Into the Woods

Chapter Five

District 11 was the first stop on the tour, and it amazed me how different it was from home. Wide open fields full of food. High, electric fences heavily guarded. As I peered out my window from the train, I wondered where it all ended.

Our fashion teams came to meet us to get us ready for the night's dinner and speech. I had a hard time masking my dread, even though Effie told me scowling wasn't polite at lunch. My team spent a few hours on me, scraping and sanding my body until it was clean. Ripping every hair from its follicle. And fussing at me for not taking better care of myself.

"What have you been doing to yourself, Katniss?" They asked.

Cinna was the first person to make me smile. "If it isn't the most popular girl in the Capitol," he says with outstretched arms.

"They only like me because they don't know me," I reply in something between a growl and a scoff.

"Tut tut," he chides, "you can't believe that's true."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh, Katniss. As much as I'd like to take all the credit, my amazing outfits aren't the only reason the country's taken with you. Your strength, your sacrifice, and your fashion sense…" This is when I finally break out my smile. "There she is."

"And she's in trouble," I tell him.

"You'll find a way to show your power, of that I have no doubt," and he reassuringly rubs my arms, "but in the meantime, let's get you ready for this celebration tonight. There are a lot of expectations."

Whatever the expectations were, I'm certain I disappointed. After I exploded at Peeta for not caring about the Capitol's tyranny, he attempted throughout the tour to prove that he did. This was especially disastrous in District 11 where he promised Thresh and Rue's families that he would share his winnings with them. The people of District 11 cheered and were promptly killed.

I spent the whole night crying. Peeta came in to talk to me. I wanted to yell at him. Tell him he was stupid. Did he not realize how cruel the Capitol really was? Did he not think how they would interpret his act? Not as one of compassion, but of rebellion? What was he thinking? We were already in so much danger! But he didn't know that. And when I looked at him, I knew exactly what he was thinking: he was thinking of impressing me. I wanted to blame him, but only to avoid my own guilty feelings. Peeta didn't know the extent of the Capitol's deception. He didn't know because I didn't tell him. I wanted to protect him from their evil because, despite all of Peeta's shortcomings, he was a sweet, kind boy who didn't need that worry in his life. I couldn't do much for Peeta, but I could protect him from this.

He sat next to me on my bed, and put his arms around me. I'm not sure if I am comforting him or he me, but he holds me why I cry and I think his arms are the only things keeping me from completely falling apart. When I finally stop crying, he gets up to leave.

"Don't go…" my voice shakes, "please." I'm ready to be alone, not yet, not when I can still hear the guns shots and screams.

He looks back, head cocked in confusion, but nods and comes back to my bed where I let him curl around me like a question mark and hold me, not caring that it's wrong.

When I woke up, Peeta was still lying next to me. I tried not to wake him, but his eyes shot open as I moved. "Sleep well?" I asked.

He nodded. "It's always a good night if I'm with you."

God, Peeta, I thought, don't try so hard. But he looked so happy, I didn't say anything.

We had a pleasant talk over breakfast. And I was surprised when Peeta wanted to talk about a plan for our next stops, "so the same thing doesn't happen again."

"Yeah," Haymitch said, pouring brandy into his coffee, "that'd be a good idea." And they began making plans.

When we arrived at District 10, Peeta shone. He took all of Haymitch's advice, and the crowd played right into his hands. He was funny, likable, sweet, sincere. He made the crowd laugh and sigh. All I had to do was stand next to him, lean my head on his shoulder, look up at him fondly. And we followed through the other nine districts to the Capitol.

I can't say the Victory Tour was exactly a success, but, at least no one else was shot after 11, and everyone continued to believe that Peeta and I were still madly in love…including Peeta, I fear.

He came into my cabin every night to talk…and cuddle. He kept me from getting too worked up or angry about the things we had to say and do. He held me when I cried and calmed me after I had nightmares. I hate to admit it, but I don't know how I would have survived the tour without him. He did all the work, and I realized that he was in his own way, protecting me.

But I wasn't being fair to him. Peeta could be such a great comfort when I needed him, and such a chore when I didn't. I know what he wants from me, and I also know I can't give it to him. At least not now, for so many reasons, not the least of which is that the Capitol is telling me to. Also, because I don't know if I'll ever be able to separate him from all the negative emotions that surround the Capitol and the Games. There is so much hate and sadness, shame and regret. Sometimes just looking at him is enough to make me want to scream or cry. And I feel even worse because I know it's not fair to him.

That poor, perfect boy with the bread who has the horrible misfortune of falling in love with a mess like me.

I hope he knows how thankful I am, and how sorry I am I can't be better for him. I know Peeta wants more from me, but I also know that he deserves better. I could never give him what he wants. Peeta doesn't see it, will never admit it, but I know my heart it is true. And soon, I'm going to have to make him see it.

These are the thoughts that haunt me as we approach the Capitol.

. . .

When we arrive at the Capitol, I am surprised to see so many cheering fans. People are screaming my name, tossing flowers at me. Someone even asks for my autograph. Peeta is eating the attention up, of course, and the people love him. He knows when to wave and strike a pose. The whole thing puts me in a stupor though. I see my face everywhere. On billboards and t-shirts. It's so unreal.

"Hey, look at us!" Peeta exclaims, pointing up. Holographic images of us kissing are displayed on the sides of buildings and I look so happy, it makes me sick, though he seems generally amused.

