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“I would say that since the war, our methods—ours and those of the opposition—have become much the same. I mean you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?”

–John LeCarre, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold


 

A firm hand shook his shoulder. Peeta woke with a jolt. Above him was a stranger’s face. The man said, “The president wants you.”

Terror lodged like ice in his throat and flashed cold across his body. For an instant, he thought it was President Snow. That they had him, or he’d never left, that they would take him again and… but he was in his room at Thirteen, not the cell. The soft lighting, the drab walls, the lingering scent of his paints. It was Thirteen. And the guards. They weren’t Peacekeepers.

They didn’t say anything else as he pulled on his prosthetic, made his way to the bathroom. He kept thinking about how he didn’t know them. He made a point of knowing all the guards. Their names, little details of their lives.

It felt safer. Better.

But these were strangers. Two young men of average height. And they weren’t talking.

The restraints went on without the light chit-chat he and the others made. He was walked down the hall to the elevator and off and down another long corridor and into a small room with a single chair and table. The guards stood next to the door on the left and said nothing.

Silence.

One of the bulbs in the room was shorting out. It flickered, leaving an afterimage burning sharp behind his eyelids.

Flashing lights were a trigger.

He should say something. But he didn’t know them.

Time passed. For all that they’d rushed him out the door without breakfast—or his pills. How early did they wake him? How late was it now? When would he get his pills?—now he had to wait.

The lights held steady just long enough to shock him the next time they went on a round of flickering. After a while, he figured out how to time it so he closed his eyes before the next round.

He grew thirsty and refused to ask for water. Hunger and worry over the pills twisted into a sick, trembling knot in his gut that spread out across his body, subtle tremors all over his skin as the minutes dragged on and on. The guards were silent. The lights flickered. It was Thirteen, not the Capitol. But asking for things always made it worse and he just couldn’t. He couldn’t.

A noise came over their communicuffs and, without a word, he was being pulled up and dragged down the hall into a large conference room where Katniss and Plutarch and an older woman with perfectly neat hair were already talking. Shouting, really.

“We didn’t agree to that!” Katniss said, her voice raising as the words came out. She was standing, her chair pushed back, and she smacked the large conference table hard with the flat of her hand.

Peeta flinched and fought not to struggle as the guards moved him into a chair near her. He didn’t want to be near her. She was angry. She was going to take it out on him, she—

He squeezed his eyes shut. Not real. Not real. The sick shaking in his gut didn’t agree with that.

“We can get twice the propos for the same budget,” Plutarch said.

“But we never agreed to it!” Katniss shouted back.

She wasn’t angry at him. She wasn’t going to take it out on him. She wasn’t, she wasn’t, she…

“I don’t understand your objection to the ceremony, Katniss.” The woman’s voice was firm, neutral. She was talking to Katniss like she was crazy. “You declared your engagement and wedding before all of Panem. You wanted final say in his medical care—“

“I just wanted you to stop hurting him,” Katniss ground out.

They were talking about him. Peeta opened his eyes, watched their faces. The older woman—President Coin—took a long, slow breath in through her nose. “In order to have final say in his treatment you had to be listed as his spouse. Or adopt him, I suppose,” she said, a nasty touch of humor seeping in. “You signed the documents.”

“You didn’t tell me what they were!"

When she raised her voice like that he wanted to crawl under the table. Or hit her. He could see himself doing it, smashing his fist into her face. Making her stop scaring him. Making her stop

“Please,” he said, his voice sounding weak to his own ears. “Please, I need my pills.”

They turned to stare at him.

“I need my pills,” he repeated.

“Of course,” the president said, and waved one of his guards off to go fetch them.

Peeta felt a scream catch in his throat. He was on the edge and she was sending his guards away. “No!” he shouted. The president was good at making people shout. And acting innocent while she did it too. “Not them. Someone else.” He took a shuddering breath. “Please, madame president.”

The guard was waved back to his position and a woman who had been taking notes was sent off to find his pills. He was afraid they wouldn’t get here in time, but he didn’t know how to explain. Nobody was listening to him.

“You can’t ask us to do this,” Katniss said, clearly going back to their previous topic. Which no one had explained to him. It was like he wasn’t here.

“It’s another propo,” Plutarch said. “Like the rest. You can have it annulled later.” Annulled. That word wasn’t used for many things. It was mostly about marriages.

Peeta looked around the faces of the people at the table, frowning. Why were they talking about marriage?

“Why can’t we annul it now?” Katniss asked.

“It can be done,” the president said. “Of course, in such an event you would no longer have a say in his treatment.”

It took Katniss a few seconds to get the threat. When she did, her face went white. “You—“

“We would have to do what we think best for the health and safety of our people.”

Katniss sat slowly, her palms flat on the table, staring at the president. She looked over at him.

