Fandom: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Story Title: "Upside-Down Cake"
Series Title: Five Loaves of Bread
Summary: How a boy from the Seam and the baker's daughter healed old wounds, baked bread, and found poison berries in District Twelve.
Character/Relationships: Katniss/Peeta, Gale/Madge
Warnings: References to offstage domestic abuse (same level as THG's references), corporal punishment (whipping), sleazy sexual harassment (no assault/contact).
Story Wordcount: 15,000
Disclaimer: All settings and proprietary language are owned by the author of the work from which this is derived.
Notes: Written for mellowdee for help_japan. :) This part started getting really long (and taking forever! :C ) so I'm going to post each 'verse as its own story in a series, rather than all five at once. There will probably be about a month between updates, but I really hope you enjoy it! I would never have managed to finish this without poppypickle, everybodysbadintentions, amantelascio, majestamoniet, and lovepollution.
Five Loaves of Bread
It could be said that everything began on the day Katniss Mellark started attending First School. She stood outside the tall, iron gates, in her new red plaid dress, her thick hair braided into two plaits so blonde they were almost white, in the way little children's hair is until they fade with age. She peeked out from behind her mother's leg, and that was the first moment she saw him.
"Mama," Katniss implored, clutching tight at Larkspur's skirts, "Why's that Seamboy starin' at me?"
Larkspur Mellark looked across the dusty, brown schoolyard. A boy about six years old, tall and rangy but with a rounder little apple-face than a Seam child had any right to have beneath his fierce tangle of black curls, was indeed staring at Katniss with his big gray eyes, looking as much like a kitten as a boy.
Larkspur reached down and pulled Katniss up in her arms. "That boy's name is Peat," she whispered conspiratorially. "He's a nice boy, Katna. He doesn't mean you any harm."
Katniss stuck the end of one of her pale braids into her mouth. "How'd'you know he don't?"
"Doesn't," corrected Larkspur. "And of course he doesn't mean any harm to anyone, sweetie. You're just nervous because you don't know him yet."
Katniss frowned. "How'd you know his name's Peat?"
Larkspur smiled a small, secret smile and kissed her daughter's forehead. "Once upon a time, his daddy wanted to marry me."
Katniss' blue eyes opened wide. "What did Papa say?"
"Well, he didn't say anything," Larkspur said, smoothing Katna's hair. "He knew I loved him best."
"Will I marry that Seamboy?" Katna asked earnestly, staring back to Peat Everdeen. He turned away and picked up a stray red ball rolling across the schoolyard, drop-kicking it towards the spindly rake of a boy that Larkspur recognized from Sundays' deliveries of black market meat.
"I don't know," Larkspur laughed. "Do you think so?"
"Yes," Katna said decisively. "I like his face."
That morning, when all of the children of the District had gathered in Assembly, Peat Everdeen stood on his chair in his too-short dress pants, worn at the knees, and his faded red suspenders, and sang the Anthem of Panem in a high, clear voice. Katna Mellark sat in the background beside Madge Undersee, too shy to say a word, and fell hopelessly and recklessly into infatuation.
Years later, Katna would learn that everyone in District Twelve seemed to know the story: the apothecary's daughter, the undertaker's girl, the twin daughters of the old stationmaster. The sons of the baker, the foreman, the butcher, and the mayor. How they had all seemed so happy and been so perfect.
And how it all ended when the butcher's son and the stationmaster's daughter were sent to the Arena.
And only the bloody butcher came back.
It could be said that everything began four years later. That was the year his baby sister started school, and Katna thought that maybe she fell a little more in love with him for the way he carried that little girl to and from school on his shoulders every day.
She didn't look Seam in the same way that Peat did – Primrose Everdeen looked like her name, with brassy yellow hair and golden skin. But she had those Seam eyes, huge and kitten-gray, and everyone learned quickly that the surest way to lose your teeth was to mess with Prim Everdeen.
"Don't you ever wonder what it would be like to live in the Seam?" she asked Madge curiously at lunch, watching Peat split a rough, Seam biscuit for Prim and taking the smaller half. "Our boys are always so rude."
"And gross," agreed Madge, glancing over to the same table. Gale Hawthorne had a mess of younger brothers to divvy food to, and Madge had more strawberries than she could eat. She handed a few berries to Katna. "My father says the Seam's real bad, though." She lowered her voice conspiratorially. "He says the girls in the Seam all start having babies 'fore they're even out of the Reaping."
Katna's eyes bugged wide and she slapped Madge's arm. She looked back to her own table and tried her best not to look over to Peat Everdeen and Gale Hawthorne again.
Madge raised an eyebrow. "I bet you never speak to Peat now. You'll just waste away like an old maid, saving yourself for him, and you never even speak."
"Old maid," Katna sniffed. "I'm eleven!"
"Yeah, and the Reaping's coming," Madge said, shrugging. "Never know what's gonna happen in Panem, so you might as well live best as you can."
"I'm not going to get Reaped," Katna mumbled. "That's a terrible thing to say."
"Peat might," Madge said seriously. "He's got three from last year and three from this year."
"I know," Katna snapped. "That's still less than a lot of kids. That's less than Gale by triple."
Madge's lips pursed sadly and she looked down at the white paper packet of strawberries on the table. She ate the last one without a scowl.
Madge had been born on the fourth anniversary of Maysilee's death, quite by coincidence. On the fifth anniversary, Haymitch Abernathy found Marjorae Undersee standing on the train tracks that crisscrossed Panem from behind his house, Madge in her arms. He coaxed her to hand over Madge, and sat down in the snow to talk her down. It took him hours and he started shaking, but he never walked away.
A few days later, he had shown up at the Undersee manor with a little bottle of Capitol drugs tucked into his pocket.
"We all got something," he said, and handed the morphling to Marjorae. "Happy birthday, sweetheart."
When winter came that year, Katna left a heavy sweater full of dropped stitches in Peat's cubby while everyone else was in Practical Sciences for District Twelve. It was a good sweater made of wool that Katna spun twice, softer then softer, and dyed with onionskins: a pale orange, like the sunset.
Peat had asked around school for a week about the origins of the sweater before he accepted it as having been abandoned, and the next day he came in wearing it over his usual threadbare flannels. Katna flushed with pride.
When Madge said pointedly at lunch, "That color is cute on Peat Everdeen, isn't it?" Katna just pretended not to notice and let a little goat cheese dissolve on her tongue.
To be fairer, she left a pair of gloves for Gale, just because she didn't want Peat to share hersweater with the taller boy who was more suited to blue. The next week, she left a matching candlelight-colored hat and mittens for the sandy-haired baby sister that Peat carried to school on his shoulders. She was so awfully little, and Katna didn't feel right giving gloves to Gale Hawthorne while leaving Primrose Everdeen alone in the cold.
The spring after Peat outgrew Katna's sweater, the mine collapsed.
Katna huddled with Madge near the window of the classroom as the black damp poured through the air like a drop of ink spreading and bending through water. Out in the front of the crowd, Gale Hawthorne's long legs led the charge back towards the Seam. He pushed the smaller Seam kids back, shoving them away from the heavy black air towards the unfair safety of the Merchant Quarters.
Peat knelt in the schoolyard, stroking Prim's hair as she shook like a little leaf, crying on his shoulders.
After a long while, even as the ground still shook beneath them and the dark charcoal smell of flames swirled over the District, Katna watched as Peat leaned down and picked a bright, yellow dandelion. He handed it to Prim solemnly, his big gray tomcat eyes wide and reassuring; kissed her on the top of the head; and dashed off, racing full-tilt towards the black cloud.
It wasn't long afterwards that Peat started coming to school bruised.
Prim never did. She still rode on his shoulders even though she was getting too big, and she would touch the shiners around his eyes or the cuffs on his arms with a frown on her small face. After a few weeks, the portions that Peat gave to Prim at lunch got bigger and bigger, while his dwindled. His face hollowed out and his arms got skinny.
He had to stop carrying Prim on his shoulders.
Guilt weighted down Katna's stomach at lunch as she sat with Madge, both of them sitting down to full meals, while Peat smiled thinly and turned down Prim's insistent urging that he take half of their daily biscuit.
"I should do something," Katna muttered. She pushed away her mushroom bread, then looked over to the Seam tables and how many places sat empty, and felt worse. She pulled it back towards her and chewed drily, the bread feeling like paste in her mouth.
"What can you do?" Madge asked glumly. She shredded a strawberry leaf between her fingers. "If you try to give him anything, he'll get embarrassed."
"I could give something to Prim," mused Katna, watching the little girl's face screw up as she tried to force Peat to take some of their meager rations.
"Maybe," Madge hedged. She paused. "My father told me that Gale's mom is having another baby. She just registered the Declaration papers."
"Is that good or bad?" Katna asked. Gale Hawthorne wasn't nearly as gaunt as Peat had become, but he already had two younger siblings to feed. None of the Hawthornes came to school bruised, though, and Katna knew their mother worked. Hazelle did the Bakery's laundry twice a week.
Katna would come home on Thursdays to her mother sitting with the dark-haired woman over coffee in the back kitchens. It was the only coffee that she got to have each week, Hazelle always said, and she couldn't ask for better company to share it. Then Larkspur and Hazelle would invite Katna to join them, and sometimes she would – if only to learn more about Gale to tell Madge the next day – but more often, Katna would shy away and scurry to the front-of-house to decorate cookies alongside her father.
