a/n: title and lyrics from Yellowcard's Be The Young. Sorry for all the typos! I literally pulled an all-nighter finishing this - I'll be too busy to do any writing for the next several days - and it may backfire. I hope you like it anyway :)
This is loud, this is cold.
This is endless, and I know
Growing up has just begun.
But there's a place we can find
Where this pain is useless.
We'll forever be the young.
His mouth tastes like bad eggs the day the war ends.
He doesn't know, of course, that it is the day the war ends, and nobody will know for weeks. But he already realises it is a special day, and he won't ever forget it. The bombs dropped almost all night, but he escapes the shelter as soon as his father reports that they've finished, and everyone is too tired to stop him. They all hate the bombs, and Peeta does, too, but he likes the sky afterward.
He just likes to look at it, despite the acidic smell in the air that seeps into his skin, the spoiled taste that coats his tongue and makes his tummy hurt. He just likes to stand in the open street and stare.
(And if the birds have started to sing, he is safe, at least for a little while.)
The colours that streak across the cotton clouds are endless, swirling and spiralling, twisting and turning, pinks and oranges and reds, nothing like the dirty slush that lines that street, nothing like the people stained with coal, nothing like the dark, dank houses and the darker, danker shelters.
The day the war ends, the sky is pinker than ever, the sun flaming as it rises, and he sees a girl.
He thinks she might be more radiant than the sun.
She sits on the steps that lead to a fountain that hasn't spouted water his whole life, and her dress is bright red, as if she stole the colour right from the sky. Her hair is so black it shines blue in the sun, colour hidden inside two neat, dark little braids. A baby is in her tiny arms, and he watches her talk to it. He thinks her parents must have been killed. The town council will collect her soon, and they will take her to an orphanage, and his father told his mother that the orphanages are awful.
His heart sinks in his chest for her.
And then she starts to sing. He feels the world still. It sounds the way he imagines the colours in the sky would sound, and it is what chocolate must surely taste like, he decides, so sweet, melting in his mouth. The birds are all silent, but he isn't afraid. They just want to listen to the girl.
But her voice suddenly breaks off, and he takes a hesitant step towards her. She stands, and he looks where she looks to see a large, looming man, cheeks unshaven, eyes dark, clothing rumpled, just another old man in the Free Republic. "Come on, sweetheart." He reaches his hand out to her.
Peeta watches her take his hand, the baby cradled against her chest, and they walk off, disappear.
He licks his chapped lips. He can taste the awful air, but he doesn't mind. He will remember absolutely everything about this day forever and ever, because this is the day he first saw her.
They start to put the town back together, and Peeta trails after his father with offers to help.
He knows not a lot of five-year-olds are strong, but he is. His father told him so. He helps move bricks, because he can carry two at a time, and he looks after the sow that his mother loves a lot, and he helps clean out the oven so his father can bake bread that everybody in town depends on.
He thinks a lot about his girl, but he doesn't see her, and she is almost like a secret.
And, finally, two days before they learn about negotiations to end the war, he sees her with the same man as before. He must be her father, and Peeta watches as he talks with another adult, a solider, Peeta realises, and she simply stands quietly by his side, her hand enveloped in his.
Peeta decides he might share his secret, and he turns to his father. He asks who the girl is. His father knows just about everyone, so surely he will know who she is. His father looks surprised.
"That's Katniss Everdeen," he says, something funny in his voice. Peeta frowns, but he can't remember why that name sounds important. His father squats down, though, and his voice is a little softer when he explains. "That's the Mockingjay's daughter, Peeta." His smile is sad.
He asks Delly what she knows about the Mockingjay, because he doesn't know a lot.
As his father tells it, the Mockingjay was a happy little girl, but some cruel people ruled the country, and they bullied everyone, even happy little girls, so she stood up to them. She told them that she didn't want to be bullied, and that she wouldn't let them bully other people, either. If they wouldn't stop, she said, she would start her own country, and it would be ruled by nice people.
The bullies tried to stop her, and it started a civil war. Peeta likes this version best.
His mother says that the Mockingjay is crazy, that she started a war that didn't need to be started because she was proud and arrogant and stupid, that she talks to herself and is probably as deaf as she is stupid. She says that nobody ever sees the Mockingjay because she is locked away.
For the first time, Peeta really, really hopes that isn't true. He asks Delly what she thinks.
"My mother says that the Mockingjay is sick with a broken heart," Delly says, sighing.
And Delly explains that when the Mockingjay stood up to all those bullies, she did it with her best friend, the boy she loved more than anybody, the boy with the bow. All their friends helped them fight, until one day the bullies kidnapped the boy with the bow. And the war went on, but "a girl can't fight with a broken heart, Peeta," Delly tells him matter-of-factly, and she heaves another sigh.
Peeta still isn't sure what to think, and all he wants to do is make friends with Katniss Everdeen.
(Bannock is friends with a girl, and he kisses her a lot and lets her sit in his lap, and Peeta hears his mother tell his father that she suspects Bannock will marry the girl. Peeta isn't sure why Bannock would want to kiss a girl or let her sit in his lap or marry her, but he thinks if he had to do all that with a girl, well, maybe he would do it with Katniss. It wouldn't be all bad with her, would it?)
He decides he doesn't care who her mother is.
At school a month later, his very first day, he spots Katniss for the third time.
She eats all by herself, and nobody seems to want to be her friend.
He hears an older boy say that she lives with a drunk man that throws stuff at kids who come too close to his house, and he hears someone else say that her mother is the crazy lady who started the war, and he hears still another big kid say that the bad guys from Panem wanted her to be handed over to them in a peace treaty, but the rebels refused, so the war went on for another seven months.
But Peeta wants to be her friend.
And made suddenly courageous by all their stupid talk, because he wants to be her friend, he marches across the school yard, his lunch tin bumping against his knee, and he sits beside her.
The grass tickles his bare legs, the sky white from the sun, and he looks at Katniss, and he smiles the biggest smile he can. She smells a little funny, almost like the crazy butcher that his mother calls a drunk, but he doesn't really mind. It isn't a bad smell, and her eyes are big and pretty and dark.
"I'm Peeta," he says.
She stares at him for a moment. "I'm Katniss. There's cheese on your chin."
He swipes his chin, his courage already put to the test as she looks right at him. "I just wanted to say that I think you're really pretty," he tells her, "and I heard you sing, and it was really pretty, too, and I think it'd be cool to be friends." There. That wasn't so bad. He doesn't sound stupid.
It takes her a long time to reply. "I don't think so," she finally says, and his heart sinks. She looks at her lunch, spread out neatly on a napkin in front of her, and she carefully eats a single carrot.
"But why not?" he ask, just managing to spit the words out.
"Because," she says, and she stops. She talks a like an adult. He hates when adults do that.
"Because why?" he says. "I can do girl stuff, you know. Like play house. My friend Delly makes me play that lots. And I'm really strong, so I can help you lift stuff. And I can play chess." He puffs his chest out a little. "My brothers taught me. I'm really, well, I'm — I'm sorta good at it."
"I don't know how to be friends," she replies. Her cheeks are tinged pink. "I've never had one."
"It isn't that hard," he says. "You just hafta, you know, play with me. That's all."
She stares at him, making him nervous, before, slowly, dimples peaking out of her thin cheeks, she smiles. "Okay," she says. "Let's be friends." He thinks she might be the prettiest girl in the world.
It isn't easy to be friends with Katniss, not at first.
He doesn't know her like he knows all the other kids, and he wonders why not. If she is the daughter of the Mockingjay, does that mean she isn't from District 12? It seems strange to him that a person could live anywhere other than District 12. He wants to ask Katniss a thousand questions, but she is so quiet, so careful when she talks to him, that he feels like it would scare her.
She doesn't laugh often or smile much, but it somehow makes her soft giggles and softer smiles special, and he likes to earn them, tries to come up with jokes just for her, tries to make her happy.
(He really wants to hear her sing again, but he is too shy to ask.)
After class on a windy Tuesday, he takes her hand and tugs her to the meadow. He sees her quietly pick a flower, and he can't help himself. "Those are dandelions," he tells her. "You can eat them."
She doesn't look like she believes him.
"No, really!" he says, and he picks a little one by her feet, stuffing into his mouth. "See?"
She giggles. "What's it taste like?"
He scrunches his nose. "Like a flower." And she claps a hand over her smiling mouth as if to hide her giggles. He dares her to eat one, and she timidly takes a delicate bite. Her own nose scrunches up at the taste. He laughs at the expression, only for her suddenly to shove the rest of the dandelion in his mouth. A moment later she shoots off like a dart, her own laughter loud and clear as a bell, and he happily swears revenge as he chases her across the meadow, spitting out dandelion petals.
It turns out that maybe it isn't so hard to be friends with Katniss.
As the trees all start to change, leaves turning to bright orange and blinding yellow and brick red all across town, Katniss starts to talk to him, to tease him, to tell her own jokes. She plays any game he can devise, and she invites him to help her pick blackberries, and she holds his hand at school.
He thinks she might be the best friend in the world.
She isn't so quiet now, but she still always listens closely when he talks, and he likes that, because nobody else ever seems to care what he wants to say, or at least nobody else has the time to listen.
And the more time passes, the more the District flourishes, remnants from the war fading, until the whole District is theirs for the taking, without warnings about bombs and bodies, about shelters and safety and supervision, to stop them. They explore the woods, and they collect dandelions in the Seam, and they learn where to be when in the Merchant Quarters to collect a smile and a treat.
On her sixth birthday, he helps his dad bake cupcakes, and he steals one for them to share.
She kisses his cheek, chocolate frosting on her upper lip as she smiles.
She always catches him when they play tag, but she never finds him in hide and seek, and it always makes her mad, so that she stomps around, face flushed. And he laughs at her scowl, but he offers to play tag so that she can win and feel better. It always works, and they end up breathless, lying in the meadow, holding hands, and staring up at the sky, using the shapes of the clouds to tell stories.
For his seventh birthday, Katniss makes homemade paint for Peeta with help from Haymitch.
The first time Katniss brings him to the huge house where she lives with Haymitch, he clutches her hand tightly, and he tries not to let his fear show, because Katniss is fearless, and he wants to be fearless, too. But her house towers so high, secluded from the town and settled instead among empty houses just as tall, and nobody knows much about smelly old Haymitch, and Peeta is afraid.
(Rye says that the house next door to hers is haunted by a ghost, and Peeta is terrified of ghosts.)
Haymitch only grunts at Peeta when Katniss introduces him, and that's it. It isn't so bad.
He comes to like Haymitch. His mother wouldn't ever let him paint the inside of their house, but Haymitch doesn't care, so Peeta and Katniss paint every wall, and his attempts to draw a sunset are left untouched alongside her attempts to draw the meadow, a dozen painted hand prints accidentally scattered among the messy pink smears and purple splatters and yellow splashes and orange spills.