“Excuse me,” he said, “could someone please tell me what is happening?”

“The president and I thought it would be best to make Annie and Finnick’s celebration a double wedding,” Plutarch said. “It would be a coup, to show the star-crossed lovers of District 12 reunited at last.”

Peeta felt his stomach fall. “What?”

“Your wedding,” the president said. “You’re already listed as spouses. You announced it to the nation.”

He looked at Katniss and everything made sense. The controller, her protection, the whole… this was just another way to use him. They had set all of this up to corral him into doing what they wanted. They would dress him up, parade him around, use his stupid love for her for their propos. He remembered her deciding they would be engaged. He remembered her telling him what to say. Breaking his fingers after if he didn’t get it just right. And now she… she was in charge of his treatment. His spouse. He’d never even been asked. She owned him and no one cared what she did. No one would stop her. She would—

You did this,” he hissed, and lunged at her.

The last thing he felt was the fumbling hands of the guards and the sharp stick of a needle in his neck.

-

He woke up in the hospital. Strapped down, needle in his arm. Not the white room, though: a lower security area with multiple beds surrounded by privacy curtains. His curtain was pushed back and two guards were standing across from the foot of his bed. This time, he knew them. Quinn and Stannis. That was something. Quinn, a young woman with short hair and light brown skin who liked playing chess, tapped her communicuff. “He’s up,” she said into it. Once she dropped her arm she added, quietly: “Hey, Peeta.”

She looked sad.

“Hey,” he mumbled. There was a lump in his throat. “Did I hurt her?” he asked. He didn’t think so, but he had to be sure. It was the only thing that mattered.

“No,” Quinn said firmly. “No. You didn’t.”

“Thank you,” he said, but didn’t relax. He hadn’t this time. There was going to be a next time, though. Maybe there would always be a next time. Maybe he’d only ever feel safe strapped down somewhere.

He didn’t want to talk but he didn’t want the silence back either. Or people talking about him like he wasn’t there. “Could I have some water?”

“Sure,” Stannis said. He was pale and tall, with a small scar on his chin. He moved the arm of the table over, put a cup with a straw on it so Peeta could drink it himself.

“Thanks.”

A few minutes later Dr. Lewis walked in, carrying a clipboard. He pulled a chair up beside the bed. “I wasn’t consulted about your meeting yesterday,” he said, and there was an edge to it. He wasn’t as calm as usual; his thumb was running over and over the paper on the clipboard. “No one can tell me precisely what led up to the episode.” His thumb quit its circling and pressed against the paper. “It would be helpful if you could share what you remember.”

“What does it matter? I tried to kill her again,” Peeta said, the words dull and chalky like ashes in his mouth. “I’m dangerous and they don’t care. Do you know about the wedding?” he asked. “That’s what they care about. They want me to smile and wave and kiss the—“ god, it was so sick, did every shred of affection between them have to be violated and smutted until there was nothing left? “—kiss the bride like a good boy,” he gritted out. These people didn’t care about them any more than the Capitol did. They were playthings all over again. “Doctor,” he went on, trying to focus, to get help, “you have to tell them. You have to make them stop this.”

“I am trying to help,” the doctor said. “But I need more information. Can you tell me what happened?”

He thought back to the conference room, just before. “The president said—“

Dr. Lewis waved his hand. “Start at the beginning, please. No detail is too small.”

Peeta told him everything he could remember, from waking up to being knocked out. As he spoke, Dr. Lewis made notes with a pen on his clipboard. Talking about it got Peeta thinking along the line he suspected Dr. Lewis was following: someone had really fucked up. They’d dragged him off to the meeting without following any of the trigger protocols the doctor had come up with.

When he finished Dr. Lewis tapped his pen against the clipboard. “We’ve discussed how your triggers are cumulative. We’ve worked together enough now that you have the coping mechanisms to handle multiple stressors without a psychotic episode.”

“Until now.”

“No. You have been doing well. The coping mechanisms work.”

“Obviously not well enough,” Peeta ground out, annoyed at his optimism.

Dr. Lewis tapped the clipboard, his metal pen glinting. “I counted no less than fifteen triggers in your account leading up to the episode. The fact that it took that much…” He glanced down at the clipboard. “Medication withdrawal, depersonalization, flashing lights, lack of adequate rest and nourishment, Katniss angry, Katniss shouting, Katniss hitting things, feelings of coercion, situations that evoked strong feelings of unreality…” He touched the paper, leaned forward. “The fact that it took all of this is reason to be hopeful. Peeta, I’ve written extensive reports on your condition. We have the tools, the information to avoid this. This failure was not your responsibility. It does not represent a significant setback. It was a breakdown of the systems we’ve put in place. It can be corrected.”

