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Before Dawn

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Chapter 9- Lighting a match

The bow feels heavy and foreign in my hands. I hold it between frail fingers, hands that have been so stained by the colour of blood that they seem to still think they are red beneath the late afternoon sun.

I close my eyes for a brief second, and allow myself one moment of respite.

My heart gallops forward in my chest, my stomach swooping unreassuringly and my palms growing moist. This should not be hard. I am a huntress. I have pulled back the string on this bow a million times.

Too many times. I’ve seen my arrows plunge into the hearts of children, of victors, of presidents. Sometimes at night they come back to murder me, but sometimes, it is still the other way around.

The war may be over, but for me, this is no peace.

I open my eyes and focus on the makeshift target at the bottom of the garden. 3 round circles. It looks nothing like a person.

Pretend it’s a prey, I tell myself. Pull yourself together Katniss.

I take a deep breath and press my lips together so hard that they will be bruised tomorrow morning, and then I position the arrow, pull the string taut, and aim.

In, out. Focus on your breathing.

I let go.

Bull’s eye. I don’t breathe for a moment, finding it impossible that I could get that on my first shot, when my fingers were shaky and my head swimming. But I did, and my eyebrows fly up in shock. I let the bow fall to my side, and my mouth parts. I did it. I can do it.

The corners of my mouth twitch up, and then I go to retrieve the arrow.

 


                                                

 

I take to practicing my archery more often, while Peeta bakes and Haymitch drinks himself into oblivion. I seldom do as well as I did on that first day, that first shot, but it becomes easier and easier. It keeps myself busy, something to distract me from just sitting there and bathing in my pain.

And though I don’t like to admit it, it also distracts me from thinking of Peeta.

It’s strange how one can swing from adoration to loathing in the fraction of a moment. I’m an unstable pendulum, unable to make up my mind. But generally, I bank on hate. It’s safer.

The frustration of the whole scenario can sometimes lead to broken glasses in my bedroom, where he won’t find them, and punching pillow’s late at night. He doesn’t sleep with me anymore, and I don’t invite him too. There are times I want to kick myself for brushing him off that night, the night on the train, but then I remind myself that if he really wanted me, he would have offered again.

I don’t know what to do with these feelings.

We are amiable, yes, but I spend so much time worrying myself to bits that I begin to lose track of what is real, and of what is just in my head. Sometimes I imagine it would be easier to just ask him.

You still love me. Real or not real?

But then I’m reminded that deep down, I already know the answer. So I keep my mouth shut and my indifferent facade up.


 

And then one day I fail. It happens after I’ve just finished practicing, and I’m at the sink, pouring myself a glass of water when I see him. Them. The window is open wide, a result of the lazy humidity that rarely encompasses 12. Bronzed sunshine as thick as honey pours languidly over the taupe stone bricks of the Victors’ Village, and it trickles through the bright green leaves, lighting them up like lanterns. I’m about to take a sip when I pause.

Peeta is outside on the doorsteps of his house, leaning against the railing as he talks animatedly to a girl. I can only see the back of her, but she is blonde, fluid golden curls trailing down her back and a sweet, rounded figure. There is a basket of something in her hand.

He looks so at ease, a tranquil smile adorning his lips, cheeks dusted pink and eyes bright. He looks happy.

And I’m a shaken bottle, ready to explode.

Before I can think about what I’m doing, my arrow is drawn, and shooting through the open window and between the perfect couple to bury itself into the wooden panel of Peeta’s door. They both jump back in shock, the girl dropping her hamper onto the ground, it’s contents splayed across the stairs. A dainty hand flies to her chest, a squeal escaping her. From this angle, I can now see her pretty rounded face, heart-shaped lips and generous bosom.

Fuck them.

I storm out the house, my feet carrying me across the short distance to Peeta’s house, and then I train my expression into something a little more composed.

“Excuse me,” I say coolly, stepping over the girl’s groceries and reaching for my arrow. The girl bends down, scrambling for her belongings, and when she straightens up, her eyes widen.