He never asks her about her parents, and she never explains. All she says is that Haymitch looks after her, and she looks after her sister, and he knows she loves her sister more than he loves cake.
And that is a lot.
He loves her little sister, too, because tiny Prim giggles no matter what face Peeta makes at her, and because she never cries like lots of other babies, and because Peeta loves whatever Katniss loves.
They are, after all, best friends.
The summer after he turns nine, a woman comes to town in a hovercraft.
She is tall, and her hair falls in a perfect sheet around her face. His father says that she is the president of the Free Republic, President Coin, and Peeta is awed. He hasn't ever met a president.
But she spends an entire day talking to Haymitch, and Katniss is trapped in the house with them, and Peeta doesn't like that. The days when he can't play with Katniss at all, usually because he is too busy at the bakery or she is too busy with chores Haymitch assigns, are the absolute worst.
And the next day, Katniss calls to his bedroom window from the street while the sun just starts to peek out, and she tells him that she, Prim, and Haymitch have to take a trip, and she won't see him for a while. He is still half asleep, unable to comprehend what she means, but he stumbles down the stairs and out into the street, and she hugs him. She smells like grass and stale liquor and sunshine, or what he thinks sunshine might smell like. He asks her how long she will be gone.
Her eyes are shiny. "I don't know." It isn't until after she leaves that he realises she was about to cry. He hasn't ever seen her cry. His own eyes burn with tears, because this must be really bad.
The summer passes without her, and he hates it. He like Delly, and he doesn't mind Madge, and he makes friends with Benjy Welch and Rowan McGlynn, but he misses Katniss like a tummyache.
"She might not come back," his mother snaps at him one night, when he can't muster the energy to clean the kitchen floor the way she wants. "I'm sure all those old rebels would love to use her as some stupid symbol. And it isn't as if you had any business gallivanting around with a Seam girl."
He looks at his father, who says that it doesn't matter what part of town a person is from. It is an old distinction, his father says, from before the war, when people from the Seam weren't as well fed, and it isn't something he should worry about. Peeta waits for his father to say that to his mother, but his father only sighs. Peeta misses Katniss so much he remembers what Delly said.
He thinks he might be sick with a broken heart.
A week later, an eager voice shouts his name from across the street.
Katniss, with familiar bare feet and familiar scrawny legs and familiar bony elbows, home.
And moments later she jumps him, making him stumble backwards, her arms tight around his neck. He laughs in disbelief, pulling back to make sure it is really Katniss. Her hair is lighter somehow, worn in a single braid instead of two, and her freckles pop out in her tanner, thinner face.
But her smile is still exactly the same.
She saw the ocean, she tells him, and she pulls out a map, and she shows him.
They're at her house, Prim taking a nap upstairs, and Katniss spreads the map out on the kitchen table. He hasn't ever seen a map before, but he knows about them from school. Katniss runs her finger over the faded paper, and she shows him the five districts that make up the Free Republic: District 12, where they live, and District 13 above them, where President Coin lives, and District 11 to the west, the biggest, and District 10, and finally District 4, where Katniss stayed all summer.
A thick bold line cuts through the map, cutting up their five districts from the rest, from Panem.
"That's the ocean," she says, finger tracing a swatch of blue. "It went on and on. And I don't even know what colour it would be. I wish you could've seen it. You would have loved all the colours."
He nods. All that he really cares about is Katniss, and that she is back. She tells him that she made a new friend, too, while she was there. "And you'd like him, Peeta. He had bright red hair, like somebody set his head on fire." She smiles. "His name was Finnick. He taught me how to swim."
And now Peeta is just jealous.
But Katniss smiles at him. "I still like you better, though. And I brought you something."
He perks up, and she tells him to wait at her kitchen table as she fetches a box. She hands it to him, her eyes so excited. His hands shake a little with his own excitement as he opens it. Inside is a jar, tightly sealed shut. The bottom is filled with yellow dirt, and murky water fills it to the middle, where a wooden toy floats. "I made it," she says. "That's sand, Peeta, and sea water, and a boat."
He can't take his eyes off it. He already loves it almost as much as he loves her.
A few hours later, Haymitch stomps downstairs, stares at Peeta, and mutters to himself as he walks out onto the porch. Peeta feels like that was how Haymitch means to say that he missed Peeta, too.
Katniss takes his hand, and she leads the way to the woods, to the lake they found last year. "Want to learn how to swim?" she asks. He starts to strip off his clothes before she finishes the question, and she laughs. They stay until the sun starts to set. He hasn't ever been so happy in his whole life.
As they head home, she tells him that President Coin wanted her to move to District 4.
"She wanted me to live with a retired solider from District 13," Katniss says. "She wanted me to leave Haymitch, and Prim, and District 12. She wanted me to leave you. As if I ever would."
He finds her hand, and he swings it between them as they walk.
Katniss isn't like other girls, but that's why Peeta likes her best.
It means that other girls don't ever really want to play with her, but she doesn't seem to mind. She doesn't care about stuff like pretty dresses, or dolls, or playing tea. She doesn't like how tea tastes, she says, and she thinks dolls are boring, and she prefers to wear trousers so she can run faster.
(And some kids don't like her because she never has to work, and because their parents say she is wild, that she runs amok around town, undisciplined, and because she smells like the liquor that Haymitch always drinks, but Peeta thinks those are all stupid reasons not to like his best friend.)
She plays with Madge sometimes, though, especially when Peeta is forced to work.
They have fireworks every autumn to celebrate the Free Republic, and every autumn Peeta happily sits on a blanket between Katniss, who keeps Prim nestled in her lap, and Madge, who sneaks strawberries out from under her father to share with them, and watches the bright, colourful fireworks light up the sky. He can't imagine why anyone would ever need anymore friends.
The winter that Prim turns six, Katniss convinces Haymitch that he should let her buy a cake.
Peeta asks his father if, rather than have Katniss buy a cake that his brothers made, he can make the cake himself, his first cake all by himself. His father smiles, and he even says that Peeta is welcome to invite Katniss over to help if she wants. Peeta can't believe his luck when, on top of that, his father lets Peeta and Katniss take over the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon, his mother at the market.
The snow falls in swirling spirals outside, big, fluffy flakes, and it makes the kitchen seem warmer.
Katniss helps him sets out all the ingredients for a chocolate cake, and he carefully starts to measure the first few ingredients. This is an important cake, after all. He doesn't want to make a single mistake. But, somehow, between flicking flour at Katniss because she seems scared of it and using all brown sugar became he thinks it makes the cake taste better, he makes a complete mess.
The cake rises perfectly, and the edges he cuts off to shape it taste perfect, too.
But before he can start the icing, and before he can even think about the mess that covers Katniss, the counter, and himself, he hears his mother walk into the front, her heels clicking against the floor ominously, and he starts to panic. She hates messes. All he can think to do is protect Katniss, and he shoves her into the pantry, just slamming the door shut in time before his mother appears.
Her hands are pulling off her hat, and she stills. Her eyes scan the kitchen and land on Peeta.
"You stupid boy," she hisses, "I can't even imagine the cost of all those wasted ingredients and of all the hours it will take to clean! You stupid, stupid boy! I should kick you out of this house!"
He wants to protest that he will clean it all himself, and that Papa won't be mad, but he knows it won't help, and it only makes her angrier when he argues with her. She stares at him. "At least start to clean it up!" she snaps. He nods, starting for the broom in the corner, and she watches him with narrowed eyes as he sweeps. He trips under her scrutiny, and he falls against a sack of flour.
It breaks, splattering half its contents. His mother yanks him up by his sleeve and smacks him with the back of her hand. He stumbles back from her, his back hitting the banister of the stairs with a painful sting. His mother starts to shout, and she yanks him up by his shirt a second time, and —
His mother stills a second time when Katniss flies out of the closet, shouting at her to stop it.
She stares at Katniss, standing with brown sugar sprinkled in her hair, cinnamon all over her dress, and his flour hand print on her cheek, and Peeta doesn't know what to do. His mother picks up the broom in a quick, sudden movement, and she stalks towards Katniss. She waves the broomstick.
"Out!" she snarls. "You filthy little Seam brat, out of my kitchen! Out!"
Katniss doesn't budge. "We didn't mean to make a mess," she says, chin up, forever fearless, "and we'll clean it up." She doesn't even tremble, despite how his mother towers over her. "Just because we spilled a few ingredients, that doesn't mean you have the right to bully us, or to hit Peeta."
Peeta lunges forward to stop it, but he is too late, and his mother smacks Katniss across the face.
And before he can take more than another step towards her, Katniss lunges forward and shoves his mother so hard that she stumbles and hits the wall. "If you hit me, I'll hit back, you awful witch!"
His mother has her broom raised, and this time Peeta is afraid she might actually use it, and he does spring forward in time, hiding Katniss behind him. Katniss doesn't want to be hid behind him, but he manages to hold her back for the crucial moment. The broom knocks the breath out of his chest.
"Stop it!" Katniss screams as Peeta crumples against her.
A set of heavy footsteps starts down the stairs. It's Rye, stunned at the sight he finds, but he can't say a word before their father appears at the back door, just as stunned, and, finally, apparently in town today and able to pick out the sound of her screams, Haymitch storms into the kitchen.
He looks at Katniss and Peeta. He looks at Peeta's mother. His jaw locks. "I wasn't aware that bitter old women were allowed to hit my ten-year-old," he snarls, eyes flashing, hands fisted.
"I don't believe your ten-year-old has permission to be in my house," Peeta's mother snaps back coldly, "making a mess, costing me money, and making my son misbehave!" Her nostrils flare. "I don't know who you think you are, but let me make myself clear. I don't care that you won the Hunger Games. I don't care that you mentored the Mockingjay and her boy with the bow. I don't care that you're a hero. I'm not about to let your precious Seam brat orphan walk all over me —"
"Oh," Haymitch cuts in loudly, "shut up, you bitter bitch."
Nobody so much as breathes for a moment.
"I think it's time you took the girl and left," his mother finally says, an almost tremor in her voice as she stares at the wall. "And after this," she pauses, lip curling, "I don't want to see her anywhere near my son. Ever." She sniffs. Peeta chokes at her words, panicked, looking to his father for help.
But Haymitch only snorts, the sound somehow cruel. "My precious Seam brat orphan will play with whomever the hell she wants, and you won't do a damned thing about it, Myriam. And if I ever catch you touch her, or, hell, if I ever find out you touched him —" and he thrusts his finger at Peeta "— you will regret it." He feigns a sudden movement, and it makes her jump a little.
Peeta almost can't believe it. His mother is afraid of Haymitch; he hadn't ever seen her afraid.
Haymitch looks at Peeta's father. "You should be ashamed, Barm. Letting her hit your kids."
And finally he holds out his hand to Katniss, who stumbles to him. Peeta can barely understand everything that just happened. He spots Prim out in the front, bundled up in her coat, and Katniss catches his eye as she glances backward, but the kitchen door swings shut behind her with a thud.