Peeta stared at him in confusion. Did the good doctor have a bad case of professional pride? Was that the source of this absurd denial? Maybe he’d gotten attached to being the first doctor to cure a hijacking and couldn’t let go of it. Peeta was sure that, in the doctor’s life, this was a significant blow.

Poor man. What a loss.

Peeta laughed in his face. “You’re right. You’re right. We can tell her baby sister that when she’s dead, right?” He mimicked the doctor’s neutral tones. “While your loss is regrettable, Prim, you should take comfort in the fact that it took no less than fifteen triggers before your brother-in-law”—he realized suddenly that he’d gotten his wish; Prim was his sister now, and wanted to rip his eyes out for having tempted fate wishing for it—“to strangle your sister to death! We should all congratulate him on his magnificent progress.”

“I’ll write another report,” Dr. Lewis said. He was careful not to let his own emotions bleed through in their sessions, but it was clear that he needed this to be okay. Fixable. Poor, poor man. “I’ll make sure they read it this time.“

A sudden, terrible thought occurred to Peeta. What if they had read the reports? It was such a long list of triggers… could it really be a coincidence that they hit so many in sequence like that? He turned the thought over and over as Dr. Lewis went on, trying to reassure him.

But why? She was their mockingjay. Why on earth would President Coin want to kill her? Or know that she could…

It was possible that he was slotting Coin into the same role in his head Snow occupied. True, her manipulations had been hamfisted and heartless. But he had to be careful. Wary of his own suspicions.

Thoughts that felt too easy, too real, could be as deceptive as ones that felt fake.

Was the cold dread in his gut real or paranoia? Coming off an episode, it was hard to tell whether his thoughts were making sense. Being deep enough in a delusional state felt as real as thinking clearly. And he couldn’t ask the doctor: it had to be treason to talk like that. If it was true, there was no guarantee the doctor would know and no reason for him to admit it if he did.

There was a chance that it was true. Small, but terrifying. It could be that there were two presidents who knew what buttons to push to wind him up and make him kill. Fifteen triggers, all in a row like that. It had to be malice or extreme incompetence. He wished he knew more about the politics here. Wished he had spent more time observing people and less time in a padded room. But one thing was clear to him.

President Coin was not incompetent.

“I need you to do something for me,” Peeta said, interrupting whatever the doctor had been saying. “Don’t rely on the pills again. Keep me hooked up to an IV or stick something inside me on time release or … something. I don’t care how you do it, just do it. And increase the dose.”

“We have to be careful of addiction—“

Peeta laughed again. “Morphling addict is a step up from murderer, don’t you think?”

“I know it may be difficult to appreciate right now, Peeta, but the safety measures did work. You never even touched her. She’s safe.”

But what if next time the guards were sent away? Coin had tried to send one of them off already… what if next time they were both gone? What if nobody stopped him?

But why? How could that benefit Coin?

“At least, I can make sure you have an extra dose of your prescriptions on you in case of another delay—“ the doctor said. “Now that you’re awake, you should know that she wants to see you,” he added.

That just made everything worse. He had visions of her coming in and finding out the restraints had been sabotaged, pulling free, going for her throat…

“Absolutely not,” he said. It was the only thing he could be certain of right now.

“All right,” the doctor stood. “We can talk later.”

-

It was like being trapped in a twisted whodunnit. He had a suspect (Coin), a victim (Katniss), and the murder weapon (himself) but motive? No clue. He’d been in the woman’s presence all of ten minutes before losing his mind in front of her. That had to be bad etiquette, he thought, and nearly smiled imagining what Effie would think of it.

He regretted keeping to his room like a hermit in the weeks since his release from the white room. He had little idea how things worked here. Especially not in the upper echelons. Just the basics. Plutarch was important to Coin. Haymitch had some influence. Katniss was their propo girl. A figurehead with some negotiating power, but given their last meeting… Peeta wondered how real that was. Maybe it had just suited Coin to let Katniss think that.

Had Katniss said something? Done something? Was she, god forbid, suffering for the way she had pushed to protect him?

But it couldn’t be that, given how happily Coin had used it to her advantage. Coercing Katniss into a fake marriage with Snow’s old propo puppet – it would be a major coup.

What did she have to be angry about?

He turned it around and around all in his head, growing more anxious and restless. Hours into the night shift, the nurse offered him a sedative and he took it. Blank unconsciousness sounded like bliss.

In the morning, Katniss came by to see him. He had to tell them to send her away, though he felt sick over it. Instead, he asked to talk to Haymitch. If anyone could help Peeta figure this out, it was him. The man had more twists than a corkscrew.  And the kind of suspicious mind that would see it if there was some truth to Peeta’s fears.

The problem was figuring out how to tip him off. If he tried to hint at it using shared knowledge from the past—a carefully misremembered event or cue—Haymitch would brush it off. This was probably why they didn’t hire crazy people for espionage.