“Oh!” She squeaks. “Um, Kat- Miss Everdeen, I –“ My glare cuts her off mid-sentence and her eyes dart to Peeta behind me before she turns and half-runs down the road and out of the village. I watch her perfect ringlets bounce as she disappears out of sight.

I can feel Peeta’s gaze burning a hole through the back of my neck.

“Katniss.” I turn to leave, and his hand reaches out to grasp mine.

“Let me go,” I hiss, yanking myself free and walking for my house. My cheeks are on fire now, and with the moment of fury gone, I can feel humiliation rising through me like a tide wave.

“Katniss.” He says through gritted teeth, but I don’t turn to face him until I’m at the threshold of my house, and his arm snakes around me and latches onto my arm.

What!” I spin around to face him, and those diamond eyes are so intense that I falter for a moment. He sets his jaw.

“What the hell was that?” he says, and I lose it.

“What the hell was THAT?!” I scream. “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK IT WAS?!”

“Dammit, Katniss.” He growls. “I’m not a bleeding mind-reader. If you could stop shutting me out f-“

“I DON’T HAVE TO EXPLAIN MYSELF TO YOU!” My heart races so hard in my chest I feel as if I’ve become a pounding, bleeding heart myself. I can’t see straight. “I DON’T HAVE TO EXPLAIN MYSELF TO ANYONE!”

“AND THEN WHAT DO YOU EXPECT ME TO DO?” He yells.

“DON’T DO ANYTHING!” I shout, turning for the stairs. JUST LEAVE ME ALONE AND GO AND DO YOUR BLOODY BAKING AND LEAVE ME FOR ONE GODDAMNED SECOND OF YOUR LIFE ALONE!”

His face is flushed scarlet, as if he has just been slapped, and for a few haunting moments, we are both silent.

“Right.” He says quietly, and then he turns and slams the door shut, not looking at me.

My heart is beating too fast, and slowly the world stops spinning, until it is still, eerily still. I take a step back and my hand finds the edge of the dining table, gripping onto it as if to steady me. I blink, once, slowly, and then to my horror, burst into tears.

Ugly, wretched sobs escape me, and even though I bite down on my fist so hard that I taste blood, I cannot quiet myself. It’s a wreck. I’ve ruined everything.

I stumble down the hallway to the bathroom, and then lock the door and sink to the ground beside the toilet. I hate bathrooms, I think. I both hate and love these cold, white rooms, where the doors lock and promise me a few hours of self-hate in peace. These rooms are my sanctuary, these rooms are my church. These are the rooms that will await me in hell, with doors that only open one way and have nothing but my name scrawled all over their front.

Maybe these are the rooms in which I will die.

I kind of used to think that when I died, it would be a heroic, or a momentous occasion. My Father died in an explosion, debris sprinkled all over the place and bits of shrapnel piercing his loved ones heart. But I, I am not my Father. The lucky ones get to go with a bang, the cowardly with not even a squeak.

We die in silence, in empty rooms and with empty hearts. We die quietly, no words for our pain, nobody we love enough to fill our last few thoughts. We die, and when we do, it is as insignificant as the cricket that stops chirping, as the wind that stops blowing, as the song that trails off to an end. We die, and we die alone.

But there is someone I care for. And it is the thought of him that stills my searching hand (that one that always craves a knife, like a drug addict craves morphling). And it’s not the boy I can no longer look at across the road outside, so close but so far away. It is the boy that I used to love, that stayed with me every night, that could kiss me like a starved man on the brink of war, that gave up everything again and again just for me. It is the boy with the bread.

A phone begins to ring somewhere outside, jerking me from my daze. A reminder that life is still going on behind the bathroom door.

I blink back the fresh tears. He would have never let this happen. He would have taken one look at my cut and have started crying, furious, heart-broken tears and then have held me to him. He would have kissed me if I let him, until I remembered that life was worth living again.

“I’m sorry,” I gasp, choking on the thickness in my throat. “I’m so, so, so, so sorry.” My words run together as I hunch over and wheeze, clutching at the hole in my middle. “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry.”

Time passes as it must, until I can cry no more and the bathroom becomes just a bathroom again.