He slowly turns to look at his mother. The silence seems to stretch on endlessly, before abruptly his mother clears her throat. "Rye, help your brother clean up this mess." And she stalks upstairs.
At school the next day, everybody talks about what happened, how people could hear the shouts from the street, how the bakery was closed all afternoon afterward, how Haymitch threatened to strangle all the Mellarks in their sleep, and across the classroom Peeta sees Katniss roll her eyes.
It makes him smile, and it makes him still more desperate to talk to her.
He has to work that afternoon, but he is so distracted that Bannock takes pity on him and shoos him out a little past four. Peeta almost sprints across town. Haymitch is on the porch when he arrives, Prim on his lap, chattering about nothing and everything, and Haymitch only nods at Peeta.
He finds Katniss shelling peas in the kitchen. He knows that old Greasy Sae makes sure Haymitch, Katniss, and Prim stay fed, but the more time passes, the more in the kitchen Katniss does herself.
She sits on the floor, the bowl in her lap, and he sits beside her.
"Are you okay?" he asks. A red stain is on her face, a small mark from his mother. It makes him hurt to see, but Katniss nods, and her own eyes are on the actual bruise that colours his jaw. "I'm sorry, Katniss," he says. "I should've just let you buy a cake, 'stead of trying to make it special."
"No," she replies, "I'm glad I had the chance to stand up to your mother. I hate that she treats you like that, Peeta. I hate it. But she won't anymore — I made Haymitch promise he wouldn't let her."
Peeta isn't sure what to say. "You're the only person that's ever really cared," he finally admits.
She nudges his ankle with hers. He smiles, and he starts to help her shell.
"Peeta, do you know what the Hunger Games are?" she asks suddenly, breaking the quiet. He looks at her in surprise. He has heard about them, sure, but he doesn't actually know exactly what they are. "Your mother mentioned them, how Haymitch was in them, and so were my parents."
He frowns, but he remembers. Before Haymitch shouted at her to shut up, she mentioned them.
"I asked Haymitch about them last night," Katniss continues. "He said that, back before the war, back before we broke off to found the Free Republic, the Capitol in Panem used to make two kids from every district fight to the death, and they called it the Hunger Games. They picked the kids at random. Anybody who was older than twelve could be picked. Haymitch was. And my parents."
She stares at the peas, and he stares at her. He can't imagine that.
"But when my parents were picked," she says softly, "they refused to kill each other, and that's how the war started." She bites her lip. "I don't — I don't really remember much about the war."
"Me neither," he admits. "Just the bombs."
"I remember that we lived in a city underground. District 13. It used to be underground. And I remember that my father was always away, but he taught me to sing, and he told me to sing whenever I missed him, and he would be able to hear me, and he would know. And — and every once and a while, when I sang, his voice would suddenly join mine, and he would be home."
Her eyes are strangely bright, but her bottom lips starts to tremble. "That's all I really remember about him," she whispers. "The sound of his voice. How I loved him. I can't — I can't even really remember what he looks like anymore. What colour his eyes were. I can't — I've forgotten."
He reaches out to touch her hand, and she looks at him, stares for a moment, before she curls her fingers around his. "What happened to him?" Peeta asks quietly, unsure if he should.
"I don't know," she replies. "He just never came home. And it — it made my mother so sad. She wasn't ever the same. I don't know what happened to her. She was just lost. She still is. That's why me and Prim live with Haymitch. Because my mother can't take care of us." She looks at him sadly it makes his heart just hurt. "I know what it's like to have a mother who doesn't care about you."
"I care about you," he says, desperate.
And she smiles a little. "I know." She squeezes his hand. It's quiet for a breath. "She lives next door," she says. "My mother." His eyes widen, but she nods. "Whenever I say I have chores, I just mean that me and Prim are visiting her. Haymitch never makes us, but Prim always wants to."
His brother said a ghost lived next door. He thinks about all the stories he knows, about the crazy Mockingjay with a broken heart. A ghost. "I can come with you," he offers. "Next time, I mean."
She shakes her head. "That's okay." Her eyes are back on the peas, and he reaches forward to pick up two empty shells. He shoves them into his mouth to make fangs, and he waits for her to notice. She jumps when she does, and she starts to giggle as he makes a face, and he lunges suddenly, scattering the peas as he pretends to bite her. "Peeta!" she squeals, laughing as she shoves him.
It takes him another week to gather the courage to ask her.
"How come you don't ever sing anymore?"
She doesn't respond for a moment. "I do," she says. "Sometimes. For Prim."
"I've only ever heard you once," he says, "before we met. And it sounded — it made all the birds stop to listen." He blushes a little, but her hand is still in his, and they continue their trek to school.
"It reminds me of my father," she admits. He nods. He shouldn't have asked. "But maybe, if you want, sometime, I'll sing for you." She looks at him, her smile hesitant. And he beams back at her.
They start secondary school, and Peeta starts to work almost every afternoon.
It means less time with Katniss, so much less that on most days he almost only ever sees her when they eat lunch. He hates it, and so does she, or at least she does until two weeks after her twelfth birthday, when she decides she wants to learn to hunt. Haymitch digs out the bow that belonged to her father, and, with Peeta trapped at the bakery, Katniss heads out into the woods all by herself.
She doesn't know how to hunt, and her plans to teach herself don't much work. But she learns how to set snares, and she starts to catch squirrels and rabbits and even wild dogs. A boy teaches her.
Gale Hawthorn, fourteen years old, already six feet tall.
As Katniss tells it, she saw the snares that Gale had set, and she went to investigate them, only for him to swoop in and accuse her of trying to steal his catches. She finally managed to convince him that she wasn't, that she just wanted to see how they worked, and he reluctantly agreed to teach her.
Peeta thinks its cool that she found someone to help her.
Or, well, he does at first. But as the weather turns colder, fall fading into winter, trees turning bare and frost starting to coat the grass in the meadow, all Katniss wants to talk about is Gale, who has three younger siblings that he looks after like Katniss looks after Prim, who says she has a knack for snares, who is smart and strong, who calls her Catnip. Gale. Gale. Gale. Peeta hates Gale.
He hasn't actually met Gale, but that isn't important.
On the first Monday in December, the snow already three feet deep outside and still piling up, Peeta finally can't take it. This is his first afternoon off in two weeks, and they're at her house, the radio on, a sketchbook between them, and she starts to talk about Gale, and Peeta just can't —
"I don't want to talk about Gale," he snaps.
She blinks at him. "Why not?" She looks confused, and she hates to be confused.
"Because," he says, and he stops, a habit she passed to him.
Because," Katniss echoes, waiting. He doesn't respond. "What's your problem with Gale?" she asks. "Every time I talk about him you turn as sour as a lemon, and you act all injured, and —"
And he just does it. He lurches forward, and he kisses her. Right on her mouth. Just like that.
He stumbles back a moment later, shocked. He stares at her, and she stares at him, her eyes wide, her cheeks bright pink, her face framed by the yellow afternoon sunlight that streams past the frosted living room windows. He doesn't know why he just did that. And what does he do now?
He turns on his heel and runs.
He can't fall asleep that night.
He hears her call his name, and she doesn't do it often, but sometimes, when she really wants to talk to him, when she is too impatient to wait, she'll run to his house as soon as the sun starts to rise, and she will call up to his window, nevermind his brothers or his parents or —
He stumbles over to the window. Katniss is down on the street, staring up at him. "Come down."
He nods, closing the window quietly. He pulls boots on over his bare feet, and he doesn't bother to tie the laces at all. He tries his best to stay quiet on his way down the stairs and out through the back kitchen door. Katniss looks nervous when he starts towards her. "You kissed me," she says.
"Yeah. I did." He scratches the back of his neck.
"I — I didn't know who to —to talk to about it —" She stops, and she forces herself to look at him rather than at the side of the bakery. "Why did you? Kiss me?" The rising sun behind her makes her skin glow, and he wishes he had thought out an answer as he lay unable to sleep in bed.
"I just wanted to," he says, rubbing his sweaty palms on his sleep pants. "I'm sorry."
She seems to think about it. "What does it mean?"
"That you kissed me. What does it mean?"
"It means —" He stops, trying to come up with the right words. "It means that you're my best friend," he says, "and it means that I love you, and it means that I don't ever want to lose you."
(And it means that she is his. His best friend. His girl. Only his. Always his.)
Katniss steps closer to him, and she puts her hands on his shoulders.
She is a few inches taller than him, but her eyes are somehow level with his. And she kisses him, right on the mouth. Just like that. She doesn't pull back the way that he did, but she stays close, so close that her nose brushes his, that he can feel her breath against his mouth. "That means that you're my best friend," she says. "And that I love you, and that I don't ever want to lose you."
Her hands drop, and she steps back. He can't remember how to talk.
"I'll see you at school," she says, and she walks off, her feet bare even in winter, her smile wide.
She waits until winter passes, until the air starts to warm and the snow starts to melt, before she invites him out into the woods with her. It isn't like he hasn't been before, but this feels different somehow. The hunting jacket she wears dwarfs her small frame, but she walks proudly, like she owns this forest, and she knows exactly what do with the snares that she proudly shows Peeta.
"So could you catch a person with a snare?" he asks.
"I don't see why you'd want to catch a person," she replies.
Katniss isn't comfortable with affectionate displays.
She averts her eyes when kids make out in the school yard at lunch. She barely manages to tolerate the friendly hugs that Delly likes to hand out to everyone. She never seems to mind when Peeta holds her hand, though, or when he nudges her knee with his. She even slips her arms into his coat to wrap around his back, snuggling against him, stealing his warmth, when it's especially cold out.
He thinks she is just used to him; they've been friends for long enough.
The kisses don't happen often. They don't happen at all, in fact, not after the first time, until Flora Margrey talks to Peeta in the hall. She just wants to work on a project for history with him, but Katniss doesn't know that. And Flora touches his arm when he makes a joke, her laughter ringing down the hall. Katniss appears beside him suddenly, leans up on her tiptoes, and kisses him.
Right there in the hall, with two dozen people around.
(He is hers. Her best friend. Her boy. Only hers. Always hers.)
The air is bright and cool from rain the evening before, the sky a blinding blue, when Peeta learns that as he slept safely in bed last night, Haymitch killed the man that tried to take Katniss from hers.
He can't run to her house fast enough.
And the body is right in the front yard, a tall man with dark brown hair, his eyes glazed in a bloody face, his head bashed in. Haymitch sits on the porch, liquor bottle in hand, grim expression fixed on his face. Peeta thinks he might be sick. The talk around town was true. He just can't believe it.
Another bottle of liquor sits beside Haymitch on the porch, the neck cracked and bloodied.
Peeta skirts around the body, avoids a nod from Haymitch, and takes the stairs to her room two at a time. He pretends not to see the blood that sprinkles the steps and the hall. Katniss isn't in her room, where the lamp is shattered on the ground, the bed sheets twisted and torn, and her dresser on its side, breaking a hole into the wall and explaining the poorly painted plaster scattered all over the floor.
