I smoothed Prim's hair nervously. It looked fine; I just couldn't stop worrying over her. It had been too long here at the community home. She had to get out of here, with or without me.
Our mother had finally succumbed to her grief over my father's death nearly five years ago. The neighbor who had stopped by for a headache remedy surely meant well by alerting the Peacekeepers we were underfed and uncared for. I had only just started hunting with any efficiency that very week, and with a little more time I could have cared for us as well as my father had done before the explosion. It was pure misfortune that brought that woman to our door. Stupid, dumb luck that my sunken cheeks and hollow eyes were so visible to her. Unjust that Prim's collarbones peered forth from her ill-fitting nightgown. And my mother: sitting listless and silent in the corner.
When they came to the door with their white suits and shined weapons, I was terrified. Then angry. How dare they come to take her away. To take us away. We were a family, something they clearly didn't understand. But they did take her away. I was told she was with a distant relative somewhere in District 4; supposedly the sea has a relaxing, curing power. I wonder if they lied and put her in a work camp; maybe let her die back home alone. It pains me to think this way, but I can't worry about my mother anymore. The only thing I have to worry about is Prim's well-being She left us. I've left her behind.
Those first weeks were the hardest.
When they put us in separate rooms, by age, it was a suffocating prison. I screamed for her, awake, in my sleep, always. Finally, five days later – and probably to shut me up - they gave us a room together. I'm sure I made an excellent impression on the other eleven-year-old girls. Even in those awful, chilled, moldy-walled rooms, we were at least together. At least we had some food, despite it's stale and spoiled smell and taste. It takes me back to my regret each time we taste those disappointing meals. If only I had the forethought to watch my father hunting. Then I could have started feeding us sooner; Prim would have had full cheeks when that meddling woman knocked on our door. She wouldn't have seen us starving and "saved" us by throwing us into this hell.
I sigh and sit back against the wall behind our bench. Sixteen is too young to be this cynical.
I wonder about the Visitor we were summoned to meet. Who could this be? Visitor usually is a term for someone coming to look at an abandoned child here in the community home. As far as I've seen, it's either a merchant who needs help in a shop or a widowed miner who needs someone to look after his children. I've never seen anyone ask for more than one child at a time. It's hard enough to feed one child, but two extra in your home, overnight, is unheard of.
I have a sinking feeling they probably are trying to choose between the two of us. The cooks here still let me hunt on the weekends, even during the week if there's a holiday coming up. I bring in more food than the meager local government can lobby for. They may take a lion's share, but some of the rabbits and squirrels make it into those thin soups. But Prim's recall of those healing herbs my mother understood and implemented is exceptional, even for a child of twelve. She's done more good for sick children here than I can even with a good day of hunting. No one has died of illness in this Home in two years; and it's all her doing.
I hope the Visitor chooses her.
She still has a cheerful face. It's not lined with suspicion and rage like mine. I can't even pretend anymore. She still smiles. I only smile at her. I sigh noisily and wait for the Visitor.
I fiddle nervously with the button on my coat while my father fills out the necessary paperwork. I hope she makes a good impression. I'm not worried about Primrose; it's impossible not to love her. She's got those bright blue eyes and a smile as wide as a lake. She even looks like a merchant child, like her mother. My mother might even like her. But Katniss is another story.
She's hard and angry. It's obvious the other sixteen-year-old girls at school are afraid of her. They may exclude her, but it's out of fear more than superiority. And she looks like a Seam girl. Dark hair, grey eyes. I anticipate my mother's disdain. I'm glad it's my father who decided to come here. And to let me come along.
I've always had an inkling he had hoped for a daughter. He certainly loves me, and Rye and Kirsh. But he definitely didn't expect three boys and no girls. He had a younger sister growing up and Aunt Genoise is still his favorite. Her rare visits fill our house with laughter. I wish she and her children could visit more often; but neither of our livelihoods can withstand a holiday for long.
As rattled as I am I have to admit I'm overcome with excitement that she could be coming to my home. I've watched her for years. Eleven years, if I count properly. That first day with the song at school. The few days after her father's death, her face paper white with a stillness like stone at school. The awful day I saw the Peacekeeps dragging her and the little one to the community home: her screams and the little one's tears.
Every time I think of that day I relive my helplessness. My intense desire to stop them, to take Katniss and Primrose back home, to heal their broken mother and their lost family. But I can't. Even at eleven I understood I couldn't win that battle. And each day since then I've tried to make it up to her.
The day Mother and Father realized they needed extra help was the impetus. Now that Rye was married with a child on the way and Kirsh decided to take on mining work, they really had no choice but to find an extra set of hands – or two. And I knew whom to suggest. I'd worried I'd talked about her too much; brought her up too casually at dinner. But she could hunt. I had spotted her with my own eyes dragging wild turkeys half her body size to that filthy Home kitchen. Even after her friend and hunting partner Gale had gotten too old and taken to the mines to feed his family and new wife, she kept dragging those animals back to the kitchen to feed her fellow parentless prisoners. That game would make excellent meat pies. Not even rich District Seven sells meat pies anymore. We'd be the only bakery in Panem selling them. It was easy to convince my mother of the value. Prim was another battle. Knowing Katniss would never leave her sister made it crucial I find a reason to take her as well.
It took weeks of sneaking behind them, listening to private conversations at school to find her skills. She had a natural healing talent; she even took care of the older children hurt during sports. But it was her gift with herbs that gave me the courage to suggest my family take her too. Knowing which herbs are edible and which ones are poisonous would give us an upper hand on finding new garnishes; new dishes. Again, we could have foods no other district bakery could hope to create. The vision of money flashed in my mother's eyes and she was sold. Even her misgivings about Seam kids couldn't hold a candle against the possibility of an easier life. Her father had been Peacekeeper from District 2 and her mother a disgraced socialite from the Capitol. I heard my grandmother's fall from grace had something to do with an affair with the President's nephew, but she wouldn't speak of details. Life was easier for her as a child until their early death from an unknown disease. Sometimes I wonder if she regretted marrying my father. He was a good man, but probably her only option when she realized her parents' life of luxury involved putting nothing away in the form of a dowry. She had to marry to survive when they died in the epidemic. A hint of resentment always hung over our house.
My father has returned to my side and I snap out of my reverie. It's time.
The locked door opens. My hand finds Prim's and holds it tight. If this is someone looking for young girls to amuse themselves, they will only find my fists and nails and teeth as a response.
Imagine my shock when I see the District baker and his son coming to collect us.
"You must be Katniss. And you would be Primrose?" The baker smiles and holds out his hand. Confused, I release Prim's hand and extend it to the baker. He grips it warmly and pulls me to my feet. Doing the same for Prim, he suggests, "Let's take a walk, shall we?"
It's a crisp fall day outside. I appreciate the chance to be out of the Home without supervision. I steal glances at the baker as we walk in silence, crunching dried leaves with our books. His son with ash blond hair is fervently avoiding my eyes, his cheeks flushed red. I know this boy from school. I've even caught him staring at me, but I can't say that many people don't stare at the Home children. Our tattered clothing and bruised arms and faces offer themselves to gawkers. Prim's sweet disposition and my quick guard have kept her free of bruises for months, but my smart mouth and surliness doesn't do me any favors. I pull at my shoulder length hair to cover the bruise on my jaw. I had told the late night hall monitor what I thought of her frightening the ten-year-old boy who wet his bed during a nightmare. She evidently hadn't appreciated the colorful name I assigned her. I then realize that raising my hand only shows of my bruised knuckle from punching a seventeen-year-old who had tried to take Prim's breakfast that week, so I give up and leave both alone.
"I suppose you're curious as to why we're here?" asks the baker as we settle at an outdoor table on the grounds. The boy still furiously avoids my gaze.
I nod, silently.
"Peeta here tells me you're quite the hunter." The boy's flush grows deeper and he tucks his head lower.
My eyebrows rise involuntarily. How did he notice? He doesn't live here. I wonder if I've been too brazen.
"Yes. I bring in extra food for the kids here. We needed it." I say simply. I'm not sure where he's going with this information.
"And you're good with herbs, I hear," the baker directs at Prim.
"Yes! I love plants and flowers. Especially flowers!" she nods enthusiastically. I wish I could tell her not to trust so easily. But my worry that I'd jeopardize her chances to get out of the Home and keep my mouth shut.
"Well, you may know my two older boys have left home. The older now has a family and is leaving for District 11. He's going to learn agriculture." The baker beams proudly. I vaguely recall the name Rye and an image of a tall blond boy teasing squealing, giggling girls on the playground. A sense of irritation at his carefree life and their mindless flirtation threatens a scowl. I attempt to hide my disdain at such an easy life. "And Kirsch has found a job overseeing workers in the mines." Another image of a confident, blond young man charming the richest of the merchant class girls sweeps my mind. "And even though we still have Peeta here", the baker claps a hand on the back of the awkward, gangly boy sitting across from me, "we're going to need extra help at the bakery until he finishes school."
A thin sense of hope breaks on the horizon.
"Hearing about your hunting skills and knowledge of herbs…" he pauses. "Well, I thought you'd be a good fit with us. Are you interesting in working for us for a few years? We can't really afford to pay you, but we've got an extra room in the basement with the older boys gone and we have enough food to feed you both well enough. And if we can sell game pies with your hunting, well.,.it can only get better, hunh?" The baker smiles weakly.
I suddenly know where his fear lies. His wife.
She's never been a fan of Seam children. Even before my father died and my mother lost her mind, I saw her sneers at our dark hair and eyes. Prim would easily fit her ideal of beauty and acceptance, but me? I swallow hard. This is for Prim, for Prim, for Prim. Even if she discards me, Prim will have a home and full stomach and a chance of a happy life.
I steal a glance at Peeta. He's looking at me. He looks away as I meet his eyes. I consider what I know of this boy sitting across from. He's attractive enough, but I can see he hasn't quite grown into his features. His shoulders are still narrow and his hands and feet have outpaced his limbs. I glance at my own flat chest, bony hips and chipped nails realize I'm not in any place to judge his looks. Hardly pretty, although with potential, I'm nothing compared with the merchant girls. I think of Satin Marshall, the late tailor's daughter and how her dresses are cut to bring out attributes I may never attain. I consider her and the other light haired girls that whisper about his handsome face as he passes, I can't bring to mind an image of him flirting the way his older brothers did. Thinking of our classes, I can't recall any time he caused the sort of trouble Kirsch did when he accidentally set fire to a school stove trying to bake a heart-shaped cake for a girl he fancied. I heard he had snuck in spirits from our alcohol distributor, Ripper, to make the cake flame for his "burning desire' for her, but didn't realize you have to set the fire after it leaves the oven. While my memory floods with images of the older Mellark boys pushing smaller boys out of the way and knocking pretty girls' books from their hands, I see Peeta helping them collect their papers and projects in the wake of destruction. He'd be a good guardian for Prim. He'd protect her like a sister.
His eyes dart up to mine again. Something behind those eyes makes me look away this time. Something that makes me feel like I'll never be a sister to him. Something hot, like fire. My cheeks are flushing but I don't know why.
"Could I talk to my sister privately?" I ask tentatively.
"Of course." I don't think the baker intended this, but he doesn't seem put off.
Pulling Prim from the table, I walk her about 50 feet away from the table and drop my voice to a near whisper. "What do you think?"
Her blue eyes dart back to the baker and his son, speaking quietly at the chipping and cracked wooden table. "He seems really nice. And I know Peeta. He helped me carry my books when I fell." I'd forgotten about that day, less than a year ago. A fight between a Seam brother and sister had broken out in the school's main entrance hallway, something silly about a toy or pet. The girl had pushed her older brother, who tripped over Prim, unseen behind him. I had arrived in time to see Peeta helping her up and picking up her bag, scooping spilled pencils into the pockets. I'd been so preoccupied with her skinned knee, then punching the Seam brother in the nose, it only now occurs to me that it was the same boy guiding her away from the fight.
"Are you sure? I want you to be safe."
"I'm sure, Kat. We'll be okay with them." She pauses carefully. "He reminds me of Dad."
That's enough for me. I have complete faith in her intuition. I take her hand and lead her back to the table.
"We'd like to accept your offer." I stammer out, trying not to appear too eager. I force a smile.
"Great!" The baker smiles warmly at me. "Why don't you and Primrose collect your things? We can go now, if you're ready."
"Thank you!" Prim bursts out. She drops my hand and darts over to him before I can stop her. She hugs him, catching him by surprise. He returns the hug cautiously, then with full abandon. I look over at the baker's son, watching them. There is something wistful he's hiding behind his eyes. As the older child, I understand what it's like to see the new baby brought home. Peeta was the youngest, and now there's a younger child coming home. I try to stifle a genuine smile. He's sixteen, like me. But he's enjoyed being a child a lot longer than I have.
As Katniss collects Primrose from my father's embrace and leads her back to their chambers, I sigh with relief, but immediately my stomach knots with anticipation. She's coming home with us. Really coming home.
"I thought I'd lost you there."
I turn, startled at my father's words. "What?"
"You nearly melted into that bench," he laughs at me. I feel my cheeks start to burn. "Oh, don't be embarrassed, Peeta." Father sighs and leans against the table. "This will be a good chance to learn to talk to girls."
I drop my eyes and set my jaw. I hate this conversation and he knows it. But he also knows he can't give in.
"I know you don't want to think about this, but you've only got a year left at school, Peeta. You're going to need to find someone to help you run the bakery when your mother and I are too old or gone," he says, gently. He doesn't like to think about leaving me behind either, but he is worried about me. "Most of the other boys in your class already have someone in mind by your age." He pauses, trying to think of something to say. Kirsch and Rye were natural flirts, he probably never had this conversation with them. "You're not a bad-looking guy, you know."
"Yeah, yeah," I mutter.
"Really, Peeta. You have a lot to offer. And I've seen those neighborhood girls looking at you."
I shift on the bench, but can't get comfortable. I don't want any of those neighborhood girls, but it's not like I can voice that. Especially after this morning.
"I married your mother when I was only two years older than you." He stops speaking then, realizing it's probably not the best tactic in this argument.
As we sit in silence and I try to avoid thinking of my parents' strained marriage, I let my mind flit back to the dark haired girl with grey eyes. My palms start to sweat, so I try to think of my brothers and how they started talking to girls. I'm taken back to when Rye had a girlfriend at my age. They held hands and I'd seen them kiss in the public square twice myself. But then there was a loud fight behind our bakery when I was thirteen and I didn't see her again. When I asked why she hadn't stopped by the shop in a few days, he told me he didn't love her anymore. When I suggested that might mean he hadn't really loved her in the first place, he threw a bag of dried apples at me and I decided not to bring it up again. The idea of a day when I might not love Katniss anymore makes my chest feel empty and I decide not to think about it anymore. I'll deal with each day as it comes. I'll have to from now on. Having her close will be far more difficult than having to watch her from a distance.
Father and I have been sitting in silence for about ten minutes when they appear. They each only carry one, worn-out canvas knapsack. All that's left of four years in the community home.
I stand as they reach us, and move to take Katniss' pack. She starts and yanks it away from me. We both look at each other confused for a moment. As my father relieves Primrose of her backpack, she realizes I was only offering to carry it for her. With great caution, she slowly relents and lets me take it. It's lighter than I expected, which only makes me hurt for her more.
The way back to our small home would have been unbearably hushed without Primrose chattering happily about the late fall plants and birds we pass. She's remarkably smart and I can tell my father is already head over heels for her. I smile as he does, and sneak a glance at Katniss. She's controlling a small smile creeping across her face as she watches Primrose run ahead and point out wild onion to my father. It's like the sun breaking when I realize I've hardly ever seen her smile. I know she smiles at her sister, but I can only recall one other smile at a private joke with Gale during some boring school assembly on coal fire safety and one outright laugh when her sister claimed she'd learned how to cartwheel and upended herself in a pile of leaves in the schoolyard three autumns ago. Katniss couldn't help but laugh along with Primrose as she picked leaves out of her sister's long blond braid.
I decide I like seeing her smile.
Prim has found a home with these strangers even before we reach their front door. Her winning smile and joyful nature are too much for anyone to resist, especially someone as sweet and open as the baker. And while I can tell he'll accept me on Prim's behalf and Peeta did graciously carry my pack for me, I'm still afraid to meet his mother. She's much more like the other merchants; the ones who believe it still matters where and to whom you were born. Most of them have relatives in the Capitol, which only makes me resent them more.
The smell of the bread ovens hits me as we round the street corner where I know the bakery stands. A few people are out on their steps chatting and dealing, watching our small procession. I look away; I'm not in the mood for gawkers today.
Peeta opens the door to the bakery and Prim skips inside. The baker gestures for me to enter and I carefully place one boot in front of the other. There's no turning back now.
We are standing in their storefront. Cracked glass displays house large baskets, but few rolls, loaves, and cheese tarts remain. It's nearly eleven in the morning this Sunday, and most customers stop in early to make purchases. Few customers save the wealthy will be out shopping at this hour; this is a family day. Well, for those with families. Prim's nose presses against the glass displays that hold a small tray of cookies and fruit tarts, and there is one tiny cake on display with a beautiful iced flower on top. I doubt she remembers the one Mother's Day my father brought home a cookie and my mother gave Prim and I a bite of it. I wonder if my memory of that sugar is real anymore, or if I imagine it far sweeter than it was.
