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[fic] the collective sanity, THG (1/2)
hwister
[Sorry if you've seen this before. I'm moving fics.]

Title:
The Collective Sanity
Summary: Three generations of Mellarks, the people they know, and the things that happen.
Warnings: Irreverent crack. That means everything is fair game.
Disclaimer: Suzanne Collins. Movie titles and other RL references. Also, some cues from the greatest crackfic writer in the known universe.

~.~
I. Mupin Mellark
~.~

["The Other Donner Girl"]

"And you're scared because?" Maysilee Donner asks tactlessly, gobbling up more than her fair share of day-old bread Mupin Mellark brought over. Maysilee Donner is an otherworld imp reborn a blonde, pixie-sly scalawag. Heart of gold, but everything else of baser constitution. Sevn times the man that he is, at least.

Mupin, knowing better than to interrupt when she's on a roll – metaphorically or literally – keeps silent.

"'Snothing to be scared of, you idiot," Maysilee says again. Already assured of her own destiny, she has no qualms slaughtering encouragement over his hopeless crush. "The Dragon doesn't bite."

"Please don't call her that," Mupin meeps. They are walking along the road to the apothecary, and his nerves are more fried than pretzels.

"It's her name," Maysilee defends, decimating a loaf by the handful. "Not my fault Snappy's parents can't pick a decent one to save her life. Snapdragon, jeez. She told us they were going to go with Mourning Bride and, heh, even lovesick as you are, you'd think twice before signing up for that. Good thing they traded up."

"Don't be mean," Maysilee's more restrained twin – most ironically named Mayhem herself, a word that was the sum of her sister – admonishes. She turns to Mupin. "Though she's right – Snappy's nice. A real Mother Nightingale, Florence Teresa, whatever that means. Very nice."

And didn't Mupin know it; it replayed in his dreams: a staggeringly lovely girl, a bandage, a wound that would probably fester into something so horrible they might need to replace his leg. Snapdragon had nervously smiled at her patient, happy she hadn't amputated anything by accident, and he'd been living in queasy-sweet fantasy ever since. Maysilee had inspected the bread he baked the day after. She'd narrowed her eyes, a movement that portented hell to pay, tsked, and confirmed what he already knew. Crusty, burnt black – a man in love all right.

"At least you've got taste, baker," Maysilee remarks in – miracle of miracles – approval. She points a breadstick to her twin as though it were a gun with a blowdart. "This peasant here, on the other hand..."

"What?" Mayhem growls, bristling like a cat.

Maysilee backpedals reluctantly. "I just don't see why you'd like Mayer Undersee. He eats all the strawberries. Plus, he's a bore. He's as pompous as a public monument, just saying. Even his name is pompous. Mayer indeed. He'll be mayor over my dead body."

"Your Haymitch Abernathy is worse," Mayhem retorts, red in face. "Ella Cartwright says they still tell blonde jokes in the Seam." She lowers her voice in the manner of the shady. "He'll take a pink-haired bimbo from the Capitol over you."

"Don't be an idiot," snaps Maysilee. "What are you on? Morphling? I can't believe that you'd believe that. I blame gullibility on always hanging on to Mayer and all his ridiculous documentaries about ancient history. Global Warming. Cult conspiracies. Avian Flu. Death by birds, you twit, and you believe it. I honestly can't see where we share DNA."

Just like that, they go into their own world where even Peacekeepers fear to tread. The banter between sisters is vicious and bloody and has a take-no-prisoners policy, but Mupin knows for a fact that, behind closed doors, they were as close as a coven of witches, which wasn't very far off the mark.

It's a while before they return to the issue at hand. Mupin closes his eyes and dreams the most lurid things imaginable: cakes moist and fluffy, topped with clouds of icing and topped with summer fruit, pies warm and glazed with powder sugar, soft oatmeal cookies with raisin and nuts... He opens his eyes, grinning like fool.

"What's in your head, baker?" Both girls are staring curiously at him. Wide blue eye like headlights. "Too much exposition? Again? How dirty of you."

They don't wait for an explanation but steamroll ahead with identical expressions of tche.

"You're the baker, Baker, the boy with the bread," Maysilee starts again, gesturing like a haggler at the Hob, which she may very well moonlight as. "That's practically estrogen bait around these parts. A girl would kill for you. Ask Seam, they'll tell you."

"If they don't knife you first," Mayhem kids, without malice but in bad taste definitely. Her face lights up as they pass a row of houses with covert back entrances for underhanded undertakings. Prostitution, poaching, prayer meetings. "Mayer's right there. You go ahead."

