T rating for slightly dirty Middle Mellark brother talk.
"This is plush!" Voss bounces up and down on the springs of my new Capitol bed. "How long you figure before her back hits this?"
Never. Never ever.
"Don’t be so crude, Voss."
"Don’t be such a prude, Peets. You even know what to do in that situation?"
Not a concern. We don’t even look at each other. I don’t want to look at her. I hate that I don’t want to look at her.
"Pretty sure we’ll figure it out." I don’t like this. I haven’t lied to my brothers since I was little. I could tell them, but something stops me. Something more than my pride. I have this needling feeling that nobody can know that Katniss Everdeen and I are not lovers.
"I don’t know why she just doesn’t move in. This place is huge!"
"Because we’re sixteen, Voss, and this isn’t the Capitol."
"You’re Victors, Peeta. Who cares what you do?"
"I do!" The anger in my voice makes him go quiet. A rarity. "I’m tired of being controlled! Manipulated! Forced to kill—at the bloodbath, this one…he was twelve…they ripped him open…Marvel did it, I think." I can’t stop shaking. It was the same on the train home. I thought, I had hoped, that I wouldn’t be doing this alone. But she had other plans.
In an instant, Cort’s big arms are around me and I’m crying hysterically into his shirt, clawing at his back. This is worse, so much worse than the bloodiest beating she ever gave us. I can’t control myself. Cort’s arms tighten, the same arms that have protected me since I was small. I love my father. He’s a kind man. But he’s not my guardian.
"Shhh….shhhh….it’s okay, Peeta. It’s over." He doesn’t understand. Nobody in this grubby district understands except for my neighbors in the Victors Village. It will never be over. The Games will be with me until I die. I let Cort comfort me, though, and it helps a little. I don’t want them to leave me alone in this house. But I can’t have them here without her coming here. And for the first time in my life, I’m free of her.
Cort lies back against the headboard, still holding me. Voss crawls in beside us and snakes his arm around my middle. We haven’t done this in years. Since Cort got Mayapple pregnant and we were thrashed within an inch of our lives. These are the only two people in the world I can rely upon. I had hoped to add her name to that list. No, I can. What she did was manipulative, but someone like me can respect that. She saved our lives. I’m still bitter and angry, but I still respect her. If it came down to it, I could maybe still trust her.
Voss is smoothing my hair back. His other hand brushes up against the metal and plastic that used to be flesh.
"I’m sorry, Peeta." He’s on the verge of tears himself. "I’m so, so sorry. It’s my fault—all of this. I should’ve volunteered."
"And you would’ve died and we would be worse off. She wouldn’t have made an alliance with you. You’re so damn stubborn, you probably would’ve run head first into the bloodbath and gotten your ass handed to you by a Career." Our laughter is soggy. He reaches across and ruffles my hair.
"If you had died, I would’ve never laughed again." We take a deep breath almost in unison and sit up.
"How’s the walking coming?" Cort still has a hand on my back.
"Getting there. Feels weird, Not having a leg. I think I’m done wrestling."
"Naw, you’re resourceful." Voss stands up and wipes across his eyes with the back of his hand. "I mean, look at all this. You won the goddamn Hunger Games, Peeta." That wasn’t resourcefulness. That was luck. Luck and a strong ally. "You’re going to be living in this fancy house all alone and Cort will disappear with Mayapple and I’ll be left rotting in that bakery, getting the pin until she’s too old to heft it."
"You’ll live here with me." He thinks about it for a while. A chance to escape. But he shakes it off just as quickly. I know Voss. If he’s getting out, it’s going to be on his own terms.
"I’d get sick of you and Everdeen banging the headboard at all hours." He sighs. "Least you don’t have to worry about her and Hawthorne. I don’t think that girl’s been kissed before. At least not kissed right."
"Felt okay to me." More than okay. The best feeling ever, even if it was a lie.
"You were half dead and already riled up about her," Cort smiles.
"We were watching from the other side," Voss sits in the open window. "She didn’t know what to do with her hands. Always had them curled up or twitching until after the Games. Girl’s never been kissed proper. I think maybe they were really just hunting partners." It doesn’t matter. No more kissing except for Capitol cameras. It makes me angry that, after all that, I still want to kiss her.
"Doesn’t matter anyhow." Cort claps me on the back. "She’s yours now. You should’ve seen Ma when you kissed her!"
"Damn near exploded! I don’t even care if you weren’t fooling around on the train home. She asks you, you say yes!"
"So you can catch the beating she can’t give me? No way."
"It’d be worth it. Besides, Seam or no, Everdeen’s a Victor now. With Victor cash." Voss’ eyes light up the way they do when he has a wicked idea. "Invite her to dinner." Absolutely not.
"I think she’s just settling in."
Cort’s been quieter. Not laughing with Voss. He knows something’s up, but he won’t ask me about it.
"You wanna help me break in the oven?" I slide off the bed and Cort catches my elbow when I stumble on my new leg. He looks at the clock on the bedside table.
"We have to make a run to the station."
"I’ll come with."
"I don’t want you lifting until you’ve got a hold on that leg." He shakes his head slightly. I can tell that he’s angry. Not at Katniss. At the Capitol for mangling his baby brother.
"I won’t lift then." Voss laughs.
"The Games make you a crappy liar, Peets?" Oh no. If anything, I’d say I’m at the top of my game.
"We’ll stop by and grab you for dinner." They head for the stairs, help me down. I’m still getting the hang of the bending motion.
"Make sure you’re dressed." Voss socks me good on the arm and they’re gone.