My trance is broken as a sour-faced woman steps into the storefront.
My heart stops as my mother steps into view. I wish I didn't fear her.
As kind as my father is, my mother is resentful. It took a lot of convincing and my gradually falling-to-failing grades to convince my mother that we needed help. I couldn't keep missing school to stay home and ice wedding and New Years' cakes and make decent grades and she couldn't stand anyone to think her children weren't brilliant. Rye and Kirsch did all right in school, but then again they were devastatingly talented in landing a wife with a wealthy father and a job that paid better than most in this district. I think she's still waiting for my secret talent to emerge, but I'm reasonably certain icing cakes is all she'll get from me. And I'm sure it's eating her alive.
I had told my father about the two Everdeen girls, but I don't know if he told her he had planned to bring both home. From the shock in her eyes, I'm guessing she didn't expect Katniss to be standing in her storefront.
"Anise! Here they are!" Father says nervously, plastering a bright grin on his features.
"They. Here they are," she looks at him incredulously. "Savarin, can I speak with you in the drawing room?" He steals a look at Peeta and I, and then disappears behind a worn curtain to a room just beyond my vision. But not out of earshot.
"TWO?" I hear her strained whisper. "Sav, Peeta is still growing! We don't have enough food for him and two girls! What were you thinking?"
"The dark haired one can hunt, Ani! She can bring us meat. You know we need that, we can't afford buying it, but if it's free we can eat and sell some. And the little one is great with herbs. Look, she already showed me these wild onions – " I hear him digging in his pockets "we could make onion rolls tonight to sell tomorrow. And they're both much smaller than Rye and Kirsch ever were; they'll eat far less than the boys."
I'm embarrassed to be listening in on such a private conversation. I can tell Peeta is too. I notice in the bright near-noon sun that perhaps his lanky appearance may not be from growing too fast, but like me, growing too fast without enough food to fill in the difference. I may not be tall, but I imagine I'd be far shapelier with enough to eat. May be as attractive as the girls Peeta's brothers chased after.
Prim fidgets nervously and her fingers find my sleeve. She's afraid we're about to go right back to the home. So am I. Or rather, I'm afraid I'm about to go and she's about to stay here with Mrs. Mellark. As much as that would hurt, I'd rather she be safe – well, safer - from that loveless place than me. But I will admit the loneliness would be agonizing without her.
The argument goes silent and my eyes dart up as the thin curtain is suddenly pushed aside and Peeta's father pokes his head back in the room.
"Why don't you show them their room, Peet?" suggest his father, handing Prim's small pack to his son as he turns back to his wife. He must have known we were listening.
The boy nods and takes the pack. "Follow me" he nearly whispers and leads Prim and I through the storefront. Horrifically enough, he has to lead us into the room where his mother is fuming. She turns her back to us to hide her displeasure as we pass through a small living room.
I note a small sofa, patched with mismatched scraps sewn over holds with tight, precise stitches. The TV is just the same model we used to have in our living room, but the lack of dust suggests they probably watch more than we ever did. The carpets are worn, but not yet threadbare, and there is a cozy fireplace on the far brick wall in the center of their cooking area. A good-sized wooden table, large enough for a family of five, sits near the fireplace, its edges smoothed by time and use. It looks like a home.
Stairs at the opposite wall of the fireplace lead upwards to bedrooms, but it's the cellar door facing the stairs to which Peeta turns.
He flips a light switch just inside the door and I'm excited to see they have quality electric lines here. At home, squirrels so frequently chewed through ours we'd go days without fixing it just for the inconvenience. It did give my father a chance to teach me shooting practice with squirrels off the line, however. As we descend the stairs, I feel the chill in the air, but at the bottom I'm relieved to see it's dry. The granary storage and supply sacks take up half the small cellar, but the other half appears to be insulated and houses two twin beds covered in handmade quilts flanking a nightstand with electric lamp. There is even a clothes trunk at the foot of the left bed. Even at home, Prim and I had shared a bed and we didn't have enough clothes to fill a single dresser. As Peeta sets one pack on each bed, I lift the lid to the trunk. I see extra bedsheets inside, but more promisingly, a few shirts and pants. They'll be boy clothes and too big for us, but with a bit of needle and thread I can alter them and give Prim new clothes to wear for the first time in months. Everything we've ever had has been hand-downs, but at least these look to be in good shape. The boys probably grew too fast to wear anything out to rags.
"Um." I look up as Peeta starts to speak. He stops and looks back, unsure of how to continue. I wish I knew what to say.
A shout followed by a request to hush from above draws three sets of eyes to the ceiling. Prim's eyebrows furrow.
"It'll be ok, Primrose," Peeta says, taking her hand and sitting down on one of the beds to meet her eye level. "My dad won't let you go back there. You're with us now and that's how it's going to stay." He looks up at me. "Both of you are home now."
"Sorry?" he asks as he turns back to my sister.
"Mom and Kat call me Prim. You can call me Prim, too."
He smiles at her. "Prim it is. Should I call you Kat?" His eyes have found mine again.
"Katniss is fine." I try not to sound cold, but only Prim is allowed to give me a pet name. And I'm certainly not going to start calling him Peet, like his father did. I can tell I've put him on edge with this response, but I'm not ready to call this cellar home. I turn away from the image of him comforting Prim, because that's my sister, that's my job, and open the pack on the opposite bed, pulling out Prim's clothes and refolding them to go into the trunk.
I hear the door open above us and Peeta jumps up, moving in front of me and guiding Prim behind him with his far arm so he is closest to the intruder. I can't help but stare at him for this gesture. It's almost…protective.
Fortunately, it's his father that's come to check in on us. "We're all sorted out. Peeta, why don't you let the girls get settled and come help me with the late round?"
The boy nods, glances sideways at me shyly, then nearly runs up the stairs and closes the door behind him.
I sigh and sit down on what is now my bed. Prim is smiling at me. "What?" I ask her.
"We're going to be okay," she says with wisdom beyond her twelve years. "Really."
I hope she's right.
Walking to school Monday is a new level of discomfort. It was easy enough to make small conversations yesterday as I explained to her and Prim how we run the morning shifts, when and where to put out the rolls and breads and set up the afternoon shift for my father while we're at school. She was even up before me this morning to get the breakfast trays into the oven for the early rush; ready to work with her focused, unsmiling face. I'm glad she takes it so seriously; it will show my mother how hard a worker she is. Prim was still rubbing sleep out of her eyes when she stumbled into the kitchen fifteen minutes later and tried to help. I have a feeling the morning will be the worst shift time for her; it was for me at that age. I guess I've gotten used to it now.
Prim walks beside me with Katniss on her other side, holding Prim's hand and staring straight ahead. I'm glad she hasn't tried to run ahead to avoid me. I don't know how she's going to react at school. Word travels fast in this small town and those gossips on their porches yesterday have surely told everyone the Everdeen girls now work for the bakery.
Home kids rarely get taken in, and even then it's very rare they become part of a family. A Home girl in the year before us at school became a nanny to a widowed miner more than twice her age; when she married him she became a pariah. It wasn't her fault, it made sense in her desperate situation: he cared for her very much and she loved his children but no one knew how to react to such a strange pairing and she ended up dropping out of school to hide her embarrassment. A boy three years ago worked for the butcher until he lost his hand in an accident with a motor-powered blade they use to cut the bones. Unable to work, he was returned to the Home and exchanged for a younger child. I heard once he was too old for the Home he left the District to find work elsewhere, but I don't know what happened after that. I only know I'll never let that happen to Katniss and Prim. I just have to figure out how.
We round the corner to the schoolyard and the group of kids forming outside is larger than I had hoped for. A quiet entrance would have been ideal, but that's not in the cards today. I wonder how many of these merchant girls got here specifically early because they'd heard their mothers sharing this juicy news. I've heard enough of their conversations in the halls to know they can't stand Katniss. Not only because she's not afraid to fight back - with words or fists - but also because she holds mystery. That's a challenge for any teenage girl and deeply envied.
Prim freezes and stumbles as she grips Katniss' hand. I stop and turn to her. Her features are knit with concern; she's looking at the group of girls I had spotted. They're glaring at her older sister. Prim's eyes dart to Katniss. Katniss is staring down the merchant girls coolly, still as a statue as she waits for Prim to regain her footing and confidence. The merchant girls turn away sheepishly, but quickly start to giggle among themselves and cast glances backwards towards us.
"Come on," I say to them both. With trepidation, I reach down and grasp Prim's free hand. The merchant girls stop giggling and start glaring at me. Flanked by Katniss and me, Prim relaxes and allows us to walk her past the invasive stares to the front of the building just as the bell alerts us the doors are now open for school.
I've never had a younger sibling to care for and I marvel that anyone is able to hang on to such a small hand like Prim's as the students jostle past us to their classrooms. I wonder if anyone is specifically aiming for her – for us – to knock us apart. Katniss starts to say "I'll take her, you can go" but I shake my head. I made a promise. It may have been to myself, but I want everyone to see they're mine now and I won't let them be shamed.
We walk Prim to a classroom with a marquee hanging outside marked "1st – Sciences for 12s" and she hugs Katniss goodbye. Giving me a grateful wave, she jogs inside the classroom. Katniss stays to see her sit at her desk unbothered before she turns and we walk together to the room marked "1st – Mathematics for 16s". Eyes turn to us as we enter together. Heads turn and I see conversations spring up. Katniss splits away from me and takes her usual seat near the back by the grimy window. I drop my gaze and slip into the first row of seats, two away from the board and hope I can concentrate.
As the day starts and our instructor, a scrawny, scruffy middle-aged man named Mr. Thorn drones on about how levers work in the coal mines, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I try to remember who's sitting behind me. Dread sweeps down my body as I remember it's Shale Davis, a merchant kid whose parents' own the tool shop just outside the east mine entrance. We get along fine, but I wouldn't call us friends. Everyone has to replace their tools sooner or later and his parents have made an excellent living. Well, excellent compared to mine. Compared to the other families here. Everything pales in the shadow of Capitol wealth. But that doesn't stop me from hating the way he looks down on everyone – especially Seam families.
"Heard you got a new pet at home," he whispers in my ear as Mr. Thorn's chalk squeaks across the dry board. "I didn't know you liked dogs."
"Shut up," I grit my teeth and growl through them at him.
"Relax, Mellark. I'm sure she'd be useful for something. Practice makes perfect, after all," he snickers as he settles back in his seat.
Everything goes black and I can't see for a moment. At first it's terror that everyone knows I love her, but then it's fury. He doesn't know that. He couldn't even imagine that. He only imagines she'd only be worth anything as a whore.
I don't remember standing up or turning on him; the first thing that registers is the feeling of my knuckles on his jaw. It really hurts. I'd never hit anyone before and I'm unprepared for how much my hand feels like I punched a rock. Shale looks as shocked as I do at his bloody lip. He recovers more quickly and I'm caught off guard and he throws himself at my waist and we tumble to the ground.
The kids around us are shrieking, some laughing, some terrified. I'm catching punches in the ribs, trying to breathe when I come to my senses. I didn't take second at our school wrestling competition easily. I had lost to my brother Kirsch. We wrestled nearly every day – rather, he and Rye tormented me as the youngest everyday. This situation felt similar enough. I think it took less than twenty seconds to pin Shale. He couldn't move. I started to laugh at his desperate cries to free him. The kids around me are laughing. I'm glad most of them dislike him too. Then I see Katniss. She's not laughing. Her eyes are hard and her mouth is set tight. I'm suddenly ashamed and release Shale. Thorn is beside himself.
"Both of you, both of you, out of my classroom!" he wails. I collect my books and push past Shale into the hallway. I wonder if I should just go home, but decide against it. If they let me into my second classroom I'll stay the rest of the day. Father would be sad to know I've lost my temper and Mother would be furious. I'm leaning against the wall opposite the door when Shale exits. He looks at me and stops. I think he's trying to decide whether to run or start Round Two. I decide to act first. I stand up straight.
"Say one more thing about my family and I'll break your neck." I've never threatened anyone before. I hope it sounds convincing. He knows I'm stronger than him; he only has a little sister and she's far too girly to want to wrestle. I probably could break his neck if I genuinely believed I could really kill someone. He probably thought I was going to in the classroom.
He nods silently. We stand next to one another at the lockers in silence for a long time.
"They're not your family." I turn to him sharply. "They're not, Mellark. They're Seam kids." He doesn't look like he's trying to be malicious, but his words are stabbing my ears. "I don't get you, Peeta. It's not like she matters." He can see this is not calming me down. "I'm not saying this right. It's just – this is only going to hurt you here, you know?"
"What the hell are you talking about?" I'm completely lost.
"You think you're going to find a merchant girl willing to go out with you if you have a Seam girl living at your house? Peet, Satin Marshall thinks you're great, and her dad left her a huge dowry, but there's no way she's going to be seen at the bakery if Everdeen's there. She won't be caught dead near Seam kids."
"Satin Marshall?" I had caught the tailor's daughter's eye on me a few times, but I had no idea she thought of me outside of school.
"You've only got two years at most to pick out who you're gonna marry. One year, really. Once school's over and work starts, you're done. You may find someone while working, but don't count on it. So don't screw it up by defending that Seam girl. The less you talk about her, the better. And don't hold her sister's hand in public, you idiot. Blondie's a sweet kid but that won't get you that dowry."
The bell finally rings and Shale wanders off, shaking his head and muttering to himself.
Satin Marshall. One of the more beautiful girls at school. One of the richest girls in town. Her father was a first-rate tailor and an even better gambler. Capitol officials always shopped with him when they visited. He tipped them off over the underground fights the younger miners held to make a few extra dollars, and he not only won bets, but also took tips from the officials who appreciated his discretion. He left her a ton when he died of a heart attack two years ago. Her inheritance turned her grief into arrogance. She was constantly fought over as boys vie for her favor and attention.
I'm lost wondering how she came to notice me when Katniss steps out of the classroom. Our eyes meet and I'm again ashamed of the fight. She turns and starts to walk away quickly. A few inches shorter than me, she can't really escape me without running and I doubt she wants to call more attention to herself. We round a corner empty of students and I'm brave enough to grasp her shoulder, "I'm sorry."
"Sorry? How could you do that?" she's shaking with rage.
"You don't know what he said about you!" I counter, forcing my voice to remain quiet.
"I don't care, Peeta! They've been saying anything and everything for years. To my face. And you just made it a million times worse for me. I don't need your help and I don't want it!" she spits out and stomps off down the hall.
I watch her go helplessly.
My face is on fire the rest of the day. I hide in our inadequate library during lunch with no appetite, picking at the rolls and apple the baker handed me as I left this morning. Wandering the racks of reference books, I don't want to see anyone. Prim will be okay during lunch, if she's not surrounded by friends she'll be practicing her graceless cartwheels in the scraggly schoolyard. And if not, Peeta will be looking out for her…
A fresh wave of anger overtakes me. I am completely humiliated.
Shale Davis hates everyone, why on earth did Peeta have to retaliate today of all days? My first day with him. The one day everyone could guess with conviction Shale was making fun of me. I think back to the basement, when Peeta stepped in front of me and Prim protectively. His instincts are terrible, I decide.
I shove my half-eaten roll back inside the paper bag and realize there is something else inside. My hands touch a waxy paper, and I pull out a small flat parcel that fits neatly the palm of my hands. It's wrapped carefully in wax paper.
Checking to make sure I am still alone, I unwrap the paper. A cookie. Perfectly round, very pale but clearly dusted with cinnamon and sugar. I stare at it. These are the most expensive things in the shop, I remember Peeta pointing out how few cookies and cakes they made since they are costly to bake and rarely sell unless specially ordered. But his father felt that I would need this today. A sweet reminder that someone is thinking of me.
I sink the floor in the racks of book, still unable to eat the cookie. I feel sudden guilt at my anger. Peeta was surely only trying to look out for me. Just like his father is trying to let me know I am cared for. But it's been five years without anything like this. Five years of parenting Prim, keeping watch over her, watching my own back. I wonder if I even know how to let go and allow others to care for me. It makes me miss my father and mother terribly.
It feels like the minutes pass like hours as I sit on the floor, lost in memories of happy times, my mother's laughter, my father singing, Prim pulling flowers up from the dirt. Closing my eyes, I exhale fully and let the moment go.
I make up my mind and I eat the cookie.
When the day has finally passed, I instinctively walk through the yard gates and turn left. Prim and I always meet there; if she's not there within 5 minutes of me I know something's wrong. But this time she's beat me here. And she's not alone.
Peeta looks uncomfortable and her hands are holding his against his ribs. Where Shale punched him in class, I recall. I slip over quietly and hear her soothing words.
"They don't feel broken, just tender. How did you fall into the chairs?"
"Someone had left their bag on the floor and I think my foot must have caught the strap."
I'm relieved. He knows how to keep Prim innocent of how hurtful people can be. He looks up and sees me. "Oh, Katniss. We were waiting for you." He doesn't want to look me in the eye.