~.~

Mupin and Maysilee move on, passing by the frightfully-empty Victor's village. As always, Maysilee, the biggest badass he knew, eyes the spiderwebbed and dusty houses and their overgrown yards longingly. Her face is, for once, admiring and not admired, vulnerable with wanting, not at all the girl who'd coaxed pacts signed in blood from people.

She fingers the mockingjay pin on her chest. "I could die for a house like that."

He shoves her off the road. "Not funny, May."

"They're just so drop-dead gorgeous, don't you think?" Maysilee cooes as she clambers back up. "If I could have a house like that, I'll rest in peace the rest of my life."

She keeps it up until they reach the apothecary which, in term of palatability, is nearly the opposite of bakery.

"Are you about done?"

"No, I'm Donner," She makes a face, shoves him through the fence. "Ugh, that was terrible, wasn't it? Now, go get her tiger!"

~.~

["How to Tail Your Dragon"]

Snapdragon, in the recent weeks, had attached herself like a limpet to the Everdeen boy who fobbed off songs like a blooming mockingjay and hunted oh-so-cleverly in the woods and fancied himself in love with The Haymitch's girl (who, in turn, considered him a little brother).

It was the talk of the school – until Maysilee told everyone to shovel it – witnessed doing incriminating acts such as having lunch together, negating all reason: a boy from the Seam and a girl from the town, beautiful and of a good family. Mupin couldn't ever imagine a Mellark falling in with a Seam girl. The Hunger Games would end first.

Sensing that Mupin was too lost in his own thoughts to walk beyond three feet to the doorway, Maysilee intervenes by tossing her much-coveted pin at the window. The glass, as if in retaliation, breaks.

"Maysilee Donner! Don't think I wouldn't recognize this!" The lovely angel screams shrilly, marching out, holding the mockingjay pin like a throwing knife. "Come out, wherever you are. You are so dead."

Mupin, who tried to hide but instead tripped right into a thick bramble, falls right at her feet. It was symbolic, at least.

He scrambles up and pats his hair in the way of the most unsubtly guilty.

Snapdragon's livid expression kindly melts into confusion. "Why were you in the ivy?"

"Uh...flowers...interesting...herbs? Pasta? Nggrh?" Whatever sprung up from his mouth sounds only fractionally less inane than the truth: honest-to-goodness stalking. He tries to compensate by grabbing the nearest bunch of florescence and offers them up. It is a mirror of so many secretly-cultivated daydreams, cut and dashed to the ground. He wants to cry. And possibly murder Maysilee.

Snapdragon's eyebrows, pretty and golden as croissants, shoot up. She jumps away quickly as though burned.

Mupin's heart falls, falls, falls so low the coal miners won't find it until the next Quarter Quell.

"Let them go," Snapdragon orders. "They're poisonous."

"But they match your eyes so," Mupin insists.

(Hiding in a tree, Maysilee Donner facepalms. Oh the bullshit born out of love.)

Hours later, after Maysilee satisfactorily convinces Snapdragon that the attack on their home was a horrible accident, after having his hands bandaged while enduring a suffocating lecture on plant poisons – I know someone who's very good at this! You could ask him! – Mupin Mellark discovers, among other things, including brine-cured tracker jackers and fungal bouquets and balms for whippings: (1) that apothecaries were to be visited at one's own peril, (2) that Snapdragon was of a surprisingly pedantic nature, careening much into medical and natural products jargon, and (3) that she was almost as crazy about Everdeen as Mupin was about her.

~.~

["The Talented Mr. Abernathy"]

Mupin still tries anyway.

Snapdragon had confessed to falling in love with Everdeen's voice first. Surely that can't last. No one falls in love with a voice that hard that they are willing to cross socio-economic boundaries.

His pathetic attempts to stalk the Dragon lands him in unfamiliar territory one day – it's not the first time – and of all people, he meets the notorious unsuspecting Romeo to Maysilee's evil-eyed Juliet, bread to her butter, blowtorch to her LPG, whatever. Someone just as cunning and self-assured and badass to take over the world with.

Haymitch Abernathy is all of sixteen and all-hail-the-heartbreaker handsome. He is first to notice Mupin Mellark, who looks as out of place in the Hob as the current Capitol teen sensation – who looks like a poodle – would, with his fair hair and his baker's muscles and his general sense of softheadedness.

Haymitch appraises Mupin from the corner where he, ever the enterprising sleazeball, exerts dominion over the Hob and protect its people from unneccessary whippings. He finds Mupin worthy on an elaborate scale no one else comprehends and swings by him, curly dark hair bouncing charmingly. Smile completely rogue.

