In the days that followed their return, Katniss saw how bad things had become under Thread. A slate of new rules and harsher penalties had been instituted in their absence.
Wages were cut and hours extended at the mine. What little Seam folk had before was stretched thinner still. The latest batch of victory parcels arrived late and when the cargo was unloaded District Twelve residents were devastated to discover rotten fruit and grain infested with vermin.
It was punishment to be sure. Everyone was suffering the consequences of President Snow's wrath, from poor Darius to every last starving child in the Seam.
Guilt gnawed at Katniss' insides. She remembered well the hollow days from her youth and the pains of an empty belly. She couldn't bear to see the people of her district waste away. Her only salvation was that her family's shelves remained well-stocked. Strangely enough Snow didn't stop their victor's winnings from coming in. Katniss wanted little to do with the blood money, but she couldn't deny it kept her sister fed. Prim's cheeks stayed round and rosy, her hair remained shiny and lustrous, her ribs didn't protrude from her skin unlike increasing numbers of Seam and town folk.
The inability to hunt and forage left Katniss feeling useless. She stayed hidden in Victor's Village for days after the Hob fire, once the sick and injured were returned to their homes. She couldn't face the people of her district, knowing she was the cause of their suffering.
She spent hours a day holed up in the basement of an empty Victor's home making arrowheads she would probably never use. It felt though good though, to do something familiar. The practiced motions of rubbing limestone along the hard flint edges lulled her mind. It lulled her mind almost as much the white liquor she'd taken to sharing with Haymitch the past few evenings.
The stinging burn she felt the first night dissolved into a warmth she found quite seductive. She understood how Haymitch could easily lose himself to the strong drink. But Peeta would always arrive before she could get too deep in her cups. He'd wrap his arm around her waist to hold her steady — despite her vehement protests that she was fine — and walk across the village to their house.
Katniss didn't see much of Peeta in the days following the fire. He would rise early and not return until evening, until he collected her from Haymitch's.
She just didn't have it within herself to leave the Victor's Village, until one day she decided to follow Peeta into town. Through the haze of her own misery, she had grown curious as to Peeta's goings on. She wondered where he secreted away to for all those hours of the day, without acknowledging, let alone offering an explanation for his absence.
So Katniss followed him, tracking him like prey through the manicured lawns and bizarre topiaries of Victor's Village, over cobblestone walkways in the town square, to the part of town where his family's bakery stood.
She watched Peeta rap on the back door in a strange sort of code and it reminded her of her past backdoor dealings with merchants, where they had wanted her game but didn't want to be seen at their front door associating with a Seam brat.
Katniss ducked behind the spindly apple tree near the hog trough and watched as Peeta exchanged a handful of bills with his father who in return loaded his son with a cart full of baked of goods. She watched father embrace son with a proud smile on his face.
She stood confused and transfixed at the scene before her. Peeta covered the cart with a large cloth before heading off to the Seam. Between Peeta's heavy tread and the loud noise of the rickety cart it was easy keep her presence hidden.
Peeta's first stop was the mine. Katniss struggled to stay in the shadows as she watched him approach a man she recognized as the foreman, they talked for a few minutes before Peeta grabbed a basket filled to the brim with hearty bread and handed it to the grizzly older man. His lined, haggard face was streaked with sweat and coal dust but the he didn't look cowed or ashamed at the charity, as Katniss herself might once have been. The man leveled Peeta with a steady gaze that radiated gratitude. They exchanged a few words and a handshake before Peeta headed off to his next destination.
It only took a few more stops for Katniss to realize what he was up to.
While she had holed up in dark corners like a coward these past few days, Peeta braved distrust and suspicion and ventured into the harsh, unwelcoming world of the Seam so that he might lend a helping hand. Tears sprang to her eyes as she watched him, her Boy with the Bread.
The Seam children flocked to him like he was Father Christmas, and perhaps he was. But instead of bearing trinkets and frivolities he bore food, sustenance — the gift of life.
She quickly realized that this routine must have been what he was up to for the past several days, for the children seemed familiar with his presence and the adults were startlingly at ease with the outsider.
