Fandom: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Story Title: "Dark Toast"
Series Title: Five Loaves of Bread
Summary: How Katniss and Peeta fell in love without the Reaping: in a Panem dictated by a violent Peace instead of twisted Games, Katniss and Peeta Mellark try to piece their lives together as they watch another girl catch fire. AU.
Character/Relationships: Katniss/Peeta, Finnick/Annie, Gale/Johanna, Beetee/Wiress, past!Gale/Madge, past!Haymitch/Maysilee, past!Mr. Mellark/Mrs. Everdeen, friendship!Cinna/Portia, Madge/Cato, Delly/Thresh
Warnings: Arranged marriage, alluded/offscreen domestic abuse, inferences to offscreen dub-con, canon character death, minor character suicide (NO SELF-HARM/SELF-INJURY).
Story Wordcount: 34,000
Disclaimer: I only own the original concepts. All settings and proprietary language are owned by the author of the work from which this is derived.
Notes: Written for mellowdee for help_japan. :) This part started getting really long (and taking forever! :C ) so I'm going to post each 'verse as its own story in a series, rather than all five at once. There will probably be between two weeks to a month between updates, but I really hope you enjoy it! I would never have managed to finish this without poppypickle, everybodysbadintentions, badguys, amantelascio, centurions, and lovepollution. My beta team is absolutely the greatest.
Five Loaves of Bread
Katniss woke to Posy's sour little-girl breath blowing gently in her face as she snored. Prim cuddled up against her back, drooling a wet spot into the shoulder of Katniss' nightshirt.
Katniss hesitated before moving, even though she normally hurried out of the too-crowded bed during this time of year; three sets of tangled legs too hot under the heavy summer sun. She tenderly pushed Posy's dark, curly hair back over her her damp forehead. Katniss was grateful that Posy hadn't wet the bed in the middle of the night; a first in over a week. She must not have had any nightmares tonight.
Katniss had. It was the day of the reaping. Of course, she wasn't supposed to call it that. It was meant to be a joyful occasion.
She propped herself up on her elbow, careful not to snarl Posy's dark curls or Prim's long cornsilk hair, and looked over to her mother in the bed across the small room. For the first time, Katniss wondered how her mother had felt on the morning of her own ceremony, back in District Six. It was probably worse for her – she had been in love back home. Katniss couldn't understand why anyone would punish themselves that way. Falling in love before they turned sixteen.
Katniss had Posy and Prim, of course. Her friendship with Gale, waning since his own Contract ceremony two years ago. Madge. They would miss her tomorrow, but would they in a week? Next year?
Would she still be allowed to miss them? She had never heard Johanna mention her birth family – except once, to say that for all she knew, they were all dead. Katniss' mother used to tell her stories, in secret, about her childhood in District Six and the sisters she'd left behind and the boy she used to love.
Now, sleeping in the other small bed across the room, Katniss thought her mother looked old and wan already at nearly thirty-five. After losing her birth family and that boy and then her Spouse, Larkspur Everdeen seemed broken beyond repair.
Katniss eased her way out of bed, careful not to wake Prim or Posy, and was quietly glad that there was no one she could lose who would leave her irreparably broken.
She shuffled to the mirror and blinked sleepily as she braided her hair, feeling the weight of the long braid down to her waist for what would be the last time. After the Reaping, she would need to pin her hair high like her mother or cut it all short like Johanna. She ducked away from her own reflection and stretched, loose like a cat, before pulling on her worn-out boots.
Katniss turned and smiled at Posy, tucked up like a little pillbug on the pillow with her dark hair all askew. "It's all okay, Posy, go back to sleep."
Posy's lips puckered. "Gimme kiss."
Katniss shook her head and bent to kiss Posy's forehead. "Now can you sleep?"
"Mm," acquiesced Posy, already almost down again. "You goin' class or goin' to see Gale?"
Katniss' stomach twisted. "Both." She leaned in close and whispered in Posy's ear. "I'll tell Gale you say hi."
Posy smiled, her eyes closed. "Good. I like Gale."
"I know," Katniss murmured, moving a lock of Prim's hair out of Posy's mouth. She bent to kiss Prim's blonde head, and then, with a pause, crossed the room to adjust her mother's blanket and kiss her cheek. And then, for the last time, Katniss Everdeen slipped out of the door to her row house in the Seam of District Twelve and started off towards the woods.
The Seam differed from the Merchant Quarter in only one superficial way: the coal dust covering every surface, coating the Seam row houses and beaten sidewalks in a layer of black grime. The Peacekeepers hosed it down every afternoon to try to maintain synchronicity, but by third shift, the dust was back in full force. The families of the Seam were coal-coated, too, both literally and figuratively. At the school, the first ten minutes of the day were spent inspecting every student's fingernails for black grime. Assimilation is the key to a successful Panem. Every citizen must present an equal face.
"Assimilation" was a word that Katniss had always taken to heart. Her father used to spit it like venom when he railed against the lack of traditional Seam in positions of power in the mines and the Merchant Quarter and how the Peacekeepers were all pale and trucked in from District Two. Her father, Donnel, had grown up in the Seam of District Twelve and came from five generations of Seam. None had ever been made foreman and none had ever lived in the Merchant Row. Donnel had lived in the Seam and worked as a midlevel drag in the lowest level of the mine until the day he died.
Katniss assumed he had died.
No one knew what really happened to Donnel Everdeen. At least no one who would tell. He Disappeared on his way home after curfew with seven other Seam men the year that Katniss was twelve. It was a noticeable enough Disappearance that it even made the Panem broadcasts. As a warning.
Before the Disappearance, Katniss had been like her father – always speaking out against the system and politics imposed by the far-off Capitol. It scared her mother about to death.
But after he was gone, Katniss learned that even though the things her father preached made sense – that people should be allowed to have their freedom, the right to choose how and where and with whom they wanted to live – anything but Assimilation caused only more trouble. She learned to hold her tongue. She schooled her features into an indifferent mask so no one could ever read her thoughts, a skill that would serve her well tonight. She did her work quietly in school and without complaint during summer Vocation.
And even at home, she learned to stop remembering her father.
You never knew who was listening in Panem.
Katniss checked over her shoulder before she knelt by the District's edge and tossed a small stick at the electric fence. It was still and silent, so she got down on her belly and slithered under the fence and into the dark, lush woods. The constant rumble of the mines was hushed here, but the forest was rife with its own sounds this late in summer. Singing cicadas; the hoofbeats of deer and scampering feet of rabbits, lynxes, and badgers; the rustle of leaves.
There was a light tug on the end of her braid. "Hey, Catnip." Gale Hawthorne, the butcher's apprentice, smiled tiredly at Katniss. "How are you holding up today?"
"I'm fine," Katniss said automatically. Then she paused and closed her eyes. "I'm nervous." She shrugged. "How's Johanna now?"
Johanna Hawthorne, the carpenter's apprentice, had been on bed rest – prescribed by Katniss' mother – for nearly three weeks, with another six left until she would deliver Gale's twins. And then they would be finished having children; their Quota met in only two years. Katniss knew Gale well enough to be able to tell that without Johanna's income for almost six months, he felt guilt-bound to make sure that he more than made up for the share so that Johanna and the toddler, Ash, wouldn't go hungry.
The only time that Katniss had seen Gale as frightened as he had looked when he showed up at the Everdeens' door long after curfew, Ash in his arms, to tell Mrs. Everdeen that Johanna had been bleeding, had been the day that Katniss and Gale met. And the months after. Ending in the night that Katniss first snuck out of her house hours after curfew and slipped into Old Sae's house for the trade-off, when Gale gave Katniss Posy.
His father had been one of the men who Disappeared with Donnel Everdeen. In the weeks after, Larkspur Everdeen lost the baby that everyone knew she had been carrying – the needed third for her Quota – and, even worse, Hazelle Hawthorne discovered that she was carrying a forbidden fourth child. Surplus population Disappeared before they were even named.
So Old Sae, the retired midwife who had trained Larkspur almost a full generation prior, brokered a black-market exchange to save the lives of two families. Larkspur was incapacitated with grief as it was and would not be leaving her house so no one would see her . Hazelle would send her three children to collect the laundry in her home and hide as the baby grew. And then the Everdeens would take the baby so neither family had too few or too many for the Capitol's controls.
During the nauseatingly scary months that the Everdeens had no income at all and the Hawthornes were still reeling from the Disappearance, Gale and Katniss took to hunting early in the morning before school and using Old Sae's contacts to trade for bread and goods. Even once Larkspur could work again and Hazelle brought her business traffic back up to proper speed, they kept at it because it was a satisfying way to compensate for the loss of their fathers' incomes.
Out in the woods, Gale spoke the way that Katniss' father always had: loudly, passionately, and bitterly.
"Johanna's cranky," came Gale's answer. He yawned hugely and Katniss noticed the dark circles under his gray eyes. "She wasn't really built to lie still in a bed all the time. She wants to be chopping and screwing shit."
"Who's taking care of Ash while you're at work?"
Gale shrugged. "Johanna. Who else could?"
The business of the home is subject only to the nuclear family members under Contract and the District representative to the Capitol. Well-being can be determined only by Capitol conduct search. Food, shelter, medical care, childcare and education, and monetary value in excess of Capitol agreement will not be provided by external persons under penalty of I) Fines, II) Imprisonment, III) Death.
"Maybe Prim can stop by after school," Katniss offered hopelessly. "Her Vocation will probably be training under my mother; she can claim that it's a house call for Johanna."
Gale smiled sadly. "I'm never going to stop owing you as it is."
"Sure you will," Katniss said lightly. "Tonight."
Gale's eyes grew stormy. "Your family, then. I'll never stop owing your family."
Then Gale stretched out long and tall to pull a groosling from yesterday's snare. The sleeves of his plain, worn shirt rode up and exposed the standard tattoo on his wrist, filling Katniss with a familiar sadness and a new kind of fear. Tonight, she would have the same tattoo.
Not the same. Only Johanna had the same tattoo as Gale. But Katniss would have her own standard, and there was no way to guess what label would be on her wrist forever.
Gale's was an easy part of him now, something Katniss knew as well as her mother's.
D:12 C:C HAWTHORNE BUTCHER
District Twelve. Contract: Coupled. Surname: Hawthorne. Occupation: butcher. Katniss knew that the last caused Gale even more stress than being Contracted and no longer legally allowed to help his mother care for his brothers – much less Posy. Gale had hoped to remain in Twelve, but to work as a coal miner the way his father had before he Disappeared, and his grandfather before him. The male line of the Hawthornes were one of the oldest single-District surnames in Panem, and all of the generations had risen to fire-boss. Until Gale, who was made a Merchant.
Gale hated Merchants on principle. Though they didn't have any more money or privilege than the coal miners who comprised the Seam, their occupations were easier and the number of apprentices fewer, so ascension to assistant seemed, outwardly, more like a meritocracy than the work in the mines.
Of course, there was no meritocracy in Panem. The distribution of material comforts based on individual merit is an illogical system that proved many times over the course of human history to lead to the fall of civilization. The equal distribution of all goods and services to every Panem citizen ensures that our nation will remain a stable commonwealth in these troubled times and prevent a resurgence of the chaos of the Dark Days. Regardless of preexisting skill or so-called "natural" ability, all Panem citizens are to be assigned their vocation at the age of sixteen as a part of their Contract Ceremony. At this time, they will become liable for one-half of their domestic income and will receive payment on the first of every month in the form of Tessera Allowance.
"Posy said to tell you hello," Katniss said softly, by way of apology. "She asked for a kiss and said that she likes you."
Gale looked down at the dead groosling and swallowed. "Nearly her birthday."
Katniss nodded. "She'll be five."
"I know." Gale set the snare again. "Can you ask Prim to bring Posy by the shop on her birthday? I'll set something nice aside for them. Just something small."
"I'm sure Prim will remember," Katniss said, then turned. She shouldered the bow and quiver of arrows that her father had hidden out in the woods for sport – something that may well have contributed to his Disappearance – and, for what would likely be the last time, shot a squirrel out of the tree. The arrow pierced cleanly through its eye.
"It's alright to be angry today," Gale murmured behind Katniss. "I know you love Prim. And Posy." He paused. "And who knows? Maybe you'll be Contracted to Twelve."
"And I won't be allowed to do anything for them," Katniss snapped. "I'll have to treat them like strangers. I'd rather not stay for that. How areRory and Vick?"
Gale busied his hands with another snare. "Rory's doing his summer Vocation with Johanna. Vick's going to do his with me." He looked up. "There are ways around the system, Catnip. You just have to find them."
"That's easy for you to say," Katniss said. "What about Johanna's family? Where are her brothers or sisters now? Does she even know?"
Gale swallowed. "Her older brother is in One. Her sister's your age. She'll be Contracted tonight, too. Maybe she'll come to Twelve."
"And maybe Johanna will never get to speak to anyone in her family again," Katniss finished. Her voice was hard. "Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?"
Gale was quiet for a long time as they finished gathering the animals from Gale's snares and Katniss shot down a few more fat, late-summer birds.
"No," Gale said finally, as he held the loose fence mesh up for Katniss to crawl under. "That isn't how it's supposed to be. That's just how it is."
They took the roundabout, back-alley way through the Seam first, stopping at Old Sae's house for an easy trade of meat for paraffin and antiseptic.
"You do Haymitch's place today," Katniss muttered. "I've got enough to worry about without getting vomited on."
Gale frowned. "Fine."
Katniss hung back by the alley wall as Gale approached the home of the District drunk. She pensively toyed with her long braid as the door opened and Haymitch Abernathy leaned blearily out of his door to haggle with (abuse) Gale.
Haymitch Abernathy was a shining example of why not to cheat the system, despite what Gale seemed to believe. Haymitch had taken a companion as an adolescent, pre-contract – much the way Gale had, and Katniss' mother, and many others – but unlike others, Haymitch refused to give up his lover. They had both applied for Single status, but only Scarlett, his companion, had been granted it. She and Haymitch had carried on in an affair and Scarlett went insane with jealousy and hurt and injustice when Haymitch's Spouse, Maysilee, a teacher from Three, had gotten pregnant, and early one morning she broke into the Abernathy home with an axe.
Haymitch Abernathy had tried to outsmart the Capitol's system, and instead Scarlett Donner had killed Maysilee Abernathy and hacked Haymitch through the gut before turning the axe on herself.
Their story had been added to the Home Economics textbooks almost immediately after. Proof that living outside the Contract system only led to catastrophe and ruin. Haymitch Abernathy, the drunk of District Twelve, was famous.
"Nothing," Gale reported glumly, startling Katniss as he sidled up next to her again. "I wish he were more predictable. Wasted almost eight minutes on that bastard."
"Reaping Day's probably hard for him," Katniss muttered. She really shouldn't have called it that out in the open where anyone could overhear.
"It's hard for everyone," Gale shot back. No sympathy. "Let's keep going."
The District was beginning to wake up as they made their way through another alley byway to the Merchant Quarter. Katniss knocked softly at the back door to the bakery, five short raps as the secret code.
The delivery bell of the bakery rang to signal the all-clear, and a moment later, Farll Mellark opened the door with the same warm smile he wore every day for Katniss, Prim, and Posy Everdeen. He smiled for nearly everyone – as had Barm and Lavash Mellark when they still lived in District Twelve, and his youngest son, Peeta, did for the others at school – but the grin he reserved for the Everdeen women was different. Sadder. Truer.
"Good morning, Katniss," he said. "Good hunt today?"
Katniss nodded. "Always good this time of year."
Farll's lips turned down in his thick scrub of blond beard. "It may have been your last hunt today, right? You're sixteen?"
Katniss looked at her boots and nodded, toying again with the end of her braid.
Farll lifted her chin gently and smiled encouragingly. "Then I'm glad it was good. You should take this morning to remember all of the things you love about Twelve and do them for a last time, just in case."
"I have Home Economics." Katniss shrugged. "I'm headed there after this. But I'm having lunch with my sisters."
Farll patted Katniss' cheek. "Then I'll have to send you some apple cakes, huh? Are they still Prim's favorite?"
Farll bent down to Katniss' eye level with a solemn expression. "You're worried about the rations for your family when you're not here to hunt for extra, aren't you."
Katniss averted her eyes and shrugged.
"I will never," Farll said softly, "Let your mother or Prim or Posy go hungry, Katniss. I can promise you that."
Katniss Everdeen had loved her father, but deep in her heart-of-hearts, where she would never tell anyone, she resented him for doing whatever he did to Disappear. For protesting too loudly in public. For protesting at all. He had been a good man, but he had made things so much harder for Katniss' mother.
Farll Mellark seemed to have taken it silently on himself to try to ease things again. And Katniss could see why once upon a time, in District Six twenty years ago, her mother had loved Farll Mellark so much.
Katniss looked up at him. "I can't ask you to do that."
"You didn't ask," Farll said kindly. He pressed a dense loaf of dark, molasses bread into Katniss' hands. "I offered." Then he glanced at the clock over the ovens. "You ought to head to class, Katniss. You shouldn't be late today."
Katniss nodded and tucked the bread into her pack. "Thank you."
"May the odds be in your favor tonight," Farll said, lifting a hand to wave Katniss goodbye.
She waved back and jogged down the alley to catch Gale. She shoved her pack into Gale's hands. "Can you bring this to Prim? I'm going to be late if I don't run."
Gale smiled. "Of course. I'll get to tell Posy 'hello' myself, then."
"She'll like that," Katniss said absently, looking around the alley corner to check for Peacekeepers. When the path to the school was clear, she darted around the bakery and started off down the sidewalk at a fast clip. She turned only to hiss her thanks to Gale over her shoulder.
Katniss ducked into the classroom just before the bell tolled outside for the start of the day's activities – school for the kids under twelve, Home Economics for the girls, Vocation for the boys and anyone older than sixteen. Madge Undersee, Katniss' only real friend besides Gale, waved to Katniss when she entered the room, and Katniss nodded back as she slid into her seat in the third row with seconds to spare before the severe Home Economics specialist, Contracted to Twelve from One when she was sixteen, clipped into the room.
Mahra Mellark surveyed her class. She never smiled. Every blonde hair was pulled back so tightly into her chignon that her face seemed stretched over her bones. The blue of her Teaching Vocation uniform should have been striking with her coloring – Katniss had noticed that her sons often wore blue – but instead, she looked sallow and cold.
"Today is your Contract Ceremony," she announced. Like anyone in the room could have forgotten. "This day is the most important of your lives. From this point forward, you must forget about who you have pretended to be for the last sixteen years. What matters from this day forth will be determined individually for each of you tonight, by greater and more experienced minds than your own.
"The Contract Ceremony is the fundamental center of Panem. It has enabled our fragile country to survive when all others have failed. And tonight, you will finally be bestowed with the honor of helping to keep Panem alive."
Mahra circled the room as she spoke. She tapped her fingers across Katniss' desk as she made her final pronouncement, as though she could sense that Katniss' stomach was jumbled with nerves.
"The Contract is a cause for celebration, but also for solemnity," Mahra intoned, continuing her path. "Your lives may not be easy. To be Contracted into a couple is not easy. You may feel as though you have been treated unfairly, or that your Spouse is cruel, or that you were better suited to another Vocation.
"You were not." Mahra stopped and faced down the class. "The Capitol drafted the Contract to ensure all citizens of Panem peace and prosperity. Where you are placed, with whom you will provide Panem with another generation of citizenry, what service you have been chosen to provide is not for the betterment of you, but for the betterment of Panem. 'You' are insignificant. Panem must prevail."
Katniss looked down at her desk. Her throat felt dry.
"The old countries of North America fell not because of the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the fall of so much land into the sea. North America fell because its citizens lost their place. They placed their trust into institutions of fallacy rather than the institution of government. They believed the greatest of all heresy: that the government should change to accommodate the whims of the populace. North America fell because its citizens were greedy and demanded more and more of their government while systematically demeaning its power.