"You know, the Seam is just the same as the Quarter," Farll would always remark gently in the same tone of voice, week after week, as though it were a thought that just occurred to him and not a reprimand for his daughter.
"I know," Katna would always say. "I know that."
And Farll would sigh and kiss the top of Katna's blonde head, and then he would turn back to the ovens. Hazelle always waved to Katna when she left.
Thursdays used to be good nights at the Mellark Bakery. The aprons and sheets were all clean and pressed and smelled like oranges. The back kitchen held the lingering smell of sweet coffee. And Larkspur always smiled and hummed old Seam songs while she washed up from dinner, and Katna liked how much younger her mother seemed on those days.
Maybe Katna should have just liked Gale. She could have made excuses to see him by bringing laundry out to the Hawthornes', the way Madge had until her father caught her at it and forbade her from going into the Seam.
But Gale… just wasn't Peat. He didn't have eyes like a kitten or a big, dimpled smile or a little sister that he carried on his shoulders. And besides, Madge liked Gale and if Katna were anything, she was loyal.
Since the mine collapse, Thursdays had been somber. Hazelle still stayed for coffee with Larkspur in the back kitchens and the laundry still smelled like orange, but the women were quiet and there were no songs over the dishes later. Larkspur's eyes were puffy.
Katna couldn't help wondering if it was because Peat Everdeen's father had once wanted to marry her, and he had died in the mine collapse, too, trapped underground beneath miles of darkness.
On the Thursday night after Madge told Katna that Hazelle Hawthorne was pregnant, Larkspur's eyes were limned in red and she was quiet as she brushed Katna's long hair before bed.
"Mama?" Katna asked softly. "I want to do something to help Peat and Prim Everdeen."
Larkspur was quiet.
"I just don't know what," Katna continued awkwardly. "I don't think I can just – givePeat anything, because he might… well, he's really proud. But I might be able to give something to Prim. I don't think he'd take it if I did, though, and it's just that he's wasting away. And I think… I think his mother hurts him."
Larkspur sucked in a shuddering breath. "Mahra… that doesn't surprise me."
Once upon a time, Mahra Everdeen had been Mahra Begrafens, and she had been beautiful, and kind, and so in love with Donnel Everdeen. She had also been best friends with Larkspur and the Donner twins.
When Maysilee died and Haymitch came back all wrong and Marjorae was never the same again, something changed in the others, too – Mahra and Larkspur and Mark and Farll and Donnel. But it was still a shock to everyone when Donnel proposed to Larkspur in secret, out in the Seam woods where Mahra and Farll wouldn't hear.
She said no. Donnel could sing so sweetly that even the birds would stop to listen, but Larkspur Loewi's heart belonged to Farll Mellark, and she would be the baker's wife.
So Mahra Begrafens became Mahra Everdeen, but never, ever forgot that she was the second choice.
"What can I do?" Katna asked hopelessly. She turned around and rested her head against her mother's shoulder, long blonde hair cascading together.
Larkspur stroked Katna's hair. She paused and bit her lip before answering.
"Primrose Everdeen has a pet dairy goat," Larkspur said finally. "You should ask her if the bakery could barter cheese from her. Peat can trade it to your father in the mornings. It's fair. Peat should have no problem with it."
It could be said that everything began on the day Katna Mellark left a note in Prim Everdeen's cubby down in the First School.
"Hey." Peat Everdeen clutched the crumpled note when he approached Katna- and Madge's table at lunch. "D'you leave this for my sister?"
Katna swallowed wordlessly and nodded, her blue eyes wide as nickels.
"She loves that goat," Peat said defensively. "You can't have it."
"I don't want her goat," Katna spluttered, baffled. "My – my parents – my father wants – just the cheese. To trade. We need. You need – to trade for it. Not the goat."
Peat's brow furrowed and he unfolded the note, reading it again. His lips moved as he sounded out the words, but Katna could tell that he gave up not even halfway down the page.
The Seam kids never got as much attention from the teachers at school, and a lot of them dropped out before the Reaping even ended. Katna felt her own face blush red.
"You don't want to take Lady?" Peat asked suspiciously, looking up at Katna again. His dark eyelashes were so long that they looked like smoke.
"No!" Katna cried, fluttering her hands. "No, no! Just – we just want to trade the cheese. For bread. Or… cake, or flour, or. Whatever you nee – want."
Peat looked down at Katna's full lunch tray. He swallowed, and Katna' heart clenched. She could count the bones in his wrists.
"I'll think about it," Peat said stiffly. He turned to go.
"Peat," Madge said quickly, "Do you want some of my carrots?"
Peat looked dismissively over his shoulder, protruding jaw set. His hands twitched into bony fists down at his sides.
"No," he said simply, his voice hard. "I don't need 'em."
Katna bit her lip as she watched him stalk back over to the table he shared with his sister and the Hawthorne boys. She watched him gesture as he explained the true intentions of the note to Prim. The little girl nodded eagerly and patted Peat's dark cheek to reassure him.
Then little Primrose Everdeen turned to Katna Mellark's table with a beaming grin and waved.
And Katna waved back.
"You did it," hissed Madge, elbowing Katna repeatedly in the side. "You talked to him."
"I did, didn't I?" Katna asked, pleased with herself. "It didn't go too badly."
"It kind of did," Madge argued, twisting up her mouth. "I think he's pretty embarrassed. But Prim likes you! And Peat does anything Prim says, so. That's a start, probably." Madge ate another strawberry and grimaced.
"So why haven't you talked to Gale?" Katna retorted, scowling.
"Oh, I have," Madge said. "I do the trades in the morning now. Gale thinks I love strawberries, so he always jacks the price up to double." Madge grinned. "I talk him down."
"Romantic," said Katna dryly.
All the same, less than a week later, Peat began bartering goat cheese and wool for fresh bread down at the bakery doors every morning. Katna would hide up on the staircase, peering out at him through the bars of the banister and around her father's broad shoulders as Peat haggled prices.
For nearly a month, he never came to school bruised. His face began to fill back out and his bones disappeared into his wrists again. Gale Hawthorne started appearing at the bakery doors alongside Peat in the morning, and Katna heard endless chattering gossip from Madge about the boys' rounds in the Merchant Quarter before the Market Bell each day. Madge's turret bedroom was the second-highest point in the District, other than the bell tower of the Justice Hall, and she could see almost as far as the mines.
Katna may not have been able to see Gale disappearing into the undertaker's house on mornings that his wife answered the door, but she liked her vantage point at the top of the bakery stairs. She could hear Peat and Gale laughing with her father, heard stories about Prim and Rory and Vick and the baby, Posy. When the heat wave of September rolled through, she saw Peat lift up the front hem of his shirt to mop his brow, and when she told Madge later, they squealed so much that they fell off of Madge's bed.
Katna noticed that Peat seemed to trade off every day with Gale Hawthorne for who got the higher sale, even when Peat's rabbits were fatter or his trout sweeter. But Gale Hawthorne never had cheese or wool to trade, so she always made sure to bake cheese buns and knit blankets so there was a constant, trickling need around the Bakery for Peat's wares.
Katna eavesdropped on the morning trade, wishing she had the guts to face Peat again. She heard a dark undercurrent when Peat said he wasn't never going to let Prim go door-to-door and he was just as happy to do it for her; and that day, Farll traded out twice as much bread and a little, sweet cornmeal cake for the same amount of cheese as ever. That's how Katna figured that Peat Everdeen was noble: whatever he was protecting his sister from, her father respected it.
But everything really began three years later, on the day Madge Undersee staked her claim on Gale Hawthorne.
"Guess what I did this morning," Madge sang as she hooked her elbow into Katna's arm.
"What did you do this morning?" Katna asked, heaving a sigh.
"I said 'guess,'" admonished Madge playfully, swinging their linked arms. "Guess!"
"You… got a new dress," Katna offered. "You quilted a blanket. You sent a fan letter to Finnick Odair. You got a reply to your last letter to Finnick Odair."
"Not yet," Madge said glumly. "But no. Better."
Katna stopped and stared at Madge. "What did you do to Gale?"
Madge stuck her tongue into the side of her cheek and poked her skin out a few times. She winked as Katna pulled her elbow free and gagged.
"Why did you tell me that?" Katna wailed, bracing her hands on her knees. "That's so gross, Madge, why would you dothat?"
"It's not gross," Madge said primly. "I'd do it to Finnick Odair, too. After he falls in love with me and writes me back."
"Madge," Katna said seriously, looking up at her from beneath her braids. "Neither of us is ever going to meet Finnick Odair. We just have to face that." Then her face fell. "Ugh, and even if we did why would you ever do that, it's so gross; ugh."
"Grow up, Katna," Madge sniffed. "You're so - pure."
Katna frowned and clutched her books to her chest as they continued on towards the school. Madge started chattering again after a few long minutes of awkward silence, telling Katna all about her exploits of the morning.
Katna only half-listened, looking at Madge out of the corner of her eye. Was she imagining that Madge looked more grown up now, or had something actually changed? Had Gale done – that – with other girls? Would Madge really do that to other boys?