Her vision began to blur when Hazelle Hawthorne happened upon her.
"He's a good man, Katniss."
She swiped tears from her face before replying bitingly, "I know that."
"Maybe once upon a time they would have scoffed at his charity, what with his Merchant looks, but they know better. They saw your games, saw how good and pure he was, how much he loved you. They figured out pretty quick he didn't want anything in return."
Katniss' heart twisted as she watched Peeta pick up a scrawny little Seam girl. The tiny child was a slip of a thing, all dusky skin and frail bone with wiry dark hair that fell in tangles around her shoulders. Peeta didn't balk at her torn, filthy dress. He smiled brightly at the young girl and offered her a cheese bun. The girl ate it so quickly she could hardly have tasted it and Peeta's smile grew wider still before handing her another which she ate just as quickly. He engaged the girl's mother in conversation before handing her a hearty loaf of bread, the kind full of fruit and nuts. The little girl kissed him on the cheek before returning to her mother, together running off toward their home, eager to share their good fortune with the rest of their family.
Katniss' voice trembled with emotion when she asked Hazelle, "He's been doing this every day?"
"He does. He starts with the food and once that runs out he usually goes around helping out where he can. Quick fixes and small repairs, things like that. Patched a hole in Leevy's leaky roof in time for the last rain storm. Boarded up broken windows for the Bennets so their girls wouldn't freeze."
Hazelle placed her hands on Katniss' cheeks, forcing the girl to meet her eyes. "You're a quite a pair you two. Brave and selfless to a fault."
Katniss snorted at the woman's kind words. "I'm not good, not like him," she said, waving an arm in Peeta's direction.
"Katniss child, you may be hard and tough but that's just because you're willing to do what it takes to survive, but you've never been unkind or cruel. You are a beacon of light in a dark, dark time."
"No one decent ever wins the games, Hazelle."
"Well the way I understand it, you don't really win the games, you only survive them. So perhaps maybe that counts for something."
Hazelle bent to retrieve the basket of wash she'd set aside. She gave Katniss one last parting glance before heading to town.
Katniss watched Peeta interact with the Seam families, his bright yellow head of hair standing out like a dandelion in the spring against their coal-black locks.
She closed her eyes tightly to keep tears from falling and ran back to the Victor's Village. Her breaths were shallow and short when she climbed the steps to her mentor's home. A fire blazing in the hearth told her that Haymitch had roused himself for the day. She found him with a chunk of bread in one hand and a bottle of white liquor in the other.
Haymitch swallowed when he saw the look on her face. He cleared his throat a few times before speaking. "So you figured it out, didn't you? While you've been holed up in here with me, he's been out trying to the save district singlehandedly."
She snapped at her mentor, "A hundred lifetimes, right Haymitch? Isn't that what you said? That I could live a hundred lifetimes and not deserve him? Well I'm still messing up the first one, so cut me some slack."
"If we cut you any more slack Sweetheart, you'll hang yourself with it."
"Oh shut up," she said, grabbing a slice of the soft bakery bread.
"Opting for white bread instead of white liquor today I see, maybe you're not such a lost cause yet."
"Isn't he scared? Aren't you scared? I'm so afraid some days I can hardly breathe. Snow's not happy. We didn't succeed in quelling the uprisings. Peeta and I got married for nothing," she lamented.
"No, it wasn't for nothing. Snow set an impossible task before you and you did your best. People wanted to rise against the Capitol long before you volunteered and long before you held up that handful of berries."
"When people say stuff like that it sounds so brave, but I don't feel brave anymore Haymitch. I feel like a coward. All I wanted to do was keep Prim safe and I don't feel like she's any safer now than when Effie pulled her name out of a bowl all those months ago."
"Listen Sweetheart, I don't know what the future holds. I don't know what nasty tricks Snow has up his sleeve. But I do know that you, Peeta and I will do everything we can to keep that sweet little sister of yours safe. You may be scared now, but I know you, you're like me. We hide ourselves away, do what we can to ignore the fear and anger and pain but when push comes to shove the claws will come out. I meant what I said last year, I got a pair of fighters and I know you two won't give up." Haymitch took a drink of liquor, as if to seal his words with a promise and Katniss offered her mentor a grateful smile in return.
