There had been rumblings for weeks that it could happen. It had happened before; fire took Twelve almost sixty years ago, when it had been so hot and dry you had to wet your kerchief and hold it over your mouth as you walked through the streets to keep the dust out of your throat. Only Greasy Sae had been there for it, she was by far the oldest living resident of Twelve. No one was sure how old she really was and she wasn't keen on divulging that information, but not a soul doubted she knew what she was talking about when she smacked her thin lips and said conspiratorially: "Its an accident waiting to happen, is what it is."
As though they weren't talking about the very place they all lived. She shook her head as she said it, long pieces of her wiry hair falling in her face, her steely eyes watering with rheum. "And it'll start in the Seam, you mark my words girl." Katniss doesn't doubt it- all the homes in their corner of Twelve are made of wood and crumbling horse hair plaster. They're living in a tinderbox, and all it would take is a drought and a careless spark to make it an inferno.
Midway through a rainless May, Sae clucks her tongue and shoots a glance at Katniss as she clunks a bowl of cold rabbit stew in front of her. Katniss tucks in to her food, but its no longer hunger that's gnawing at her stomach. It's fear. When Gale tugs playfully at the end of her braid and asks her what's wrong, she frowns and doesn't answer.
Her boots are dusty instead of muddy on the first day of June, and she has an acute sense of impending danger. She's jumpier in school, snaps at Prim and Madge when they try to soothe her nerves, and stops doing her class work entirely. Of all people, she even snaps at poor Delly Cartwright, who had the distinct misfortune of catching her when she almost tripped over a stone on the path outside of school because she was too busy devising ways to extend their dwindling water ration.
If Gale notices her irritation, he doesn't comment, and it's not long before his nerves are on edge as well. Food in the forest dries up and dies. The lake recedes and one afternoon she and Gale find at least fifty fish gasping in the pungent mud the lake leaves behind. They bag as many as they can and trip over themselves to get back home, simultaneously amazed at their luck and deeply perturbed at the state of the lake. They sell only twenty of the fish to Ripper, trade a few with the baker, and then Hazel teaches them to salt and dry the rest.
It's lucky they do, because soon afterward there's little point in going back into the woods. There's nothing left to forage or hunt. She and Gale make one last trip loaded down with as many white liquor bottles as they can scavenge in Haymitch Abernathy's trash and fill them up with what remains of the lake. The water is dark with sediment, a sickly amber that makes her slightly queasy. They carry the water home anyway and try to clean it by passing it through layers of muslin rags and boiling it for hours. It's still not clear, but it'll have to do.
She brings an extra bottle of water to school with her everyday, watchful of fair little Prim, for whom the intense heat and sunlight is nearly unbearable. Her cheeks burn a hot red, even during the night, and Katniss sneaks out of class to bring her water throughout the day.
She watches the rest of the fair Merchant children fading away as well. One afternoon, she meets Peeta Mellark's glassy, fevered eyes across the airless classroom. He is staring openly at her, examining her an intensity that is at once strange, and quickens her blood in a way she's never felt before. When she locks gazes with him, his cheeks burn impossibly dark, and his eyes flit down to his desk, where his hand drags a pencil smoothly over its surface. He isn't writing though, she can tell by the way his arm is moving from the shoulder and not the wrist. What he was doing she couldn't guess, but maybe with the suffocating heat, he wasn't quite right in the head.
She wonders if he has sun sickness, like Prim. She wonders if his mother manages their water ration, and how generous she is with her sons. She wonders if Merchant families have bigger water rations than Seam families- and if not, how they manage with five people in their family, and among them three large sons, when her own tiny family is so close to the brink.
The bell rings and she rushes to the door, intent on finding Prim. In the congestion of bodies by the door, someone knocks into her- a brush of heated, sweat soaked skin against her own- throwing her into the person next to her. She whirls around to find Peeta's blue eyes wide with shock.
"Sorry," he says quickly. "Sorry- I'm sorry!"
She recoils instantly, startled by the wildness in her veins as her heart beats thunderously against her chest. The crush of bodies around her becomes suffocating, and she barrels her way through, suddenly desperate to be outside. She flees down the hall the moment she is able to, but she feels the weight of his stare all the way home.
