'Are you, are you, coming to the tree.
Where the dead man called out for his love to flee'.
The words from my father's favorite ditty send a shudder down my spine. There was no way he could have possibly known exactly how prophetic it would turn out to be. But I suppose, I'll be able to tell him soon enough.
I can't feel the pain, but I can see the warm blood seeping through my fingers as they press firmly into the gunshot wound. My vision is becoming blurry and the voices around me seem to be a jumbled and distant. I know it won't be long till I lose consciousness. My silver eyes flicker to the people in front of me. I have to make a move. I have to shoot. Because there will be no reason to live, if they don't make it out of here alive.
My right hand shakes as I raise my gun and I whimper pitifully as it occurs to me that this all started only fourteen days ago with the same pretty primrose and set of brilliant blue eyes.
Fourteen Days Ago...
15:40 Monday – Harlem, New York
"Katniss!" My sister Primrose yells excitedly as she barges through the front door. I listen as she pads through our cosy New York apartment and into the kitchen before I glance up from the paper and meet her bright blue eyes. A smile makes its way onto my face as I note the giant grin on hers.
"Hey Prim! What's made your day?" I ask.
"I've got a job!" She cries in response, as she twirls around the room ecstatically. "I just can't believe it! I have a job!"
My mouth drops open in shock. "What? What about school?" I stammer, confused by her sudden change in priorities. My younger sister has never expressed the desire to do anything other than get good enough grades to qualify for medical school and she didn't say a word about having an interview. What on earth has brought this on?
My beauty queen of a sister spins around to face me. "I'm not quitting school Katniss," she sighs as she rolls her eyes.
"Oh, a part-time job," I state as relief floods through my body. "You know, you don't need to work…"
My younger sister sits down opposite me. "I know I don't need to Katniss," Prim tells me gently, sensing, accurately, that I was on edge. "But it's got so boring! Now that you work night shift I have so many spare hours and there is only so much studying I can do."
So boring? So boring! How I wish I could find time to be bored. "I told you that you can have Rory around," I mutter but it sounds like an excuse.
"And I love spending time with Rory," Prim responds with a little bit too much enthusiasm. "But there are only so many movies you can watch… and I really want to do this, I'll be helping out at the R.N.R clinic."
I choke on my drink. "Where all the street kids go," I splutter.
Prim glares at me in response and I instantly feel terrible for saying it. I sigh. I didn't mean to upset her, I just don't see things the same way she does. My glass is never half full.
I sigh inwardly; I have no right to judge the place. It really wasn't that long ago that we had needed the free services that the R.N.R clinic provides.
The hard times had started with the death of my father when I was fourteen. It was the same day I lost my mother. She sunk into depression and never completely came back. For a couple of years it had looked particularly bleak. Prim and I weren't far off starving to death, our teachers had made reports to the police, and the debt collectors were knocking on the door.
Hope, put us back on track and amazingly we made it to my eighteenth birthday. That was the day my mother was put into the hospice, the day I filled out the papers to keep Prim, and the day I joined the New York Police Department.
Eight years have passed since that day and now I am quite settled in the rank of Detective-Investigator. I'd be lying if I said it was my skill and smarts alone that got me my position. I had help, and amazing amount of luck. There is a lot to be said about being in the right place at the right time. My work, however, does not help improve my outlook on society.
Sighing, I walk across the apartment to my sister's room. My lips twitch up as I find her leaning over her human biology book, an intense look of concentration on her face. I always feel lighter in her room. The walls are adorned with hundreds of photos of happy times and bright yellow curtains hang from the window. It reflects her personality perfectly and it leaves me contemplating my own: my room is as plain as it was the day we moved in.
"Prim," I start but she interrupts me before I can find the right words.
"You know it's not that bad," she reasons logically, while staring up at me with her giant, pleading, puppy dog eyes. "And the money I earn can go towards my medical school fund. And I get some experience doing what I love!"
I don't reply but instead look at the ugly grey cat, Buttercup that is glaring at me cat from his perch on Prim's lap. He is looking at me so intently that I can almost read his thoughts: She moves – I attack your ankles… kapeesh?
I scowl back at the stupid thing. I can still drown you.
In truth my mental struggle with Buttercup is just a distraction from weight that dropped on my shoulders at the mention of medical school. Even though I adore her I wish she would slow down… could we just get through this week for a start, then we can talk about the month, and then perhaps the year?
My phone starts vibrating in my pocket and I rush out of my thoughts. "When do you start," I ask Prim, distracted by my partner's number which is flashing on the front of my cell.
"Tomorrow," she replies, some of her earlier giddiness returning.
