After our disastrous appearance in District 11, Peeta and I throw ourselves wholeheartedly into improving the impression we make in public. I think I’m getting better at being vapid and sappy, and Peeta has developed what I think of as his "Capitol face" - a suave but blank smile that conceals anything he's actually thinking. We try cutesy nicknames for each other for a while, but I keep almost laughing and he isn't much better, especially if we've had a glass of wine at the feast, so we have to stop that. We’re together constantly, always in arm’s reach of each other. I have to admit, though, I'm glad the act involves so much handholding. Sometimes his firm grip is the only thing keeping me grounded as we smile and talk and dance as though the lives of everyone we love aren't relying on us seeming to have a wonderful time.
The more I get to know him, the more I think that I could have a good time with Peeta if I weren't terrified all the time. It turns out he's funny, as well as generous and kind. For all his good boy charm, he's got a snarky sense of humour, a quick mind, and absolutely no respect for authority. And thank goodness for that. Sometimes when it's all getting too much for me, he'll pull me close to him and pretend to whisper sweet nothings - when what he's really doing is filling my ear with a caustic commentary on Effie's speech, or a Mayor's fawning wife, or our stylists' wardrobes. After a few seconds I find I'm able to take a full breath, squeeze his hand in gratitude, and I don't have to fake the smile on my face or the soft kiss I give him in response to his words.
Still, it's mostly the officials important enough to rate an invitation to the feasts and receptions that see this and by the time we’re halfway through the tour it’s clear that it’s not enough. When we speak to the crowds I'm still awkward and distant. I can't make Effie's speeches sound like anything I'd say myself. Peeta does a lot more talking than I do, but he can't carry the act on his own and I feel paralysed looking down at the sea of resentful faces in every district. I try to look pleasant and earnest, but let's face it, pleasant was never my thing. Every smile feels like a grimace.
So when we pull out of District 5, more gunshots echoing in our ears, I do something I never thought I'd do: I suggest we get married. Peeta's been looking grim and pale anyway since we got back on the train, and now his face tightens further. "Sure," he says roughly. "Why not?" Then he walks out of the lounge car without another word. I rise to go after him, but Haymitch grabs my wrist.
"What's his problem?" I demand. "This is what he wanted."
"Not like this, Sweetheart," Haymitch says. "He wanted it to be real. If you think for one second that what he wanted was to trap you in a marriage you don't want, you don't know him at all. Leave him be for a bit." I’m relieved when he grabs a glass and a decanter and stumbles off to his own room, leaving me to watch the scenery in peace.
By the time we stop to refuel we must have reached District 4, because we’ve been going along the seashore for an hour or so. I’m trying to decide whether I can get away with climbing off for some fresh air when I see Peeta walking determinedly across the sand towards the water. Before I can stop to think I’m rushing after him, shoving past Haymitch, who tries to grab me.
“I thought I told you to give him some space,” he grumbles.
“I’ve got this,” I say. “It’s ok.”
I slow my pace as I reach Peeta, and kick at the sand a bit as I’m walking so he can hear me coming. He doesn’t even look at me when I sit beside him.
“You can tell Haymitch I’ll be fine by the time the prep team needs me,” he says. “I just need some space to get used to the idea that I’m ruining the life of the girl I’ve loved since I was five.” His words are uncharacteristically bitter. I feel a flash of irritation at his wallowing, but I put it aside – he’s been nothing but supportive to me, and whatever his feelings for me I know he wouldn’t make an issue of them if he could help it, and nothing in his life is turning out the way he wanted it either.
“You’re not ruining my life. The Games did that,” I point out. The statement is so overtly dangerous that it startles him, and he scans the beach for anyone who can overhear us before turning to me. “Look, this marriage thing – it’s not that I don’t want to marry you,” I say. He snorts, turning his face slightly away but failing to mask the grimace of disbelief that crosses his features. “No, really, it’s not.” I quail for a moment, but Peeta was right our first day on the train. If we’re going to rely on each other we need to know each other. And I know by now that I need him to be with me in this. I need not to be alone out here. “And it’s not Gale. It’s just – I was never interested in romance. I never wanted to marry anyone, ever. I put everything I had into looking out for Prim because I didn’t have a choice, but I just don’t understand how anyone can risk having children, just to see them starve to death or go through the Games. I couldn’t bear it. And my mother…” I glance over at him, and I see that now I have his full attention. There’s a look of awful sadness on his face, but I don’t know whether he’s sad for me, or for his own shattered dreams. “Nothing was left of my mother after my father died. She was so destroyed that she was willing to let her children starve to death in front of her own eyes, rather than pull herself out of her pain. I don’t ever want to be in that position.” I finish quietly, looking out towards the ocean but really seeing Prim’s hollow cheeks. “If you hadn’t tossed me that bread…” I hear Peeta draw a shaky breath. When he rests a tentative hand on my shoulder, and I use the excuse to lean into him.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I knew it was bad, but I didn’t realise just how bad. I know how it feels, though, to be betrayed by your mother.” I think of all the times I saw him come to school bruised and aching, and can’t help but wrap my arms around him, as though I could go back in time and soothe the hurt little boy he once was. I think of the beating he took for me that I never thanked him for, and again I feel a rush of gratitude to him.