He steers Mupin in with an air of magnanimity, similar to one who leads beasts to a corner for harvesting. They pass by the rapidly-aging wench and withering muse of the Hob, Greasy Sae, and her stew, which was nefarious in itself. Haymitch imperceptibly turns up his amazingly-chiseled nose at a man swilling white liquor, disgustedly shaking his head and saying, sotto voce, I can't believe how much people are willing to pay for that piss. Wasteful, wasteful.

When they finally reach the rickety throne, The Haymitch Abernathy sends him the devilish smile that rendered The Maysilee Donner a goner, and Mupin thinks he's about to be swindled but good.

~.~

["The Quell Jar"]

"Maysilee Donner." The escort calls, and the world blurs.

Maysilee, tackled savagely by her sister and friends, calls to him from the dogpile.

"Hey, Baker, stop looking as though your bestfriend just died. Aren't you going to wish me to break a leg or, better yet, several?" Maysilee cries no tears herself but her face is sad when she says her last jests for the road.

He doesn't even try to reproach her demented sense of humor, finds that he can't because his throat is too thick with hurt the consistency of curry to speak. Mayhem and Snapdragon are openly wailing their brains out. Wrongly, the person being led to slaughter is the one doing all the comforting.

"Hey, Baker, Crybaby, idiot, sweetheart, jeez, lighten up, will you? I know, I know, I love you too, love you too, love you too." She keeps smiling idiotically that lesser tributes will crap their guts upon recap.

Maysilee finally cracks when "Haymitch Abernathy" is called. Mupin's face snaps to the where the man himself had been lounging, a gaggle of Seam boys around him, paying court and attending to his comfort. There is a word to describe the look on his face, stupefied comes close.

There is dead silence for a moment.

"Well shit," Haymitch finally says, breaking the tenuous hush, and romps up the stage, intrigued and confident, so cocky that Maysilee – in her correct state – would say he was compensating. The more disreputable in the crowds groan; the acting coordinator of all reapting bets has been reaped himself.

~.~

In the end, Maysilee Donner did get exactly what she wanted: the rest of her life with Haymitch Abernathy.

~.~
II. Peeta Mellark
~.~

["All The Katniss' Men"]

Peeta Mellark falls hard the first time he saw Katniss Everdeen. Literally rather than metaphorically. Years later, he will let the Capitol audience imagine for themselves the non-existent and inappropriately-underaged romance of that moment.

His father points her out from the reaping crowd, perching atop a man's shoulder like a crow, Seam to the bone, skinny and not particularly pretty either.

Mupin Mellark thought it polite to introduce them for old friendship's sake – or so he said, rather than admitting to the pent-up heartache collected over the years, exacerbated by the harpy he married in mercy, over Everdeen and the angelic choir in his larynx, how he'd charmed his Dragon from her evil, villainous tower (the apothecary had never redeemed itself in his eyes).

They met then, and Katniss will not remember the moment the moment their gazes aligned and their souls connected – perhaps because they never did, as Katniss' eyes flickers all over the place and the existence of her soul is still under debate – but Peeta isn't about to forget how she, without warning, effectively body-slams him to the ground. Up close and personal. Hands in his hair.

"Katniss! Why would you do that?" Her father asks sharply, seeing that Peeta was under attack.

"Pretty thing," Katniss tosses a winsome smile that might've portented a future career on television, or at least a bid in the top-secret alternative "Hunger Games" hosted by the capitol, a modelling competition fiercer and bloodier than the original that it couldn't be televised.

She pulls at his cloud of puffy gold hair and perhaps imagines eating the flaxen strands. "Like Prim."

Her father restrains her. "Sorry about that, Mupin –" And, yes, both men cringed at the names that travels precariously close to a term of endearment. "– Katniss' attachment to her sister kind of landed your boy into the line of fire here."

"No worries, Peeta can take it, right? He can take it again and again." Peeta bobbed his head eagerly, in the childish sense of stupid invincibility, with dire consequences. "Your kid's spirited."

"You have no idea," (And was that just a dig? thought Mupin Mellark, as everyone knew coal miners were good at such and other oblique taunts. You have no idea because Snapdragon never chose you? Hmm.)

"Fiery thing, Katniss is. Best troublemaker in the Seam, in Panem, I betcha. Needs to have an handle on her all the time, otherwise she'll blow something up."

Meanwhile, oblivious to the conversation to devolves to her future prospects or lack thereof, Katniss turns to Peeta.

"You know what?" she whispers conspiratorially, innocent as any five-year-old desperado. She gestures subtly (not, in retrospect) to the stage. "This thing? I heard, a girl died last year."