"I'm coming with you then. I want to see this place and meet the people you are working with." I tell her with a small frown as my phone continues to ring. I leave her room and slide my finger across my phone. "Hi Gale," I mutter, slightly distracted by the task of finding my handbag.
"We're needed in Clinton. 609 West 46th Street. Big warehouse," he tells me quickly.
"Be there in ten," I tell him as I hop around pulling on my boot awkwardly. I hang up the phone and grab my coat, keys and and handbag. "Prim, I've got to go. I'm locking you in, call and tell Hazelle that you are here alone please."
Hazelle, Gale's mother, is probably the only family friend that Prim and I have left. Gale's father had been a work colleague of my father and he and his kind wife had been there for us the first few years after the accident. I always wonder if my mother would have eventually got better with their help, but I will never know because Mr Hawthorne was a volunteer fire-fighter and sadly he never made it out of the second tower. To Hazelle's credit, she didn't slip away like my mother did. She went out and found a job and reared her children on her own. To this day I respect her for it; even though it meant she had to leave Prim and me to survive on our own.
"I will, but Rory is coming over anyway. We have midterms coming up" She informs me and I notice the slight change in pitch for the second time this afternoon. I make a mental note to have a chat with my little sister about Rory Hawthorne later.
"See you later little duck" I call as I walk out the door, locking it behind me.
16:28 Monday – Clinton, NY
"You look like crap," I comment when I walk up to Gale who is leaning on his car outside the giant warehouse. He looks absolutely exhausted. His iron eyes are droopy and bloodshot and olive skin looked paler than usual. I silently wonder what time he actually left the Precinct this morning.
"Charming as always Catnip," he says in reply with a smile that would make most girls swoon. "What's got your panties in a twist?"
"Midterms, Rory, medical school, college, jobs, clinics... just to list a few," I mumble in response. We walk up to the old building and climb under the police tape, flashing our badges at the uniformed officers.
Gale chuckles. "She's growing up," he notes as we are directed towards the back of the building. He knows that I am still coming to terms with the fact that my little sister is getting older.
"I know," I sigh. "She keeps reminding me. She came home today and said she had a job in the clinic just around the corner from where we live. The one where…" I trail off thinking that Gale and his siblings probably visited there when they were younger too. I sigh, "why can't she just apply at McDonald's like everyone else?"
Gale chuckles at me; and I think I see him roll his eyes. "She'll be fine Katniss. Peeta Mellark runs that place these days. He'll keep her out of trouble."
Peeta Mellark. I say the name quietly trying hard to come up with an image. Finding none I look at Gale "Who is Mellark?" I inquire, feeling as though I really should know the answer to this.
He regards me with mild surprise, "You remember, he went to high school with us, the Baker's son, nice guy really… he is still friends with Madge."
I stopped listening the moment Gale says Baker's. My heart clenches as I remember the twelve year old boy with blue eyes and a fresh red mark on his face, pushing a paper bag filled with warm bread rolls into my hands without saying a word. The boy with the bread…
My thoughts trail off as we walk into the scene of the crime. I am instantly disheartened by the sight. A teenage boy, no older than fifteen, is lying face down in a pool of his own blood with a butcher's knife in his back. It never really gets easier – finding the dead. I look at Gale and sigh.
"It's going to be a long night."
03:00 Tuesday – 1 Police Plaza, NY
It's the early hours of the morning when Police Commissioner Paylor, who is making her monthly rounds through the bureaus, tells us to go home. Until the autopsy report and DNA come back we are all out of leads. There was no missing persons report, no witnesses, and seemingly no friends. I silently wonder if this would have been my fate. "If it hadn't been for the bread," I mumble.
Pulling my bag out of my locker I take a moment to look at myself in the small mirror. I am unimpressed to see that I don't look much better than Gale did earlier. Sighing, I carefully close the metal door and spin the lock. I let my subconscious guide me down the hall as I mull over the memory of the bread.
Just as I hit the button for the lift, I hear my name.
I look back towards the paunchy, middle-aged man whose scruffy hair almost covered his eyes and wonder, as I often do, how the hell he managed to get so far up the ranks with his total disregard for his appearance. Then I remember how good he is at his job.
As chief of the Detective Bureau the man is my direct boss, and he's a good one. He is intelligent and intuitive and perhaps most importantly, he knows how to win over politicians, businessmen and the higher ranking police officers. I also know for a fact that underneath the hard-ass image he portrays expertly, he has a pretty good heart.
Unfortunately, he also has a tendency to piss me off. I tried to convince Gale once that it was because he was an ass, at least, when he was trying to be. Gale had countered saying it was because we were too much alike. The bruise on Gales arm was there for a week. Still, even though I will never admit it to my partner, I can see the similarities.