Haymitch strolled in an hour later. “I’m not the one who wants to see you, kid.”

“Tough,” Peeta said. “I need to see you.”

“Okay,” Haymitch said, leaning back in the chair. “Shoot.”

“Dr. Lewis has been writing reports on my episode triggers for months now,” he said, and let his voice hit a snotty note that sounded like his Mom ranting about Seam trash. He was banking on Haymitch noticing his strange behavior. He’d been angry and rude to the man in his time here, but never whiny and entitled like this. “And yet they drag me out of bed, forget to get me my pills…” he hit the most annoying, reedy range his voice could go to and then huffed in exasperation. “Irresponsible,” he went on. “Incompetent. Why, if they’d read a single page of the doctor’s reports they’d know better! Practically everything they did was on there.” He met Haymitch’s eyes, willing him to understand. “Practically everything!”

Haymitch stared back, his eyes narrowing.

Peeta pulled out his trump card. “Poor Katniss,” he said, absolutely hating himself, “is from the Seam, you know. I’m sure they’ve been giving her shabby treatment and she doesn’t even know it! She doesn’t know how to demand better. But I’m not going to put up with it. She’s the Mockingjay and I’m—“ he really wanted to punch himself in the face right now, “her husband. I insist that you and Katniss talk to the doctor. I give you both permission to read the reports. I’ll sign whatever you need. But you should know about the triggers. And everyone else should. I – I won’t be around her until this is done. Who knows what might happen? They could set me off again, the fools! It could happen at any time. I won’t participate in the wedding until you’ve spread those reports. They can make me go but they won’t get anything out of it. Not unless they want propos of me saying ‘I don’t’ instead of ‘I do’…” he said, referencing the vows popular in the Capitol. He took a deep breath, held it. “Do you understand?” he asked, imploring the man with his eyes.

“I think you’ve made yourself pretty clear,” Haymitch said. There was a nasty look in his eye that Peeta was pretty sure meant he understood. Peeta was also pretty sure he would pay for saying that at some point.

-

It was out of his hands now at least. Peeta slept easier that night. The next morning they removed his restraints as part of readjusting him for his release the day after. He wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that, given the question looming over him. Freedom of movement made it easier to eat breakfast and play chess with Quinn, though. She took advantage of his distraction and trounced him in two matches. The third was winding down just as Haymitch walked in.

Peeta glanced up at him. “Just another minute.” He was about three moves away from winning if he played it right.

Quinn shot him a look. “Is that so?”

Peeta finished checkmating her king with his queen and rook before responding. “Yeah,” he said, shrugging.

“Ah,” she said, a look of appreciation on her face that told him she wouldn’t fall for that again. “Good game.” She reached over to shake his hand before folding up her portable chess set. “See you tomorrow.”

Haymitch took her seat. “We had a chat with your doctor. Got a list made up of triggers everyone should avoid.”

Peeta couldn’t tell if the deeper message had been received. “Oh,” he said. “Good.”

“She wants to talk to you,” Haymitch said. As if Peeta was going to do that when he hadn’t had confirmation on his suspicions yet. When he’d just been released from his restraints and it would be too easy to hurt her.

“I think that’s a bad idea,” Peeta said. “Are you so certain they’re not going to,” he put extra emphasis on the words, “screw up again?”

“I am certain,” Haymitch said, “that they’re not going to let anything happen.” He took a pause, long enough that people listening in might think he’d changed topics. “This wedding is important. You should talk to her about it.”

Peeta thought that meant that Haymitch knew what was going on and was sure they wouldn’t use him before the wedding. It could mean the message was lost though. It could… it could mean anything, really. A whole web of possibilities spun out. He felt tired suddenly. Could he really bet her life on him guessing the right one? This playing past the eavesdroppers thing was… not good. It was hard enough to tell real from not real when people could speak directly to him.

Instead of fronting like last time, Peeta decided to go for honesty. “I’m scared,” he said. “I can’t convince myself that she’s safe. It doesn’t feel real.”

“I just said it’s safe. We’re not idiots, kid,” Haymitch said. It sounded like he was referring to Peeta’s message, but… his stomach did an uneasy turn. It was all so flimsy. The only certain thing is that he’d tried to kill her again. That it could easily happen again. That someone here might make it happen no matter how hard he fought.

“You’re not idiots but I’m crazy, Haymitch,” He swallowed hard, twisted his hands together. “Okay? It’s hard to figure things out sometimes. The only thing I know for sure is that I nearly hurt her again.”

The fine lines around Haymitch’s eyes and mouth tightened in apparent sympathy. “There’s a lot of ways to hurt someone,” he said. “Not all of them physical. She goes to pieces without you.”

