Into the Woods

Chapter Nine

Thankfully, Peeta had the good sense to stay away for the next day. I was sorry that Gale did as well. My mother must have assumed I was tired from the party and let me rest all morning. I didn't do much resting though. I pulled myself up to my window and stared out, hoping to see Gale's form appear but reminding myself he's busy working in the mines. I wonder how he's doing, working so hard without any sleep. Can't be easy, but Gale always pulls through. It's one of the few things I can count on.

I hear my mother and Prim moving downstairs. I know if I don't join them soon, they'll start to get curious. Judging by the shadows, it's well past noon. I change into my regular clothes, making sure they are long enough to cover all my cuts. They only thing I can't hide is the gash on my forehead and the scrapes on my hands. I'll need a cover story for this. I rake my brain as I look out my window. Haymitch is stirring; he's probably just getting up as well. He looks horrible. No doubt he was drunk last night. Drunk! That's it! I'll tell my mother I was drunk and slipped or something leaving the party. She'll be unhappy I was drinking that much, but it won't kill her. It's the perfect cover story really, it even gives me an excuse to be in a bad mood. Happy with my story, I trot down the stairs and into the kitchen where they are working.

"Katniss!" Prim chirps.

"Did you sleep well?" my mother asks, drying her hands as she turns from the sink. "Oh my, Katniss, what happened?" Her eyes find the cut on my face.

"Nothing," I scowl and dismiss her. I grab a loaf of bread and start to chew. Then I realize it's from Peeta and spit it out. Did he come by this morning? "I drank a little too much and couldn't walk in those damn heels."

"Katniss," my mother's tone was a mix of both concern and reproach. "Here, drink this." She pulled a small vial from her cupboard and added its contents to some hot water. She put the mug in front of me. "You shouldn't be drinking, Katniss."

"I shouldn't be wearing heels."

"Did the bread upset your stomach?"

Good, that makes sense, I think. I look up from the mug and nod at my mother.

"Exactly how much did you drink?"

"Not that much, don't worry." She looks at me sternly, but doesn't push.

Luckily, Prim cuts in and interrupts us. "I want to know everything about the party!"

"You do?" I mimic her jubilant tone. I focus on her bright face and push aside my bad memories. "Let me think," I begin. "Do you remember my dress?" She nods. "Well, that wasn't even the one of the prettiest dresses there."

Her eyes grow wide. "I don't believe that! You're dress was so beautiful!"

Yes, I think. My dress which is now in pieces hidden in my room. I see myself pulling at it in woods, tearing at it by the fence, Peeta pulling it off my shoulder. I want to shudder. I hide for a moment behind my mug and take a long sip. Then I focus on Prim's smile.

"And the Mayor's house is so nice," I continue. "The living room has beautiful paintings…Oh, and the furniture! Even the bathrooms are gorgeous." I remember crying in the Mayor's bathroom. Holding on to the toilet for support. The red water in my tub at home. This is going to be harder than I thought. "But the best part," I tell her, trying to sound as excited as possible, "was undoubtedly the food." Prim's eyes try to pull every detail out of me. "There was delicious creamy soup. It was made from some rich type of cheese, I don't think I've ever had it before. There was perfectly roasted chicken with an orange sauce on a bed of fragrant rice, and more desserts than I could ever describe. There was one, it had layers of chocolate and raspberry…" And I remember that was what I was eating when the reporter approached me.

I shake my head and look at Prim, so sweet, so pure. No one will ever hurt you, I think about the man's threat. So pure, I think, and I realize she is so vulnerable. She isn't safe, and nothing I'm doing will change that. She's not safe from the Capitol, even without their direct threats, they hurt her every day in so many other days. I can keep her fed, but she'll have friends who starve. One day, she'll like a boy, she'll watch him slave in the mines…like Gale is now. And they could both be lost, like our father was, any day. The Capitol doesn't have to contrive an accident. I look into those bright blue eyes that somehow still shine with happiness and hope, and I realize they deserve to see a better world. I can hide Prim from it, protect her from it, but not forever.

Something is stirring in my brain, and I need to get out and think. I lean in and kiss Prim on the cheek and tell her that I'm going for a walk. My mom begins to protest, but I ignore her worry and insist I'll be okay. I head out the door and start walking towards town.

