A/N: This is based on Page 89 of The Hunger Games where Katniss tells Haymitch how Peeta can wrestle and he came in second in a school competition only losing to his brother. This took a lot of research into the sport of wrestling to write. I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies in my depiction of this amazing sport. We can just chuck it up to things having changed a little in the future, okay? I have read quite a few Finnick fics that massacre Spanish and excuse it as a change in dialect over the course of time, so please grant me some leeway. XD

I considered splitting this into two installments when I'd reache 8000 words and was only 75% done, but decided to keep it together as one for continuity's sake. I apologize that it is so long.

I need to send my love out to MissLevinLover who is always supporting me as a writer and as a good friend. Thank you, my special little one.

To my mentor and friend ParamoreXO, thank you for writing this wwwdotfanfictiondotnet/s/8352511/1/ for me. I will always be in awe of you as a writer.

To Anla'Shok, thank you for supporting and inspiring me with this. A mark of an excellent writer is how they influence others.

Disclaimer:The Hunger Games and all the characters in this fic are the property of Susanne Collins.


He was staring at her again.

He loathed this uncontrollable need to look at her, his weakness for visual conformation that she was alive and reasonably well… and not overall starving to death again.

He had a good idea why getting a glimpse of her everyday was so appeasing to the humane, empathetic part of his psyche. Four years ago, he'd witnessed her decaying to oblivion- so desperately alone in the freezing rain, fatherless, emaciated, hopeless.

In spite of what little he was able to do for her that day amidst fighting off his fears and the horrors residing within his own home, he'd found that the image of the girl he idealized as his perfect compliment dying a slow, agonizing death at his back door… That had the pesky tendency to linger in the mind of an eleven-year-old.

Then there was the side to his psyche that branded him irrefutably male.

That part of him that wanted to glimpse her, because she was beautiful in such a heart-achingly simple, effortless way. From the way she moved, the stealth and grace of a predator tracking prey unpremeditatedly etching every gesture with calculation. To the way her face contorted delicately, brows knitting at times when a certain thought or emotion struck her, the steel in her eyes gleaming when she found something amusing- given the reality that she never smiled anymore- darkened and glinted when she was angry, or clouded over when she was upset.

She allowed every sentiment and emotion to color her expression with a reckless abandon and passion he both relished and coveted- the circumstances of his own upbringing having forced him to learn the insidious art of schooling his demeanor into a nearly omnipresent amicable façade. He inwardly mused she likely had the worst poker face ever. Then again, being from the Seam and considering the hardships of the past few years, he doubted she'd ever even learned of the card game, or any other sort of games recently, for that matter- excepting, of course, the one Games ever-presently shadowing ominously over all of them. Subsistence almost certainly took precedence over everything else for her at this point.

That same selfish, possessive part of him yearned to commit to what he'd realized since toddlerhood was nearly photographic memory every tangible part of her he hadn't lost the day of that despicable mine collapse four years ago- the day she'd lost her father… the day he'd lost her songs.

He didn't know how adolescence had transmogrified her singing voice whatsoever. His only recollections were of the lyrical, che'rubical sounds her throat emitted when she'd eagerly sung at assemblies prior to that lugubrious event. And although to present, he'd never found the wherewithal or courage to actually engage her in conversation- in spite of every fiber of his being fervently desiring to do so- he knew her voice had deepened since he'd last heard her sing.

His father, fully aware of his infatuation with her, always made sure to call him down whenever she came to their back door to trade. Even if he never answered the door, he made sure he was positioned close behind it, listening to her as she haggled with his father. Knowing how he'd so loved the sound of her voice since his youth, the elder blonde purposefully answered her monosyllabically or with simple head gestures and smiles, forcing the usually taciturn girl to carry the conversations squarely on her shoulders to seal the deals. His father would even often frown and pretend to be confounded by the simplest details of the negotiations so that she'd have to rehash things several times in that flustered, frustrated huff that the fifteen-year-old found positively endearing. When this occurred, he'd find himself holding a hand adamantly to his mouth to prevent the laughter from escaping inadvertently, thus exposing his eavesdropping position a few feet from the door.

He truly adored his father.

Though he had more than a sneaking suspicion that after all these years of subterfuge, she believed the baker was partially mute and more than a little dim. Not that his father was the type of man who cared what anyone else thought of him and years of innerturmoil had made him a man who simply didn't acknowledge value in words and thus, used them as sparingly as possible. Therefore, he certainly was not going to fault her for her misconceptions. They were sort of messing with her, after all.

He continued appraising her as she waited by the edge of the playground where a group of younger Seam children immersed themselves in a game of tag. She wore practical, functional khaki pants and a short-sleeved, red-plaid, button-down shirt. It was the kind of thing he'd choose to wear himself any given day. He was aware she favored comfort over vanity and he was more than aware of her complete disregard for her femininity. He doubted she even realized how physically stunning she was. Most of the time, she didn't even seem to acknowledge her gender.

The only time he'd seen her in a dress or a skirt since her father passed away was on Reaping day, which- he was ashamed to admit- was ironically the only highlight that god-awful day ever brought with it.

Even that naïveté of her own sensuality added to her charm in his eyes.

He was aware what others spoke of her in school due to her propensity towards isolation. She barely spared any of the females in school a glance and on the few occasions he'd seen her manage even that, she'd frowned or rolled her eyes at whatever she saw or heard from them. She had much the same attitude towards almost every single boy in school, as well. That kind of open apathy toward what her peers considered important branded her a social pariah and she was perfectly happy to accept the role.

She was simply too distracted by responsibilities a normal fifteen-year-old girl shouldn't shoulder to demonstrate anything except affectable ambiguity and complete disinterest.

He loved and respected her all the more for it.

He knew she wasn't devoid of emotion or the ability to react with something other than antipathy towards others. She certainly didn't react that way to either him and Gale Hawthorne.

She'd been nearly inseparable from the hunter for the last three and a half years- since about six months after both their fathers shared the same fate in that mining accident. Gale was the only kid he ever saw her speaking to besides the mayor's daughter, who was the only girl she ever regarded without disdain and even sat with at lunchtime frequently.

Then, there was him. She'd very frequently caught him staring at her over the years. It was an inevitability really, with how often he found himself indulging in the act and how her very keen hunter senses were so attuned to that unique sensation of being watched.

Even now, as he stood by the elevated window of the boy's locker room gazing out at her, she'd glanced around impassively several times feeling his eyes on her.

Not that she could ever see him from her vantage point outside on the playground. The entire school was built on a higher elevation than most buildings in the district, requiring the climb of a half dozen steps to enter it- likely because it was one of the few structures in Twelve with a basement. Adding to that, the raised elevation of the window and the amount of light outside currently, seeing inside the building would be an impossibility unless she were to get a ladder, cupping her eyes to look inside that specific window.