"Now go on, get out of here. I can think of a few places where you'd be more helpful that at my table."
Katniss rose and made her way to the door but paused when she heard Haymitch call her name.
"I think it's time we put a stop to your afternoon visits. Last thing we need is another lush on this team."
She nodded in agreement. "Alright."
Haymitch raised his hand in a thumbs up sign, like he did after she received her training score, and Katniss laughed for the first time in days.
The chilly air felt refreshing in her lungs and even her steps felt lighter as she made her way back to the Seam.
She found Peeta fixing rotted out steps in front of Greasy Sae's house. The gash above her eye still looked pretty gruesome, but she was a survivor. Sae spotted her first and called her name as soon as Peeta finished hammering the last nail into place.
"Katniss, come inside! I made some tea to go with the cookies your young man brought me." Sae ushered them inside and sat them down at the table. Sae's young granddaughter took shaky steps around their feet, first clutching to the table's legs and eventually Katniss and Peeta's. The girl lost her balance and was about to tumble to the floor when Katniss scooped her up and sat her on her lap.
She broke off a bite of the soft, frosted sugar cookie and handed it the toddler. The girl squealed gleefully before shoving the entire morsel in her mouth. Katniss laughed before wiping slobber and crumbs from the girl's face. When she looked up she found Peeta's eyes boring into hers, a soft smile on his face. He shook his head and his expression cleared when Sae returned to the table with steaming mugs of tea.
"Haven't see you around since that awful fire, girl. Peeta says you been under the weather. I sure hope you're alright now."
Katniss stole a look at Peeta, whose face revealed nothing.
"Yes, that's right Sae. I haven't felt very well these past few days. I think I'm better now though," she said, casting Peeta a meaningful glance.
"That's good. Good to hear! Nasty bit of business about that fire. But don't you worry, Seam folk survive. And your young man here has been mighty helpful, I must say."
"So I've heard," she muttered.
"I've been wondering girl, what are you planning to do with your house across the way there?" Greasy Sae asked, pointing to Katniss' family home across the dirt street.
"I hadn't given it any thought."
"I figured as much. Now I hope you don't think old Sae is overstepping her bounds, but what do you think about letting someone else live there?"
Katniss set her cup down and blinked slowly. She turned wide eyes on the older woman, asking "You want someone else to live in Daddy's house?"
"Oh I didn't mean to upset you girl, it's just I've been watching it sit there empty all these months and it's a good strong house with a sturdy roof, I know because I watched your daddy thatch it myself and I know you always fixed the leaks in the years since he passed and I was just thinking that it wasn't doing nobody any good sitting there all alone. What do you say?"
Katniss struggled to find words. "I-uh. I...Did you have anyone in mind?"
"You know Thom? From Gale's crew? The one who got burned pretty badly? Well he's got himself a real sweet fiancée and they'd been saving up for a place but with him injured and unable to work right now it's making it real hard for them to make ends meet and I thought that might be something real nice you could do for them."
"You want Thom and his girl to live in Mama and Daddy's old house? The house I grew up in?" Katniss struggled to get the words out. Her thoughts were an incoherent jumble, but all she could understand was that the idea of someone else — someone other than her, her mother, father and baby sister — living in that house hurt her deeply.
Her eyes snapped to Peeta's when he wrapped her hand in his larger, warmer one. He offered her an understanding smile and spoke softly to Sae, "How about you let Katniss think about it, alright?"
"Of course, of course. Like I said, I didn't mean nothin' by it. You think about it and get back to old Sae."
Peeta quickly gathered up his tools and they soon made their goodbyes to Greasy Sae. Katniss walked across the street and stood in front of the house in question. She felt Peeta's warm presence when he stood beside her.
"So this is it, this is where you grew up?"
Katniss could hardly speak past the lump in her throat but she croaked out, "Yes."
She didn't check to see if he followed her when she entered the house, somehow she knew he would.