My mind is swimming. I'm thinking of Prim and Gale and the threats and their lives and how hard I have to work to deserve them. I can't keep playing the Capitol's game, and even if I could, it wouldn't be enough to protect them from the world. So, I've got to find a way to change it.

I decide to talk to Haymitch and head over to his house. I've got a lot of questions about the things he said on the tour. I haven't forgotten about his big picture speech and suspect he knows more than he's letting on. As I hop up the stairs to his porch, I nearly crash into Peeta. He's marching out of Haymitch's house, his eyes downcast, clearly not paying attention. We look at each other stunned. He looks at me like he wants to say something. There is such an expression of shame on his face. More than shame, pain. Peeta looks anguished. He opens his mouth, put I raise my finger to silence him and shake my head. I push past him and enter Haymitch's house.

"What did Peeta want?" My question sounds like an accusation.

"Not this early in the morning, sweetheart," Haymitch says, sitting on his couch.

"It's almost two in the afternoon!"

"Well, I just woke up, so to me, that means it's morning."

"What did Peeta want?" I repeat.

"Came to ask me some advice –"

"About what?"

"Man to man –" I glare at Haymitch. I open my mouth to say something, "Now just hold on a minute," he stops me, "is there something you want to tell me?"

"No," I snap.

"Then why are you here?" I open my mouth, but don't know what to say. I narrow my eyes, but Haymitch has me there. "Just spit it out, sweetheart, you're not going to spook me."

My mind is racing, I'm trying to simultaneously think about what I want to ask Haymitch and what Peeta possibly said. But I'm not sure I end up thinking about either. "Did Peeta tell you about last night?"

Haymitch takes a long moment to respond. He tips his bottle, thinks for a minute, and tips again. "He was worried about you. Didn't know where you went last night."

"I had to leave –"

"I understand, you don't need to explain yourself."

"A man from the Capitol threatened Prim."

"I heard."

"So Snow must be upset with me."

"Um, yeah, I'd say so. Now you understand why I was so upset after that interview? You need to start doing a better job in the romance department."

"That's not an option."

"Excuse me?"

"I won't do that anymore."

"Oh? Got some other brilliant plan? Going to break a few more mirrors?"

I send Haymitch a death stare. "Peeta will never touch me again. I don't love him, I don't want him, I don't trust him –"

"I think you're over reacting."

"Did he tell you what he did last night?" I scream.

"Yes, and he's sorry. Look, he's a sixteen year old boy, I'm not saying that's an excuse, but it's hard for him. "

"And it's not hard on me?"

"I'm not defending him, Katniss. He's confused, he crossed a line, he sees that now, but he didn't mean to hurt you."

"But he did," I'm fighting hard not to cry, I never cry in front of Haymitch, but I feel my cheeks grow damp. "He hurts me every time he kisses me, every time he's nice to me. I hate it! I can't stand it!"

"Hey, hey," Haymitch tries to console me, "listen, if you hate him that much –"

"It's not Peeta I hate! It's me! I hate myself because I don't love him back. Because I can't give him what he wants! And I feel like I should! And every time I see him it's a constant reminder of a life I'll never have, of things I'll never feel…." I'm really crying now. "I'm so afraid, Haymitch, when I'm awake, when I'm asleep. I don't know how to protect the ones I love. I don't even know if it matters that I do. I'd die for Gale, but he could still die tomorrow in a mine accident. And Prim, no matter what I do, I can never shield her from all the horror in this world. And one day she's going to see it, and lose that little flame of hope she has in her eyes, the belief that things are still good. I can't stop that from happening…I don't even know if I should because it's a hard and ugly place and maybe if she sees that she'll be stronger!" I'm choking on sobs now.

"Katniss," Haymitch reaches out, trying to comfort me. "I'm sorry about Peeta, but maybe you can forgive him –"

"I don't trust him, Haymitch, not anymore."

"Okay, but you don't really have to trust him. You just have to trust that he'll –"

"He made me feel like a victim!" And comprehension finally dawns in Haymitch's eyes. As a fellow victor, a fighter, he understands the true horror of that feeling. It's not pain we fear, not heartache or hunger or betrayal. It's powerlessness.