Today not withstanding, however, she had caught him staring before and she hadn't frowned disdainfully or rolled her eyes.

In his opinion, those reactions would've been preferable.

No. Whenever they unexpectedly locked eyes, hers would immediately cloud over with what he easily recognized as overwhelming guilt and unfathomable shame before her brows knitted together in confused agony and she'd have to wrench them away, as if attempting to pretend the moment never transpired.

Nevertheless, it had happened. It happened a lot.

And ever since he'd worked up the nerve a couple of years prior to avoid flinching away from her gaze in mortification at being caught, he'd resolved to hold her gaze for as long as he could, hoping against hope he could communicate with his eyes what he couldn't with words.

It wasn't succeeding, however. Whatever she felt when they locked eyes was apparently too overwhelming for her to process anything beyond and every time she tore her eyes away from his with that bewildered, pained grimace, the tightness in his chest was literally excruciating.

Anyone would reason that cause enough for him to stop staring at her, yet here he was.

Apparently, he was a glutton for punishment.

"You're zoned out again. You planning on competing in that? Don't know how much traction you'll have on the mat with those shoes…"

He didn't bother changing his cross-armed, leaning posture to regard his older brother, responding with a lackadaisical shrug. "I'm not zoned out. Believe it or not, some of us are actually capable of holding more than one thought at a time and I still have more than enough time to get ready."

In the end, he wished he'd turned to face the older boy while replying. He certainly would've been better equipped to handle the sixteen-year-old suddenly appearing craning- likely on tiptoes, since although a year his senior, they were both the same height- to look over his shoulder, almost completely flush against his body with nothing but a towel wrapped around his waist.

He wasn't modest but Rye's comfort with his body far surpassed his own and after years of wrestling, no one on the team had any notion whatsoever of personal space with regards to one another. None of this usually fazed him. However, when someone sneaked up on you like that, it was pretty much human nature to feel uncomfortable and he found himself seriously suppressing the urge to send an elbow to his brother's ribs to gain some breathing room.

"Oh, yeah, little brother. Like there's more than one thought going through your mind while staring at her." The older teen chortled, backing away from the window and raising a challenging blonde eyebrow.

Even through his gratitude for the space, the insinuating tone in his brother's voice made his stomach lurch. He found it impossible to keep the anger out of his voice even with the full knowledge that he'd risen to his brother's bait. "I don't think of her just that way, Rye. You're seriously warped!"

The older boy only crossed his muscled arms over his equally muscled bare chest, shrugging and smirking in a way that was supposed to resemble innocence, except he purposely twisted it just enough that it came off as depraved. "No, I'm normal. And the handful of girls you and I share in common that I dated after you, I know would certainly attest to your being normal, too. So, what about her do you think about the other ninety-nine percent of the time you're checking her out?"

Peeta sneered in disgust. The thought of his ex-girlfriends and his older brother discussing anything about their previous relationships on their dates was ghastly enough to make him entirely disregard the jab about his wanting Katniss in an almost purely physical sense. Honestly, what was wrong with this kid? "Ugh! Why would you even talk about that with any of them? Are you sick in the head?"

The older blonde seemed to give the notion serious consideration for a second before responding with an ease that was just not appropriate to the topic in question. "Nah! At least, I don't think so anyway, not unless Mom got too many blows to the head in before I got tall enough for other areas to become easier targets." At this sudden, unpleasant turn to the conversation, both brothers instinctively shuddered uncomfortably.

"Oh, for crying out loud, Mellark! Put some clothes on! Why would you even shower before a competition? You'll just have to take another one after!" The scandalized shriek from the outraged metalwork's son broke into their conversation from across the locker room.

Without missing a beat, the sixteen-year-old turned in the direction of the older boy, a flirtatious smirk splitting his features as he vociferated his retort. "Just enjoy the view, Joe. I'm defending this year, remember? I fight the last of you losers standing and none of you poses enough of a challenge for me to actually break a sweat! Besides, I have the same thing as you do under this towel, just magnified by a factor of around a hundred!"

A chorus of unbridled laughter from the dozen or so other teens trickling into the locker room followed the statement. The boisterous sound doing a very nice job of drowning out whatever the older teen had replied, which both brothers were fairly certain contained some very colorful language.

Completely sanguine as if the previous exchange had not even occurred, Rye turned back to his still-snickering baby brother. "Really it was more out of sheer curiosity and an overwhelming urge to outdo you in any way I can. It's bad enough it already looks like I'm going to be the shortest of us three. In a family of short men, that's kinda sad."

"Oh, yeah, Rye! That inferiority complex is really attractive! I'm sure it makes all the girls swoon!" Peeta scoffed mockingly, turning back to look out the window just in time to see Katniss' eyes light up in excitement as Gale arrived at her side by the playground they were exchanging a few words, likely a greeting.

All the humor faded from his demeanor as the all-too-familiar jealousy surged up from somewhere in the pit of his stomach upon seeing Katniss with Gale. Not that he had any rightful claim to that jealousy- a fact he was painfully aware of. In order to have a claim to jealousy he'd first need a claim to her and he'd never had the gumption to so much as speak to her.

What he was currently experiencing was the ultimate reason to stop staring at this girl. Every time he stared for long enough, he was inevitably rewarded with one of these gut-wrenchingly painful scenes.

He'd asked his father a few years prior if he knew whether Katniss and Gale were related. They favored each other in features more than they favored most other Seam kids in school. Katniss even favored the hunter more than her own sister. He'd asked his father whether they had the same father since the little girl was so obviously Merchant in appearance as well. His father had laughed at the ludicrousness of implying Katniss' mother would ever betray her father, explaining that her younger sister was the spitting image of their mother at that age. As for Katniss and Gale's relation, he sighed deeply, simply saying they were kindred and that's why they sought out each other's company.

Of course, that explanation had been woefully unsatisfying because he was well aware that kindred meant both related and similar. However, when he'd pried his father for clarification, the older man just released a tired breath and squeezed his shoulder noncommittally. What was he supposed to read into that? For the first time he could remember, he'd become enraged at his father for his inability or unwillingness to vocalize his thoughts. He'd stormed off and locked himself in his bedroom for the rest of the day.

So, now here he stood, boiling over with spite over what may or may not exist between the girl of his dreams and the boy of pretty much every other girl in this school's dreams.

This was decidedly torture.

Yet, here he stood staring at them.

He was definitely a masochist.

"Seriously, Rye! Get some clothes on or I'm telling the coach!" The metalworker's son's now-enraged baritone cut through his darkening thoughts and mood.