He finds Katniss down the hall in the little pink room that belongs to Prim.
She doesn't want to talk about it. So he lies beside her on the bed, Prim curled against Katniss, and they listen to the crackling radio as he holds her hand and she watches the window curtains flutter.
He eventually fetches food from downstairs, and they all eat on the bed, still silent.
It's almost completely dark out when Peeta hears a hovercraft. A few minutes later, Haymitch appears in the doorway. "Katniss. Coin is here." She nods, standing, but Prim clings to her hand, and Katniss looks at Peeta, already on his feet to talk to Coin with her. He knows what she wants before she asks him. He agrees to stay upstairs with Prim. She manages a small smile in thanks.
Another two hours, and Prim falls asleep against him.
The hovercraft leaves.
And Katniss comes upstairs, and she explains at a whisper. "I woke up," she says, "and he had a cloth over my mouth. It smelled terrible, and I just managed to shove him backwards. Haymitch says it was doused with a drug that would've knocked me unconscious. I screamed for help, and Haymitch pulled him off me, and he —" She swallows thickly. "He didn't mean to kill him, Peeta."
Peeta nods, and he takes her hand.
"But President Coin thinks the man was from Panem, and that he probably meant to kill me."
Her hand isn't enough. He tugs her to him, and she collapses against his chest. They all sleep in that little bed together that night, his pillow an arm to Katniss as Prim drools against his stomach. The next morning, Peeta is the first to wake, and he finds Haymitch in a chair by the door, awake.
Haymitch nods at him. Peeta nods back.
He overhears Bannock whisper it to his wife. "Some people say the war isn't over yet." The words are dark, clouded, so much left unsaid. And even after he hears his brother start the oven and his sister-in-law walk out to the front, Peeta stays on the shadowed stairs, his stomach heavy and hard.
Afraid, because he isn't fearless like she is. Afraid, because he can't lose her.
But life doesn't change much. Nobody knows who the man was, or how he arrived in District 12, and nobody tries to find out, not even Katniss. The whole town wants to forget, and Katniss does, too, so they never talk about it. The months pass, and the fear recedes into the back of his mind.
His father claims Peeta pops up like a weed that summer.
He still isn't too tall, but he is taller than Katniss for the first time, and people start to pay attention, like he matters finally. Adults treat him like an adult, will do business with him at the bakery, even, and he starts to wrestle at school, bulks up so that he can carry as much flour as his brothers now.
(He can easily toss Katniss over his shoulder, too, which makes her furious. She pounds his back with ineffectual fists and demands he put her down that instant. It makes him tear up in laughter.)
He doesn't really realise that Katniss has started to change, too, until suddenly he just does, and —
She is slimmer, taller, wiry in a way she wasn't as a kid, but that isn't all; her scrawny legs suddenly aren't so scrawny, and breasts she never had suddenly swell beneath her cotton shirts, and it isn't news that Katniss is a girl, but suddenly soft affectionate kisses exchanged on random whims aren't enough. He wants so much more, wants to lick his way into her mouth, to taste her, wants to press close to her, to cup her breasts, to weave his fingers into her long, dark braid.
They're fourteen, and Peeta finally understands for real, for the first time, why his older brother wanted to kiss a girl, to have her sit in his lap, to marry her. And Peeta has already picked his girl.
The night they set off the annual fireworks, Peeta walks Katniss and Prim home afterward, and he hesitates on the porch when Haymitch comes out to carry a sleeping Prim upstairs. Katniss looks at him, and she tilts her head. "What?" she asks. "You're always looking at me funny. What?"
He steps closer to her, and her brow creases as she repeats his name. He takes another step, and she steps backwards. He steps forward. She steps backward. Forward. Backward. And her back touches the wall. She stares at him. He steps forward. Her eyes dart to his mouth, and that's it.
He kisses her.
He doesn't really know what to do, how to kiss her, but he holds her waist, and her chin tips up towards him, makes it easier. He skims his tongue against her lip, and it makes her gasp a little, makes her lips part, and the kiss is too wet and too hot and her fingers curl into his shoulders.
He kisses her until he can't breathe, and he draws back. She looks kissed, is breathless, her eyes bright. He wipes the spit from her lips with his thumb, and he kisses her flushed cheek, and her small nose, and her dark eyebrow, and her redder, plumper, kissed lips. He thinks his heart might burst.
"Isn't it your bedtime, sweetheart?" Haymitch asks Katniss. Haymitch.
Abject horror flushes through Peeta, because Haymitch stands in the doorway, a bottle in his hand.
Peeta starts to pull away from Katniss, but she easily catches his collar, and she pulls him close for another quick, soft, affectionate kiss. She smiles at him, steals still another kiss, and saunters past Haymitch into the house. Haymitch drinks the last of his bottle. He stares at Peeta. He stares more.
Peeta stumbles off the porch, fleeing the scene.
They're sixteen the first time Peeta meets her mother.
Prim turns twelve, and she wants her mother to attend her birthday dinner. She asks when Peeta is at the house, and Katniss can see the way her face pinches at the request. But Katniss can't deny Prim anything. Haymitch buys a chocolate cake that Peeta bakes, and Madge lends Katniss crinkly silver paper to wrap all the presents, a bell for her goat, two dresses, and a book on medicine.
It is just like the last several years, until Peeta actually arrives at the house, and there she is.
The Mockingjay. Acacia Everdeen. The happy little girl who started a war. The mother who abandoned Katniss. She is younger than Peeta thought, with soft blonde hair and soft blue eyes, just like Prim, but in the shape of her face, in the slope of her shoulders, Peeta finds Katniss.
But she is so unlike Prim and Katniss in every other way; she is lifeless, empty eyes, deaf ears.
She doesn't talk, not much, not beyond a few quiet words to Haymitch, but she manages to hug Prim, and she smiles when Prim blows out the candles on her cake. Prim introduces Peeta to her.
She stares at him for a long, endless moment. She frowns. "Barm."
"His son, actually," Haymitch says. Mrs. Everdeen nods, and she stares out the window, lost.
Afterward, the party finished, Prim put to bed, Katniss wants to escape her house, and Peeta walks to the meadow with her. It is warm out, and he stretches out on the ground, letting Katniss stretch out with her head on his stomach. They stare up at the moon, hanging low and bright in the sky.
"I just don't understand how she can be so broken," Katniss murmurs.
He doesn't know what to say. He strokes her hair.
"I don't ever want to become like that." And she shifts suddenly, sitting up to look at him, and he can't place what sits in her gaze. "I can't become like that, Peeta." It seems somehow like a demand.
It takes him a moment, but he understands. Sick with a broken heart.
He sits up to kiss her, and she melts against him, her arms winding around his back as he lays her back on the ground, her hair loose from her braid and seeping into the grass like black ink. "You won't," he breathes, kissing his way into her mouth. "Not ever, Katniss." He can't kiss her enough.
Her hands tug his shirt from his pants, and they slip under, skimming along his back. His own hand finds her breast, and she arches against him. He trails his lips down her throat, across her collar bone, and he finds her pulse, feels it race, whispers the promise into her soft, flushed skin.
Haymitch is eager to meet the train with next liquor shipment, and Prim wants to tag along. Peeta waves them off from the porch, because Prim always loves to be waved off. As soon as they disappear from sight, he walks back inside the house and finds Katniss on the living room floor, putting on her hunting boots. She starts to pull her right boot on, and he tugs her left boot back off.
"Peeta, what — oomph."
He smiles against her mouth, and she makes to knee him in the stomach, but he runs his hands up her thighs, clutches her backside, and shifts her so that she is flat on her back. He nuzzles her nose.
"Skip the snares. Make out with me instead."
She starts to protest. He kisses her quiet. She loves to do that to him, so turnabout is fair play. She tastes like the cheese buns she loves so much, and her skin is already flushed from the hot, humid August afternoon. He slips a hand under her shirt to touch her smooth back, to pull her still closer.
Her legs wraps around his waist. He smiles, successful, and she bites his lip, as if annoyed that she can't ever resist him. He laughs a little, and his greedy fingers quickly free her hair from her braid.
He lets his left hand twist into her hair, and his right slides down, brushes over her ear, her cheek, and continues down to skim against her throat and her collarbone before slipping easily beneath her shirt and beneath her bra. She whimpers a little when he takes one small, warm breast in his hand.
He kisses her throat as he tugs on her shirt, pulling it down. "Peeta, you'll tear it," Katniss warns, and she pulls her own hands out from under his shirt to stop his hands. He sighs against her neck.
"Katniss," he whines, "I've never even properly seen them." He turns his head up to look at her.
Her hands cup his face, fingers tucking his curls behind his ears. Her expression is surprisingly tender, making his heart warm in his chest. "It'll always be you and me, won't it?" she whispers.
"Yeah," he says, smiling. "Of course."
She presses her hand to his chest, and he lets her push him onto his back. He doesn't understand what it is she wants to do until she pulls her shirt over her head, and she deftly undoes her bra.
He stares, unable to breathe for a moment. He looks up at her face, her cheeks stained pink, and he catches her gaze, smiles, moves up to kiss her. "Can I — can I touch them?" he asks, because he has before, but this somehow feels different. She laughs loudly, though, and he takes that as a yes.
He presses a kiss one pointed, dark pink nipple. Her laughter quickly dies in her throat. He licks her breast, sucks the tip into his mouth, and her fingers curl into his hair, a whimper torn from her. He can't believe this, can't imagine that this is real, but it is, she is, and he moves to kiss her mouth, letting her tug off his own shirt in a tangle of limbs so that his bare skin can brush hers, and he groans at the contact, palming her breasts, trying not thrust against her, focusing on her kisses.
But she find his belt buckle, and suddenly her hands dip beneath his trousers, ghosting over his bare backside, pulling him closer. He breathes her name, his head hazy, unsure what to do, so he kisses her still more, kisses and kisses and kisses her, until her hands lightly shove him back.
And she unbuttons her own pants. She starts to wiggle out of them, but they catch on her one boot, still somehow on her foot, and he scrambles to take it off. She giggles, breathless, and she wiggles out of her underwear, too, before her hand reaches out for him, invites him to move back over her.
He looks at her hand, and his eyes travel to her face. "Katniss."
"It means you're my best friend," she whispers. "And it means that I love you, Peeta Mellark, and it means that I don't ever want to lose you." Her face is fearless, and he understands her earlier tenderness now, too, and his heart might just beat right out of his chest into her waiting, open hand.
"It means that you're mine," he says. "And that I'm yours." Their unspoken agreement, spoken.
She smiles. Nods. He shucks off his pants, his boxers, too, and she stares for a moment. He lets her; they stare together, her eyes all over him, his eyes taking in her breasts, their flat tops, rounded under soft nipples, her taut stomach, the swirl of freckles that curve around her belly button, down to her thighs, where pink scars from a disobedient snare fade into her skin, all of her, Katniss.