Her eyelashes flutter half-closed, like she was pondering the wisdom of her asinine observation. And, like his father before him, Peeta Mellark is a goner.

~.~

["Catcher of the Rye"]

Primrose Everdeen visits the bakery often. The baker's daughter, those in the know joked rather cruelly, causing Mupin Mellark to die a slow and painful death of humiliation and ill-concealed longing. Not really on the ill-concealed.

Peeta enjoyed watching her too, Katniss' sister who disturbingly looked more like him than her, and he helped Prim whenever he could, sneaking her as much crumbs as was humanly possible.

His father, upon discovering the practice, completely took it over. He undermined his own business with stupendous flair, providing Primrose with bread – warm cheese buns and soft little cakes, grainy loaves of rye and wheat – tossing them over the counter in an assuredly non-clandestine way. Prim would catch them with the effortless dexterity reserved for catching objects of charity, unashamed and grateful.

Primrose is a girl sweeter than sugar, her moral compass always straight, and her kindness would be the death of her, Mupin thinks sadly, always putting others first, giving so much, degrading herself to beg for what should be given. He makes sure, with a demonic gleam in his eyes, that she will never have to ask anything of him, he will give it first.

(Peeta will inherit this obnoxiously martyric tendency, despite his mother's efforts to turn him away from being a marshmallow.)

Prim's eyes would shine her gratitude for each and every speck that went into the loaves: oh thank you! You are the greatest thing since sliced bread!

"Have a blast," Mupin would mouth, smiling widely even as the air from his wife grew black and ominous behind him.

~.~

The game changes when The Accident happens, and the Dragon completely loses it, and Katniss – who, even through the film of great love and great desperation, would never be so kind as to give them the benefit of the doubt and thought them instead merciless capitalists out for blood – goes through their garbage cans in the pelting rain, caverns cut in her cheeks and despair on his limbs.

The act is unthinkable and ten kinds of illegal and Peeta nearly has an aneurysm at the sight.

Acting quickly and rather vacuously, he goes to her with a note and two burnt loaves, unknowing that he was heralding salvation, life-giving bread as it were, bypassing the gigantic basket Mupin defiantly prepared which, in hindsight, Katniss couldn't have possibly carried.

Katniss is breadwinner now, in more ways than one, and at least one loaf, Peeta knows, will find its way to Prim.

(The note, his fledgling declaration of love, when bravery still hadn't taken a backseat to propriety, is eaten.)

~.~

["The Devil and Miss Prim"]

The day Peeta's life crashes and burns, the sun vomits down sunshine as if ridiculing the gloom that settled over the District, shining down with fanatical vengeance. The type of day even coal miners would gleefully churn out the only love song that had its origins from District 12 (Mine-mine-mine-mine-mine...).

The first thing Peeta really notices, aside from the Lottery Of Doom manufactured by the completely disfigured despots of the Capitol, is that Katniss is in a blue dress. It's the most feminine he'd ever seen her, despite the ill fit on her breadstick figure, given that her other clothes seemed to classify her as "man-eating plant" rather than "female" and sometimes managed to kill the appetite.

The sight of her is as pleasing as a perfectly puffed soufflé and it is what he concentrates on as the flagrantly-revised history of Panem is brayed – the mayor's own form of rebellion, no doubt, attacking the Capitol phonetically – to the stoic crowd.

Effie Trinket – after speaking excitedly in pidgin Whale – gracefully rampages though the slips of paper, her movements the poetry of a sloppy execution.

"Primrose Everdeen."

Peeta promptly gags on his tongue.

~.~

In the end, the sad trajectory of his life is this: where Katniss goes, he follows.

~.~

["A Portrait of the Anarchist as a Young Man"]

Gale Hawthorne, the latest minion Katniss picked up in her poaching, visits him before the train leaves. His manner is very hush-hush and tense, as though he were about to dispense lurid gay pornography rather than what Peeta expects: sound advice and a request to save Katniss from death by luck-of-draw.

What he says instead: "You know, Katniss is a bitch."

Peeta's jaw energetically meets the floor. Yes, he may have known this particular inclination of Katniss, in theory anyway, but Gale has hardly picked the right time to abandon ship. "I'm sorry but what?"

"She is," Gale the Defector forges on with more certainty than ever. When he mistakes Peeta's poleaxed expression for a smile of fond agreement, he relaxes and begins to pace in a predatory way that doesn't help Peeta's nerves at all. Subtracting Katniss from the equation, what he knew of the man couldn't fill a meatpie. For all he knew, Gale is out to murder him. "That's why you have got to go after her with everything you have."