"Thank you," I say. I want to tell him I'm not angry anymore, but I can't. Not with Prim here, and dozens of eyes on us. "Ready?" I ask her. She nods and I take her hand.
Before we can start walking, her free hand reaches out and takes Peeta's. As he accepts it and starts our journey, I see Shale Davis watching us and ever so slightly, shake his head.
By the time we've reached the bakery, we're lifting Prim up and swinging her as we walk. She's still so small it's easy to lift her, and Peeta's strong arms and shoulders from lifting flour make her fly. She's squealing with laughter. Even I smile at her joy. I find myself stealing glances at Peeta. He genuinely enjoys making Prim happy. I'm grateful.
I tease Prim with a hand covered in butter and flour, threatening to put it on her clean hair. She returns the challenge by readying a spoon full of wild berry jam to catapult on my shirt.
"Stalemate," I declare and return to rolling out the dough for second batch of croissants. She smiles and turns back to her strawberry mint popovers. She had discovered the patch of mint in the back yard while taking scraps to our pig, Lucy. Adding the tiniest hint of them to the tarts made them come alive with flavor, but it was also her advice to call it a "family secret" that made them fly off the shelves as people tried to guess what we had added.
The back door opens and I know Katniss has returned from hunting. She's usually gone when I wake up at dawn, but she's always back in time to finish cleaning the animals and still get ready for school. My mother isn't as efficient with unprepared meat, so Katniss started doing it beforehand to make a better impression. Now the animals are laid out and ready for cooking as soon as we've left for school. I think Katniss growing on Mother. Or maybe she just doesn't hate our additions as much anymore.
She steps into the storefront and she nods hello to me.
"What did you catch today, Kat?" Prim greets her.
"Only three rabbits," Katniss sighs, holding them up by their ears. "The cold weather is keeping them in their burrows."
"A few extra carrots and it will still make five pies," I offer. She meets my eyes and nods again, and then looks away. I still feel badly for embarrassing her at school last month. We've not talked about it since, but she also won't walk with me to classes or sit near me during our midday breaks.
"Look what we've made," I hear Prim say eagerly, reaching towards the oven.
It happens before I can move or stop her. The old pan, the one I know how to hold from underneath because that left handle is warped and liable to break, snaps free of the tray as she pulls the beautiful croissants from the oven. It hits the ground with a raucous and lingering clatter, and the soft bread is mangled as they scatter in every direction.
We freeze in terror. Feet hit the ground loudly above my head.
I can't breathe. A whole batch of croissants ruined. What can I do? I'm still holding the rabbits by the ears as I hear Mrs. Mellark's feet reach the stairs. Should I try to grab Prim and run?
Peeta moves instinctually before my eyes. He grabs Prim by the waist around her apron, lifting her over the mess and trading places with her. She's frozen and poseable as a doll. Yanking the broken pan from her hands, he shoves her hands into the batter he was rolling out to cover them in flour. He covers his own batter-covered hands with the oven towel and tray just as his mother bursts through the curtain. Her hair and eyes are wild from sleep; her robe is tied unevenly over her flannel nightdress. Her eyes survey the mess on the floor, then our terrified faces. They narrow on the pan in Peeta's hands.
"I'm so sorry, Mother – the handle broke-" Peeta starts; gesturing to the broken pan he grips with the towel.
She stalks toward him, dangerously slow. "Sorry?" she hisses. "Is sorry going to pay for this ruined food?" Her fingers close around the rolling pin handle as she reaches the work counter.
"I'm sor-" The rolling pin across his left cheek stops Peeta's words.
I'm shaking where I stand. I've never heard such an awful noise as the one made when the pin hits Peeta's skull. I can't breathe or move or even blink. Peeta looks dazed and staggers. His eyes are unfocused.
"Get out! Get out of here, you worthless worm!" she's screaming at him. "All of you! Get the hell out!"
Prim runs from the room in tears, I walk numbly by Anise and she rips the rabbits from my still-clenched hands. I don't look at her, just drop my head and hurry to the basement. Peeta's father is on the other side of the curtain in his dressing robe and I hear him stop Peeta's uneven footsteps behind me to murmur something, soft and mournful. I keep moving.
In the basement, Prim's face is buried in her pillow to muffle her frantic sobs, little clouds of flour dust bursting into the air where her hands grip the fabric.
I pull her to a sitting position and push the pillow from her face. "Prim, it's okay. It's okay." I run my chilled hands over her face to soothe her hot tears.
"Why did he-" she gasps "She hit him with-" She's hiccupping and gasping, but I know what's she's trying to get across. Peeta saved her. We were never hit by either of our parents, even when we broke the glass fruit bowl our mother had brought from her childhood home above the apothecary shop. When I saw Mother crying over the shards, I knew it had meant a great deal to her. But neither she nor Dad punished us for it. They knew we felt terrible, and after all, it was an accident. Anise knew this was an accident and she still hit her son.
He's not in the living room to meet us when I've washed my face and hands and wiped Prim's face from the cold-water spigot in the basement. I'm far too afraid to use the bathroom upstairs, knowing Peeta's room is next to it. I don't know how to face him after what we witnessed.
His father appears at the foot of their stairs. "Peeta's going to be a little late today, you should go ahead to school. Katniss, would you tell Mr. Thorn to give you his assignments?" his voice has a pleading quality.
I nod silently. Savarin Mellark reaches out and squeezes my shoulder in thanks. He offers Prim a sad smile, then sneaks a few dried cherries into her hand as she steps out the back door. We usually leave from the front door, but hearing the baker's wife cursing from the other side of the curtain makes the longer route worth it. As we pass in front of the house, I can't help but look up at the window I know opens to Peeta's room. I can see movement, but nothing definitive. I feel sick, hearing the crack of that pin in my head over and over again. Watching him stumble and gasp in pain. I squeeze Prim's hand tighter and she returns the pressure.
I don't see him in our first or second classes together. My worry grows by leaps and bounds. My father had tried to teach me to play stickball with the boys on our street when I was eight and on my first swing I'd accidentally hit him in the head. I cried and cried as he knelt on the ground, holding his head and trying to tell me he was all right. I had to lead him home and he got sick along the way. My mother told me sometimes the brain could get bruised if your head is hit hard enough. She didn't think that was the case, I had just clocked him too close to his "balance bones" and he was dizzy, not brain-bruised. Either way, I never did play stickball again.
I walk outside during our midday break. The air is crisp, signaling winter is fast approaching. I pull my coat around me tighter and walk to the back of the schoolhouse. There's no one at the outdoors tables or blacktop I want to see. I kick stones as I move, wondering what I'll find when I return to the bakery tonight when I see him, sitting on the ground, back leaning against the schoolhouse in the cold sunlight. His head is in his hands and he's slowly running his fingertips over his forehead back and forth.
"Peeta?" I nearly whisper as I move to him.
His face pops up from his hands and he looks awful. His skin is almost green with the nausea, but the red cheek welt and purple eye make me feel ill. I can't imagine what the rolling pin would have done to Prim's delicate bones.
He says nothing and looks away.
I slide down next to him, but I can't begin to express what he's done for her. For us.
He ultimately speaks first. "She just worries too much," he's muttering. "She gets upset and things just…happen. She doesn't mean it."
"She hit you in the face with a rolling pin." My jaw is clenched. I can't listen to him defend her actions. He doesn't try again.
The breeze kicks up dry leaves around our feet and swirls them in tiny tornadoes.
"It would have broken Prim's nose." My voice catches slightly and I cough to hide it. I see him give me a tiny nod.
"I won't ever let her get hurt, Katniss. I promise." He's looking me in the eye. This finally breaks me and I cover my face as a sob escapes.
I feel his hand on my arm, but I yank away and stand up, forcing myself to stop the tears. He stands up and stumbles slightly. He presses his arms against the brick wall to steady himself and closes his eyes. I turn away from his pain to hide a fresh wave of tears and wipe my eyes with my coat sleeve. I shake the affect away from me and turn back to him with my usual expressionless eyes.
We pick up our packs and we walk back around the schoolhouse as the afternoon session bell rings. His ashy blond hair is messy, and I'm about to suggest he smooth it when the sunlight catches it. Strands of gold explode over his whole head. I never noticed that before.
I stop at the edge of the wall that would lead to the front doors. He stops too and looks at me, concerned.
"You should go ahead," I tell him.
"Are you all right?" Something about his worry for me while he's got a black eye is irritating.
"I'm okay. Really," I assure him. "But I know you need to distance yourself from me." It stings to say it out loud, even though I know it's true.
He sighs with exasperation. "Katniss, I don't care what these stupid people think. I want to be seen with you."
"You can't afford to. Not with that eye. Not after that fight with Shale."
"I said I was sorry!" He seems angry with me.
"No, no!" I cry out, pulling him away from the edge of the wall where our voices could travel. "I know you were trying to help, Peeta. I do." I realize I'm holding his jacket in front of his heart, and drop my hands. "And I'm sorry, too."
His face tells me he accepts my apology, but he's not moving to go inside without me. "Please go in. It's getting cold out here," I urge him.
He hesitates, looking from me to the front yard. "It doesn't bother me that they-"
"Do it for me." His eyebrows rise. "I'm used to what they say about me and Prim. About all Seam kids. But I don't want them saying it about you, Peeta." I owe him this much. My tone is firm. He looks defeated.
Nodding, he walks away from me and rounds the corner as the final bell is run. The temperature seems to fall ten degrees without him near me.
The evening meal around our table at home is unbearable tonight. Besides that it hurts to chew anything, Katniss and Prim are silent and stone-faced at the far end of the table, and my father's attempts at conversation fail again and again. I can see Katniss is angry with my mother, but she knows this is not a topic to bring up. When she meets my eye, I give her a pleading look. Please don't. It would be so much worse. Katniss drops her eyes to her plate.
"I need you to hunt this weekend." My mother speaking directly to Katniss jars me from my plate. She looks up sharply at the hunter at our table. "Marta's awful daughter finally had that baby and I want to take her a pie with venison in it." Even when my mother doesn't like another merchant family she has the sense to keep them in good graces. A business referral means a lot in this town.
"Deer?" My father looks up. "It'll be awfully hard to shoot a deer this time of year, Anise."
"Well she'll just have to stay out there until she shoots one, won't she?" My mother mocks my father's concern. That settles the meal back to silence.
It will be hard to shoot a deer. The ground is frozen in the morning, making footsteps louder and carrying the echoes further. It's bitter cold at dawn, and I know Katniss leaves well before then. There's nothing I can do.
It's dark when I hear her moving in the living room on Saturday morning; sleep escaping me as I think of her long day out in the woods. I know she's preparing to leave, determined not to fail at this task. It's probably out of spite rather than desire to please. I slip out of bed and pull on a sweater in the chilly morning air. I grab the small cloth bag concealed beneath my bed. I'm not nearly as quiet as her on the stairs, so it's not surprising that she's facing the stairs and looking directly at me when I emerge.
She's dressed to hunt with boots, extra shirts tightening the jacket on her small frame. She says nothing. What is there to say?
"I thought these might help," I whisper, stepping towards her. I open the bag and pull out a wool hat, fingerless gloves with a mitten cover and a scarf. Rye used them only one season for his disgustingly rich father-in-law decided to buy him outerwear that matched. She takes them silently but I can see she's grateful. She unzips her jacket and wraps the scarf around her neck, and I try not to stare at the delicate skin of her throat. Zipping her jacket back up, she pulls the hat on and then finally the gloves. She looks much better prepared for the icy breeze outside.
"How do I look?" I smile. She knows she looks ridiculous bundled up like that.
"Very fashionable." She smiles at me. I nearly faint.
"Thank you, Peeta." She turns to leave, gripping the door handle. She stops and turns back. "Really. For everything." She stares at me and I think she wants me to understand that she means it. Even being outside all day searching for one deer is better than what she had before.
"Be careful." I offer lamely. She smiles again, and is gone.
Sitting up the blind in the icy air for these seven hours would have been intolerable without this hat and gloves. I press them back to my nose for the twentieth time. I can smell the soap from laundry on them. I try to tell myself it's to cover up the smell of deer urine I accidentally sprinkled on my boots when I was only trying to get the tree, but I'm lying to myself. It reminds me of when Peeta has to reach over me behind the counter to retrieve an order from the top shelves and his shirt comes so close to my nose.
I pulled the gloves away and wish I could kick myself without scaring away a deer. Thinking about Peeta has started to frustrate me, but I can't figure out why. I decide to think about something else.
Letting my eyes scan the woods takes me back to Gale. How he had taught me to climb in the first place. The last time I saw him was at his wedding. It hurt when I realized I was too young to marry Gale. I had always hoped he would wait until I was older and marry me. He was such a good friend, and even though we were never romantic, I trusted him implicitly. He already adored Prim and would have let her live with us. He's a good husband to his wife and I envy her greatly. Her dowry was only modest, but it did help them set up the home they were assigned. I wonder if he ever hoped I was just a little older. We had such wonderful times hunting together but when he graduated that was over. He had to get married and start working – it's what everyone does. Well, almost everyone. No one will marry a Seam girl with no parents, no dowry and a sister to care for. The panic I can push away at school comes back.
I'd thought in the Home I'd have to get a job in the mines. It's unskilled so they'll take anyone. I'm strong enough for the work and it would buy food enough for Prim and I. But I hate them. They took my father from me. They buried my mother alive in sorrow. They cost me everything we ever had. And they are my only option for survival. How could one woman hunting bring in enough to trade for all the things a household needs? I think of how Savarin takes some of the cleaned meats to the Hob to trade for necessities. He brings me back a treat when he does as payment: a bit of goat cheese, new shoelaces, extra buttons. He's a man of excellent character. Like his son. I turn my thoughts involuntarily back to Peeta. In a few years, he'll take over as proprietor at the bakery. I wonder if he'd still buy meat from me when we're no longer in his charge.
It happens without my willing: I imagine living with him in the bakery. I see Prim lining up cookies on the shelves, wearing a dress that's only ever been worn by her. I lie in a soft bed, warm and fed. My mind sees Peeta lying next to me.
I shake my head violently. How did this dream trespass my thoughts? Marry Peeta? That's ridiculous. He's going to marry Satin Marshall if she has her way. And she always gets her way. She's the most desired girl in town with a dowry that would rival someone in the Capitol. And everyone knows she fancies being a baker's wife. Probably those peach cupcakes she's always stuffing her face with, I snort to myself. But then again, he definitely deserves an easy life after his mother's reign of terror. I feel foolish and embarrassed and glad to be alone.
That's when I spot the deer sniffing the base of my tree.
As I try to drag the deer, it's painfully evident this is going to take all afternoon. It's already been an hour and I've barely moved a hundred feet. Even after the field dressing and the removal of the organs, it's the largest thing I've ever killed and weighs far too much. I debate leaving it and going back to find a wagon or hand cart, but then wild dogs might come and tear apart the carcass, rendering it useless. I drop the legs and breathe heavily. I'm alone, what can I do? I look for a solution all around me, but the forest offers only further obstacles.
I hear the crunching of leaves and twigs coming closer and draw my bow and set an arrow. It sounds fast – is that more than one set of feet? The rhythm is all wrong for a pack of dogs. Maybe a bear? Wounded by the strange gait. My eyes are wide open, seeking out the danger when I hear the young voice calling my name.
"Katniss? Where are you?"
"Shhh, Prim you'll scare away the game." That's Peeta's voice!
"Prim? What are you doing here?" I call back, moving away from my kill. I'm still trying to figure out from where they are approaching. It's another five minutes before they move into my field of vision. They'd both be terrible hunters, loud and clumsy in the woods. But Prim is carrying a metal thermos and Peeta holds a paper bag and my irritation at them fades.
"We thought you would get hungry. Mrs. Mellark is taking a nap so Mr. Mellark said we should take a walk to keep things quiet. So we snuck you these!" she opens a thermos and I smell the mint tea.
"Katniss-" Peeta's eyes are wide. He's looking past me. He sees the deer. "You did it!"
"You aren't surprised, are you?" I challenge playfully as I grab the bag from him to see what he's brought. A roll, cheese and an apple. I pull out the apple and bite into it arrogantly. "That's why you hired me in the first place," I say with a full mouth.
We sit down in the clearing so I can eat before we three try to haul the carcass back. It will still take time, but we may get back before dark yet. Prim's energy gets the best of her and she wanders off to look for fresh herbs. "Stay within my hearing!" I call at her retreating braids.
I offer Peeta the last bit of roll, but he refuses, pushing it back into my hands. "You've earned it today," he smiles at me. I grin and shove the bread into my mouth. I haven't felt this good in a long while.
"I've never been out here, you know."
I raise my eyebrows. "Never?"
"Nope," he shrugs. "It's almost always been the shop or school. Sometimes the market square. I can see why you love it out here." His eyes follow the trees reaching to the sky as we listen to the birdcalls on the frigid afternoon air.
I sit back and admire it with him, listening to Prim sing a ditty to herself just out of sight.
"This is the only place I've ever felt happy," I say finally. "It's the only place I've ever felt free." I turn my face to his. "I'm glad I could share it with you." The accomplishment of the deer has made me brazen, I realize. What a daring thing to say to someone I barely know! I turn away quickly, feeling exposed.
