AN: Thank you to everyone who took the time to review the last chapter. I'm so terribly behind on reviews but I'm hoping to be better about it this time around. Just know that it means the world to me to hear from each and every one of you. Special thanks to for betaing and making this chapter as spiffy as it can be.
"Katniss!" Cinna calls, motioning me over to his corner of the busy back room. He holds out the deep, scarlet gown with a smile. "Finished just in the nick of time."
I smile as I brush a hand over the fine fabric. This dress is quite unlike anything I have ever worn before. Of course, the neckline is immodest, which is to be expected in an establishment like this I suppose, but the dress is bustled and filled with so many beautiful details, I gasp in spite of myself.
"It's beautiful," I murmur, offering Cinna a shy smile.
"A girl on fire needs a dress to match her beauty," he replies gently, spinning a finger in the air indicating that I should turn around, "Let me help."
His nimble fingers make quick work fixing me into the gown. It occurs to me that I should be mortified to have a man, practically a stranger, aid me in dressing, but something about Cinna is so soothing that this seems different; he is an exception. I'm grateful that he's the one helping me rather than Madame Trinket.
"Are you nervous?" he asks softly, his gentle fingers working at the fastenings of my dress as he does.
"Yes," I answer honestly. There doesn't seem to be much of a point in lying about it.
"You'll be alright, Miss Katniss, you'll see," he assures me, patting my shoulder lightly with a gentle smile, "You sing prettier than anything I've ever heard before."
His words coax a smile to my face, "Thank you, Cinna."
"Katniss, you're on," Mr. Flickerman calls from the doorway.
I give Cinna one last nervous glance but he simply nods his head, "I'm betting on you."
Mr. Flickerman introduces me on stage as The Girl on Fire, never using my name. Haymitch insisted on this earlier this evening, adamantly stating that we needed to protect my true identity. For Prim's sake, I had no problem agreeing; it will keep her reputation safer if no one knows it's Katniss Everdeen singing at The Hob.
The old drunk watches me from the back of the room now, absentmindedly cleaning a glass as the piano starts up and I sing the opening lines of the tune Madame Trinket insisted I sing.
The men are boisterous, clearly several drinks in by the time I even stepped onto the stage. I wish I could keep the blush from rising to my cheeks as several of them call out lewd comments. I reason that the blush doesn't matter much though because I'm wearing the rouge just as Madame Trinket taught me. Perhaps there is some method to her madness.
Silence quickly falls around me, although I wonder if part of it is the nerves causing my ears not to function properly. Judging by the rapt attention several men in the front row seem to be giving me though, I think I must be doing well enough.
When the song finally ends, there is a long pause of silence where I breathe as deeply as my corset will allow. All at once the applause starts followed by men standing and hollering their adorations. It all seems too surreal, as though it is happening to some other girl and I'm just watching from behind a curtain nearby.
Mr. Flickerman suddenly appears beside me, smiling and laughing at the men's cheering, "That, dear lads, is the lovely Girl On Fire. If you're lucky, you might get to whisper a few sweet nothings in her ear after the show," he chortles beside me, leaning over in a bow while I curtsy just the way Madame Trinket coached me to before scurrying off stage to make room for Clove.
"You were wonderful, Katniss," Cinna whispers softly, wrapping me in his arms without hesitation as I enter the back room once again.
Everyone is still bustling about. Johanna yells something about a missing garter belt, but I hardly notice as I smile back at him.
"You really think so?" I ask hesitantly, tugging at the curls that Madame Trinket styled in my hair, "I was so terribly nervous."
He places a gentle, fine-boned hand to my cheek, "Katniss, I have never seen a room filled with such fascinated men. You are a phoenix, dear, rising from the ashes of a dying city."
I can't help but laugh. He paints me far more beautifully than I deserve.
"You have a way with imagery, Cinna."