"Tonight, the Capitol will assign you a Vocation," Mahra reminded her jittery pupils, stopping at Madge's desk at the back of the room. There was a scraping sound as most chairs turned to follow her path, but Katniss stared to the blackboard at the front of the room. At the diagrams of coupling. They'd been made to memorize and draw them six months ago. They'd had to give speeches.
Katniss hadn't applied for any specific Vocations. She took the general Test for Females and felt that she'd generally done poorly with everything. She didn't want to teach and didn't like school enough to want to be a healer or doctor or researcher. She had barely passed her cooking and sewing units. Maybe she could be like Johanna and be a carpenter. She was good at chopping things.
"If people are allowed to choose their own Vocations," Mahra said, and Katniss startled as she realized that she hadn't been paying any attention. "Then some choose no Vocation at all. Others fail to thrive in their field of employment. The society is left to support them. The Capitol will assign you with the optimum Vocation for your skill set to prevent a drain on the scant resources of Panem. In return, you can take pride in providing Panem with your services.
"For the most advantageous distribution of goods, the Capitol will place you and your Spouse in the District that is most in need of your services. Wherever you go, whatever you do, remember this: after tonight, you will never again be the person that you are right now, sitting in this room. You will not be the daughter of your birth family or the lover of your companion or a child of District Twelve. You will be a citizen of your new home District and must embrace all of its cultures. Assimilation is tantamount to the survival of Panem."
Katniss thought about Johanna again, and how sad she had seemed when she first arrived from District Seven. She didn't look like the people who came from traditionally Twelve families, like Katniss or Gale. Johanna's shorn hair was a rich, almost plum shade of brown. Her face was wide and square, but pretty in its own way. She carried more weight than the girls of the Seam, too, but didn't seem ashamed of it like the heavy Merchant girls at school. Summer ended late two years ago when Johanna and Gale were first Contracted, and Johanna would stand in their yard stripped to her skivvies when she hung their laundry. The other Merchant wives all stared and muttered, but Katniss knew that Gale secretly took pride in it.
He never said so. She just knew Gale. Once, when Madge and Katniss were walking to Home Economics, they'd seen Gale open one of the windows of their row house and wolf-whistle down at her in the yard. Johanna had actually smiled when she looked up and threw a wet shirt at him. Ash was born in the spring.
Katniss was glad for both of them. She'd seen her mother patch up far, far more women in the District than men because Contract couples didn't get along. People were paired for their genes, not for their personalities, and the constant stream of black eyes and broken bones proved it. Katniss was relieved when Gale whistled and Johanna smiled, even if Gale pretended around her that their home was all business.
It was probably because Katniss was friends with Madge, and Madge had been Gale's companion before he turned sixteen and was Contracted. Katniss didn't see how Gale hadn't predicted what would happen.
"The most important role that you ladies will play in the proliferation of Panem," said Mahra, coming up to stand in front of the blackboard again, "is the expansion of our population. The neglect and moral decay of North America led to the Epidemic which wiped out most of the last of their people. It is your patriotic duty to fill your Quota of three Panem citizens before the end of your most functional birthing years. To fail to do so is the highest level of treason."
Katniss' stomach twisted further. She didn't mind the idea of having a Vocation chosen for her – it seemed to take away some pressure of trying to find something suitable that she was actually good at – and her only real regret in leaving District Twelve was that she wouldn't even be able to see Posy and Prim, the way Gale could seeRory and Vick.
But the knowledge that she would have to have children terrified her. She remembered the night that her mother lost her last baby. She remembered how Hazelle looked when Sae took Posy away. She had heard Ash crying when Gale showed up in a panic that Johanna and the twins might be dying.
There didn't seem to be much good in having children. They grew up. They turned sixteen. And you never saw them again. For the good of Panem, a country that had stolen Katniss' father.
It made her feel like she might be sick.
"You must be on your best behavior from henceforth," Mahra scolded the class. Her blue eyes were hard. "Represent yourself, your District, and your nation well. And now, for the last time, class is dismissed."
The girls of Twelve filed out of the room in a single-file line, but Madge caught up to Katniss in the hall.
"Hey," she said before sighing. "No more Home Economics."
Katniss had to smile a little. "No more Home Economics."
"Which Vocations did you test for?" Madge asked curiously. "I don't think you ever told me."
"I didn't apply for any in specific," Katniss shrugged. "I'm Undecided. What about you?"
"Healing," Madge said. She kicked a rock into the gutter with her toe. "And I applied to be a Nurse."
"A real one?" Katniss asked, surprised. "At the hospital?"
Madge nodded. "I know there are a lot of classes involved, but I don't mind school. And we need more medical out here. I'm hoping to stay in Twelve and either apprentice Sae or your mother. But… I think I'd like Eleven, too. It looks pretty out there in the textbooks."
"I thought you wanted to be a teacher," Katniss said, looking over to Madge.
The wind picked up Madge's blonde hair and tossed it up in a thready gossamer sheet over Madge's face like a mask. When the breeze kicked back down, Madge turned her face away from Katniss and ducked off the side of the road, wandering along the tree edge. Katniss followed.
"I applied to be a Single," Madge said softly, plucking a caterpillar-eaten leaf from the tree as they passed.
Katniss' eyebrows rose. "Why?"
Madge was beautiful and wealthy. They almost certainly wouldn't ask her to leave District Twelve, and her Marriage Contract would be to a doctor or a foreman. She wouldn't haveto be anything at all, just a Breeder, and Madge always had liked school – until Home Economics replaced Home Academics. She had Merging money already, probably saved from before she was born. And by applying to be Single, she had disqualified herself from so many Vocations: teaching, food preparation and storage, textiles, Home & Housekeeping manufacture. Singles weren't allowed to work in Vocations that affected the home or family rearing. When Katniss thought of Singles, she pictured the frothy Capitol broadcast stars and Advertisers and politicians – people meant to hobnob (or more) with many people and live without responsibility. Madge had never struck her as the frivolous type.
Madge stopped and looked at her, blue eyes soft and sad. "Because the person who I would want to be Contracted to is going to marry someone else."
"You don't know that," Katniss said, oblivious and picking a handful of grooseberries from the tree. "Maybe you want them because they're your best Match."
Madge laughed wearily and shook her head. "Even if so, shewon't be Contracted to me."
Katniss stopped. She peeked around the trunk of the tree to where Madge was carefully avoiding her gaze, looking down at the roots of the tree and scuffing the toe of her patent-leather shoes against the rough bark. "Oh."
Madge took a deep breath that lifted her shoulders nearly to her ears, then shrugged. "I could choose to be Contracted anyway. Plenty of – of people like me do." She looked up and met Katniss' gaze. "But I don't want to. The system is wrong. The Capitol is wrong to limit people or tell them who to love. It's not something you can control, and they're wrong to pretend they can."
Katniss opened her mouth to argue, the tenderness between her mother and father at the forefront of her mind, but the violence that was so common in the District and the neglect of the baker and his witch of a Spouse stopped her. Her face twisted into something baleful, which was as close to the smile she intended as she could manage on Reaping day. "You're right."
A few minutes later, she looked over at Madge again. "I thought you loved Gale."
"I did," Madge said, shrugging. "I still do. But not – like that. I wish he'd let himself love Johanna. He doesn't need to pretend not to, just for me."
"I think they're perfect for each other," Madge said confidently. "In a real way, not just on paper. But he pretends he doesn't because he thinks it'd make me sad. I think it'd be be easier for him if they'd been Contracted for her District instead, or somewhere else. I think it's hard for him here, with me, and you."
"Me?" Katniss asked, bewildered. "What do I have to do with anything?"
Madge smiled and rolled her eyes. "Oh, Katniss."
They reached the fork in the road between the Seam and the District Center.
Madge nodded and raised her eyebrow sardonically. "Wear something pretty."
"I'll miss you," Katniss replied plaintively, sadness pulling hot and soft in her chest. "I'm not good at making friends."
"Oh, Katniss," breathed Madge, pulling her in for a tight, desperate hug. "You're wonderful. And you should never think anything less. No matter who you're Contracted to or what you're going to be or where you go. You're a spitfire, Katniss Everdeen. And don't you forget it."
Katniss squeezed Madge back. "Thank you."
Katniss wondered how Effie could speak through that stretched-out smile. Beside Katniss, Delly stood up, smiling eagerly and kindly in a bright yellow dress that made her brassy curls shine. Only her fingers twisting together behind her back belied any nerves.
"Teacher; Thresh Haselwood, miller. District Eleven."
On the large screen behind Effie, the portrait from Eleven rolled in: a tall, strong boy – man – with a subtle smile and intense eyes. His shirt in the portrait was bright yellow.
Delly smiled even wider and crossed the room to Effie. She signed her Contract with the same smile.
"Your citizenship is appreciated, Mrs. Thresh Haselwood of District Eleven." Effie inclined her head to Delly, who gave a little curtsy. She blew a kiss to her parents quickly before taking her seat at the other side of the hall with the Newlyweds.
The live feed from One hummed back onto the screen and Glimmer D'Argenta (Products Advertiser; Single, District One) flickered quickly before rolling over to Two for the match of Clove Eugeniska (Weapons Specialist; Grandin Temple, Butcher, District Nine). Time passed in a stretching jump, like there were no Districts between Two and Twelve until –
Katniss stood and wiped her clammy hands on the sides of her skirt. Her knees felt weak and jittery. Across the hall, Gale's gray eyes followed Katniss' movements, and reminded her of tracking out in their woods. Don't show fear: it turns you into prey.
She straightened and clenched her hands into fists.
"Apparel stylist," read Effie, grinning manically at Katniss. Apparel stylist? She'd never sewn in her life, save a few missing buttons. 'Apparel stylist?' Wasn't that just a tailor?Katniss closed her eyes and swallowed, waiting for the name of her Spouse and for his foreign photo to flicker in from a faraway District.
Instead, the screen behind Effie flashed white for a moment and there was a crunching sound, like screws overturning.
"Peeta Mellark," announced Effie. "Baker and Pastry Specialist."
Oh, no. Not him. Katniss instinctively looked over her shoulder to the Audience table, where Farll Mellark stared at Katniss' mother with a look of quiet mourning, and Larkspur looked stubbornly down at her full plate of food.
Effie's final pronouncement raised gooseflesh on Katniss' arms and the nape of her neck. The Capitol? No one is Contracted to the Capitol from District Twelve. Not ever. An Apparel Designer and a Pastry Specialist from Twelve? Unheard of. There were Singles from the Capitol and One who trained just for those Vocations from the time they started schooling!
Side-by-side, the portraits of Katniss, smiling thinly in the same blue dress, and Peeta, a solid, friendly smile on his face, slid onto the screen.
Behind Katniss, there was a soft scraping as Peeta's chair pushed back and he stood. Katniss closed her eyes again and did not look over to the table where her mother sat, undoubtedly trying her best not to lock eyes with Peeta's father, and instead started her path towards the podium where her Contract waited.
The Justice Hall seemed even bigger than usual as every step towards Effie seemed to bring her two steps further away.
Peeta caught up to Katniss in two strides and they made the rest of their trek up to the podium side-by-side. In the corner of her eye, Katniss could see that his shirt was brand new – still starched into clean pleats at the wrists. She smoothed her hands over the faded, soft skirt of her mother's old dress again and wondered, for the first time, whether Peeta might ever learn to think that she looked half as nice in it as his father had thought her mother did, back in District Six all those years ago.
"Well, isn't this special!" Effie simpered.
She offered the heavy black cartridge to Peeta first: it would sign the paper in ink for ceremony, and beneath it, the pressure would burn the Newlyweds' signatures into the Capitol databanks forever. Katniss stared down at the paper as Peeta's fat, loopy signature scrolled onto the page, but she could feel his stare never leave her face. She avoided looking back at him as she took the cartridge and signed her own name. Next to Peeta's, her signature looked childish and sloppy.
"Isn't this special everyone?" Effie enthused. She gripped Katniss' shoulder on one side and Peeta's on the other. "How unique that I get to present you with Mr. andMrs. Peeta Mellark of the Capitol."
Katniss looked out over the crowd, but it was like she was swimming in a sea of strangers. Her mother's blue eyes were red and wet; Gale's gray eyes seemed to be set into the predatory face of a wolf. Farll looked younger than he was, with twin trails of tears dripping down into his blond beard. But Katniss couldn't understand or feel their emotions – these were people who felt something for Katniss Everdeen, and she wasn't Katniss Everdeen anymore.
She was Mrs. Peeta Mellark.
Of the Capitol.
There was a soft sniff beside her and Katniss glanced to Peeta for the first time, looking at him out of the corners of her eyes, and she saw to her humiliation that he was crying, too – not hard, not dramatically, just a few round tears caught in his long eyelashes. The tip of his nose was pink. His face was clean shaven, but a few stray blond hairs prickled at his jaw where it joined to his ear.
Katniss quickly looked away again.
There was a smattering of polite applause as Effie squeezed the couple's shoulders. Then Gale stood, kissed three fingers of his left hand, and held them out to salute Katniss: the funerary goodbye of District Twelve.
Katniss swallowed and looked to her shoes.
"Be seated," Effie snapped, her sunny smile faltering for the merest moment. She let go of Katniss and Peeta and they started off the stage, side-by-side, to join the other Newlyweds at the edge of the hall. Gale hesitated for a long, dangerous moment, then slowly took his seat again, flexing his fingers.
In their cushy new seats, Peeta turned to Katniss – tears still clinging to his eyelashes – and smiled.
Peeta cleared his throat. "Hi."
"Hi," Katniss whispered. She tried to remember all of the lessons that Mahra Mellark had drilled for four years in Home Economics, and quickly bowed her head in deference. Your Spouse is the dominant force in your life and you must respect him for it. Wait for him to initiate all contact.
Peeta bent to look awkwardly at her downcast face. "What's wrong?"
"I'm fine; how are you?" Katniss asked, turning the conversation back to him. Don't greet him with complaints and problems. Be a lively conversationalist, but avoid talking about yourself. Always invite your Spouse to choose the topic of discussion.
"I'm fine." Peeta frowned. "What are you looking at?"
Katniss' head snapped up. "Nothing," she said quickly. "I just – nothing."
"Oh," Peeta said softly. "I don't think I've ever seen you with your head down, is all." He smiled a small, sweet upturn of his lips. He looked more like Farll than Mahra, more rounded apple-cheeks than sharp chin.
The rest of the ceremony passed achingly slowly, full of strange, foreign faces and names and people who Katniss was not allowed to know anymore. Tate, the undertaker's son, was Contracted to a fox-faced girl from District Five who would be a Researcher, which made the the Twelve hall burst into mutterings – Researchers were rare and very wealthy; why would a Researcher be Contracted at all, especially to a gravedigger from Twelve?
"Things are different this year," Peeta whispered to Katniss. "Don't you think?"
"Or maybe it just seems strange when it's people you know," Peeta continued diplomatically. "Feels like it's not real."
Katniss looked at her knees. "Of course it's real."
Peeta was quiet for a moment. "I know, Katniss." He reached towards her like he might rest his hand on her knee, but stopped and twined his hands in his lap again.
"Margaret Undersee," called Effie from the stage, still grinning out at the crowd. "Breeder; Cato Junius, weapons technician. District Two."
Applause sounded around the room, but those who knew Madge eyed each other in confusion. Even in her hollow-hearted anxiety, Katniss whipped her head around to look for Madge. Gale's pained, gray eyes were trained on Madge from the audience table.
Madge remained defiantly seated, her arms crossed over her chest. The gold circlet pin on the collar of her dress winked in the lamplight. "I applied to be a Single."
Effie's smile hardened at the corners. "Your application was denied. You have an excellent genetic background and share many traits with Cato Junius. Your standard of living will be upheld, if that's your concern."
"That's not my concern," Madge said, looking disgusted. "My concern is that I refuse to be Contracted, especially as a Breeder. I can do more good staying here in District Twelve and apprenticing my mother or Mrs. Everdeen. You haven't assigned a midwife or a healer for our District in seventeen yearsand I know that I could be of huge help here. There are too many children being born and not enough medical care for our people. I'm not needed in District Two. But I am needed here."
Effie blinked slowly. Her jaw ticked. "The Capitol is much more equipped to decide your benefits than you are, Miss Undersee. Your way of thinking was what caused the Dark Days, and we wouldn't want to unleash that sort of chaos and despair again, would we?"
Madge said nothing, but lifted her chin, refusing to back down.
"Margaret Undersee," repeated Effie. Her face hardened and the smile fell completely. "Breeder; Cato Junius, weapons technician. District Two. Join us onstage to sign your Contract."
Madge remained in her seat. Two white-clothed Peacekeepers gripped her elbows and forced Madge to her feet before marching her to the stage.
Effie pushed the cartridge into Madge's hand and practically moved it for her, making Madge's signature on the paper and the database tablet below.
Madge stared stonily at Effie.
Effie smiled. "Your citizenship is appreciated, Mrs. Cato Junius of District Two."
Madge looked out at the crowd in the Justice Hall. She looked, for some reason, not to Gale or Larkspur Everdeen or Katniss or her parents, but to Haymitch Abernathy, and she said: "My name is Madge Undersee and I am a citizen of District Twelve. And I'm not leaving here. Not really."
Haymitch Abernathy raised his glass. "Here, here."
Gale followed suit by saluting Madge the same way he had Katniss. Madge's mother copied him. Then Madge's father. Slowly, the rest of the audience table – except for Mahra Mellark – all raised their left hands in deference to Madge. To Katniss' surprise, Peeta joined in from his seat beside her.
The Peacekeepers pulled Madge out of the Justice Building.
Effie demanded order.
And then District Twelve rose to recite the Pledge of Concession.
Katniss stood beside Peeta, mouthing the words and listening to his deep, bass voice conceding to the Capitol. She looked out to the audience table and saw her mother standing beside Peeta's father, and Gale a few paces down from them. Gale wasn't saying the words, either, but it didn't make Katniss feel any better.
The Peacekeepers were back to march all the rest of the Newlyweds onto the train bound for the rest of the Districts. And its final destination: the Capitol.
Outside, Effie stood at the door of the train with a tablet. She wore an ostentatious fuchsia coat that looked even brighter next to the coal-stained black of the train. Beside her, a huge Peacekeeper in a white helmet held the needle for tattooing everyone's with their Contract stamp. Katniss subconsciously gripped her wrist protectively. Beside her, Peeta was doing the same.
Effie began calling people forward in District order. Those who would not be leaving the District would receive their stamps first, then turn and go to their new houses in the Village, the row of empty houses erected over the last year for the Newlyweds of this cycle. And then Delly, for District Eleven. Then Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six.
"District Two: Margaret Junius," called Effie Trinket, glancing up from her clipboard.
Beside Katniss, Madge did not move. Katniss jolted as Peeta's arm brushed her back when he snaked it around behind her to clasp Madge's hand consolingly.
"Margaret Junius," Effie repeated, looking straight at Madge. "Please step forward to receive your stamp for District Two."
"My name is not Margaret Junius," Madge said stiffly. "I am a citizen of District Twelve."
Effie sniffed, but held her fixed smile in a way that made Katniss shiver.
"Not anymore," she said simply. "You will be sleeping in compartment 2D. Step forward to receive your stamp."
Madge left her place in the dwindling line with a purpose. She walked with her head high, hands balled into fists. When she reached the doors of the black train, she stared Effie down from a good three inches more height, but neither woman betrayed their ideals: Madge, District fury in blonde braids and a white dress, coal and forest and governance in her skin; Effie, calculating cold judgment with a fuchsia smile.
"Thank you, Margaret," Effie said through her teeth. "Present your wrist."