Guilt, hot and sharp, cut at him. He never wanted to do that. It was the last thing he’d ever want. “I just can’t,” he choked out, past the prickle of suppressed tears.

“Yeah,” Haymitch said quietly. He stood. “See you later, kid.”

-

They released him the next day. The nurse gave him a small olive green plastic pouch. It was pocket sized and full of an emergency dose of his pills. He changed out of his hospital clothes and into the drab jumpsuits ordinary people wore. Then Soldiers Young and Murray got him into ambulatory restraints and guided him down the hall. His room wasn’t that far, on the same level as the hospital in case he need to be readmitted. When they came around the corner, he saw Katniss standing outside his door. Her arms were crossed over her stomach and she was scowling.

He slowed his steps. The thought of darting back around the corner flashed across his mind. Then she looked up.

“Hey,” she said.

He nodded at her, shuffling forward. There was a stand-off at the door: she was in front of the panel and not budging.

“Katniss…” he said, sounding as scared as he felt. There were the purple smudges of dark circles under her eyes. She had been looking better… before the incident. It pained his heart to know he was responsible for that.

“You can tell me to leave,” she said, raising her chin. “But you’re going to have to say it to my face.”

There was a tense energy to her, beneath the determination. She wasn’t as certain as she looked, but she would keep pushing anyway. Didn’t she understand? This was why he’d be the perfect weapon; she set her instincts of self-preservation aside when she loved someone and he’d gotten back into her heart. He’d done the work for them. If there was a them. But he couldn’t turn her away like this.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s talk.”

When they got inside the guards started to take his restraints off. “No,” he said, taking a step back. “No.”

Murray frowned. “Should we stay?” he asked, uncertain. He was a nice kid, just a year younger than Peeta and Katniss. But Peeta often felt old and worn out talking to him.

“I want to talk in private,” Katniss said.

Peeta nodded his agreement. The restraints would have to do. He wasn’t anywhere near the edge anyway. The door slid shut behind them and Peeta concealed his discomfort by shuffling over to sit on the bed.

He stared at his hands. No words came. There was a long silence and he genuinely tried, but still, no words came. It was strange. He looked over at her, wondered if her own quiet nature felt like this inside.

“Peeta,” she said, and slid a syringe out of her pocket so he could see it.  “It’s okay for me to be here. It’s safe.” The syringe disappeared back into her pocket. It had to be illicit. But it was good. It was something. She and Haymitch were making progress on this.

“I’m sorry we haven’t had the chance to talk,” she said, sounding distracted. Rehearsed. “I know you’ve been tired.”

He frowned at her.

Touching her index finger to her ear, she mouthed they are listening. Then she touched her watch. It seemed like they were waiting for something. Hopefully, he’d get to really talk to someone about his suspicions. Finally.

Peeta nodded. “It is tiring,” he said, just to have something to say. “After an episode.”

Katniss stared down at the watch, apparently counting the seconds, then she looked up. “It’s safe now. We have five minutes.”

“Does this mean Haymitch got my message?” he started. Accusing the president of trying to kill her straight away was a little abrupt, even given the time limit.

“Oh, he got it.” She smirked. “He said ‘Even when he’s a homicidal maniac that boy of yours ain’t no prick.”

That startled a laugh out of Peeta. Maybe Haymitch wasn’t coming after him for the Seam talk. Maybe.

She laughed too, but still looked nervy. It probably said something about them that his status as a sometimes homicidal maniac was a topic for humor. But he didn’t care. He needed the laugh.

“So he understood that, um,” Peeta made a face. “I think Coin wants to kill you?” She met that stunning news with a pensive nod. “You see, I can’t really tell if it’s a delusion or not. I tried, but…” he shrugged. “It’s not always easy. I need more information or to be able to ask someone directly.”

“Our thinking,” she said carefully, “is that you’re probably right.” The room seemed to narrow around him. He’d been hoping they’d tell him this was a delusion. “But she’s not going to try for real any time soon.”

Katniss took comfort in being matter of fact about things. She looked exhausted, but focused now that they could talk. But he found he didn’t like having to handle this so clinically. There was never any room to be upset about the horrors people kept inflicting on them. “But why would she want to at all?” he asked, desperate to find a way to stop this, resolve it some now.

“This is a democracy,” Katniss said. “And I can influence public opinion. Once we’re closer to winning, I become a liability to her.”

“Democracy sounds about as great as our History of Panem textbooks made it out to be,” Peeta said, bitterly. This is what they were fighting for? “Time?” he asked, before broaching the next subject.

She glanced down at her watch. “Three minutes.”

“Is there anything you need me to do? Anything else you need to tell me?” he asked in a rush. “And what are we going to do about me? Now that we know I’m just…” a bomb waiting to go off. A gun in another president’s hand aimed straight at Katniss’ heart. “What I am,” he said, bleakly.