“Listen, I’ve had an idea,” he says, with a peculiar, fervent undertone to his voice. “I know we have to get married, and I’m worried about what they’ll expect. Whether Snow will want … children. It bothered me before, but now I’m sure we’re going to need this plan.” I glance up at him in confusion. He’s looking out to sea with a reckless expression on his face. “I refuse to force myself on you. I can’t stand to think that what I feel for you is a weapon. It’s bad enough now, when we just have to fake this teen romance, but when we’re older…” I feel cold. I know what they’ll want when we’re older. I shift away from him, wrapping my arms around myself, and he lets me go.
It’s not that I don’t know where babies come from, or what marriage entails, but I hadn’t really made myself think all this through. I had resented the fact that Snow took away my ability to choose what I did with my life. I had worried about how my choices would impact Gale. But I hadn’t really considered all the implications, not seriously. That the Capitol would expect us to … I can’t help the embarrassed flush that I’m sure is covering my face at the thought. What does surprise me is the unexpected flash of heat that shoots through me at the thought, reminding me of the one kiss in the cave when I didn’t want him to stop. There’s something… not completely unpleasant… about the thought of sharing a bed with Peeta, even as my stomach roils in humiliation. I try to shove that reaction to the back of my mind, and it’s replaced by dread of what Snow would do to any child we had.
“Don’t worry,” Peeta assures me. “I have a plan.” I still can’t look at him, so he just keeps talking, quickly and quietly. “You said there’s nightlock berries in the woods. We take some and plant them in the garden, with other, safe berries around them. Then if it looks like they’re going to try to – to force us into something you don’t want, I’ll just bake a batch of muffins or something, make sure I eat the first one, and as far as anyone knows it’s an accident. You play the grief-stricken widow for a while, Haymitch will help, and hopefully Snow will leave you be for a bit. Maybe eventually you’ll drop off their radar enough you can be with Gale.”
My jaw drops. I knew he was prepared to die for me in the Games, but since we’ve been out of the arena he’s been fighting as hard for survival as I have. Or so I thought. “You can’t be serious. That is not a solution,” I insist. “And I told you, none of this is about Gale.”
“No. It’s about the fact that you never wanted love, you never wanted marriage, you never wanted children. And now because of me you might be forced into all three. You can’t expect me to live with that.”
“Peeta, you couldn’t have known this would happen. There’s no way you could have imagined we would both survive. You were trying to save me, and you did. We’ll figure this out together.”
“Look, I’m not saying I’m that keen on this either – it’s just a last resort. I’ll be here as long as you still want me around, but then if it gets to be too much, we have an out.” An out. He thinks so little of himself that he’s coolly and calmly laid out this plan for his own death to protect me. The thought of dealing with the Capitol year after year by myself, having to mentor with just Haymitch by my side, of never again being pulled out of a nightmare to nestle in his strong arms, makes me want to be sick. My breath starts coming fast and shallow as I imagine myself coming downstairs in my house (his house? our house? where will we live?) finding his dead body in the kitchen, mouth and fingers stained with dark berry juice.
“And I just get on with my life?” I ask incredulously. “I just keep going, mentoring all those kids with only Haymitch to help? You would seriously leave me alone with him, both of us knowing that you’d died for me? No. Absolutely not. If I see so much as one nightlock berry near the house I’ll…”
“You’ll what?” he asks bleakly.
“I don’t know, but you won’t like it!” I insist, and to my surprise I realise I’m starting to cry, the shock of imagining Peeta dead in our home hitting me somewhere deep inside. When I sniff and wipe my cheeks, the motion makes him turn enough to look at me properly. When he sees my tears he immediately looks sorry and pulls me to him, enfolding me in his warm and comforting embrace.
“Hey, I’m sorry. Easy now, I’m not going anywhere yet. I won’t go anywhere as long as you need me,” he assures me. As soon as I realise he’s not really giving up the plan I shove him away, sending him sprawling back in the sand.
“That is the worst idea you’ve ever had,” I say flatly. “I’m serious. You’re not allowed to make any more plans.” He gives a surprised laugh.
“Maybe I didn’t really think it through. I just couldn’t stand the thought of hurting you,” he says softly, not meeting my eyes.
“Losing you would hurt me,” I say quietly. His only answer is a disbelieving snort. I think of him sitting alone in his big house all these months, and I realise with some surprise that he really doesn’t think anyone needs him. Steeling myself, I look him straight in the eyes and repeat myself. “It would hurt me. I don’t know what we are, but you matter. You matter to me.”
“Ok,” he says, sounding resigned. “It’s ok, I’ll stick it out.” He heaves a sigh. “We should get back. Effie will be freaking out about the schedule.” He stands before offering me a hand and pulling me to my feet. When I refuse to let go of his hand, he takes one look at my scared face before slinging an arm over my shoulder and clasping me to his side, our hands still joined. Unsurprisingly, Haymitch is waiting for us at the door.
“You two ok, then?” he asks, examining us closely. “No bloodshed?”
“We’re ok,” says Peeta. “Let’s get this over with.”