We are lead to our rooms by a small girl with purple hair and eyes who tells me that my "quaint" hair style is now in vogue. Cinna winks at me as I roll my eyes. Once we are settled, Effie finds us to tell us we have few hours before the show. I'm about to go find my stylists when a yellow girl, yellow everything from her skin to her hair, finds me.

"Miss Everdeen?" she says with a peeping voice. I wheel around, caught off guard. "Could you come with me please? President Snow would like to see you."

My heart falls to me feet and my throat is suddenly so dry I can't respond. I barely manage a nod as I follow her. A million thoughts race through my mind and I suddenly remember Haymitch's warning. I think of a hundred things I could have done better over the past weeks. Brighter things I could have said, bigger smiles, better stories…

She takes me to and underground shuttle and we arrive in a black hallway with no windows. We don't pass anyone as I'm led to a plush, royal colored room. The furniture is heavy looking and old, though not worn, like it's from a history book or something. Large bookshelves line the walls and a huge, many-paned window looks out on a garden. The golden girl tells me nothing more than "wait here," so I stare out at the flowers until he finds me.

"Miss Everdeen," his voice is as cold as his name and the words slip out of his pursed lips, "what a pleasure it is to have you back in the Capitol." He lingers on the last word, saying each syllable separately, slowly, perhaps out of some sort of reverence. It makes my skin crawl, but I manage to force a smile as Snow comes near me.

I try to keep up the pretense. "Thank you for having me."

"You're so popular here in the Capitol. Everyone thinks you're so charming. I've even noticed some of the girls wearing your hair." He flicks my braid as he circles me. "But in the Districts, however, I'm afraid you're popular for entirely different reasons…" His lips crack into a red smile, and he reminds me of an animal that's just slaughtered and eaten its prey.

"They bought it," I assure him.

"Oh, of course that's what you think, dearie," he condescends, "and I want so very much to believe you, if it weren't for that ever-so handsome cousin of yours…"

"Gale's got nothing to do with this."

"Do you really expect me to believe that when you've spent all your weekends in the woods with him?" He twists the word cousin so he knows that I know it a lie. "What I wouldn't have given to have had a boy as handsome as him in the Games last year. He probably would have been as popular as Finnick – "

"Gale's 18. You can't touch him."

"Maybe not in the Games, perhaps, though as you have proven this year, exceptions to certain rules can be made..." He leaves that thought hanging so I have time to feel his full implication. My fists tighten in rage. "But you're probably right, and lucky for you, he's safely tucked away working in those mines right now where, goodness knows, nothing tragic could ever happen to him..."

His meaning does not escape me, and I'm certain I could kill him in this moment, if only I had a weapon. But there is nothing within reach, and I wonder how much damage I could do with my bare hands.

"Listen," I try hard not to sound like I'm pleading, "Peeta and I will be dazzling tonight. There will be no question –"

But he cuts me off. "Why Miss Everdeen, you certainly can't be naive enough to think this is your last appearance?" My question is written across my face. "I don't' doubt your ability to fool everyone for now, my concern, shall we say, is more long term. When you mentor at next year's Hunger Games, for instance, or at the celebrations the year after that? How long do you think you can keep the whole world believing that you are in love?"

I'm so shocked, I have no control over my expression. I'd never thought of this before. I survived the Games, could survive the Tour, but keeping up the charade forever?

Snow's face splits into that sick, lipless smile again as he reached out to stroke my face. I recoil. "Katniss, dearie, you'll be doing this for the rest of your life…Though, on the bright side, one never knows exactly how long that will be."

"Come on, Katniss," Peeta tries to console me. He attempts to hug me, but I can't stop moving. I'm pacing my room like a caged animal about to explode. "Is it really so bad?"

"Is it really so bad?" I throw his words back at him with venom. "He just threatened me, Peeta! He practically promised to kill Gale!"

"I don't think he'll kill Gale…" He again reaches to calm me, but I swat him away. His shushing and petting only piques my rage.

"Don't pretend you even care," I snap.

Peeta actually looks hurt. "Hey," he rebukes, "Gale is your friend –"

"He's more than my friend!" I cut him off. He's my best friend. He's my other half. We know each other's deepest secrets, darkest fears, brightest dreams… "I don't even know who I am without Gale."

But Peeta gives me a reproachful look. He doesn't understand my meaning at all.

"Don't start with that again, Peeta." I quickly dismiss him, not in the mood for that conversation.

"You said there was nothing between you two."

"There's nothing between us, Peeta!" I point between him and me. "It's all a lie! And one we'll have to keep up for the rest of our lives as long as that snake is around." I gesture dramatically to mean Snow.

Peeta looks wounded again, and I can see the full effect our late night cuddling has had. His eyes shine with hope but are cracked with doubt, and I realize I have to put an end to this once and for all. I take a moment to compose myself, try and find a nice way to explain what I mean.

"It's not fair," I begin.

"I know," he quickly interjects.

"It's not fair to you," I emphasize. "You deserve better, Peeta."

"But I want you." I shake my head as he says this, wondering what I can do to make him realize.

"No, Peeta. You want us, and –"

"I want us to be happy," he asserts. "Is that really so bad?"

"No, Peeta, it's beautiful. But it isn't what I want." I take his hands and look him in the eyes. I take a few breaths to calm down so my voice sounds confident and strong…certain. "I don't want a happily ever after, Peeta. I don't even want an after. I just want an end."

Peeta recoils, and I think my words have frightened him. He searches my eyes, looking for a small scrape of doubt to cling to, hoping he can somehow dismiss me again. I don't back down. I mean every syllable I say.

"I want to see it all end," I repeat, "and I will do everything in my power to make that happen."

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