"Oh, I want a front row seat to that conversation, buddy! I'd pay to watch you sputter your way through explaining how the site of a partially naked team member makes you this uncomfortable, then wracking your feeble brain for the answer to Coach's obvious follow up question: Why don't you just look at something else?" The sixteen-year-old paused here to both allow the cacophony of laughter that had erupted in the locker room to die down sufficiently to continue and to level the most seductive look he could muster at the older teenager at the opposite end of the room. "Keep whining about it like a little girl and I'm loosing the towel!"

The blonde once again turned back to his baby brother without bothering to strain to hear the older boy's retort through the ensuing raucous laughter. He did lean closer to the younger boy so that his voice would carry clearly threw the noise, however. "Aren't you curious to know how we match up?"

At the sheer ridiculousness of that question, Peeta pried his eyes away from the scene outside where Madge Undersee had just ran up to Katniss and Gale as they were making their way apparently toward the meadow, likely on their way to hunt. With a resigned slump to his shoulders, he leveled a nonchalant look at his older sibling. "Considering how far I know I've gone with any of those girls, I'm willing to concede to your obvious superiority there, Rye."

The older teen actually had the gall to feign insult. "What makes you think I go any further than you with any of them? For all you know, I'm a perfect chaste gentleman!"

In spite of what he'd felt at what he'd been witnessing outside, the fifteen-year-old couldn't help the sincere laugh that bubbled out of him at hearing that of all things come out of his older brother. "This coming from the guy standing in a room full of other guys in nothing but a towel for absolutely no good reason? You have no shame and no boundaries, man! I'm not passing judgment here! I'm stating facts! You're a freak, Rye!"

For a second time, a contemplative look came upon the older teen, causing a renewed bout of laughter form his younger brother, who once again turned his attention to looking outside. Rye lowered his voice so that only the two of them could hear what he said next. "Okay. Just to clear the air here, my status as a freak not withstanding, I have boundaries. I'm still in the reaping for two more years. These girls deserve better than that. They deserve someone who can actually marry them. I'm not about to offer more than I can deliver." When the younger boy acknowledged the statement with a surprised yet impressed quirk to his brow, he continued in his normal speaking volume, "Besides, there's really only one thing they seem to like that you do with your tongue when you kiss that I haven't even a clue as to what they're referring to…"

At this, a horrified gasp escaped the fifteen-year-old, mortified liquid blue eyes darting frantically to lock with his brother's. The pitch to his voice rising to a shriek. "You went into details about what I do? That's just sick, Rye! Seriously!"

The older blonde only raised an intrigued pale eyebrow, entirely unfazed by his brother's revulsion. "I didn't ask for details. Girls like to talk… sometimes more than they should. This isn't news to either of us, Peeta. But, seriously though, what do you do with your tongue that's so fascinating to them?"

At the purely analytical way his brother was speaking about this, the younger teenager couldn't help but begin to regard the topic with the same odd detachment. "I honestly have no idea what they may be referring to. Maybe, I roll my tongue?" He proceeded to demonstrate the gesture as he continued to monitor the conversation between Katniss, Gale and Madge outside.

"Nah! I can do that." His older brother shook his head mimicking the gesture.

"Alright, can you do this?" The younger teen stuck out his tongue and looped it into a circle.

"Yup! That ain't it." Rye sighed dejectedly, then knitted his brows in concentration as a memory of what one girl said emerged. "One of them actually described it as feeling like a ripple, if that makes any kind of sense to you…"

A spark of recognition ignited the azure in the younger Mellark's eyes before he offered enthusiastically, "I think I know what it might be. Have you ever tried this?" Then, still pointedly staring out the window, he made his protruding tongue undulate; causing what looked like waves to course the entire length of it continuously.

The sixteen-year-old's blue eyes widened to the size of saucers as he openly gawked in amazed wonder at the younger boy's mouth. "How do you even do that?" He exhaled completely entranced and fascinated.

Peeta discontiued the gesture in order answer flippantly. "I've always been able to that- figured everyone else could too. Come to think of it, though, the fact that I've never felt anyone reciprocate that particular move, should likely have given me an idea of how rare it was. Then again, I'm not really thinking of much when I'm kissing, definitely not enough to analyze it."

"That is so hot, little brother! I just can't control the urge…" And before Peeta could even register the motion, his older brother had him pinned to the wall of the window he'd just been staring out of, locking his arms around his torso to link at his back. This effectively rendered the younger boy's already crossed arms completely incapable of finding purchase to break the hold as they were trapped between both boys' chests. To make matters worse, his older brother was making ridiculous exaggerated puckering gestures and leaning forward aiming for his mouth.

Even through the shock, horror and mortification of having his older brother forcibly kiss him square on the lips at all, but much less in front of a locker room filled with most of their male friends, after half a decade of wrestling, Peeta realized he could wrench his leg between his brother's and trip him off. However, they were squarely between two rows of metal benches in the narrow space of the locker room. If he tripped up the older boy without the use of his arms to control or guide the fall, he could land head first against the edge of the benches or the bare concrete floor. Both would be serious if not deadly injuries.

In spite of the humiliation of his current predicament, the younger teen found that he curiously preferred the impending stigma of what his brother was trying to do to him to the idea of causing actual physical harm to the moron.

Of course, he also had the less lethal option of sending a knee to his unprotected groin, seeing as the idiot attacked him in nothing but a towel. But, once again, two many years of wrestling indoctrination had ingrained in him the simple moral conviction that one male does not go for a hit to another male's genitals. Not to mention the fact that he'd received unintentional hits to that most sacred of areas in practice before and after retching from the pain, he'd inwardly sworn never to use that particular tactic unless his life depended on it.

Seeing as only his dignity and not his mortality were at stake at present, the younger blonde used the split second he had to react to leverage his legs against the wall, rolling both of them toward the lockers and ramming his brother's back into them. He'd hoped the surprise of the move coupled with the force of the blow would faze the older teen enough to loosen his hold so that he could free his arms and break away.

The bigger boy didn't budge, however. When it came to brute strength, Rye had the obvious advantage over his slighter-built baby bother and the only thing that would have surprised him was if the younger boy had actually broken with his nature and genuinely attempted to hurt him to get him off. His baby brother was just too nice to hurt anyone on purpose. He always had been. He coveted that about him. He hated how he always maintained just that small modicum of control that made him better than anyone else he'd ever known. Rye'd mindlessly hurt him many times when his temper flared out of control. Most of those times it wasn't even Peeta he was angry at. Usually they were both angry and frustrated at the same person. But his little brother never retaliated in a truly harmful way, never fought back to injure him, only to defend himself. He had a feeling that was the only reason he'd even gone into wrestling- to learn the most efficient way to defuse him without hurting him. After all, here he was, the most non-violent human being he knew, practicing a violent sport, completely out of his character.

He hated him for doing this because of him. He hated himself for having left him no other choice.

In the end, the thrashing boy came up the recipient of the sloppiest, wettest kiss on the cheek ever, which was just as disgusting as the more depraved kiss on the lips he was expecting in his mindset, but at least came with far less humiliation in the current setting.