Madge screwed her eyes closed as the Peacekeeper beside Effie burned the laser brand into the thin skin of her wrist:
D:2 C:C JUNIUS BREEDER
Without a backwards glance, Madge marched onto the train. The girls and boys leaving for District One filtered through the line, wincing at their new names or their laser brands. One by one, only Katniss and Peeta were left behind: the only Contract Pair from the same District in generations, and the only persons from District Twelve who were assigned to the new world that was the Capitol.
"Katniss Mellark?" trilled Effie.
Peeta smiled tersely at Katniss and whispered what sounded like good luck as she approached Effie, the Peacekeepers, and the train doors.
Effie's smile seemed to stretch even wider as she took in Katniss before her and Peeta standing off to the side, still waiting in line to be processed. "So romantic and so practical, all at once," Effie simpered. "You will both be sharing Compartment C1, of course. We will have to warn the District One transfers to beware the sound of your headboard tonight, won't we?"
Katniss didn't smile. She had never anticipated her first night with her Spouse with anything but dread, but she had always assumed at least that it would be someone with no preconceived notions of who she was and that she would have the comfort of a quiet, solitary row-house. Knowing that she didn't even get one more night's reprieve – and that all of the new Contracts from Twelve would be judging her, too, not just Peeta – made her feel as though she had been robbed of something unexplainable.
Katniss extended her arm. The Peacekeeper's gloved hands were cold and alien and rough as he torqued her arm to face his laser properly. The tiny needle burned through layers of Katniss' skin, marking her indelibly as property. Peeta Mellark's Spouse. The Capitol's citizen.
D:0 C:C MELLARK STYLIST
Katniss felt numb and inexplicably embarrassed as she boarded the train, holding her sore wrist and waiting for Peeta.
Her Spouse. Peeta Mellark, the baker's son, was her Spouse.
She didn't watch as he was marked with a matching tattoo across his wrist, but Katniss could hear the sharp intake of Peeta's breath as the laser first pierced his skin.
"Don't you fret, Peeta," Effie's voice murmured. "If you put enough pressure on coal, it turns to pearls."
There was a pause.
"Diamond," Peeta corrected softly. "The toughest thing there is."
Katniss' cheeks felt hot. She didn't know whether it was a compliment or an insult that Peeta thought she was tough, but she knew that Effie had intended her words to console him. She hurried down the corridor towards Compartment C1.
Delly Cartwright – Adelaide Haselwood – waved to her as she passed. Katniss bobbed her head in acknowledgement and kept moving forward. She wanted a few minutes to herself before Peeta… well, before Peeta.
There was a clatter as Katniss passed through the cars bound for District Two. She looked up to see Madge leaning out of her compartment, staring down at the tracks rushing by below their feet in stark contemplation.
"Madge?" Katniss asked softly, her heart pounding. "Are you okay?"
"Katniss," Madge said softly, beseechingly. She unfastened the gold pin from her collar and held it out between their traincars. "They let you bring one thing with you to the new District… one thing to remind you of – of home. Of who you could have been." She pressed the pin into Katniss' palm. "Will you take this?"
"It's yours," Katniss said. "Don't you want it?"
Madge shook her head. "If they won't let me be Madge Undersee anymore, then I don't want any reminders of who I was. It'll be easier that way. But you get Peeta, and he's already something from home, so… maybe you could take this and both of you could remember for me."
Katniss swallowed and took the pin. The gold was cool and heavy in her palm. "Of course we'll remember you."
Madge's eyes were hollow as she nodded, and silently ducked back into her train compartment. Katniss hesitated before sliding back into her own.
Peeta was nowhere to be seen, but the Curfew chime sounded throughout the train on an annoying buzzer system. It echoed the bells outside where the train chugged through the wilds overhead of the mines as Twelve began to melt into the yellows and greens of Eleven.
Delly Cartwright and a few others would be disembarking soon. Maybe Peeta was saying goodbye. Katniss was fairly certain that Delly had been Peeta's companion. Until tonight.
She took advantage of his absence to change into her pajamas in peace. She brushed her long hair and braided it tight enough to bruise.
There was a knock at the compartment door and Katniss jumped.
"Katniss?" called Peeta's voice softly. "The door locked from the outside at curfew."
Katniss swallowed around her too-fast heart beating and crossed the compartment quickly to open the door. Peeta's eyes were limned in wet, bright red.
"Thanks," Peeta said, smiling gently. "Delly was nervous; I was sitting with her."
Katniss nodded. "We're almost to the Eleven center, I think."
Peeta sighed. "Effie came by just before the warning bell. We should be there in an hour."
Katniss didn't say anything. She hadn't really known Delly Cartwright and she didn't want to distract Peeta from his own concerns.
Peeta coughed. "Well, I guess – I guess I'll go get set to go to sleep. You can go on ahead if you'd like."
Katniss' stomach twisted and she couldn't say a word. Her mouth felt stuffed with cotton, dry and scratchy. She turned on her heel and climbed into the strange, too-smooth bed. She listened with trepidation as Peeta crossed through their compartment to the small attached bathroom.
Katniss closed her eyes tight as she heard the water stop running from the tap. She held her breath and clutched the smooth, cool sheet in her sweaty fingers.
The door between the compartments opened and she heard Peeta step inside. His footsteps were so loud. He was a broad, bulky man. He would be heavy.
Most girls got at least one night, the length of their trip to their new District, before they had to take their Spouses. Of course of every girl in Panem, Katniss would be the only one to be Contracted to a boy riding the same train.
She waited on tenterhooks for the dip of his weight sliding into the bed beside her, but it didn't come. She heard the creak of the springs in the sofa across the room instead, and she opened her eyes.
Peeta lay on the little sofa, his knees tucked up almost to his chin and his ear resting on his elbow.
"Oh, you're awake," he said mildly. He smiled and closed his eyes. "Good-night, Katniss."
She blinked. "Are you – what are you doing?" She cringed - Don't ask him questions about his actions or question his judgment or integrity.
"Oh, you can have the bed," Peeta said. "It's okay."
He smiled at Katniss again, then turned his face into his elbow, wrapped the hems of his sleeves around his hands like a baby fisting a security blanket, and closed his eyes. They skittered beneath his pale eyelids, making his blond lashes jump like invisible spiders, betraying his wakefulness.
Katniss remained seated in the bed for a long time, staring at him across the train compartment, wondering when he was going to decide to slide into bed (their marriage bed).
She considered that she may have misjudged him – his father must have been a good man if her own mother had once loved him. It was possible that Peeta hadn't inherited his mother's cruelty, but then again, Katniss had learned so much from her father and Prim was already shaping up to be just like their mother.
Prim. Why had Peeta's father said he would watch after Prim? It was a legal statement and intention, but it skated worryingly close to the line of the law – The business of the home is subject only to the nuclear family members under Contract and the District representative to the Capitol. Wellbeing can be determined only by Capitol conduct search. Food, shelter, medical care, childcare and education, and monetary value in excess of Capitol agreement will not be provided by external persons under penalty of I) Fines, II) Imprisonment, III) Death.
Between Prim and Posy, Larkspur would almost certainly be imprisoned if anyone surveyed the workings of the Everdeen home. At the least.
Without parents… Posy and Prim would Disappear, too.
When the sky outside of their compartment windows began to glow softly orange, Katniss finally lay back down into the mountain of pillows and closed her eyes as Peeta continued to snuffle softly in his sleep across the room. He had rolled over in the night and Katniss saw a crease across his face from the seam of the sofa cushions, and she'd almost laughed.
Why hadn't he slept in the bed?
Why was his father willing to risk his livelihood or life for a family that was not his own?
None of the pieces fit together, Katniss thought wearily, as she finally closed her eyes against the sunset and let herself fall asleep. Unless…
She opened one eye again and to her surprise and horror, Peeta's blue eyes were open, but red-rimmed, and trained on her face. He looked heartbroken and she quickly closed her eye again.
Peeta Mellark, the boy who had always been so kind to her, simply had not accepted that she was his Spouse.
The train pulled into District Two just after five o'clock in the morning and the gears screeched as they ground to a halt. Madge burst into Katniss- and Peeta's traincar with wide, wild eyes and clung to Katniss, her nails almost digging hard enough into Katniss' arms to draw blood, until Peacekeepers in white uniform pulled her free and dragged her, kicking and biting, off the train into the District Center of Two. Katniss and Peeta knelt side-by-side on the sofa, puffy eyed, as they watched the Peacekeepers deposit Madge at the feet of a tall, rangy boy with ropy muscles bulging from the sleeves of his black Weapons Trainee uniform. His scarred lip curled as he looked down at Madge. She set her jaw and started to push herself up.
Cato Junius pushed her shoulder with the toe of his heavy black boots, keeping her down.
"Oh, Madge," whispered Peeta. His fingertips smudged the glass as the train's wheels rumbled and they started on their way again, rolling off to District One and then, the end of the line: the Capitol.
Katniss couldn't sleep after seeing the way Madge's new Spouse had treated her. She lay on her side in the undulating bed, facing away from Peeta. She could hear him moving around on the other side of the traincar, though. There was a soft scratching sound like he was writing, but Katniss couldn't imagine why he would be. She lay resolutely towards the wall, still waiting for the weight of Peeta on the mattress. It never came.
The train rolled to a stop in District One less than an hour after Madge had been pushed to the ground. Katniss didn't rise to see who disembarked.
"Knock, knock!" sang Effie from the door as the train started chugging again. She opened the door with a sunny grin and perfectly styled aquamarine hair. "Well, don't you look tired, Peeta." She hummed conspiratorially. "How sweet."
Katniss curled in on herself.
"We will be arriving in the Capitol in one hour," Effie informed them. "Please be on your best behavior. When we arrive in the city, I'll show you to your new home. Your Starter Stock should be waiting for you."
Peeta thanked Effie softly and the door closed.
"Katniss?" Peeta asked quietly. "Are you awake?"
Katniss nodded, but didn't roll over.
Peeta paused. "Do – you want any breakfast? I can go get that while you… you know. Get dressed. If you want. I mean, or I can just go – go sit with Effie, I guess."
Katniss sat up and looked over her shoulder at Peeta. He glanced up at her from beneath his blond fringe. He was already dressed in his blue Professional uniform. Unlike his mother, on him, the blue looked soft.
Katniss swallowed, and nodded.
"Was that… yes to breakfast?" Peeta asked clumsily, "Or yes to… me leaving?"
"Yes," Katniss said quickly. "I mean – do whatever you want. Whatever you want to do is fine. I'm fine with whatever you want to do. Do what you want."
Peeta frowned. "I'll bring you some breakfast. I don't really want to sit with Effie. If that's okay."
"That's fine," Katniss acquiesced, nodding rabidly. "Whatever you want to do is fine. Do what you want. I'm fine with whatever you want to do."
Peeta nodded awkwardly and bowed out of the train compartment. When the door swung shut behind him, the compartment plunged into darkness, and Katniss shuddered. The train was traveling through the tunnel that ran through the mountains into the Capitol. She dressed quickly in the dark, changing into her own generic blue Professional uniform for the first time. She would get her own specialized uniform at her Vocation tomorrow.
She startled when the door opened behind her, but it was just Peeta, carrying a plate of eggs, ham, a pile of fried potatoes, some fruit, a flaky crescent-shaped roll, a glass of what looked to be orange juice, and a fragrant cup of coffee.
Peeta smiled gently. "I didn't know what you liked, so I just… brought a little of everything."
"I don't like coffee," Katniss said automatically. "I mean… thank you. I – thank you."
"That's okay," Peeta said. "The coffee is for me. Never tried it." He handed Katniss the plate and orange juice before lifting his mug in a little toast before taking a sip.
"Really?" Katniss asked, looking timidly over to Peeta. "My mother – " She caught herself. You will not be the daughter of your birth family or the lover of your companion or a child of District Twelve. You will be a citizen of your new home District and must embrace all of its cultures. Assimilation is tantamount to the survival of Panem.She coughed. "I don't really like coffee much. But… I could learn to, if you do."
Peeta made a face. "I don't think I do." He stood beside Katniss' chair and stared out of the dark window. "I guess we're almost there now."
Katniss and Peeta stood in silence as the train sped along through miles of rock. Katniss' chest tightened, weighted down and trapped beneath the Capitol.
The train slowed and sudden bright light flooded the compartment, making Katniss and Peeta blink and shade their eyes. Then, looming out of the sky, the spires of the Capitol appeared. Katniss had only ever seen pictures of the Capitol in the brochures and the background shots of vapid broadcasts, but she had thought she had seen enough of the Capitol to judge it. But the broadcasts had never come close to capturing the magnificence of the glistening buildings, the rainbow of hues, the soaring heights of the towering buildings. The streets were all paved smooth and black. The bizarre and grotesque citizens of the Capitol walked lazily along the beautiful white sidewalks, nowhere to go in no hurry at all. All of the colors seemed artificial: the pinks too pink and the greens too green, the yellows painful to the eyes.
Effie opened the compartment door with little pips of tears in her eyes and put a vice-like arm around Katniss' and Peeta's shoulders.
"Welcome home," she trilled, giving them a squeeze.
Katniss felt her heart harden into lead in her chest, but on Effie's other size, Peeta smiled. He kept the same careful smile on his face as Effie shushed them off the train and swept them down one of the clean, bright streets, jabbering uselessly about 'restaurants' and 'boutiques.' Katniss only nodded absently when she squeezed her arm and pointed out the studio where Katniss would take her Apprenticeship, but Peeta actually stopped outside of the pastry shop where he would work and went inside to introduce himself to his trainer.
"This is it!" Effie sang. She sounded almost beside herself with excitement. "Your very own little home. It's so much nicer than anything you had in District Twelve, isn't it?" Then she covered her mouth daintily. "Oops! Not supposed to talk about your birth lifeare we? Well, now, that unpleasantness is all over and there are just new beginnings, new beginnings, new beginnings!" She pointed up the stairs. "Go ahead upstairs, everything should be put into place for you. Kisses!" She leaned in and kissed each of Peeta's cheeks, then looked at Katniss. There was a moment of thought and then she patted Katniss' arm. "May the odds be ever in your favor, Mellarks."
Peeta smiled. "Good night, Miss Trinket."
Effie blushed. "Ugh, so polite; you're just a treasure. Lucky girl, Mrs. Mellark – you hold onto him!" She giggled. "Oh, I'm just kidding of course, just go on home."
Peeta thanked Effie again and then gestured gallantly for Katniss to take the lead up the stairs to their skinny, tall row-house. Katniss couldn't help marveling at the interior of the house: it was cooled against the summer heat; the floors were carpeted and felt soft beneath her shoes. The front door opened into the living room, where the walls were pale blue. Above that, the kitchen was a soft, eggy beige. And the floor above that… the bedroom and bath, with an enormous bed fitted with dark blue sheets and pale blue walls.
Katniss didn't say anything as she wandered into the bedroom and began to pick through the drawers experimentally. Ten sets of regulation pajamas; five His and five Hers. A copy of the Capitol Texts For Professionals tucked into the nightstand. It was devoid of personality. Of life. Of any kind of past.
The big bed was lacking a Prim and a Posy to take up all of that space, and Katniss sat down right in the middle, feeling empty.
A little while later, the smell of rye and rich butter wafted up the stairs. Katniss hesitated, then climbed out of the bed and wandered down the stairs and into the pale yellow kitchen.
Peeta looked up from the kitchen table, where he sat with a mug of tea and two slices of fresh rye bread, and a pot of real butter, which Katniss had seen only twice before in her life. His eyes were rimmed with red.
"Hi," he said warmly. "I didn't know if you were awake."
"I was awake," Katniss said. "The bread smelled good."
"Thanks," Peeta whispered. He picked at the crust. "It's my dad's favorite." He took a deep breath. "Do you want some before you go to bed?"
"Okay," Katniss said quietly. "Thank you." Bed. Bed. Bed. Bed. Bed bed bed bed bed bed bed.
Peeta smiled, sniffed, and sliced Katniss some bread. He passed her the butter and got up to pour a glass of water. "Did you want some tea?"
"No," Katniss muttered. "Thank you."
Peeta slid the water down in front of her and smiled encouragingly. "I remember you trading for this bread a lot, too. I just thought… it might be nice to have something familiar tonight."
Katniss' throat felt dry and the bread weighed down her mouth. She nodded blankly and gulped some water around the bread and butter in her mouth. "Right. Tonight."
"Oh, don't worry," Peeta said quickly. "I'm – going to sleep on the couch. In the living room."
Katniss' brow furrowed. "Why?"
"I just… want to," Peeta said. He finished his bread and quickly cleared his place and went to the sink. He didn't look over as he spoke again. "You can go ahead and leave your dishes, I'll wash them. I don't mind. It's kind of my Vocation anyway, so – practice," he laughed.
It is your obligation to make sure your home is a haven of rest and order for your Spouse and to learn your Vocation quickly and meticulously. Catering to your Spouse's comfort will provide you with immense personal satisfaction.
"Okay," Katniss wavered. She finished her bread, too, and stood up uncertainly. "I guess… good night, then?"
Peeta looked over then and his mouth plumped winningly as he smiled. "Good night, Katniss. Sleep well. I'll wake you up in the morning for Vocation."
Katniss paused at the foot of the stairs to watch Peeta's arm muscles moving as he washed the dishes. His blond hair hid his eyes.
"Good night, Peeta."
D:0 C:S VICI HYGIENIST pulled a wax strip from Katniss' leg and Katniss winced.
"Sorry!" chirruped Venia. "You're just so hairy!"
"Your Spouse is who I feel sorry for," tittered D:0 C:S COLLOS HYGIENIST conspiratorially as he reapplied his purple lipstick. "I simply can't imagine the hell he's been through the last two nights with… that. Is that how all District girls are? Ghastly!"
Green-skinned D:0 C:S PATRA HYGIENIST, the only Capitol citizen Katniss hadn't yet wanted to shoot full of arrows, tutted. "That's uncouth, Flavius. The poor darling probably had little cause to look nice out there in the wild, especially before she was Contracted. Unless she had a lovely little companion!" Octavia smiled encouragingly at Katniss as she continued to shape Katniss' nails. "Did you have a companion, Katniss? Oh," she gasped, "Were you and Peeta companions? Oh, how romantic! How absolutely cinematic!"
"No," Katniss said through gritted teeth as Venia ripped free another strip of hair. "I didn't have a companion."
"Ah, well," consoled Octavia, "Now you have a Spouse and as soon as we're finished with you, you're going to be absolutely gorgeous!"
"We promise! You know, now that we've gotten rid of all the hair and filth, you're not horrible at all," commented Flavius. "You look nearly worthy of being Cinna's Apprentice."
"Aren't – are you all his Apprentices, too?" Katniss asked, grimacing as Venia and Octavia rubbed her skin down with a stinging lotion.
"Oh, my, no!" laughed Octavia. "You and Cinna are designers. Venia, Flavius, and I are hygienists. Cinna calls us his 'prep team," she chuckled. "We prepare his clients so they're beautiful enough to wear his work. And soon yours, too!"
"And when you choose your remakes," Flavius chimed in, "We'll assist in your procedures." He tapped her nose affectionately. "You should change this."
Katniss' jaw set stonily. Her stomach dropped. Remakes. She hadn't even considered that living in the Capitol, she and Peeta would be expected to look like Capitol citizens. She couldn't even imagine looking like the freaks she saw out on the street, or living with one of them.
"Should I?" she asked hesitantly as she touched her nose.
"Oh, yes," gushed Flavius. "I'd suggest a beak."
"You almost look like a human being now!" encouraged Venia, clapping her hands. "Let's call Cinna!"
Katniss quickly darted across the clean, open, white space and slid into the uniform that the Prep Team had left for her: a fitted black blouse and black pencil skirt, and a terrifying pair of impractical black shoes with high heels. She was still struggling into them when the studio door opened and a trim, tall man strode into the room.