"I'm glad too," he says. He shifts closer to me on the log we're sharing as a bench. We breathe in unison, sensing each other's attention. I feel guilty over my brief fantasy over marrying him, but there is something about sitting next to him like this. Alone.
Prim's footsteps hurrying to us bring me to my feet. She skips into the clearing, her arms full of winter berries.
"Nice work!" I declare too loudly. "Let's get moving; the sun won't last much longer."
Peeta is on his feet now, too. He opens the now empty lunch bag and Prim pours the berries into them. Handing her the bag to carry, he moves to the head of the deer and nods for me to take the feet. I'm thankful this task is going to take enough concentration that we won't speak for the duration home. Something about this boy has started making me anxious.
The sun is slipping beyond the horizon when we finally reach the back door. Shale's father spotted us at the edge of town and loaned us his cart in exchange for a promise to get the buck's antlers for tools. It was a fair trade; he didn't need meat and we didn't need those antlers. The door flies open and Anise Mellark is out the door hollering that we were gone all day. She sees the size of the buck and stops short. She stares and stares. Finally a smile spreads across her face. "Well. Maybe you aren't such a waste after all."
How kind of her to say. I turn my face to hide the scowl.
Savarin darts out the door, whooping with excitement. Neighbors' lanterns and lights are going on as heads appear in windows at the noise. Peeta and his father hang the buck off the porch to butcher and portion outside; it's too big for the small kitchen. Prim and I go inside and pull off my hat, scarf and gloves. Dropping them on the table, I pick up the cleaning apron and the set of knives and head back out while Prim starts dumping berries into a colander to wash.
I smirk at the crowd gathering around the Mellark's pig pen. Lucy must feel like a queen for all the people standing near her. Savarin is pointing to me as I pull my largest knife and start working, "She did it! This was all Katniss."
I flush with embarrassment. He's not my father, but I can tell he's very proud right now. I look at Peeta as I work, and he doesn't look jealous at all. He's looking at me, too. With something…something in his eyes. There's pride, yes, but…my stomach feels strange and I look back to my work. I hear people offering trades and coins for the meat, but Savarin is insisting they must wait in turn; we're still working. Peeta holds the limbs steady while I use the butcher knife to break the joints and then saw the meat free. He and Savarin take the smaller pieces inside. I wipe the blades, but I'll need their help to lift the remaining torso off the hook. They return and we haul in the largest piece to the table. Savarin takes the blades of me and with a pat on the back he says, "You've done your work, dear. Take a bath and relax. Peeta, boil some water for her."
Peeta hurries off upstairs and I walk downstairs to change into a robe. My clothes are filthy. Listen to Prim and Savarin sing in the kitchen eases the ache in my joints and shoulders. I stretch slowly, the crouching and dragging and cutting finally settling in my muscles and bones. Putting on house shoes, I drop my clothes into our wash pile and slip upstairs. I pause at the staircase to the second floor to spy on Prim and Savarin. She's tossing berries in the air and he's catching them in his mouth as he works. I couldn't have wished for a better guardian for her. I think back to that first day I met him at the Home. Peeta here tells me you're quite the hunter. The funny feeling in my stomach returns and I hurry up the stairs.
Pushing open the door to the bathroom, I'm startled to see Peeta. He's sitting on the lip of the tub, pouring a large bucket of boiling water into the cold water collected from the tap. The mirror is foggy and warm steam fills the room. "Oh, I'm sorry, I thought…" I stop. I have no idea what I was going to say.
"No, no, I just…" he trails off. "Try the water, tell me if you like the temperature." He moves out of my way, giving me space to run my fingers through it. It's perfect. I tell him so.
"Okay, well. If you need anything." He stops short. What was he going to offer? To bring me something while I'm in the bath? I'd laugh if I weren't so overwhelmed. I feel completely exposed wearing just this robe. I can see his knuckles are white from his death grip on the bucket. "Thank you for sharing the woods with me," he rushes as he darts from the room.
"You're welcome." I whisper and close the door.
I sink down in the bath until it covers my face and hair entirely. The water rushes around my ears and I listen to my heartbeat. Pushing back up with my feet, I rest my head against the tub lip and run my fingers over my stomach. A gnawing sensation is growing in my belly. I hear Peeta's footsteps going downstairs and feel daring enough to tackle the needs.
Sliding my hands between my legs, tentatively touch myself. Why today I would want this is still a mystery. My fingers press in, around, and I stifle my gasps. Small circles leading to intense pleasure. I hold my breath and other hand grips the tub and as I lose control I suddenly imagine sharing this intense pleasure with the boy with the bread.
Returning to reality, I again feel ashamed and embarrassed. I feel like I just used him in some way. How am I supposed to face him when we eat in just an hour? What if he can guess the splashes are not just bathing? I don't know why I keep letting myself feel this way. Ever since he took that beating for Prim he keeps sneaking across my brain. Pushing the thoughts from my mind, I wash my hair and soap myself entirely, willing to forget this moment.
Prim jumps into snow banks created as Katniss shovels Lucy's pen free of the drifts. The pig snorts, maybe in indifference, maybe in thanks? It's hard to tell with Lucy.
"Primrose…" warns my father from the door. "Help your sister, she's doing all the work." He smiles at her to let her know she's not in trouble.
She hops back up, still laughing, and grabs the shorter shovel. She's not as strong as Katniss, but her energy will be helpful.
My father turns from the window smiling and returns to the kitchens where I knead sunflower seeds into the pumpkin loaves. "This was always my favorite time of year with you kids," he begins. "I used to pick you and toss you into the snow piles out back. Do you remember that?"
"I think so," I say. "It was a while ago, Pop!"
"Oh, suddenly you're seventeen and you're getting too old to remember the good old days?"
I sigh at him in good humor. I know my birthday made him sad. He had even made a tiny little cake for me. We usually only have cake once a year, at New Years, but when Rye and Kirsch turned seventeen he had to make it special. Even with my birthday at the end of December we still had a separate cake. He wanted to make sure it was an occasion, my last year still being his youngest boy. In one year, I'd be done with school and learning the trade full-time. And maybe engaged.
"Well, I'm not the only one aging here." I thrust my chin out back. "It's Katniss' birthday. I was hoping," I screw up my courage, "we could celebrate hers too. There's a little sugar left from the Firth wedding, I could make cookies." It's a big thing to ask. I hope he has not figured me out, so I try to sound casual.
"I'm way ahead of you," he responds with a sly grin. I must have appeared surprised. "I got Aerin Landers to agree to push around our bakery cart tonight for a venison pie. So I can take a night off – and you can take Katniss to the winter festival."
It's all I can do not to shout and jump up and hug him. Instead I let a wide grin spread across my face. He must know what this will mean for her. Seam kids never go to the winter festival; I always got to go but had to work the cart my parents pushed through the streets, selling treats and collecting coins. It will be her first look at the food and singing and crafts and painted trees.
"With those venison pies we can afford to let her take a night off." He hears boots at the back door. "Shh – keep it a secret for now. It'll be a surprise."
I'm bursting with the news, but I keep my mouth locked shut as they tumble in, a mess of coats and scarves and shovels. As the curtain swings open from the gust of air, I see Katniss' cheeks are flushed red as she lets Prim use her shoulder as a hold to get her boots off. I turn away and wrap the breads in towels to rise. The curtain pushes aside and Prim's immediately at my side, her freezing fingers on my wrist to see what I'm baking today.
"Ah! Your fingers are like ice!" I tease, using my elbow to nudge her away. She laughs and sticks them under my sweater, poking at my stomach. I quickly put the dough pans down and play run away from her. She chases me into the living room where I collapse on the rug and she climbs on me.
"Katniss!" Prim squeals. "Help!"
She's suddenly with us, tickling my neck with her frozen fingers. I lift Prim up and lightly toss her onto the sofa into a laughing heap. Katniss slips away behind me, and buries her frozen fingers under my sweater into my back. Wrestler mode takes over at the shock and I roll over. One of her arms is pinned beneath me and I catch one of her legs with my other arms as I get on top of her. She struggles with a smile, but she's beat and knows it. We stop and the sudden silence is overpowering. I'm on top of her, one arm laced through her legs and my shoulder pressing her opposite shoulder to the carpet as we pant for air. I pull away quickly before I'm unable to hide my physical reaction to her proximity.
I should help her up, but I sit in our shabby armchair so my apron is draped over my lap. I need a minute. I will all my being that my father wasn't watching that display. A sideways glance at his face tells me he saw everything.
She climbs to her feet, blushing furiously, and takes the seat next to Prim. "What are you making? It smells wonderful." She tries to sound casual, smoothing her rumpled clothes and hair.
"Pumpkin bread. There was a bit left from the harvest in the ice chest. We put Prim's seeds in it." Prim beams at the news.
"It will be wonderful! I hope we have a bit left after the morning sales," my father interjects as he brings the girls mugs of tea. I doubt we will. If the bread is as good as it smells, it will all sell and quickly. As wonderful as the business has done since the girls came, I wish we could keep anything delicious on the shelves long enough to taste it. I've never eaten a strawberry mint tart.
"Anise!" My father calls my mother from upstairs where she was folding the washing. "The soup looks done, let's eat!"
She descends, arms red from the afternoon's work scrubbing clothes and directs the girls to set the table. Katniss hands Prim spoons and napkins and she collects bowls from the cabinet. She may not like my mother, but she does respect her power and watches herself around her. I prefer the free Katniss in the woods, the girl who laughs and teases me and still plays games with Prim than the serious, hardened girl she presents to my mother. She hasn't hit Katniss or Prim like she's hit me, but she has rapped Katniss' knuckles. Katniss dropped squirrel innards on the carpet and swore loudly one night and got a wooden spoon across her hand for filthy language. I was afraid she was going to lunge at my mother so I got quickly between them to help clean the mess and put distance between them. She has yelled at Prim to stop singing when she's got a headache, but Prim stays pretty quiet now when she knows my mother's about. With my father, she's free as a sparrow.
We sit around the table, dipping day-old rolls into barley soup, when Prim pulls a small packet from her dress pocket. "Happy birthday, Katniss!" she announces.
Katniss looks surprised. Then pleased. She carefully opens the packet. She pulls out a little white flower with a pin stuck through it. It had been coated in a thin layer of wax to preserve it. I smile; convincing the candlemaker to dip the flower was easy with Prim's smile. And a stolen cookie from the display. "Oh Prim, it's lovely." She pins the edelweiss to her shirt collar right there.
"Happy birthday indeed," my father says, raising his cup to her. I smile, and raise my cup to her as well. She flushes again and lowers her eyes, smiling to herself. "How about another surprise?"
I look up at Savarin, then Peeta. He looks like he's about to burst with excitement. "Peeta's taking you to the winter festival."
Prim gasps. "Really?" I force out. This is more than I ever expected. Frankly, I'm surprised they knew it was my birthday. Well, surprised that Sav knew.
"What?" Anise sputters and drops her spoon.
"It's for Peeta and her seventeenth birthdays, Ani. It's their last year as kids!" Savarin is standing his ground on this one. "I want them to have fun with their friends."
"With their own friends." She says. I know what she means. Peeta can escort me there, but he needs to be seen with his own class there.
"Of course," Sav agrees. Turning his head slightly, I catch him winking at me. Then Peeta.
I start to panic. Did he see me blushing and panting when Peeta pinned me? I've avoided as much physical contact as I can with Peeta, but the temptation back there to touch him was too much. I bite the inside of my cheek and sternly tell myself that won't happen again.
"Well then. Good," Anise seems to think she settled the matter, because she starts going on about some awful woman who lives next to another woman who has twin brats and my mind wanders. I'm overwhelmed with anticipation, I don't even want to finish this soup, I just want to get out the door and see what the merchant kids have been talking about all these years. The minutes drag by as we pick at our meals and I see Peeta's getting fidgety too.
Finally his father releases us from the table. I clear dishes as quickly as possible without breaking anything and run downstairs to change clothes. I want to look as nice as possible. Like I belong there. I sort through the bundles of clothes in the trunk. I only have two dresses; should I wear one? What about my good grey pants? I'm fussing between the two when Prim come downstairs, drying her hands.
"What should I wear?" I demand. I've never been this nervous.
"The purple dress. It looks wonderful with your eyes. And I know Peeta really likes how it looks on you. I can tell."
My face flushes. "It's not for him."
"Hmm-mmh," nods Prim, suppressing a smile.
"It's not! I have to fit in."
"I said ok," she returns, but I see laughter in her eyes.
"That's right," I grumble, pulling off my slacks and pulling on two layers of stockings to keep out the cold. I pull the dress over my head and Prim helps me zip up the back. I take out my hair and brush it, and then Prim re-braids it for me neater than I can do on my own. Lastly, I unpin the little flower from my shirt color and pin it to my coat lapel. I want everyone to see this lovely gift.
"How do I look?" I ask, trying to twist around to look at myself in our broken half-mirror.
"Perfect." Prim smiles. "Now go, the sun's already going down!"
I run up the stairs, hanging on to my coat. Peeta is already waiting for me. He's wearing a new shirt – a birthday gift from his mother and pressed pants. I try to control my emotions, but a giant smile breaks across my face and I can't force it away.
Anise fusses around him, smoothing his hair, reminding him to say hello to specific merchants and give her best to a select few. He nods at her, but I can feel him watching me as we don our coats and hats and gloves and boots. I wish it wasn't so cold; I think I looked better without these layers over my dress. But then it really wouldn't be a winter festival then.
Anise sighs and wishes him a good night, nods at me, then moves to the sofa to watch a silly program. Savarin hands Peeta a small bag and I hear coins jingling. "Bring something back for Prim, all right?" Peeta nods. He leans in and whispers something to his son, and Peeta's face turns bright red. He makes to say something but his father dismisses it and waves us out the door, telling us to go have fun before the night's over.
The door closes and I look at Peeta. He's still red, but it's fading. He looks back at me. "Shall we?"
We walk to the end of the row of houses in silent, but we're both smiling. I can't remember the last time I was this excited. Once we round the corner, Peeta coughs and I see he's offered me him arm. Out of the view of his mother. I wonder if that's what his father whispered to him. But why would that embarrass him?
I take it, as I've started slipping in the few inches of snow on the ground. We walk on and I will myself to not think of him the way my mind wants to. That we really are going on a date. That he will be able to laugh and talk and dance with me. Because we can't. Not now. Not ever.
I can't stop looking at her. She's alive tonight, like I could see electricity surging through her. I'm overcome, too. I have her arm and we're together, alone as the sun disappears behind the horizon and the moon rises on sparkling snow. It's like a dream. I hope it isn't. We slip along in the drifts, laughing when we come closest to falling.
She drops my arm when we reach the square out of the sheer awe of the place.
Little twinkling lights are strung along the edges from the shop gutters. The giant square is packed with people. Small children are clustered around toy makers as they demonstrate wind-up toys and set up train tracks. I see Aerin Landers overwhelmed by parents buying cookies for their children. A rich apple cinnamon smell hits me.
"Would you like some cider?" I ask her. She nods, still awestruck and unable to speak. I lead her over to the source of the heavenly aroma and hand the seller a few coins in exchange for two full thick paper cups.
She holds it, staring at it. "It's to drink, you know," I tease. She makes a face at me.
"I know! It's just…" she trails off, her eyes back on the square. She shakes her head, unable to phrase it right. "Thank you. This is the best gift I've ever received."
"After Prim's flower," I remind her, laughing.
"After my flower." She agrees with a wholehearted grin. "What should we bring her?"
"Let's see what there is."
We weave around the square in a grand arc, sipping our cider, dodging running children and pointing out funny games or toys. The moon rises higher so her hair has a silver glow while the twinkling lights reflect in her eyes. She looks like she's surrounded in magic tonight. Our eyes keep meeting, but we no longer look away. I'm feeling happier and far less nervous the longer we're here together. We linger by a group of carolers. She stands close to me. I think of how I used to hear her father singing to her when he walked by the bakery and I hope she's thinking of a happy memory. As if on cue, she smiles to herself. The singers start a new song, and I see she's finished her cider. I take the cup from her and drop it in the bin nearby. Then I take her hand and she looks at me, surprised. "Do you dance?" I ask.
Her eyes are wide as saucers. "Here?" she leans in so I can hear her whisper. "There are a lot of people here."
"Yes, there are." I move in before she can refuse and take her waist and start to move to the music. Just a slow, waltzing move. She's looking at the ground, then glancing over my shoulder nervously as we turn.
"Katniss, it's just one dance," I say. I'm bothered this is making her so agitated. I want her to like dancing with me. But she's not enjoying herself.
"I'm sorry," she says, pulling away. "I just can't."
I release her and she walks away from the singers. I glance around and catch a few eyes on us, but a juggler has just started up and most of the crowd is watching him. I follow after Katniss' retreating figure.
The crowd has begun to thin as we are coming up on a display of fine fabric when she suddenly darts from my side over to the bookseller.
I move to follow her when I feel a soft pull on my arm. I turn around, hoping it's not Shale. It's not.
It's Satin Marshall. Of course she'd be by the dressmaker's cart.
"Why hello you," she coos, tilting her head coyly. We've barely spoken and I'm immediately uncomfortable by her familiarity. "I was wondering when you'd turn up."