He takes her hand, and he moves between her legs. His breath catches, and he tries to kiss her.
It isn't much of a kiss, but she doesn't seem to mind.
She mumbles into his mouth that they don't have to worry, that Haymitch makes her take pills.
Her hands are everywhere, in his hair, sliding along his back, grasping his arms, and her legs bend, pulling him closer, but he is suddenly nervous, and her hands reach down to help him, to guide him in. "Just — now —" she breathes, and she looks straight at him, her eyes dark. He nods, and he thrusts his hips forward in one quick, jerky movement, tears right through her. Just like that.
A split second realisation hits him, and he squeezes his eyes shut, fights it off, but Katniss shifts slightly under him, hissing in discomfort. He pants against her shoulder, tries to hold it together. He slides out as slowly as he can. "Are you okay?" he breathes. She squeezes his shoulder painfully tight, dull nails pressing against his skin, and she breathes out that she is. Just go slow.
But as he thrusts back in, he just can't. He explodes inside her. He is a dead weight on top of her, absolutely mortified. He pulls out, flops onto his back, and he almost wants to cry. He can't look at her. "That can't be it," she murmurs, voice still a little breathless, and he closes his eyes, moans.
"I'm so sorry, Katniss, I just — you're — I couldn't —" He wants to sink into the carpet.
And she starts to laugh. He covers his face with his hands.
"It's fine," she says, patting his arm. "I'll just have to make sure the next guy —"
"The next guy?" he cries, pulling his hands from his face and rolling to look at her in horror.
She only laughs more, the sound bubbly and light and happy, and she pulls on his arm to bring his face to hers so she can kiss him. "I'm just poking fun, Peeta." She pinches his side, affectionate.
"That's not fun."
"I enjoyed myself."
He kisses her, trying to rebuild his determination. "Just let me try again," he says, and he starts to climb back onto her. She laughs, breasts jumping against his chest, and he stubbornly kisses her.
A new idea surfaces, and he ignores her breathless attempts to stem her laughter. He kisses his way from her mouth to her throat, and he trails his lips to her heart, still beating a little fast. He rolls her nipples between his fingers as he kisses his way down between her breasts. Her breath catches, laughter finally fading, and he swirls his tongue in her belly button. She finally realises his intent.
Her legs close a little around his head, but he gently pries them back open. "Let me. Please."
He tries to recall all the overheard conversations he can. He presses his tongue flat against her, and her hands suddenly scratch his shoulders. He can taste blood, and he knows he did that. He pushes aside guilt, because he is about to make up for it. He doesn't know what to do, but he uses the sounds she make as a map, and he uses his hand a little, too, and he finally feels her flutter against his tongue, and he holds her hips down, and she whimpers his name when she comes. There.
He sits up, and he beams at her, sprawled boneless, hair a halo around her head, her whole body flushed, breasts rising and falling with uneven breaths, eyes sleepy, mouth just slightly parted.
"Describe that to the next guy," he says, preening.
She smiles lazily. "What next guy?"
They dress, spurred by the threat that Haymitch and Prim might walk through the door any minute, and they curl up on the couch, eating fresh peaches that Katniss fetches from the kitchen. He sits her in his lap as he tries to braid her hair, and, for the first time in eleven years, he hears her sing.
A few minutes later, quiet, peaches eaten, hair braided, he wonders if Haymitch will just know.
"Maybe I should clear out," he says, drawing random patterns on her palm.
"No," she murmurs. "Stay with me."
Her eyes are closed, and she is already almost asleep, his arm for a pillow. He watches the way her dark eyelashes flutter, the way she absently smacks her lips, sighing a little. He leans down to kiss her temple, and she shifts in his arms, presses her nose into his chest. "Always," he whispers.
Katniss stops by the bakery four days later, just to keep him company. They don't do it often, have her come over when he is at work, mostly because he only dares to push his mother so far, but he loves when Katniss is around, even if she isn't nearly as much help as she likes to imagine herself.
As she rants against the satanic cat that her sister adores, he decides to flick a little sugar at her.
Just for fun.
The same moment he pulls his finger back, an explosion rocks the entire bakery. He can hear the whole front window shatter, and screams rip the air; pots and pans fall crashing to the kitchen floor. It is all distantly familiar, and he slowly pulls the memory from the dark depths of his mind.
He looks at Katniss. Her eyes mirror his, dark with stark, terrible recognition.
Another bomb drops.
The nearest shelter is beneath the sweetshop two blocks down. They have no choice but to make a run for it, hands clasped. The acidic smell in the air sends him back in time, and he can barely see through the powdered clouds that hang in the air. The bombs aren't close enough to kill them yet.
They've nearly reached the shelter, people fighting to pour into it, when Katniss stumbles.
He tries to help her to her feet, but she pulls back. "Prim!" she cries.
"Haymitch will protect her," Peeta says. "Katniss, we can't —"
"She isn't with Haymitch! She is in the Seam with Rory Hawthorne! I have to —" She stumbles down the street, away from the shelter, towards the bombs. She doesn't know. She didn't live here when they were little, when the bombs last dropped. She doesn't understand how they move. She will kill herself. He races after her, broken bricks splayed in his path, the acid thicker and thicker, sinking into his skin, burning his eyes, coating his tongue with that awful, spoiled taste.
They have to make it to the shelter before the bombs come this way, and they have to make it to the shelter before the really bad bombs start to drop, the ones that decimate everything. But he can't catch up with her. She was always faster than him. And the next explosion knocks him off his feet.
His vision swims, his head pounds, and he struggles to his feet. The bombs have reached them.
The bakery is up in flames, destroyed alongside the entire block, and he can't see Katniss.
He screams her name, choking, and he takes a step forward only to collapse. His leg is hurt, he realises, pierced by something sharp and jagged, blood soaking his pant leg. He retches, the world spinning, and hands are suddenly on his shoulders, his face, and he tries to push her back, but —
"Peeta," she breathes, "come on, come on." She heaves him to his feet as new pain stabs him, but she supports his weight, letting him lean against her. And she starts to pull him towards the shelter.
"No, Madge, no, Katniss — she is trapped in the rubble, right up ahead —"
Madge looks terrified. "Where?"
"I don't know!" he screams, and he screams for Katniss, screams over the fire and the bombs and the distant wailing sirens, but nobody screams back, and everyone he loved survived all the bombs for years during the last war, so it can't happen like this, he can't have already lost her —
Madge shoves him suddenly, forcing him to scramble across ruins. He finds himself behind a blackened wall, and she collapses against him. Another bomb drops, deafening him. He blinks at Madge and black dots pepper his vision. He sees her mouth move, but he can't hear any sounds.
He blacks out.
A hand strokes his hair, and he shifts a little. He must've fallen asleep with Katniss. He hopes Haymitch hasn't seen them yet. His mouth tastes terrible; he must've forgotten to brush his teeth.
He stretches his arm out, tries to find Katniss.
He opens his eyes, blinking against the light. He doesn't know where he is. But Katniss isn't with him, and it is Prim who sits by his bed. He tries to sit up, and pain shoots up his leg, but Prim helps him, adjusting the pillow behind him. She looks tired, her hair in a messy braid, dark circles under her eyes, her lips chapped. "What's happened?" he asks, even as he suddenly remembers it all.
His heart seizes, and he looks at Prim in a panic. "Katniss —" The words die in his throat.
Because Prim shakes her head, tears in her eyes, and he understands. Except he can't.
"Have the bombs stopped?" he asks. "We need to send out a search party, see if we can —"
Prim only shakes her head more. "They stopped only an hour after they started, Peeta, and you've been out for almost two days. They already sent out a search party." Her bottom lip trembles.
"And — and they found Katniss —" He can't say it, can't say the word. Can't. Won't.
"No," Prim whispers, "they couldn't find a trace of her. Peeta, they think —" She falters. "I don't know what's happened. Nobody will tell me anything. But, Peeta, they think someone took her."
"T-took her?" he repeats.
"The Capitol," Haymitch says, and Peeta snaps his head to the door where Haymitch stands. He looks as drawn as Prim, but there are no tears in his grim face, and he stares at Peeta with hard, dark eyes. "Panem. They've wanted her since the day she was born. And they finally have her."
A soldier appears to fetch Haymitch, a tall, lanky man with colourless hair and an unfamiliar uniform. He tells Haymitch that he is wanted at Command, and Haymitch nods. But Peeta needs to know more, needs to know what he has to do to rescue Katniss, and he scrambles from the bed.
Prim tries to stop him, but he shoves her aside.
And Haymitch takes his arm, steadies him. "Come on."
It turns out they're in an underground network built during the last war, used to connect the shelters in District 12 to the underground government in District 13. Peeta doesn't remember it, but the soldier explains that it was only used by soldiers in the last war, although President Coin ordered all District 12 survivors to move underground yesterday afternoon before more bombs could drop.
Peeta thinks about his family. Are they okay?
Command is a large room with whitewashed walls. Peeta comes face to face with President Coin.
She frowns at him, but Haymitch only steers him to a chair. His leg has started to thud dully with pain, but Peeta continues to ignore it. He looks around the room. He doesn't recognise anyone in it; they're all soldiers from District 13. "This is Peeta Mellark," Haymitch introduces, taking a seat.
"This is security council meeting," Coin replies coldly. "Peeta Mellark doesn't have clearance —"
"Yes, he does," Haymitch cuts in. "He's my second-in-command."
Coin purses her lips. "You don't have a second-in-command."
"Yes. I do. Peeta Mellark. That's two Es in Peeta, and two Ls in Mellark."
They stare at each other, and Haymitch wins. Coin turns away from them to look at the large table where all her own soldiers wait with hard faces, and she starts to talk. Peeta tries to follow it all.
The District 13 spies have started to coordinate with the rebels in Panem, but communication with the entire network in District 3 has been cut off, and they haven't yet heard back from the dispatch team sent to assess the situation. The Avox spies in the Capitol network confirm that another Hunger Games is set to take place, and their latest report, received late last night, confirms that two missing children from District 11 are imprisoned in the Capitol to await forced participation.
The more Peeta listens, the more he realises that the war never really did end.
The bombs stopped, and a peace treaty was signed, but the leaders in Panem and the leaders in the Free Republic weren't content to let the country be torn in two, and a secret war continued. All the spy networks stayed active, the Free Republic reached out to active rebel organisations in Panem, even while they sought to crush any Capitol supporters in the Free Republic. The war carried on.
"If another Hunger Games will take place, we need to find out what kind," Coin says, and Peeta forces himself to focus. "The children kidnapped from District 11 are not connected to the war effort. Their parents were not in any way involved. This suggests that the Capitol in Panem hopes to renew the original Hunger Games, rather than the Retribution Games. We need to —"
"What are the Retribution Games?" Peeta asks.
Coin looks at him sharply. The room is silent.
"I know — I know what the Hunger Games are, but what are the Retribution Games?"