"Chief," I snap, annoyed that he had managed to catch me before I got out of the building.
"Door," he states coolly, ignoring my tone, actually pretty much ignoring me all together.
I kick the door shut. "Closed," I growl.
The chief looks up from the pile of paper work in front of him and sighs. That's when I realize that this was not our usual Everdeen versus Abernathy debate, but a Katniss and Haymitch conversation. He eyes me with concern and I once again see the detective I met almost ten years ago when I was still desperately trying to survive.
It was long after midnight in East Village – not really a safe time or place for a 16 year old girl. I didn't know he was following me as I did my rounds. I delivered papers all night long during those days just to make ends meet. And when he knocked on the door of our apartment at three in the morning I nearly took him out with my father's old hunting rifle.
"I don't want you on this one," he tells me honestly after a moment of silence.
I sigh and sit down. "I'm fine… I'm a cop… and there will always be kids."
"It's too soon," he says, holding my gaze, "you're already distracted."
I laugh, "That's because Prim has up and got herself a job," I reply. "It's been years. I'm an adult now Hay…Sir."
I'm aware that Abernathy sees me the same way I see Prim. I will always be the frightened sixteen year old pointing a gun at him, begging him not to take my sister and screaming at him to leave us alone.
He scowls obviously annoyed that I have passed his mental test, "fine, but if this gets as bad as I think it will… you're off the case."
I want to roll my eyes but I respect him too much for that much insolence. His words had me thinking: how bad did he think it would get?
His expression abruptly changes. "Get out of my office," he orders looking annoyed with himself. I frown knowing that again my expression was, once again, giving away too much.
15:27 Tuesday – Harlem, NY
"Katniss, wake up!" The words startle me out of my sleep. I yawn and roll over onto my side, only to realize that I was in the living room. Ugh. I slept on the couch again! I sigh promising from probably the thousandth time that I would attempt to sleep in my room tomorrow.
"What time is it?" I mumble, feeling a little dazed.
"3:30 pm" She replies, "I'm about to go to work, I know you said you wanted to come…"
Suddenly I am wide awake and staring at the excited grin on my sister's face. "Primrose… you could have at least given me some time to get ready," I splutter. I get up and begin to rush around, madly trying to make myself look half decent.
"Katniss?" Prim questions after a moment, and I stop to look at her. Her pretty face was regarding me with confusion. "Since when do you… get ready?" she asked pronouncing the last two words slowly, making the point that they were foreign.
I stand still wasting valuable minutes while I think about the question. Since when do I get ready? It is a good question… I never get ready… I mean I am always clean and presentable but I don't exactly put a lot of time into my appearance. Braided hair, jeans, shirt, boots – my wardrobe. And sure enough when I look in the mirror I already have most of these things. Given my braid was a bit loose from sleeping and I was wearing my work pants not jeans, and my boots had been kicked off by the door when I got home last night.
"I, I don't know," I stutter, "It doesn't matter, just let me find my jeans, and I'll clean my teeth."
We were ready and out the door five minutes later. Despite having doused myself with perfume I still feel as though I should have had a shower, and possibly re-braided my hair. I look at my little sister who was watching me with a raised eyebrow and a smile.
"What?" I ask flatly.
She grins in response. She always has known me better that I know myself.
We walk up a block to the clinic that took up the large corner unit. I'm not sure why, but it looks more inviting now than when we were younger. I think it's been repainted.
"So who should I talk to about this job," I ask Prim as we approach the building, "you're not eighteen, surely you can't be around all these drugs and things."
She shrugs, "The doctor who hired me said that I could just start keeping the younger children entertained and comfortable you know, at least until I had permission from my guardian…" she trails off looking at me sheepishly.
"You told the doctor that I wouldn't agree!" Great. What sort of guardian doesn't want her over-achieving, heart-of-gold sister to not have the opportunity to chase her dreams?
"Not exactly, I just said that my guardian might not like it," she replies diplomatically.
And she is spot on: I don't like it. But she knows better than anyone that I can't say no to her, as long as she is safe. She is far too smart to ask for anything that she doesn't really want or need. "Does the doctor have a name?" I sigh as we walk through the large glass automatic doors.
"Doctor Mellark?" She queries and, all of a sudden, her brow furrows. "Is that why you suddenly need to get ready?" she asks slyly just as my eyes find his.
They are bright blue, just how I remember them, and I choose to ignore my sister's question even though I can't help but think that she was spot on, again.
I fight the blush and concentrate on breathing as he walks over to us. I haven't seen him in nine years and they have been kind to him. Not that Peeta has ever been anything other than attractive. He was always 'that boy' at school; the one who could make any girl's day with a smile.