That, hilariously enough, was what Peeta had been doing. Go after her with everything he has. In the opposite context.

"Excuse me?"

"Catnip," – Catnip?? – "She's a Bitch because she has to be. But she also has this...latent...bleeding heart complex...big damn hero...guilt...kindness gravitation thing, must be the half-merchant in her," Gale spits the phrases as though they offended the tongue intensively. "You have got to make her hate you."

The selfish part of Peeta roars in outrage, but as his selfishness is mortifyingly small, he concedes that, despite Gale's hard-as-nails reputation – which should brook not a whit of sixteen-year-old-girl psychology – the man understands best the intricacies of Katniss' mind. Her spirit twin. Half her soul. Whatever other metaphysical analogy.

"She'll kill you, for sure, hope you don't mind," states Gale, with trademark directness. His hands seem to move in smooth perpetual motion, as befits his name, proving that he is bumbling desperately. "She'll kill you but she won't like it and she can't afford even that. In the Arena, Catnip has to be the biggest bitch she can be."

Peeta pretends to understand and refrains from citing his own pacifist but ultimately suicidal notions.

"So," Gale claps his hands together. "Fight her. Don't help her. Don't jerk her around just because she's weak for merchant hair and little girls. You'll get her killed."

Peeta thinks there might be an insult there somewhere, around litte girls, but chooses not to comment on it. "I won't."

Gale softens a tad. "In any case, Peeta Mellark, I'm thankful and I'm sorry. You've always liked Catnip, didn't you?" He blows out a breath and chuckles grimly. "Tragic."

"Yeah," Peeta snorts, even if nothing is remotely funny, or even lucid, about the situation. "Not your fault. I was at a geographic disadvantage. But, hey..."

Gale looks up expectantly. Peeta clears his throat nervously.

"Is it true, do you really still make blonde jokes in the Seam?"

His eyes glaze over. A corner of Gale's lips curled up in the manner of a brazen liar. "Of course not."

~.~

["The Winner Slurs Alone"]

Haymitch Abernathy, their sole lifeline in the Games, is a drunk, Peeta thinks in teeth-grating annoyance, just after Haymitch elbowed him in the gut as Peeta attempted to clean him up. Haymitch Abernathy is a broken-nosed drunkard who smelled enough to launch a thousand ships and must have his liver replaced every year in the Capitol.

"They're going to put you under the knife, boy," Haymitch slurs as Peeta washes. "If they're nice, they'll cut you up quickly." As though it made a difference that he be mangled chaotically or sliced methodically and delicately into bits. "Or you'll get axed, no problem."

It was a slaughter of the picture his father painted of District 12's sole victor The Haymitch Abernathy and a disappointing reality to all the horror stories the older kids told about the Monsterman Who Lived In Victor's Village, who kept to himself and drank children's blood because – legend had it – his stomach had never fully healed and cried for his ghost lover on nights of the full moon. Peeta had stopped believing the stories long ago, but still. It was worse than the defrauding of Santa Claus, who never gave anything but coal anyway.

"Maybe... there'll be... wolves..."

"Nice to hear, Haymitch," Peeta says, turning the shower to freezing mercilessly. "But I'm leaning to a more optimistic approach."

"Damn you," Haymitch chokes out from the icy spray, floudering to slap it away. Inebriation disadvantages him and he slips, completely at Peeta's mercy. "Damn you. Shut that off. What do you want? All the sponsors? A suicide pill? I can negotiate."

Channeling all the conviction he could muster, Peeta says, "Non-negotiable. Save her."

Haymitch pauses – perhaps touched, perhaps too drunk to form words that weren't snark – and concedes, sputtering alcohol fumes and laughing harshly. "That's a good one. I'll even write your eulogy: Peeta Mellark, fool in love. She didn't just make his heart skip a beat. She stopped it entirely."

~.~

Thus, whenever it seemed that Haymitch wanted to bodily attack Katniss himself, a justifiable crusade considering that she hated his guts and acted accordingly, he sends Peeta death glares instead. The deteriorating civility between them, particularly over a hearty meal to which odes must be written to, was a sight to behold.

"Now do your best to appear civilized, sweetheart," says the man who regularly threw up on people, often political representatives of the most bogus kind. (But, as these representatives were often complicit in entertainment meant to shock and insult and routinely massacre teenagers, and often attempted to impart their lack of ethical snags to the next generation, this is acceptable.)

"This is civilized," Katniss' face is mutinous as she glances with predatory calculation at Effie Trinket, who pretentiously turns the other cheek.