Had Peat ever – with anyone?
For the first time in her life, Katna was glad to get to school and sit in silence at the front of their classroom with the rest of the Merchant girls, somewhere she wouldn't have to look at Peat or watch Madge watching Gale.
At lunch, Katna moved to sit down at her usual place at the end of the long table beneath the willow tree, but Madge caught her arm.
"I'm gonna go sit by Gale," she said. "And you're coming with me. You can talk to Peat."
"Wh – I can't," Katna stammered. "Why can't he come sit by you?"
"Because he's a boy and boys are dumb," Madge said, shrugging. "He's not gonna think about it. But I'm sure as anything going over there, because I don't suck the dicks of guys who aren't going to pay attention to me after."
"You haven't sucked – you haven't done that to any other guys," Katna pointed out. "So you can't really say that."
Madge leveled her with a glare. "Come on."
Katna sighed and followed her over to the table baked in noon sunlight where a crowd of Seam kids sat. Madge walked right up behind Gale and pushed her fingers through his hair from behind. It was a gesture so surprisingly intimate that it made Katna blush.
Gale shivered down to the base of his spine and craned his neck around, looking up.
"Oh," he said, sounding surprised. "Hey."
"Hey," Madge said easily, slinging her leg over the bench to sit beside him.
"Pretty dress," Gale observed, looking at Madge's chest and then quickly back to his lunch spread out on the table. He picked up a smudged knife and divided his food into thirds before passing rations to Vick and Rory, sitting across from them.
"Thanks." Madge preened a little. Then she looked back and waved. "Katna, sit. You're going to run out of lunchtime."
Katna bit her lip. There was an empty place next to Peat, right across from Primrose Everdeen. She stepped over the bench and settled down beside Peat, moving stiffly and carefully to ensure that she didn't touch him. Madge looked over and gave her an encouraging smile.
Katna took a deep breath, carefully tried on a smile, and turned towards Peat, a hello ready on her lips.
But then Leevy Bowlin slithered down into Peat's lap and he grinned as he wrapped his arms around her waist.
Katna's heart fell and she bit her lip, looking quickly back down at her lunch again. Under the table, Madge kicked her ankle sympathetically.
Katna poked listlessly at a lunch that tasted like cardboard as she tried to ignore the soft, smacking sounds of Peat and Leevy kissing on the bench right beside her. She tried not to look at them, either, but couldn't help comparing herself to the Seam girl. Katna and Leevy both wore their hair in the same style, a long braid down their backs, but Leevy's black hair looked sleek and smooth, where Katna felt her blonde curls looked messy and childish. Leevy's eyes were framed by black lashes that Katna thought looked regal and mysterious compared to her own blonde eyelashes so pale that they were invisible in the afternoon sunlight. And next to muscular, waifish Leevy, Katna thought she must look wide and oafish – and felt badly for being upset about having enough to eat.
After school, she stood in front of Madge's mirror, biting her cheeks to pronounce her cheekbones and trying to tighten up her belly as she spanned her waist with her hands.
"Madge?" she asked thoughtfully as she glanced over her shoulder in the reflection, "Do you think Leevy is pretty?"
On the bed, Madge sighed and blithely turned a page in her Mathematics for Practical Use in District Twelve textbook. She didn't look up as she munched on a slice of fruit before answering. "You're beautiful, Katna. Just ignore Leevy."
Katna frowned. She turned sideways and looked in the mirror again, sucking in her stomach and flitting her hands over her chest to measure it.
"I'm not pretty," she decided. "I'm not – beautiful."
Madge sighed and rolled off the bed. She knelt dramatically on one knee in front of Katna and took her hand, clasping it like a Handsome Merchant in a folktale.
"Katniss Mellark," she intoned in a falsely deep voice tinged with a Seam twang, "You are as radiant as the sun."
Katna laughed even as she scowled and snatched her hand back. "Shut up and eat your pears."
As the last hot, late days of summer melted into autumn, Delly Cartwright replaced Leevy on Peat's lap at the lunch table. Madge and Gale had a blowout argument when Madge offered to buy Vick a new pair of boots – his toes were peeking out of his regular black leather pair – and didn't speak for a week. Madge and Katna sat by themselves at their old, solitary table as Madge sulked, and by the time they were welcomed back to the Seam table, Peat had moved on to Bristel Goins.
Her brother Thom was less than thrilled, and as the fall leaves exploded into a riot of red, Peat wore a black eye that he hadn't gotten at home.
Prim didn't cluck disapprovingly over that one.
Katna liked Primrose. She was one of the only people at their lunch table who talked to her consistently, every day, and she had a sweet, kind heart. She loved animals and told Katna animated stories about the goat, Lady, and the ugly stray cat that lived in their yard. She said that she worried about the mangled stray with the coming winter, so when Larkspur muttered that she had seen a mouse in the bakery kitchens, Katna offered to take the cat in.
That may have been a mistake. It hissed ferociously whenever Katna attempted to go near it unless she plied it with strips of bacon. Subsequently, the cat – whom Prim insisted was named 'Buttercup' against all reason, for there was never an uglier cat alive – became the most well-fed living thing in District Twelve.
Gale and Madge broke up again, and for two weeks, Katna scowled at the way Buttercup took to Madge as though shewere a strip of bacon. It was the first time any of them had heard the stupid thing purr. But then Gale turned up on Madge's doorstep with a bouquet of purple lilacs, chestnuts, and tall marshy grass.
Buttercup somehow became even more ornery once his true love wasn't over at the Mellark Bakery every afternoon anymore, scratching him between the… ear… while she ate cookies and ranted about hating Gale Hawthorne.
After the first frost, when the schoolyard grass crunched beneath Katna's feet, Peat sat down at their lunch table alone and stayed alone. Across from him, Prim nudged Katna's knee with her foot beneath the table, and although Peat ignored it and Katna excused it, Prim smiled small, knowing smiles to herself as she ate.
Halfway between Hunger Games, after two snow flurries that blanketed the Merchant Quarter in white and melted away to black, coal-streaked slush that seemed to get into the bones and chill everyone cold, Katna walked behind Madge and Gale on their way to the tailor's early Sunday afternoon. Gale wanted to see if they had any use for fur, and Madge wanted Gale.
As they came up from the Hawthornes' house, where Katna promised Hazelle that she'd say hello to her mother, a strange whistling sound split the air, cracking the silent, comforting snowy drizzle in two. They were just at the bend where the cobblestone streets of the Merchant Quarter tapered off into the dirt roads of the Seam when the sound ended in a wet snap – like the whistle was lightning and that snap was the thunder.
Katna cocked her ear, listening around Madge and Gale arguing about the fairness of Declaration Papers at the Justice Building.
Then the sound came again, just the same: the whistle, the snap. Then the gasps.
Katna' head jerked up. "What's that?"
Gale and Madge stopped talking and Gale, ever the hunter, cocked his head to listen.
A whistling, the sound of an impact, the intake of breath from a crowd.
"Shit," Gale hissed under his breath. "Shit!"
"What is it?" Katna asked again, her heart pounding in her throat.
"Whipping," Gale hissed, "And I got a guess who. I can't go up there, I gotta go – Prim – gotta get Prim… shit."
He turned to run back towards the Seam, but Madge caught him by the arm.
"It may not be Peat," she said calmly. "And even if it is… my father's the mayor."
"Like I could forget," Gale muttered, tearing his arm away. "If you think you can do something good, go. Otherwise just…" he trailed off and pushed his hands like he was trying to get the essence of Madge, the essence of the Merchant Quarter, away from him. "I gotta get Prim."
Gale ran off down the cobblestone road, right to where it cut off suddenly into pounded dirt and Seam coal dust.
"Madge?" Katna breathed, "Do you really think – "
"Come on," Madge said, her voice hard. "We've got to know."
Madge took Katna's hand and they ran up the other side of the road, in the opposite direction of Gale, towards the sound of the crowd rustling and muttering. Madge stepped up on a crate against the wall of the sweetshop and offered Katna a hand to climb up while she scanned the square. Katna was halfway up when Madge suddenly turned and blocked her way.
"Katna, you don't want to see it," she murmured, her voice thick with emotion. "Get out of here. Go home."
"It's Peat, isn't it?" Katna asked, her eyes filling with tears. "What's happening?"
"You don't want to see it," Madge repeated. "I'll come by later. I'm going to try to find another Peacekeeper and… and see if I can do anything good," she said, echoing Gale's angry words.
Katna's heart beat so quickly and fiercely that she hardly heard Madge. She let go of Madge's hand, but instead of turning towards the bakery, she started to push her way through the thick, bristling crowd.
Peat Everdeen hung, unconscious, by his wrists from a wooden post at the center of the square, right in front of the spires of the Justice Building. A wild turkey, a parcel of cheese, and a skein of wild wool were nailed roughly to the wood above him. A feather had fallen into his black curls, tangled and matted with blood.
His threadbare coat had been cast to the ground beside him, now trampled and speckled with coal dust and bootprints and flecks of dirt and blood spatter. His shirt had been torn away, hanging on roughly by the collar alone.
What used to be Peat Everdeen's back was now a raw, bloody slab of meat.