"Really?" I ask. My throat feels dry. Did I croak that question?
"Of course!" She smiles radiantly. "Glad to see you're free of the cart this year. Is your mother here? I'd love to give her my mother's regards."
"No, she stayed home tonight. It's just me and Katniss." I stop myself too late. Of all the people to say that name to, Satin will be the one to tell her mother I was there with a Seam girl.
To my fortune, she smiles graciously. Too graciously. "Oh Peeta, that's so sweet of you."
I shrug, "It's nothing. I mean it's her birthday."
"No, it really is," Satin continues. "It's so kind of you to teach Seam girls a little civility. You must have a great deal of patience."
I flush with humiliation for Katniss. I can see Satin's clean nails and smooth hands. She's never had to work for her meals, never gone without. I think of Katniss' chewed and broken nails and her calloused and scarred hands. Stomping the mud from her boots when she comes in from hunting. Her clothes stained by animal blood that will never be come free of the fabric. Streaks in the dirt on her face when she sweats in the garden. Satin has never shown up at school dirty, or underfed. Her hair and face are always perfect. I look at this clean face now, so close to mine but miles away.
She rocks forward on her feet and kisses my cheek, laughing quietly. Other girls must be watching her; she's marking her territory with me. I step back, nervous. I should know what to do, but I don't. Her friends are nearby and I see them watching us jealously. "I don't need patience. She's great."
Satin nods knowingly, as though she understands I must be brave. I want to scream at her, but it would get back to my mother too quickly and Katniss would be gone before sunrise. "Really. She's been a great help to my parents. And Prim's the best little sister I could have ever asked for," I smile.
"She is adorable, isn't she?" Satin smirks when she smiles. "Even if she's not your sister." She leans hard on the not. She's reminding me of Shale more and more.
She loops her arm around mine and pulls me into a stroll. I glance over my shoulder. Katniss' back is to me as she speaks to the bookseller about something in her hands. "I'm sure she'll make do without your guidance for a few minutes, Peeta." Satin's voice coos in my ear. "Let's stroll around."
She drags me away with my arm linked through hers, oohing and ahhing over things she sees. I wonder if she expects me to buy a gift from what she's looking at. But I don't have much in my pocket and I'm firm that I'm bringing home something for Prim. I decide not to offer. She probably already has one of everything she's pointing out anyway.
"Your birthday was last week, wasn't it?"
"Yes," I mutter.
"Did you get everything you wanted?" she sing-songs.
Besides the cake, I'm wearing a new shirt but that's still an extravagant gift for my family. I did get what I wanted, though. A memory of Katniss clearing her small piece of cake from her plate and using her fingers to get the last little crumbs of chocolate, a bit of strawberry icing on the tip of her nose. I smile at the image. "Yes, I did."
"Really? Because I had wanted to give you something too."
Time freezes as I see her lean towards me. She's going to kiss me. In public. My first kiss. With Katniss only twenty yards away. Katniss. I jerk my head quickly towards her. She's looking square at me.
Satin's lips land on my cheek. I pull my arm free and put my hands on her shoulders, making sure she's a full arms-length away. "Thanks, Satin. You're always so thoughtful. I better make sure Katniss is all right. This is her first festival." I have to restrain myself from running and I hurry back to the bookseller. I hear Satin sputtering behind me.
Katniss isn't looking at me anymore when I reach them. She's staring at the book in her hands. The vendor is talking her, but she's not answering.
"Miss? Did you want me to wrap that for you? Miss?"
"Katniss?" I touch her elbow and she jumps.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she takes a small step away. "What did you say?"
"Is this for Prim?" I asked cautiously.
"Yes," she replies, recovering. "This book has divots in cardboard pages. She can press leaves and write down the herbs she finds…" Her voice trails off. She shakes it off and says, "She'll love it." She gives me a flat, hollow smile.
I pay the vendor and he wraps up the book in red paper and white string. He starts to hand it to me, but Katniss snatches it from his hands and holds it tight to her chest.
I see a few sellers starting to pack up and suggest we should go; the moon is high in the night sky and it must be very late. She can't agree fast enough.
We walk in silence. She slips in the snow, but when I reach for her arm she moves away from me. "I'm fine," she says quietly.
"Katniss." I stop walking.
He's stopped so I stop but I don't want to.
Clutching Prim's book to my chest, I turn to face him. We're almost at the corner where his house would come into view. I'm sure he's stopping me here for a conversation I don't want to have. I don't want him to think I'm jealous. I'm not after all. Am I? I'm suddenly confused. Why am I so upset?
"What?" I ask, trying to appear aloof.
"She – it didn't mean – she doesn't mean anything to me." He's searching for words.
I am ready to run away from this statement. Why is he saying this? He looked right at me when she was trying to jump on him. Did my face betray something? I hope he thinks I'm just jealous of her status, not her and him sharing a private moment.
"It's none of my business," I say. He doesn't say anything, but is still struggling for words. I sigh. "Everyone knows about you two anyway."
"What?" he looks startled and alarmed.
"She's been saying she's going to marry you for three years. I'd be surprised if anyone in the District didn't know she's mad for you."
"They know she's crazy for me?" he asks. I nod. "What do they say about me?"
"What do you mean?"
"Does everyone think I want her?"
I search my mind. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say that when I concentrate on the subject. But Satin's usually getting her way despite what the other party wanted. Maybe only her opinion matters when it comes down to it. "I haven't heard anyone say that, but really, why wouldn't you? She's great." I try to sound like I mean it.
Peeta surprises me by laughing, "Yeah, great." For some reason it makes me angry. I want to shove him for the knot he's put in my gut. For ruining this evening. For getting under my skin and making this hurt so much.
"Of course she's great. She's got money, a great house, clean clothes, a perfect face. What more could you want?" I lash out.
He's not laughing anymore. "You think that's what I care about?"
"Why shouldn't you?" I'm on a roll now. "You're a merchant son. You have your whole damn life on a platter, don't you?" My voice is becoming shrill. I'm trying not to shout, or worse, cry. People are sleeping in the houses not to far from our face-off. "Well congratulations, I hope you're happy with that vain, selfish pig-!"
He's on me before I can react. His lips are crushed against mine, hot from the fiery words and burning with want. All my thoughts crash into one another and dissolve until my mind is blank. One idea floats across my brain: This is my first kiss.
He releases me. We stagger back away from one another. We breathe together quietly in the dark under the moonlight. We stare at one another, eyes wide in shock over what we have just done. It's practically a crime.
He finally breaks my gaze. We turn and unsteadily make our way around the corner onto our street. I see the lights in the bakery and adjoining homes and shops are dark and relax. He unlocks the back door and ushers me inside. We slide off our boots and outerwear silently and slip over to the staircases. I'm about to descend to my room when his hand finds my mine in the darkness. I freeze, terrified of what is about to happen. "Happy birthday, Katniss." Then he disappears up the stairs to his bedroom.
I tiptoe down the stairs, but I can hear Prim is snoring quietly. I prop up the book on the night table so the package will be the first thing she sees in the morning. I undress and find my nightgown where I left it at the foot of the bed. Tugging it over my head, I crawl under the sheets.
I roll my face into my pillow just in time and the tears burst forth from my eyes.
The ceiling isn't terribly interesting, but I am still staring at it an hour after lying down to sleep. I keep reliving that moment. Her eyes were full of fire, her voice rasping with anger, wild and captivating. I shouldn't have kissed her. But the more I go back to the moment the more I know I couldn't have resisted it.
I touch my mouth where it touched hers. Her lips were still moving when I had leaned in. I smile into the dark. Their warmth and softness. I'll never be able to look at them in the same way again. All of her.
I feel the stirring. It's almost pointless to resist. Besides, I reason, it will help me sleep after.
I slip my shorts down onto my thighs and think of her hands on me. Kissing her mouth, touching her skin. As I slide my hand up and down, I think of how she must feel under clothes. What it would be like to cup her breasts. What she sounds like moaning my name. I'm breathing hard when I imagine slipping fingers inside her, touching the warmth at her core. I finally release into my stomach as I imagine being encased inside her, sharing our bodies, releasing inside her as she writhes beneath me.
Lying back, I catch my breath and settle my thoughts. I grab the bath towel I dropped on the floor this morning and clean myself up. As I pull my blankets back up I return to thinking of her. What are we going to do now? What am I going to do now? I fitfully fall asleep.
The sun rises far too early on this Sunday. I feel like I just fell asleep and have to drag myself downstairs. I sheepishly find I'm the last one up and about.
My mother is speaking to someone buying morning rolls on the other side of the curtain. She's asking Prim to hand her some wrapping paper. I hear someone climbing the basement stairs and I see Katniss emerge, her arms full of refilled supply canisters. She pauses when she sees me, a shadow crossing her face. I open my mouth to speak, but just in time I notice my father is behind her with more jars.
"It's about time, young man. A night off doesn't mean the next day too," he scolds gently.
"Sorry, sir," I stammer, pulling my eyes from Katniss.
"Not at all, I'm glad you had a good time. Now go help your mother out front."
I slip through the curtain as the customer departs. "Good morning, Mother."
"So you did survive after all?" her eyebrows are up. "I'd assumed at this hour you must have fallen to some illness and would never rise again." She smiles tightly at me.
"Thank you so much for the book, Peeta," Prim chirps from behind the counter. "I can't wait to use it."
"You're very welcome, but your sister found it. It was all her idea," I smile at her.
"And all our money," my mother mutters. Prim looks uncomfortable. "Primrose, go help Mr. Mellark mix up more morning rolls," my mother orders. The small girl appreciatively exits through the curtain.
I take an apron off the hook on the wall and take Prim's place behind the counter. I check the ovens and displays when I realize my mother is silent and watching me.
"Is everything all right, Mother?"
"You tell me." Her tone causes me unease. "I hear you ran into Satin Marshall last night."
My stomach knots up. How did she already find out so early? Her friends must get up at the crack of dawn to buy bread when gossip is involved.
"Yes, she was at the festival. She sends her regards," I swallow hard.
"And?" my mother looks pleased but unsatisfied.
"What did you two talk about?"
I can't think of anything to say. "She wished me a happy birthday. And said she thought it was great that I took Katniss." I immediately wish I hadn't said that. Her mouth is forming a hard line.
"Oh yes. How wonderful it was you took Katniss. To show all the spectacles. To listen to the music. To dance with her."
Oh no. Someone did talk. I bite my tongue, feeling stupid and trapped. Katniss knew last night dancing was a mistake but my eagerness to impress her has doomed us both.
"I didn't think it would matter," I choke.
"Peeta," my mother sighs with frustration, "it does matter. It matters a great deal. You've only got a year to convince Satin you are worthy of that money. And no, Katniss doesn't matter to anyone of standing, but it just won't do to be seen dancing with another girl when you should be courting Satin. Young ladies can get jealous, you know, even if it's just a Seam girl. It would have made far more sense and a better impression if you had asked Satin to dance. I know you aren't like Rye and Kirsh, but you can still make a good catch if you put your mind to it. I expect you to try harder from now on. And you," she speaks with new inflection. "You mind your place as well."
I've been staring at the oven and I suddenly realize she's not speaking to me anymore. I look at the curtain and Katniss is standing there, holding a tray of morning rolls to go into the oven. She looks stricken. My mother continues, "Going to that festival was a privilege, and you threw it back in our faces with your shameless display. I know you may not understand manners or decency with your upbringing, but if you expect to stay in my home you'll learn what's acceptable from you." Katniss nods quickly, bobbing her head and averting her eyes in angry shame. "Good. Give me those." Katniss surrenders the tray and immediately disappears behind the curtain.
February is my least favorite month, I decide as I sneak through the trunks of trees. I wonder if I can even pull back the bow with my frozen hands. I have four squirrels hanging from the pack on my belt, but they won't go far. Mrs. Mellark will not be pleased.
She's been tolerable lately, but I'm still terrified of her. I try to avoid sharing a room with her. But not as much as I try to avoid Peeta.
If he does homework at the family table, I'll do mine in the basement. Even if I could use help I try to work it out on my own rather than approach him. I wish he'd just start dating Satin. He smiles and waves politely to her at school, but he still walks home with me and Prim. It would be so much easier if he were officially spoken for, so these stupid fleeting wishes would disappear. I can't escape that moment under the stars after the winter festival when for just a moment he was mine. I keep returning to that spot in my dreams, kissing him back and holding him there with me until morning breaks. But it's a dream and only that.
A rumble of thunder above me wakes me from this torment. A storm. Perfect. I turn back and start to hike towards town. I'm fairly deep in today, it's going to take some time to get back. I need to get to shelter before the rain starts or I'm certain to get sick from the cold.
The wind starts to pick up and I consider running, but with the light dusting of snow on the ground I could easily miss a root and break my ankle. I plod quickly and carefully, hearing another thunderclap chasing after me.
A drop hits my cheek. I can hear a light pattering sweeping the treetops that still have leaves, coming from behind me. I risk it and start jogging but it's only been a hundred yards when I hear a downpour start.
It's loud as I scurry along, trying to stay in front of the rain line. More drops have hit my face; I'm not getting ahead of it. I realize I'll get caught in this yet even as the trees start to thin.
I hear his voice from ahead of me to my left. "Peeta?" I'm so surprised I almost stop running.
"Over here!" He's jogging towards me with a knapsack on his back.
"Watch your footing, it's slick!" I call out, meeting up with him. We jog together away from the rain line. "What are you doing out here?"
"I heard the storm coming, I wanted to make sure you were safe!" he calls over the din of the rain.
"We're not going to make it before the rain!" I call.
"Not back to town, but there are some abandoned buildings nearby. We should wait it out there!"
"Ok!" I call and let him take the lead. We're nearly out of the trees by now and I can see the shacks he was referring to. My heart seizes in my chest, but he's reached out to take my gloved hand and pulls me along.
We reach the threshold of the ruined dwelling just as the downpour bites our heels. Peeta closes what's left of the door. I stare at what remains of my family's house.
I bend down and open the knapsack, pulling out the quilt I brought in case she was already soaked. I stand and put it over her shoulders, but she doesn't react. Her eyes are wide and circling the shack.
"Katniss? Are you all right?"
She shakes her head. She drops it to her chest and shudders. I'm startled to see her crying.
"What's wrong? Are you hurt?" I put my arms around her, but she pushes me away and runs further into the structure. The floorboards creak and for a moment I worry the ceiling will collapse on us. I follow her carefully.
She's in what I think must have been the bedroom. There's a metal frame but the mattress is gone: stolen or rotten away. A few personal knickknacks lie on the floor after a night table buckled. She's crying silently. I'm frightened for her.
"Katniss," I whisper.
She turns to me with heartbreak in her eyes. "This is it, Peeta. This was my home." She cries in earnest now and her legs give out. She sits heavily in a puddle of the quilt, face in her hands.
I look around me in horror. "I didn't know, I swear it! I wouldn't have brought you here if I did."
She nods through her fingers. "I know. I know."
I stand beside her and let her cry. She's earned this moment of weakness, surrounded in her ruined life. I don't know what to say, so I say nothing, hoping she'll take it as well intended.
"You're shivering." I didn't realize she had stopped crying. I must have been staring at the rain through the broken window for ten minutes; it's unrelenting. I take in myself and notice I'd folded my arms in front of my body and my teeth were chattering.
"I'm fine," I lie.
"Take the blanket," she says, moving to her knees to get it out from underneath her.
"No, no, then you'll be cold," I say, putting my hand over hers to push the quilt back to her.
"I'll be fine."
"You'll be cold."
She stares hard at my face, as though working out a difficult math problem. "We could share it," she finally offers.
I try to agree casually and take a seat next to her on the floor. We wrap the blanket around both our shoulders and try not to touch underneath it. It's warm under the thick fabric and I'm grateful.
"I always thought I'd come back here someday." She sees me looking at her. "After I got a job in the mines. I imagined Prim and I would come back here. I'd work and she'd look after the house. Until she got married, anyway." Her voice trails off and I hear a hint of wistfulness.
"Did you want to marry Gale?"
The question stops me short. I'm uncomfortable talking about Gale already, but with Peeta it seems impossible to get the words right.
"At times, yes," I venture.
"How do you mean that?" he presses on.
I shift on the floor. "I mean that I knew I was too young and had no money and it would never happen so I didn't think about it," I say sharply.
"You mean you wanted to anyway," he presses on stubbornly.
"I mean that unlike you, I don't waste time on hopeless cases."
He responds very slowly and carefully "What do you mean?"
This is very dangerous territory and I hesitate. My words are soft and measured. "What happened – after the festival- it was…a mistake."
"You mean when I kissed you? That was a mistake?"
"Of course it was a mistake!" I blurt out. I want to rip off the blanket and run away into the woods and never come back. "Why did you do that? Why do you pretend we have something when we can't?"
"Why are you saying these things?" he's yelling at me, his eyes are watering.
"You want to marry Satin!" I think I'm screaming.
"You want to marry Gale!" he screams back.
"I can't have you can I? I can't want you and you can't want me so just let it go!" I slap my hands over my mouth. What did I just say? Did I mean that? Do I want him? The meaning in the knots and anxiety and hunger sweeps over me.
"You want me?" he's not yelling, but it's as though he doesn't know how to ask that question.