His older brother chuckled, pulling away with an adoring smile and a pinch to his dry cheek. "You're just too irresistible, you know that?"

Peeta immediately used the newly found freedom of his arm to bat his brother's hand away from his face violently, bringing the opposite arm up to wipe the drool off his face with the sleeve of his shirt while sneering venomously at the older boy.

"Okay. If you're done attempting to rape your little brother, Rye. How's about you at least tighten that towel around your waist again. It didn't weather Peeta's struggle for his virtue particularly well."

The younger Mellark teen couldn't help laughing at that. He was pretty sure that was the first really funny thing the metalworker's son had ever said. He continued laughing as his brother excused himself with false etiquette and darted down the locker room toward the older teen. The last thing he caught out of the corner of his eye as he turned back to look out the window was a flash of Rye, bare as the day he was born, rolling the towel he previously wore to use as a whip against a horrified Joaillier. The older boy scrambled through the other hysterically laughing wrestlers to the adjacent row of lockers in an effort to escape.

Peeta noticed Gale walked away from the girls alone in the direction of the meadow as they made their way together speaking amicably in the direction of either town or back into the school. He had no idea as to their destination not having been privy to the conversation. He just continued to follow them with his eyes until they were out of his field of vision from the window.

"You checking out my girl, Mellark?" And once more, here was the machinist's middle child standing almost directly behind and slightly to the right of him. See, this is what he meant about no one on the team having any regard for another teammate's personal space. He didn't get this. When they weren't practicing, he didn't sidle up and smother any of the other guys here. Why did everyone else see nothing wrong with this custom?

He pretended the closeness didn't faze him- at least this one was wearing the wrestling leotard they all wore- and craned his neck quite a bit to raise a questioning brow at him. The fifteen-year-old was over six feet tall and so lanky; they were both in the same weight class as fighters.

Gathering from the shorter boy's expression that he didn't know to whom he referred, the taller blonde elaborated. "Madge Undersee… I saw you looking at her just now, man."

To his credit, Peeta was able to choke down the immediate response of mocking laughter, managing to keep the humor he found in that ridiculous remark restricted exclusively to his gleaming blue eyes.

This boy looked like a bird, a very long bucktoothed bird. All the machinist's children looked like birds- thanks to their father- with long angular features and long hooked noses that curiously ended in something resembling an arrow. In fact, this boy's older sister had the unique distinction of being considered the ugliest woman in the district. At age twenty-three and not having received a single marriage offer, she was likely to remain a spinster for the rest of her life. The crueler, more heartless gossips in the district would whisper that she'd have been better off being reaped, as if being dead were better than being unattractive.

Some people were despicable.

His lack of physical attractiveness not withstanding- after all, no one could ever be the judge of what another found physically appealing- Peeta'd seen enough of Madge Undersee to realize she was not like most Merchant girls. She wasn't vain about her looks, though he'd be lying through his teeth if he said she wasn't beautiful. She never spoke of her family's elevated status in the district. In fact, the only person he'd ever seen her speak at length with at all was Katniss at lunch and sometimes afterschool. Like both him and his eldest brother, she seemed to favor Seam looks over Merchant and judging from the way her eyes kept roaming towards the hunter while she and Katniss had been speaking to him outside, he was pretty sure whose Seam looks the mayor's daughter favored overall.

Though he wasn't about to let this boy think he was intimidated by his ridiculous posturing, the fifteen-year-old still felt somewhat bad for the impossible odds he was up against there. Still, he couldn't keep the humor out of his voice as he looked him straight in the eyes, answering honestly. "First of all, I wasn't checking out Madge. I just happened to be looking in her direction when you walked up."

At the skeptical look the taller boy sent him, the humor fell from his demeanor, eyes narrowing into an icy sneer as he snorted coldly, "I have absolutely no reason to lie to you about Madge. If I were interested in the mayor's daughter, I would have approached her already and the news would've spread through this locker room like a wildfire. We all know who goes out with whom in here."

This was all entirely true, of course. He'd never experienced any trouble pursuing Merchant girls. He'd done it many times out of boredom, curiosity or sheer teenage hormonal drive. Mostly he did it because they were within easy reach, wouldn't result in a beating from his mother and the only girl he'd ever truly desired was, to date, completely unattainable.

Once the hostility and distrust morphed into hesitant attrition on the odd-looking boy's face, the shorter blonde regarded the machinist's son again, this time doing a much poorer job of masking his humor at the inanity of his prior statement, "Besides, Mani, in what dark region of your imagination did you conjure up the idea that Madge was your girl?"

The taller boy took instant umbrage to that, rounding heatedly, "It's not in my imagination, Mellark! We may have yet to formalize anything, but I asked her to come tonight to watch me fight and she agreed- so there!" With that, the boy turned up his ridiculously long nose and marched of in a tiff.

Peeta was left pondering that as he opened his locker- conveniently right beside the window- retrieved his wrestling uniform and sat on the bench untying his shoes. Katniss and Madge were plausibly heading back toward the school. If Madge had somehow been wrangled into having to see the freak fight, she'd certainly have wanted a friend there for moral support. Having never spoken to Katniss, he had no idea the kind of friend she'd be. Truth be told, he knew next to nothing about her personality except that she tended to get frustrated rather quickly when someone didn't understand her and that she was fiercely loyal to her sister. However, the Katniss he imagined in his mind would definitely be there for a friend who needed her. He found himself nearly giddy with excitement at the notion of having her there.

So lost in his own thoughts was he as he swiftly unbuttoned and shrugged off his shirt, pulling his undershirt over his head just as quickly that he never noticed his brother changing beside him until the shocked gasp escaped the older boy.

"That's new. When did Mom bestow that little piece of body art upon you, little brother?"

Peeta realized his brother had moved to stand behind him and was lightly tracing a spot on his upper left back, a few inches below his shoulder blade. He pretended the touch didn't hurt and swallowed tightly before responding. "I talked back to her yesterday."

The older boy released a slow whistle, laying a commiserative hand on the younger boy's shoulder. "Yup! That'll do it. Let me guess. Judging by the size and shape I'd say she jabbed you pretty good with the rolling pin. She could've bruised a rib. That's a pretty nasty bruise."

The younger blonde shook his head, standing so he could pull the leotard up his thighs. "I doubt she bruised anything, she only bruises ribs when she gets the hits in to the sides or the front and it always hurts to breath for a few days when she does. We all have too much muscle on our backs for her to do that much damage there… still hurts when someone touches it, though." He punctuated with a pointed look. His brother immediately removed his hands from his back with an apologetic grin.

"So, I heard from Birdface that Madge will be attending tonight. He's all a twitter about it."