"Only when I am inspired, my girl si dife." He grins, giving my hand a gentle squeeze before hurrying off to help Johanna who is now tossing garments across the room in a haphazard attempt to find her garter belt.
The rest of the show passes in a flurry of color and noise and lights. Before I know it, the show has closed and Madame Trinket is pushing me out into the main room of the saloon again, "to make friendly conversation with the patrons," she informs me in her overly exuberant tone.
"Try not to look so terrified," Johanna mutters as she passes by me, her shoulder brushing against mine.
"What am I supposed to do?" I demand in a harsh whisper, hurrying after the older woman who has somehow become my confidant in all of this. I never thought I would seek advice from such a brazen woman, but she knows this world better than I and I'm not so prideful that I can't ask her for help.
"Talk to them," she instructs easily, flashing a sultry smile at a man who must be at least ten years her senior as we pass, "Make them love you."
"How?" I ask, trying and failing quite miserably to hide my exasperation, "How do I make anyone like me?"
Johanna turns to face me, smiling tightly, her lips a thin line, "You find out what they desire and you become that, Katniss."
She makes it sound so simple when it seems to be anything but. I haven't the faintest idea how I'm supposed to divine what a complete stranger desires. I follow her anyway, hoping to learn quickly from example.
Surprisingly enough, I do learn quickly, or I discover a natural talent for deception. Either way, I find that speaking with these men isn't as difficult as I had imagined. I find that a well placed smile or laugh goes a long way with them. The most difficult part is hiding my shock as the men say things that should never be spoken to a lady.
Somehow, a long while later, I find myself separated from Johanna's side. Three young men surround me, each one's eyes roving over my form. I don't recall ever being looked at so boldly before and I have to stop myself from raising my arms to try and cover myself as I shoot them a shy smile.
"How does a pretty girl like you end up in a place like this?" The first, a portly young man with a sooty top hat, asks. I wonder whose garbage he must have riffled through to find that hat. Only men of good breeding can afford such finery.
"I- I was," I fumble, unable to spin an appropriate lie. Madame Trinket already explained to me that no man wants to hear that we girls are here because we had no other choice. They want us to be here because we desire to be in their company, to sing and dance and laugh for them.
"Don't you know better, Willie?" the second, a scrawny man with stringy yellow hair, smiles with the few teeth he has left, "You never ask a wench questions."
My cheeks flush in spite of myself as I take a step back from these strangers. I know Madame Trinket will give me an earful for walking away, but I won't stand here while they speak this way about me.
"Come here, sweetheart," the third man's broad hand seeks out my wrist just before I step out of his reach, "I won't make you talk. You won't need to talk at all to give me what I'm searching for."
I tug my arm from his grip, spinning quickly on my heels in hope that he won't catch sight of the tears prickling as they gather in my eyes. It overcomes me all at once and suddenly this day has gone on for too long.
"Sweetheart, come back!" he calls after my retreating form, "I just wanted to touch."
Haymitch's gravely voice spits some short reply at the man and no one comes after me. A strangled sob lodges itself in the back of my throat. It's not even the man's words that bother me so much, nor his grabbing hands. It's the homesickness that overwhelms me as I climb the stairs and find myself in my room only moments later, letting my back rest against the wood of the door.
Closing my eyes, I try to pretend I'm not here. Not in this awful place filled with men who "just want to touch." Not separated from Prim. I pretend I'm back at Garfield Park, only this time Prim is there too and Peeta's arms are wrapped protectively around me as we watch her frolic around in the gardens.
How often had Peeta's hand touched my wrist? It had never felt like that. It never made my skin crawl.
"Peeta," I whisper his name, closing my eyes and letting the tears gathered there fall unhindered. What I wouldn't give to have his arms wrapped around me right now. Pretending only gets me so far.
Eventually the sounds of couples making their way upstairs pulls me from my thoughts back to the dingy room. I count the number of doors closing as The Hob quiets down for the night, the show over and the unspeakable acts that take place behind closed doors just beginning. I crawl onto my bed and let silent sobs wrack my body as I pull the covers tightly around me, pretending that Peeta's warmth is wrapped around me, protecting me from the night as I drift off into an exhausted, fitful sleep.