"Why wouldn't I, Peeta?" I'm still shouting, but I can't figure out why. "I remember you helping Prim when those kids knocked her down. I remember you giving me a cookie on my sixth birthday. I remember seeing you in your doorway crying when they took us away from my mother. You took Prim's hand at school so she wouldn't be frightened or ashamed. You defended my honor from Shale in front of our class. You took a beating to save my sister. You're gentle and loving and kind and patient and you've given me everything I have, please don't make me want you too; I'll just lose everything all over again." The words are flooding out and I'm hearing them for the first time and know they're true.
He is kissing me again. Our faces are both wet from tears and rain and I taste salt on his mouth. His hands are in my hair and I slide my hands around his back to pull his body to mine. His tongue sweeps my lips and I open my mouth to him. This feels dangerous and thrilling. The rain pounds outside but can't compare with the blood pounding in my ears.
He pulls away just long enough to rasp, "I want you too. I want you." Then he's kissing me again and I can't get enough. I'm rising up onto my knees to push against him as hard as I can. I'm frustrated at the coats and scarves in the way. My ankle catches in the bunched quilt and I fall on top of him. He rolls me over and he's on top of me now and we're wrapped together in the quilt. I gasp into his lips as I feel his hardness pressing against my thigh. I know I shouldn't, I know I should control myself but my curious craving wiggles my hips lower and I spread my legs. He pulls away slightly, surprised. We look at each other nervously, and he shifts so he's between my legs. Even through our pants I can feel him. I stretch my neck up to kiss him again and lift my hips into him. He starts to grind against me. The rubbing and pressure makes me moan. This is so forbidden and new and exciting. I wish we were home in his bed. There are so many things I want to know that can't be discovered on a dirty floor in a house of sadness in a February thunderstorm. Home in his bed…his family.
I pull away and push him off me.
"Did I hurt you?" He's back at my shoulder, concerned.
"What are we doing?" I'm so sorry to end this exploration, but I'm setting myself up for hurt.
"I'm pretty sure that's called making out."
"We can't do this, Peeta. What would come of it?"
He knows my meaning. He sits up onto his knees besides me. "I want to marry you, Katniss. I really do."
"Maybe I could. Things have been going really well at the bakery, and it's thanks to you. We really could give it time. Mother would grow to like you more and more."
"We don't have time. You have four months until the end of school. You'll need to ask Satin's mother for her hand before the end of June." Her name makes me sick.
"I'd sooner marry Lucy than that vain, selfish pig." I laugh as he repeats me words from the winter festival. The night of our first kiss.
I hear the rain move away, running out its energy and slipping off to bother another town. I can't speak on this painful subject anymore. "We should go now. Before evening falls," I say, untangling my feet from the quilt and helping Peeta up. As he folds the quilt I collect his knapsack and my game bag. I hold the knapsack while he stuffs the quilt inside and pulls it over his shoulders.
I survey my lost home one more time. I'm glad I wasn't alone here. Peeta opens the door and steps outside. I turn to follow him. He's looking at me with a quiet smile. "What?"
He breaks into a grin as he answers. "I'm going to marry you."
Our breath is ragged as I pull Katniss' shirt up over her head. My father will only be gone with Prim for two hours at the most while they try to sell some of her herbs to the apothecary. Mother won't stay at the butcher's house the whole evening, either. We have to make the most of this time and we're rushing.
The late March air is still chilled and goosebumps bite her exposed skin. I wrap her in my arms to warm her as I kiss her neck and collarbone. She frees herself to yank off my shirt. I retaliate by reaching for her undershirt. She rests her hand on mine, holding it for a moment. I've only touched her breasts through her shirt; this is the first we have the time to remove clothes to see one another. She's nervous. I'm terrified. She takes a deep breath and assists me in taking off her undershirt.
I have to control my hands not to pounce on her. She's so beautiful when she lets herself be vulnerable like this. I ghost my palms over the nipples and watch her inhale and catch the tip of her tongue between her teeth. I put my warm hands over them entirely, rubbing and touching and feeling every inch. She's watching me with a slight smile; I must be gawking at her. I smile back and kiss her again, but keep my hands on her.
I feel her hands around my waist. She's slipping her pinkies into the waistband of my shorts, inching them down. I pull away and look at her. She looks scared too. I'm glad I'm not alone in my ignorance of these things.
I pull my shorts off for her. She stares at me. I feel self-conscious, standing before her naked like this, but something about the way she examines me with a shy awe is comforting. I'm glad she didn't run out of the room. Her hand tentatively reaches out and she raises her eyes to mine. I nod that she can touch me and when her fingers wrap around me, my knees buckle.
"I'm going to lie down," I pant. She laughs as I lay down across the bed by her side.
When I'm safely off my feet, her hands are back on me. She touches me all over, watching my reactions as I close my eyes and savor the sensation.
"What do you like?" she asks me. My eyes fly back open.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, when you…touch yourself," she blushes. "What do you like? I don't know what - what do you want me to do?"
I'm stammering with embarrassment. First to admit that I've ever touched myself but second to show her what I've imagined her doing to me. "Umm…ummm…"
"Show me," she says and takes my hand and wraps it around hers on me.
I close my eyes and lean back, guiding her hand. Her warm, alien hand under mine is soft against my skin. I try not to move too fast. I already know this is going to end too quickly for me. She starts to add her own rhythm, as my grip gets weak with pleasure. She sees the bead of moisture form at the tip and runs her thumb over my head, wanting to feel it. I jerk into her hands at the sensation, so she does it again, rubbing the liquid into the flesh. I'm getting too close and pant out, "Slow down." She complies, and I reach over to stroke her breast and she turns into my hand. As my gasps and cries are peaking, she slides her other hand to the base and below to stroke the soft curls on my most sensitive flesh. It quickly brings on my eruption. I grab her thigh too roughly as I ejaculate onto myself and her.
"I'm so sorry! I forgot to warn you!" I'm sure I'm bright red and I grab a towel to wipe semen off her bare chest.
She's stunned but smiling. "Peeta, that was amazing."
"Really?" I'm doubtful, but then again I do that fairly often and that was her first experience.
"I liked doing that to you." She leans in and presses her bare chest to mine, kissing me deeply.
"I want to make you feel like that," I tell her. She looks scared again but leans back on the bed and lets me remove her underwear. I kneel on the floor.
I was unprepared for how this moment would make me feel. I want to stare at her for hours, but right now I want to hear her call my name with pleasure. "You're so beautiful," I tell her. She smiles, looking relieved.
I slide my hand up her thigh slowly so she's ready when I reach her core. The wet folds are hot to my touch; I'm pleased I was able to ready her body like this. Slipping a finger over each fold, she squirms and sighs. Daringly, I gently push a finger inside her.
A small cry of surprise escapes her lips and her hips lift responsively, driving my finger deeper inside. I bite my lip at the thrill this gives me. I feel her from the inside, sliding my hand in and out and I use my other hand to touch her breasts and exposed skin.
"Show me how," I say quietly.
Her eyelids flutter back open. Her hands take my free hand to pull my index finger into mouth. She sucks and licks it gently and I quiver through my whole body. She slips my finger from her mouth and glides it lower on her body. She shows me the secret bundle of nerves and how to gently rub back and forth and the small circles. I comply and her hands fall away and she starts to tremble as I press more firmly. It's taking her time to relax and trust me, but I want to give her this.
I feel more wetness on my finger and slide a second in. It's tight and she cries out sharply. I stop immediately, "I'm sorry, are you-"
"Don't stop!" she cries out. "Keep going!"
I immediately return to my post and press two fingers back inside her. She's bucking off the bed and gripping the sheets. I'm staring at her core and feeling the heat when suddenly I remember a term my brother Kirsch used that I didn't understand until now. I replace my rubbing index finger with my tongue.
Katniss gasps and nearly sits up with surprise, but a tidal wave of sensation won't let her. She's saying my name over and over. I taste her in my mouth and throat and I am going insane with want. Suddenly she's pulling my hair and pushing into my mouth and my name is on her lips and she collapses onto my bed, panting.
"Peeta," she's gasping. "Peeta."
I lie down next to her and pull her onto my chest.
She runs her hand up to my hair. We lie quietly, floating back down to earth.
"We need to stop doing this," she mumbles.
"We'll stop tomorrow," I lie.
Sitting around the table for a morning meal is always unnerving after our secret trysts. We've been slipping away to the supply cellar, and recently to the meadow now that warmer weather is coming, for quick, fervent kisses and clumsy fondling. But last night was a huge step and I can tell she's frightened of where this is leading. I don't think she believes I'll figure out how to marry her and keep her out of the mines. But I will. Isn't that why I suggested Father take her into our home in the first place? Because I won't let her suffer anymore.
I try not to look at her as I pick at my food, but my eyes are involuntarily drawn to hers. She looks at me over her teacup and looks away. I avert my gaze and locks eyes with my father. He looks suspiciously at both of us, but is kind enough to bring up that he needs me back right after school to start on sweets for a new baby's naming celebration. Glad to have a distraction, I ask about what the parents want, what colors to use and so forth.
She avoids me again during school but I'm able to trap her in sciences. She had already arrived and taken a seat when I got there and was able to sit right next to her. She couldn't very well run away. I could see Shale Davis rolling his eyes at me and I stuck my tongue out at him. I'm starting to think he might be jealous.
Katniss rolls out dough on the counter next to me that evening. There's no time for a full dinner; the baby came a week early and the cookies are needed the next day. We pick at leftovers from this morning's rounds while we work. I cut out little shapes of rattles, bears and blocks and arrange them on the pans. Prim moves them in and out of the oven with such extreme caution I have to remind her I've checked all the pans twice myself. I don't think she was able to shake my being hit with the rolling pin. I can tell she's grown very attached to having a big brother. I'm enjoying it to. Especially giving the evil eye to the young boys that bring her flowers as we wait for Katniss after school. Terrifying them to make sure they treat her like a lady is going to be fun.
Prim is called into the garden to identify a new weed that has sprung up and Katniss leans in quickly to me. "It's her birthday next week."
"I thought so. I want to get her a gift."
She's about to say something when Prim returns with a handful of rosemary.
After the household has gone to sleep, I sneak downstairs to the basement. I tap three times at the door lightly. Katniss eases the door open and slips into the living room in her nightgown. We tiptoe barefoot to the sofa.
"Thanks for staying up. I know you're tired," she whispers.
"It's okay," I reply. "We don't have a lot of time to figure out what to get Prim."
"I want to get her something from the Seam."
"The Seam? Why?" I wonder if she is refusing to trade with the girls who look down on her.
"I don't want her to forget where we're from. To forget our family."
Something in me is conflicted. I'm glad she's never been ashamed of her family. She's never given in to what the rotten people in town say about. But the wounded part of me wants her to think of me as her family. I've promised to be. But I'll never understand where she comes from and she's pointing that out clearly.
"Okay, Katniss. I trust your judgment," I lean in and kiss her. She returns it gently. Then more deeply.
I knew we wouldn't stop this today. Or tomorrow.
She pulls my face towards her with her hands and I open my mouth to hers. She slides closer and swings her leg over my lap so she can straddle me as we kiss. I slide my hands along her thighs, feeling the smooth skin pebble with goosebumps as she grows excited. My hands reach her and I find she's not wearing anything underneath the gown. I pull away and grin at her. "A little eager tonight?" I murmur.
She puts her hand down my pants to find my erection and says, "Apparently so," with a smirk. She begins to pump her hand up and down and she returns to my mouth. In sweet revenge, I slide two fingers inside her and follow her rhythm. It's not long before we're both struggling to contain our gasps and grunts. She's hitching up and riding my fingers, making it harder to control myself. Watching her embrace her animal sexuality is enthralling. I grow bold and push a third finger inside her. She buries her face in my shirt to cover to muffle her yelp, but she doesn't stop riding my hand. She moves closer to me. I use my free hand to pull my pants free of my hips so her hand has better access to me as she picks up speed.
I think it was because we were so close and bucking so hard that her knee slipped and I was suddenly inside her. Just the head, but she yanks herself back at the pressure and surprise. My eyes were wide open and I was frozen. It feels like that night in the snow when we I kissed her and we didn't know what to do or where to go from there. But we're miles from that now.
She swallows hard. She's watching my face. I can't tell what she's thinking.
She moves back close to me and kisses me tentatively. She puts her hands on my shoulders and slowly, slowly lowers herself back onto me. Her fingers dig into my shoulders as the pressure builds, and I grip her waist at this most amazing feeling. She's breathing hard, forehead leaned against mine. I'm grunting and gasping, trying to stay quiet. It's delicious torture as we sit, joined, waiting until she's ready to continue.
I let her take the lead and she rises ever so slightly before pushing back down. She has to cover my mouth to muffle my sigh. Then slightly more, then harder. I'm fumbling to hold her now, as she sets a slow and incredible rhythm. I'm so close, so close, feeling her body, watching her face, listening to her quiet whimpers.
Before I end this too quickly, I lock my hands at her waist, stilling her movement. "Just a minute," I beg. "I need just a minute. You're just so beautiful, Katniss."
She smiles as though embarrassed.
I help her off my lap and pull off her nightgown. Tossing the pillows on the floor, I lay her down as I fully remove my pants and t-shirt. She opens her legs to me and I return to her, groaning in quiet unison as I set a faster pace. I'm trying so hard to remain gentle, but my body wants to devour her. She wraps her legs around me, tilting her hips to give me better access and it's too much. I pound into her for just a few thrusts, then bury my face in her neck as I release fully, moaning her name into her ear.
She holds me tightly as we lay on the living room floor, sweating and exhausted and wondering what on earth we are going to do now.
Peeta follows me along the path I remember well. I wish I was able to come here alone, but I didn't think it would be right to ask him for his money then leave him behind. I've never been given any coins by his parents, but his father is more than willing to give Peeta a little allowance. I'm sure he's figured out it's almost always going to me, but he makes sure never to mention it to Anise. She was angry enough about the book he essentially bought for Prim when she wants him to buy gifts for more worthy girls.
The houses turn shabbier and coal dust starts encase the houses more thickly as we walk. I see Peeta examining each dwelling we pass. He probably hasn't had need to come down here much, and the difference between here and the center of town where the bakery sits is staggering. Miners with dark hair and grey eyes watch us, little children with filthy faces run through the streets. I fit in easily in my second-hand boy's clothes clearly hastily altered to fit a girl's form, but Peeta's clean face and light coloring make him stand out like a torch in the dark.
We work our way over to the Hob, our little black market warehouse, and I slip inside. I haven't been here in months since I left the Home, but I see recognition on my old friends' faces. I nod in greeting, but I see they're concerned as to why a merchant is with me. They tend to turn in lawbreakers for bounty and prestige. I make sure he stays close to my side as we slip through the stalls and around countertops to the place where I hope I remember the fabric dealer set up shop.
I'm not disappointed. The ragged old woman is weaving with her gnarled hands at a small loom behind the table. The table itself is stacked with different bolts and scraps, uneven handmade lace for special occasion, and very tiny and costly pieces of velvet and tulle. I think of the families that must have grieved giving up the garments that became those scraps in order to trade for rougher fabric to cloth themselves. I wish I were alone now. These are my people, my tribe, and Peeta is trespassing.
He shifts his weight from foot to foot, as though he understands this. His eyes are covering every inch of this room, taking it all in.
"What do you want?" the woman's old voice croaks out from under a messy pile of grey hair.
"I want hair ribbons. Something in blue or gold," I reply, lifting up corners of the bolts to see what's underneath.
"Not you." She's looking up now and I can see she's speaking to Peeta. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm with her," he answers simply, gesturing towards me.
She looks at him distrustingly and at me disapprovingly. "You don't belong here."
"I belong with her."
She studies him with a long, hard look. He stands his ground and meets her gaze. I look back and forth between the two, not knowing if I should speak or take Peeta away from here.
"Ribbons are in the basket," she finally says, looking back to her small loom and starting her work back up.
Peeta doesn't look at me as he bends over the basket and starts pulling out swatches in every shade of blue and yellow he can find, laying them out in a line across the table's other displays. I wish I could stop watching his face, but he has surprised me yet again.
"I like these," he says, point to two different blue ones and one gold one. "I think the blue would match her eyes more closely, but thirteen is a special occasion, maybe we should get gold."
I again realize his generosity and he suggests that "we" are buying her a gift. He is buying a gift for me to give to Prim. It's a gift for both of us. Again. I'm sorry I wished he was gone earlier.
"You're absolutely right. The gold one."
Peeta gives the woman the coins she requests and she doesn't say anything more to him. She grunts as if to thank us for the business then turns right back to the loom once more.
"Did you want to see anything else?" he asks. "We still have some time if you want to-" he stops mid-sentence.
I panic that his mother has seen us together. I try to follow his gaze. But it's not Anise, but Gale, striding towards us.
He gives me a humorless smile. "Well, well Katniss Everdeen. I'd wondered where you'd gotten off to." His eyes glance over Peeta with an unwelcoming expression.
"Peeta Mellark," he responds, extending his hand to Gale stiffly. I realize I'm staring with my mouth open and I didn't introduce them.