He looked younger than Katniss had expected: most Professionals took on their apprentices towards the ends of their tenures at fifty-five. Cinna couldn't have been more than one Rotation older than Katniss, if that. And unlike his prep team, he looked… human. His brown hair and green eyes made Katniss think that he'd begun life in District Four, and the only concession he had made to Capitol vanity was a gentle highlight of gold eyeliner to bring out the flecks and shades in his ocean-eyes.
Despite her disgust with the assistants and her stomach-twisting fear of having to choose her own alterations, Katniss had to admit that it made him look pleasantly put-together and professional – and attractive.
"Hello, Katniss," he said, inclining his head. His voice was softly neutral; no distinct District accents that Katniss could place, but not the strangely flat Capitol diction, either. "I'm Cinna."
"Hello," she ventured cautiously.
Cinna extended his hand, and Katniss took it. Cinna's handshake was dry and firm and made Katniss feel more at ease; his demeanor was so sure and calm and normal.
"Your Spouse is apprenticed to my wife," Cinna said lightly, smiling at Katniss. "So I hope you're not finding him disagreeable."
Katniss shook her head, looking to her toes. "No, I'm not."
"Eyes up," Cinna chided gently. "In the Capitol, you're more than a District tailor. You represent the ideals behind the clothing that you make, and while you're apprenticing for me, you represent the ideals behind clothing that Imake. So chin up, stand tall." He smiled. "Do you know what the ideas are that we are going to put into this clothing we make?"
Katniss shrugged. "Colors? Wealth?"
Cinna's green eyes sparkled. "All of our emotions. Whatever you're feeling, channel it into your designs and your work. It's what I do."
"Even when you feel horrible?" Katniss asked, looking up at Cinna.
"Especially when I feel horrible," Cinna said kindly, laying his hand on Katniss' shoulder. "So. Why don't you follow me and we'll talk about what your Apprenticeship entails over some lunch?"
Katniss nodded and tried not to wipe her hands on her skirt – had they been so clammy when she shook Cinna's hand? She hoped not – and followed him out of his studio and down to the street-level of the Row building. They crossed into the dining space through the bustle of the kitchen. Katniss tried not to stare at the fish being hacked in half or the turmeric-yellow steamed buns in their little wooden boxes.
"Have you ever eaten in a restaurant before?" Cinna asked, turning to look over his shoulder at Katniss as he opened the connecting door to the seating area.
She shook her head.
"Wasn't your Spouse your District's baker?" Cinna asked curiously. He took a seat in a low, red couch at a small table in the corner of the room and gestured for Katniss to sit across from him. "Did you eat in his bakery?"
"No," Katniss said shortly. Be at your utmost polite when addressing Professionals, your Spouse, and the children of your peers."No," she corrected herself quickly, trying to speak more lightly. "We – my father died in a mine explosion," she explained, keeping to the familiar, comforting lie. "We couldn't really afford to visit the bakery all that often."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Cinna said sincerely. "That must have been hard."
Katniss swallowed. "That was my old life."
"That was your life," Cinna said. "Living somewhere else, having a new job, that doesn't change what's happened to you in the past."
"It's supposed to be a blank slate," Katniss said, looking down at the glossy black plate resting against the crisp white tablecloth. She had never eaten anywhere so luxurious before, and the food hadn't even arrived yet. "But Peeta knows who I used to be, so I feel like – it's not really new, is it? When someone already knows all about you."
"Were you friends with Peeta back home?" Cinna asked, waving cheerfully to one of the red-robed waitstaff.
Katniss shook her head. "No. He was a Merchant. I wasn't."
Cinna smiled. "Then I'm sure he doesn't know everything about you. But you'll get to know each other. I'm confident. If you're well-matched enough that they would pair two people from the same District, and apprentice them to the same Contract pair, there must be a reason."
Katniss' mouth twisted.
"I don't know what it could be," she said dubiously. "There isn't much the same about growing up Merchant and growing up Seam."
"You weren't friends with Peeta back home," Cinna reminded her gently, turning her words around on her. "You don't know yet what you might have in common. Sometimes, the experiences themselves are less important than how they made you feel. The way that two people think can be the most important thing they share."
"Is that like you and your Spouse?" Katniss asked – but was interrupted by the spectacular arrival of the food. Even aside from growing up with less than the Merchants had, or even the two-supporter Seam houses, Katniss had never seen, or even imagined, food like this.
A thick, fluffy wheat bun was the size of a tea-plate and shiny as glass, the dome brown as crust, filled with glistening, fatty, sweet-scented shreds of dark meat. A bowl of bright white-and-pink curls of some kind of ocean critter with a hard shell, tossed with tiny leaves of some fragrant herb. Glistening pillows of noodle so thin Katniss could see a green filling through their bellies, swimming in dark sauce. Long, tangled glass noodles dotted with tiny white seeds.
Half of a chicken with crispy skin, smothered in a thick sauce with fruit segments – Katniss thought she smelled orange, which she'd had only once in her life when she was very young – sitting atop a bed of a tiny, pearlescent white grain that Katniss didn't recognize. She wondered if even Peeta would have been able to tell her what it was.
Cinna smiled. "Traditional foods from Five. Lavinia – she's the chef here; she makes us free lunches in exchange for new uniforms for the waitstaff twice a year – is good to me." He raised his eyebrows and leaned in conspiratorially. "As far as I'm concerned, this is muchbetter than the rest of that too-rich Capitol swill." He winked. "Unless Portia is making it, of course."
"Were you born in Five?" Katniss asked, watching as Cinna deftly portioned the dishes between their two plates: half a bun, a few of the crustaceans, two dumplings, a bed of noodles, and, most incredibly, a whole quarter of chicken. It was enough that Katniss could have fed Prim and Posy on her plate alone for two days.
"No," Cinna said, beginning to eat the crustacean with his fingers. "Lavinia was. When I started coming in, I told her to make me whatever she liked best. This was the kind of food her great-grandmother ate before the Dark Days and she passed the recipes down along the family line."
"That's forbidden," Katniss hissed, looking down at her plate with trepidation. "Once you're Contracted you're supposed to leave your District culture behind and embrace your new home. She's going to get in trouble."
"You can't turn off who you are," Cinna said again, laying a shell on the side of his plate. "Lavinia's great-grandmother brought foods with her from another country and made them for her children, and those children made them for theirs, and Lavinia's mother made them for her and now she's making them for her own children. I think that's wonderful." He smiled and delicately bit into a dumpling. "Something her children can bring with them to remember her by after they're Contracted and have to leave her world behind."
Katniss blinked and hesitantly took a bite of the noodles. Flavor exploded in her mouth; rich and nutty and spicy, something that she'd never encountered in Twelve. She ate a dumpling before she'd even swallowed the noodles and thought that she could understand not being willing to lose this food.
And of course Peeta had made the same dark bread last night that Katniss had received from Farll for years. Peeta had brought his family with him to the Capitol, too, in his food. He would probably make that bread for their children, too, and they might be Contracted as bakers when they turned sixteen and left for their own lives.
Katniss remembered the silent tears Peeta and Farll had shared at the ceremony, and could understand now why being able to carry something small and secret and personal from home, and to be able to smell and feel and taste your home anew every time you cooked, would mean something good.
"How old are your children?" Katniss asked Cinna, pushing the pearly grains of rice across her plate. She lifted a crisp piece of chicken thigh and had to stifle a moan when she tasted the orange sauce.
Cinna lifted his own rice deftly with two strange, long, wooden sticks. He moved with them more gracefully than Katniss had ever been with a fork. "Portia and I don't have any children."
Katniss' head snapped up. "But you've got to be nearly thirty!"
Cinna pulled his face into a mock mask of horror. "Do I look that old?" He laughed. "You're right, we're twenty-nine. And we have no children, and no plans to have any."
"But – "
"Katniss, have you ever met anyone before who was gay?" Cinna asked quietly. He laid his wooden utensils on a little saucer beside his plate.
Katniss felt her face color so hot it was probably burgundy. "My – friend Madge, I think." She held out the mockingjay pin on her neckline. "She applied to be a Single, but she got Contracted to a boy in Two. She gave me this on the train."
Cinna nodded sadly. "That's what happened to Portia and me, but fortunately, we both felt the same. Or maybe we don'tfeel the same," he laughed. "She is my closest friend in the world. And we really are a great Match. But we're never going to want to make children together, and the Capitol can't make us. They can't tell us what to do in our bedroom or for our own home."
Katniss was silent. She pushed the chicken and oranges around her plate for a minute as Cinna watched her with contemplative green eyes.
"They can, though," she said softly. "That's what the Capitol is for."
When Katniss arrived home, Peeta was already in the kitchen, quietly setting the table. A plate of simple, round buns sat nestled in bakery-white paper.
"Hi." Peeta smiled at her over his shoulder where he stood at the counter, chopping a carrot. "How was work?"
Katniss blinked. "Good."
She set her bag down on the chair nearest the buns. A warm, rich, tarragon and groosling aroma hung heady out of the kitchen from the stockpot on the stove. Peeta set down his knife and picked up a wooden spoon, then stirred the pot and raised more of the delicious scent.
Memories of her mother having dinner on the table by the time Da had returned from the mine plagued Katniss with a nagging sense of imbalance. Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready on time for his return. This is a way of letting him know that you have be thinking about him and are concerned about his needs. "I can ask Cinna if I can leave earlier if you want, so you don't have to start dinner."
Peeta frowned. "I like cooking. If – if you don't want me to, I won't, I just… I thought maybe you'd be hungry…" He looked back to the simmering pot on the stove. "Portia said that Cinna is usually starving by the time he gets home." He paused and turned fully to look at Katniss, his eyes soft and plaintive. "She said that he's a good man and that you'd be in good hands with him. Did you like him?"
Katniss nodded. "He seems nice. He wasn't angry when I told him that I've never done any sewing before. He said that what he does is mostly drawing anyway."
"That sounds like fun," Peeta said encouragingly. He swept the diced carrot into the stockpot. "Portia said that Cinna does a lot of trade and that you'd probably be busy soon."
"He does," Katniss agreed. "But I don't know how to draw. I don't know if I'll ever be able to do work the quality that he does. I think I can pull my weight in the finances," she added hastily, "It may be more difficult here than it was back home because I can't – I can't hunt, but I won't be a burden on you."
Peeta's brow creased. "Never, Katniss. I know how hard you work and I think you'll do great at your job." He paused. "I can draw. I can… I can help you, if you want."
"I don't want to cut into your time," Katniss said, shaking her head and looking at her shoes. "You have your own job to worry about." It is not your Spouse's obligation to shoulder your weight in areas where you may fall short in your Vocation, home care, or childcare. Instead, it is your obligation to make sure your home is a haven of rest and order for your Spouse and to learn your Vocation quickly and meticulously. Catering to your Spouse's comfort will provide you with immense personal satisfaction.
"If you change your mind, I would really like to spend time drawing with you," Peeta said softly. "It's probably how I'd spend my free time anyway, once we get an Allowance and I can buy paints."
"You don't need to worry about teaching me to do my job." Katniss' eyes narrowed. "I can learn to be a designer and I can get home in time to cook dinner. You can trust me to do what I'm supposed to do."
"I know," Peeta said nervously. "Katniss, I don't think you can't, I just – "
"Why did you start dinner? I know we haven't gotten an Allowance yet, but I never had as much as your family after the mine collapse, and I doknow how to make do with what we have. You didn't have to budget me."
"I'm not budgeting you," Peeta said, looking baffled. "Katniss, I likecooking and Portia had just – she mentioned how Cinna works through lunch most days and is so hungry, and I thought that maybe he kept you through lunch too, and… I was just trying to be helpful."
"Well, we didn't work through lunch," Katniss snapped. "I can finish cooking."
"It's done," Peeta said apologetically. "But I'm glad that you got to eat lunch today. You don't have to eat with me if you really don't want to."
He looked so crestfallen that Katniss felt guilty. She looked at the white paper packet of cheese buns on the table and picked at one.
"Of course I'll eat with you," she hedged. "Shouldn't waste food. You went to all the trouble. I just – "
"Just eat," Peeta said, plunking a bowl down in front of her. "I know you can do everything you're supposed to. I cooked because I wanted to. And I'll keep wanting to. Please let me cook dinner and just… forget about who's 'supposed' to do things, okay?"
Katniss ripped a cheese bun in half and dunked it into the lamb stew. It was delicious, not that she wanted to let Peeta know that now. Forget about who was supposed to fulfill certain roles in the home? There was no way. His motherhad been the Home Economics teacher in Twelve, for cripes' sakes. He had to know as well as anyone how important it was to assimilate.
Everyone disappeared in the Capitol. She wasn't going to let him trick her into Disappearing, too, by not living up to her obligations. She didn't know what sort of game Peeta Mellark was playing, but she wouldn't let him win.
"Portia has invited the two of us to come have lunch at the bakery with her and Peeta today," Cinna informed Katniss as he strode through the door. A week had passed since Katniss had arrived in the Capitol, but she felt as though she was making woefully little progress with designing.
She had not asked Peeta to help her with her drawing each evening, despite his offer. Katniss had seen a few of hisdrawings in the living room when she left in the morning, though, and if she were pressed, she would admit that she could probably have benefitted from his help.
But she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of knowing that.
"She said that she would take no excuses," Cinna continued with a sigh. "Normally I work through lunch, but the little lady is insisting." He paused. "Is that alright with you, Katniss?"
"Well, she said no excuses…"
"I allow an excuse if it means getting an extra hour of work done," Cinna whispered confidentially, then winked. "Or if you're having problems with Peeta."
"No," Katniss said quickly. "No problems with Peeta. We can go."
Katniss' fingers were red and pinched by the time they left for lunch, courtesy the sharp little edges of the thousands of sequins she was tasked to sort by hand for a dress for Cashmere Geiss, a Single broadcast star. Portia was a tiny little wisp of a woman with tightly curled black hair that spelled of a mild Remake, and she hugged Katniss on meeting her, which would have made Katniss uncomfortable on anyone else. Peeta smiled shyly at her and set four places at a table in the corner, and Portia made him blush by insisting on showing off his delicate cakework to Katniss.
Katniss smiled at Peeta and complimented him, and he worried over her raw fingers and brought her a small dish of ice.
Cinna and Portia looked like the perfect image of a happy Panem all through lunch. They finished each other's sentences. They laughed over jokes that Katniss couldn't understand. They seemed never to stop smiling.
Even though she knew better, Katniss was a little jealous of them. No one would ever question their Contract. She and Peeta were so awkward, all bumping elbows on the tabletop and halting interruptions, that Katniss felt like she was wearing a sign that blared, Not Doing Her Spousal Duties.
"I'll see you at home," Cinna murmured to Portia. He leaned in and kissed her cheek. Portia smiled and reached up to straighten his collar. Cinna pretended to scowl back down at her again and re-adjusted the wings to where he wanted them and Portia laughed.
Peeta looked down at Katniss. "I'll see you tonight," he said kindly. "Have a good afternoon."
Katniss nodded. She paused, then leaned in and kissed Peeta's cheek.
Peeta blushed pink. "Thank you."
"I'll see you at home," Katniss demurred, mimicking Cinna. She closed her eyes as Peeta kissed her cheek back softly.
"That was very openhearted of you," Cinna commented to Katniss as they walked back down the Row alley towards the design studio. "Peeta cares about you so much."
"How do you know?" Katniss asked, looking up at him.
"Portia told me," Cinna said simply.
Katniss scowled. "Peeta tells her about me? About our home?"
"They're friends," Cinna explained patiently. "He's concerned that you dislike him."
Katniss was silent.
"Do you not like him?" Cinna asked. "I won't tell Portia. I'm good at keeping secrets."
"He's fine," Katniss said. "I have no reason not to like him. He's a nice man."
"Are you attracted to him?" Cinna held up one of his hands, placating. "You don't have to answer that."
Katniss shrugged. "I don't know." She stopped and propped a hand against the brick alley wall so she could pull a pebble out of one of her impractical shoes. "I'm not… not. I'm not – I'm not like – "
"It's alright," Cinna hushed her quickly. "I understand." He paused. "Does Peeta know that you're not… not attracted to him? Because he knows you're not attracted to him. One not."
"I'm confused by the nots," Katniss said, shaking her head.
Cinna laughed. "I am, too." He grew quiet and reached out to clasp Katniss' shoulder comfortingly. "I think you need to talk to your Spouse. Really talk to him."
Katniss wrinkled her nose. "I don't know how."
"Ask him a question," Cinna said. "See what the answer is. That's what a conversation usually is, at heart. It answers a question."
"I'm the girl," Katniss whispered. "I'm not supposed to question him."
"Well…" Cinna founded. "Fuck that."
"I'm serious," insisted Cinna. "Ask him a question, and see what he answers. Have a conversation with your Spouse. And learn to be happy together. Remember, you have to find a way to say what you feel, even if it's horrible."
"I'll try," Katniss said evasively.
Cinna stopped at the studio door and held it open for Katniss to enter. He caught her elbow, though, and turned her to face him. "Could you think of me as a friend, Katniss?"
"You're my trainer," Katniss said, shrugging. "I don't think you're supposed to be my friend."
"Forget about 'supposed to!'" Cinna spat as the door swung shut behind them and they climbed the staircase. "Katniss, life – it isn't about doing what you're 'supposed to,' it's about doing what you need to do and what you want to do. Everyone has responsibilities, but we also have rights."
Katniss sucked in a breath and hurried up the rest of the staircase.
Her father used to talk about rights, once upon a time. He told Katniss over and over as she was falling asleep, like it was a bedtime story, that people were meant to have the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But Katniss didn't even know what that meant. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness. Didn't sound like it came from this world.
"Katniss, I'm sorry," Cinna said in a rush at the top of the stairs. "That was out of line, my comments. I'm sorry. Just please know that I already think of you as a friend," he said gently. "Just be yourself with Peeta, too."
Katniss pursed her lips. "I'll try."
That night over dinner, Katniss stared at Peeta across the small table. He had a small, new burn scar on his cheek and kept touching it self-consciously, then wincing.
Peeta looked up. "Oh! Just – sugar. It splashes."
"Oh," Katniss said softly. She looked down at her plate and dragged a bit of bread through her stew. "Do you need anything?"
"No, no," Peeta said, and shrugged. "It'll heal. Occupational hazard."
"Peeta," Katniss interrupted, "Don't you think – well, I was wondering why we haven't…"
She trailed off and bit her lip, looking down at the crumbs of bun on her plate. She picked one up with her thumb.
There was a beat.
"Do you want to?" Peeta asked, his voice cracking. He coughed. "I just, I don't want to until – until you want to do it."
"I think it's silly to keep putting it off," Katniss said, looking across the table at him. Peeta's cheeks were red, but his face fell. "We know it will happen soon anyway," Katniss said hurriedly. "So just – why not now?"
"You don't want it," Peeta mumbled. He stood up and reached for Katniss' plate before stacking them and turning his back on her to head to the kitchen to do the dishes. "It's okay."
Katniss stayed seated, toying with the ends of the cheese bun. When Peeta quietly returned with a damp rag to wipe the crumbs from the table – ever the bakers' son, ever the chef's apprentice – Katniss looked up at him and asked, "But don't – do you want me?"
Peeta's blue eyes shifted, sweeping over her form and lingering for a meager moment at her breasts, at her neck, making Katniss shift in her seat. Peeta blushed again, looking quickly away.
"Of course I do," he said, hoarse and honest.
"Then I don't understand why you keep saying no," Katniss said. She reached out and laid her hand over Peeta's sturdy arm.
He stared down at her fingers on his skin. "Because you don't want me. Katniss, I'm not – I'm going to do that to you, I'm not… that's not something I'm – believe in," he stuttered. "I can wait. It's fine."