Vaguely, in the corner of her eye, Katna could sense Madge breaking her own way through the crowd and running up to the lieutenant Peacekeeper, fury in every line of her face. But all she could really see, in that moment, was the wet line of the lash as the Head Peacekeeper raised his arm over Peat again.
"No!" Katna cried, springing forward. She flung her arms out and curved over Peat's broken body, trying to cover as much of him as she could. The whip came down with a sharp, fearsome whistle.
Katna cried out and the crowd chorused in enraged calls as she took the full brunt of the lash on the side of her pale face. She toppled to her knees at Peat's back, one hand clutching her face and the other still stretching out, still trying to protect Peat, as her left eye already swelled shut. Beneath her, the stones were wet with Peat's blood. The scent of it, like wet metal, was thick around her and made her want to gag.
Madge burst through the crowd and stood tall in front of Katna and Peat, her arms crossed. "Who authorized this?" She bent down and gently scooped an arm under Katna's elbow. "Are you okay? Did he get your eye?"
"I don't think so," Katna murmured. "Is Peat…?"
"Hang in there," Madge murmured. Then she stood straight again and her voice rang with an authority she must have learned from her father. "Who authorized the whipping of an innocent girl?"
"She interrupted the punishment of a confessed criminal," drawled the Head Peacekeeper blithely. His voice was low and tainted with the strange affectations of the Capitol.
"I don't care!" Madge snarled. "The punishment for possession of rationed goods is only twenty lashes; this looks to be at leastforty."
"And the punishment for poaching is forty lashes," filled in a gravelly voice at Madge's side. Katna craned her neck to look up with the good side of her face at Haymitch Abernathy, the only Victor of District Twelve and the inexplicable confidant of Mrs. Undersee. "Not death. Which would be by firing squad in Twelve, if it was."
"Poaching and possession would be sixty, then," retorted the Peacekeeper. "Forty and twenty."
"Well, that's just shit-stupid," snorted Haymitch. "Of course a poacher's gonna have possession for a little while; it's all the same crime. And Peat doesn't poach, anyway. Damn thing probably got over the fence by the mines. Dumb as melons, turkeys are. Don't know where they're not wanted."
"Are you tryin' to say something, Abernathy?" growled the Peacekeeper. Katna could just make out the dark, fearsome lines of his cragged face through the stinging tears in her open eye.
"Just that turkeys may talk a lot but they still drown whenever it rains," Haymitch said innocently – though he edged just slightly towards the Peacekeeper, bearing down with a bottle in his hand, and everyone in Panem knew that even though he was a drunk now, he used to be the cleverest fighter the Hunger Games had ever seen.
The Peacekeeper's eyes narrowed as he lowered his whipping hand and began to coil the heavy leather around his arm. It still shone with Peat's blood.
"The next time he poaches off Capitol land, I'll assemble that firing squad myself," he said, leveling first Haymitch, then Madge, with a dismissive glance. Then he stalked off in the direction of the Justice Building to fill out forms forever labeling Peat Everdeen as a traitor to Panem.
"Peat," Katna whimpered, fumbling with the ropes around his limp wrists. Haymitch pulled a knife from his belt to help her.
"Better get him to your mother," he said to Katna. "And get some snow on your eye. His back, too, if you can manage it without moving him much."
Madge ran to the tailor's shop and came back dragging a board to use as a stretcher, and she and Gale worked to lay Peat face-down on the smooth wood while Katna gathered snow and dropped light handfuls onto the mess of Peat's back.
Leevy caught Katna's arm, her kohl-rimmed gray eyes full of fear. "Need help getting him to your house?"
"No," Katna said, squaring her shoulders. "But don't let Mahra know just yet."
"I won't," Leevy promised. "I never liked her much."
She turned to go and rushed off through the snow while Katna turned back and shouldered the board below Peat's knees to help carry him to the back room of the bakery, where Larkspur still did some black market apothecary healing and trades. She had kept Marjorae in morphling from that room for years.
"What happened?" Larkspur gasped as she took in the gruesome scene, gently lifting Katna's chin to inspect her swollen eye.
"New head," Haymitch grunted as they lowered Peat onto the table. He looked up at Larkspur. "It's starting."
"It's lucky he only had what he did," Madge said, her usually implacable voice shaking. "It could have been so much worse if he'd had his usual haul."
There was a split second of silence before –
"Fuck!" Gale roared, punching the wall. "Fuck District Twelve. Fuck Panem. Fuck everything."
"Gale – " Madge started, laying a placating hand on his arm.
Gale wrenched away. "No! This is your fault. Peat wouldn't have had that game bag if you stupid Merchants didn't depend on us for meat. You can afford to shop at the butcher's; you should just stick to yourselves and let us stick to ourselves."
"Did you ever think that maybe we support you because we support you?" Madge asked hotly, her hands clenched into fists on her hips. "Yeah, I could go pay Mr. Scully so he can get even fatter and pay off the Peacekeepers for his illegal Beggar-My-Neighbor game. Or I could help get Posy a real dinner."
"That's not your job," Gale hissed. His gray eyes were hard. "My family is myresponsibility. You think just because your dad's the mayor that you own everyone in District Twelve, but you don't. You don't need to worry about feeding Posy. I can do it myself."
"I don't think I own anyone!" argued Madge. "And I know I don't 'need' to worry about feeding Posy. I don't need to worry about feeding anyone. I choose to do business with people that I want to see do better for themselves. I don't care about Mr. Scully. I care about you."
"Well, look what your caring got Peat," Gale muttered, swiping a hand over his eyes. "Just keep your caring to yourself next time, will you?"
He stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him so hard that the walls shook.
There was a silence in the bakery aside from Madge's fevered breathing.
Peat moaned softly and Larkspur shushed him, clucking her tongue.
"Do you think we caused this?" Katna asked. She could scarcely speak around the lump in her throat. Her face hurt. Her mouth hurt. Her chest hurt.
"No," Madge said decisively. "We didn't cause this. It's not our fault that the Seam is so poor. That's the Capitol's fault." She leveled Katna with a fierce look. "They caused this. Not us."
Then she whirled out of the bakery, too, but shut the door behind her quietly, as though she was determined to be the opposite of Gale Hawthorne today.
Salt stung Katna's wound as her eyes welled with tears. She squinted up at her mother in the silent kitchen. "Can you save him?"
Larkspur didn't even answer her, lost in a kind of hardworking haze as she boiled herbs and drops from glass bottles into sterile bandages. She pressed a square rag soaked in the brew towards Katna without even looking at her before setting back to Peat.
"Larkspur's the best," Haymitch muttered finally. "There used to be a lot of whippings back in the day. And this isn't the first time Peat's felt the lash. Let's just hope he stays unconscious."
"What do you mean?" Katna asked. She hovered near the table, staring down at Peat's sweat-shined face. "They never do whippings, not for years."
Haymitch cleared his throat. "Gale's right. He's gotta get Prim out of that house before Mahra realizes Peat's not coming home tonight."
Katna sucked in a sharp breath through her teeth and sat down hard on the floor, all of the adrenaline of the last hour fading out of her at once.
Prim. Sweet, kind-hearted Prim, the girl with the goat.
All of this wasreally her fault, Katna thought. If she hadn't asked to trade for Prim's cheese, then Peat wouldn't have become a poacher. He wouldn't have had that turkey on him when the Peacekeepers stopped him today. He wouldn't have had that cheese or the wool in his pack.
No matter what anyone else could argue… those were for Katna.
Peat groaned again and Larkspur shushed him.
"It's alright now, Peat," Katna heard her murmur. "You're going to be just fine. You know, your father used to come to see me when he got hurt, too. Once he got his leg caught in a bear-trap he'd set; it was awful. I've never seen anything like it. You're going to have to work a lot harder at causing trouble to be able to compete with your dad."
Katna pressed her handful of snow harder against the wound beneath her left eye, and shuddered as tears that felt as hot as boiling water began to cut through the other side of her face.
Nothing could ever be different in District Twelve. Her mother, the healer; Peat's father, the hunter. Her father, the victor; Peat's mother, the loser.
The bakery doors opened and Madge stomped inside again, shaking snow off of her coat and hair. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a glass phial.
"Morphling," she explained softly. "It's my mother's."
Gale returned with Prim in tow just before the blizzard hit. As soon as the little girl had reached the bakery, she fell to her knees at Peat's side. She lifted his hand as tenderly as she tended the little chipmunks and birds that found their way to the schoolyard, and kissed the back of his hand. Then she sniffled and Peat groaned again, and Larkspur guided Prim to sit at the back kitchen table with a cup of nettle tea and a little plate of butter cake. Then she sternly sent Gale and Madge out of the room until they could stop bickering, forbade anyone from leaving the house until the air cleared – in a storm like this, a person could wander off in the wrong direction and freeze to death only feet from a door – and settled to work on Peat's mess of a back.
She boiled and strained a mash of small, spade-shaped green leaves into a syrup and set it to cool before mixing it into fresh snow. Once all of the salvageable pieces of Peat's back had been lain into place, she spooned the green-tinted mixture over his bandages.
"Snow coat," she explained as she handed Katna a bundle of her own for her eye. "Powerful anesthetic. I'm hoping that the morphling will keep him under until this starts to numb the pain."