The phone rings again, and I somehow manage to find the strength to stand. I manage to unlock the door, and I manage to wipe my face and clear my throat. And then I pick up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hey brainless.”

My heart stutters, and stills.

“Jo- Johanna?”

“You bet. Still not dead yet- remember me?”

I blink in surprise, my brain struggling to catch up.                                        

“…Hey!” I exclaim. “You- I’m sorry, I’ve just been…”

“…Stuck in it?”

“Yeah,” I say quietly. Then I clear my throat. “How are you?”

“Shitty. Life sucks. Anyway, I actually need to ask you something.”

“Yes?”

“I’ve been…doing this tour thing. Traveling around the districts. My therapist thought it would be good for me.” She snorts. “But basically, I was wondering if you’d mind if I dropped by. Just for a day or two…I…it’s not been- well.” She says, a note of vulnerability only creeping in at the end, and I can’t help but be reminded of that terrified, wide-eyed girl that I tried to comfort in 13.

“Sure. When would you get here?”

“This evening.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Wow, thanks for the early warning.”

She laughs.

“Be grateful you got one.”

I hesitate, before saying what I have to next. “Do you think you could call and tell Peeta as well? I mean, you can stay in my house but just so there are no surprises.”

“Okay, but I intend to wheedle the explanation out of you later.” Then her voice turns serious. “How is Peeta?”

It’s ridiculous how my stomach swoops. “He-He…He’s,” I take a deep breath to steady myself. “He’s fine. Better.”

“Better?” she asks, and I nod without thinking. She waits for a further elaboration that never comes.

There’s a moment of silence, and then she says, “And you two?”

“…And…us?”

“How are you two lovebirds doing, status-wise?”

“Johanna, don’t.” I say, my voice coming out weaker and more broken than I like.

There’s a pause, and then she gives an annoyed sigh. “Katniss, I don’t want to be the one sitting between you two not knowing what’s going on. Just, are you friends or what?”

I try to focus on my breathing. There’s a rising panic building up in my chest, rendering my limbs jittery and frail. Anxiety courses through my blood like venom.

“Can we,” I try to keep my voice even, though I clutch the phone next to me like it might explode. “Please, talk about it later?”

“Okay.” She says, and I exhale. “So…I guess I’ll see you this evening.” I can hear a slight smile in her voice.

“Yeah,” I breathe. “See you soon.”

I hang up, and then immediately feel guilty for doing so. The jittery feeling- the kind you get when you’ve had too much sugar and now you think you’re going to hurl- hasn’t left yet, and I’m suddenly grateful that I have something to do. This house barely suffices as livable.

I rummage through the closets until I locate a pan and brush, duster and some soap, and then I set about tidying the place.

Out of the corner of my eye, the windows of Peeta’s house taunt me, mocking my every step. But whenever I look up, I don’t see him inside.

Maybe he’s avoiding me. I wouldn’t blame him.

I get down on my knees, the hard wood scraping against my shins, and set about polishing the house clean of its imperfections, as if in doing so I might also amend mine. I move piles, fill rubbish bins and sweep away decades’ worth of dust. I mop floors and change sheets and make beds, until my back is sore, my knees bruised, and my hands cracked. I work and work until my body can take no more, and then I keep going.

I like it. Feels good after so long of doing nothing. I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.

Only now do I understand why Annie’s house is so clean. It’s a compromise for the mess inside of her.

I smooth down the corners of the guest bed one more time, and then look up. I’ve been stalling. The windows on his house blink over at me in the sunlight. I give a frustrated sigh and then collapse on the sofa chair.

I hate that I miss him, even now. I hate that it’s a constant, insatiable desire, need, a part of me crying out always for his company, for his arms. Always, he said. Always. But where is he now?

I throw the cushion across the room with a grunt, and glare at it. “Goddammit.”

Then I sigh and go and pick the thing up, before heading back downstairs.

 


 

 

I can’t cook.

That much is obvious, but I thought I would have been able to handle a basic casserole. Yet the thing’s overcooked, or gone wrong somehow, and now all I have to show for my efforts is a thick, brown-ish orange sludge, and a handful of frayed nerves.