Peeta tries to understand why they had to use animosity to deal with everything but, as he never grew up in dark, shady Seam, it's difficult.

~.~

"What are our chances?" Katniss confronts, in the manner of those badly brought up, an understatement in her case.

"Bleak would be optimistic," Haymitch says, his air that of a man telling a disagreeable but immutable truth.

"I've read that the basis of optimism is sheer terror," Effie Trinket pipes in helpfully.

Just like that, any productivity in the conversation withers up and dies.

~.~

["Cinna Todd: The Demon Stylist of It Street"]

Peeta was gravely mistaken when, upon seeing his minimal layer of body alteration, he thought Cinna a living fossil from when Capitol people made sense, a man who'd managed to upend years of inbreeding and weaning on the potent venom of excess, and live undefiled in the cultural equivalent of dismemberment that was the Capitol lifestyle. Someone he could trust to present Katniss as she deserved. Which Cinna did, after a fashion: he grafted and pulverized Katniss to perfection, and their parade outfits were the hottest things to hit the Capitol street in years.

There turns out to be sixty different ways for their parade outfits to ignite fatally, ten ways to obliterate the surrounding crowd with them in the conflagration, if Cinna so wished.

This arguably worthy piece of information Peeta discovers later when the stylist smuggles him into his workroom by burying him in what seems to be jurassic pelt and giant peacock feathers – an offense surely punishable by death, the smuggling not the feathers, though it should be the other way around – to study the art behind the clothes.

Cinna – the craziest man in a city of blatant psychopathy - is unerringly shameless and surprisingly tactless as he explains what passes for rationale in his mind. "...because you are District Twelve. The underdog. The ageless laughingstock of Panem." So very honest and honestly very insulting. "It would be symbolic. Very... dramatic."

It was beyond dramatic, it was cutthroat.

"Are you mad." Peeta says in dizzying horror. It didn't even warrant a question.

"Are you surprised?" asks Cinna, collected as ever, in a voice that makes Peeta's hair stand on end. "Insanity is a pool I dip into from time to time."

"...it's not terminal then," Peeta responds, starting to see the quicksilver flashes of utter nutcase behind the androgynous facade.

"Oh no," Cinna laughs, the sound somewhat off-putting for its geniality. "I merely often find myself with the eccentric desire to do good deeds. It started when several of my classmates died. Which I had nothing to do with, I assure you. We were all very young. It was during an Arena tour, if you can believe it."

Peeta decides then and there that since he himself was of questionable constitution, being of somewhat single-track sexuality, it is not his right nor duty to hold this madman stylist in contempt.

"Here are some of my other designs. Very black. Vampirism is very much in right now, though I think it's ridiculous. Very quickly took over the trend of Wet Dream made popular by Finnick Odair." Cinna explains as he scrolls through the material, fabrics and scales and wooden stakes and human skin baked to perfection. "You may not have heard; Sparta is still very much the theme in the districts. Tunics and such. Not at all helped by us who insist on this Theseus-inspired Games, I'm grieved to say."

~.~

["Rebel With A Cause"]

Psychological trauma from being around voluntary sociopaths notwithstanding, Peeta counts his brief alliance with the career pack – then a fanciful learning experience – one of the most productive, if demented, decisions of his life.

He learns many things: that no less than three attempts – absurd ones excluded – on one's life during training is respectable; that while Glimmer's ring was imbued with deadly poison, Cato's district token smelled like strawberry and with any mention of this, one can feel his lifetime chipping away; that Clove and Glimmer and Hydra could make traumatizing conversation without a degree of self-consciousness; that the Cornucopia contained marshmallows.

The Cornucopia contains marshmallows, whose nutritional content was nil, and this was a yearly tradition to promote the image of the Games as an exciting and sadistic camping group. It was surreal and potentially brain-hemorrhaging. Boy Three's mind is understandably obliterated when Cato calls dibs on the ones resembling unicorns, defensively (and insanely) claiming a legend on the immortalizing properties of unicorn blood.

Peeta also learns that there is nothing quite as dangerous in the Arena as the chronic and cheerfully lethal awkwardness of two trigger-happy Careers with hormones mixing alliance and dalliance in their minds, sniping like they're about to kiss or do combat, equally plausible. The smoke between Cato and Clove was so intense that everyone confused it with the unnoticed wall of fire rampaging towards them, shooting rockets.