"As a second-in-command, shouldn't you know that?"
"Must've forgotten to tell him about that," Haymitch says mildly. "My bad. Sorry."
"The Retribution Games," Coin starts, face sour, "replaced the Hunger Games fifteen years ago at the start of the war. Almost all the Districts in Panem were in revolt, but the Capitol wanted to continue the Games to reinforce their authority. They decided, however, that rather than pick children at random as was the tradition in the Hunger Games, they would pick the children of rebels. This not only punished rebels but also offered incentive not to rebel. It worked well."
He can hear the hate in her voice, can almost taste it. "The arenas in which the children were forced to fight were transformed into battle grounds where trained soldiers hunted them," she finally continues, her mouth a thin line. "The Games only lasted for a few hours. They were a slaughter."
Peeta stares at her. "That's why they wanted Katniss," he says. "Her parents started the war when they defied the Hunger Games, so the Capitol wanted to put their kid in the Retribution Games."
"So now that they have her —" He stops, unable to breathe.
"She will surely be put into whatever Games they decide to host in three months, yes."
"No," Peeta says, shaking his head. "We can't let that happen. We have to rescue her. We have to! If we have three months, that's enough time, right? And the special spies you have in the Capitol, the, um, the Avoxes, they can probably find out where she's being held, right?"
He can see her in his head suddenly, Acacia Everdeen, her face too pale, skin almost waxy, her eyes so unbearably empty, lost in her own tortured mind. Katniss never wanted to become her.
But it isn't Katniss who might become her. It's him. Peeta. And he can't. He has to rescue Katniss.
"Soldier Mellark, is there a particular reason for your immense concern for Katniss Everdeen?"
Peeta isn't sure how he is supposed to answer that. "She's my —" What? His best friend? The woman he wants to marry? The woman whose children he wants to father? His whole life?
"His girl," Haymitch answers. "Katniss is his girl."
Coin looks livid. "And that's why you've brought him here?"
Haymitch sits up in his seat. "Yeah. That's exactly why." His eyes are black. "I thought Katniss deserved to have somebody else on your beloved security council who actually cares about her."
"This war is bigger than one little girl," Coin snaps back at him. "And if you had let me place Katniss in a secure location when she was a child, rather than insist that she was yours to look after, we might not be in this situation. At this rate, her younger sister will have to be the symbol."
"I would rather have shot myself in the foot, Alma," Haymitch spits, "than allow you and your soldiers to raise Katniss to be some fucking piece in your own fucking Games, and I stand by that."
"She was born to be a piece in the Games, Haymitch!" Coin says, eyes flashing. "Alder knocked Acacia up in an attempt to protect her from Snow. He used the baby just like everybody else, used her to keep Acacia out of the war." She pauses, the silence steely. "Just try to tell me I'm wrong."
"Fuck you," Haymitch snarls.
Coin closes her eyes, breathing out slowly. She looks back at Haymitch. "We have a chance to end this war for good, Haymitch. To unite Panem under a rightful government. I'm aware that you've suffered a great deal, and that you've become attached to Katniss —"
"No," Haymitch says, the word cold. "You don't know what I've suffered. You know anything about what people in Panem have suffered. The Hunger Games are nothing more than a lecture in a classroom to you and your soldiers. You don't know what it is to starve; you don't have any idea. You don't know what it's like to grow up in constant fear that your name will be pulled or to watch your friends, siblings, murdered and mutilated on television. You don't know a thing, Alma Coin."
"What is it you would have me do?" Coin asks. "The last war ended all that suffering for the people in the Free Republic. Katniss — her sister — Peeta Mellark — all the kids in District 12 don't know your suffering. Isn't that what you wanted? And don't you want to do that for the kids in all the other Districts? The kids still trapped under the Capitol's thumb? That's what I want."
Haymitch stares at her. "Just as long as your concern is all for the kids, Allie."
And finally Peeta recognises Haymitch again, his mild voice, his biting, careless remarks.
"It is." Her lips are a thin line. "And on that matter," she continues, "we need to discuss the younger child, Primrose. As you'll be involved in the war, including, I'm sure, the rescue mission for Katniss, you cannot be expected to look after her." She pauses. "I suggest she be placed —"
"Actually, I already have someone to look after her," Haymitch says.
Coin stiffens. "And who is that?"
"Barm Mellark. He bakes stuff. Could easily club a Panem solider to death with a loaf of bread."
"My father?" Peeta says, shocked.
Coin looks at him for a moment, but her eyes quickly snap back to Haymitch. "That's how I know the name Mellark," she says. "Isn't Barm Mellark Acacia's old boyfriend from before the Games?"
"Might've been. It's been a while. My mind's not what it used to be."
"Very well," Coin finally says. "I think we've wasted enough time." And she starts to talk about the fighting along the border that divides District 4 between Panem and the Free Republic. Peeta only listens so much, still reeling. He tries to sort through it all. Katniss will be thrown into some terrible Games in three months. She will be alive at least that long. They'll attempt a rescue mission.
And he will be on that rescue mission.
He is sent to District 13 to train as a soldier.
His father doesn't have much to say, but he promises to look after Prim, who clutches Peeta tightly, crying into his neck, and makes him promise to save Katniss, please, Peeta. He does. He will. He doesn't want to cry, but Prim wipes his tears, and she stands back with his father, holds his hand.
Peeta remembers what tiny Katniss looked like, Haymitch holding her hand.
Prim has been passed from person to person, from her parents to Haymitch to his father.
Katniss is the only constant in her life. And he will bring Katniss back to her.
He doesn't have a chance to say goodbye to Rye or to his mother. Bannock and his wife are both dead. Peeta doesn't let himself grieve yet. He needs to focus on someone he can still save. He doesn't have the chance to say goodbye to Delly either, or to anyone else in District 12, or even to District 12 itself. No one is allowed above ground. He wonders if those moments when the bombs fell, those moments when he chased after Katniss, will be his last moments in District 12.
Madge volunteers to be trained as a soldier, too, as does Gale Hawthorne.
Peeta doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry when he meets the other boy for the first time on the hovercraft to District 13. Gale shakes his hand, and he tells Peeta he plans to help rescue Katniss.
Peeta nods. The more people who will do anything to save her, the better.
Haymitch pulls Peeta aside as soon as the hovercraft lands. "Just between you and me," Haymitch says, voice a harsh whisper. "You're determined to save her, aren't you? To do anything it takes?"
"Anything," Peeta says.
"Even if it means your own life?"
Peeta hesitates. Because he could so easily say yes, but he made a promise to Katniss, swore to her that he would never leave her, that she would never lose him. He promised her that he wouldn't let her end up like her mother. But if he dies to save her, she won't be alone. She will still have Prim, and Haymitch, and Madge. She will still have Gale, too. And she is stronger than her mother.
"Even if it means my life," Peeta says. Haymitch nods.
The training is regimented, schedules tattooed onto their arms every morning, and Peeta hates it. He knows Katniss wouldn't stand for it, that she would be driven crazy trapped underground, forced to do whatever someone else told her, but the thought of Katniss is what drives Peeta to bear it all.
A few officers worry about his leg, but it heals, becomes nothing more than a puckered pink scar.
After a month, he can run faster, lift more, box better. He learns how to throw a spear, learns how to dodge a knife, learns how to shoot, to aim, and to hit a target. He studies the Capitol layout, the maps much more advanced than that old map Katniss once showed him, and he learns the entire history of the Capitol, of Panem, of the Hunger Games. All soldiers are expected to be informed.
After two months, his impatience keeps him awake at night. He pushes himself harder, exhausts himself into sleep. Madge and Gale are his only two friends, but he does his best to talk with the soldiers from District 13, with the officers, even with everyone on the security council. He needs the people who will help him rescue Katniss to trust him, and he needs to be able to trust them.
But doubt starts to crawl into his mind.
The days tick by, and nobody talks about a rescue mission. They don't have forever. They have three months, or they had three months. Time is running out. He shouts at President Coin, completely loses his temper, and all it does is cost him inclusion in security council meetings.
He finally appeals to Haymitch.
They haven't really spoken since they first arrived in District 13, but Peeta easily finds out where Haymitch lives, and he seeks the man out. "The Hunger Games, or the Retribution Games, or whatever the Capitol plans to do," he says, "it'll be soon. Less than a week. We can't let them put Katniss in." He stares imploringly at Haymitch. "I thought there was gonna be a rescue mission."
"They've scheduled the Games for next Tuesday," Haymitch says. "Six days."
"That means we have six days to save her!" Peeta cries. "The mission has to be — to be tomorrow. Tonight! Haymitch, we can't just — I can't believe you're just —" Six days. Only six days. "I can't believe they don't have any idea where she's being kept. They have to have some idea. Enough for a rescue mission at least. I know it. And — and if they don't want to risk it, I'll go myself!"
"Peeta, Coin is a politician," Haymitch says. "That complicates every move she makes, and she wants to wait until the last minute. It looks good. But I'm not about to let Katniss die. Trust me."
If there's one person Peeta trusts, it's Haymitch.
And two days later, as he lies awake in bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to remember the taste of dandelions shoved in his mouth, his communicuff starts to beep, summoning him to Command.
The mission isn't that complicated.
She isn't held in a prison complex, as they had previously suspected. Instead, President Snow keeps her in his own mansion, in the cellars. The Avoxes who deliver her food have provided a map for the small rebel band, along with the seven keycards necessary to access the doors that lead to her. As long as they can quietly, quickly take out any guards they encounter, it should work.
Peeta can't sit still as the hovercraft takes off, and he looks around.
The team is small, only eight people, but less people will probably attract less attention. He is surprised that Gale isn't among them, and neither is Madge, but no one who is involved in the mission can explain why, and it doesn't really matter. He tries to play cards with two soldiers, but he can't focus, and on the third round they simply don't deal him in. He is about to see Katniss.
Just a little while longer, and she will be safe.
The hovercraft lands outside the Capitol, and they travel through sewers to the mansion. The Capitol is so well fortified that nothing dangerous stands in their way now they've managed to sneak past the outside security with a hovercraft provided by rebel insiders.
It all works out so perfectly, and Peeta finally understands why it took so long to plan.
They had to wait for the perfect opportunity, the perfect moment.
They emerge in the cellars, but they aren't the right cellars. Katniss is held on the opposite wing, but this is where the camera room is. Three soldiers, all from District 3, stay to break into the camera room. They won't be able to buy much time, but it'll be enough. The first keycard lets the others, Peeta included, take an elevator to the ground floor. A guard waits but is easily sedated.
They continue down the hall.
This entire floor is meant for servants, and it is cool and white, closed door after closed door lining the walls, the lights above buzzing quietly as they shine a dull yellow on the tiled floor. They haven't encountered another guard; their only hindrances are the sliding doors that block the halls into sections, but the keycards are meant to open them. The next keycard works. So does the third.
Peeta doesn't know how it all falls apart.