I grasp the edge of the kitchen counter, and slowly count to ten.

I straighten up and chew my lip raw, as I face a graying sky. It’s okay, I try to tell myself. I don’t know the plans for dinner – whether Peeta is dining with us or not (and the coward in me desperately hopes for the latter) – but I decide to just go with it. I’ll take it as it comes, because that’s the only way I can.

I glance at the clock for a moment, deem dinner a failure, and go to grab my coat.

It’s not such a long walk from the Village to the Station, but like the rest of this day, it takes too long to pass. Johanna called me again an hour before, letting me know when she was arriving, and in all honesty, I’m not sure how I feel about it. I don’t know if I can survive holding myself together and acting normal for another whole day or two.

I arrive at the station with five minutes to spare, according to the old cranky thing that hangs above the barren platform, and may or may not be on time. I can just start to see the train arriving in the distance when I hear him approaching from behind me.

Terror floods me. It cannot be anyone but him-no one else can walk that loud-and my body goes rigid, my heartbeat thudding in my ears.

God, I’m pathetic.

I don’t turn around, but I see him go and stop a fair distance from me, further up the platform. Johanna must’ve called him.

I stare at a potted plant in front of me, blood rushing in my face. I think I might pass out.

Thankfully the train pulls up in front of us, slowing torturously, and another 30 seconds pass before the doors open.

And then she’s there. Her face is washed clean, skin pale and shadows bloom her eyes. But there is just a little more of a spark in her eyes, a little colour in her cheeks, and her hair is shorter, pulled up into a lazy ponytail. She comes out of the door closest to me, and when her eyes focus on mine, her lips pull up into a curved smirk. “Hey Everdeen,” she says, an eyebrow quirked. “You look crap.”

“Thanks.” I mutter, and she smiles wider, before enveloping me in a completely unexpected hug. I don’t quite react fast enough through the shock to return the sentiment, but she doesn’t seem to mind. Then she abruptly lets go of me and goes to embrace Peeta, and I quiet the snarl of displeasure that curls in my stomach.

“Right,” she says, letting him go. “Where’s the food?” I smile briefly before turning on my heel and heading back the way.

I keep a bit of distance between Peeta and Johanna, where they chat as we make our way back to the Victor’s village. When we part Johanna gives him a quick, “See ya,” and just as I look up, his eyes catch me. Bright electric blue against the forlorn clouds. My gaze snaps away, and I roughly shove open the front door of my house.

Once we’re inside, Johanna dumps her bag on the dining table, surveying the room. “So,” She says casually. “What’s got between you two?”

I scowl as I lift up the plate on top of the “casserole”. “Nothing.” I say.

“Nothing?” she laughs loudly. “My ass. The sexual tension between you guys was killing me.”

My face flushes, and as I turn around to face her I jut my chin out defiantly.

“I shot an arrow between him and some girl.”

I keep my expression hard, and she stares at me for a moment, before bursting out laughing.

“Oh my God,” she says through maniac-like giggles. “I have to hear this.”

“No,” I reply through gritted teeth. “But if you want to hear something equally amusing, guess what? We aren’t getting any dinner tonight.”

“No worries.” She says, and I look back at her. “I came prepared.” She pulls out two large bottles of some clear liquid, and I glare at her.

“We aren’t getting drunk.”

She raises her eyebrows.

“Being the fucked up hell-hole I am, I am very conscientious of when a girl needs a drink, and I’m afraid that you most certainly do.” She unceremoniously pulls out the cork with her teeth, spits it into the waste bin, and holds out the bottle to me.

“C’mon, virgin. It’ll make you feel better.” I eye her warily for a moment, and then take the bottle and place it to my lips, before swinging it back and taking one huge gulp.

“Damn, that’s strong,” I gasp, slamming the bottle down onto the counter as a hand flies to my throat. She snickers as the liquid washes down my throat with a sharp burning sensation, and slowly settles into a fuzzy warmth in my chest. I thrust the bottle back to her, and she takes a long sip with ease.