Peeta laughed at the all too apropos nickname and pun, turning to his brother, liquid blue eyes twinkling with renewed excitement. "I think she's bringing Katniss with her! I saw them walking towards the school."

The older teen scrutinized him momentarily, calculating his words. "That's the first incentive you've ever had to try in one of these. Is my little brother actually going to enter a wrestling tournament and wrestle?"

The fifteen-year-old spared him an unappreciative withering glare at his patronizing tone, making his way toward the exit. He paused just long enough to retort over his shoulder before stepping out, "I can pin everyone on this team if I want to, Rye. After five years of watching all of you try to rip each other apart, I know all your weaknesses." He paused here to shoot his brother a pointed look, "Especially yours, big brother."

She hated feeling like she was being watched.

It made her feel paranoid or mentally unstable to be constantly glancing over her shoulder. However, for the life of her, she couldn't shake that feeling of having eyes on her!

This was all Gale's fault.

She hated meeting him anywhere but their spot in the woods just because of this kind of thing. She always felt awkward and vulnerable out in the open like this.

But, no. He had to go and say something stupid, which she was quite certain had been completely inappropriate for a school setting, right in the middle of one of his classes so that he'd get held back after class.

She had half a mind to leave his dumb butt behind and check the snare lines herself. She was faster anyway. She could probably do it and be back a good hour before the sun set… probably have time to finish her homework before supper.

If only she could get over this overwhelming feeling of being watched!

She ventured one more look behind her towards the playground. A group of elementary year students was playing a game of tag, but none of them was looking her way. In fact, they all seemed pretty preoccupied in their undertaking.

She let out an exasperated breath and turned back toward the exit of the school. She closed her eyes momentarily, imagining tying her best friend to a tree while using random spots on the trunk for target practice- spots really close to his limbs. She found this train of thought very cathartic. So much so that the deep tenor of the seventeen-year-old she'd been waiting for actually made her jump when he spoke right next to her ear. She never could hear the towering lug approaching.

"Hey, Catnip! Did you wait so long you fell asleep on your feet?"

In spite of how peeved she was at him for leaving her waiting out there so long, her elation at his finally arriving so they could get going still managed to alight her countenance. She couldn't help the mirth that tinged her words as she replied. "Actually, I was visualizing your untimely death by arrow tied to a tree for leaving me out here. I assure you, it was quite agonizing."

He started snickering at this, as they started moving away towards the meadow.

Suddenly, they found their trek halted by a very flustered, panting Madge Undersee. Upon reaching them, the girl took a few calming breaths before directing her inquiry at Katniss, blue eyes wide with plead. "I really need a favor from you! Mani Niemen asked me to go see his wrestling tournament today and I said yes. I really need you to go with me so I don't die of boredom! I'll owe you so much if you do this, Katniss! I'll even pay double for the next batch of strawberries you bring us. Just, please don't make me go alone!"

A humorous scoff brought the flaxen-haired girl's eyes up to meet those of the Seam hunter. "So, you got asked out by Birdface? Careful he doesn't scoop you up and fly off with you!"

The blue-eyed girl knitted her light eyebrows into a disapproving frown. "That's really mean, Gale! He can't help what he looks like!"

The steel-eyed teen shrugged callously. "I can't help thinking he looks like something that should be squawking instead of talking."

The blonde look horrified as Katniss suppressed a chuckle. She cleared her throat, regaining the girl's attention. "If you don't want to go, Madge, then just don't go. You don't need me for that."

The mayor's daughter let out a sigh, running a frustrated hand though the loose strands of her half tied-up hair. Her eyes shot up briefly to the still-smirking older boy before locking again on her friend's. "It's not that simple, Katniss. My father has been telling me about how poorly it reflects on him politically that my mother almost never makes any public appearances and I never socialize with anyone in town. I agreed to do this so that word gets around that I'm not some anti-social outcast, which is what a lot of townspeople are saying about me and my mom."

Okay. This definitely rubbed Katniss the wrong way. She already had a poor opinion of the townspeople but shunning the mayor's family because they had the discerning taste to keep away from their vain, arrogant, gossiping little cliques was pushing it too far. Now this poor girl was being forced into socializing with them to secure her father's job? That was just wrong! Not surprising- but decidedly wrong! "I'll go with you, Madge." She stated with unquestionable finality.

Then looking up at her best friend, she added, "You wanna join, Gale? It'll be boring, but I'm sure there will be lots of kids there you can make fun of…"

The Seam hunter looked from one pair of expectant blue eyes to the other silver pair, bringing up a hand to run through his hair before responding honestly. "It's not just that I really don't want to go, girls. Though I really don't want to go, mind you. But, if you're staying Katniss, someone's gotta check the snares. It's unseasonably hot for this late in autumn and nothing is going to keep for more than a day in those traps. We can't afford for at least one of us not to go."

The steel-eyed girl nodded in agreement at this. "Okay, Gale. You go check the snares and I'll go with Madge. We can meet up tomorrow at our spot and see if we can shoot something down, okay? Just don't get yourself in trouble again or the tree thing is happening!"

Gale chuckled and saluted a goodbye before turning in the direction of the meadow.

"Goodbye, Gale!"

The steel-eyed teen turned to send the blonde a quick wave.

Katniss turned back to Madge, analyzing her shortly as if trying to decide if she should ask or not. Finally she inquired confidentially. "Do you feel like we're being watched?"

The blonde narrowed her eyes at her friend questioningly, a bit timidly. "What?"

The ebony just shrugged and murmured an unsure "Never mind", moving away toward the entrance to their school. The blonde shooting her worried glances every now and then as they went.

"I can't believe the runt beat me! Honestly, Madge you caught me on an off day."

The flaxen-haired beauty regarded with a degree of unabridged disappointment the downed wrestler, who'd decided he'd take in the rest of the tournament as a spectator from a row below hers on the bleachers after being defeated, form what she could tell, rather handily by the comparitively shorter teenager. "I don't think it's very nice of you to make fun of someone's physical appearance, Mani. You wouldn't like it if someone did it to you…"

The raven-haired girl beside her turned away from them to muffle a laugh into her hand upon hearing this. She knew her friend well enough to know this was her diplomatic way of saying, 'You look like something my friend here would shoot down in the woods before it could take flight. You're really not one to talk!'

The lanky blonde looked positively taken aback by the reprimand. "Oh, what? You mean calling the Mellarks runts?" He shrugged innocently. "Everyone on the team does it! Heck, we do it to their faces most of the time. It's more a term of respect than of endearment in their case, though. You see?" He now pointed to where the Mellark middle child stood off to the side of the mats chatting with other teammates that had already lost their matches while two other matches went on simultaneously on separate ringed mats on the floor of the gym. One of which, his younger brother was currently competing in.