Katniss frowned and tried to meet his gaze. "I don't want to be a bad Spouse," she muttered, shame gnawing at her ribs. "I just – I don't understand what you're waiting for me to do."
Peeta smiled like his heart was breaking, and lifted one hand to touch Katniss' face. She was surprised by the new calluses on his fingertips; hard and shiny burns from hot sugar. He kissed the top of her head.
"I'm not waiting for you to do anything, Katniss," he murmured. "It's not something you do. It's something you feel. And if you don't, then, well… I can wait."
He walked into the kitchen. The water ran from the sink and the dishes clinked softly as he washed and dried their two lonely plates and two lonely glasses.
Katniss' brow furrowed as she fumed. She crossed to the window and pulled back their curtains, but there was nowhere to escape in the Capitol: it was Family Hour under sanctions and her wrist spelled out clearly that she had a home and a Spouse to tend to, even if she did try to leave.
So why wouldn't he let her tend to him? Wasn't he afraid of consequences – of Disappearing?
Of course he wouldn't be. Peeta had grown up in the Merchant class with two living parents, one of whom worked forthe Capitol. He'd seen two brothers Contracted already and how life went on in the system. He'd never watched his mother wander the streets until the final Curfew bell searching for her Spouse and he'd never gone to bed hungry because one Income wasn't enough. He hadn't ever had to smuggle a newborn baby home under his jacket to keep two families alive. He had never gone under the fence.
Peeta had no idea how important it was to look like a good citizen while living a life outside, and there was no way that Katniss could explain that all she wanted now was to be able to stop running.
The sound of Peeta closing the kitchen cabinets made Katniss flee up the stairs to their – her – bedroom. If he didn't want to be near her, she wasn't going to make him suffer through her presence. Upstairs, Katniss pulled out the sketchbook Cinna had given her and practiced drawing the little wooden doll in different stiff poses.
An hour passed. Then two. The clock outside chimed with the darkness and Katniss packed the sketchbook back into her work bag before slipping into her pajamas. She brushed her teeth and climbed into bed, lying on her side and watching the door.
Peeta's footsteps were always so heavy on the stairs. He would have made a terrible hunter back home, she thought. The door opened and Peeta smiled kindly at Katniss as he crossed to their dresser and pulled out his own pajamas before going into the bathroom to wash the sugar off his hands and change. Katniss listened to the water in the shower run down the drain and the shushing sound of Peeta's toothbrush.
The light clicked off and Peeta padded across the room to the bed.
Katniss held her breath –
Peeta leaned down and kissed her forehead. "Goodnight, Katniss. I'll see you in the morning. Do you want eggs for breakfast?"
Katniss frowned. "Okay."
Peeta smiled back. "Okay. 'Night."
He turned and started back out the door, heading downstairs to sleep on the couch again.
"Peeta," Katniss said angrily, kneeling on their bed, "Stop."
"Stop what?" Peeta asked, eyes wide and genuine and confused.
"Stop rejecting me and acting like it's – like it's me rejecting you!" Katniss fumed, eyebrows drawn tight between her eyes. "I know you probably wanted something better than a Seam girl and you never could have expected that you'd get stuck with me. But I'm trying. Why aren't you letting me tryto be a good Spouse?" She swallowed. "If this is about my mother and your father – "
"It's not," Peeta whispered. He took a few steps into the bedroom. "Katniss… what are you asking me?"
"I don't know," Katniss said miserably, sitting back on the mattress with a thump. "I just want you to stop running away all the time."
Peeta blinked. He took a few more steps closer. "Do – do you want me to sleep in here?"
"It makes me feel like I'm doing something wrong, that you're not." Katniss pulled at a stray thread on their thick Capitol blankets.
"No," Peeta said, shaking his head, "No, Katniss – do you wantme to sleep in here?"
Katniss threw her hands wildly. "Yes! Sure. Yes. I guess I do. Is that what you want me to say? I want you to sleep in the same room as me. It makes me feel stupid when you don't. Like I'm a kid. And there's something wrong with me."
"Katniss," Peeta said gently, sitting down beside her on the mattress. He took her hand and squeezed it. "You know that there's nothing wrong with not being ready to – " He tilted his head pointedly and twisted his mouth, cheeks pink. "There is nothingwrong with you."
"Are you not ready?" Katniss asked. "Is that why you haven't done anything to me yet?"
Peeta's eyes darkened sadly. "Think about what you just said, Katniss. I hate that that's how you think of – sex," he said, mouth pursing. It was the first time, Katniss realized, that either of them called it what it was. "It's not me doing something to you. It shouldn't be, anyway. And… I'm going to wait, until you don't feel like that's what it is."
Katniss blinked. "What else would it be?"
Peeta rubbed his eyes like he was too exhausted to hold them open on their own anymore. "Doing something together. Doing something… with each other. Doing – " he blushed again – "Something foryou. I don't know."
Katniss looked down at their knees, just barely touching on top of the sheets. Her own were still skinny and knobbly, dark against Peeta's pale, wide, scarred knees, covered with spidersilk hair. It irked Katniss that in the Capitol, boys could keep their hair when she had to be plucked like a groosling. She wondered if she would feel less naked with hers.
"I don't really know anything about… sex," Katniss said. "I don't know."
"You don't?" Peeta asked, holding her hands gently. "I just – I thought you and Gale Hawthorne, after he ended things with Madge – "
Katniss frowned. "He only ended things with Madge because he got Contracted. He's Johanna's Spouse, I couldn't – I wouldn't have – " She pursed her lips. "I never wanted to, Peeta."
Peeta bit his lip. "Really?"
Katniss smiled genuinely and nodded. "Really."
Peeta smiled back. "I haven't either. I'm nervous, too."
Katniss pulled the sheets back on the big bed. "You should sleep here."
Peeta stood and pulled back the other side of the sheets, rumpling the bed before tentatively settling down under the covers. He lay on his side, watching Katniss with warm eyes as she clambered onto the other side of the wide mattress. Her knee caught on his hip and she fell onto her wrists on the mattress as Peeta oompfed.
"I'm sorry," Katniss whispered, avoiding Peeta's eyes.
"It's okay." Peeta winced and rubbed his hip thoughtfully. "No permanent damage." He smirked and Katniss blushed.
She settled onto her side, too, staring at Peeta from across the bed. "The lights are still on."
Peeta paused, then snorted a laugh. "I thought you were going to turn them off, I guess."
"The switch is on your side," Katniss pointed out.
"No, it isn't," Peeta argued. Katniss bit her lip and pointed at the wall behind his shoulder.
Peeta rolled over and sighed. "Yes, it is." He rolled awkwardly out of the bed and padded across the room, where he shut the door and turned out the lights.
"It's dark in here," he said, surprised. "It never gets this dark in the living room."
"The living room isn't made for sleeping," Katniss said, her heart starting to pound as Peeta's loud feet shuffled blindly across the thick carpeting towards the bed. "The curtains in the bedrooms here are treated to keep the streetlights out. Cinna told me. It's hard to mend."
The bed dipped with a creak as Peeta half-tripped, half-climbed back onto the mattress. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Katniss whispered, arms tucked up tight against her body, clutching the pillow as close as a shield. "Good night."
The pillows rustled as Peeta settled himself. "Good night, Katniss."
Katniss lay still as a corpse, acutely aware of the sound of Peeta's breathing and the tiny tics of movement from his toes cracking and his weight shifting. The heat radiating from his skin so close to hers that she imagined a sunburn: the shape of Peeta shadowed into her back.
A raucous, drunken laugh echoed up to their bedroom from the sidewalk, even though it was hours past curfew. Katniss held her pillow tighter. And then –
"It's so loud here," Peeta whispered. His voice was quiet and hesitant and unsure. "Don't you think? Makes it hard to sleep."
Katniss nodded, paused, and rolled over to face him in the bluish almost-dark. Peeta's soft curls seemed almost transparent in the low light, but his eyes looked black.
"It was always so quiet back home," Peeta continued, nestling down against his pillow and staring at Katniss. He seemed to be holding his breath, trying not to smile at her.
"It wasn't in the Seam," Katniss said. "Not really. We could hear the mine. But… I miss that sound. I was so used to it; it's like I can't sleep without it." She paused, her cheeks glowing hot. "I know that's stupid."
"It's not stupid," Peeta argued. He shifted another inch closer to her on the mattress top. Their knees brushed. "It was home. A lot of the time, I just feel like – like we're not even in the same country anymore. And that'sstupid."
"Cinna says there used to be other countries," Katniss said. She gave Peeta a small smile. "He said there used to be hundreds. Some might even still be out there."
"What happened to them?" Peeta asked. He brushed his knee against Katniss' leg beneath the sheets again.
Katniss shrugged. The strap of her nightgown slipped down over her lean, brown shoulder and Peeta's eyes followed. She quickly pulled it back up again. "They killed each other. That's why Panem is the way it is. Keeps us from killing each other."
Peeta's lips pursed. "Does it?"
Katniss thought of all of the battered women that her mother treated. She thought of Peeta's own mother and the bruises he had always worn to school as a child. The broken slob of Haymitch Abernathy, who lost his Spouse and his lover because he wasn't allowed a choice.
She thought of the way her father had Disappeared.
"No," Katniss admitted quietly. "I guess it doesn't."
Peeta stared at her, silent and solemn and soft. Katniss heard every quiet breath in their bedroom; the soft, omnipresent hum from the walls; the laughter and music and ruckus from the bars drifting up to their window from the Row. Peeta was tall, like his father and his brothers had been, but Katniss had never realized just howtall and broad-shouldered he was until now, when he was lying in bed beside her. She felt very little and very, very small.
"I'm not my mother," said Peeta softly, still staring at her. He shook his head slightly on the pillow. When he spoke again, he sounded younger, embarrassed and defeated. "I know you know what she was like. I think the whole District probably did."
"Your father is a good man," Katniss said diplomatically.
"He couldn't stop her, though," Peeta bit. "Even though he tried. But Katniss – I'm not… I'm never going to hurt you." He paused. "Or our children. I'm never going to be like my mother."
Katniss settled deeper into her own pillow, still watching Peeta with one sleepy eye. He always looked so sincere. "My mother and your father were in love," she offered. "Before they were Contracted to Twelve."
Peeta's cheeks darkened in the low light. "I know. My father told me on the first day of school. He pointed you out. You were standing with your mother by the gates."
Katniss smiled and slowly, tentatively reached out to lay one hand over Peeta's warm shoulder. "She pointed you out to me, too."
Peeta's eyes flickered as he smiled sweetly, his cheeks dimpled, and then lifted Katniss' hand to press a kiss gently to her palm. He folded her little, calloused hand into his big, burned one and held it to his chest.
"You should sleep," he murmured. "Work in a few hours."
Katniss nodded, but kept her eyes open, watching until Peeta's breathing had evened out. Peeta still held her hand loosely between his fingers and his skin, and Katniss didn't have the heart to take it away so she could fall asleep, too.
Katniss was exhausted at work the next morning, but felt oddly warm, like she was still carrying Peeta's sleepy sounds and the weight of his heart beating under her palm. Cinna clapped her shoulder triumphantly when she draped a pleat properly for the first time, and even Venia and Octavia complimented her hair. Cinna left Katniss alone in the back room to count inventory and wind flats of fabric as he met with a customer in the front showroom. She peeked out through the gap in the door and watched as Cinna dealt so deftly with Caesar Flickermanand a stunningly handsome young man that Katniss vaguely recognized from a billboard hanging above the Row.
Then, the videoscreen in the corner of each room flickered to life with the four-note alert call.
Katniss' fists clenched, irreparably wrinkling some pale yellow silk.
The alert call was only used for the worst news, the greatest offenses. The stories that went into history books as warnings. When Scarlett Donner killed Maysilee Abernathy and Haymitch's baby. When Donnel Everdeen, Winze Hawthorne, and five other miners never came home.
Katniss exhaled in a hard gust, rushing out to stand beside Cinna in the showroom to watch the larger screen as Margaret Junius, Breeder, District Two, formerly Madge Undersee, backed out of a squat gray rowhouse like a madwoman. Her shirt was torn and her face swollen with bruises. Her blonde hair hung long and free down her back in a tumble of curls like she was still a young girl and not a Contracted woman of sixteen. She carried a small green-and-black enamel pod in her hands.
Cato Junius stood fuming in the door of the row house, glaring at Madge with his arms crossed.
"Get back in here, Margaret," he hissed. "You're making a scene."
"They've already taken my future!" Madge hissed. She raised her chin, the proud, staid, steady girl that Katniss had always known. She pulled the pin on the device in her hands. "They can't have the things that mattered to me in the past."
The fireball erupted quickly from between Madge's cupped palms where she held the incendier like something precious. Long tongues of shimmering flame snaked up her arms and into her hair quickly, igniting and burning faster than Katniss would have imagined a human being to burn. She withered, shriveled, blackening and charring. Feathers of flames grew from her body. She sprouted wide, bright wings that reached out towards the cowering crowd around her, watching in agony and confusion and terror and things like this didn't happen in Panem.
Madge Undersee did not move a muscle. Did not utter a sound. She stood still, and silent, and burning.
Katniss' hand was at her throat as she stared at the videoscreen. White-clothed Peacekeepers mobilized and crashed through the crowd with a hose, but the thing left behind once the flames were extinguished was not Madge Undersee anymore. Katniss blinked, once, twice, three times to keep out the sight of the girl who had been on fire.
Cinna's comforting hand came up to Katniss' shoulder. She jumped, and he tried again, rubbing her shoulder soothingly.
"You're afraid of fire, Katniss?"
Katniss paused and tried to find words - she was my friend? That's the girl who gave me my pin? She shouldn't even have been in Two? – but settled on, "I'm from District Twelve."
"Coal," said Cinna, understanding. "Burns."
"My father died in a mine explosion," Katniss parroted, nodding like a madwoman. "I wasn't – wasn't expecting to see it put out that quickly. I remembered – if the mine burns, we all burn with it."
"Fire is catching," Cinna murmured, turning back to his drafting desk.
He picked up his yellow pencil and began to sketch.
Katniss stood in the corner of the studio, ignoring her work and the titters of the Prep Team as they gasped and gossiped with vapid clients, as she watched the commentators interview Cato Junius about the 'catastrophe' of his Spouse. Yes, he said, he hit her, but she deserved it for failing in her obligations. She denied him dinner, she questioned his ethics, she made no effort to assimilate to District Two, she refused copulation. Yes, he hit her, they concluded: but she was a bad Spouse.
Katniss left work early to get home before Peeta and start peeling carrots for dinner. She would not forget what she was meant to do. What she was supposedto be.
"You're home," Peeta sighed, relief evident in his voice when he thumped up the stairs. "I stopped by Cinna's place – just… I wanted to make sure you were alright."
"I'm fine," Katniss said automatically. She forced a quick smile onto her face. "How are you?"
Peeta was quiet for a long moment. The weight of Madge's name, the heat of her fire, hung in the air between them and Katniss watched Peeta carefully, measuring his stillness and the size of him in the small room, the way he seemed to press closer to her without even moving.
"I'm better now that I'm home with you. That you're here with me. It makes me feel – it's just nice to see a familiar face."
Katniss' sad smile became genuine at his words and she looked away just as quickly, blinking rapidly as she dropped another carrot into the pot. "I know what you mean."
"Do you want any help?" Peeta asked softly, coming up beside her. He pulled a long loaf of braided bread from his bag.
"Only if you want," Katniss deferred graciously.
Peeta smiled, low and lopsided, and set about preparing toast and cheese.
"Peeta," Katniss said, eyes flickering between his stolid form beside her, slicing bread while she peeled carrots, "I think – we should – " She shook her head slightly. "I wantto… I want to go to bed with you tonight."
Peeta froze. He set the bread knife down on the counter and turned to face Katniss, his hands twisted together nervously. "Why?"
Katniss looked staunchly at the potatoes. "Because you're my Spouse and it's something that we can do… together."
Peeta didn't say anything.
Katniss looked up at him. She smiled carefully. "Because I just want to?"
Peeta's blue eyes were wide and quiet as he stared down at her. His hands coiled together, and Katniss reached out to lay her own hand over them, stilling their trembling. Peeta still didn't smile, just examined her face closely. He swallowed, and tentatively, softly, Peeta kissed Katniss' lips, their hands still holding each others' in a consoling tangle of fingers. Peeta's lips were soft and warm and light against Katniss' mouth, and after a few long moments, he pulled back from her with shining eyes and a dimpled grin.
"Come on," he said. "Let's finish making dinner."
Peeta kept sneaking peeks over to Katniss with a giddy little smile on his face as they finished making a simple dinner of carrot soup. His so smile was so genuine and sweet – with the perfect touch of shyness – that Katniss had to smile back despite her nerves. They ate quietly and sparingly, and Katniss again scraped the leftover soup into jars in the fridge. Peeta could take one for lunch the next day.
Peeta left the bowls soaking in the sink and held out his hand for Katniss. "Do you want to go upstairs?"
Katniss took a deep breath and steadied herself, closing her eyes, before she nodded. She reached out and slid her fingers into Peeta's. "Okay."
Peeta left the bedroom door open and crossed to sit on the bed, but Katniss had the uncomfortable prickling sensation of being watched even though they were the only occupants of the house. She closed the door firmly behind her and they were dropped into near-silence. Only the gentle, constant hum from the walls and the street sounds from the Capitol street below disrupted the quiet.
"Come here," Peeta requested politely, patting the bed beside him.
Katniss' heart pounded so hard that she felt as though she'd been running. She sat down beside him awkwardly, making sure that her legs didn't touch his.
Stupid. They would be soon enough. She scooted over an inch and her stomach flip-flopped as the outside of her thigh brushed against Peeta's hip.
"Hi," Peeta said, smiling impishly. He had dimples. They seemed endearing.
"Hi," Katniss whispered as she looked down at her lap.
"Hi," Peeta said again, gently crooking two fingers under Katniss' chin and lifting her head. He kissed her lightly again and his hands moved to her hair, carefully pulling the pins free and sending her black braid tumbling down her back. He wove his fingers through it, picking the braid open.
"I like you with your hair down," Peeta murmured. He reached out to run his fingers through Katniss' long, heavy black hair. His fingers slid to cup the back of her neck gently and he leaned in for another soft kiss.
"I always liked your braid," Peeta admitted, blushing a little, after he pulled back from the kiss. "It just fit you."
Katniss touched her hair self-consciously. "I'm sorry I can't wear it that way anymore."
"That's okay," Peeta assured her sweetly. He tucked his face along her shoulder and kissed Katniss' neck tenderly. She shivered. "I like every way you look."
"Thank you," Katniss murmured. She bit her lip and timidly, carefully, slid her hands across the wide expanse of Peeta's broad chest. She found the buttons on his uniform shirt and carefully slipped them open, one at a time, staring somewhere between his face and the sparse, soft blond hair on his chest. She could feel his heart pounding fast beneath her palm even though they had slept in the same bed this way for weeks.
Peeta shrugged the shirt off of his shoulders and rested his forehead against Katniss' as he exhaled shakily across her lips.
Slowly, his hand slid up Katniss' arm and down over her shoulder until he cupped her breast lightly over her black blouse.
"You're…" Peeta trailed off, shaking his head, and pressed his lips to Katniss' again in a grateful kiss. He undid the buttons of her blouse in a sort of quiet frenzy, his big hands clumsy on the small buttons. He kept his lips touching Katniss' gently, in not quite a kiss, as he eased the blouse over her shoulders and laid her back against the pillows to hover over her, staring.
"Where are these from?" Peeta asked, sounding sad and concerned, touching the long spiderlines of waxy burns along Katniss' right shoulder, fanning down across the flat above her breast.
"The fence," Katniss whispered. "It was on one day… I crawled under anyway and lost my balance. Burned me." She looked down at Peeta's fingers on the bumps and lines of her scar and avoided his face. "I can get it fixed. Venia already suggested it."
