A/N: Peeta is my favorite character for many reasons. I can relate to him on a variety of levels. This, unfortunately, is one of them.
This is dedicated to anyone with mommy issues. XD
Disclaimer:The Hunger Games and all the characters in this fic are the property of Susanne Collins and she did a magnificent job with them. I just decided to mess with them a little...XD
It was probably bizarre to all those who frequented the town-square, the short row of around a dozen shops, which all served the double purpose of housing the few well-to-do residents of District 12. At least, what was considered well-to-do for District 12. No one born in the districts truly knew comfort.
This aberration must have been disconcerting to all who saw it, no doubt. Regardless, how often it could be witnessed within the Seam.
Certainly, it was not commonplace to see the shutters drawn on the home of a merchant at the end of Reaping Day.
This eccentricity was not lost on the oldest male currently residing within that solemn merchant residence with the shutters drawn.
The one suspended above the bakery that for the first time in the man's lifetime would not open its doors the following day. The one that would usually resound with the sound of three boisterous young men at this time of night as they wrestled or mocked each other or did whatever three teenagers did in order to tire themselves out before going to bed.
There was no shouting or laughter from his two remaining sons tonight, however.
None of the males had spoken more than three words since crushing the youngest of their family as tightly as they could in the Justice Building that afternoon as if the combined strength of the three strong, broad-shouldered men could somehow prevent the inevitable from happening.
It couldn't, of course.
In the end, his youngest- the one with an almost omnipresent, glowing smile, an easy charm (the source of which, the older man was at a complete loss to pinpoint, as saying he was taciturn was a decided understatement and the boy's mother had all the personality of the business end of a switchblade) and a strength that went far beyond anything his sixteen-year-old physique could betray- was still heading to the Capitol... was still heading to the slaughter.
Nothing about a Reaping Day ever sat right with the residents of the districts. This was cruel and unusual punishment for a sin committed by their forefathers decades ago... nothing about it should sit right. But, something about this particular reaping seemed especially wrong.
The baker's brow furrowed as he ruminated over the events of the day. He was tacit, but he was in no way stupid. Moreover, he wasn't the type of man to allow emotion cloud his logical judgment. This was something that he could; at least, take pride in knowing his youngest son did inherit from him- his level-headedness.
If he detached himself completely from the emotional turmoil of the day, forgetting momentarily that the Capitol had taken his beautiful, bright, outgoing boy- one glaringly disturbing fact still nagged at him.
He was a merchant child.
Merchant children were almost never drawn in the reaping. There were simply very few of them, as there were very few merchant families to begin with, and their names were only in the drawing a handful of times. When compared to the dozens of times some Seam children had to post their names in order to get food for their families and the simple fact that they outnumbered merchant children four to one- the odds were certainly always against the Seam's favor in a reaping.
This was not equitable, but it was the way things were.
Add to this the fact that twelve-year-old little Prim was drawn as well, and it just becomes impossible to fathom. The odds of both a twelve-year-old, even one who might have taken tesserae for every member of her family (which, in Prim's case, would only have put her name in there three times... nothing, compared to countless others in the Seam), would be drawn on the same day as a merchant child- were simply staggering!
These thoughts weighed so heavily on the baker as he lay prone on his bed that he had to voice them to his wife as she settled herself in next to him for the night. They were the first words he'd uttered in hours. Although, this was not unusual for him, the fact that he directed the query towards her was certainly telling of his lack of other options. They weren't exactly the communicating type.
"Peeta is the first merchant child reaped since Maysilee and that was almost twenty-five years ago. Not to mention, she was reaped for the Quarter Quell, when all our odds at getting drawn were doubled because they wanted four tributes. Prim was only twelve... Not even the racketeers could possibly have foreseen what happened today. I doubt anyone who wagered came up a winner. I can't wrap my mind around how this was just not Peeta's day..."
The baker hadn't expected to be comforted by his wife's response. Very little the woman offered in the form of words was comfort. She was bitter, he knew. Embittered by the knowledge that she was a consolation price in her own husband's heart and always would be. She'd waged and lost a war for the affection that had been squandered on a ghost of his past nearly two decades prior... which was still squandered on that ghost. The defeat had left her bereft of compassion, resentful..., and selfish. She no longer believed in happiness... not if she herself could no longer possess it.
Even secure in this knowledge of his wife's shortcomings, however, he was not prepared for the cool, nonchalance with which she shrugged a single shoulder as she sat up and replied, "I was much more shocked at that Everdeen girl being called than Peeta, to be honest... even more shocked when her sister volunteered to take her place." She now turned fully to face him, a disturbing twisted smirk splitting her features and unbridled pride shining in her usually lifeless blue eyes as she finished. "That older Everdeen girl is special! You mark my words! She'll get back here just fine!"
It took a moment for both the outrage and the bile that had risen to the baker's throat at his wife's disgustingly apathetic comment to settle before he was able to find his voice again. "How can you even say that about your own-"
He was cut off by her heated, dispassionate retort. "Oh, please! Peeta had as much chance at being drawn as any of those Seam children. More so, if you consider how many of the cretins die off every winter from starvation. It's a miracle that it's taken this long to happen, really." She paused here, narrowing her eyes as she scrutinized the disbelieve clearly etching her husband's rather exhausted features.
After a second of deliberating, she figured there couldn't possibly be any harm in telling him at this point. What was done was done and had to be done, after all... "He's been signed up for tesserea for all of us since he was twelve. His name was in there thirty five times..."
"WHAT?" Not even the man whose throat the strangled cry had emerged from could fathom the venom and anger that tinged it. He was literally shaking with fury, grasping the sheets in his clenched fists almost hard enough to tear them at what his wife had just confessed, his mind working a mile a second to process it. He'd worked his hands raw to feed his family, made sure they never went without so that his boys would never have to sign up for the rations the Capitol offered in return for their names going into those reaping balls more than they were absolutely obligated to go.