"What's in it?" Prim asked. She swallowed her cake. "So I can make it for him at home. Once the snow stops I promise we'll get out of your way. I'm so sorry, Mrs. Mellark."
"It's alright, Primrose." Larkspur smiled and smoothed back Prim's honey-gold hair. "Peat won't be able to be moved for a few weeks yet, at least. We're going to have to keep him here to treat him. You're more than welcome to stay, too. You can share Katna's room."
"You can, Prim," Katna chimed in quickly.
Prim blanched and shook her head. "Oh, no, I couldn't impose like that. My mother would never forgive me."
Larkspur's lips twitched and her nostrils flared. Peat whimpered once pathetically on the table as the snow coat began to melt.
Haymitch Abernathy stomped in sourly from the other room.
"Well, we're in a fine mess, sweetheart," he said to Larkspur. "Snow isn't supposed to let up for days and we're stuck here with Mahra's kids and the Argument Twins in there." He jerked his thumb towards the bakery's front room, where Madge and Gale were trying to restrict themselves to bitter, hushed voices.
"We have enough food and blankets for everyone," Larkspur said, although her eyes were tight. "The Grosvenors have an anniversary coming up soon; I'm sure Farll can commission a cake to make up for any expenses."
Prim looked quickly down at her plate and traced her finger along the porcelain, picking up every last crumb so as not to waste a drop of the Mellarks' generosity.
From where she still sat on the floor, Katna felt heartsick.
"Prim," she said quietly from the floor, "Don't worry. I'll find a way to help you out."
Prim smiled thinly. "Oh, it'll be okay, Katna. It's not your fault. Gale is mad, but he's always mad. I know he and Peat will figure out a way to keep trading."
"No," Katna said, sitting up. "No, Prim – Peat can't… not for me. Not for us. I'll buy the cheese and wool from you at school, but… it's not safe."
Prim was quiet for a long minute. Peat whimpered again and Prim smoothed down his wet, bloodslicked hair.
"We need to eat," Prim muttered sorrowfully. "I'll take a tessera this year."
"N – " Peat whimpered, and tried to lift his head.
"Shh," Larkspur shushed him, prepping a syringe of Mrs. Undersee's morphling. "Shhh."
The morphling was a violently bright yellow in the tube, and Katna's stomach clenched as she watched it empty into Peat's arm.
"No," Katna said. "Prim… you can't." She looked around the back kitchens, her mother's black-market apothecary, despondently. Her eyes lit on the door into her father's bakery kitchen and took in the lump of turned-out rye dough on the kneading table and the trays of unfinished cookies on their metal stands. Then, without thinking, she blurted, "Peat can work here as soon as he gets well. And until he can – I – I'll do his trades."
And that's how things began.
It was three days before the blizzard stopped, and took Farll and Gale another day to dig out the front door so that Gale, Haymitch, and Madge could leave. Prim stayed behind for another two days to help look after Peat, but then she was gone, too. It took three weeks for Katna's lash abrasion to scab over and another week to flake off and leave behind a long, silvery scar that crossed her cheek below her eye and all the way to her chin.
With the scar, she felt like a new girl entirely. She felt tougher. She felt braver.
Peat's wounds took longer to heal. When Gale came by in the morning for trades, he would help Farll and Katna to lift Peat so Larkspur could change the sheets spread on the table and prevent bedsores; since Peat couldn't sit up, Prim came by in the evening to help spoon-feed Peat dinner. Even after two long months, when the snow began to melt, then refroze, and melted again into black sludge, Peat couldn't shoulder weight or move his arms well. His back, once smooth and brown, was a crater of fresh pink skin marbled with red and white stripes.
When his little sister came by the bakery after school with a rosy ring of bruises on her upper arm, Peat moved back to the Seam immediately, even with his back still oozing. As soon as he could manage to stand, he insisted on starting to work. He had to pay the Mellarks back for everything they'd done for him and Prim, he said, and he had to start giving money to his mother again so Prim wouldn't take out a tessera.
"Okay," said Farll, smiling at Peat. "Katna can show you how to ice the cookies. You can sit for that, for now."
Peat turned to Katna and considered her thoughtfully. "So you threw yourself in front of the whip, huh?"
"Yeah," Katna whispered, looking down. "It wasn't right, what they did to you. I just tried to stop it." She touched her cheek self-consciously. "I didn't really think it through."
"Yeah, you aren't very big, are you," Peat mused, staring Katna up and down. His lips curled up when her pale cheeks flushed. "But you are particularlypretty."
Katna felt her cheeks flush hot, but she frowned and looked at her shoes. "I see you every day. I look the same as always. Except the – " She gestured to her cheek again.
"I didn't mean it bad," Peat said. "You always look pretty."
"You've never said anything before now," Katna pointed out. She twisted her hands in her skirt.
"I didn't think you wanted me to," Peat said, shrugging. "You keep to yourself. You never come out to the slag heap after school or anything, like Madge and everyone. I just figured you liked to be left alone."
"I don't like to be left alone," Katna mumbled. "Come on, I'll show you how to ice the cookies."
"Well, you should talk more," Peat said, slowly following Katna to the kitchen table. His shoulders and back hunched painfully beneath the loose, lightweight, green shirt he wore. It was cotton, expensive and smooth and cool to the touch. Madge had slipped it to Katna at school and Katna gave it to Farll, who told Peat it was his new bakery uniform. It was the only way that they would be able to get him to accept such a luxurious gift. "We can even start simple, like… what's your favorite color?"
Katna looked over at Peat as he settled gingerly into the chair beside hers. His hair was clean again, all of the blood finally washed away, and his face was slowly but surely regaining some of its color and brightness. His curls were too long now, though, and fell roguishly into his Seam eyes.
"Gray," she said decisively. "What's yours?"
"Pale orange," Peat said lightly. "Like the sunset." He paused. "I had a sweater that color for a long time. Never got to say thanks for it."
"I thought you found that in your cubby," Katna shot back. "I remember you asking around."
"Yeah, well," Peat said. He reached forward and picked up a sugar cookie. "Someone had to put it there. And I never got to say thanks."
Katna slid the bowl of frosting between them and picked up a knife.
"I'm sure they know," she said. "Whoever it was."
Peat was quiet as he dipped his knife into the frosting and watched how Katna spun the cookie, not the knife, to get a smooth coating.
"I hope so," he said finally. "Probably about saved my life that winter. It meant a lot."
After that, every day, Peat Everdeen and Katna Mellark talked a little more: favorite foods and lessons at school, and eventually favorite things in the world (Peat said, of all things, 'music.') Then least favorites – least favorite day of the year, least favorite Hunger Games (the 70th for both, with that mad girl drowning), least favorite thing about District Twelve. And as they they talked, the weather warmed, thawing out into black drizzle and then thick brown mud. Peat's back healed – still tender, but almost back to functional, although it would be a long while before his muscles built back up to carry game or to hunt – and Katna was ready to go out into the woods.
On the first, soggy day of March, she tied her blonde braid extra tightly and packed a canteen of water, and as the sun rose over the hills, Katniss Mellark, called Katna, ducked under the electric fence for the first time and hiked through the woods to a clearing where Peat Everdeen stood, waiting.
"Morning," he said, and grinned at Katna. His shoulders still hunched, but he could walk upright finally.
"Morning." Katna smiled back. "So, I think today I am going to bag a buck."
Peat laughed. "Not unless you can drag it home all by yourself. I can't carry nothing yet, it's drivin' me up a wall. Nah, today… hmm," Peat said thoughtfully, hooking his thumbs into his beltloops. "We could start with foraging. I could probably manage that."
"Okay," Katna said, a little abashed. She had relished the idea of learning to hunt. The idea of a bow and arrow made her blood hum in her veins. "Where do we go for that? Do you need water or anything?"
Peat grinned at her and his cheek dimpled. Katna's heart turned over in her chest.
"Nah, we'll start right here." Peat crouched down on his haunches and grimaced as the tender skin on his back pulled. He pointed to a little green shoot, and Katna knelt down beside him. She watched carefully as Peat dug through the matted forest floor with his fingers and pulled out an oblong white root with a long, slender, bright pink stalk.
"These are ramps," he explained. "They taste like onions. You can eat them raw or you can boil them or fry 'em. And if you got eggs and some of Prim's cheese, they might be my favorite thing."
"They grow from about now, when it's still cold, and they stop growing before it starts to get hot," Peat said. "Sometimes they're about the only green thing growing, so they're a good one to remember."
"Ramps," Katna repeated. She took the stalks from Peat and tucked them into her bag. "Got it."
Peat lifted his head and pointed to a tall bush with spade-shaped leaves and little clusters of dark berries. "This is poke," he said. His face turned serious. "If you don't boil it 'least three times with new water, it's poisonous. And sometimes it can make you sick anyway, so you got to be careful. You can't ever eat any of the roots or the berries, and once the leaves start to turn red like this – " he pointed – "the whole plant is bad."
"Why eat it, then?" Katna asked curiously, looking at the green leaves. "If it's so dangerous, why risk it?"
Peat blinked. "'Cause it grows in the winter. Just have to be careful and pay attention, and you boil it, and you got a poke salad." He tilted his head, thinking. "And if you're careful and you juice the berries, you can sometimes trade it as ink. Not that anyone in Twelve ever needs any ink."
