Characters/Pairing: Peeta Mellark, Katniss Everdeen, Haymitch Abernathy, Gale Hawthorne
Spoilers: some spoilers for Catching Fire and Mockingjay.
Summary: Two handfuls of berries, one cannon fires, and the winner of the 74th annual Hunger Games is District 12's Peeta Mellark.
He’s not sure how it happens, but she squeezes his hand and lets go, the cannon sounds, and even the announcer is surprised.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the winner of the 74th Hunger Games – from District 12, Peeta Mellark!”
Effie is downright effervescent – Peeta wonders crazily for a second if that is in fact her full name – but she’s the only one. Haymitch, Cinna, Portia, all of them seem to be in a state of disbelief it was him standing (hobbling, really) in front of them. Peeta doesn’t quite believe it himself.
“You think too little of yourself.”
It’s a quiet moment in his suite, the stylists leaving him to get ready for the Victor’s interview. He freezes at the voice, his dress shirt unbuttoned. There’s a shooting pain in his leg as he turns.
She’s sitting on the bed, one hand running over the fabric of his suit jacket, silky to the touch, but understated. Cinna says it’s a celebration; he doesn’t say what they’re all thinking, that they’re also mourning.
“You’re not real,” he says, and he kind of wants to cry.
“Of course I’m not,” she replies like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, that he’s the biggest idiot she’s ever met. Peeta supposes that was true.
“Why-?” He’s not sure how to finish that thought.
“Because you want me to be here.”
He closes his eyes, but she’s still there when he opens them. That would be too easy. “I don’t.”
She just looks at him. Her braid is thick and shiny, and he remembers how it felt against his face, in the cave, how it cascaded down to tickle his neck every time she kissed him.
“I do,” he corrects himself, and there’s a funny feeling at the base of his throat.
Caesar Flickerman asks simple questions, and Peeta is grateful for that. Banter is easy for him, but he can’t find it in himself to be charming, not right now. A million people watching sigh at his visible grief, the sad boy who lost his love, but none of them see what he sees.
She sits at the edge of the stage, her back towards him, she’s wearing her interview dress and it pools around her legs, shiny, dazzling. She turns her head towards him, and she doesn’t say anything.
Peeta chokes on his word, and there is silence, for what feels like hours. The cameras follow his eyeline, and pan to a wide shot, but all they capture are the audience, uncertain of their Victor’s reaction.
“And of course, that alliance-” Caesar Flickerman nudges him gently, reminds him of where he is.
He recovers, staggeringly at first, because she’s still there, but his features smooth out, then his speech. He doesn’t look happy, not really, but the audience forgive him that, and they swoon and sigh and cry, mourning this tragedy, the beautiful love story that was doomed from the start.
They’re almost done, Peeta doing a fine job of carrying on, when he just wants to be away from these eyes, thousands in the stadium, hundreds of thousands in front of screens, watching his every frown, every almost-smile, every tap of his new foot. Caesar is wrapping up, he mentions Katniss in passing, not by name, and Peeta thinks he hears a tune.
Katniss is whistling, the same four notes, the four notes that were a promise to the District 11 tribute, Rue. He knows because they showed it before the interview – a highlight of the Games, the death of that young girl.
“Katniss,” he says, before he knows he’s doing it.
Everyone freezes. Caesar’s grin falters. The screens behind them blank for one microsecond, then whoever behind the curtain pulls up footage of the Games, soundless, but a scene that has been replayed so many times not one person doesn’t know what she says, when her head snaps up and her eyes burn, and the name tumbles from her lips. Peeta.
Caesar’s thousand-watt smile slides back into place, and he’s saying something appropriate, something to transition this leap in moods. But Peeta imagines he must be delirious, because all he sees is her, and he starts to murmur. “The Gamemakers, they went back on their word- they could have-”
It’s a whisper, no one will hear, except he is wearing a microphone, and everyone does. There is a collective, audible gasp, and he thinks he sees panic in Caesar’s face – not even he can save this now. He searches the stage, and finds her, facing him now, and she mouths, I’m sorry.
“I’m sorry,” he says, louder this time, but his mic has been cut off.
The facade lasts longer than he expects it would. He’s touring District 9 when he gets the news, an act of vandalism leads to a house fire in the Victor’s Village, and his middle brother is the only one left. He’s told the Victory Tour doesn’t stop for anything, and even if he went home now, there would be nothing to see.
He thinks he could cry for five days, but he becomes tired after just one.
In District 4 he’s at an event with the place’s past winners, when a distraught Effie informs him that his remaining brother is dead, it’s suicide, that survivor’s guilt is very common in cases like these. Finnick Odair comes to his room to express his condolences, and it’s the first time Peeta has seen him sincere all night. Nothing makes him feel better, but then, nothing makes him feel worse, either. He’s scared he’ll be stuck in this emotional limbo for the rest of his life.
His fears are assuaged when he comes home to a new house in the Village, and four jars of ashes on the mantelpiece. The redness and puffiness around his eyes finally disappear with the help of makeup, when he ventures towards the bakery for a photoshoot. As he hobbles unsteadily in the snow, he realises he has not been outside for a month.
She’s kept him company all this time, and she’s with him now too, her leather boots leaving no marks on the ground. The shuffling of her leather jacket comforts him. If he closes his eyes and hug his sides, he can almost feel her breathing on his cheek, the hum of her voice in his ear.