"Everyone in the highest weight class is at least six feet. That's why we're all a good head taller than Rye and Peeta. It's kinda hard to be heavy enough to weigh in if you're shorter. Shorter guys tend to be in the next couple weight classes down. Not the Mellarks, though. Something about those bastards makes them heavy as boulders! Once they get you down, it's darn near impossible to get the suckers off! And they've got a grip like the cold hands of death itself. Coach says it's something about their anatomy, the way their upper bodies and arms are so broad like that? Then, since none of them is very tall, they have a very low center of gravity so they're more agile than us taller guys in the higher weight class. That just ain't natural. Normal folk ain't built like that! Then, there's the anger issues. People say the only reason the brothers wrestle is to vent frustration. They say they're so vicious because they visualize doing what they do out there to us competitors to their own momma 'cause you know, she wails on 'em and all."

This gave Katniss pause. She'd seen herself a few years back how malicious the baker's wife could be when she'd yelled and threatened her for really doing nothing wrong at all. She'd also witnessed her beat Peeta for burning the loaves of bread that had saved her and her family from starvation. That inevitable twitch of guilt and shame made itself known within the pit of her stomach at that resurging memory. She really needed to thank this boy and find a way to repay him before she became ill from this.

However, she'd never really considered that these beatings were so commonplace in the baker's home that all three boys routinely suffered them- at least not so routinely that their friends talked about it this casually. She could only imagine what a nightmare it must be to live knowing someone who's supposed to take care of you could physically hurt you at any moment.

She was broken out her brief reverie by the odd-looking boy's unusually shrill voice as he continued his explanation. "They go at you like they want to rip you apart! I'm just glad I wasn't heavy enough to compete against the oldest! Flax Mellark broke the clavicle of three different opponents the last two years he competed. Wasn't using any fancy moves neither, just used a cradle hold with too much force and snapped the bone. It's a legal move. It's bad enough for me having to deal with Rye's rage. He's dislocated the shoulder of nearly everyone on the team, yours truly included, at one point or another since he's been wrestling. Once that runt gets you in an Arm Bar or a Half Nelson you're hoping for a tap out just for the mercy of ending the pain."

Both girls exchanged a wince. The machinist's son certainly had a colorful way of painting his own painful experiences in wrestling. "Is that why he's not wrestling today? They don't want anyone to get hurt?" The blue-eyed girl ventured tentatively.

"Actually, this is the last tournament this school year and he's won 'em all to this point so the coach only makes him fight the last kid standing to defend his title if he wants to at the end. If he doesn't, the title just passes to whoever won the most matches in this tournament."

"Looks like that's going to be Peeta. He doesn't seem to fight like you described his brothers fighting, though. He just keeps tripping the other boys down over and over again until the coach blows the whistle. He doesn't even seem to care whether they stay down on the mat or not." Madge supplied, nodding in the direction of the youngest Mellark, who, having won his last match, awaited the winner of the adjacent match to be declared in order to start the last match of the tournament before he'd have to face his own sibling.

The long blonde stretched out, rubbing his chin thoughtfully before responding. "Yeah, that was what made wrestling him just so plain annoying! At least, with his brothers, you knew what to expect. They were likely going to trip you off balance to get you off your feet as soon as they could and then they were going to use their freakishly massive bulks to pin your butt down as soon as your back touched the mat."

Madge giggled at that and Katniss hid a grin behind her hand. Then, a visible shudder went through the boy below them before he continued. "If they were in an especially bad mood, they'd do this really messed up move to get you on the mat that only they can really do well legally 'cuase their legs are thick as my head and you need a lot of control to pull it off without seriously injuring your opponent."

Katniss took this opportunity to look at both the Mellark boys' lower bodies. She'd never realized before- well really, she'd never had reason to look- but both teens did have very defined calves and thighs. She ventured this was from lifting the sacks of supplies from the train she'd sometimes seen them lugging into the bakery. This was likely the reason they were all so broad-shouldered and muscular.

She phased back in to the conversation as the blonde boy was describing some fresh form of punishment he'd endured at the hands of the baker's sons. "They'd grab one of your arms with one of their hands and thrust the other hand between your legs, then throw your butt over their shoulder to land back-down on the mat like you were merely a sack of flour at their pa's bakery. I'll tell you something, It may not have caused any serious injury, but when you landed on that mat, the air was sucked so well out of your lungs and your back was on such fire, you weren't about to fight your way out of whatever sadistic pin they'd devised for you afterward."

His blonde brows knitted together in honest confusion as his deep blue eyes now shifted to the youngest of the baker's sons, who was in the midst of his final match of the day. "With Peeta, though… I honestly don't get him. I don't think I've ever seen him win a match before today in any of these tournaments. I mean, he's been coming to almost all the practices since he was ten, only missing when his pa needs him at the shop for something. He knows how to demonstrate every move and hold as well as anyone else on the team. I've seen him do the flips and throws his brothers can do, but he only ever practices those with Rye and I've never seen him use anything in a competition before today. He usually just let's whoever's fighting him pin him as quickly as possible."

He let out an exasperated sigh, lifting both hands toward the wrestling boy in frustration. "There's just no satisfaction in winning a match against someone who doesn't try like that, you know? Then, there's what he's doing today. That knocking a guy down then all but giving him a hand to pick him back up? Trust me when I tell you that feels like a kick to the gut!"

Both girls were once again suppressing humor behind masks of commiseration.

Of course, the oblivious blonde never noticed. "Every time one of us hits the mat, he scores two points to the one point we score for getting back up. So, by the time the time clock expires on the match, he's won by default! It's like he's not fighting for the joy of the sport whatsoever! He's just found the most technical, efficient way to win every match without getting his hands dirty! And there! You see that!" He frantically pointed at the fifteen-year-old, who'd just won his last match and was shaking his opponent's hand soberly. "Every time he wins he's got this look of utter misery! It's like he feels so bad for the person he just bested with superior skill that he can't take any joy in his own victory! A person like this should not be wrestling, ladies! He sucks the fun right out of it! It aint right!"

The girls just exchanged quiet, bemused looks at the expense of the strange, excitable, defeated boy as the coach announced the final match and Rye stepped up to face his baby brother in the ring.

"You look tired, little brother."

Peeta sent a genuinely amused smile at his approaching sibling as he continued to stretch out his arms in preparation for what he was sure would be an excruciating match. He needed to take advantage of the short respite offered to prepare. "Yeah, I am", he responded earnestly, "How do you do this over and over every tournament?"

The older teen shrugged with an easy grin. "Me? I just run on rage… Flax did too, when he competed. It's a heck of a rush! And let's be entirely honest, the three of us certainly have a pretty deep, boundless well of hostility to draw from, don't we?"

A troubled expression flitted across the younger teen's features before he quickly schooled it back to an unreadable mask. He forced the resentment and bitterness out of his voice as best he could before responding. "Far be it from me to judge. To each his own, right? But, just for the record, there is better motivation. It's sitting on the twelfth row on the far right."