“Ok,” she says, hopping up on the counter. “Spill.”

I blink back tears as I scramble for the words.

“I guess…well it started when he first came back from the Capitol. It took a while for us to become friends, or whatever, again.” I look at her and she nods.

“And then…” I find that I don’t really want to tell her about that night, the one when I found him during the flashback, so I skim over it. “We sort of got closer, and then we went to Annie’s in 4 because- you know, she asked us to and yeah- and it was just kind of then that I realized…I mean, he doesn’t like me anymore.”

Johanna stares at me appraisingly. “You mean love you?”

I take a deep breath, and nod.

“Ok, give me that back.” I grab the bottle out of her hand and take one long swig.

“So,” she begins. “You’re basically trying to tell me that you still love him but are convinced that he no longer love you?”

“Know. I know he doesn’t.”

“And this has what to do with shooting an arrow at him and some girl?”

“It wasn’t at him,” I grumble as I take another sip. “It was just between him and her.”

She snorts.

“And I don’t know, I just saw them flirting and lost my temper.” I flinch as I remember the argument. “And then I kind of screamed at him. And he kind of walked out. And I think I’m kind of going to throw up.”

Johanna pops open the second bottle, and I open and close my mouth. “Don’t protest.” She says, grabbing two glasses. “You need to let it out.”

“That’s it.”

“Well,” she says, pouring herself a glass. “I don’t think he doesn’t love you.”

I glower at her.

“The hell he does. And I’m fine. You’re right; life sucks, and I can deal with that.”

She shoots me a sidewards glance as she hands me a glass. “He’s had practice. You, girl on fire, don’t know shit about dealing with unrequited feelings.”

I roll my eyes as I struggle to keep my temper. “Yeah, and I suppose having the boy you’d die for wrap his hands around your throat doesn’t count.”

“If he didn’t care,” she says, sloshing the alcohol in her glass. “He wouldn’t be looking at you like that.”

I choke a little on my drink and she smirks. “He’s not looking at me, period.”

“Yes he is. It’s that sort of cross between anger and that kicked-puppy look. And what did you say to him exactly before he walked out?”

I flush and look down at my drink. “I told him to leave me alone.”

Suddenly, Johanna starts laughing so hard she needs to grip onto the edge of the sink to stay upright.

“Oh God, Katniss. You’re an idiot.”

I scowl at her, but I can already feel the effects of the alcohol beginning to set in, rendering my mind fuzzy and my body warm and tingly. I like it.

“I feel bad for the boy,” Johanna says between snickers. “And considering I am heartless, that’s saying something.”

“I don’t,” I grumble.

“Katniss, you told him to leave you alone, and now you’re upset because he is leaving you alone.”

“It was not that simple!”

“Why don’t you just ask him how he feels?”

“BECAUSE I KNOW,” I half-scream.

She eyes me for a long second, appraising me with judgmental eyes, which is a bit rich really, considering her form is starting to sway gently to the side.

“Smash this,” she says abruptly, holding out a simple mug. I stare at her dubiously, before taking it and hurling it towards the other wall. It crashes against the plaster with a satisfying clatter.

Johanna proceeds to hand me another mug, snickering, and I take that and do the same, feeling childish, but not quite caring enough to stop. Before I know it, she’s joined in, and half the dishes are lying in shards at end of the room. She’s yelling things like “You show ‘em, girl on fire!” and “How’s that feel, huh?!” and I start giggling, something I can’t ever recall doing before.

I take the bottle and tilt my head back, choking a little when it all runs down the front of my shirt, the scent of alcohol etched permanently into my nostrils. But I don’t care. I don’t care at all about anything, or any of the consequences. Because this is exhilarating, because I feel good, so good, and because I can barely remember my own name, let alone any of my worries.

So when Johanna gets up onto the table, singing and waving her glass around unsteadily, I get up with her, scrambling on the edge of the uneven wood, and shout until my throat is sore, my bottle empty, and my vision unfocused and blurry. And then when the world beneath me starts to spin, my soul caught up in a blur of colours and voices and sounds, I laugh a little louder, and let it all go.