"Peeta," Bryn Mellark says softly, a confused furrow creasing his brow as he observes his youngest boy, "You're sure, son? You don't want to come out to the cottage one last time?"
"I'll stay here for the season, Father," Peeta replies coolly as he kneads the ball of dough in front of him.
Bryn shoots the youngest Mellark another look of concern before turning to pull out a batch of bread from the oven. He had woken early and found Peeta down in the kitchens working feverishly on dozens of loaves of bread.
Peeta had been unable to sleep, not an unusual occurrence these last several weeks. Instead of tossing about in bed, frustrated by the shattered heart that still pains him with each breath, he'd dressed and hurried downstairs to bury himself in work. His mother's annual summer soiree is tonight and he'd rather not think about all the young women she will almost certainly be throwing at him in hopes that he might marry one.
Bryn had noticed the change in Peeta over the last several weeks. Something had turned off - gone bad; he's not sure how to describe it, but his son isn't the happy, light boy he used to be.
"Mother will prefer it if I stay anyway," Peeta adds flatly, "She wants me to start courting now that my schooling is finished."
Bryn frowns and places a hand over Peeta's. He used to be able to cover both of the younger man's with one of his own. When had Peeta grown into a man? It seems as though he looked away for a moment only to find his cherubic baby boy has grownup.
"Peeta, you know you do not need to marry so young," Bryn says seriously, wishing his youngest son would look at him and see his sincerity, "You could go to university like your brother. You could come and live out at the cottage-learn the family business there-"
"I will marry, Father," Peeta interrupts, his blue eyes bitter when he finally does look up, "What are a few years more or less? It isn't as though I will ever marry for love."
"You can't be sure of that, Peet," Bryn argues, surprised by this turn of conversation, "You might meet the right girl-"
"I won't!" Peeta pounds his fist into the dough before him with unnecessary force, "I can't."
Bryn puts a floury hand on Peeta's shoulder, ignoring the dust that spreads over the boy's shirt as he does, "What happened, Peet? Something has happened."
"It doesn't matter." He shakes his head, "Nothing can be done about it. It was never real anyway. It was all just a game."
Bryn's heart throbs painfully for his boy. He might not know what is causing his son's pain- or rather who-but Bryn Mellark suspects Peeta has experienced his first heartbreak and he wishes the younger man would allow him to help. Bryn knows all to well the keen pain that it can cause, that nothing can ever completely heal it. He knows it can eat a man alive if he lets it and Bryn doesn't want that fate for his sweet, youngest son.
Peeta brushes his hands off on an old towel, too tired to speak about these matters further, "I should be going, Father. There is plenty to do before the party tonight and I wouldn't want to be late."
Bryn nods, watching the sturdy young man leave the room, a shadow of the bright spirit he used to be and thinks that perhaps his wife will be successful in her vain attempts at furthering the family name after all. It doesn't appear as though Peeta is going to put up much of a fight to prevent a marriage to a girl solely for her wealth.
Had she used him as a pawn? How could she use him as a pawn? Surely she must have felt something. It's not possible for him to have felt so much while she felt nothing.
Peeta lets out a heavy breath as he leans against the wall, safely hidden in an alcove down an abandoned hallway at the back of his family's mansion. His mother's grand soiree is in full swing just through the door at the end of the hallway, but he can't bring himself to join them. All of the best of society has swooped in on the Mellark mansion for what is sure to be the grandest party of the season but he takes no joy in it. He can't seem to find joy in anything anymore, not when his happiness came solely from her beautiful smile and that rare but delightful laugh.
No. Peeta Mellark is quite certain that he wants to be as far away from the gaiety as he can. He is in no mood for dancing and laughter tonight. He can't even bring himself to properly pretend. Ever since Katniss sent that letter all those weeks ago, Peeta has only felt like a shadow of himself, like some hole had been drilled through his soul and he would never be complete again.