"Oh, sorry," I mumble. "Gale, this is Peeta. Peeta, this is Gale Hawthorne. We used to hunt together," I manage. They shake hands awkwardly. "Peeta's family hired Prim and me to work."
"Work? Really. Didn't ever imagine you were much of a baker," he teases. "I seem to recall a bit of a disaster with you and cooking, actually."
He's referring to when I dropped the cookbook into the fire mid-recipe as I tried to read the directions. When my father fished it out of the coals, the top inch of the book had been burned away. It was fortunate my mother knew most of them by heart, and she re-wrote in all the missing ingredients and instructions along the margins in her clean, even handwriting. I smile at Gale genuinely, and he smiles back at me. Peeta fidgets uncomfortably.
"Why don't I let you two catch up?" he offers. Turning to me, "I'll see if there's anything else Prim would like."
Gale watches him as he folds into the other buyers and traders, scanning the booths for anything right for Prim. I watch Gale.
"So. A baker's daughter, now?" he turns back to me.
"Not really," I flush at his attention. I've missed him terribly. "More of a housekeeper. Gardener. Hunter."
"That's good to hear. When I heard you'd left the Home I imagined the worse."
""You could have come to look for me. Even visited us," I challenge him. I know he had wanted to. My comment brings color to his cheeks and he glances around.
"Let's go out back. It's too noisy in here."
"You know I wanted find you to, Kat," he says as we step outside. "But it's not like I could have just told Angelica, 'Hey, I'm worried about another woman so I'm going to skip work for a few days to make sure she's all right'. It doesn't work like that."
I set my jaw and say nothing.
"Katniss." I look him in the eye. "I did want to ask you."
I look away, shaking my head. I can't cry back here with Gale and then go back and face Peeta. I measure out my words. "If you could have just waited one year…"
"For what, Katniss? So we could have each other and starve to death?"
That hurts me. He's right. The only thing we could have ever brought to a union was companionship. But that's the only thing I wanted.
"How is your well-bred wife, after all?" I ask bitterly.
"She's good," he tells me. "Good," he repeats. He sighs. "We're having a baby."
I feel numb. "A baby?"
I don't know how to feel right now. The idea of having children had always terrified me. I remember telling Gale I didn't think I wanted any. After caring for Prim on my own I felt I knew how hard it was to make sure someone was brought up right, even if they were a good soul to start with like my sister. Gale was going to be a father. Suddenly he seemed like a complete stranger to me.
"Congratulations," I finally get out.
"Thanks," he smiles a small, secret smile. "I'm kind of excited myself."
He turns to go back inside. "Take care of yourself, Kat." Pausing, he comes back with "I'm glad the baker took you. He's a good guy. I don't know how his kid in there, but Savarin's got a good reputation with the boys in the mine."
"Peeta is a good as gold."
I think Gale wants to respond to me, but thinks better of it and goes inside, abandoning me again.
I sit outside for a long time. The breeze brushes over grass poking up from the spring earth. The late afternoon sun shines down but I don't feel warm. I don't feel anything. I'm so confused. For so long I had hoped there would be a solution for this problem I call my life. But it would never involve Gale now. I must have been holding on to the hope that he was the answer. For years now. I kick myself. Knowing him when my life was happier doesn't mean he was going to make my life happy again. That is true enough now. And maybe it was then, too.
I hear the door behind me open. I don't turn around.
"Katniss? Prim will be getting home soon." Peeta's voice is strained.
I stand and brush off my clothes. Taking a slow breath, I finally turn around. I meet his eyes before I'm ready. I can see from here I've broken his heart.
I'm an idiot. That's all there is to it. All these kisses, all these words, even giving one another our virginities and she's still pining after a married miner from the Seam. She doesn't even try to hide it, throwing it in my face. I'm so angry I want to scream, but what then? What would I even say? I'm the one I'm most angry with.
I walk back to town as quickly as I can. I can see she's struggling to keep up, having to jog occasionally. But she's not saying anything. Not denying what I saw when she looked at him.
We reach the small clearing surrounded by trees between the town square and my street. This is where we had our first kiss. I hate this place now.
I stop, hearing she's stopped, but I can't bring myself to turn and look at her. "Prim's probably back by now, we need to go."
"Look at me."
"Peeta, please." It's a whisper.
I do. She's hurting. I would feel badly, but I doubt it's for me. I doubt it ever was.
"I'm so sorry, Peeta. I am."
"Not as sorry as I am." I start walking again, faster than is comfortable.
"Stop!" She runs and catches my arm. I pull away roughly.
"Why? So you can lie to me again? Pretend you want to marry me too?" I'm hissing at her to keep from screaming. "You only ever wanted to marry me so you could keep Prim safe. You only ever kissed me, you only ever…" I'm unable to share that thought. "It was never about you and me. It was only ever about you. Was there anything you ever said that was true?"
"Of course! I did want you. I do want you."
"The hell you do. Don't lie to my face. You owe me that much." I try to pull away.
"Please, stop!" She's crying, grabbing my arm again. "Peeta, he was my first real friend. Why wouldn't I love the only person I could trust? But he's not the only person I can trust anymore. I trust you. I want you."
I look at her for a long time.
"I don't believe you."
She releases my arm and I start walking at a reasonable pace back to the bakery. I reach the door and hear Prim and my father singing a little song inside. I realize I've got the gold ribbons for her in my pocket. I sigh disgusted and sit down on the steps. I still need Katniss to give them to her. I can't be giving helper kids gifts especially knowing my mother is home.
She rounds the corner a few minutes after me. It's noticeable she's been crying, so she's ducking her head so no one will see her puffy eyes. She sees me waiting, holding the paper covering the ribbons and squeezes her eyes shut again, tears escaping the corners.
"Calm down," I tell her coolly as she approaches. "Prim will get upset and start crying."
She nods and steadies her breathing, concentrating and slowing down her heart and head. "Okay, I'm ready," she says.
I hand her the package and open the door and walk in ahead of her. Out of instinct, I hold the door open behind me, even though I want to slam it in her face.
"Finally!" Anise is upon us in a second. She furrows her brow at Katniss' red face. "What's wrong with you?" she asks.
"I twisted my ankle and fell," Katniss stammers out. I'm relieved my mother doesn't care.
"Oh, ok. Peeta, you have a visitor!" She immediately switches to a high energy, frighteningly perky version of herself. She steps aside and I see behind her, nestled on the sofa opposite my father in his armchair, is Satin Marshall and her mother.
"Go away," my mother whispers at Katniss. She complies, slipping into the storefront. I hear a concerned question from Prim and a muffled conversation.
Is this providence? I just found out I won't be marrying the girl I planned to for twelve years. A small, injured part of me is actually glad I can hurt Katniss the same way she hurt me less than an hour ago. On the other hand, I still feel like a cornered animal that been ambushed in the presence of these two women. I force a smile. "Satin, what a wonderful surprise."
I move over to the living room and her mother stands. "Oh please, sit!"
"No, no," she insists. "Your mother has offered to give me a tour of the garden your help has planted. I wouldn't want to miss that."
I reluctantly take the empty seat next to Satin. We look at each other; my smile forced and unconvincing and hers genuine and smug. We both look at my father.
"Well. I'm going to…go upstairs."
I have no idea what to say. The pleased part of me is retreating into a horrible dark depression as I sit next to my future on this patched sofa.
Satin takes the cue to start the conversation. "The peach cupcakes you make are my absolute favorite. Did you know that?"
I shake my head, although Katniss had made a joke at her expense regarding those cupcakes not three days ago. I had laughed freely at her then. It's not so funny anymore.
"I hope I can always have those. I'd like that a lot," she hints heavily.
"Satin?" I ask quietly. I wish we were alone. The curtain to the bakery is very thin.
"Yes," she purrs, leaning into my side.
"Why do you like me?"
"What makes you think I like you?" she smiles sideways at me. I'm getting tired of this game.
"Everyone tells me you do. Come on, I really want to know why you think I'm so great." I ask her honestly, hoping she'll see I do want to be serious about this. I need to know.
She furrows her brow, seemingly confused by the question. "Well…your brothers are very handsome. You're growing to look like them every day. I like how you look. And you've always got good manners at school, which is something I want my children to have. I want a boy too and your family line has always had boys. My mother tells me your bakery has been doing quite well, so I wouldn't have to work. I don't want to work, that's important to me. If it does well enough we can hire some real workers so you don't have to work all the time."
I look intently at her. "Satin, do you like me at all?"
"What do you mean? I just told you I did."
A screech and a clatter in the bakery have me on my feet. I run in to see Prim crying, the ribbons' wrapping still clenched in her hands. Katniss is yanking gold ribbons out of my mother's hand. Mrs. Marshall stands behind Mother, looking shocked and horrified.
"They're a gift! For her birthday! You can't have them just because your stupid daughter likes this color. She doesn't deserve them!" Katniss is screaming and wild.
"You ungrateful little coal brat!" I see my mother reaching for the rolling pin.
"NO!" I leap the few feet to her, pushing Katniss out of the way and wresting the pin away. I throw it as hard as I can and it cracks in half as it hits the bolted iron seam on the wood stove.
My mother is beyond words. I've never done such a thing, never displayed such temper. I hear Satin behind me, trying to make words but just producing little gulping noises.
I turn to Satin. She's standing at the curtain, my father visible behind her. He looks infinitely sad. I know it's for me. "Satin, I'm so sorry. I'll never marry you." My mother chokes down a sob. I look to Katniss. A tear rolls down her cheek. I look at my mother. "I'm so sorry, Mother."
Prim breaks first, wailing, as if she is unable to bear it anymore. Katniss steps over to her and presses her face into her collarbones, shushing and cooing to her, ignoring the rest of us.
Mrs. Marshall finally speaks up. "We're leaving." Satin is utterly confused, so my father helps her past the mess I've made.
"Thank you for coming," he offers. Mrs. Marshall scoffs and leads away Satin, dragging her bodily from our bakery. My father closes the door.
I can feel her eyes burning in me, even as I hold Prim. If she could push me into the ovens, she would.
When she finally speaks, it's a whisper filled with venom.
"You thieving little whore." The ugly words feel like knives. Even Prim is shocked enough to pull away.
"Anise, that's not-" Savarin starts, but she explodes away from him.
"You come into my home. I feed and clothe you, I let you sleep under my roof and you poison my son against me. You ruin his future. Was that your plan all along? Spread your legs and hope to trap him? She's pregnant, isn't she?" She's turned on Peeta now. "You stupid boy, you knocked up the help!"
Peeta doesn't answer. He's looking at his father. I think Savarin might now be wondering the same thing now that Anise has proposed it. We're two seventeen year olds that they've left alone more than once. I would have guessed it myself were it someone else's life.
"Yes." My blood freezes at his voice. "I've got to marry her."
Prim is staring at me in horror. "Katniss?" she whispers, pleadingly. I close my eyes and turn my face away. I don't know what to say right now. I hope she doesn't think I traded my body to ensure she had a roof over her head.
Anise starts screaming and lunches at me with her fingernails. "I'll kill you!" Peeta blocks her from Prim and me and Savarin catches her around the waist to keep her from damaging us.
Savarin tells us firmly, "Go to the basement and lock the door."
Peeta ushers us to the basement and clicks the bolt as we hear Anise collapse in screams and tears and Savarin speaking slowly and quietly to her. We descend the stairs, retreating from the noise. Prim sits on her bed in shock. Peeta sits next to me on mine.
Prim sets her jaw, stands up, takes one step forward and slaps Peeta as hard as she can across his face.
"Prim!" I jump back up and grab her by the wrists.
"You took advantage of my sister!" she yells at him, balling up her fists; ready to hit him again. He's stunned and holding his cheek.
"Prim, I'm not pregnant." She drops her arms, confused. "He said that so she wouldn't make him marry Satin. So he could marry me." My voice catches. Even after all of this, even after Gale, and his mother and a rich girl, he's still willing to marry me.
"Oh Peeta, I'm so sorry," she says, alarmed at what she's done.
"Prim, I would hope you would do that to anyone you think hurts your sister," he assures her. "I would have done that too."
She smiles sheepishly. "Still. I'm glad I can trust you with her."
I hide the blush on my face. We've fooled around on my bed right in this very room when Prim stayed after school to teach a music lesson to incoming eleven year olds.
There's a scuffle at the door above us and Peeta stands up, shielding us like he did that very first day. The door's locked but there are voices on the other side and the sound of furniture being dragged. Something heavy hits the door.
Peeta motions for us to stay behind and climbs the stairs as quietly as he can. Unbolting the door, he tries to push it open. Even from here, I can see it doesn't move. "Mother? Father?" he calls out, desperately pushing against the door.
We're trapped. I run up the stairs after him, but no amount of pushing will move the door. I have no idea how she wedged it, but I imagine the sofa or a chair is caught in the grooves in the floorboard. We're not going anywhere.
Her cold voice is on the other side of the door. "Yes, Peeta? What seems to be the trouble?"
"You can't trap us in here! There's no food!"
"It's only one night Peeta. Just one night until I can get to the apothecary tomorrow for some supplies to take care of this ugly little problem. Get some rest, I'll be down in the morning."
I hear her padding away, saying something I suppose to Savarin, the ascending the stairs to her room.
"Father! Father! Please help us!" Peeta is screaming at the closed door. I hear footsteps.
"Get some rest, Peeta. Good night, girls." His voice is defeated.
I turn to Prim, who stands gripping the railing at the bottom of the stairs. "What is she going to do to me, Prim?" Peeta turns to hear her answer.
Prim swallows hard. "There are a few mixtures one can make...I've never made any myself. It makes you very, very sick. Sick enough to…but..." she's having trouble "It's very hard to mix. If it's too strong it can ruin…or ..." She breaks down and cries silently. I know what she can't say. If it's not perfect, whatever concoction I'll be fed it would destroy my womb. Or kill me.
Peeta turns back to the door. "I lied!" He's pounding his fists on the door. "She's not pregnant! Father, I lied!"
"Peeta, they're not going to believe you now," I say gently, laying my arms across his to lower them from the door.
"Katniss," he says frantically. "She's going to kill you. I have to stop her."
"You don't know that," I try to soothe him, masking my terror. "That doesn't always happen."
"We'll never have children, Katniss. I can't let her take that from us."
I can't speak after he says this.
He pounds on the door a little longer, but no one comes to our rescue. The sun sinks on the horizon. I wonder if anyone will notice when we don't turn up for school tomorrow. Probably only Satin. And I'm sure she wishes I was dead anyway.
Emotionally exhausted, Prim starts to fall asleep about thirty minutes later propped at the bottom of the stairs. Peeta helps me lift her into her bed, removing only her shoes. She's clutching the gold ribbons in her hands. We sit across from her and watch her sleep.
"Peeta?" I whisper.
"Yes?" He moved his lips to my ear to keep quiet.
"Do you think I'd be a good mother?"
I feel him smile against my ear. "You're the only mother I want for my children." I want to cry.
"I'm so sorry I've ruined your life."
He pulls back enough to look into my eyes. "You are my life. Besides, I'm pretty sure I've ruined yours too."
"Probably. We're a good match after all."
We laugh quietly, unable to do anything else. Peeta stares off at the storage area, the sacks and glass jars and spilled flour.
"Do you still have your knapsacks?" he whispers after a pause.
"From the Home? Yes, they're in the trunk."
"What?" I'm not sure where he's going with this.
"When they open that door tomorrow morning, I'll hit them with a bag of the glass jars filled with flour to give them some weight. It should keep them down long enough for us to get a running start."
"Where will we go?"
"Where did you say they took your mother?"
We pull the filled packs onto our backs and settle back, sitting but leaning back to keep strain off our shoulders until we're ready to run. Peeta grips his bag of weapons in his hand as he reclines next to me. I chase after sleep, but it evades me. I step on its tail only to wake as Peeta tosses next to me. I'm grateful I was not asleep when I hear to sofa start to pull away from the door as the first grey light of dawn is peaking over the window.
He's on his feet at the bottom of the stairs as I wake Prim by covering her mouth. She jumps awake and I motion for her to get up and stay silent. She's on full alert right away as we creep to the door.
Peeta makes sure we're in position as he silently slides the bolt out of place. The sofa grinds against the floor, then stops. Whoever is moving it is alone. They have to stop and adjust it to move again. Finally, the noise ceases. The door begins to creak open.
Peeta lunges at the door in the darkness and knocks it into the other party on the other side. He's through the door and I've lost sight of him but I hear a commotion. I grab Prim's hand and race up the stairs. Someone's on the floor, I guess it's Anise, and Peeta is grappling with her for the bag. I shove Prim around the figure towards the back door, but Anise grabs my ankle and I fall, heavily on top of her. Peeta has the bag away, but now he can't swing it for risk of hitting me.
It's not Anise. It's Savarin.
"Peeta, don't. I'm not going to hurt her."
Peeta doesn't release the bag of flour jars. "Let her go," he demands.
"I'm not keeping her. Katniss, get up."
I stand up carefully and back away to Prim. Savarin tries to stand but Peeta orders him to stay down.
"Peeta, I came to help you."
"Why should I believe you? You locked us in the basement!"
"I had to make sure your mother thought I was on her side or I couldn't have slipped her Prim's sleep syrup."