"It's part of you," Peeta said softly. "You can't change who you are or what happened to you." He paused. "Unless you – does it hurt? Does it bother you?"
Katniss shrugged. "I haven't really thought about it in a long time. It hurt at first. It doesn't anymore."
Peeta leaned forward and gently pressed his lips to the scarred skin. "Then it doesn't bother me, either."
Peeta pulled back with a lopsided smile. He held out his hands for Katniss to inspect. "I've got scars all over from the ovens. And knives, too; you wouldn't look at the bakery and think it's dangerous, but it is. You'll see, I've got one on my leg – " he gestured to the top of his thigh, "The knife block fell once when Lavash was still living at home. Almost cut my leg clean off."
"I don't remember that," Katniss whispered.
"I went to the hospital." Peeta shrugged. "The – real hospital. It was that bad. You wouldn't have known."
"I went by the bakery every day," Katniss argued. "And school. You were never gone long enough to go to the hospital."
Peeta smiled ruefully. "It happened a day or two after summer Vocation started. And it was before you started coming to the bakery. Lavash is six years older. He got Contracted while I was still laid up." He ran his thumb over Katniss' scar again absently. "And of course I've got all kinds of new injuries from Portia's bakery, too. I'd never moulded molten sugar before." He raised his eyebrows and grinned playfully. "Turns out it's pretty hot."
Katniss laughed, and then covered her mouth. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't laugh that you're hurt."
"Katniss, I'mlaughing!" Peeta pointed out. "It's okay. Laughing is good." He tucked her hair behind her ear. "I wish you laughed more. That's my goal, you know. To make you laugh more."
"I've never been much for it," Katniss whispered, looking down.
Peeta's hand was warm and soft where he cupped her cheek and lifted her face to kiss her lips gently. "That's something about you that you canchange." His eyes were sincere and bright blue as he touched his forehead to Katniss'. "I just want you to be happy."
Katniss laid her own palm over Peeta's cheek in a mirror gesture. "I want you to be happy, too."
"It's not hard for you to make me happy," Peeta murmured. "I just like having you here with me." He smiled impishly. "And maybe – you could kiss me whenever you felt like it."
Your Spouse may choose to request sexual gratification in any number of ways. They may or may not coincide with your perception of his personality. You must learn to first read, then anticipate, all of your Spouse's needs.
Katniss paused only long enough to swallow her nerves before leaning forward to kiss Peeta, cupping his face between her hands. Peeta sighed into the kiss and wrapped his arms around Katniss' waist. He slid his hands slowly, slowly, gently up the fault line of Katniss' spine until he reached the clasp on her fancy Capitol undergarments.
"I don't know how to do this," Peeta laughed against her mouth, pulling at it uselessly. "Or undo it. I don't even know."
Katniss' heart pounded in her chest as she pulled back and reached behind her to unhook the clasp. The ridiculous lace straps fell loose around her shoulders and she pulled the thing off. She let it fall to the floor over the side of the bed. Then she swallowed and lifted to her knees so she could slide down her underwear and let them land on the floor, too.
Peeta's eyes widened, his lips parted, like the world needed more light and more air just to see her, to understand.
Katniss had never been naked in front of another person; at least not since she was a very little girl and would be bathed with Prim. Normally, she didn't have insecurities about her own body. She knew what she looked like, and she couldn't have done anything about it even if she'd wanted to – until she'd been moved to the Capitol, where she could have become anything. Large-breasted. Wide-hipped. Blue-haired. Green-skinned. Golden tattooed, crystal embedded, pink lacquered.
She wondered idly, as Peeta's eyes roved over her nude skin, what Peeta would have preferred her to be.
"You're really beautiful," Peeta breathed, resting one big, warm hand on her side, in the ticklish slice above her hips and below her ribs, where Katniss felt hollow and unprotected.
Katniss' stomach clenched.
"I'm not pretty," she said, her throat dry. "I'm not – beautiful."
Peeta's eyes fluttered. "Are you joking?"
Peeta's lips curled into a gentle smile as he leaned down to kiss her mouth again, and the wide expanse of his chest brushed against the soft tips of Katniss' breasts. Peeta groaned quietly into Katniss' mouth and he rested his weight over her lightly.
"No," Katniss whispered, looking past Peeta's broad, pale shoulder. "I'm just – I know what I look like."
"You aren't pretty," Peeta whispered, bending down and kissing her cheek. Katniss' heart pounded. "And you aren't beautiful." He kissed the corner of her mouth. "You're more radiant than the sun."
He smiled sweetly and kissed her again; gentle, insistent lips that reinforced his words, and Katniss tried – really tried – to believe him. Peeta seemed to loom all over her, all big hands and ticklish-soft hair that fell into her eyes and hot, hot skin and the lingering scent of almond and dark chocolate and milk and a faint, spicy, tingling sense of cinnamon. It was all-consuming. She couldn't close her eyes for nerves and when Peeta's tongue touched her lip, she startled.
"What's wrong?" Peeta asked. As he pulled back, he ran his thumb along the curve of Katniss' cheek.
"I don't know how to kiss," Katniss said, looking anywhere but at Peeta's face. "I just… don't know how."
Peeta blushed, but grinned, flashing the dimple in his cheek. "Neither do I."
"Really?" Katniss asked. "I thought – I don't know what I thought."
Peeta shook his head. "I don't know what you thought, either," he laughed. "You knew me back home… did you ever see me with anyone?"
"Well, Delly Cartwright…" Katniss hedged, very aware that they were both naked. She shifted awkwardly, back against the pillows. He brushed her leg and she stopped moving, blushing fiercely.
Peeta laughed and his chest and belly brushed against her skin. "Delly? Cripes, no. She used to pretend I was her brother."
Katniss snorted and her hand flew up to cover her mouth. "I didn't know that part."
"Well," Peeta said, touching her fingers and lifting her hand to kiss her palm, "You never talked to me."
"You never talked to me, either," Katniss challenged, flushing as Peeta's hands trailed along her face again.
"You're right," Peeta agreed amiably. "I should have, and I'm sorry I didn't. The truth is…" He leaned down and pressed his lips softly to the dip of her clavicle. "You intimidated me too much."
Katniss frowned as she examined Peeta's face – he was different than any of the other people she'd known; he was lighter, he made more jokes. But the idea of Peeta joking now, about their past and their childhood and the home they would never see again, was like an extra layer had peeled from her and she was even more naked than before.
"Because," Peeta whispered. He looked up at her with burning pink cheeks. His thighs were hot where they rested against Katniss' skin. He shrugged, lost. "You're beautiful."
He smiled bashfully and kissed her neck and Katniss smiled back, her heart thumping a little in a warm, ticklish melody.
"Do you still want to do this?" Peeta asked, trailing his lips gently over Katniss' neck again.
"Yes," Katniss said, smiling. "I do. I do actually want to."
Peeta sighed in relief. "Oh, good." He started to laugh. "Because I reallywant you."
Katniss swallowed and ran her hands tentatively over Peeta's back, learning the soft smoothness of his skin. It is your duty to sate your Spouse whenever and however he wishes."You can kiss me... if you want."
This time, when Peeta kissed her, he wasn't so soft and tentative. He moved restlessly from her mouth to her neck and hummed approvingly as he tasted her skin and ran his hands over her sides and down to her hip. Louder than the echoes of the Capitol below them, Katniss heard their own soft sounds – shaking breaths and quiet pants; coupling sounds – as she ran her hands over his back and strong shoulders and he covered her, kissing the side of her face. Katniss turned her head to chase his lips with her own, but he kept them just barely out of reach as he showered kisses across her face and neck and up into her loose black hair instead. His hands were deceptively sure as they slid up the outsides of her thighs to her slight waist. His lips dragged down her neck and chest again, barely feathering across the top of her small, pointed breast.
He looked up and touched his lips to her breastbone, right where it protected her heart. "Is this okay?"
Let him take charge. Your Spouse's needs are specific and personal and it is your duty to learn how best to satisfy them.
"Whatever you want," Katniss demurred, running her fingers through Peeta's hair. She liked the curl of it, and the softness, and she liked the sweet-pastry scent of him – even though it came from Portia's Capitol shop, it reminded Katniss of home, stepping into Peeta's family's bakery and trading for bread and sweets for Prim and Posy. She had known how to be useful then and where she'd fit into her family. The smell of Peeta and his baking made her feel – safe.
"No," Peeta argued softly, kissing her collarbone. "I just want for you to feel good."
"I do," Katniss assured him. She smiled, and this time it was real.
Peeta's eyes shone and his lips pursed like he was trying to keep words inside his mouth, like if he breathed, something he didn't want to say would fly out from his chest. Instead he pulled himself back up Katniss' body and kissed her, just barely touching his tongue to her lower lip as he kissed each lip in turn. Katniss accepted the new, delicate kiss this time, and she marveled at the warm sort of chills that fluttered through her, all the way down into her fingers and toes and places she'd never really paid attention to before.
As they kissed, Peeta's hands explored Katniss' skin with light touches – her hips; her waist; her concave belly and the arch of her ribs, which made him frown against her mouth; a ticklish stripe along her upper arm that made her jump and cry out in surprise before laughing. And Peeta laughed, too, and rolled them over so Katniss hovered above him, legs dangling together along one side of him. Her weight shifted and she caught herself with one hand on his chest and Peeta grinned, tucking a long lock of her hair behind Katniss' ear.
He followed the curtain of her hair down, his thumb caressing her neck and the wing of her shoulder blade and the stretch of her spine down to her waist, where he softly, tentatively ran his palm over the slight curve of her rear and blushed.
"You can – " he swallowed. "You can sit on me, if that's – it might be more comfortable."
Katniss shook her head and let the same lock of hair fall into her face again to hide from him. "I'm too heavy."
Peeta scoffed, still blushing lightly. "I don't even think you weigh as much as a bag of flour, Katniss." He caressed her leg. "Come up."
Katniss' hair brushed over Peeta's chest as she nervously slid her leg over him, holding her weight on her hands perched on his chest, the rest of her hovering somewhere a few inches high in the air above his waist. She looked down at how little her hands looked on his broad chest, and shrank back, hiding behind the curtain of her long black hair.
"Katniss," Peeta implored, almost chucking, "I promise you aren't too heavy."
He reached up and gently gathered her hair, draping it in one smooth tail over one of her shoulders. Katniss swallowed, watching his eyes, and hesitantly shifted her weight, straddling Peeta's ribs. He exhaled shakily when she touched him skin-to-skin and his hands ran over her legs again, wrapping around her thighs.
"Is it okay?" Katniss asked. She sat still as a statue.
"More than okay," Peeta whispered. His eyes seemed sleepy, heavy-lidded and smoldering up at her. "I just want you." He tilted his head, watching her face. "Can I touch you now?"
"We are touching," Katniss said, drawing her thumb in small circles over his chest to remind him.
"No, I mean – " he blushed again. "Your b– your breasts."
"Oh," Katniss said, feeling her face heat. She shrugged again. "Whatever you want."
Peeta's eyes didn't shift away from her face as he slipped one hand up to cup her naked breast. His hands were big enough, or her breasts small enough, that his palm covered her completely and Katniss blushed.
"I can get them altered if you want," she whispered. "It's not like I'm attached to them or anything."
"Don't," Peeta breathed roughly. "Please." He blinked sleepily, lazily, as his other hand came up to mirror the first. "You're perfect."
"What do you want, Peeta?" Katniss asked, shivering as her nipples tightened beneath the soft touch of his palms.
She'd never expected that. They hadn't told her about that. In all of the classes she'd been made to take since she was twelve, Katniss had never been told that – sex – could feel good. She had learned about anatomy and mechanics and chemistry; what to do when she got pregnant and how to cope if her Spouse was Criminal and they contracted a disease. She'd been told over and over that men sought out sex for pleasure and that it was her duty to allow it of her Spouse. But never once had she been told – so never had she considered – that it might be something… okay. Pleasant.
The pad of Peeta's thumb brushed over the tip of Katniss' breast and she whimpered, surprised by how much she felt. It wasn't just fingers on skin; she felt like Peeta was everywhere, in the air and in her lungs and seeping in through the pores of her skin, hot and rich and decadent like the scent of chocolate and cinnamon that followed him everywhere. Peeta's jaw was slack as he watched his fingers moving over Katniss' breasts.
"I never thought I'd get to touch you like this," Peeta admitted hoarsely, curving upward so that his breath fanned over Katniss' chest. "You don't understand."
"I'm sorry," Katniss whispered. She ran her fingers through Peeta's hair in what she hoped was a soothing manner.
"Don't apologize," Peeta murmured, kissing her breastbone. His lips found the slight curve at the side of her breast and Katniss let out a small, thin cry that made Peeta groan against her skin. His tongue touched her skin in a ravenous, tentative pattern as his mouth dragged towards her nipple.
Katniss' lips formed a little pink "Oh!" as Peeta sucked the tip of her breast, then a little more, into his mouth. He hummed when her hand came up to card into his hair and hold him against her and his other hand came up to touch at the other nipple while he nuzzled the first with his lips and tongue.
Katniss whimpered a little when Peeta finally pulled his mouth away and started to kiss down her body, over her sharp ribs and the sensitive hollow of her belly. He sucked at her hip and she squirmed.
Peeta's mirror eyes shimmered up at her, the blue almost drowned out in dark, wet shine.
"Can I?" he breathed. His voice was fraught and crackling with intensity.
Katniss swallowed. Whatever he was asking for her to do, she would do. She couldn't be Madge, a girl on fire.
Peeta groaned and thumbed her hip with shaking hands.
"You have no idea how long I've wanted to do this," Peeta whispered, almost laughing in giddiness.
Katniss tried to smile down at him. She pushed her fingers through his hair and Peeta's chest rumbled beneath her as he groaned softly.
He wrapped his big hands around her hips and shifted them forward.
Katniss resisted. "Wh – what are you doing?"
"You said…" Peeta trailed off, flushing pink. "I thought you said it was okay?"
"I meant – well, I thought you were asking about sex again," Katniss stuttered, flustered. "I don't know what you're – "
Peeta's blush darkened to almost red, but he closed his eyes briefly, took a deep breath, and said steadily, "I meant… I want to put my mouth on you. There."
Katniss sucked in a breath. "Why?"
"To make you feel good." Peeta shrugged and Katniss moved with his shoulders. "I – didn't you learn about it in class? Back home?"
Katniss shook her head.
Peeta ran his hand smoothly over Katniss' thigh again. "Well, I didn't either, but I always… just overheard. People." He paused. "Will you let me?"
"I don't –" Katniss wrinkled her nose. "I don't really see why you'd want to."
Peeta's cheeks darkened again. "I don't know if I could explain it. I just do. I just… I reallydo."
Katniss swallowed and tentatively shook her head. "Okay. I guess so. Yes."
Peeta palmed her hips again and pulled her forward. "Scoot up here. You can hold onto the headboard if – so you don't fall. If you need, I mean."
Katniss closed her eyes as she moved forward and grabbed onto the headboard. Her knuckles felt locked with tension, but Peeta's hands caressed her thighs and hips and rear soothingly. She could feel his breath against her for a long moment and she tensed again, ready to jump back and apologize and get dressed to hide downstairs for the rest of the night –
Peeta opened his lips against her skin, surrounding her with his mouth, and Katniss gasped, shocked by the warmth and the wet of it. His groan vibrated through her and Katniss whimpered, not sure whether she wanted to escape or to grind down against Peeta's mouth to feel it again. He laved over her in long, sweeping lines and arcs, touching and dancing in testing patterns and Katniss realized she was panting, breathing like she'd just run miles, her fingers flexing and twisting on the headboard.
And then she felt Peeta's tongue start playing in light little circles. And soft, sweet, careful sucking lips.
Katniss twisted, pulling back to sit on Peeta's chest again, bracing her hands against his shoulders. Peeta's lips and chin were shining and wet and his eyes were dark and bright. Katniss shook her head, breathing hard. "I'm sorry – I – it's just too much, something's – felt too much."
"Did I hurt you?" Peeta asked. His brow creased in concern and his hand trailed gently in circles over the base of Katniss' spine.
"No, no, no," Katniss assured him. "You didn't hurt me. I just – something was – " She shook her head again. "Too much."
Peeta's expression was soft as he ran his hand in smooth circuits over Katniss' side. "Did it feel good?"
Katniss ducked her head, hiding her face behind her hair as she nodded.
"Please don't hide from me," Peeta murmured, tucking her hair back behind her shoulders. "Katniss… it's supposed to feel good. 'Too much.' Do you think – were you going to have – an orgasm?"
Katniss' head snapped up. "Don't be stupid. I'm a girl."
Peeta's eyes widened. "I know. Obviously, I know that." He laughed awkwardly. "Do you not know – "
"I know men have… that," Katniss said, interrupting Peeta. "Did you have – "
"No," Peeta said. His brow furrowed. "Katniss… I wouldn't from… that was for you." He frowned. "You really didn't know that girls have orgasms, too?"
Katniss shook her head.
"I went to every class," she said defensively. "They definitely never told us that. We learned about – about how to tell when we're pregnant and what to do for the babies, and we learned about – about diseases. And about… men. I know what to do to make you feel good." She paused. "Do you – do you want me to now?"
"No," Peeta said, shaking his head. "Not right now." Peeta sat up carefully so that Katniss perched in his lap. He wrapped his arms around her and Katniss let her hands fall from his shoulders down to splay across his broad chest. Peeta kissed Katniss' forehead thoughtfully, nuzzling into her hair. "Katniss, what Ithink you need to know about sex is that for me, it will always be about you. And making you feel good and learning about you and… each other. And I don't ever want you to feel like you have to do something just because you learned it in that class. I don't want anything that makes you feel bad." He brushed his thumb against the side of her jaw. "Okay?"
Katniss nodded, staring intently into Peeta's blue eyes. "You're a good Spouse, Peeta Mellark," she murmured.
Peeta kissed the thin skin below Katniss' eye, just above her cheekbone. "So are you. Katniss Mellark." Then he smiled and slipped his hand up to thumb the plump underside of her breast. "Can I – we try that again?" He paused. "If you've never had an orgasm, I reallywant to give you one. Just so you know."
Katniss paused, then pressed her lips together in a shy smile as she nodded again. Peeta kissed the corner of her mouth and then turned to lay her back against the pillows.
Katniss exhaled shakily as Peeta's mouth dragged down over her neck and sucked gently, softly, at the cleft where her clavicle met in a delicate little hollow.
"How will I know?" Katniss asked, running the tips of her fingers down over Peeta's shoulders, following the muscles of his back.
Peeta smirked against her scar and looked up at her through his pale eyelashes. "You'll know. Trust me." He paused. "Can you do that? Can you trust me?"
Katniss blinked, watching Peeta intently as he pressed his lips against her scar again in the softest, most tender flutter of a kiss. She ran her hands over his shoulders.
"Yes," she said finally. "I can trust you."
Peeta's smile seemed to make him glow for a moment, his blond hair like a soft halo around his pink face. He kissed Katniss' chest just above her heart, then dragged his mouth down over her ribs and belly in little nibbles and sweet, hot kisses. He wrapped his hands around her waist and Katniss felt her face heat in a blush as Peeta slid her legs over his shoulders.
This time, Katniss knew a little better what to expect, but that didn't make it any less overwhelming.
Peeta hummed contentedly into Katniss' skin and she moaned, then tensed and covered her mouth.
"Sorry," she gasped, struggling to keep her hips still and not buck up against Peeta's soft mouth.
"Don't apologize," Peeta breathed back, barely lifting his head enough to speak. His lips brushed against her with every word. He ran his hand along the side of her thigh. "And move. You're not going to hurt me."
"It's embarrassing," Katniss whispered, closing her eyes. "I don't know how to do this."