Katna nodded and added the few green poke leaves that Peat selected to her bag.
"Hey, Peat?" she asked hesitantly, "How'd you learn all this? What's good and what's – you know. Deadly."
Peat gave her a sad half-smile. "My dad taught me. And there's a test, you know. First, you never want to eat anything you find that smells like almonds – 'cept almonds, of course. Cyanide smells like almonds. And, if you're really st – " he cut off with an embarrassed swallow. "If you're really starving, you can usually tell if a food's bad even before you eat it because it'll give you a rash on your skin when you touch it." He looked down at his hands and shrugged. "Then you just never take any mushrooms you don't recognize, and don't eat any red berries that aren't strawberries or raspberries or whatever like that. You pick it up as you need."
"No mushrooms, no red berries," Katna repeated. "Got it."
"You wanna try a little by yourself?" Peat asked, looking out over the forest hungrily. He fit here, a wild thing that needed the green leaves and mockingjay calls.
Katna nodded. They parted ways and set to filling their canvas trade bags. Katna couldn't hear Peat at all, and wondered if she would ever be able to walk so softly.
It was his silence that surprised her least when all of a sudden, he whirled around on her as she plucked a handful of purple, flowering berries from a low-hanging bush.
"Stop!" Peat cried. He thumped Katna's wrist feverishly and she squeaked indignantly as the handful of shiny, dark berries flew out of her hand and spilled all over the forest floor. "You didn't eat any, did you? Don't touch your mouth!"
"I didn't," Katna said quickly. "Why? What is it?"
"That's nightlock," Peat said seriously. "Don't never, ever eat that. You'll be dead before it hits your stomach."
Katniss sucked in a breath. "I'm really sorry."
"I shoulda showed you that one," Peat said. "Alright. Lesson's not over yet after all, huh?"
Things were different after the foraging trip. Katna felt stronger, more focused: she felt more like she had a placein District Twelve with Prim in her life and a trade route each morning. She felt like the scar on her face had changed how everyone viewed her. She wasn't just a Merchant anymore, wasn't just the baker's daughter. She was a girl who would jump in front of a whip. Katna Mellark was a girl who cared about injustice, and the scar on her face was proof.
She started talking more at lunch, not just with Madge, but with Prim and even Gale.
Peat's rotation of girls sharing his seat faded out. When the first riot of pink flowers burst, all of a sudden, out of the dogwood trees that ringed the Merchant Quarter and the air warmed into spring, Peat slung his arm across Katna's shoulders, easy as breathing.
Prim and Madge knocked each other's ankles beneath the table, both trying to get Katna at the same time.
Peat didn't say anything about it, then or after. He didn't act like anything had changed, so Katna tried to think that maybe, nothing had. But all the same, Peat Everdeen had his arm around the baker's daughter at lunch every day and in District Twelve, that was something that mattered.
The undertaker's son cornered Katna at the cubbies between Practical Sciences for Dist. 12 and Applicable Mathematics for Merchant Professions.
"So you're bagging a Seam boy," Tate Grosvenor said, looming over her. He put his arm up on the wall and leaned down close, cracking the jaw full of gummy, sour leaves with a smacking sound. "Little Catnip's all grown up."
"That's not my name," Katna said, hating the quaver in her voice. She set her chin and stared up at his oily face, turning her scar to catch the light. Step back. I've faced worse than you.
"Sure it is," Tate said. He smacked his chaw again. "Little thing for the strays to bat around. Catnip."
"Leave me alone," Katna said, reaching back into her locker.
"Why?" Tate asked. "Not enough coal dust on my hands?" He smiled a snaky, oozing smile. "Why don't you help me get them dirty."
Katna stared him down, a look of defiance that he wouldn't have expected from her. He reached out and tapped his index finger against her lip.
Katna worked up a mouthful of mucus and saliva and spit it into Tate's face.
He flushed with rage. "You're really going to wish Lover Boy was here."
He raised his hand to slap her. Katna curled her hands into fists and raised them up to her chin, steeling herself for the inevitable broken hand that would come with punching Tate in the face. She closed her eyes.
And then Tate was off her as a clatter of footprints and roaring growls echoed through the Upper School hallway. Katna opened her eyes to see Peat, a few of the deeper stripes on his back ripped open beneath his shirt and leaking blood again, pinning Tate down to the ground with his forearm hard across Tate's neck.
"What'd you do to her?" Peat growled.
"Nothing, man, get off me," choked Tate, struggling to flip Peat.
"I heardyou," hissed Peat. He torqued Tate's arm and Tate yelped. "I heard you."
"No, no – I was just – " Tate yelped again as Peat twisted his arm until Katna thought she heard a creaking sound. "Quit, Peat!"
Peat scowled hard and let up just long enough to slam his knee up into Tate's groin and bring his fist down hard into Tate's eye. As Tate curled over onto himself, Peat got up slowly, wincing at the pain in his back.
"Think I busted something again," Peat said, looking up at Katna from his knees.
Katna shook her head. "I owe you."
Peat laughed and shook his head, tossing his black curls out of his eyes. "You and me, we're even, okay? No more owed. It's getting hard to keep up."
Katna hiccupped a laugh and reached down to help Peat to his feet.
"Okay," she said. "Come on. Let's get you back to the bakery so my mother can fix you up."
"I'm alright," Peat muttered. He put his arm around Katna's shoulder, but it was heavy with his weight as he hobbled a bit under the fresh rips in his skin. "I'm supposed to start with breads today for your dad."
Katna grinned. "That should be fun."
An hour later, Katna stood in the doorway of the kitchen, her hands pressed over her mouth as she tried desperately to stifle her laughter. Peat had so much flour in his hair that he looked like he was going prematurely gray, and the dough sat lumpily on the counter like he'd insulted its mother.
Peat turned around with a wild, embarrassed look in his gray eyes. "Your dad went to do deliveries. He told me to finish the bread."
"And it attacked you?" Katna asked, stepping into the kitchen. "You did alright with Tate this afternoon."
Peat shrugged, showing her his goopy hands. "I have no idea what I'm doing."
"I can show you," Katna offered. Peat stepped back and gestured gallantly to the counter. Katna tried not to blush as she rolled up her sleeves. She looked at Peat over her shoulder. "Okay. So you've already got your dough turned out, so first we're going to fold in the remaining flour."
"Okay," Peat said, nodding. "And… that is what?"
Katna smiled. "You take some flour," she illustrated, "And sprinkle it into the middle of your dough. And then you fold it."
"I think I can handle that," Peat said with a little smirk.
"Right," Katna blustered, "So you do that until all of the flour is folded in, like this."
Katna could feel Peat's gaze on her as he leaned his good hip against the counter's edge beside her and smiled at her while she worked the dough. He reached out and trailed one finger along the side of Katna's face, caught a lock of blonde hair that had fallen out of her braids, and tucked it behind her ear.
"So what do we do now?" he asked softly, running his thumb over the shell of Katna's ear.
She swallowed. "Um… now we knead it. So… you take the dough, and form it into a ball. And – "
"Oh, I know this part," Peat said, his eyes brightening. "You punch it, right?"
Katna gulped a laugh. "No… not really. It's actually kind of a skill. So, you form the dough into a ball like this, and then with the heel of your hand – " she paused, bit her lip, then lifted his hand and ran her fingers over the heel of his hand to show him, "This part here… roll the dough forward. Then you turn it this way, like a clock running backwards, and fold it…" She looked up at Peat beside her shoulder again. "See?"
Peat's eyes were soft. "I don't know," he murmured. I think I need some more help." He slid around behind Katna and laid his hands over hers, letting his long arms wrap around her. She held her breath as the warmth and the scent of him enveloped her, all alder smoke and oranges and almond.
He nestled his mouth close to her ear. "Now show me."
Katna swallowed. "Roll the dough forward… turn it, and fold it…" She swallowed. "Roll… turn… fold…"
She felt acutely aware of Peat behind her as they worked the dough, his front pressed against her back, crowding her, making her feel little and delicate and too, too warm. The muscles of his arms were lithe but strong, hard and moving alongside hers as he kept his hands resting over hers as they moved the dough forward and back, forward and back.
Peat's breath rustled a few of the loose tendrils of blonde curl at the side of Katna's face. She held her own breath, pressing her lips together, trying not to read into the feeling of his weight pressing against her hips, rocking with the sway of the kneading.
Peat's lips tickled the top of her ear when he spoke. "How do you know when it's done?"
"It gets stiff." Katna sucked in another breath, her face blushing hot. She felt Peat grin, low and slow, along the side of her face.
"That sounds about right," he murmured. "And after that?"
Katna bit her lip, feeling like her face was on fire. "You let it rise."
Peat chuckled and Katna felt it vibrate through his chest. "You do, huh?"
"You're horrible," Katna mumbled, ducking her face down away from him. "And anyway, after it rises, you stick it in the oven and bake it."
"You stick it in, huh?" Peat asked, still laughing behind her. "'Til it's good and done?"
"Cripes, you're disgusting," Katna groaned. "Stop!"
"It's funny!" Peat crowed, tucking his face into Katna's hair as he laughed. "C'mon, baker girl, you've gotta admit it's funny."