The house was small and humble but sturdy. Her father made sure of that. She felt an ache deep within her as she looked around the single-story dwelling that had been her home for nearly all her life. She realized that had it not been for the games she would have lived out the rest of her days there. She wouldn't have a constant stream of hot running water, or electricity at all hours of the day, or a large feather bed to sleep in. Her eyes found Peeta in the corner, inspecting his surroundings and she realized that she wouldn't have him either.
Instead of enveloping her in memories as she had expected, the house wrapped her up in a dream. Without trying she began to imagine a world where this was their life, a world where they shared the same bedroom her parents had once occupied. A world where she was nothing more than a hunter and trader and he was the baker. They would struggle and work hard but between the two of them there would always be food on the table. He wouldn't mind living in the Seam, because he knew how much she would hate living in town. They would sweat like pigs in the summer but they would warm each other in winter, sharing heated kisses and touches in a narrow bed.
The dream was sweet and precious to her but it felt like a knife to the heart. It was a dream Katniss never knew she wanted until it was too late. Her eyes found Peeta, filling the small space with his bulk and his warmth and his brightness and suddenly she needed him.
The house was so cold and so dreary and she needed him to warm her from the inside out. She grabbed him suddenly and thrust him up against a wall, his eyes widened at her unexpected use of force but they dropped to her lips when her tongue darted out of her mouth to moisten them.
She rose on her tiptoes and captured his mouth with hers. Her kiss was greedy and desperate and it was the first sign of life she'd shown since that fateful morning she discovered Darius was turned into an Avox.
Her hands snaked their way up into his hair, pulling forcefully on the blond waves, eliciting a deep moan from Peeta.
He turned them swiftly, pinning Katniss to the wall with his hips. He drank from her lips like a man dying of thirst. His tongue sought hers, coaxing her to open wider. He sucked gently on her tongue as his hands roamed across her back, eventually finding purchase at the tops of her thighs and lifting her slightly into the air. Katniss wrapped her legs around his hips at the same time she wound her arms around his neck.
They tasted like sugar and bitter tea from earlier and Katniss liked that they tasted the same. She moaned at the feeling of his tongue's rough texture sweeping over hers repeatedly. As the warmth within spread from her center to her fingers and toes, she silently berated herself for being such a fool, for denying herself Peeta when nothing else was a more soothing balm that his strong arms and fierce kisses.
Her hands just moved to the hem of his shirt when she heard someone calling her from outside. She and Peeta tore themselves apart seconds before a frantic Rory Hawthorne burst into the room.
"Katniss! Katniss! You have to come quick!" The young boy grabbed her arm and despite being such a wiry thing he was strong. He led Katniss outside and ran toward the meadow at full speed. Katniss and Peeta followed him until they reached the fence marking the district boundary. Katniss had never seen the boy so worked up before.
She placed her hands on his shoulders and forced him to look her in the eyes, "Calm down, Rory. What is it? What's wrong?"
The words tumbled out of his mouth so quickly Katniss could hardly understand. "Gale came home and he was real mad and real scared and he grabbed his warmest clothes and as much food as we could spare and he told Mama that he was sorry but that he had to go. And he told me to stay and I wouldn't listen and so I followed him and he...he crossed the fence."
"What!" Katniss exclaimed, disbelieving that her oldest friend could be so stupid. It was ill-advised before, but now with Thread in charge it was outright rebellion to go into the woods.
"What was he thinking?" She muttered under her breath. Katniss looked at Rory, his normally dusky skin was ghostly white with fear. She needed to calm him down before he hyperventilated.
"It's OK Rory. I just need you to tell me which direction he went." She scanned the horizon as Rory pointed East. She knew the territory and guessed that Gale was headed toward their weapons.
"Alright Rory, you did good. But I need you to go home. I need you to go home to your mother and brother and sister and be strong. Can you do that? I'll do what I can to make everything alright, but I need you go home right now. Right now, you understand?"
The boy nodded in understanding. He scanned the forest one last time in a desperate hope to see his older brother on the horizon, but Gale was nowhere to be found. A hard look from Katniss finally got him to turn away and head home.