“Stop that,” Katniss said. “If you were gone, she’d find another way. If you were gone,” she repeated, her voice cracking, “I’d be easier to take down, not harder.” Her hands flexed and she looked at his own hands with clear longing. She wanted to come over. They’d been working on that the past few weeks. Holding hands whenever she visited. It had gotten so he barely flinched when she touched him. It warmed his heart more than he could say. In those minutes, he was happy.

But none of that had stopped him when it mattered.

Peeta bowed his head.

“Peeta,” she said, “you’re the only reason we even know about this.“

“I went for your throat,” he told his clenched hands. “Like a rabid animal. Again.”

“No. You protected me!”

Peeta flinched. Thoughts about how she was between him and the only exit washed through his head. Memories of her getting him alone, getting angry, and the inevitable pain… He closed his eyes, breathed. Not real. Not real.

“Sorry. I—“ he heard her take a deep breath. “Look, we only have about a minute left, I have to tell you… they want to get you a nightlock pill.”

His head jerked up. Stared into her miserable, exhausted eyes. Of course it was something he thought about. But what exactly did they want him to do?

There was such pain in her face. “I told them to wait,” she said. “We got the syringes – it’s supposed to be a last line of defense, in case they’re taken. I don’t think we need it.” She leaned forward, imploring. “You can tell them no. I’ll back you up on it.”

A couple syringes and a suicide pill. Not only was Katniss’ power illusionary here, but Haymitch had less pull than Peeta had hoped. He imagined saying no and then, later, being triggered and thrown into a room with her, having only seconds left to stop himself – “No,” he said. “I want it.” If a time came when that was all he had left, it would be something.

It would give him back what had been taken: the choice to die while still himself, rather than live as a monster.

“I was afraid you’d say that,” she said, looking defeated. “I can’t fight all of you.”

“I won’t use it,” he said. “Not if I have any other choice.”

She looked away and then down at her watch. “Ten seconds,” she said and then continued, rushing to beat the clock. “We should talk more. After this, there’s things we can’t talk about. But I swear everything I say in this room is real. I need you to understand that,” she said. “This is real. Please.”

“It’s real,” he agreed.

She nodded. Then held out her wrist and tapped her watch. Time’s up.

There was silence again. And the feeling that they hadn’t, in their five minutes, resolved anything. Not the way it needed to be. He took a page from Katniss’ book and extended his bound hands, palms open to her. “If you want,” he said, self-conscious. Could he really comfort her, after what he’d done?

But she came anyway, dragging her chair over and taking his hands. She didn’t see his momentary flinch; her own eyes slid shut as she gripped his palms and gave a long, slow sigh. He loved her hands. Small and strong and so familiar now. So real. Her left thumb ran gentle circles over his wrist. This was better than words. Her trust healed something inside of him he didn’t know had been splintered until this moment. For her part, she seemed to drink the contact in, her body language relaxing.

“Katniss,” he said, feeling brave.

She opened her eyes. Tilting his head toward his own shoulder, he made an awkward invitation.

It happened so smoothly, her leaning forward and melting against his shoulder, hands still clasped, that his breath caught at it. It took a minute to adjust to the contact. Then he leaned his head against hers and breathed her in. Her hair smelled clean, like the unscented soap they used here. It felt silky soft against his cheek.

This was the first time their bodies were this close since before, the tangled mess of real and not real he worked away at every day, freeing parts of himself from captivity. But nothing he pulled free could compare to the real in the here and now: with her leaning against him, he finally remembered the feel of her. Thin from years of going hungry, but strong too. She could be as sharp as a knife in a fight.

And yet, against him, she relaxed. It tugged at his heart. That she could still find safety in him, of all people. Having untangled his memories of their time on the train, he knew that even back then she had felt that with him. And physical things like that were truth to her. She followed her instincts. It was what made her such a good hunter. And somehow everything they’d done hadn’t broken that.

He stroked his cheek against the silky softness of her hair and cherished this. Their hands moving against each other to the slow beat of their hearts, fingers stroking out patterns in a wordless language. Warm and safe. Breath falling into a rhythm. Safe. All safe. He heard and felt her humming softly, the vibrations of it moving between them. His arms ached to embrace her. It was the only pain in all of this, that he couldn’t pull her close.

After a while, something occurred to him. “So, Haymitch doesn’t think I’m a prick,” he mused. “That’s nice.”

That startled a laugh out of her. She turned her head. “Nobody could think that.”

Peeta gave her a wry look.

She leaned back, frowned at him. “Even when you’re really sick, you’re still you. You’re not trying to do anything wrong. You think you’re protecting people. I saw the way you kept trying to warn Delly and Prim… you were so scared for them.” She adjusted her grip on his hands. “You’re a good person,” she said and her hands squeezed his on the last two words, adding emphasis. “Even their worst couldn’t take that.” Her face was alight with certainty. Love.