My eyes roam the striking man. He is taller than I remember with broad shoulders and the muscular build of an athlete. He still has fair skin (though it is slightly more tanned) and his ashy blonde locks still fall in waves over his forehead till just above his stunning blue eyes. I feel the blush win as I am caught staring and marvel at the air of confidence radiating from him as he sends me a knowing half smile. Damn, he is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous!
"Good Afternoon," he says politely to Prim and me.
Prim is practically bursting with excitement as she greets him. She begins babbling about how thrilled she is; only stopping when Peeta's eyes flicker to me.
"Oh, this is Katniss, my sister and guardian; you know each other already right? From school?" She quizzes, but she doesn't give us time to reply. "Oh and it's okay, I've got permission, I mean, Katniss said I can work here."
Did I? I look at my sister's pleading look. No I did not. I look between her and the doctor and feel my resolve ebb away. Who am I kidding, I'm not going to be able to say no, not now.
My inner turmoil must show because he is reading my expression carefully. "That's good news," he tells to her with a sincere smile. "Well then if you want to start Portia, the head nurse you met yesterday, is over at the triage counter. She will no doubt have a job for you."
I feel fear churn in my stomach as I watch my sister practically run to the nurses' station. I turn back to the man that she has left me with. Our eyes lock. "So do I call you Doctor, Peeta?" I ask slightly unsure of where we stood. Did he even remember me? This is absurd – why am I so nervous.
He laughs. It's rich and real and I can't help but smile. Haymitch would be impressed – he is certain that I wear a scowl in my sleep. "Peeta is fine," he reassures me.
"I um, Prim said there is some paper work that I need to sign?" I can feel the heat in my cheeks again. What is going on? I don't blush! And I certainly don't get ready. Ugh. I don't even want to be here!
Mirth shines brightly in his eyes and for a moment I wonder if I am voicing my opinion.
"So you are actually all right with this?" Peeta asks, his eyes softening. He seems to know how hard this is for me…
Then it hits me… of course he knows. He was witness to the worst times, and probably watched as I dragged the two of us back from the dead. He would have heard the whispers of black eyes dealt for looking twice at Primrose Everdeen. He would have seen me leave the seniors so that I could watch over her at lunch, to make sure she ate, to make sure she was happy, to make sure she was safe. I tighten my grip on the strap of my handbag.
"Yes, it's fine," I sigh feeling slightly deflated. I can't say no to Prim and I definitely can't say no to him. I owe him, and he knows.
Peeta nods and smiles as though he can tell what I'm thinking before gesturing towards an office down the hall. "Come on then, we had better get you to sign all the paper work before you change your mind."
He and I sit down opposite each other at his desk and he places the paperwork between us. I am impressed as he reads though it with me, explaining any medical jargon. He is patient with my questions and chuckles at the couple of threats I throw in for good measure. All in all, the whole meeting is quite comfortable.
"I am deadly serious though, if anything happens to her… I will be after blood."
"I don't doubt it," he laughs lightly. He leans back in his seat and looks straight into my eyes. "Katniss, I will make sure that she is safe, I won't put her in any dangerous situations, Primrose will be my responsibility when she is here."
I sit back in my seat, relief coursing through me. It bothers me because I don't ever feel relieved when it comes to my sister. I study his features thinking that he always did have a way with words.
I decide to ignore all of it for a moment and try to start a conversation, not exactly a strength of mine, but it was better than gawking at him. "I didn't think you would ship off to college. I was surprised when your mother told me you weren't at the bakery anymore" I blush slightly (again!) when I think of that day, the day when I had finally found the nerve to go and say thank you, only to find it was too late.
"I still bake sometimes," he admits honestly. "But I didn't really want to stay with my mother after my brothers up and got married, and Dad left. And I enjoy being a doctor, I can actually help these kids…Prim said that you are a detective these days."
I choose to ignore the pause in his monologue and nod in response, "I signed up when I was eighteen. I wanted to help, I guess like you, but I also really needed something to be able to support Prim." I met his eyes again. They are just so blue.
I'm not sure how long we sat there in the peaceful silence; I didn't even realize that the minutes had passed until my phone begins to ring. I blink with surprise and, disappointment, as the moment came to an end. It didn't even need to look at my cell to know it was work.
"I'm sorry, duty calls and all that," I mumble.
He grins. "You are welcome here anytime, even if it just to threaten me," he tells me with a wink.
I can't help but smile back at him. How many was that now? Haymitch wouldn't believe it!
I answer the phone which is still ringing as I rush out of the clinic glancing back to see the handsome doctor watch me go with his warm smile.