"What on Earth do you think is important enough that Gale would cross the fence and leave his family behind?" Peeta asked.
Katniss' mind was spinning with possibilities but ultimately she had no idea.
"I don't know. I honestly can't think of anything more important to Gale than his family."
Her eyes scanned the area, trying to figure out how Gale could have hopped the fence with the electricity running. And the gentle hum coming from the wire told her that it was definitely electrified. But then she saw it, a low hanging branch that she could never reach on her own, but Gale just might be tall enough to reach if he jumped his highest.
She was eyeing the distance from the ground to the tree limb when Peeta cleared his throat behind her. "If you get on my shoulders you could probably reach that branch."
She tried to deny that's what she was thinking. "What? Peeta, no I-"
"It's alright Katniss. I understand, I truly do. You have to do this. You have to do what you can to bring him back."
She wrapped him up in a fierce hug, silently thanking him for being so understanding. Peeta's strength and her agility made for a good combination as Katniss quickly found herself on the other side of the district boundary.
"Katniss," Peeta called. She walked until barely inches separated them on opposite sides of the fence. Peeta extended a hand through the electrified wire and she grasped it, feeling the cool metal of his wedding ring against her palm.
"Be careful. Whatever caused Gale to jump the fence must be awfully important or awfully dangerous."
She nodded, "I know."
"Whatever happens, promise me I'll see you at midnight?" He asked.
"At midnight," she solemnly vowed.
Katniss made her way into the forest. Despite the circumstances it was still comforting to be surrounded by the familiar woods.
She tracked Gale to the hollowed out log where they stored their weapons and found his bow and hunting knives missing. She grabbed hers and strapped the quiver across her chest before notching an arrow, ready to fire.
She estimated she was about two-thirds of the way to the cabin by the lake when she spotted him. Katniss was speechless when she found that he wasn't alone.
"Madge?" She choked out.
"Katniss!" Madge turned around swiftly, startled. Her cheeks and ears were red with cold, her breath came out in short, white puffs. A white fur cap sat tilted upon her head, her fair hair spilling in golden waves about her shoulders. Madge would have looked lovely were it not for the absolutely frightened look upon her delicate face.
"Catnip, I can explain," Gale said, his arms raised defensively.
Katniss felt punched in the gut. She was breathless and so confused at the sight before her. She stumbled to a nearby rock and sat down, stilled dazed.
"I don't even...Why?" She asked breathlessly.
"I had to Katniss, they took the mayor and they were gonna take her too."
"What? I don't understand."
Madge placed a beseeching hand on Gale's arm, "Let me explain." She kneeled before Katniss and looked her friend in the eye. "Peacekeepers showed up at my father's door. They hit him over the head with a baton and dragged him off to the train station."
"But why? He's the mayor."
"Suspicion of seditious activities," Madge replied.
Katniss couldn't believe what Madge was telling her. It was impossible, the Mayor of District Twelve couldn't possibly be involved in the uprisings.
"But that's impossible!" Katniss exclaimed.
"Not really," Madge shrugged. "Rebellion runs in my family I suppose."
"What do you mean?" Katniss asked.
Madge took a deep breath before looking Katniss right in the eye and saying, "Maysilee Donner is my mother."
Katniss struggled to find words. "No, but I thought — Maysilee was your aunt. She was in the games with Haymitch. She died."
"No Katniss. My mother's name is Maysilee Donner Undersee. The woman who died in the arena was my aunt, Marybeth."
"What? I don't — Madge I don't understand. How?"
"My mother's name, Maysilee Donner, was called in the Reaping. My aunt took her place. They were twins you see, they looked exactly alike, sounded exactly alike, even wore the same outfit to the Reaping. My mother had always been sickly — her headaches, you know. Marybeth made a split-second decision to volunteer for her sister. When they called my mother's named she marched right forward and no one was the wiser." Madge blinked back tears before continuing. "That's why I gave you the Mockingjay pin when you volunteered for Prim. It was my aunt's district token and you reminded me of her, of her bravery."