Tears came to his eyes. He had to look away, take a breath. “You see me… so much kinder than—“ he shook his head, blinked rapidly. He felt like they had ruined him. But she didn’t believe that.

“I know what that’s like,” she said, and gave him a sly smile. “It’s awful, isn’t it?”

He laughed and raised her hands to give her knuckles a kiss. She smiled back at him and then yawned hugely. She buried her face in his shoulder, looking embarrassed.

“You’re exhausted,” he said, gently. It tore at him that he was at least partly responsible for it. “You should probably go take a nap.” Sleeping here would be a bad idea right now. He encouraged himself with the thought that they could work on that.

She reached up with her right hand and fisted it in the front of his shirt, shaking her head slowly where it rested against his shoulder. “I don’t want to leave,” she grumbled.

“You can come back any time,” he said.

She titled her head and peered up at him with a dark look. “Is that so,” she said, her tone sour.

Sending her away the past few days probably hadn’t built trust on that front. “It is,” he said.

She turned her head and said the next words into his neck. “I just wanted to talk to you.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, swallowing around the lump in his throat. “Katniss, I didn’t know what was happening. I was scared.”

“I was scared too,” she whispered. “Especially once we found out…” she couldn’t finish that sentence but he could guess. Once they found out what Coin was planning. When someone—probably Haymitch—suggested they put a nightlock pill in his hand and all she could think about was what he might do with it.

He rubbed his head against hers, trying to say sorry with actions instead of words.

Her hand tightened where it gripped his shirt. “Tell me to leave you alone if you want,” she said. “But don’t hold my hand and then,” her voice cracked, “leave me like that.”

“I won’t,” he said. “Not if I have a choice about it.”

“That’s the problem,” she said. “People keep taking our choices away.”

Peeta sighed and kissed her hair. “I know,” he whispered. He swayed a little with her, stroking her hand, trying to comfort her without being able to cradle her head, run his hands over her, wrap his arms around her. It must have worked: after a few minutes, he felt her head loll and her body go slack as she dozed off.

Knowing she felt that safe, after everything… his earlier feelings sharpened so much it ached in his chest. He made a promise to himself to earn that. Stop letting people take it. Even if it was an impossible promise, he had to try. He supported her as best he could bound and let her have a few minutes before nudging her awake. “Katniss…”

She yawned again, waking up. “Ugh,” her hand came up to brush at the shoulder of his shirt. “I kind of drooled on you.”

Peeta laughed. “’sokay.”

“I guess I should go,” she said, not moving.

“Yeah.”

She sighed. “We should probably talk about the wedding first.”

“Oh,” he groaned. “That.”

“Yeah,” she said, pulling back to look at him. “That.” She frowned. “It’s really going to knot your head up, isn’t it?”

“Probably,” he admitted. This… whatever they had. It was good. The best thing in his life. But they should draw some clearer lines around what was real before the star-crossed lovers act ripped away at that. “It’s hard enough to tell what’s real without…” he trailed off.

“Playacting at gunpoint?” she offered, the words laced with anger.

“Yeah,” he said. Then gave her a boyish grin. “You could always adopt me, you know.”

She laughed. “That would make for one hell of a propo,” she said, clearly enjoying the thought of Coin blowing a gasket.

It would be suicide, of course. For one or both of them. But that’s what made it so funny. Like the way he and Rye used to joke about Mom. How infamously clumsy the Mellark boys were. Dad’s thin apologies for her, so often repeated they could recite them by rote. Grotesque scenarios about how she might accidentally kill one of them and all the ridiculous places she could hide a body. It was funny because they were helpless. It was funny because it wasn’t really funny at all.

“You’re my family,” she said, interrupting his dark thoughts. “No matter what some piece of paper says. No matter what happens. That’s real. Okay?”

Sometimes she took his breath away, she was so true. So present. “And you’re my family,” he repeated back to her. As if these were the real vows, not for a marriage but for a promise of a future, of kinship, regardless of what form it took. “No matter what.”

She nodded and stood. “I will be coming back tomorrow,” she said, false confidence masking her uncertainty.

“Of course,” he said, trying to encourage her. “I formally invite you to lunch with me – shall I have the chef make up lamb stew?”

That got another laugh out of her. “Only the best for our victors!” she said in a convincing estimation of Effie’s Capitol accent, then lingered in the doorway a moment. And then she was gone.