Peeta is so deep in these disturbing thoughts that he doesn't hear the approaching footfalls until it is too late for him to escape. Instead he backs deeper into the shadows of the alcove and stays as still as possible, hoping the approaching pair do not notice his presence.
Miss Madge Undersee hurries past, an angry expression distorting her pretty face as she carries her skirts much too high to be proper. She doesn't seem to care however so long as she can move faster than the man following her whom Peeta recognizes as her father, Mayor Undersee.
Mayor Undersee lurches forward and grabs the girl's arm, turning her to face him as she gives an indignant cry, "Madge, you will walk back into that room and apologize to Mr. Danforth at once for your impertinent behavior." The older man orders harshly. She tries to release her arm from his grip but Peeta can see how the man's fingers dig into her skin and knows it is no use.
"I will not, Father," she spits back with more venom than Peeta has ever heard from her in his many years since he first met her. Madge had always been a quiet, proper lady as far as he was concerned, but it's little wonder she spent her lunches with Katniss if this is her true personality. The two girls are more alike than he had ever realized, each with a fire and a mind of her own.
"You will!" her father retorts fiercely, shaking her by the arm in a less than gentle manner. Peeta has never seen the man so livid before and finds it shocking that he could be the same demure mayor that everyone knows and admires.
The man lowers his face, just inches from Madge's so their eyes are forced to meet in a deadly glare, "You will," he repeats coolly, "and you will be the lady your mother raised you to be. Mr. Danforth is an upstanding citizen and a decent man. You should be honored that he has taken an interest in you- an interest, I have been told- that includes a marriage proposal."
"HA!" Madge laughs sharply lacking any humor, "You mean to say he is interested in our position and what it might do to elevate his status. I'm not a fool father and I know he's as upstanding a man as any common criminal-"
"Don't you dare say such things, Margaret Undersee!" her father shouts, his voice echoing through the abandoned hallway. Peeta wonders how it's possible that no one inside the party can hear this exchange, which only gets louder when Mayor Undersee continues.
"You are an ungrateful, spoiled brat. I haven't any idea how you turned out this way. Your mother and I gave you the best that money can buy and now you shame us by behaving this way-"
"I won't lead Jonathan Danforth to believe I have any interest in a marriage with him," she says stomping a pretty little foot for emphasis, "I refuse to marry a man who has made his money off the suffering of those less fortunate than himself. Did you even read the article in the newspaper, father? Sixteen girls died in his factory because he had the doors locked so they couldn't leave their stations! When the fire started they had no escape. They tried to jump from the window-"
"That is irrelevant, Margaret," her father says lowly, his tone warning. She opens her mouth to add something but closes it, understanding that arguing is futile at this point.
"You should never have been reading those newspapers, anyway. A lady has no mind for politics. Mr. Danforth was fined for his indiscretion and has made amends with the families of those girls. Now, you will gather yourself for a few moments and calm that hot head of yours and, when you return to the party, you will accept Mr. Danforth's company for a dance, or two, or five if he finds your presence so pleasing. You will be the lady I know your mother has trained you to be and you will do away with this sudden interest in independence. Do you understand me, Margaret?"
She sets her lips in a thin line of distaste but nods stiffly. Her father drops her arm and turns to leave. He's halfway down the hallway when Madge speaks again.
"I have no intention to marry anyone, Father, not just Mr. Danforth," she informs him tersely.
The man looks over his shoulder for a moment before continuing on his way as if she never spoke. It's not until he reaches for the doorknob that will lead him back to the party that he replies in an identical tone, "You will have no say in the matter, Margaret."
Madge stands, still as stone, until the door clicks closed before she collapses into a heap of skirts on the glossy hardwood floor, dropping her face into her hands. Peeta hesitates for only a moment before stepping from the shadows of his hiding place.