 


 

 

Ow.

The first thing I register when I come to is the acute pounding in my head, so real that for a moment I have myself convinced someone is actually punching me in the skull. But then I feel the cold gust of wind brushing against my frozen legs, the tingling in the arm that is crushed under my chest, and I internally curse.

Oh God, why.

A smell wafts into my nose, and I gag, the odor of alcohol and dust and please-don’t-let-that-be-puke encompassing my senses. I groan and open my eyes.

Johanna. She is slung across one of the sofas, her dark hair matted and her mouth lying open against a cushion as she sleeps. A stream of sunlight falls across her back, leaking in through the open window.

Why the hell is the window open?

I feel my brows furrow, and I sit up to inspect the rest of the room when a rug slips off my legs and I see that I’m only half-dressed.

Why the hell am I in my underwear?

I groan loudly and give up, one quick glance confirming the place is, indeed, trashed, and that I am screwed. I fall back onto the sofa in exasperation.

The door briefly creaks open, and I sit straight back up. I almost do a double-take when Peeta walks into the room.

His eyes meet mine and my mouth falls open, my hand going up to attempt to smooth back my birds-nest hair. I spot a hamper in his arms.

He doesn’t smile, but he doesn’t seem angry either. His eyes scan the room skeptically, and then he raises his brows.

“Hey.” He says, looking at me.

“Hi.”

My voice is hoarse and rough, and I clear it several times self-consciously. He leaves the hamper down on the kitchen counter, and then walks over to the table and puts down two bottles of water and a small white box. “You might want those.” He says, pointing to the box, and turns to leave.

He pauses at the doorway though, looking back and boring his gaze intently into me, but I turn away and cover my legs, trying to retain a little dignity. His eyes dart down to where I am busying myself with the rug, and although his expression does not change, a somewhat satisfying flush rises to his cheeks.

He studies me in a way that makes me feel naked once more, before turning and walking out the door.

I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding, exhaling loudly. Curiosity over-powers me, and before I know it, I am slowly crawling over the sofa to the table, picking up the white box and examining it. I frown as I read the label, and then my mouth falls open.

He’s given me painkillers.

I stare at the box in shock for a few moments, and then quickly pull open one of the layers, popping a long white pill out of its tin burrow and fumbling with the water bottle. I’m just swallowing as Johanna yawns from my right.

I look over at her, and she smiles mischievously.

“What?”

“Morning to you too,” she says with a smirk, and then promptly groans, a hand reaching up to pinch the bridge of her nose as she frowns.

“Here,” I say, tossing her a water bottle and the little white box, and she takes one hastily.

“So,” I begin after her forehead smoothes out. “What on earth did we do last night that warranted this?” I gesture out towards the mess of the room.

She shoots me an incredulous look. “You seriously don’t remember?”

I shake my head.

She snorts. “Well, first we smashed some dishes, and then got a little wild before heading out to Haymitch’s-“

“Haymitch’s?!”

She quirks an eyebrow at me. “-and raiding some of his liquor. Oh, and I remember some geese too. We chased them and then I got naked and you tried to kiss Peeta.”

I choke on my water, the liquid getting lodged in my throat and spraying all down my front as I gasp for air.

“What?!” I half-scream.

“You tried to kiss loverboy. I think he came out half-way through the goose-chasing, and then you tried to run but slipped up and fell on your ass, and when he went to help you, murmuring something about getting you inside, you tried to kiss him.”

I stare at her, paralyzed on the couch, my brain running a mile a minute.

“I don’t blame you, to be fair. That whole serious, noble- good guy act was kinda sexy.”

I blink several times, trying to find my tongue. “And- and what did he do?” I gasp, feeling sick to my stomach.

“What, when you went for it? Oh, the same old chivalrous thing. I think he said something like “Katniss, no,”” She drops her voice in a poor imitation, “and then he picked you up and carried you back to the house, all the while you kept clinging onto his neck. But I’m not sure if that was affection or if you were just half-dead.”

I’m going to die. I am going to die from mortification.