Realizing that she had never witnessed this level of indignation in her husband before, the blonde immediately averted her eyes to the sheets and elaborated as quickly and logically as she could muster. "I gave birth to three sons... three... all boys. In spite of the odds of it happening in a place like this, all three survived childhood. There can only be one heir to the bakery and I'm certain that he wouldn't mind sharing partial ownership with one of his brothers, but sharing with both would be logistically impossible and we both know it."
She ran a hand briefly through her slightly graying locks, looking up into the hurt-filled azure eyes of the man she married. "Even with shared ownership between just two of them, once they married and had children of their own, the question of who the bakery would pass on to would be problematic. That left Peeta pretty much the odd one out from the moment he breathed his first breath and the midwife declared him another boy."
The baker brought both large hands up to cover his face, releasing a shuddering breath that sounded very much like a sob. Nothing the woman beside him was saying was untrue; he simply had never given it any thought. He'd always figured they'd cross that bridge when they came to it. Now it was painfully obvious his wife had another strategy for dealing with it all along. How could he not have seen this coming?
The woman only afforded a brief disapproving look at her husband before continuing, empathy a long forgotten memory within her psyche. "The only option the youngest would have left would have been the mines. Now, I have tried since the day that boy was born to do everything I can to toughen him up because I knew what awaited him if he made it to adulthood, but there's simply nothing of me in him!" She can't help but send another recriminating sneer her husband's way before adding spitefully. "Peeta's only got you in him."
"So, the day after he turned twelve, I took him down to the Justice Building with the pretext that I had to do some clerical bureaucratic paper work on your behalf for the bakery and his brothers needed to stay behind to help you out in the store. I asked him to sign some stuff on your behalf while we were there and since both your signatures are pretty much illegible, I told him that it wouldn't matter if he signed as himself. No one was going to be able to tell the difference."
"Basically, our son trusted you and you murdered him." He wasn't even attempting to hide the spite and hatred in his voice or in his glare.
The words had barely left his mouth before she rounded on him furiously. "The Capitol takes and kills our children! Not me! You may think me cold and heartless for not loving and coddling our boys the way you always have, but at least one of us had to be practical! What was the point in getting attached to what could be ripped away on a whim? Huh? Can you answer that? Never mind, the reality that Peeta was destined to a slow death the moment he was born a male in a merchant family with two other healthy males! If he'd been born a girl, he'd at least have the prospect of being married off to another family. Nevertheless, as it stood, your precious, delicate, weak, little boy was going to rot in the mines for however long his body could withstand it! The only mercy I could afford my son was the chance to tilt the odds in favor of a quick, honorable death in the arena instead of withering to nothing in a hole, like those animals in the Seam! Both would have been the Capitol's doing in the end, though. They are the ones who put on the games and they are the ones who make it impossible for a third male child born to a merchant family to be destined to anything but death in the mines!"
Once her rant ebbed, she ducked violently under the covers, turning to face away from him. She still trembled from her anger.
Her husband sent a woeful look down at her before saying the last he had to contribute in a mournful whisper. "You have spent the entirety of your son's life trying to protect both him and yourself from what you believed was the inevitable... so much so, that you don't even really know him. He's so much stronger than you think, though. He's so strong and so smart... you have no idea! He might be strong enough to come back to us, you know."
She didn't even bother turning. She just scoffed sarcastically, replying, "Like I said before... at least, one of us has to be practical. The odds have never been in Peeta's favor."
The following evening, the Mellark family sat in their small living room, the two teenage boys sprawled on the floor, completely oblivious to the conversation that had taken place the previous evening, and their parents seated on the couch at a respectable distance from each other.
The Tribute Parade was required viewing by the Capitol, but even if it wasn't, there was no way this family was missing it.
In spite of both boys' usual tendency to comment on the tributes' costumes right along with Claudius Templesmith, often while mocking them; on this occasion, they remained completely stoic as the tributes emerged through the gates into the street. After all, it was always Peeta who started the round of witty observations about how little the designers had dressed a particular set of tributes in or how gaudy another set looked in all those feathers. It felt almost sacrilegious to even speak when here they were waiting for him to emerge from those gates now.
Even so, even they gasped audibly right along, it seems, with everyone else lining the street leading towards the city circle and the president's mansion, once the camera panned to their little brother who was dressed in what looked like a black leather unitard (which accentuated every single muscle on the boy's body) and sported both a cape and headdress that appeared to be on fire. The sixteen-year-old grinned confidently and waved his free hand at the crowd who seemed to have lost their collective minds with delirium at the site of the District 12 tributes and were now going hoarse chanting both his and the name of the girl whose hand he held firmly in his grasp, their fingers intertwined.
Both boys, almost as if it had been premeditated, simultaneously turned wide blue eyes to regard their widely grinning father, their grins mirroring his. Peeta always had the most infectious smile!
The baker tore his eyes away from the screen for a split second to glance at his boys, his smile growing before they both turned back to continue watching. He spared a sideways glance at his wife who had schooled her face into a blank expression.
His smile actually grew further upon seeing this. 'She knows', he realized, 'she can see it too'.
After all, as he focused back on the broadcast, which was still focusing a disproportionate amount of time on his beautiful son and his beautiful fellow tribute who were both still ablaze and glorious in the twilight of the Capitol, it was painfully obvious to anyone watching: Peeta Mellark was not an underdog in these games.
Furthermore, the baker even ventured as far as thinking confidently to himself: 'Prove her wrong, Peeta. Win and make her regret ever doubting you.'