Though her strange reaction towards the Mellark boy distracts her with a whole new kind of anxiety, it doesn't dispel the old one entirely. Sae turns to her that afternoon and shakes her head. "Any day now," she says, and Katniss' entire body runs cold with dread despite the dry heat in the airless Hob.
Soon after that the dust comes, rising like a cloud of smoke and settling heavily over Twelve.
It was creeping its way into the houses in June, and by July's end it had found its way into the cabinets and dressers. All the plates had to be wrapped in rags (if you had rags to spare) immediately after washing, or the washing would never end. And they have little enough water in their rations for washing as it is. Glasses were turned upside down on shelves, clothes hung over the backs of chairs, and the creases and corners of the shotgun homes in the Seam had to be stuffed with wet clumps of paper, or else you'd spend all night choking on the air. To this very end she destroys her school books, laughing as she crumples the final page of her history text.
"Panem today, Panem tomorrow, Panem forever," she intones mockingly.
She and Gale laugh humorlessly as she tells him this, and together they destroy his Language workbook and soak the pages in Hazel's dirty washing water, the grayish suds collecting at their elbows.
"Any day now," Sae reiterates, a week later when she stops by to trade, as though Katniss has forgotten her warning. She rolls her eyes, but it does nothing to stop the dread that gnaws in the pit of her stomach.
And Sae is right. The fire starts late the next afternoon, in the dusty haze of twilight after a bitterly thirsty day. Incredibly, though, it starts in the Merchant quarter. No one is quite sure exactly which home sparked the blaze, but most agree it came from somewhere around the butcher shop, which is the further east into town from the Seam. It's a small blessing- had it been any closer to the Seam, there would have been so many more lives lost.
Katniss is at least a mile away into the parched stillness of the forest, desperately scavenging for something, anything, to eat for that night, when she first smells the smoke, and her blood roars in her veins. She flies back through the trees, heels thudding against the bed of dried pine needles that cover the forest floor.
All she can think of is Prim in her worn cotton shift dress, home alone and entirely at the mercy of fate. She knows something of fate, and it is cruel in Twelve, particularly to young girls. She thinks of Prim peeling the last of their wild carrots at the kitchen table, right where she left her, as fire rips through the dry grass in their yard, terrifying Lady into leaping their fence and bounding away. Prim, with the house burning down all around her, calling to her as she is swallowed by flames. But when she clears the gate it becomes obvious that the fire is raging further east, and Prim is safe- for the moment.
Katniss bursts through her front door to find her sister shocked and trembling, a bag full of their belongings thrown over her shoulder. Her bottom lip quivers and her eyes are swimming with unshed tears.
She grabs her sister and pulls her close, swallowing thickly as she feels the younger girl quake in her arms.
"Katniss," Prim sobs "Mom's gone."
She pulls back, a black rage building in her gut.
"She left you?," she asks.
Prim nods and cries harder.
"She heard that the bakery was on fire and she just-"
Prim hiccups and swallows hard.
"-she just took off. I don't know where she was going, she didn't say anything at all and-"
"Prim. Listen to me, we'll go to the Hawthornes and you stay with them. Listen to Gale, do whatever he says. Do you understand?"
"Katniss, don't leave, don't go-"
"I have to get Mom."
She pulls upright and grabs Prim's hand, leading the girl towards the door. Outside, the sky is hazy with smoke and people run in panicked zig-zags around them. The Merchant quarter might be on fire now, but there was no telling if the flames would jump over into the Seam. And once they did, everything around them would be an inferno. She spies Gale on his front porch before they're even close. His face is drawn and tight, and he too has a bag of possessions slung over his shoulder. Posy stands tucked under his arm, her dark eyes wide with fear. Rory and Vick sit a few feet away, pale as sheets and clutching small bags of their own.
"No time. Can you take Prim?"
"Yes, of course. Where is your mo-?"
"She ran to town, I don't know why," she says, cutting him off quickly. "I have to go get her."
She doesn't say it and neither does Gale, but they both know that if her mother is injured or killed, she and Prim will be sent to a group home. They'd narrowly avoided this fate a few times already. Gale shoots her a panicked look and grabs Prim.
"Go Katniss," he says. "Be careful."
She turns and flies toward town, her bow and arrows bouncing in the bag slung across her shoulder. If she is seen with them she could be whipped, but she doubts very much that anyone will notice or care, given the disaster currently unfolding. All the same, she can't help the cold fear she feels when she realizes she is running plain as day through the center of Twelve with her very illegal weapon. It is absurdly reckless, but she doesn't have time to stop.