"I still don't understand. How is Gale involved in any of this, why are you running away?"
Madge and Gale shared a look before Madge spoke again, "Since the whipping Gale and I became friends and he was there when the Peacekeepers came for my father. He helped get me out."
Katniss shook her head, she still didn't understand. "But why are you running? You can't make it in the woods, they'll find you. Where are you are you going to go?"
"District 13," Madge replied.
"There is no District 13," Katniss said, repeating information that had been drilled into her every school year for as long as she could remember. "They wiped it off the map."
"That's want the Capitol wants you to believe, Catnip," Gale said.
"You two can't be serious! You really think District 13 still exists? And what, you'll be safe when you get there?" Katniss asked incredulously.
"I know it exists, Katniss," Madge said. "I know it exists because my father has been in contact with their leader. My father is guilty of seditious activity and while I am scared for his life, I am so proud that he has been trying to save the people of his district and overthrow the Capitol."
Katniss was floored. "You really are running away? To join the rebellion?" She turned her sharp gaze on Gale, "What about your family? You can't do this to them!"
"If I can change the world for them, be a part of the revolution — that's all that matters. Besides Catnip, you'll look after them while I'm gone won't you?"
Katniss couldn't deny that she would, of course, look after Gale's family as if they were her own.
Finally coming to terms with the reality of the situation, that there was a District 13 and her only two friends were on their way there, Katniss unhooked the quiver of arrows from around her chest and handed it to Gale.
"Here, you'll need mine too."
He hugged her fiercely before whispering, "Thanks Catnip" in her ear.
She told them as much about the woods surrounding Twelve as could before wishing them a safe journey and making her trek back. By the position of the moon in the sky she guessed that it was nearly midnight. She was exhausted and weary when the fence came into view, but a blond head of hair turned silver in the pale moonlight was enough to bring a smile to her face.
Peeta offered her a lopsided grin when he saw her and Katniss smiled in return. It felt so good when his arms wrapped around her as she climbed down from the tree that for a long moment Katniss didn't move from his embrace. The world as she knew it was about to turn upside down and she just wanted to savor Peeta's warmth and steadiness.
He pulled back to look Katniss in the eye, "Are you alright? What happened? Where's Gale?"
Katniss shook her head, grabbed Peeta by the hand and ran to Victor's Village. She barged into their mentor's house. When Haymitch didn't immediately wake from her prodding she doused him with a pitcher of ice water. He sputtered angrily but shut up pretty quickly when she hurriedly related the story of what happened that afternoon, from the mayor being taken into custody, to Madge and Gale making a run for District 13. Their mentor's eyes widened in alarm and he whispered something about "too soon" but then he was up and about, lacing up his boots and barking orders.
"Katniss, go to Rooba and get as much pig's blood as she'll sell ya. Boy you come with me. Meet us at the fence as quick as you can Sweetheart, let's see if we can't clean up your 'cousin's' mess."
Katniss ran to Rooba's butcher shop and pounded on the back door as hard as she could until a light finally came on. Between heaving breaths she finally got out the purpose of her visit and Rooba came back from the cooler with several gallons of pig's blood so red it was nearly purple. Katniss thrust the money into the woman's hand, offering a generous amount for her expediency and good deal more for silence. She ran to the spot in the fence that she had climbed over earlier that day and found Haymitch and Peeta waiting for her. Peeta used knives and hatchets to carve out very convincing claw marks in the nearby trees and brush.
When Haymitch saw her he called her over and started pouring blood around the area. He grabbed an old, worn shirt and ripped it to shreds. Slowly the picture started to form and she understood her mentor's plan.
"An animal attack," she said.
"Wild dogs," Peeta offered.
"Feral enough to tear a man to shreds," Haymitch said.
"Think it'll work?" Katniss asked.
"I sure as hell hope so, Sweetheart. I sure as hell hope so."
A/N: Yay! It didn't take me so long to update this time. I was really excited for this chapter and I hope you are too.
Please read and review :) and feel free to visit me at Tumblr, my username is Optimus-Pam.