“There’s nothing else they can do to you. It’s over.”
There is always something else.
It’s never over.
Mrs Everdeen doesn’t speak to him, or to anyone much anymore, but he grows close to Prim. He no longer bakes, so he visits the other shops and brings them food often. He learns Prim’s favourite, a fragrant rose water biscuit, which he buys every time. Buttercup has adapted to his presence, and even rubs up against his leg when Peeta has sardines wrapped up in his pocket.
The only person who doesn’t appreciate his efforts is also the only other regular visitor the Everdeens still have. Peeta has gotten used to the uncomfortable silences that descend whenever he and Gale are in the same room, but as time passes, Gale only seems to hate him more.
“You understand, don’t you?”
He’s resting underneath the tree she sits in, at an almost perfect half-way point between the Village and the Seam. Her legs dangle down, and if he jumped, he could grasp an ankle.
Instead, he straightens up and continues to walk, despite not having completely caught his breath. He has no answer for her.
He grows stronger, but all it takes is two kids, two new tributes for the Quarter Quell, to knock the wind out of him again.
The first clue is Haymitch’s drinking. After the new Peacekeepers come into place and the Hob burns down, cutting off his source of alcohol, he shows no sign of withdrawal.
Then he sees Gale one night – well, the back of Gale’s head, as he walks away from Victor’s Village, when he had no business there.
The day he finally figures it out, he goes for a walk with Haymitch, under the guise of Victor-Victor bonding, discussing the upcoming Games.
“We need you,” Haymitch lays down the bottom line. “We don’t have her any more, so we need you.”
Peeta understands that he is a last resort, that he is needed to rally the numbers, become the face of the Rebellion as the former Victor, and the boy who has lost his family. He is needed to inspire sympathy, the Baker’s Son who no longer has anyone to bake for.
“It should’ve been you,” he says to Katniss back at his house, after he says ‘yes’ to Haymitch. “All I have are empty words. They need your spirit.”
She doesn’t quite meet his eye. “They’ll follow you. Your words have power.”
He tries. He tries so hard, but he cannot charm, he cannot sweet-talk, and his messages are as hollow as how he feels.
District 12 is no more, and the other rebels are falling. He broadcasts from the safety of 13’s underground bunkers, he squares his jaw and he pounds his fists, but he knows it’s not working. They can see right through him; they pity him. They know there is no anger, and they know he is no her.
She should’ve been the one. She should’ve been here.
“We need you,” Haymitch’s face is hard, unreadable, but his voice- Peeta likes to think there’s a pleading to it. “The Rebellion needs the Baker’s Son.”
Peeta doesn’t relent. “You can’t make bread without a fire, Haymitch.”
Mutually assured destruction, Coin calls it at the last meeting. The mood is grim, even as he feels a relief. He doesn’t believe in martyrdom, but like him, this is the last resort.
Two days before, he passes Gale in a corridor. They exchange looks, not words, and Peeta laughs, thinking this is ridiculous, that there is still room in their lives for animosity when everything else is crumbling beneath their feet.
The day before, he obtains permission to have dinner in his room, with Prim and Mrs Everdeen. It’s still gruel, but there are three cheese rolls – he baked. There is a knock on the door which Prim goes to open, and Peeta pulls along another chair for their new dinner guest. He breaks his roll in half and shares it with Gale, and catches the smile Prim doesn’t think he’d see.
On the day, he sleeps well, but wakes up early and stays in bed. She’s here too, close, not close enough to touch. He stares at her for what he thinks is hours, until his body feels stiff from not moving. She raises her hand, as if to touch his face.
A siren sounds, and it is time.
For once, the odds are in their favour.
The Capitol will be uninhabitable for decades to come, so District 13 becomes the new capital. With so few hands, they start to venture above ground, start to rebuild. Peeta volunteers for District 12, and no one stops him, though every once in a while a camera crew goes to him to film new shorts, encouraging messages to be broadcast to the other Districts, ostensibly to energise them.
He finds hope comes easier to him than anger.
She watches him from behind the camera. She doesn’t smile – he’s never seen her smile – but she seems... proud. It makes it easier to imagine this was what she wanted.
When the fence around District 12 is torn down, he is shown the woods. He doesn’t ask to see where they used to hunt, because he understands this is a part of her Gale needs to keep, and he doesn’t begrudge him anything.
He goes for walks there almost every day, going as far as he can, until complete physical exertion, or until his leg starts to complain. Then he sits and rests and just listens to the Mockingjays. Sometimes he whistles the four notes, and hearing it sung back comforts him more than he thinks possible.
He reaches a lake one day, his feet sinking into the soft mud before he knows to stop. His backward tread brings up small tubers he remembers seeing in a book once.
She’s smiling, when he looks up. Waist-deep in the water, her hair is loose, the tips of it just brushing the surface. She holds out a hand, and he darts forward, splashing. The water is up to his neck, he loses his footing on the bottom of the lake, and she is still just out of reach. His heart pounds, but there is kindness in her eyes, and he trusts her. He surges forward, his arms close around her.
As Peeta is engulfed, he thinks he hears her say, “Let me teach you how to swim.”
Notes: A lot of the 'what-ifs' deal with Katniss as sole Victor, and rightly so. I wondered how would Peeta, in every way different to Katniss, deal with his win and his losses? Well, this is how.
Title is line modified from Hamlet.