Not bothering to turn toward where the younger boy had indicated, Rye bestowed a radiantly warm, knowing smile upon his baby brother. "Oh, I'm well aware of your 'inspiration' for this honestly impressive little exhibition tonight. She's been staring at you nonstop, by the way. I don't think she realizes she's doing it. Don't think that girl has an ounce of social guile in her entire body... completely oblivious…" He shook his head as if trying to get back on topic, dismissing the importance of his previous statement. "Alas, we don't all have your passion and restraint Peeta. Venting pent up frustration works better for Flax and me than showing off to some random pretty face in the crowds ever could."

The fifteen-year-old scoffed, regarding him disdainfully for his obviously intentional jab downgrading Katniss to 'some random pretty face in the crowds' when the older boy was fully aware she was so much more to him than that. However, recognizing the taunt as the obvious attempt to unhinge him it was, he didn't allow his older sibling the satisfaction of letting it vex him. Instead, he twitched up one corner of his mouth into a devious smirk, a mischievous glint in his eyes. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to forget about the title and concede without us having to do this, huh?"

Rye's expression took on that contemplative quality that always made the younger boy want to laugh before he stated in a gravely serious tone, "Nah. That's not going to happen, little brother. Inferiority complex, remember?"

Peeta suppressed a snicker at the older boy's mockery of an attempt at sounding upset over being a selfish jerk. Correspondingly, he was sure to lace ever word he spoke next with as much sarcasm as possible. "Oh, that's right… the overwhelming compulsion to assert your dominance over me in every way. My mistake. Can you at least refrain from breaking anything? I'd really appreciate that..."

"So, how long have you known you could take me down, Peeta?"

This wasn't spoken with humor or mockery and his brother was looking straight into his eyes, searching, scrutinizing.

Caught unawares by the sudden intensity in the older boy's gaze, the fifteen-year-old just shrugged, shaking his head with a laugh he hoped didn't sound as forced as it really was. "I really don't think I could actually-"

"Flax and I can tell when you're lying, Peeta! Heck, you learned most of the skill from us! You can fool everyone else! You can even fool Dad but at least have the decency to be honest with me!" The older boy hissed and Peeta could see the unspoken plea beneath what he was actually asking.

"A few years… but I honestly can't guarantee I could when you're really out of control. You just become too… unpredictable."

"Unpredictable." The older boy repeated as if tasting the word out on his tongue. Then he gave a mirthless snort. "I guess that's better than psychotic, right?"

An adamant rebuttal was on the tip of Peeta's tongue when the coach walked up advising them the respite time had ended and they were ready to start the match. He added that, seeing as they were siblings, he was willing to forego the coin toss to determine position and allow them to choose top or bottom for the title match.

Of course, Rye took the opportunity to make a rather loud, off-color comment about how the metalworker's son had a particular predilection for being at the bottom, which garnished him guffaws from all his teammates within earshot and a stern reprisal from the coach.

Still, as the older boy chose the more favorable bottom position with his hands and knees on the mat, he couldn't help get that last jab in at his already fuming friend on the sidelines about how he should attempt to curtail his jealousy at his little brother.

Peeta was still laughing when he got into a kneeling position behind the older boy. However, seeing as the affinity for messing with people's heads was a trait shared by all the Mellarks, he quickly bent forward near his brother's ear and whispered, "How would you know what Joe likes, Rye?"

Barely registering his older brother's corresponding indignant gasp as the whistle blew, within a split second, the older boy had a grip on the hand Peeta held on his stomach by the wrist. He rotated it as he started to get his foot out to stand, clearly intending to flip the the smaller boy unto the mat. Before Rye could complete the motion, however, Peeta quickly reached out with his left hand and grabbed the back of the older boy's right ankle, which he was using as leverage. Lifting it to his waist, he sent Rye sprawling to the mat on his back.

Deciding to end this as quickly –and hopefully painlessly- as possible, the fifteen-year-old went for a pin.

The instant his brother's back hit the mat, the younger blonde's entire upper body pressed down on the boy's left shoulder, his left arm trapped uselessly between their bodies. He wrapped both legs around the older boy's left thigh so that he couldn't find enough purchase to use both powerful legs to propel him off. Both his arms he used to try to bring the struggling, stronger sixteen-year-old's right shoulder down to complete the pin. He managed to get his left elbow under Rye's armpit in order to use the mat as leverage to push down that shoulder while using his right arm to keep his balance against his brother's thick neck.

Panicked realization dawned on the Mellark middle child that his younger brother literally had the upper hand on him. He didn't have the purchase to roll out of the pin and he was tiring from struggling. Is this what his brother meant when he said he knew his weakness? Was he so entirely dependent on the adrenaline and resulting power surge the unadulterated indignation that filtered through his system when he banished all rational thought in a fight endowed him? The notion was sobering and terrifying. Then, there was the unshakable discomfiture that accompanied the certainty that he could not simply will himself to feel that level of animosity randomly and without provocation towards his baby brother.

He couldn't believe he'd let this happen, hadn't seen through the younger boy's manipulation. He'd made a mistake in underestimating him, or maybe he just overestimated his own ability to stay one step ahead. He'd always tried harder at everything because his baby brother seemed not to need to try at all. He was not going to lose this match to Peeta! He just needed to figure out a way to make himself angry. That or…

The instant the idea struck, he felt ill about even considering it, but he was desperate. He wouldn't lose this match! He couldn't! Peeta would understand. His baby brother was the most understanding person alive. None of those rationalizations made him feel any better about it, however.

He was scum.

Letting out a huff that sounded somewhat like a mumbled "So sorry", the older teen used what strength he had left in his right arm- which was still considerable even in his compromised position- bringing his elbow down on his baby brother's upper left back, just under his shoulder blade… right on the bruise their mother had given him the day prior.

A choked groan escaped Peeta's lips at the scorching agony blazing down the entire left side of his body from the place his brother jabbed. The throbbing pain so distracting, he was barely aware of his brother reversing their positions or the coach's whistle indicating the end of the match. Even a few moments after, he laid prone on his back, index finger and thumb of one hand pressed firmly to his eyes to prevent the moisture threatening behind his eyelids at the overwhelming sensation.

Rye stood less than three feet off to the right of his younger sibling, not hearing when the coach declared him the still-reigning champion for another year. He wordlessly looked on, carefully keeping his face unreadable as the coach bent over Peeta with a worried expression, noting when the fifteen-year-old waved the middle-aged man off without uncovering his eyes but offering a weak, forced smile and a pained, "I'll be fine Coach. Just got the wind knocked out of me. You can go."