Johanna laughs when she sees my face, which is not entirely the level of reassurance I need. “Oh, don’t worry. You only took off your pants once he left. I have done way worse.”

“How do you remember all this?” I moan, clutching the rug like a safety rope. She looks at me for a second too long, and then says, “Practice.”

I sink my head into my hands as Johanna moves off the sofa and crosses the room, and upon uncovering the hamper, groans loudly.

“Oh my God,” she says, voice thick through a mouthful. “Your baker boy is fabulous. Now I understand why you love him.”

I jump up and cross the room in seconds, eyes growing wide at what’s in front of me.

Cheesebuns. He baked us. Bloody. Cheesebuns.

I’m wordless as I watch Johanna stuff her face with the fluffy, melted goodness. Why? Why is he being so kind? When all I did was snap at him, be moody, and get jealous over something that doesn’t even belong to me?

“He must’ve really enjoyed that almost-kiss.”

I pin her with a glare as I move past her and to the bathroom. I will not eat those goddamn buns. I will not touch what I do not deserve.

I splash my face with cold water and stare at my reflection in the mirror. Clammy face, chapped lips and blood-shot eyes scowl back at me. It is all too reminiscent of that morning all those weeks-months, ago in the bedroom ensuite. Still crazy. Still a madwoman.

Except now I’m used to it.

I shake my head as I head back from the bathroom and resolutely avoid drooling over those buns. Their scent lures me in, rich, cheesy warmth caressing my stoic form. They are exactly what I need right now. The greasy calories are the perfect answer for a shamefully hung-over morning.

Do not give in do not give in, I chant to myself.

“Hey brainless,” Johanna says, already on her third one. “What’s with the pouting? You aren’t seriously refusing to eat one of these out of spite are you?”

“It’s not spite.” I force out through a clenched jaw.

“Then what? Pride?”

“As if I have any after last night.” I say, snorting.

Johanna eyeballs me for a prolonged second, and then turns back to the task at hand, brows slightly furrowed.

“Ok, so I was wondering if you could take me to the woods.” Johanna begins after a short-lived silence, voice blunt.

I cast a skeptical look at her. “We barely made it to the kitchen, let alone the woods.”

“Lightweight. I’m only here for a day or two anyway- I’ve always wanted to explore Everdeen’s infamous woods.”

“Fine.” I sigh, and lean over to grab a bottle and dump it in the bin. “But you’re helping me with this mess first.”

 


 

“He is not coming!” I hiss as Johanna bounds over to the basin.

“Too late.” She wets down her hair and pulls it back into one high ponytail, avoiding her reflection in an action I know all too well.

“I can’t believe you! Why would you do this to me?”

She stares at me condescendingly as she stalks out the room. “Just ‘cause you can’t get your shit together doesn’t mean you get to ruin the rest of our day. Besides, he baked you cheesebuns. If anything, you owe him.”

“I didn’t touch them!”

“You’re unbelievable.”

“I’m unbelievable?! The minute my back is turned you go prancing off over to him when you knew I didn’t want to see him anymore today!”

“Be grateful.” She states, stripping off her top in one fluid movement, revealing her somewhat lack of undergarments. She pulls on another baggy, blue-grey shirt. “Now you can plan the opening to your makeup-sex.”

“Urgh!” I turn on my foot and stomp out the room, slamming the door loudly behind me.

I glare at the window opposite me, trying to slow my breathing. Millions of tiny black butterflies flutter through my bones- the sort of fear I am least equipped against.

I am not ready to see Peeta again.

I stalk into my room and run my fingers over my face. Then I pull out my braid and do it up once more. And one more time after that.

“You coming, brainless?” comes Johanna’s voice from downstairs. I sigh and wipe my hands on my trousers, before heading back downstairs.

I don’t look at her as we grab out jackets and head out the door, and I don’t look at her when we stop briefly outside Peeta’s house, waiting for him to join us. Though I try to distract myself, I can’t help but note the way his hair is mussed from fitful sleep, or the way his smile to Johanna, though slight, is still genuine. Today, he wears a powder -blue checkered shirt.