Peeta kissed the crease of her hip. "There is no 'right way.'" Then he smirked up at her impishly. "Now stop talking and start feeling."
Katniss pressed her lips together, trying to keep quiet and trying so hard not to think, but it was hard to pull her mind away from everything Peeta. She said she trusted him (she did trust him, she realized with a jolt; but she wasn't sure what she trusted him for); he told her to start feeling (and she did feel, oh, did she ever); he said she would know when she felt it, but now she was thinking too much about what she was feeling and everything went dull and she wasn't sure she was feeling anything at all and –
"Katniss," Peeta said sadly, looking up. He stroked his thumb along the curve of her cheek. "If you want to stop, we can stop."
"No," Katniss said, "No, sorry. I'm just – " she shook her head and tried to smile. "Will you kiss me?" she asked in a tiny voice. "I like kissing you, I think."
Peeta didn't smile back, but looked at her with soft eyes. He slid up the length of Katniss' body and held himself above her loosely, propped up on one arm so he didn't cage her in. He caressed the long line of her side gently, slowly working his way up from the sensitive hollow below her ribs to covering her breast again before leaning down to kiss her, softly, softly.
Katniss had told the truth. She did like kissing Peeta, or at least she liked being kissed by him. She relaxed again as he licked his way into her mouth again and they moved against each other as Peeta touched and felt and traced over Katniss' chest and she slid her legs around his waist, surprised by how much she liked, really liked, the way it felt when he rubbed up against where she was still slick from his mouth. The same tingling feeling slowly came back, itching its way through her limbs until she was panting against Peeta's mouth, her body fighting to get away from whatever it was she was hurtling towards – whatever it was Peeta was driving her to – but he had said to trust him, so Katniss tried. She dug her fingers into his sides and rolled her hips up against his as he ground down against her.
Katniss mewled little cries into the side of Peeta's neck, burying her face against his sweaty skin, and felt his groan rumble through her until she finally felt –
"Peeta," Katniss gasped, clinging onto him, her back arching on the mattress.
"Oh, Katniss," Peeta whispered against the side of her face, breathing like he was winded. "Oh, Katniss, Katniss, Katniss."
Katniss looked up at Peeta with pupils blown wide. Wordlessly, she pulled her legs up along his sides.
"If you want to stop," Peeta murmured, shifting his hips. He sucked in a short breath through his teeth as he began to push into her. "Just tell me, okay? It's fine. If you want to stop just tell me."
"It's okay." Katniss barely even heard herself as she tucked her face into the corner of Peeta's neck again.
Katniss closed her eyes, prepared for the worst – given what the women had said in the final Home Economics class – but the burst of pain she'd been waiting for never really came. She stretched and pinched, and she grimaced as Peeta made a soft sound and pulled out carefully, just the tip still inside as he collected himself before thrusting again. The outward slide felt uncomfortably wet and alien, like sandpaper.
"You have no idea," Peeta babbled quietly, kissing the side of Katniss' head over and over. "You have no idea." He feathered kisses all over Katniss' face as he moved slow and carefully and delicately: a little kiss to each of her cheekbones, the corners of her eyes, the side of her mouth.
Katniss was silent as Peeta reached down and slid his fingers along her skin, feeling where he was moving into her like he couldn't believe this was real. He murmured her name again, shakily, and groaned as he began to move faster, his other hand coming up to tuck beneath her shoulders and cradle her head tenderly.
Katniss had gone to every Home Economics class. She knew the first time wouldn't last long. Peeta bit his lip, staring beseechingly into Katniss' eyes. A long shudder ran through his spine as he paused, taking a few long, deep breaths, and then kissed Katniss softly and started moving more slowly again, like he was afraid he had hurt her.
Katniss couldn't relax. She couldn't seem to find her breath or move or stop thinking–
She could be pregnant by the end of this. In the fewest of short months, she could be achy and useless and bedridden like Johanna; she could have a baby die inside her like her mother when the mine collapsed.
"Wait, I – Peeta." She pushed at his shoulder. "I don't want to anymore. I don't think – I'm sorry, I just, I don't want to, now."
Peeta paused and dropped his head to her shoulder. The muscles of his back trembled. "You sure?"
Katniss nodded and twitched her hips awkwardly. "Yeah, I'm… I'm sorry."
Peeta withdrew and rolled to sit beside her. He kissed the side of her head. "Okay."
He stood and walked to the dresser, fishing around in the third drawer for a pair of flannel sleep-pants.
Katniss' brow furrowed. "Are you mad?"
"No," Peeta said sincerely, his eyes wide. He folded the pants into a bundle and set off towards their door. "Why – why would I be mad?"
"Are you – are you okay?"
Peeta laughed. "I'll be fine, just… give me five minutes. D-do you want a glass of water or anything?"
Katniss frowned. "No." She paused. "Thanks."
Peeta smiled softly at her as he left the room, shutting the door behind him.
Katniss shifted in the cold bed, pulling the sheets up to her chin. She heard the quiet hum of the electronics in the corners of the room and the hush of the shower running through the wall. She wound her legs together tight, still able to feel Peeta like a phantom limb. How was he not angry with her?
He had actually stopped.
True to his word, the water shut off only a few minutes later and Katniss listened to the bathroom door open and close. Peeta's heavy footsteps trotted down the stairs and she heard dishes clink gently in the kitchen before his feet thudded their way back up the stairs.
She wrapped the sheet around herself.
Peeta smiled sheepishly at her as he shouldered the door open, a plate of cookies and the jug of milk balanced in his hands. His flannel pants hung from his sloped hips, all of his lines soft.
"I know you said you didn't want anything," Peeta said, closing the door behind him with his foot. "But I wanted more of the sandies."
Katniss nodded, plucking at the end of her long braid. Peeta cautiously settled down on his side of the bed with his legs crossed like a first schooler, the plate of cookies in front of him and the jug of milk balanced on one knee.
The cookie crunched dryly between his teeth as he chewed quietly.
"Why did you stop?" Katniss asked, not able to look up at him.
Peeta swallowed. "You asked me to."
Katniss didn't speak. In the corner of her eye, she saw Peeta lift a cookie, pause, and set it back down on the plate.
"Look," he said softly. "I just think… you were really brave tonight. You're brave all the time. I know you don't want to be here, and you don't want to be here with me. I don't want to do – I'm not going to make it worse for you. I'm not going to be..." Peeta trailed off and swallowed the word 'Cato,' but Katniss heard it in the silence anyway. "If you want me… great. If you don't want me? Also… okay. That's fine. You don't have to. Cinna doesn't want Portia, you know. And they're happy. They're best friends." He picked up the cookie again. "I just want to be your friend, Katniss."
Katniss fiddled with the end of her braid. "What about our Quota?"
Peeta shrugged. A few crumbs tumbled down his chest and dotted the blankets. "We'll figure it out. We can ask Cinna and Portia. I think – I think maybe the Capitol is different, and you don't have to fill your Quota. Or maybe you could even go surplus, if you wanted. It's all different here."
"Do you want a cookie?" Peeta asked, tilting the plate in her direction.
Katniss nodded again, tentatively, and took one. They were a crumbly, butter-rich brown color, studded with pecans and drizzled in sugar icing stripes. The sandie crackled between her teeth when she bit into it, and she was surprised by how good it was. Peeta was good at his job, unlike her. He could probably support them, even if she never got a commission after her apprenticeship with Cinna ended.
She chewed the cookie thoughtfully and swallowed. "I'm not, you know."
"Not what?" Peeta asked, wiping milk from his upper lip.
"Like Cinna and Portia," she whispered. "I'll learn to want you. And… I will." She looked up and met Peeta's gaze before resting her hand on his cheek. "I'm not like Madge."
Peeta sucked in a breath. He leaned forward to kiss the side of her head again, just above her ear.
"Okay," he murmured. Then he smiled. "Have another cookie. I made a ton."
Katniss smiled carefully back as she picked another from the plate and reached out to steal the milk jug from his knee. She dipped the cookie right inside and let it soften the cinnamon-sugar crisp dough.
"Katniss," Peeta said plaintively, "I was wondering if – well, Portia and Cinna are hosting a party on Saturday, I guess, and Portia asked me to help with the food, and… and she said that I should invite you, if Cinna hadn't already. Would you want to go to the party with me?"
Katniss shrugged. "I've never been to a party."
"Neither have I," Peeta admitted. "Back home, we would just drop off cakes if people ordered them. But… even that was rare. I guess parties are popular here, though."
"What would I do while you're cooking?"
"I don't know," Peeta said. "I don't think I'll really be cooking there. Just – just making sure that nothing runs out, and maybe helping her wash the dishes later, if Cinna is busy." He paused. "I hope I don't have to be in charge of cleaning up vomit."
"Well, what kind of party is it?" Katniss asked. "I don't want to go if it's like the parties on the broadcasts."
"Katniss, it's Portia and Cinna," Peeta chided. "It's not going to be an – an all-out bacchanalia like that. I was mostly joking about the vomit."
"Oh." Katniss looked down at her cookie. "Yes, I'll go with you."
Peeta leaned over and kissed Katniss' forehead. "Thank you."
That morning, Katniss stared at herself for a long time in the mirror that morning as she dressed for work. Peeta's soft, creaking footsteps and the rustle of the drawers in the bedroom seemed muffled by something dark and ominous, something smoky and sticking.
Katniss braided her long hair into a thick black rope down her back and studied her reflection. Even with the braid, she was not who she had been when she was Katniss Everdeen, the daughter of Donnel and Larkspur Everdeen, coal miner and black-market healer in District Twelve. She was paler now without the forest sunshine; heavier with rich Capitol-catered lunches and Peeta's skilled cooking at dinner. There were lines beneath her eyes that had not been there before.
She was Katniss Mellark, the Spouse of Peeta Mellark, and an Apprentice Designer of the Capitol now.
Every inch of her.
She took a deep, slow breath and twisted her braid up over the crown of her head, pinning it carefully into place. She dressed in one of Cinna's practical designs: black pencil skirt that was not made for a huntress, black blouse made to emphasize a woman.
Katniss Mellark looked into the mirror again, then slowly reached for the gold circlet pin she'd kept hidden in the vanity cabinet for weeks.
Fastening the mockingjay pin on her collar, she felt, with a tingling flash, like Katniss Everdeen again.
Katniss opened the door and strode back into the bedroom for her impractical, silly black shoes. Peeta sat on the bed, pulling on his holey socks, but looked up when Katniss emerged.
His gaze swept over Katniss and he tentatively, gently reached out and rested one of his hands on her arm as she sat down beside him to wrangle with her shoes. He touched the pin with the tips of two fingers and Katniss rubbed his wrist to feel his pulse.
"You look really pretty today," Peeta said hoarsely. He smiled and his blue eyes glowed.
"Thank you," Katniss said simply, and smiled back.
Cinna- and Portia's rowhouse was identical to Katniss- and Peeta's, of course, but they had the advantage of several years' Allowance and Capitol living to amass belongings. A green lamp glowed in their front window. Their rooms were all sleek and beautifully decorated, and their friends all seemed so much older and more glamorous than Katniss that she felt shy. She stuck close to Peeta near the back buffet table that was full of more delicacies than she had ever imagined before moving to the Capitol: there were Lavinia's telltale dumplings and noodles, Portia's fancy cakes and Peeta's simple buns, and more types of shellfish and fruit than Katniss had known existed. There was a knot of chairs set up in the middle of the room, although most people were ignoring it for now, mingling around the room and laughing and dancing.
"Katniss!" Cinna grinned and touched her shoulder in welcome. "I'm so glad that you and Peeta were able to come tonight. Make yourselves at home; our friends are your friends." He nodded warmly and gestured around to the gaggle of glamorous people. Katniss was glad that most of them looked more like Cinna and Portia – untouched by odd remakes – than like the Capitol customers that they served at work.
"Come meet some people," Cinna urged, and Katniss followed. Portia greeted Katniss with a tipsy hug and glowed as she introduced her companion, Cressida, a tall woman with delicate green vines tattooed over her shaven head. Cressida shook Katniss' hand and Katniss was impressed by her handshake – it reminded her more of the stolid people of Twelve than the limpid, clammy handshakes of her Capitol customers. Those had always made her want to wash her hands right away.
Before she could be dragged to meet anyone else, the Curfew chime tolled outside and a hush fell through the room.
"It's time," Cinna announced, gesturing for everyone to take a seat.
Katniss scurried back to Peeta and sat beside him.
Everyone's whispering faded as an impeccably beautiful man dressed in simple blue pants and a white shirt shimmering with gold threads and Cinna's signature scalloped embroidery made his way to the front of the room. His skin seemed as warm and lustrous as gold, his flyaway hair was gold, his jaw was chiseled sharp. He was so handsome that it made Katniss feel a little ridiculous and silly and fluttery inside.
"Hello, everyone!" said the man at the front of the room, waving affably. "My name is Finnick Odair, for those who don't know, though I suspect some of you may have heard of me – "
There was a round of applause and a few hoots and hollers.
Peeta leaned a little closer to Katniss.
"Finnick is a famous actor," he whispered. "He's in Broadcasts all the time. All of the romances star him."
Finnick Odair grinned and waved down the applause, shooting a rude gesture at someone at the back of the room who kept wolf-whistling.
Then he looked to the side of the room and his smile softened, melting into a gentle, genuine glow that seemed to radiate all through him and made Katniss' heart feel warm. Beside her, Peeta hesitantly rested his hand over Katniss' on her knee. His palm was warm and dry and solid and he squeezed her hand once gently.
"And this," Finnick Odair said, holding out his own hand. "Is my wife, Annie."
There was a hush as a pretty, blushing woman with a flyaway halo of russet-brown curls and the beginnings of a round, pregnant belly took Finnick's hand and let him pull her to the center of the floor. He wrapped his arms around her and dipped her back gently, kissing her full on the mouth.
Then Cinna and Portia both whooped and started clapping again, and everyone else in the room filtered in, applauding raucously for Finnick and Annie's kiss until even Peeta had joined in, leaving Katniss alone in her silence.
Finnick's lips finally pulled from Annie's and they beamed at each other. Finnick nuzzled her nose like they were kittens, and Annie's green eyes shone up at him so brightly that Peeta squeezed Katniss' hand again, just because. No one seeing them could doubt their love– genuine love; something Katniss hadn't seen in years, and something she had never seen end happily.
Finnick turned to face the crowd again, but didn't let go of Annie's hand. "Annie and I fell in love when I was seventeen, and already a Single, and Annie was fifteen years old and hadn't been Contracted yet. And I wasn't willing to let her go."
He looked down at Annie. She nodded, and he stretched their clasped hands out towards the crowd. Annie mirrored with her other arm. Both of her gauzy white sleeves rucked up towards her elbows, exposing her forearms.
Both of Annie Odair's wrists were unmarked: smooth and caramel-brown and delicate and free.
Katniss inhaled sharply and unconsciously squeezed Peeta's hand. Peeta leaned over and gently rested his lips against her temple, not a kiss, but comforting and solid.
"I don't know how much any of you know about District Four," Finnick said, "But it's surrounded by the ocean – the ocean is water, more of it than you've ever seen. Unless you're from Four," he laughed. "Or Ten, I guess. But it's big. Bigger than Panem." He looked down at Annie again and his smile warmed. "First time I saw Annie was in the ocean."
Annie laughed and tucked her head against Finnick's side. Her hands fluttered constantly with little rolls and flicks. "The first time Finnick saw me was in the ocean. I was reeling in lobster traps when I saw him, and – this is embarrassing. He was so handsome I just – I fell over and landed right in the big bucket of bait fish!"
"I felt so badly," Finnick chuckled along with the crowd. Even Peeta was grinning beside Katniss. "I jumped in and swam over to help her out – "
"And Finnick had this dog," Annie said, shaking her head. "It followed him out to my boat and of course I smelled like old fish and this dog would not get offof me!"
"Well, you can't blame Porgie," Finnick said. He waggled his eyebrows and kissed Annie's temple. "Neither can I."
"Keep it decent in my house, Finnick!" called Cinna, grinning easily from his perch at the side of the room. Katniss looked over to him leaning against the pale gold wall with his arms crossed, a light smile on his face. Portia and Cressida stood beside him, arms around each other genially, but Portia looked up at Cinna, grinned, and reached out to tweak his waist playfully. He jumped, startled, and Portia crossed her eyes at him.
Cinna leaned down and kissed the top of Portia's head, and Katniss smiled. She looked back to Peeta and timidly, carefully, kissed his cheek.
Peeta squeezed her hand as Finnick stopped laughing and straightened up.
"After that… it was just like a tidal wave. I couldn't be without Annie again. Not ever. But I'd already been Contracted as a Single and I spent a lot of my time in the Capitol, and you know, they monitor all the comm out here – "
"The Capitol monitors all the comm, so he wrote me letters," Annie finished for him, her cheeks flushing and lovely. Her hands swam on like small fish. "On real paper. And he would just give me these stacks of love letters when he got home to keep and read when he was gone again. And I would write him back on the other side of the pages and he would bring my letters with him to the Capitol."
"But then Annie's birthday and her Contracting were getting closer and closer and… I just got angry," Finnick said, his voice losing its levity. He looked out at the crowd and Katniss felt like he was staring straight into her eyes, speaking directly to her. Finnick shook his head. "I got angry that I had fallen in love with this beautiful, wonderful, strong, bright girl and that an arbitrary bureaucracy could tell me that I was never allowed her to marry her. Or have children with her. Or even – speak to her again once she married someone else, someone who she didn't love and who could never love her the way I did. It was wrong. It's still wrong."
"It is wrong. I was terrified," Annie said softly. "I didn't want some strange man in some strange District. I wanted Finnick. And I wanted my ocean." She paused as Finnick wrapped his arm around her waist. Her eyes flashed. "We get storms in Four," Annie said in a high, lilting voice. The Four accent was like music, Katniss thought, strange and ancient music that needed dancing and drums. "They're bad – worse than anything in the Capitol – and they can tear down houses and fell trees. They wreck boats."
"We planned it in our letters," Finnick said, staring at Annie now instead of the crowd. "I made sure I would be home for the rainy season, and I stayed out far past the buoys on my houseboat. Waiting."
Annie smiled with a sharp glint in her eye. "He waited. He waited for me. When the storm rolled in I sailed out on my lobster trawler and Finnick sailed up to the boundary line to meet me. And maybe I just remember it something dramatic, but I have never seen a storm as bad as that one. The boats were already almost rolling when I got close to him and he tossed me the rope and I tied it around my waist–"
"And not a minute later her trawler flipped," Finnick finished. "I had to find her out in the waves and pull her up, and…" He trailed off. Annie petted his hair gently. "I'm just glad she's such a good swimmer. But, overall, that was the plan. Current would take it back to shore… and far as anyone knew, Anemone Cresta died out in the storm. But really," he said tenderly, tucking Annie closer, "she was free."
"But I'm not really free," Annie argued gently, gravely. "Neither is Finnick. Neither are any of you. I can't ever go home, I can't ever be seen. Finnick can't talk about his real life with anyone in public. We can never show off our beautiful baby," she whispered ruefully. "We're trapped in a bubble. Whenever Finnick isn't home I just – I get so scared that someone's going to find out and he'll never come back." Annie didn't waver, but her huge green eyes glistened. "I hate that I have to depend on him in a way that he can't really depend on me back. He can go out into the world and be a real person. And I can't anymore. And that's wrong."
"But I'm not a real person in the Capitol," Finnick said. He shook his head. "This Capitol life is not the one I was meant to live. I don't know what that life is, really, but I know that I'm supposed to have the ocean and Annie and happiness and choicesand no fear. But when I get too down on myself I always just think, 'no one in Panem is living the life they're meant to.'" He looked out at the crowd again with that searing stare. "Are you?"
There was a silence.