"It's not funny," Katna mumbled. "And anyway, I think the dough is – "
"Ready," Katna corrected. "Um… but to check, you poke two fingers into it and see if the dough responds."
Peat paused. "You're shitting me, right? You're finally making a joke back?"
"No," Katna said, flustered, her eyebrows drawn together. "What are you – no, that's what you do. To check the dough."
Peat gaped. "Seriously? You don't even get why that's… oh, Katniss," he laughed. He tucked some hair behind her ear. "You're so pure."
Katna scowled. She tested the dough, fuming quietly as the indents from her fingertips filled back in like magic, then covered the dough with a white cloth and set it aside to rise.
"Is that so bad?" she asked finally. Her voice was high and tight with a whine in it that embarrassed her. She cleared her throat. "Is it so bad to be pure? You and Madge and Gale act like it's so awful that I'm not out on the slag heap every afternoon, but – "
"Hey," Peat interrupted. He rested his hands on Katna's hips and turned her around to face him, but she looked resolutely down, staring at his shoulder. "It's not awful. I think it's cute."
Katna frowned again, still looking at his shoulder. "I don't want to be cute. Kittens are cute."
"I think how innocent you are is cute," Peat corrected. His thumb ran small circles over her hipbone through the light cotton of her dress and made Katna's heart stutter. "I think you'rebeautiful."
Katna's head snapped up. Peat looked down at her, plump lips serious but gray eyes dancing. He tightened his hands on her hips, just slightly, and Katna licked her lip unconsciously as she stared up at Peat's handsome, dark face. The slight shadow of an evening beard darkened his jaw, chiseling his cheekbones sharp.
Slowly, Peat bent his face down towards her, pressing her back against the counter. Katna' heart pounded as she lifted her lips, thinking this is it, this is it, this is it…
"I think you can probably go home, Peat," said a wry voice from across the kitchen. "Looks like you're done here for today."
Peat and Katna sprang apart, and Katna' face burned as she peered over Peat's shoulder to her father, standing on the stairs with a wry smirk on his face.
Peat raised his hands and took two steps back, almost stumbling over his feet, as he nodded in deference to Farll. "Yes, sir. Thanks, sir. I'll… see you tomorrow, sir?"
"Come at four," Farll said, still smirking. "We'll start you on cookies. They're a little easier than bread."
"Yes, sir. Thanks, sir," Peat repeated, bobbing his head. He lifted one hand to Katna in a small wave. "'Night, Katniss."
Peat disappeared through the front doors of the bakery and Katna turned, still blushing to the tips of her ears, to slink upstairs in mortification.
Then, through the window at her father's back, Peat's dark, curly head popped up with a sly grin and he motioned for her to come outside.
Katna looked up at her father. "I'm – " she gestured vaguely. "I'm gonna… I'm going to the well?"
Farll raised an eyebrow and snorted. "Don't take long. Larding tonight."
"Yeah, yeah," Katna said absently, ducking out the door. "Can't wait."
She stepped out onto the back steps of the bakery and looked around for Peat, wondering which way he had run off. Then, out of nowhere, two strong hands grabbed her waist, pulled her off the stoops and down towards the hedges, and she shrieked.
"Shhh," Peat chuckled, pressing a finger to Katna's lips. "Follow me."
Katna bit her lip against a smile as she followed Peat through the bushes, not straightening to their feet until they'd crossed away from the kitchen windows to the front of the bakery and ducked out onto the road in front of the tailor shop. Peat grabbed her hand and led her along the sidewalk, checking over his shoulder every few steps with a broad, cheeky grin, until they'd reached the schoolhouse.
"C'mon," he urged softly, leading her around behind the First School.
"Where are we going?" Katna asked, tripping over a little red shovel that someone had left in the schoolyard.
Peat steadied her, smiling softly. "The opposite of the slag heap."
Katna laughed. "What?"
Peat led her over towards the mural painted on the side of the First School play-yard's wall: The Glory of The Capitol in faded, sundrenched paint. He smiled a tomcat smile down at Katna as he backed her up against the wall, stalking like a lynx, and leaned his hips against hers as they stood toe-to-toe.
"The slag heap's for dumb girls," he said, gently picking a leaf out of Katna' pale hair. "They don't know nothing, and they don't really matter much. You're not made for the slag heap. You're smart. And you matter. So… I brought you to the only smart place I know," he chuckled.
Katna flushed pink. "Thanks."
"You don't have to say thanks if something's true," Peat murmured. He trailed his callused thumb along the curve of Katna' cheek and down to her neck, measuring her pulse gently before tracing her collarbone and making her breath hitch in her throat. "I'm gonna kiss you now."
"Okay," Katna whispered. She exhaled a quiet, shuddering breath, and closed her eyes.
Peat's lips were insistent and soft against hers, warm and just gently sweet like apple. He nipped little kisses one, two, three, before sucking gently at her lower lip, touching his tongue against it fleetingly. He licked his way smoothly into her mouth and Katna mewled, a tiny sound, and fisted her hands into the front of his shirt as he slid his tongue along hers in a graceful, practiced curve.
When Katna pulled away to gasp a deep, cold breath, Peat kissed the side of her pale neck, just over her jackrabbit pulse, and hummed softly, satisfied.
Then he straightened, kissed the crown of Katna' hair sweetly, and said, with a smile, "There. Now you're a little less pure."
Katna blushed and tucked her face into Peat's chest. "Thanks."
"Don't have to say thanks for things that are true," Peat repeated playfully, picking his fingers through her fine hair. "I gotta go home. If I don't get dinner on the table 'fore sundown, Prim might get walloped. And that's not gonna happen. So I gotta go."
Katna nodded and pulled away, her hands lingering on his sides. "Okay."
Peat smiled and kissed her forehead again. "See you tomorrow, baker girl."
Katna smiled back, her cheeks pink. "See you tomorrow."
Katna walked home in a quiet, happy daze, and stopped only to pluck a last, withering dandelion from the side of the road. When she arrived at the bakery, she toed off her boots and did a little twirl on the hard floor before heading into the kitchen.
"Enjoy your trip to the well?" Farll asked sardonically. He couldn't quite stem his smile at his giddy daughter.
"Mm-hmm," Katna hummed. Then she paused and wrinkled her nose. "Whoof. Are we lardingtonight?"
Farll laughed and handed Katna a trimming knife. "Your favorite."
Spring melted into summer, dogwood blossoms replaced by locusts singing, and July rolled hot and dry over District Twelve. Peat finished healing and started hunting again, and to his surprise, Katna took to snares like a mockingjay to the treetops.
"It's the knitting," she said modestly. "Nimble fingers."
Peat waggled an eyebrow, and Katna blushed bright red and shoved his shoulder. Then she pulled him down and kissed him and kissed him.
The dry heat broke into a muggy, oppressive early fall. Prim and Peat spent more time at the Mellarks' than they did in the Seam; Prim followed Larkspur around almost as closely as Buttercup followed Prim, learning how to measure and mix the apothecary herbs. Peat spent his mornings and evenings in the bakery, quickly caught up on all of its intricacies – cakes and breads and cookies, and he was surprisingly adept at fresh summer tarts and pies using all of the fruits and herbs from the forest he'd known so well. And while he baked, Katna took to the woods – sometimes with Gale, but more often alone – to hunt game to sell the butcher at market-and-a-half for (halfway) legal sale.
Afternoons, Katna and Peat were together. Sometimes in the bakery, sometimes in the woods. Sometimes behind the school or at Madge's house or in the Hob. But always together.
On the quietest day of the year, the day the mines were all closed, they were headed to the woods.
Katna took a deep breath, inhaling the rich, mossy smell of the dew on the trees – the trees that she could name now, and climb: Bigtooth Aspen and Indian Cigar Trees, chestnuts and dogwoods and black gums. She climbed over the low, rolling hills, picking blackberries, until she reached the thicket of wild raspberry and black locust flowers that hid the hill's rocky shelf.
The sight of him waiting there brought on a smile.
Peat grinned, lopsided, at Katna and held up a loaf of bread with an arrow stuck into the crust. "Look what I shot."
Katna laughed. "You were already at the bakery? Why didn't you just wait for me? We could have walked up here together, goof."
Peat shrugged, still smiling, and plucked the arrow from the bread. "I had to go to the Hob after and bring the money to Prim. She's gotta go to the Undersees' and buy one of Madge's old dresses for the Reaping. She doesn't got any nice ones."
"Madge is making her pay?" Katna asked, surprised.
"Nah," Peat said, sighing. "Prim won't just take it, though. Madge's stuff's expensive."
"Well, it's nice of Madge to offer," Katna said. "She won't take Prim's money anyway. Not least 'cause Gale would kill her."
Peat snorted wryly. "Don't tempt fate today."
Katna sobered and Peat reached out to pull her in close for a warm, comforting hug. She pressed her face into his chest and felt him kiss the top of her head.
Then he tugged at the end of her pale braid. "I almost forgot. Prim left us a cheese."
Katna lifted her head and smiled. "Thank you, Prim."