"Madge," he says softly and her head snaps up in horror. Her face relaxes when she sees the gentle Mellark boy before her.
"Oh, Peeta," she breathes unsteadily, "I apologize that you saw that. I-I-"
Peeta settles down on the floor next to her, "It's alright, Madge. I was just trying to escape the party myself."
She gives him a watery smile, her pent up anger turning to tears now that her father is gone.
"It sounds as though we both have a lot on our minds tonight," he observes quietly, offering her his handkerchief, which she takes with a grateful smile.
She dabs daintily at her eyes and sniffles lightly, the proper lady he's always known returning. Never would Peeta have expected Madge to have such a strong mind of her own. She had always been so quiet in school.
A silence falls between Peeta and Madge now as the minutes tick by and the party moves on without them. Peeta hears a smooth waltz start up behind the doors and wonders if his mother has noticed yet that he is missing. He's sure she'll be looking for him soon enough.
"I won't do it!" Madge blurts out, her voice shrill after such long period of silence, "I can't marry him. He's an awful man."
Peeta, unsure of what else to do, nods and waits for her to continue.
"Father only wants me to marry him because he's rich. Father invested too much money in some silly invention that never paid off and now he's looking to gain it back with a fine match using me as his brainless pawn." Her elegant hands curl into angry fists as she speaks and Peeta realizes that this has been going on for more than one night. He never thought pretty Madge Undersee would be capable of such a fierce anger that she's displaying now.
"There must be someone else with just as much money, Madge." Peeta frowns, "I'm sure you'll find someone your father accepts who isn't completely terrible."
She shakes her head, "I don't want to marry. It's not simply a matter of disliking my father's choice. I don't want to marry at all. I want to go to university. I want to study law. I want to fight with the suffragettes. Things are changing, Peeta, and I want to be part of it. I don't want to be a silly wife gossiping over tea and throwing grand parties for the wealthy. I want to be a part of something bigger than just me."
Peeta stares at Madge. Shocked doesn't really begin to describe how he's feeling. He's never heard a girl speak so passionately before. His mother always scoffs at the dinner table when the word 'suffragette' is mentioned. A bunch of depraved women who need a firm hand, she always says. Peeta never bothers pointing out that his mother is far more independent than any of the other ladies in her social circle.
He knows the other women think it's an abomination for Adelaide Mellark to take charge of her family's factory. However, he also knows that she was the only child of the family line and had refused to allow the money to pass to her second cousin. She had married Peeta's father so that the factory might be passed on to him and then refused to allow him any control in the business. Bryn Mellark had never seen the point in arguing with Adelaide over it, instead focusing his attentions to his own family's factories.
Madge though, wasn't anything like Adelaide Mellark. She was a reserved, kind girl. She had always performed well in school but never made any real effort to become part of the more popular social circles, preferring to spend time alone, thinking to herself. Peeta can't imagine Madge ever meddling like his own mother does, but then again he couldn't imagine her arguing like she had until tonight.
Peeta sighs heavily, "Your father won't let you, though, will he? He doesn't want you to become a suffragette."
"No. He says it would tarnish the family name. I would be going against his campaign platform," she says, shaking her head slowly, disbelievingly.
Peeta knows he can't really understand where Madge is coming from. He recognizes how privileged he is to be born a man. He's caught himself many days being thankful that he's not a girl and does not have to suffer through some of the more wearing practices they are expected to endure. But Peeta does know what it's like to want something he can't have.
"I am truly sorry, Madge," Peeta murmurs.
She nods, watching him with a knowing look, "You're trapped too, aren't you, Peeta? I can see it in your eyes. You look so sad about something."
He shrugs weakly, "It's nothing so unbearable as your circumstances. I'm not being forced to do anything I don't want."
He can't stop the bitter thought from surfacing in his mind; that he can't be with the girl he loves.