But sirens sound suddenly, lights flashing along the ceiling, and the soldiers start to sprint down the hall. Peeta wants to sprint in the opposite direction, wants to sprint towards Katniss, but guards suddenly pour out from the behind the door they had been about to take, and they don't have a choice. The door that will take them back down the hall, back to the cellars, starts to close. A trap.
But the first few soldiers make it through, and Peeta is almost through too when he trips.
He hits the ground face first. He just manages to see who tripped him. A soldier from District 13.
"Don't tell them you love her," the man says, teeth gritted. "Not yet."
Peeta thinks he might've imagined it. The door slides shut. All the other soldiers managed to escape. An instant later, a dozen Capitol guards reach Peeta. He tries to struggle to his feet, to fight them off, but a needle jabs his neck before he can do more than swat at them.
He wakes up, and he can't move. His arms, his legs, his neck, they're all frozen. Paralysed.
He blinks, but a clear vision only lets him see a white ceiling. He tries to wiggle a single toe. It doesn't work. He can't. The sterile voice repeats the demand, wants his name. He doesn't know if he can talk, but he doesn't want to try. He won't cooperate, not until he knows what it might mean for Katniss. How long was he unconscious? Has she already been thrust into the Games?
His panicked thoughts are cut short when pain suddenly wracks his whole body, white, hot pain that runs through his blood, sears his skin, burns his bones, makes his eyes roll back in his head.
It stops. "Your name."
He bites his lip. He won't. Not until he knows about Katniss.
The pain twists his insides out. He faints.
He wakes up, and he can move. But his arms and legs are in restraints, and he can't do more than struggle against them. He lifts his head as best he can to look around. He is in a bed in some sterile room, a hospital room, if he had to guess, machines beeping softly against the walls.
He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and pulls against the restraints with all his might.
"It won't work," someone says. "You'll just hurt yourself. Look. I have bruises to prove it."
He turns his head towards the voice. A girl is in a bed to the left. It is hard to look at her, to turn his head that far, but he catches sight of long, dark hair, a pale face, a sad, sympathetic expression. She is restrained, too. "Where are we? What is this about?" He needs her to know something, anything.
"We're in the Capitol," she explains quietly. "We were kidnapped for the Hunger Games. Or, well, I was kidnapped, because my parents are both rebels. I don't know about you. They didn't know who you were for a while. I heard them torture you to find out." She stops, and he starts to ask more, but she continues, her voice softer. "I never heard you tell them what they wanted. But a spy from the Free Republic, he was able to find that you were a soldier from District 12.
"And they needed a male tribute from District 12."
"For the Games," he says. The Games need two kids from every district to fight. Tributes. That must be the word. He is the male tribute from District 12. And the female tribute must be Katniss.
He swallows thickly. At least they will be in it together. He can help her fight.
"Yes. I don't know what exactly will happen, but they're not regular Hunger Games. They're Retribution Games, even though we're not all related to rebels. It means that —" She doesn't finish.
"It means that they'll be a slaughter," Peeta breathes, saying what she can't.
"They're tomorrow, Peeta," she whispers. She pauses. "I heard them say your name. I'm Annie."
He tries to look at her.
"I don't want to fight," she says, and she suddenly sounds so frightened. "I don't even know how, and even if I did — I don't want kill Capitol soldiers, let alone other kids. I don't want to kill you."
"You won't have to," he replies. "They can't make us fight, not if we all refuse. If all the kids from all the districts ban together, we can resist. We can all make it out."
"No," Annie says, "no, it won't be like that. They're Retribution Games, Peeta. That means they'll have soldiers in the arena. If we don't fight each other, it won't matter. They'll still pick us off until only one person is left. That's how it works. Maybe they won't interview us, or dress us up, or make us put on a show for sponsors, but it's still really the same Games it was for fifty years."
"I don't know that much about the Hunger Games," he admits, throat dry.
"Only one kid comes out alive," Annie says. "No matter what."
And all Peeta can think is that Annie doesn't deserve to die, but it is Katniss who will be the one to come out alive.
A guard unstraps Peeta a few hours later, forces him to his feet. He is handcuffed and marched from the room. He looks back at Annie, sees her properly at last, and she looks absolutely terrified.
He tires to ask the guard what is about to happen, where he is being taken, but the man stoically ignores him. They take an elevator that shoots through the air, and a loud rumble greets them when they step off onto a large, shadowed platform. He can hear voices, a crowd, and the wall in front of him flutters a little. It's a curtain. They're on a stage. The voices belong to an audience. The guard forces him forward to stand on a small metal desk. Peeta feels his legs lock, freezing him in place.
The guard disappears. The curtains swing open. The flashing lights blind him.
But as the vast crowd shouts, as a commentator talks, saying his name, Peeta sees himself, projected on a giant screen. He ignores all the noise, stares at the picture. His shorn head doesn't make him look like a tough soldier. It makes him look like an even littler kid. His eyes look too huge and too bright in his pale face. He reads the bolded words that flash under the projection.
He is Peeta Mellark, the projection says, from District 12. A baker's son. Sixteen. His participation in the Hunger Games is retribution for the innumerable war crimes committed by his entire district.
The curtains close. He is taken back to the bed, strapped in. He watches them take Annie out.
She is brought back barely fifteen minutes later, tears streaking her face, small, suppressed sobs choking her as they strap her back to her bed, and he can't find any words at all to comfort her.
The next time guards come, they take Peeta and Annie both.
They're quickly separated, but he knows he will see her soon, in a matter of minutes, just as soon as the Games start. He is exhausted, sore, anxious, and it all flies by. He is put on another metal plate, a glass cylinder descends around him, and he is thrust upwards, thrust right into the Games.
The colours are too bright.
The green trees too green, the yellow sun too yellow, the red earth too red.
It is a field, forests in the distance, a large golden cornucopia in the middle, and all the tributes circle the cornucopia, each on a metal plate. He starts to step forward, desperately tying to spot Katniss, only to see the girl on the plate beside his die instantly. She stepped off her plate.
He stays on his. There is a countdown, he realises. He tries to clear his head. He needs to pay attention. He needs to keep focused. The countdown finishes. He stumbles forward.
But he doesn't know what to do. A quick glance reveals that no one knows what to do; some kids run for the woods, others for the cornucopia, others stands frozen on their plates, terrified. He thinks he might be sick. He runs to the side, tries to circle the cornucopia, eyes straining to find her. He knows she is here somewhere, but she might not know that he is, too. He just needs to find her.
And suddenly a hand slips into his. His heart jumps — it's Annie.
"I don't know what to do," she says, her whole face contorted with terror.
He nods. "Come on. I need to find my — my friend, Katniss." She follows him without a word, and he starts to shout for Katniss, but he still can't find her. She must've already run for the woods.
"Peeta," Annie gasps. "Peeta!" she yanks on his arm, and he looks where she looks. Soldiers.
The kids are all frantic now, running, screaming, falling to the ground, shot, killed, dead. He drags Annie towards the woods. He continues to shout for Katniss, screaming himself hoarse, but they can't stay out on the field, easy targets. Katniss will escape to the woods, too. He knows she will.
He doesn't stop until he can no longer hear the screams from the fields. Annie collapses on the ground, panting, sobbing. "I can't do this," she says. "I can't." She buries her face in her hands.
He tries to catch his breath, leaning against a tree. "Annie." She doesn't respond. He kneels down, gently pries her hands from her face, manages to catch her eye. "You can do this. We can do it together."
She stares at him.
"Listen," he says, "I understand what you said about the Games. I understand how they work. But I'm not about to let the Capitol make me a piece in their Games, Annie. I'm not. They don't own me."
"So what do we do?" she whispers.
"We take it one step at a time," he says. "We escaped the soldiers. And now I think we need to find water. We have to keep up our strength." He waits for her to nod. "And, Annie, do you know who the male tribute from your district is? Are you, wait, are you the girl they took from District 11?"
She shakes her head. "I'm from District 4. I don't know who the male tribute is. I don't know."
"That's fine. That's okay. But I know who the female tribute from District 12 is. Her name is Katniss. And she is my best friend, Annie. I've known her since we were little kids. She is my best friend, and I —" He thinks about the soldier that betrayed him. Don't tell them you love her.
"I understand," she says, squeezing his hands. "I've known my best friend since we were little kids, too. His name is Finnick." Her eyes are bright. "I understand, Peeta. I'll help you find her."
The thirst starts to become unbearable.
But they can't find water. His throat feels, parched, sore from his screams, swollen, almost. He knows that they should rest soon. He can barely manage to stay upright as he walks, and Annie lags, her hand sweaty and loose in his. They need water, though. They can't survive without it.
And then he realises someone is behind them. Following. He tenses. It could just be another scared kid, another ally, but it could be a soldier. He squeezes Annie's hand painfully tight, hoping she can understand. He looks at her, and she frowns. He doesn't know what to do. Her frown deepens.
The fear starts to build in her eyes. She opens her mouth, and someone gasps. It isn't her.
He spins around, and his knees buckle.
She runs at him, jumps him, makes him stumble backwards, and he clutches her to him. He presses his face into her hair, her long, dark, familiar hair, and he squeezes her still tighter, whispering her name. She draws back a little, but he doesn't set her back on the ground, doesn't let her out of his grasp. She holds his face, fingers splayed against his ears. Her own face is too thin, but she is here.
She is alive. "Only you could make that much noise when you walk," she whispers, smiling.
He laughs a little, starts to cry. She kisses him, hot and wet and desperate. She's crying, too.
"Why are you bald?" she mumbles against his lips.
"I'm not bald," he mumbles back.
"You look bald to me."
"It's called a hair cut. Try it. Or, actually, don't. Never cut your hair. Ever."
She laughs tearfully, and he finally sets her down, but he keeps an arm wrapped around her waist. He introduces her to Annie, and he finally realises that Katniss isn't alone. She introduces a hulking boy and a tiny girl, Thresh and Rue. "They were kidnapped from District 11," she explains, before she asks suddenly if they've found water yet. "Come on. We just found it." She takes his hand.
He can't stop looking at her as they all walk through the woods. She is too thin, curves stolen by starvation, nothing more than skin stretched over bones, her hair unwashed, and her eyes sunken in her face. He can't begin to imagine what the last three months must've been like for her.
They have so much to talk about. What's happened to her. How they kidnapped her. What's happened to him. Why he is here. The way the soldier from District 13 betrayed him. All of it.
But the Games are on television, right? There are cameras watching them. It isn't safe, not yet. She asks him about Prim, though, and tears bead in her eyes again when he promises that Prim is alive, and so is Haymitch, and Madge, and Gale, and even her mother. She kisses him, and he squeezes her hand.
He sinks to his knees when they reach water, gulping it, splashing it on his face.
Annie does the same, and little Rue drinks some as well. Katniss kneels beside Peeta, petting his back affectionately. He finally can't drink anymore, and he sits back on his heels. Katniss uses her sleeve to wipe the water off his face. "What now?" Thresh asks, looking at Katniss.