The sixteen-year-old forced himself to meet the older man's eyes with an air of aloofness when he nodded briefly in his direction before standing to dismiss the rest of the team and spectators. Although he was screaming in his mind for everyone to get lost so that he could wrap his brother in his arms and beg for the absolution he knew he didn't deserve. He managed monosyllabic responses to the platitudes of encomium and accolade his teammates brandished upon him while trying desperately to keep the growing chasm of abasement within concealed, as those same teammates moved on to voice their condolences toward his slowly sitting up baby brother when they passed him on their way out.

Once the last person stepped out of the gym, leaving the two baker's sons the only occupants, the eldest quickly shortened the distance to the youngest, effortlessly pulling him up wrapped in his strong arms. It wasn't lost on the fifteen-year-old that his brother had held on well after he was on his feet, either. Though the older teen didn't speak a word or meet his eyes as they slowly- for the younger's benefit- walked back to the locker room together.

In fact, neither of them spoke a word until they were home and Peeta laid shirtless in bed on his stomach as his older brother held a hot compress over the bruise on his back, which now comprised most of the left side of his rear torso. Even then, it wasn't Rye who spoke first.

"You know, if I'd known you wanted to keep your title this bad, I would've just taken a dive." The younger blonde attempted to cut through the tension with acerbic humor, knowing his brother probably felt bad enough about this. "There's no shame in losing to the best, after all."

His little brother's blatant attempt at empathy felt like having salt rubbed into a bleeding wound. How could this kid be this good? "You didn't lose to me, Peeta! And we both know it!" He couldn't help the way his voice or temper had risen. He didn't want to yell at him after what he'd done and he definitely didn't deserve his anger.

The younger blonde brushed it off with a shrug of his right shoulder since doing anything with his left side was torture, inclining his head up as far as he could to grace his brother with a conspiratorial grin. "That's not what the rest of the team's ever going to hear, though."

A look of anguished despair flitted across the sky blue in the older boy's eyes before his brows knit together in frustrated anger and both hands yanked briskly away from his brother's back coiling into tight fists. "Don't, Peeta!"

He wrenched his eyes away from his baby brother's and down toward his hands, opening and closing them, wading threw his shame and indignant vicissitude to find what he wanted to say. Finally giving up when the words wouldn't materialize, he huffed dejectedly. "Just don't."

Then, there was silence laced with the labored breathing of the sixteen-year-old as he struggled to control his emotional turmoil, his younger brother's saddened eyes never leaving his face.

Once his breathing leveled out, Rye's gaze locked with that of his little brother in determination, a hard edge of conviction to his tenor as he spoke quietly, with decided finality. "I'm volunteering for you if you're ever drawn, Peeta. I'm never letting them slaughter you. No one deserves to live out their life more than you."

It took a second for what his older brother was implying to sink in, but the moment it did, Peeta shot up straight, ignoring his back's protests at the sudden motion. He frantically shot a hand out to grasp his brother's arm imploringly. The disconcerted desperation colored his fifteen-year-old baritone into a near wail.

"You can't volunteer for me, Rye! Do you understand me? You can't! I could never live with myself knowing I'm here and you're there because of me! That's worse than dying for me! Please! Promise you will never do that to me! If you care about me at all, promise me you'll never take my place if I'm called! Promise me, Rye!" Tears of plead were streaming freely down his face by the time he finished speaking.

Unwittingly, moisture cut a track down the older blonde's cheek as he made his unvoiced promise, shutting his eyes tight, bringing their foreheads together while wiping away at the tears from his baby brother's cheeks with both hands.

He let out a shuddering breathe, his voice filled with self-deprecation. "I don't even know how something as good as you could come from her. I can understand how someone like me did but not you. You're just so… I don't even have a word for you, man- and we both know that is no small feat for the likes of us!" Peeta couldn't help let out a small laugh at that. "And even if neither of us is ever drawn, you intend to be my watch dog for the rest of your life, don't you? How fair is that? How fair is it that you were forced to learn how to take down someone you care about because you're afraid of what they're capable of when they lose control?"

The younger boy scrutinized his older brother's face for a moment then smiled, shaking his head incredulously. When he spoke, it was in an authoritative manner that left no room for argument. "First of all, you're nothing like Mom, Rye. You were just blessed with the misfortune of inheriting her temper and poor control thereof. But you have tried so hard since you were little to control it, Rye. You hate yourself for being that way. We all know you do. You wouldn't be beating yourself up so hard about what you did at the competition if you weren't a good person. You don't see Mom in here checking up on me, do you? You're a decent guy. You just tend to be a jerk and you've got one heck of a mean streak in you that being raised by an abusive parent isn't exactly helping."

The older teen let out an amused snort as the younger blonde resumed his prone position on the bed, letting out a sigh of relief when his brother pressed the compress back to the bruise. "About my wrestling as a means to keep up with you… yes, I do it as an assurance that I could take you on if need be. It didn't start out that way, though. When I was ten, I just wanted to learn how to stop you from bullying me. You really were a jerk, you know." His older brother let out a hardy cackle at that. "Now, I don't go to practice because of you anymore. I do it for you."

When his brother sent him a confused look, Peeta elaborated. "You sometimes need someone around to help diffuse you before you do something you'll regret later, though you are getting better at doing it yourself. I think it's just coming to you slowly with age. I won't be your 'watchdog', as you say, forever but I don't care to tag along for a little while, you know- while you're figuring it out. Believe me, Flax and I do not need Peacekeepers arresting you or anything. However, I really believe you would never hit your own kids or raise a hand to a girl. You've shown yourself to be better than that already… better than Mom."

A gentle smile crept across the Mellark middle child's face as he brought up his free hand to ruffle his little brother's ash colored hair fondly, replying gratefully, "It's true what Flax says about you. You're something special."

Crossing both arms over his pillow and propping his chin up on his interwoven fingers, Peeta faced the wall introspectively as he thought about that. He didn't bother turning when the musing struck and a devilish grin split his august features. "Also, Rye… don't forget I'm the better kisser…"

In the blink of an eye, the pillow was wrested form under Peeta's arms, Rye using it to smother him.


A/N: And so this ends this little experiment of mine with Peeta and his brothers. It was so important for me to do this. I love what Suzanne Collins accomplished with this amazing series but the complete emotional detachment in the books regarding Peeta's loss of his brothers hurt me too much to leave as is. I wanted to supply a face, a personality and the appropriate corresponding emotional void the atrocity Peeta faced in the books left behind. I hope everyone who's read enjoys and I truly apologize for the sheer length of this. Sometimes every idea one gets for a fic turns out to be a good idea.

I don't have any other ideas to elongate this. Therefore, unless someone sends me a review with a truly mind-blowingly spectacular scenario for interaction between the brothers, this is done. I wrote it while I was recuperating from surgery and I go back to work next week.

Thanks to all of you who read and followed. Your thoughts would be truly appreciated.