Doesn't have time to think, or breathe-
She runs headlong through streets choked with soot and smoke, which burn her throat and sting her eyes. Covering her mouth with her sleeve, she staggers forward, only removing the fabric to scream for her mother. Buildings roar with fire all around her and moan heavily in the fading sunlight as their support beams are consumed by flames. There's a deep groan and sudden crash as a house a mere few yards behind her collapses, sending a cloud of embers and black smoke into the street and high into the sky.
Panic makes her blood run cold, and a new layer of sweat prickles her skin. Though she's covered most of the Merchant Quarter, she cannot find her mother. People with soot streaked faces and their mouths and noses covered in cloth rush by her, and she whips her head around to try to catch a glimpse of them, but her mother is nowhere among them.
Hopelessness seizes her. Her calls reverberate into the thunderous inferno without answer, and she knows the longer she searches, the less chance she has of finding her.
It seems more than likely that some merchant home has become her mother's funeral pyre- perhaps it was even the bakery, as Prim suggested. She selfishly hopes against hope that at least Peeta made it out of the blaze unscathed...
That she should want that more than she hopes for her own mother shocks her, and she realizes with dawning horror that she had resigned herself to her mother's death long ago, but is not ready to let go of the boy with the bread. She has not yet found the strength to thank him. Has not found the words she needs to tell him how he saved her, how he gave more than just burnt bread, how he-
Timbers snap like gunshots beside her as another house collapses; this time just feet away. She wheels around, ready to flee, but the smoke and embers engulf her before she can take a single step. Her arm falls away from her face to brace her body as she falls, and the baked air fills her mouth and lungs. It burns so horribly she is gasping in soundless pain as she hits the earth. Her head cracks against the stone pavement and she is momentarily dazed.
The world around her- the flames, the black soot in the super-heated air, the choking gusts of smoke- slow to an incomprehensible stillness. She feels light and aimless, like ash, like she too could float away on the rising winds, her clothes just an alien weight devised to keep her earth-bound. Silence engulfs her as the scene around her grows unfamiliar.
Someone is shaking her. Their lips are moving quickly and soundlessly. Darkness pricks her vision.
"Katniss what are you doing?!"
Her mind says this in another voice. A familiar voice, but not her own. Or maybe she is hearing this. Is she hearing this?
"Don't just lie there- get up! You have to run!"
"Ok," she mumbles, and her eyes slide shut.
It was a concussion that took her, and no one will tell her how she escapes with her life. Even sweet Prim, loyal to a fault, keeps her lips tightly sealed. Katniss doesn't like mysteries, and she likes this one even less. Gale is of the same mind as she is, unsurprisingly. His jaw clenches angrily anytime its brought up, his hands jerking unsteadily in the middle of whatever task he has them engaged in.
It's incredibly strange- Gale has never hidden his anger around her before, or kept a secret from her. It hurts in a way she couldn't have ever expected, somewhere deep and dark within her, somewhere possessive and jealous. His silence is a betrayal, but she can't decipher how or why she feels this way, just that she does. And strongly. But she doesn't have time to pick this apart, or dwell on the situation for very long. There's too much to do.
With half the district destroyed, including the market, butcher and bakery, and the water supply dwindling to near nothing at all, every day is a desperate race for survival. The Capitol sends building supplies, food and money, but its only for the Merchants and they're not in a particularly neighborly mood.
Her mother's body is never found.
Katniss won't waste a solitary drop of moisture on her, let alone a tear, but she holds Prim close as she weeps into the night. She couldn't begrudge her resilient little sister a single comfort, especially now that they've lost everything but one another. They pass the days in shocked silence in the Hawthorne's cramped but cozy home. Hazel and Gale both insist on it, and though Katniss doesn't want to admit it, they're right to.
Following her accident, something isn't quite right with her. Her head stays wrapped tightly in bandages, her temple a bruised, bloody mess, and though she feels physically strong, after a few hours of activity a pressurized heat gathers in the front of her head that makes her dizzy and nauseous. Focusing her eyes for long periods of time is difficult, and if she's out in the sun or heat for too long it lands her back with that same strange ache in her head.
