversation personally.

"Well, I suggest you drop the poor little dog-eater routine, because it's getting kind of old and no one actually cares." I snap back without thinking and then sigh as they both sort of blink at me shocked; Hawthorne flushes with anger and Katniss is stoned faced. Well so much for re-kindling friendships, I think to myself, I guess this is what I get for being sober for more than twenty four hours, particularly on today of all days.

"For the record," I turn to her, "I didn't mean-"

"Then why did you say it?" She interrupts in a quiet tight voice. I note the whiteness in her knuckles at she grips her cutlery.

Because it's the only way I can hurt him.

For a brief moment words escape me as I try to fabricate some other plausible excuse or reason to justify myself and fail. Not that it would have made a difference if I had and the hypocrisy is pretty rich because I'm not the only person who treats Hawthorne like dirt.

Of the two of us I, at least, don't actually bother with the pretense of being his 'friend'.

"Oh, don't look at me like wounded puppies." I snap back at their righteous indignation. "Either of you. Your double standards, reverse minority spiel is wearing a little thin."

"We don't have double standards." Hawthorne returns almost immediately, and you know, he actually believes it. "You must be confusing this place with 12."

I snort. "Right because it's totally fine for you to run your ignorant mouth about my dead father whenever you please, but I whip out a slightly-" I hold my thumb and forefinger millimeters apart, "-bigoted slur and I'm the only bad guy. Figures"

"Well, maybe should stop being such a snotty ignorant bitch about it and realize that there are some things you just don't say, not matter how much someone criticizes your precious daddy." Katniss snarls almost out of nowhere with genuine venom, so much so that even Hawthorne for the briefest of moments looks shocked.

I am thankful that by this stage in my life I am very practiced at not letting anyone see how much they can hurt me.

(Gale)

"I think I am sensing some genuine hostility from our glorious Mockingjay." Undersee replies with a caustic smile and in a tone is so sarcastic, so mocking, as she lingers on the last word that for a moment I genuinely feel like hauling off and punching her smug little face on Catnip's behalf. "Now I wonder why that would be?"

"Maybe the Mockingjay is tired of you speaking to her best-friend like he's so just beneath you."

Here the particular stress Catnip puts on the word makes something in my gut twist. It also leaves her open for the next obvious jab.

"Right 'Best-Friend' " Undersee scoffs, literally drawing the quotations in the air with her fingers. "Passing over the obvious fact that, well, hate to be the bearer of bad truths but he is beneath me-"

"Fuck you Princess," I mutter feeling heat rise in my cheeks, but neither girl gives me so much as a glance as Undersee steamrolls on.

"-for some reason I don't think it's my manner with Hawthorne that is the real issue here. Is it?"

Catnip, as Undersee was probably hoping, flushes like she has just been slapped and real anger flashes in her eyes so much so that for a second I almost think I'm going to have to be the one to restrain her. She has, after all, had a pretty rough couple of weeks and Undersee can be a rancid fucking bitch if given even half a reason and also fuck me, if I could go one meal without having to hear about the franken-frosting prince in the basement that would be just great.

When Catnip doesn't lunge across or put her fork through Undersee's pretty green eye, I rub my nose and release the tension in my body that I didn't even realise had built up. Sincerely regretting instigating what is now turning into a pretty personal catfight that I really don't want to be in the middle of.

"I just want what's best for Peeta." Catnip returns stubbornly although less heatedly after taking a moment to calm herself down

"Even if it leads to a future which doesn't involved you?" Is the cool response.

"Yes." Hesitation. "Of course."

Undersee's silence confirms that she buys that about as much as I do and it must show on both our faces as Catnips' lips are rimmed white when she looks between the both of us.

Then out of nowhere she forces out:

"Do you love him?"

I'm snort loudly. Like I said, aside from yours truly, Mellark is about the last guy in the world that Undersee would-

"Of course I do." Madge replies honestly without hesitating, her gaze sharp as she observes us both intently.

Even I freeze at that as something cold slipping into my stomach at the look on Catnip's face; not hurt, not angry, not full of denial or bitterness. Just stoic, resigned and underneath it? Broken.

As though she expected it, as though of course, who wouldn't be head over heels for her precious baker?

"So fucking glad to have you back with us Princess." I sneer with the filthiest look I can muster. Undersee, exposing herself for the heartless frost queen that she really is, doesn't appear particularly phased by the exchange.

Following Catnip as she pushes herself from the table, I am the only person to notice the tears on her cheeks or the way she barely makes it to the doors before she takes off running.

A/n: Been so long right? Had a crazy couple of years but really want to get back into the swing of updating.

Much and many thanks to all who have read this in my absence, your support for the story means the world. Sorry if this chapter seems like barely relevant filler but it does contain a crucially important moment which hopefully will set up something cool.

Currently working on the next chapter and also substantially editing some of the previous ones as I want to take this story in a slightly different direction (I'll change the title of chapters which I have finished editing if anyone wants to go back and read them) so we'll see how that goes.

Hope you like this. It's been too long and I'm feeling a little rusty.

Much love.

Is