"No," Cinna answered first, stepping forward sinuously. He shook his head. "I love my vocation. Portia… she is my other half. My better half." He looked over to Portia and she gave him a cheeky wink. "But I miss my family. And I miss my home. And… I want love. I think I have a right to that. I think we all do."
"I deserve to be allowed to marry the woman I love," piped a short, turtle-faced man with thick spectacles. His skin was brown as a walnut and he had a cowlick in his salt-and-pepper hair. He stood and the older woman beside him stood too, holding his hand.
Katniss bit her tongue. They had to be a generation apart.
"My name is Beetee Franklin. My Spouse died giving birth to our first child," the turtle-faced man said. "I was born in District Three. So was my companion, Wiress."
"My husband died after all of my children had been Contracted to other Districts," Wiress continued. "All I had left was my Vocation. I started training a new Engineer, and soon after that, his Spouse died. That was Beetee."
"We've been each other's only source of comfort for twenty years now," Beetee said. He lifted their hands and kissed Wiress' knuckles. "I know she's older than I am, but I don't care. I love her, and I want to spend the rest of our lives together. I want to marry her. But we're not allowed to take a new Spouse. They say the privilege was abused in the Dark Days, and maybe it was. But I would be so honored if I were allowed the privilege of marrying Wiress."
"My name is Alma Coin. I left my Spouse," said a severe-looking woman at the back of the crowd. Her hair looked like it was trimmed with a slide rule. The skin over the left side of her face and neck was craggy and pockmarked and she wore a black eyepatch. "He was a bad man. He failed at his Vocation, he drank liquor, and he beat me. After he dumped boiling water on me over a disagreement about dinner, I took our children and I ran. I live nowhere. And everywhere. I help those who run find what they need. We look for the green lamps in the windows to find shelter.
"What we all need a safe place. There need to be restrictions and sanctions in place for criminals like my Spouse to get what they deserve. I was not his property just because I was Contracted to him. I'm a person. Everyone in Panem is a person. And we need to show the Capitol how it feels to be hurt by the system." Her nostrils flared. "Someone needs to pay for all of those who the Contract system hurts."
An old, old woman leaning on her cane near Finnick and Annie spoke. Katniss couldn't understand her words, but the passion in her voice made her look young and seem beautiful.
"Mags was born before the First Rebellion," translated Finnick, still holding Annie close. "She was brought up in one of the old Reprogramming homes. Her parents were killed in the Purge of Ministers. They had been people of God."
There was a murmur around the room and Katniss squeezed Peeta's hand again. If Finnick's voice carried and they were heard from the street, everyone in the room would be held in high treason. The Capitol didn't hate anything more than the idea of god: an authority higher than the government would threaten to disarm the system completely.
"Mags is who married Annie and me," Finnick continued with a smile. "Using the old customs of her parents. Annie and I were married because of love and in the sight of the gods, and that is a deeper meaning than the Capitol's Contracts." He looked down at Annie and tenderly brushed a curl out of her face. "Cinna?"
Annie took the black pen Cinna offered her. Finnick held out his tattooed wrist. With her tongue poking from between her teeth in concentration, Annie carefully blacked out Finnick's markings (D:4 C:S ODAIR ACTOR) and wrote beneath the bar, in looping, girlish cursive.
She bit her lip, eyes shining, and handed the pen back to Cinna. And then Annie Odair grasped Finnick's face like she could never get enough of touching him, being near him, and pulled him down for another soaring kiss. Everyone applauded wildly and Katniss' chest felt tight, the way it had as she watched Madge die. She was watching something that mattered. That was rare and precious in Panem.
Peeta stood and cleared his throat. Twenty pairs of eyes swung around to look at him and at Katniss, who shrank back, hiding behind Peeta's shoulder.
"We were friends with The Girl on Fire," Peeta said in a strong, carrying voice. "Her name was Madge."
Cinna's eyes met Katniss' and creased with pity. "That was Madge? The girl who gave you your pin?"
Katniss nodded, her throat too dry to speak.
"To Madge," Cinna toasted, raising his glass.
Everyone else followed suit, and Katniss pressed her face into the side of Peeta's arm. "To Madge."
"Katniss?" Cinna asked, after everyone had drunk. "How would you like to honor Madge? Would you be alright if we all started wearing her pin, too?" He looked up and addressed the crowd. "The Girl on Fire is a symbol of everything that is wrong with this country. Fire is catching. Madge may have burned, but we will burn with her, and her message won't die out. Madge chose how she wanted to die. We have the rightto choose how we live."
Katniss touched the pin, rubbing the pad of her thumb over the intricate detailing of the bird's eye. She didn't wear it to immortalize Madge's death; she wore the mockingjay pin because it was something tangible that her friend had loved and touched and Katniss wore it to remember Madge's life. Madge gave it to her when Katniss promised to use it to remember who Madge Undersee had been, not who Margaret Junius became.
But Katniss thought of the set of Madge's jaw when she faced down Effie Trinket and she realized: Madge Undersee had always been the girl on fire. The Contract didn't change that.
She clenched her hand around the pin. "Yes. For Madge."
There was a cry of assent from around the room and Annie Odair fluttered her hands, burying her face in Finnick's shoulder and covering her ears. Finnick hushed her gently, drizzling kisses over the crown of her face until the loud noise and chaos subsided and Annie calmed.
"Now, now, now!" Portia trilled, walking out to the center of the crowd and quelling the chatter with a raise of her hands even though she stood shorter than anyone else in the room. "Lest we forget the other reason for tonight's soiree – " She turned to Peeta at the back of the room and waved him forward. "Peeta?"
Peeta ducked his head bashfully and pushed the huge dessert tray out towards Portia. The silver cloche cover dwarfed her and everyone laughed, so Peeta pulled off the cloche, revealing a huge, beautiful honey-colored birthday cake, decorated with subtle striations of gold. A sparkling blaze reflected from the collection of tiny candles atop the cake.
"Happy thirtieth birthday, Cinna," Portia said warmly, holding out her arms. Cinna stepped forward with a sad, blazing smile and lifted Portia up in a tight hug, swinging her idly.
Katniss smiled at Cinna and Portia and the warm way that Portia hugged Peeta in thanks for the cake. She smiled at Finnick and Annie and at Beetee and Wiress. And then she looked down at Madge's mockingjay pin.
Fire is catching.
Late that night, Katniss woke with a start, caught in a fretful dream of a new Dark Days with firebombs falling over District Twelve, destroying Farll's bakery and the Undersees' manor and lighting Prim and Posy up in the blaze. She sat up, panting, her heart racing, and reached out for Peeta out of new instinct – but his side of the bed was cold.
Katniss' stomach twisted. She didn't like when people disappeared. She crept out of bed and down the stairs.
"Peeta?" Katniss asked, squinting into the glare of light spilling in from the windows.
He stood quickly and the oven door slammed shut with a bang. He glanced down at the oven regretfully for a moment before looking back to Katniss at the door. "Soufflé," he explained. "It's definitely fallen now. I'm sorry, did I wake you?"
Katniss shook her head and rubbed her eyes, stepping into the shadowed kitchen. "Not really. Are you – you seemed upset earlier. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
Peeta smiled. "I'm just fine. Thanks."
Katniss nodded and dug her toe into a crack in the floor. Peeta swept flour into his hand and rinsed it down the drain, scrubbing up with lemon-scented soap that floated across the kitchen and made Katniss think, with a pang, it smells like Peeta.
"Are you coming to bed?" Katniss asked quietly.
Peeta looked up and met her gaze. His eyes were wet, and he blinked quickly and looked away.
"Peeta?" Katniss asked, stepping into the kitchen and pulling the dressing gown tighter around her shoulders. "You said you wanted to be friends."
Peeta ran a big, baker's hand over his face and scrubbed it through his blond hair, making it stand on end in a riot of curls. His shoulders slumped as he leaned against the counter, staring at Katniss over his shoulder with the same look on his face as when they had sat side by side, watching District Twelve recede into the distance.
"You are my Annie," Peeta said plaintively. "My whole life, if I could have picked any person to be Contrac – married, marriedto… I would have picked you." He lifted his head. "I feel about you the same things that Finnick feels about Annie. I love you. And I hate that being with me is – a punishment for you. I'm so sorry."
Katniss took another few steps towards him. "It's not a punishment."
Peeta's face crumpled and he rubbed the heel of his hand in his wet eyes. "It's not what you want."
Katniss shrugged. "I don't – I never wanted anything. Or anyone. I never thought about it. It just seemed like… whoever I chose, that wouldn't be who I got. So I never thought about it."
"I did," Peeta whispered. "All the time. I wanted you. From when we were five years old." He held Katniss' gaze steadily. "The first day of school. You had on a red plaid dress and your hair... it was in two braids instead of one." Peeta sighed. "I thought you were the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen."
Katniss' face twisted into a wry smile. "I was five. I had missing teeth."
"We all had missing teeth," Peeta said, smiling back. "And then later that day you sang the anthem at assembly… and I was a goner. And I just remember wishing that night, and pretty much every night, that you and I would get Contracted. And that you would be my Spouse, and we'd have a family, and… and then it happened, and – " He cut off and looked over his shoulder, covering his face. He sniffed. "It's the worst feeling in the world."
Katniss closed the space between them and laid her hand on Peeta's arm. "It's not. Peeta, it's not. It shouldn't be the worst feeling, it's – you're a good husband." She nodded. His head snapped up at the word. "You are."
Peeta looked down at her. His blue eyes were rimmed in red. "You don't look at me like Annie looks at Finnick."
"I don't think anyone looks at their Spouse like Annie looks at Finnick," Katniss said, sliding her hand up from Peeta's arm to cup his face. "But I'm glad that I was Contracted to you."
Peeta swallowed. "I wish…"
He trailed off.
Katniss only hesitated a moment before rising up to her tiptoes and kissing him gently, chastely, her lips pressed against a mouth slack with surprise. She pulled back just long enough to smile encouragingly at Peeta and to slide her other hand up to cradle the other side of his jaw, thumbs padding at the pink flush in his cheeks, before his hands came up to rest on her waist and he was kissing her again, still tentative and gentle but warm and sweet, full of months of pent-up longing.
Katniss' arms wound around Peeta's broad shoulders, holding him close, and when the soft brush of his tongue against her lip startled her and she pulled back, she tucked her face into the curve of his neck and hugged him tighter, willing him to understand that she wasn't afraid of him– she was just afraid.
"I love you," Peeta whispered into her hair, kissing the top of her head.
"I know," Katniss murmured back, giving his shoulders a squeeze.
The timer on the oven buzzed and Peeta sighed, brushing his hand along the length of Katniss' long braid before letting her go and turning to pull on his oven mitts. He pulled the half-fallen soufflé out of the oven, one side rising shining brown and smooth above the scalloped edge of the pan, and the other a deep crater. He shook his head and set it on the cooling rack.
Katniss crossed the kitchen to the chillbox and pulled out a carton of milk. "We shouldn't waste it."
"You're right." Peeta smiled at her. "It'll still taste fine."
"What did you think of the party?" Cinna asked casually on Monday morning as he painted a heatproof, flammable lacquer along the ruffled hem of a dress.
"I'd never seen anything like it," Katniss said honestly. She carefully shaded the contours of Madge's pin in her sketchbook; Cinna had charged her with drawing the facsimile to base the molds to make more.
"Well, I figured for my thirtieth birthday…" Cinna trailed off. It sounded as though his voice had caught in his throat, but when Katniss glanced up at him, he looked as calm and normal as ever. "I just wanted to make sure that I really invited everyone that I love."
"That's nice," Katniss said genuinely. "You're lucky that you got that opportunity."
"I am," Cinna agreed. "They're – "
There was a creak on the staircase. No customers were scheduled for another hour. Venia, Flavius, and Octavia had gone into their own prep studio upstairs to nurse hangovers with petit fours and coffee.
Katniss looked up and met Cinna's eyes.
"Leave," Cinna hissed. He pushed Katniss roughly towards the back room. "Leave, go. Just don't be here."
Katniss grabbed his wrist. "What's – "
"Go," Cinna repeated, pushing her again. "There's no time, just – hide."
He shoved Katniss into the back room and locked the doors. It was heavily black and hot and pressing without the lights and doors open, so unlike Cinna's white, airy studio. She could hear Cinna in the studio, rushing back to his dressforms, the sound of scissors working at a heavy fabric. He was arming himself.Katniss' heart pounded as she flattened herself down to the floor and peeked out through the small crack at the base of the doors.
White-uniformed, black-booted Peacekeepers entered the studio in an impenetrable line. Their heavy rubber soles squared off against Cinna's soft black shoes. There was a sound of metal on metal.
"You are Cinna Cornelius, designer?"
"I am," Cinna said. His voice was steady. "I am Cinna the designer."
"You are Contract-Paired with Portia Cornelius?"
"I am," said Cinna. He still didn't move, but neither had they. Katniss felt paralyzed with fear anyway, like she could feel the pressure of the darkness and the Peacekeepers' weapons. She had seen Peacekeepers outside of their rounds two times in her life: on videoscreen the day Madge burned, and the day her father had Disappeared.
"You have reached thirty years of age," continued the Peacekeeper's dark voice, low and gravelly and somber.
"I have," Cinna said steadily. "And I have no children."
There was a pause.
"You have zero children," confirmed the Peacekeeper, finishing his script.
Katniss' heart clenched.
The sound of metal connecting with bone made Katniss press her hands over her mouth to stifle a cry. Cinna fell to his knees and the Peacekeepers' heavy boots surrounded him as the sounds of carnage continued. Katniss screamed into her hands as the Peacekeepers' batons opened gashes on Cinna's face and body and blood dripped onto the studio's clean marble floors.
Cinna fell forward, his handsome, kind face bloody and swollen, and he met Katniss' eyes briefly through that crack beneath the door. Beefy hands with stained white gloves pulled a rough burlap bag over his head. A baton came down and Cinna wilted, and Katniss bit her hand to keep silent as the Peacekeepers dragged his limp form out of the studio doors.
She curled up, pulling her knees to her chest, barely breathing, as a final pair of heavy black boots remained behind. The last Peacekeeper cleaned the studio, buffing Cinna's blood away from the floor, removing any trace of him.
Cinna had Disappeared.
Katniss stayed there, curled on the floor in the growing dark, until the clock outside chimed the Hour's Warning for curfew. Then she struggled to her feet and unlocked the back room door with shaking hands. She paused to straighten her hair and her skirt in the mirrors - look normal, look safe, Assimilate- and slipped out of Cinna's design studio as quietly and unobtrusively as she could.
And then, living in the Seam again, she took to the back alley and ran full-tilt, turning corners and jumping over trash, until she hit the back door of Portia's bakery.
She knocked at the door desperately even though Work Hours had ended earlier, but with neither Cinna nor Katniss at home, maybe Portia or Peeta had come back to the Row to wait – there was no answer, so Katniss sagged against the door.
And stumbled as the unlocked door swung open into a disaster area.
The Peacekeepers had clearly been here, too, but no one had stayed behind this time to clean up the Disappearance. Blood and sugar and chocolate littered the floor, each shimmering eerily in the reflected streetlights through the broken windows.
No one was there. The lights still buzzed overhead, but the tables and chairs were overturned and a long drag of red led towards the door from the ovens.
The only sign that anything had ever been alright today was a mostly-frosted cake still waiting on the counter, jostled by the struggle but still standing: bright turquoise fondant and a huge, gold-leaf mockingjay.
Katniss covered her mouth again and turned, ducking out of the wrecked bakery and into the alley, feeling utterly alone and lost. Everyone she trusted was gone.
Even Gale and Johanna and her mother and Prim and Posy were as good as gone, out in District Twelve.
Peeta.Where was Peeta?
Katniss slumped against the wall, taking a moment to think and to try to control her breathing. She looked both ways down the alley and noticed the quavering green light down the Row. She pushed herself up and ran towards Finnick's house, hoping against hope that he and Annie were still here in the Capitol tonight, not being smuggled back home to Four.
She checked both ways before launching herself up his porch steps and banging hard against the door.
Finnick opened the door with a perplexed smile. "Katniss?"
"I don't know where else to go," Katniss squeaked. "I just – I just don't where – who – "
Finnick put his hand on Katniss' shoulder and looked up, over her, checking the street. "Come inside." He pulled her into the house and crouched down to look her in the eyes. "What happened, Katniss?"
"Cinna and Portia," she managed. Finnick held her shoulders steadily and Katniss clung onto his arms. "They're – the Peacekeepers came and they took Cinna and – I went to the bakery – there's blood, and – I can't find Peeta."
Finnick cursed under his breath. He looked up over Katniss' shoulder towards the windows and door again. His hands tightened on her arms. "Were you followed here?"
"No," Katniss said, shaking her head. "No, it was hours ago."
Finnick closed his eyes. "Okay." He took a deep breath. "Katniss, it's going to be okay. We're going to find Peeta."
Katniss' face crumpled.
"My father Disappeared," she whispered.
"Oh, Katniss," hummed Finnick. He pulled her in for a comforting hug and Katniss buried her face into his shoulder, trying desperately not to cry. "It'll be okay."
"Where's Annie?" she whispered. "You should hide her."
"Alma's going to take her tonight," Finnick said shortly, all business. "Her and Mags. If we don't find Peeta – Katniss, listen to me, if we don't find Peeta, I'm sending you to her, too." He shrugged into a plain blue Professional uniform coat. "Let's go."
Katniss hurried along beside him, wishing that Finnick weren't so beautiful. Anyone passing on the street was sure to stare.
"You looked at the bakery?" he clarified.
Katniss nodded. "I just stopped in, to see… it's bad, it's so bad."
"Did you try looking at home?"
Katniss paused and shook her head. "The bakery was closer. I just – "
"You go look there," Finnick said, pushing Katniss gently in the opposite direction. "I'll… check their house. Just in case. Where do you live? I'll try to contact you tonight."
Katniss explained the way down the row, her hands shaking, and tried hard not run as she took off towards the row house. She had barely shut the door before the cry worked its way out of her throat.
"Peeta!" she called, running up the stairs. "Peeta!"
"Katniss?" he called back, and she heard a chair fall as he started down from the kitchen. They crashed through space to reach each other and collided on the stairs, folding around each other and losing their balance. Katniss slipped down two steps and Peeta crashed into the wall and they sunk to the floor where they stayed, clinging into one indivisible being.
"I thought you were gone," Katniss whispered, wrapping her arms around him. "I thought I'd never find you."
"I thought you were gone, too," Peeta murmured, his voice wracked with relief. "I went to Cinna's studio, it was empty – "
"I went to the bakery," Katniss said, running her hands over his face. "There was blood and broken glass – "
"Portia told me to go," Peeta whispered. "I hid in the delivery hatch and then – I just ran. I just got scared and I ran home and then I thought… of you, and I went back to Cinna's studio but everyone was gone."
"I told Finnick," Katniss babbled, talking over him. "He said that woman, Coin, she has a safe place. We could go there."
"We should stay," argued Peeta softly, stroking Katniss' sweaty hair out of her face. "We need to continue Cinna's and Portia's message. Madge's message. We have rights, Katniss, and one of those is – is the pursuit of happiness. Cinna and Portia… probably died for it today. But I want you to be happy."
"I just don't want you to get hurt," Katniss whispered, squeezing him tight again. "I'm just trying to protect you."
"Oh, Katniss," Peeta murmured, pressing his lips to the top of her head.
"Just… don't Disappear," Katniss asked, pulling back to stare plaintively into Peeta's eyes. "Just stay with me. I just want one person to stay with me."
Peeta's eyes softened and he stroked the side of her face gently. He leaned forward and kissed each of her wet eyelids before resting his forehead against hers. He squeezed her hands and held them to his chest, his steady heartbeat comforting Katniss more than she would have admitted before today.