"You're right. He should have known better, there's no excuse for what he did – "

I interrupt, "it's not about what he did, it's about what he won't do –"

And he steals the conversation back, "but if we're going to make this work – " I start to laugh. Haymitch looks confused, "What's so funny?"

"Haven't you been listening? I'm not going to make it work anymore. That's the whole point." Haymitch eyebrows raise the question. "It's about what Peeta won't do, Haymitch. He won't take a stand againt the Capitol, won't try to change them, won't try to stop them – "

"Oh, and you are?" He cuts in.

"Yes," I say, eyes blazing. And Haymitch knows I'm serious.

I storm out of Haymitch's house. My conversation with Haymitch didn't go exactly as planned, but I'm glad I got to make my declaration. I honestly believe that he knows I mean business, and I'm certain he knows better than to try and stop me. I replay the conversation in my head and start to think about what to do next. As I walk around the corner, I see Peeta waiting for me.

He tentatively approaches me. "Katniss – " I try ignoring him and keep walking. I'm not in the mood to talk to him. I've hardly sorted out what I think or feel about last night. "Katniss, please, I need to talk to you." He jogs up in front of me and turns around, forcing me to face him. "Katniss," he stops as she sees the wound on my face and my bandaged hands. "Katniss, did someone hurt you?"

He's genuinely concerned. I can't help but laugh at the irony of this. He takes a step towards me, but I move backwards, "Don't you dare," I warn him.

"Okay," he relents, seeing his mistake, "I'm sorry. Katniss, I just," I turn to walk away from him, not wanting to listen to any of it. "Katniss, you have to let me apologize!" His tone is desperate.

"No I don't," I say with burning eyes. "I don't have to let you do anything!"

"You're right, I'm sorry, I just want you to know that I'd never intentionally hurt you. I'm so sorry, I just got caught up in the moment, and I wasn't thinking, I just wanted something good, you know?" He's practically jogging to keep up with me.

"I understand, Peeta." I say, forcing patience.

"So you forgive me?" he is so desperate.

"It's not that easy…"

"Katniss! I didn't mean to hurt you."

"But you did, Peeta, you did."

"It won't happen again," he tries to assure me.

"I know it won't." Peeta looks relieved, but I haven't finished. "It won't happen again because we won't be together again. Not in public, not in private. I'm through with this."

"Katniss, what are you saying?"

"I'm finished with this. With you."

"No!" he's genuinely horrified. "You can't do this!"

"Yes I can. And I am. I've already told Haymitch."

"Because of last night?" I can see the wheels turning in his head, trying to find some hope, some way to save this.

"No, Peeta. Because of right now."

"What am I doing wrong now? I'm trying to apologize! Make this right!"

"Exactly Peeta, you're trying to fix us and there is no us! You'll always want more from me, and I'll never want to give it to you. And I can't tell you how much that hurts me. There isn't enough space in my brain to think about this, about us, about anyone romantically right now. I don't want that. I never wanted that. And you are constantly forcing it on me! Since you first told Caesar during the Games, you've been pressuring me, and there is no escape, no end. I can't take it!"

"But Katniss," he's practically begging.

"No, Peeta, no more."

"So you're just giving up?"

"Call it whatever you want, believe whatever you want, but Peeta, please, accept that this is over. We have no future."

"Is this because of Gale?" My temper flares as he throws that in my face even though I know he's just desperate.

"What are you talking about?"

"I saw you two last night! I was so worried about you, I was looking everywhere, and I saw him, carrying you into your house…He didn't leave until dawn!"

Now I'm really angry. "You know, Peeta, just because we don't have a future, doesn't mean you have to ruin our past. You didn't have to…" I look down at him. It's a mixture of pity and disgust. I push past him and walk away.

"Katniss!" I ignore his pleas. "Katniss, please! I love you!"

I spin around with venom; there's a fire in my eyes. Peeta sees it and stops. "You don't even know me!" I spit at him, almost foaming, "And trust me, you really don't want to!" My tone is final. Peeta falls to his knees, sobbing.

I should have let you swallow those damn berries and taken the title all for myself, I think as I walk away. Maybe someday I'll look back on this and feel bad for him. But right now, I just want to get away.

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