We exchange looks of surprise. "You drugged Mother?"
"And packed you a bag."
The rising sun reveals a larger knapsack than my own sitting by the door. Another canvas bag sits next to it; a loaf of bread sticking out of the top signals it's full of food.
Peeta helps his father to his feet. "Father, I'm so sorry. I thought Mother was going to kill her."
"I know, I know. I…did too. Your mother wants more for you than she got and…well…the older she gets the more desperate she is for the life she knew. I didn't have the heart to tell her you didn't want that. I failed you in that way. I know you, Peeta. You're my son. You're my best."
Peeta has tears in his eyes. I do too.
"I'm not pregnant," I blurt out. I needed him to know I didn't use his favorite son.
Savarin turns to me. "That is a relief to hear. I couldn't tell if Peet here was lying for you. Not that I wouldn't be happy for you," he adds quickly. "You're just a little young to take on a big thing like that." He smiles. "Also, please get married first. Wherever you go. The way you two sneak around she'll be pregnant before summer."
Prim's eyes go wide and she glares at Peeta. When he refuses to meet her eyes, she glares at me. "Sorry," I mumble to her, eyes on the ground. "I really like him."
Savarin stifles a laugh. "Let's get you to the train station."
Peeta carries his pack and Prim's while she carries the bag of food, picking at the bread in defiant anger at us for lying earlier. Savarin walks a little behind, next to me.
"I am sorry I'll miss your wedding, you know."
I smile sadly at him. "I am too. You've been wonderful to us, Mr. Mellark. I don't think I could ever repay all you've given us. Especially Peeta," I add softly.
"In all honesty, I knew what I was getting into when we brought you home. Peeta's not exactly hard to read. He hadn't shut up about you for ten years. Still hasn't actually."
I grin as I watch him ahead of us.
"Katniss, do you love him?"
I look at Savarin to make sure he's serious. He's dead-on. "Peeta really is my best. And I'm letting him go because he loves you enough to give up everything. Would you do the same for him? I can't let you break his heart."
"Yes," I whisper, choking back tears. "I love your son. I love Peeta." There's something wonderful about admitting it after all this time.
Savarin smiles, "And I love you, my newest daughter-in-law." I grin. I like that idea.
We reach the station just as the sun is climbs over the horizon. The morning is bathed in a beautiful orange gold glow.
We're the only ones on the platform when the early train pulls in. Savarin gives us money for our passage, but refuses to let us tell him where we're going. "I don't want to slip up and mention it before you have time to make your life there." We sadly agree that this is a good idea.
I hug him farewell, clinging to this moment. Peeta hugs him fiercely and thanks him for everything, promising to return. Savarin shoos us away so he can pick Prim up and swing her around. He's been a father to her and she cries and cries until finally we have to pull her away. He waves tearfully, then strolls away from the station, whistling to himself. We watch him go.
The train is old and the peeling seats are patched with thick construction tape. It smells terrible and mildewy and coal dust covers everything. Prim paces the aisles, bored and nervous. I'm surprised to find myself nodding off before I remember I hardly slept.
I slump down in the seat and lean my head against Peeta. "Peeta?"
"Hmm?" He sounds tired too.
"What if she's not there?' We've slapped together a rash plan to find my mother, hoping somehow she's recovered enough in these five years to take us in. Or rather, Prim is hoping she's herself again. I'm hoping that she's actually there. That she's actually still alive. I'd never told Prim my doubts and it seems foolish to burden her now that we're on the train.
"We find our own home then." I feel comforted. I know he'll take care of us.
My dream is hazy, somewhere caught between the movement of the train and the pull of the ocean. The train rolls along the shoreline, and the ocean that stretches in view of my window is the color of Peeta's eyes. I spot a child alone on the beach and find myself searching the horizon for his mother. As he walks into the waves, I panic and yell for the train to stop. I'm off the train without remembering how I jumped or stepped down, running for the light haired boy, calling for him to wait. I reached him and catch his hand. He turns to look at me and I'm startled by own grey eyes. He smiles a very familiar smile and reaches up to me.
The train will take two days to reach District 4. I can't bear the wait and alternate between boredom, anxiety and fitful sleep.
Falling out of the seat wakes me up as the train screeches to a halt for a fuel refill. Peeta laughs as he helps me back up and Prim offers us some food from the pack.
"Where are we?" I ask, yawning and rubbing my eyes.
"Pretty close. We should be to 4 in about two hours."
I'm anxious to get there and find myself picking through the packs, looking for nothing in particular and finding it. The countryside seems to drag by as we start back up, and I stare out the window with trepidation.
We roll into the station at District 4 and I see sand and driftwood on the streets and smell salt in the air. Disembarking, Peeta helps Prim and me down onto the platform.
"Where should we start?" asks Peeta.
"Let's go find their Justice Building. They must have a record keeping department."
We walk through the streets and I find that none of us fit in. While Peeta and Prim's blond hair may be seen in the majority of the District 4 townspeople, their fair and untanned skin makes them appear ghostly compared with these strangers. I'm glad my olive skin is naturally darker, but I don't have the healthy glow of these people who have lived their life in sunshine. I ask a girl about my age where to find the Justice Building and she gives me a once-over before pointing it out behind us. I see her raise her eyebrows to her brother or boyfriend as they continue on their way, carrying a bucket of oysters in cold water between them.
"I think we're going to have to learn to swim, Prim," Peeta says.
"I can a little, but I don't have much practice," she reveals. "These people move like fish."
"I don't know of any baked goods that contain seafood," he trails off, looking at storefronts. Maybe for employment signs.
We climb the marble steps to the large official building and find with all the windows open, it's very like being outdoors inside. Not at all like our musty government house at home.
I spot someone in a jacket with a District 4 emblem on the sleeve and ask him for the hall of records.
"Are you residents?" he asks, looking at our bags and guessing not.
"We hope to be," answers Peeta, trying to offer a winning smile and taking Prim's hand.
"My mother lives here," I answer.
"Really?" his eyes are suspicious. My palms are sweating. "Is she expecting you?"
"Um, no," I stammer. I'm suddenly afraid that we're going to be thrown out and put back on the train. I don't know their way of running things here and I have the sense I'm getting it wrong.
"We've lost our home and business in a fire," Peeta steps in. "We didn't have any way to call her, but she's all we have left."
"That's terrible news. And you are…?" the officer asks.
"I'm her husband," he says, nodding towards me. "This is my sister, Prim."
The guard eyes me and looks at Prim. She can easily pass for Peeta's sister, even though her features are shaped like mine.
"Married a bit young, ey?" he smiles.
"Eighteen's not so young in District 12," I shrug. "We don't live as long there. We wanted to start a family soon," I say, patting my womb and hoping he takes the hint.
"Well, you'll need to fill out some paperwork to get registered here," the guard says, heading to a wall of shelves stacking with different colored forms. I feel relieved. He bought our story. "You don't still have your marriage certificate, do you?"
"Um, no. Most everything burned," I reply.
"Here's a replacement application, you can turn it in with your other paperwork. Let's find your mother." He heads off and motions for us to follow.
I stumble along after him, clutching the application in my hand. Was it really only last night that I accepted Peeta would really marry me? And now we're here, twelve hours later, holding the very forms to make it a reality. I lied and told the officer I was eighteen, which in fact is still a bit young to marry, even in 12. But I'm seventeen. Seventeen suddenly seems very young right now.
Prim's hand finds mine and I'm back to the moment. The guard has handed us off to a plump woman wearing tiny starfish earrings who is digging through a card catalog behind her. "Lavendar Everdeen?" she repeats.
"Yes," says Prim firmly. "She moved her about five years ago."
"Without you?" she raises her eyebrows at us.
"I was spoken for," I croak out. "We stayed with my fiancé. Um, my husband," I saw, indicating Peeta. The words are sounding foreign and strained.
"Oh, how sweet," she squishes her face in a smile and continues her search. As the minutes pass, my hope sinks. The attendant closes one drawer and starts in on another.
Peeta puts his arm around my shoulders and whispers, "It'll be okay. Even if she's not here, we'll be okay."
"I know," I whisper back. "You're here." I smile at him gratefully.
"12 Sandy Point Road!" the woman cries out, making us jump. "Sorry about that, I had her filed under L instead of E. Let me write this down for you. It's only about a mile from here, truth be told. Do you need a carriage called?"
"No, thank you. We'll walk," I say, trying to contain my pounding heart.
I need the walk to calm down. Even Prim is silent with fear of the unknown as we follow the directions the woman gave us. I haven't seen Mama in five years. What if she doesn't recognize us? What if she doesn't know us anymore?
The sun has passed overhead and it is early afternoon when we reach the break in the row of houses that should take us onto the boardwalk known as Sandy Point Road. I gasp at the sea stretching out in front of us. It is the same endless blue as Peeta's eyes. Rolling and waving at us without boundary. A cool breeze cradles my face and the salt stings the tears that are filling my eyes. "It's so beautiful," is all I can say. Peeta squeezes my hand and I know he feels the same.
"Is that Mama?" Prim asks in a hushed voice.
We follow her pointing finger to a house weathered by salt air just four doors away from us. A woman with graying blond hair pulled back in a loose braid is sitting on a chair, book in her lap, but her eyes are on the ocean. She is adrift in daydream and looks as though she has lost something very important to her.
We walk cautiously toward this woman, but before we've even moved twenty feet I know it's her. I know her face, her hands. I hope she knows us.
Her dream breaks as our approaching footsteps creak the worn floorboards of the boardwalk. She looks over at us. Her mouth opens, but no words come out.
She staggers to her feet, book falling to the floor and slamming shut. We all stop moving. I don't think I'm ready for whatever is about to happen.
"Katniss? Is that you? Prim? Is that my baby?" her hands are shaking and she looks fearful that she has gone insane.
"Mama?" Prim is barely audible. I can't speak at all.
"Prim!" My mother cries out and runs towards us. Prim tears away from me and jumps into her mother's arms. I realize I'm crying. "Katniss!" She pulls me towards her and I wrap my arms around her and Prim together. She's wailing "They told me you were gone. That you'd died and I didn't remember it. That I imagined you," she sobs.
"We're here, Mama," I tell her. "We're real."
"My babies," she cries, holding us and rocking us.
We stay locked together for a long, long time. The sun beats down on us, warming me inside and out.
Finally she pulls back, wiping her eyes on her sleeves. "Let me look at you," she beams. "Oh Katniss, you're so beautiful. And Prim, what a lady you've become," she dotes over us. "I can't believe I'm looking at my daughters again." Her smiling eyes drift over my shoulder. "And who is this young man?"
Peeta has clearly been crying for us, but now he smiles awkwardly and steps forward. "Mrs. Everdeen, I'm Peeta Mellark," offering his hand.
"Savarin's boy?" she looks confused, but takes his hand warmly.
"We're…," I start. I want to tell her our good news, but I realize I will have to tell her the bad news with it. "Mama, we had to leave 12."
"Had to leave?" She continues to look baffled.
"It's a very long story," starts Peeta. He's looking a little worried.
"Come inside," my mother says gently yet eagerly, taking Prim's bag and showing us into her home.
It's small but perfectly cozy. A thin layer of sand coats the floor, but there are no rugs, just uneven boards so it slips between and creates sparkling patterned lines. Sparsely decorated with shells and driftwood, the front windows face the ocean as sun pours in.
"It's a bit leaky when a storm blows in, but for most of the year it's very peaceful. I thought I was going to be here alone forever. I'm so glad I was wrong," she sighs.
She leads us to a narrow staircase off the small sitting room that leads up to the upper floor and sets down our packs in a spare room filled with half-arranged jars of herbs and potions. It appears she still remembers her apothecary training. "I'm afraid I don't have a spare mattress, but I can get one in town tomorrow morning. I'll need to fix up this room for you girls again," she smiles, imagining our old home. I flash back to Peeta holding me, our grappling with our lust under the quilt in my abandoned room in District 12. "Peeta, I'll set up the couch for you downstairs."
He's nodding to the arrangement when Prim blurts out, "Mama, they're engaged."
She stops short and looks at us with her eyebrows arched. "This is going to be a long story, isn't it? Come on downstairs, I'll make tea."
She sits wordlessly as I explain the story; omitting all the references to the private moments I shared with Peeta for her sake and Prim's. When I've finally run out of things to say, she clears her throat.
"Well, I suppose I could have guessed this would have happened, really."
"I'm sorry?" I have no idea what she means.
She nods towards Peeta. "Do you remember when you first met me, Peeta?"
He shakes his head.
"It was Katniss' first day of school – well, yours too – and Savarin, your father, came over to greet me at the school yard gate. He and I were dear friends in school, you know. Well, you were with him and he had given you a cookie to calm your nerves, and you just stood there holding it, staring at the little girl with me."
I turn my head to Peeta. I see a recognition come to his eyes, like the memory is emerging from a mist.
"And you stuck out your little hand and gave her the cookie. She hadn't had one before, so she didn't know what it was and was a little alarmed by your boldness," my mother laughs. "But I told her it was a gift and she did take it and thanked you, though I still think you puzzled her."
"The bell rang then and I sent Katniss in. Savarin told you to go in, but you stopped a few steps away and turned around and ran back to me. You told me, 'I'm going to marry your daughter' and then ran into school."
I gawk. "Peeta, did you really say that?"
"I think I did," he smiles, trying to pull the far-lost memory forward.
"He most certainly did. Savarin and I actually talked about it many times after that, any time I visited the bakery I asked how my future son-in-law was and he asked about his daughter-in-law."
So Savarin knew the entire time why Peeta had suggested Prim and me be taken in. Why he'd taken the blow for Prim. Why we would take walks alone together. I'm ashamed I ever doubted him. He always did love me as a daughter.
Night is staring to fall and I feel my eyelids grow heavy.
"Well, Prim, I think under the circumstances you should share my room with me and we'll give Peeta and Katniss the spare room?" Prim nods with a sleepy smile.
Peeta heads upstairs to set up bedding on the floor and Prim follows him, tripping on her feet. I clear the table with my mother, and as we reach the stairs, I feel her hand stroking my hair. She's giving me a very sad smile.
"What is it, Mama?"
"You're so grown up. I missed so much of your childhood. You're a woman that's found me, Katniss."
I feel tears coming and hold her. She holds me and I feel treasured. Pulling back, I see a question on her mind.
"You're not pregnant, are you?"
"Mama!" I'm shocked at why she's asking this. I told her Peeta had lied to his parents outright.
"I want to make sure you're marrying for the right reason. I want you to be as happy as I was with your father."
The relief that she can say his name without a meltdown makes me forgive her. "I love him, Mama."
She smiles, "I know."
I awake from a sound sleep with a terrible need to vomit.
My father is finally able to find us about five months later. He tells my mother he's going to visit a cousin who's ill and hops a train to meet us.
When he sees Katniss' swollen belly under her mother's old dress he laughs until he cries. Shouts of "I knew it!" echo across the train station and Katniss' face burns red. She tries her hardest not to draw attention to herself in town, but my father can't stop ribbing her and rubbing her stomach. It was very fortunate we married so quickly after arriving in 4, we can play it off that she wasn't pregnant when we left Twelve.
Lavender has to pull Savarin from the station he's still laughing at our obviousness. Wiping tears from his eyes, he wraps an arm around Katniss as we walk to Lavender's house through town so I can show him the lone village bakery where I've found a great deal of work. The owner has twin infant daughters and had lost his wife's assistance to their demanding care. Telling him I was expecting one myself bonded us as friends in new fatherhood instantly.
"I didn't know," she says, still embarrassed a half-mile later. "I really didn't. I wouldn't have lied to you."
"Oh Katniss, I'm happy for you. You have a world of work ahead of you if you end up with a typical Mellark boy, I'll tell you that."
Katniss grins. "I'm pretty sure I'll have another atypical Mellark boy."
I smile overhearing their conversation. "Oh don't get too cocky, my boy. Well behaved doesn't mean easy to raise." Father releases Katniss to poke at me.
"I can't imagine any child will be worse than me or Katniss."
Lavender laughs. "Oh the stories I have of Katniss!"
Katniss sighs and rubs her stomach. "Don't you listen to them. You'll be an angel."
Reaching Lavender's house, she guides my father in to settle. We received our home assignment closer to town last month, but we still prefer to sit on the boardwalk here, watching the ocean in the evenings so we haven't moved all of our meager belongings there. We're still collecting donations of baby furniture, but apparently there is no shortage of families here and we'll have all we need well before he or she arrives.
Katniss sits down in a rocking chair outside the door and stretches her legs out, rolling her ankles around in circles. I sit next to her and gaze out at the rolling ocean.
"I hope he's just like you, you know. No matter how much trouble."
"She's going to be just like you. And nothing but trouble. That will be the best part."
She smiles at the sea. We love having this argument.
"I feel like I wasted so much time," she says finally.
"We're going to eighteen when she comes, I think we're ahead of the curve."
"No, not him. You. I fell in love with you in a bakery, and the woods, and an abandoned house and a snow covered clearing in mid-winter. You knew when you gave me a cookie on our first day of school. I have so much loving you to catch up on."
I turn my head to her and see her smile at me.
"Then I guess it's a good thing we have the rest of our lives."