-

Dr. Lewis was not suited to espionage. That became clear within minutes of his visit that afternoon. He pulled the nightlock pill out of his pocket as soon as the door closed, passing it to Peeta with a shaking hand. “That’s,” he said, “a powerful sedative for emergencies. It’s very, erm—“ he took off his glasses and nervously cleaned them with a handkerchief, “very strong. You shouldn’t take it except in the most dire of circumstances.” He slipped the glasses back on, adjusted them. His brown eyes looked owlish and lost staring out at Peeta. “It could cause serious…”

Peeta held up a hand. “I understand, doctor.” Haymitch must have put a real scare into him, to induce him to commit treason against his own government. Peeta felt bad for him, his help rewarded like that. Surely there was someone else Haymitch could have leaned on?

The doctor wet his lips and then said. “You know, here in Thirteen we practice an old tradition – thousands of years old. Upon receiving our medical degree we recite an oath, promising to –“ he pressed the glasses up on the bridge of his nose, “preserve and protect the lives of our patients. I remember being so proud when I–” He blinked back tears, looking sick.

Peeta stared, overwhelmed by the confession. The doctor wasn’t afraid.  He was devastated.  He’d honestly believed that his job was to help Peeta, not keep him under control for later use. Haymitch hadn’t needed to coerce him at all.  He’d only needed to tell him the truth.

What was it like, Peeta wondered, to have that much faith in your government?

“And, you know, the doctors who hurt you, Peeta,” the doctor continued, “they make no such promise. They know from the beginning that nothing is sacred. Right from the start. But we were never like that, we–”

Stunned but driven to move before the doctor got them all killed, Peeta grabbed his hand hard, giving it a firm shake. Stop he mouthed. Stop this. He glared at the man, willing him to understand.

The doctor gaped dumbly.

The confession was useless. And the guilt too. The doctor had done his best. More than most people would, Peeta was pretty sure. Though maybe a lot of people in Thirteen carried this kind of painful innocence around with them. Expecting their home to be a good place. All failures unintentional, all goals ultimately righteous.

No one starved here. Peeta had noticed that. Everyone got what they needed. Everyone did their part. If you didn’t grow up watching children turn to skin and bones, did it make it easy to believe the lies they taught you in school?  

Thinking fast, Peeta said, “Are you saying that I can trust you? That you’re nothing like the doctors who did this to me? Because of your oath.” He gave the doctor’s hand another firm shake, willing him to understand.

“Oh - yes,” the doctor said, obediently.

“I know that, but it’s good to hear.” Peeta tried to sound pleasant, relieved. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” the doctor said.

“I spoke to Katniss finally,” Peeta said, releasing the doctor’s hand and trying to move the conversation to a safe topic. “I finally–” he looked at the man and felt truly sorry for him. “I finally felt safe enough, thanks to you,” he said, pointedly. “All thanks to you.”

“Oh –“ the doctor sighed deeply, seeming to get it. He was forgiven, if that’s what he needed, “that’s good.” He cleared his throat, straightening his clipboard. “I gave all my notes to her and Haymitch. I believe – I believe my advice will be taken now.”

“I’m sure it will be,” Peeta said. “I was very upset before. I’m sorry.”

“Perfectly all right,” the doctor said.

“I’m a little tired now, though –“ Peeta said, wanting to give them both an out, “do you think we could have our session tomorrow?”

“Of course,” the doctor said. “Perfectly all right. It’s important to get your rest.”

“Yes,” Peeta said, standing and walking the doctor to the door with a sympathetic hand on his arm. He seemed old to Peeta for the first time and he felt selfishly frustrated to have lost the solid presence in his life the doctor had been. He would recover, but Peeta would worry for him now. His smooth mirror had a crack in it. “Tomorrow morning, then.”

When the door closed, Peeta pulled out the black nightlock pill, stared at it a minute, and then slipped in his pocket and walked back to the table. He had to do planning sketches for Annie and Finnick’s wedding cake – he was determined to follow the sea motif he had chosen for them. It would be blue-green with white-capped waves lapping at the bottom, tossing sailboats, fish rising from the water. As the design rose to the top the sea would become more placid, with fat, happy seals sunning themselves on rocks surrounded by sea flowers. At the top was a calm tidal pool full of starfish and sea anemones. It was a challenge, since Peeta had only ever seen these things in books

It was supposed to be about Annie and Finnick’s home, a world away from the soulless spaces of the Capitol or this concrete bunker, and how their love for each other was part of that world. No one was free in the Districts, but in Distrct 4's sailboats and ocean breezes Peeta liked to imagine they came the closest. Annie and Finnick had to share their day with a propo farce, but the cake should be right. Through it Peeta could speak the truth without anyone getting hurt.

He lost himself in the charcoal drawing, working out the specifics of each part. He dreamed about a world after the war, when he could visit District 4. Learn to swim. He thought about dancing in the waves with Katniss and Prim. Eating a dinner of oysters out on the beach. Holding Katniss under a blanket by the fire. Maybe the cake could be their truth one day too. It didn’t hurt to hope.

 

-end-