I kick a rock near my toe, glaring at it when it doesn’t budge.

We travel in silence, feet treading on gravel, clothes snagging on the fence as we duck under it, laboured breathing in compromise for unsafe words. I stay at the front, neck aching from my resolution to not look back. Unlike yesterday, nobody says anything, not even Johanna, and the eerie silence does little to numb my mind.

I take us east, carefully avoiding the rock on which I used to meet my hunting partner, and we make our way through cold air and mud-coloured tree trunks. The leaves wilt this morning, drooping tones of olive and bottle-green, and a slight mist dampens the air. My head pounds like a drum.

When we are about halfway through, we reach a semi-clearing, dew dampening the grass and our boots, and Johanna claims she needs a bathroom break.

“And you two need to talk.” She adds, gesturing lazily towards the space between us, and we both glare at her. “I’m tired of this moping around. You guys were like the last good thing in this damn world.”

I watch her form disappear around the corner and then we are alone.

Silence. I can feel my fingers twitch, and I fist the material of my jumper in my hand, refusing to look at him. My heartbeat is uneven.

He sighs loudly, and before I know it, the words are bursting from my mouth.

“I’m sorry! Okay?” I say, digging my fingernails into the jumper and not quite meeting his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

I feel his gaze heavy on my skin, my body, and I flush, burning up in the tension. I stare at a patch of grass by my feet. Drops of water cling to it like crystals, twinkling in the raw sun.

“Katniss.”

I bite my lip.

Katniss.”

I look up and meet his eyes. Blue-grey. The colour of a storm, and rain, summer heat hissing off the pavement.

“I don’t know what to say to you.” He tells me slowly, and words sting like acid. “I...” he stares off into the distance, his fingers fidgeting at his sides. “I…I want to help you Katniss. I want to so much. But every time I try…I feel like you’re shutting me out. And I don’t think we should go on like this.”

He looks at me expectantly, but no words form in my mouth. My tongue dries, my stomach aching as though I’ve been kicked.

“You don’t think we should go on?” I gasp, blinking rapidly to hide the burning building behind my eye sockets. “You…you don’t want me in your life anymore?”

I sound pathetic, even to myself, and I bite my lip so hard it hurts as I feel the first unforgivable tear roll down my cheek.

“Katniss.” He says my name, and all I can hear is mingled shock and disgust, but then his hands are on me, grasping my sides so gently I could be made of porcelain, and I might as well be, because it’s as if a dam has opened, and my sobs have grown mortifyingly untamable.

“No, Katniss, no,” he whispers desperately, and when I look up at him through a blurry vision, he half-laughs, though there is no humour in his voice. “Katniss, goddammit, of course I want you in my life. I love you. I’m in love with you. How could I ever not?”

And then the world freezes around me altogether, stops spinning abruptly, and there is nothing but him, nothing but me and him and those five words. I’m in love with you.

In love. With you.

“What?” I gasp, my eyes wide, my stupid heart bubbling up like a champagne bottle inside my throat, my every limb screaming out for release. “You…you what?”

He is so close to me I can count every freckle dotted across his nose and cheeks. Those eyes search into me so deep, almost empathetically, as if I’d been drowning in two feet of water and had only just been shown how to stand. “I love you, Katniss,” he breathes, wiping away a tear away with his thumb, which stays resting on my cheek. “I…I love you so damn much. Every day. All the time.” And then he laughs, a true, joyful rich sound as he stares into my eyes, for my tears have slowed, and I stare back at him as if I am seeing all the stars mapped out across his face in splendor.

We are silent for a few moments, memorizing each other’s expressions as though we might be tested on it, and then I whisper, “You love me.”

Slowly, almost experimentally, I rest my head onto his shoulder and breathe in the smell of clean linen and melted sugar, tasting the words.

“You love me.”

The words are so quiet they become less of a statement than a thought, and as they are uttered I trace my lips feather-lightly across the skin there, smiling slightly as he shudders. His hands come round to hold me to him, caressing the space between my shoulder blades, and I see his eyes flutter close out of the corner of my eye.

“Yes,” he replies every time.

“Always.”