No one will say anything about it, but Gale, who now watches her with a deep intensity, tells her shortly that with her mother gone, there is no one left in all of Twelve who can help her. It's true.
And if she were to die, that would leave Prim all alone.
So there's nothing anyone could say, really. Nothing at all could be said. Except…
"Gale," she croaks one afternoon as they sit alone in his kitchen, "Don't let her starve, if I- if I-"
But even she can't say it. Can't make her lips form the words she knows could be true very soon. Gale mercifully cuts her off.
She nods numbly. There are words Gale hasn't said, but he doesn't need to. They stand between them like an unspoken pact.
Their twin eyes meet, smoke and steel, in the heady darkness of his unlit kitchen and the shadowy, jealous part of her quakes with a fevered happiness. She and Gale- they belong to each other. They are sibling kits, with clever eyes, and steady silent gaits- twin predators in the dead silence of the forest. Two parts of the same whole. Whatever it was that souls were made of, Gale's and her's were the same.
She reaches her hand across the table to grab his, which is rough and dry and so large. These hands are her hands, they belong to her just as much as they are his. Mindlessly, their fingers twist together and Gale's breath, calm and steady, ghosts against her face.
"You won't," Gale says again. "I swear it."
Its a fruitless thing to promise, of course. And silly, even, for Gale to defy death, when it seemed to be coming for her day by day. His hand tightens around hers, though, and she lets herself believe that she believes him. It eases the sense of danger that hasn't really left her since Greasy Sae first told her the story of the fire that wiped Twelve clear off the map sixty years ago.
That night, her dream is a strange menagerie of shadowy, faceless figures set in a blazing purgatory… and Peeta Mellark's inquisitive blue gaze is trained on her, only her, as though she was the only thing in the world that existed. His mouth moves soundlessly, and she tries to memorize the forms his lips take, tries to decipher what it is that he is saying, but everything around her turns to smoke.
She awakens with a start, breathing as though she's been running for hours, her head pounding with the strange burning pain that has by now become a familiar specter in her life. A low moan escapes her throat, lost on the slumbering occupants of the Hawthorne home.
One name sits on the tip of her tongue, and she can't bear to ask the question. If Peeta did not survive the fire, she does not want to know. She is afraid to think of what it would do to her, if she came to know he was dead. Her eyes slide shut again, and she slips gratefully into a heavy sleep with her next breath.
The next morning, nearly two weeks after the fire, she and Gale rise with the sun to hunt. They lope easily out of the house and down streets still coated in ash and dust, their matching gait punctuating the silence with light taps of boot against stone.
The first drop lands against the top of her head, and she's sure she's imagined it. But when a second falls, right on the tip of her nose, she turns in shock to Gale just as the sky above them opens up.
Gale starts to laugh- its a deep, throaty sound- and the moment is so absurd that she does as well. Alone in the dead of early morning, and soaked completely through their clothes, they stand laughing in the middle of the burned out remains of the Merchant-Seam divide, watching ash and dust turn to streams of mud before their very eyes.
He scoops her up, tugs her against his chest and holds her close. She opens her mouth and tilts her face upward, toward the sky, and heavy droplets plop on her face, into her mouth and trickle up her nose. It's sweet and cold, and she swallows and chokes all at once, trying not to spit it back out. Trying not to waste a single precious drop. Gale follows her lead, and they're pressed together, ridiculous grins plastered on their faces, collecting rain in their mouths like they're children.
He sets her down and she twirls, her arms wide, and lets the rain soak through her hair and clothes, washing the sweat and ash from her body onto the street below.
Feeling the weight of a gaze upon her, she stops, mid-twirl, and stares into the muggy haze. Her breath catches in her chest at the slumped figure standing in the doorway of one of the temporary residence structures built for merchants in the Seam.
Peeta survived after all.
A/N: I want to give a HUGE thank you to my wonderful beta Opaque, without whom I would have never gotten this finished! She's seriously amazing!
This story is part of a larger series I am working on I've titled 'Without', inspired by some of the most poisonous flowers in the world. I got the idea from Prompts in Panem about two weeks or so before the whole Flowers of Panem contest started, and it just stuck with me. Check out my profile to find out more about my 'Without' stories. This particular one should run something like 10 chapters.
Please take a moment and hit that review button, if you're so inclined, and let me know what you think!