"I'm not sure," Katniss says. "We can't head out into the field. The soldiers you saw will still be there. I think we need to find out more about the arena, and the other tributes, and these Games. They're not like normal Hunger Games, I don't think." She frowns, shoulders tight and tense.
"They're Retribution Games," Peeta says. He explains as succinctly as he can. "So if it were just us kids, just a bunch of scared, kidnapped kids who are supposed to die as retribution for their parents, or their districts, or whatever, we could band together. Refuse to kill each other. But —"
"But the soldiers will kill us," Thresh says. "They will not hesitate."
"And the arena itself won't be friendly," Rue adds.
Peeta looks at Katniss, who only stares at the water, her face pinched. "What is it?" he asks.
"We need to try to find the other kids, to see if they do want to band together. The more people we have, the better chance we stand. If they try to kill us, or if we come across any soldiers —"
"I don't know how to kill someone," Annie breaks in.
"No," Katniss says. "Me, neither. I'm not a killer." She pulls her eyes from the water. "I'm a hunter. Thresh, do you know what a snare is?" He nods, and she looks at Peeta. "I think I have an idea."
The male tribute from District 10 is still alive. Terrified at every sound because he saw the female tribute from his district shot down by soldiers, but still alive, and he joins their small alliance. The next afternoon, a slim girl with red hair approaches them. She has followed them, heard their talk. She thinks they're right. Band together. Refuse to play the Games. Use snares to capture, not kill.
Katniss offers her a piece of squirrel her snares caught the night before.
Peeta starts to think that it might work. They might be able to do this. The soldiers will eventually be forced to follow them into the woods, and they will be caught in the snares, and that will be it. The Capitol can't keep them all trapped in this arena forever. They can all make it out alive.
(He refuses to think about what will happen to them after they make it out alive. They have to take it one step at a time, that's what he told Annie. The first step is to make it out of the Games.)
Katniss tells him about what happened to her. It isn't a secret they really need to keep.
The bomb knocked her unconscious. She woke up on a hovercraft. They put her back under, and she woke up next in the Capitol. They questioned her about her life, tortured her about it, but they never took it too far, and they fed her once a day, and they told her that she would be a tribute.
"The worst was the not knowing," she whispers, curled against him as the others sleep. "I didn't know if Prim had survived, or if you — the bomb that went off was so close to us both, and I thought that — I thought that when I ran to look after Prim, when you chased me — I thought I might've killed you, Peeta." Her voice trembles, and her nails, cut in jagged lines, dig into his arm.
"You didn't," he whispers. "I'm still alive. And we're in this together." He cuddles her closer.
Rue shakes him awake, her brown eyes wide.
He doesn't have a chance to ask what the problem is. The whistling explains, and an explosion sounds in the distance. Bombs. Peeta looks at Katniss. "What do we do?" Rue asks, desperate.
"We can try to run from them," Annie says. "Stay a step ahead. The arena is big enough."
Peeta almost doesn't have the heart to tell her. He wonders if District 4 was ever bombed.
"No," Katniss says, taking the job from him, shaking her head. "If they want to bomb us, Ann, we can't run. It would be a waste. You can only run so far. You need a place to hide, but there isn't a place to hide here. It looks like they decided they would rather have no victors than more than one."
She looks at Peeta, and a soft smile tugs on her mouth. "Stay with me?"
He kisses her forehead. "Always."
The bombs come closer. Instinct kicks in, and they walk ahead, as if they could out walk bombs. The girl from District 6 even runs off. Peeta looks at the boy from District 10, but the kid just stares back at him, resigned. And Peeta knows that District 10 has been bombed before, too.
It's just the five of them now, heading towards the field, towards the inevitable, five kids from the Free Republic about to die in retribution for a civil war that started before they were even born.
The field is clear, but as soon as they start to cross it, the bombs start to fall.
The cameras, Peeta remembers. The Capitol just wanted to make sure their audience had a clear view when the bombs killed them, so they pushed them to the field. Peeta watches the cornucopia explode, the ground shaking beneath him, the air acidic. Rue hides her face against Thresh. Peeta can taste bad eggs, and, despite everything, that somehow makes him smile.
He looks at Katniss.
She kisses him, soft and sweet. "It means you're my best friend," she says.
He kisses her, soft and sweet. "It means I love you," he says.
She rests her forehead against his, their hands intertwined between them. And the next bomb is so close that Katniss falls against him. He clutches her tightly, his eyes squeezed shut, and his ears pop a little with all the noise, but he hears Rue scream, and he hears something else, too —
His eyes snap open. A hovercraft, a ladder descending. And, squinting, Peeta spots a face leaning out, beaming at them, and his head looks like it's on fire. "Finnick!" Annie screams, running towards the hovercraft.
Peeta and Katniss scramble after her.
Annie is the first up the ladder. Thresh pushes Rue up next and follows after her, and the boy from District 10 follows, Katniss right at his heels. Peeta isn't even half way up when it starts to lift, and he can see another hovercraft in the distance. The ladder starts to rise into the rising hovercraft.
Someone fires at him, bullets whizzing right by his ear.
He tumbles onto the floor of the hovercraft; the door slammed shut behind him.
Katniss kisses him wetly, and he looks around. Annie is happily wrapped up in the arms of the boy with red hair, Finnick. The kid from District 10 is crying and laughing as he leans against the wall. Someone gave Thresh a bottle of water. Rue is leaning against him, a small smile on her face. And Haymitch is there. Katniss breathes his name, and she stumbles to him.
He wraps her up in a hug, and Peeta sees him close his eyes, his face tight as he holds hers. "It's okay, sweetheart. You did it." She finally pulls back, laughing, and kisses him on the cheek.
Haymitch looks at Peeta.
"There was never going to be a rescue mission," Peeta says, understanding. "That entire mission to the Capitol, that was just to deliver me, because you knew they still needed a tribute."
"I asked you," Haymitch says.
"Asked what?" Katniss interrupts. "What are you talking about? What's happened?"
"And I said I would," Peeta replies. "Anything it took." He wants to be mad at Haymitch, to shout that the older man used him just the way he claimed Coin uses people, but he just can't. Katniss is alive. They rescued her. It all worked out. Haymitch didn't let her die, just like he said he wouldn't.
Katniss smacks Peeta in the chest. "What are you talking about?"
"Still full of fight, I see," Haymitch says. And he smiles. "Good."
Finnick explains most of it.
The entire county is involved in the war now, almost all the districts in Panem rebelling. "The border that divided District 4 has already fallen, and it's all under Free Republic control now. So is most of District 9, and even a piece of District 7. And the resistance in District 6 is so strong that they've pretty much pushed out any Capitol control. We're actually winning this time." He grins at Annie.
She beams back at him, shifting to press her nose playfully to his.
"It's because of you all," Finnick continues, "and these Games. The way that you all banded together, didn't even think about killing each other. Set up snares to catch the soldiers. And you all are what kids grow up to be when the Capitol isn't in control. It's kind of inspirational, or so I'm told."
"So where are we headed?" Rue asks.
"That depends," someone answers. A girl walks into the room, tall, her dark hair carelessly tossed up, gloss on her lips. "If you want, we can take you back to District 13, where your families probably are. Or we can take you to the refugee camp in District 4. Or you can come to District 7 with me."
"What's in District 7?" Peeta asks.
"A rebellion that could use a little help, if you think you can handle it."
"This is Johanna Mason," Finnick introduces. "Her parents were both rebels in the first war, and she won the Retribution Games three years back. She's been fighting to free District 7 ever since."
"If you want to fight in this war, Finn," Annie says, "I do, too."
"I will fight, too," Thresh says. "But first I want to take Rue home." Finnick nods.
Peeta looks at Katniss.
"You don't have to," Finnick says softly.
"Not everybody has enough guts, it's true," Johanna adds.
"Yes, thank you, Johanna," Finnick says. "You can wander off now. Ignore her. If you want us to take you to District 13, that's okay. No one would blame you. You've already fought enough."
Peeta looks at Haymitch, leaning back in his seat, but it's clear he isn't about to say a word.
"It means I don't ever want to lose you," Katniss murmurs. She holds her hand out. "Together?"
Peeta takes her hand, nods. "Together." He looks at Finnick. "We'll fight."
His mouth tastes like bad eggs the day the war ends.
He doesn't know, of course, that it is the day the war ends, and nobody will know for weeks. But it is a special day nevermind the war, and he won't ever forget it. He is still so upset that he wasn't in District 13 last night, that he missed it, but he was sent on a mission to District 2 last week, and no one thought it would happen so soon. He is exhausted, but he walks off the hovercraft the moment it lands in District 13, and no one tries to stop him; Boggs doesn't even try to send him to debrief.
He almost sprints to the hospital.
It looks just the same as it always does, bleak and blank and beige, too clean, no colours. He spots Prim first, bandages bundled in her arms as she scurries across the room, right at home. He smiles, and he looks past her, spies Haymitch passed out in a chair with a familiar empty bottle by his feet.
And finally he sees a dark head through a window into a private room, and he stumbles towards it.
The day the war ends, the sun isn't seen in District 13, but he sees a girl.
She is more radiant than the sun, just like her mother.
He stands in the doorway for a moment, unable to find words. Katniss sits on the lone bed, dressed in a dull hospital gown, her black hair free from any braids, falling around her shoulders, shining almost blue under the bright hospital lights. Her face is drawn with exhaustion, but her eyes are bright, happy, and she holds a tiny baby in her arms. He watches her talk to it.
His heart is lodged in his throat.
And then she starts to sing. He feels the world still, and he chokes a little on tears. She hears him, and her voice breaks off as she looks over at him. He takes a hesitant step towards her. She laughs a little. "Come here, sweetheart." She nods her head, beckons him closer. He trips in his haste.
He sits on the bed, kisses Katniss on the forehead with shaky lips, and looks at his daughter.
She is the tiniest human being in the world, skin a pink he hasn't ever seen, a layer of dark fuzz on her head. He can't take his eyes off her. "Is she real?" Katniss whispers. "She can't really be real."
"She is so real," he breathes. "And so perfect."
He rests a hesitant hand on the blanket that covers her tiny tummy. His hand looks big and clumsy next to her, dirt around his nails and in his knuckles. But her eyes open, her dark lashes fluttering, and bright, bright blue eyes stare at him. He lets out a breathless, tearful laugh, Katniss leaning against him.
The war is over, but he doesn't know that yet. All he knows is that he will never let anything happen to this perfect little person that he and Katniss made, a little girl with her hair and his eyes.
He licks his chapped lips. He can taste the stale air, but he doesn't mind. He will remember absolutely everything about this day forever and ever, because this is the day he first saw her.
When I was broken, I was healed.
I learned to fight, I learned to feel.
And I can't believe my eyes.
You are still here next to me.
All I need, you are all I see.
In this life we hoped to find.