(It is though, frankly, a relief. In the Training Center, Peeta had thought Cato and Thresh something, what with the intense looks and sizing-up and Cato's whispered threats after Thresh rebuffed his invitation to lunch: I can't wait to cross 'weapons' with you and If you don't die first, you'll walk away 'limping'. It was an even bigger sell than himself and Katniss, a true gladiatorial Romeo and Juliet, although it broke the brain to think of it in those terms.)

"Want to check out my trap?" Cato prepositions to Clove the evening of the tracker-jackers. Peeta overhears only because his nerves as stretched so tight they must have piroutted over the moon, his fear particularly felt at the extremities.

"And let Lover-Girl go?" Clove snarls and she must have a dent in the head for not realizing the overture immediately.

Katniss, of course, foils the rest of the scintillating conversation.

This Peeta also learned: career alliances weren't broken by fissured loyalties as the urgency of the Games rose and rose or by deadly girls-in-trees, they were broken by the fundamental, irreconcilable differences between the genders that existed even among the vicious, although Cinna seemed to have circumnavigated the issue with aristocractic finesse.

They were also broken by: extreme arrogance (Marvel), scurrilous vanity (Glimmer), complete deceit and defection (Peeta, for an arguably worthy cause).

~.~

["Winter's Boon"]

Leaving the arctic reception at the Everdeen's, where everyone remained snowed in – in every sense of the word – Peeta trudges through the warmer blizzard outside, eventually landing himself at the Mayor's house. Madge opens the door wearing what looks suspiciously like body armor beneath her lacy skirts, her expression game to kill. A lesser man might've wet himself.

Madge groans before pulling him in. "You couldn't have called, Peeta?"

Katniss and Gale didn't have the exclusive contract on childhood friends you could heap all the dire emergencies in your life upon in an instant.

~.~

In the safety of Madge's room – where all noise is drowned out by a wind-powered device Madge Undersee designed to resemble gunfire and gratuitous screaming, its original purpose to threaten the youth into obedience – Peeta finally vents.

"They're... ludicrous," Peeta bites out, then feeling as if he'd done something as perfidious as marrying Snow and serving nightlock-creamed cake at the reception. "Not often, but sometimes, you know..."

"Don't get me started," Madge warns, grinning exasperatedly, as she breaks out her smuggled collection of genuine ammo from the Dark Days. Toy soldiers, supplemented with tiny Cashmere dolls and Gloss action figures, on the floor of her room depict battle strategy. A huge lump of coal for Thread.

Hello. Peeta may have just stumbled on the epicenter of the resistance.

"Gale Hawthorne hates me and I don't even like him that way. He's handsome enough – he has that tall swarthy bad-boy thing going on – but what do we talk about? Political theory and religious doctrine? What we had in common – stupid bestfriends dying in the Arena – isn't exactly the stuff of bonding. Of course, I hope he's okay."

"Nice of you, by the way, Morphling Madge." Peeta flops down on Madge's bed with eyebrow-raising ease. "Sometimes, sometimes I feel like a moth flying after a firestorm. A blind moth. With moth-eating birds behind me. In a nuclear wasteland." He adds for good measure. "It's so hard. This engagement is so hard. Katniss is so hard."

"And you... aren't? I'm surprised." The esteemed and honorable mayor's daughter asks in a deceptively sugary tone.

He sits up so fast it gives him whiplash – not that those things were matters to joke about at the moment – staring at the girl who is so innocently regarding him. "Why you rotten little girl. You know better than that. This is why Delly and I couldn't be seen in public with you."

Then he grins, wide as skylines. "Madge Undersee, you Mad one, you haven't changed a bit."

"And you're as obvious as ever, Peeta the Perfect," Madge counters – Maysilee through and through, to the horror of those who remember – "Seriously though, that's the Seam for you. Thin and Mean. Angry. Insolent. Miserly. Absolutely high on their lawless youth, if you want to be flowery. Absolutely need to get a clue. But you can't blame them, not when they're so redeeming."

"Oh? Katniss is?" Peeta, the boy so devoted to said Katniss he would walk through fire and slog through wedding details, interjects dubiously.

"You're the one who's whipped, though less so than Gale." Madge shrugs as though not quite satisfied with the double entendre. "I can see why. Katniss thinks of Prim all the time. A guardian spirit, just far less pious. She's brave, she wasn't afraid to risk giving Panem a collective heart attack with the cherries – excuse me, berries – she tried to help that little girl. Not everyone would've done that, and without the excuse of having such a crude and squalid upbringing, racists that they are. And you wouldn't believe how smart she was to kept you both alive, I still can't believe it – and by the way, Peeta, the amount of role-reversal going on in the Arena I believe I don't even have to articulate. And Katniss does anger most attractively, have you ever noticed that?"