Peat tenderly lifted Katna's chin and kissed her lips. There was a tiny smear of blackberry juice on his mouth already, and he tasted sweet. "New dress for Prim, good bread, good cheese. You. I'd say that today the odds – "
"Are definitely in your fay-vah," finished Katna with a raised eyebrow. Peat grinned roguishly and Katna pushed him away by his hips, but he caught her belt-loops and pulled her right with him, almost careening into the rough, gray-brown bark of a white ash tree. Peat turned them around and rested his hands on the tree on either side of Katna's shoulders, boxing her in with his brown arms, and leaned in close like a graceful lynx. He nipped a toothy kiss on the crest of Katna's ear and she yelped, smacking his shoulder with a laugh.
"Let's eat," he said, chuckling as he pulled away and stalked back across their clearing again. He looked out over the ledge of the hill. "We've got a feast."
Katna sliced the bread and carefully spread it with a thick layer of soft, creamy, tangy cheese. Peat washed the blackberries quickly in the little babbling brook and stripped them off their tough spines before tossing them with tears of the basil. He sprinkled that over Katna's bread and cheese, and they settled back into a nook in the hillside.
Peat twined his rough, callused fingers with Katna's as they ate and stared out over the landscape. Stretching north, the fields grayed and thinned out until, just in the zenith of the horizon, they could make out the fenced-in, brownish bare patch of twisted wreckage that used to be District Thirteen.
Katna sighed and rested the side of her head against Peat's solid shoulder as she chewed.
"Do you want kids?" he asked suddenly, not looking at her.
She glanced up, shocked, and saw that his cheeks were stained pink under the layers of soot and dark tan on his face.
"Why?" she asked, a smile twitching at her mouth.
"Just asking," Peat mumbled. "I might."
Katna flushed. She remembered the way Peat had looked like a kitten when he was little, with that head full of black curls and his raggedy school clothes when he sang the anthem. "Why are you telling me?"
Peat's gray eyes flickered over to her face and settled on her lips. "Well, it affects you, don't it?" He paused, meeting her eyes. "Doesn't it?"
Katna smiled, her lips pressed together tightly. She squeezed Peat's hand and turned to kiss his shoulder.
"I don't think I ever could with the Hunger Games," she said softly. "I don't think I'm that strong."
Peat nodded and rested his lips against her forehead – not a kiss, just an acknowledgement. "I get that."
They finished their food in silence, and Katna knocked her foot against Peat's ankle. "What do you want to do today?"
Peat hummed. "Let's go to the lake. We can fish a little… and I'll teach you to swim. Never know when it might be important."
Katna laughed. "Yeah, right. And I guess you'll want to try to teach me singing next?"
Peat shrugged. "Like I said, it might be important. And anyway, my dad always said that everyone should learn to swim a little if they go fishing."
"Alright," Katna sighed. "But don't let me drown."
Peat grinned and held out a hand to help Katna to her feet. "Never, Katniss."
The lake was calm and warm, the fish trusting and sluggish with late-summer fatness, and the sun rose higher in the sky as Katna and Peat cast out their lines. Once they'd caught a neat dozen fish, Peat bagged them and turned to Katna with a sly grin. "Swimming time."
Katna pulled a face. "Do I have to?"
"I'm not gonna hold your head underwater or anything if you refuse," Peat said. "But I think you should."
Katna sighed again and stripped out of her blouse, blushing when Peat's eyes followed the lines of her torso when she waded back to the shore to put her shirt and skirt by their bags. Peat left his on – more layers between the new skin on his back and the frying rays of the sun – but his hands were strong and steady on Katna's waist when he helped her lean back and lift her feet from the ground. The first few times, she collapsed almost immediately and clutched onto Peat's forearms, but the third, she looked up at the painful blue of the sky.
It didn't seem possible that tonight, two kids they knew would be on a train towards the Capitol for their deaths. From here, away from town, away from Merchants and the Seam and Peacekeepers and the Hob, District Twelve was beautiful.
"That's it," Peat encouraged sweetly. "Look at you, floating. You're a natural."
"You're full of it," Katna mumbled, falling into the water. She spluttered and Peat caught her, reeling her in close. Katna shivered at the feeling of their bare skin pressing up against each other.
"Never," Peat chuffed. He smirked cheekily as he reached down to cup her ass and Katna blushed beneath her dark, forest tan. "You're turning into a real hunter girl yet, Katniss Mellark."
"Why do you always call me Katniss?" Katna asked curiously, brushing Peat's dark, wet curls back from his forehead. "No one else does."
She expected Peat to smile, but he didn't. His eyes were serious and warm as he pushed back and swam to the water's edge, where he dug down into the mud. He pulled up some straggly, purplish roots, his hands covered in black, brackish sludge, and waded back.
"These are katniss roots," Peat said, holding them up. "They're like potatoes, if you're really hungry. I mean, if you're reallyhungry." He sucked in a breath through his teeth with a short hissing sound. "And you know I was. I came down here the day you offered to buy Prim's cheese... was gonna try to fish. But I couldn't even stand anymore. I thought I was really going to die. Maybe not that day, but. Soon. And I laid down by the water and I was thinking that it was good at least Prim could eat if she sold you the cheese, and then I saw these sticking up outta the water. And I was thinking of you anyways, so I thought… katniss. I can stay alive as long as I can find Katniss."
"Oh," Katna gasped, cupping Peat's face and pulling him down for a frantic, sloppy kiss. Peat dropped the roots into the lake and slid his hands around her waist, slippery with mud and water. He pulled her close, lifting Katna off her feet. She wrapped her legs around his waist, buoyed by the water, and Peat caressed her thighs as he hoisted her tighter against him.
"You love me," Katna stated, turning his wet curls through her fingers and speaking between kisses. Peat smelled like dill and cinnamon and almonds; like the bakery and home. "For real, or not for real?"
Peat stroked Katniss' cornsilk hair back behind her ear. The sun had bleached it nearly white, and tanned her skin to an almost Seam-like toasty brown. "Real."
Katna barely noticed as Peat carried her out of the lake and laid her out on a stretch of soft marshgrass on the shore, still kissing her like it might be the last thing he ever did. She traced her hands as gently as a butterfly's wing over the pits and furrows marking his back. The place where it all started.
Katna stared intently into Peat's bright gray eyes. "We could do it, you know."
"Really?" Peat asked, sitting up slightly and propping himself up on his elbows. "Okay. Right now?"
"No," Katna laughed, "No, I meant – like you said, stay alive as long as we have each other. We could run away. From the Seam and District Twelve and all that. We could make it, you and I."
Peat smiled quietly and cupped Katna's jaw in one hand. She stretched up towards his mouth and they kissed, sweet and clinging and simple.
"What about Prim?" he asked. "I couldn't leave her. Not with my mother."
"Well, we'll take Prim with us," Katna said, grinning. "She can bring Lady and I'll knit us all coats. And someday we'll come back to Twelve and rescue my parents and everyone."
"Even Haymitch?" Peat asked, smiling above her.
"Even Haymitch," Katna said. "He helped me save you."
Peat rolled them so they lay on their sides, front to front, and Katna ran her hand gently over his patchwork scars. "How about Gale and Madge?"
Katna wrinkled her nose. "They have their own problems to run away from. We'd get found right away with them yelling so much."
Peat laughed so loudly that he scared a troupe of mockingjays out of the trees and they took off with a great chorus of his laughter, echoing back at them from twenty birds.
He flipped Katna onto her back and propped himself up over her, aligning himself over her hips. "Okay," he said. "Let's run away. You and me and Prim. We can do it after the Reaping today, so they won't know we're gone for a while. Who knows? Maybe there is a District Thirteen."
"I doubt that," Katna laughed. "I think we're gonna become cave-people."
"I could grow a beard," Peat said thoughtfully, leaning down to rub the scratchy underside of his chin against Katna's cheek. She squealed and tightened her hands on his hips.
From far, far off, the sound of the clock on the Justice Building tower chimed twelve.
Katna's hands tightened on Peat's hips again. "It's almost time for the Reaping."
Peat nodded and tilted his head down to press a consoling kiss to Katna's mouth. "We should go. But it'll be fine, alright? And – " he hesitated. "I hope you were serious about leaving here. With me. I gotta tell you, I've been thinking about running since I was thirteen. But with Prim, I just… there were things keeping me here."
Katna reached up and pulled Peat down to her again, kissing him soundly. "I was. We'll go. I'll stay with you."
"Always," Peat murmured with a wonderstruck smile. Then he pushed himself up and held down a hand for Katna. She scrabbled up beside him and then laced her fingers through his.
"Come on," she said. "Let's go get it over with."
"Katniss," Peat said, not looking at her, "I have twenty-four slips."
"But there are still thousands of slips," Katna whispered. She squeezed his hand. "Let's go."
There are hundred ways that a story starts:
the day that Katniss Mellark started attending First School,
the day the deep mine collapsed,
the day that Madge Undersee started seeing Gale Hawthorne,
the day Farll Mellark traded Peat Everdeen bread for cheese,
the winter Katna knit an orange sweater.
Donnel's proposal, Larkspur's rebuff.
Haymitch's Reaping, Maysilee's death.
The First Rebellion,
the alleged fall of District Thirteen,
the election of President Snow.
But the real story finally begins with the name that Effie Trinket pulls from the Reaping ball of the 74th Hunger Games.
It's Primrose Everdeen.