A pause.

"Creepy, Madge."

~.~

["Cloudy with a Chance of Bombshells"]

The Quarter Quell is announced and the Capitol is the mother of all motherfuckers.

~.~

["No Country for Bold Men" (not.)]

The victors coming together for the Quarter Quell were relatively – relativity having a broad scope, as in the Hunger Games were relatively unkind – jovial and quite civil, their fear already realized and overcome once, their instincts less bestial and less hormonal.

This is why Peeta suspected nothing too amiss when several of his fellow tributes, friends of Haymitch though this fact of association alone should've set off sirens immediately, sought him out on the final evening in the Training Center.

"Peeta." Finnick greets cheerfully, with a winning smile that may have been his opponent's last glimpse of life in this world, right before knocking him out with a hypodermic.

They expertly manhandle him into an establishment called "Burying The Hatchet" and the moment he sees the flashing bloody lights and his fellow gladiators smiling psychotically under them, dressed to kill, he feels the irony so sharply his spleen hurts.

"For us unpure folk only," Finnick whispers to his ear. It is only then that he notices that Finnick is sporting enough body polish to be seen from District Four, which culls about half of Peeta's regard for his esteemed battle prowess. The other half is quickly scythed down by the silvent trident bling-bling hanging from Finnick's neck – which cannot possibly be, but most likely is, his fairly-blinding district token – flashing silver and murderous intent as Finnick sways his way all over the room.

It's not the most disturbing thing that night. That he should have known, from the moment he saw Johanna Mason putting in effort – however miniscule – to dress up or just dress at all, that this party was meaningful. One last doomed attempt at inconsequential revelry.

It is said that only victors look upon their fellow victors with an unjudging eye, as opposed to the rest of the world, but at that moment, Peeta's leeway for the absurd is critically shortened.

There are costumes that brings muttated manatees and sexpots and other equally unrelated creatures to mind. There is a drinking game in the corner where surreptitious mutters of mercy kill and disembowelment can be be heard before shots. There is Gloss and Cashmere closer to each other than is proper or even legal. Someone suggests lipsticking a monument of Snow. It may have been Mags. She may be hanging feebly from Brutus' arm. Brutus may have been wearing drag. Another toasts the Hunger Games – come hell or high water! – the latter phrase raising a decidedly expected and unconscionable response in Finnick.

The drinks at the bar are named after Victors and, when the alcohol content seemed high enough to incapacitate lesser men, fallen tributes. It was a farce the level of Effie's face.

"You want a Girl of Fire, Peeta?" Chaff, singlehandedly manning the bar, asks. "Really hot right now. Sour, tinge of sweet, absolutely to die for." Katniss' cocktail equivalent and surprisingly dead-on. "How about Breadboy? It's warm and yeasty. Bittersweet enough to wrench your heart out." Needless to say, it is not amusing.

The situation rapidly deteriorates to the point where Peeta needs a drink – Foxfizz, very subtle, gone before you know it! – unnerved by all the severe imbecility and clandestine militia going on. There are pick-up lines to the maniacally morbid tune of 'the escort was right, because I definitely would've picked you too' and 'if the arena were my heart, you wouldn't have any competition', which – frankly – are the height of ostentatiously stupid. Enobaria is swinging BeeTee around on the dance floor as Cecelia belts out a song which may or may not be the Capitol anthem after it self-mutilated and saturated itself in its own innards. Johanna and Haymitch, ever the crabby ones, whisper most suspiciously to each other of things which might've had world-changing consequences; but the way their drinks were sloshing on the glassy floor – Firebomber, smoky and suicidal – Peeta doubted it. They may just be easily discussing horticulture and the life cycle of a gadfly. For all he knew as well, because there seemed no difference in their appearance, the morphlings could be thoroughly smashed and catatonic from the chemical explosions in their system. Finnick didn't seem to notice this as he bragged to them how sugar was his drug of choice.

In the natural evolution of alcohol, a few sips becomes just a glass, thanks becomes okay, last one, seriously becomes I can't care anymore, all the world is drink and nothing hurts.

Peeta, doomed from the beginning, joins the bacchanal. Hell or high water.

Tomorrow, all of them wake up, possibly without pants, possibly without limbs, and will attempt to violently murder, strangle, shishkabob each other in cold blood for the sake of an audience rolling in luxurious perversity, attempt being the operative word unless the Capitol injected them with industrial-strength hangover meds, but tonight there is only alcohol and freer-love-than-absolutely-necessary and the only Revolution occuring is preceded by Dance, Dance.

~.~




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