She heaves a great, very unladylike, sigh before untangling her legs from her skirts and standing. Peeta follows suite and she smiles up at him for a moment.
"I suppose nothing will truly be solved tonight," she says, putting on her bravest face though Peeta can still detect a subtle look of disgust underneath.
"Thank you, Peeta," she says holding her hand out for him to take lightly, "for everything."
Peeta nods and watches her retreating form until she disappears behind the door. Still reluctant to join the boisterous festivities inside, he wanders out to the veranda where several guests are already standing, whispering sweet nothings to one another. Peeta realizes he has no desire to be here either and is about to turn to leave when he hears his name being called softly to his left.
"Peet," Axel's voice carries from the doorway when he finds his younger brother, "Here, you need this." He presses a silver flask about the size of Peeta's palm into his hand.
"What is it?" Peeta asks, hopeful that for once Axel's incorrigible personality might serve him well.
"That, dear brother, is the best moonshine you'll ever drink." The middle Mellark informs him and Peeta can smell spirits on his breath. "You have been nothing but dour for the last few weeks. Drink that-a lot of it-baby brother, and it will make you feel proportionately better."
Peeta figures the liquor certainly couldn't hurt and he unscrews the lid of the flask before taking a deep swig. He comes up sputtering and coughing and Axel pats his back sympathetically.
"Forgot to mention that bit, but the first swig is always the worst so you have that out of the way at least," Axel assures Peeta before he pushes off the railing they had been leaning against and heads back into the party.
Peeta is certain a fire is still burning in his stomach and that his throat has sustained burns from the drink as well. His cheeks are hot and he's sure that they're a vivid red but that doesn't stop him from taking several long draws from the flask before stowing it away in his pocket.
He is still leaning against the railing of the veranda a half an hour later when he hears someone step out on the veranda and call his name in a soft, airy voice. It's a rather nice voice, Peeta thinks to himself as he turns to see a familiar face.
Glimmer Hamilton walks gracefully towards him, a demure smile pulling at her lips. He hasn't seen her since the Charity Ball in January, but she hasn't changed a bit aside from the color of her dress, now a lovely shade of cream.
"Miss Hamilton," Peeta greets with a tiny bow that leaves his head a little dizzy as he straightens up again. She dips into a graceful curtsy.
"It has been far too long, Mr. Mellark," she informs him softly as she joins him at the veranda railing. She stands closer than a mere acquaintance should but not so close as to cause a scandal, not that Peeta thinks anyone else on this veranda would be talking.
"It has been quite a long summer," Peeta muses. Too long with the endless shattering of his heart every morning he wakes up knowing that she's married now. But not long enough if it would have meant another day with her. Now though, he would as soon have the dead of winter with which to share his morose feelings.
"Are you feeling quite well, Peeta?" Glimmer asks with wide, shining, green eyes, "You seem a little glum."
She surprises him with her ability to read him. They hardly know one another, after all. Peeta sighs slowly.
"I would rather talk about anything besides what has me down, Miss Hamilton," he admits, his head lolling about slightly even though he doesn't give it permission to.
She nods with a gentle smile, "Please, call me Glimmer. Miss Hamilton always reminds me of my sister, though she's Mrs. Heron now.
"Miss Glimmer then, how are you enjoying the festivities?" Peeta asks though he's not all that interested in her response. It's the proper thing to inquire about though seeing as his mother is hostess.
Glimmer seems to understand this as she gives him a patronizing smile before starting off in an airy voice about who she has had the honor of conversing with tonight. Peeta is surprised when he finds himself laughing as Glimmer tells him of her conversation with old Mr. Schwartz, which involved him mistaking her for a younger memory of his wife.
He finds himself even more surprised when Glimmer Hamilton's hand somehow ends up in his hand pressed gently against his lips. Her eyebrows shoot up in surprise and she gives an airy, nervous chuckle.
"Why, Mr. Mellark, I didn't realize my story had you so very enthralled," she comments but doesn't attempt to pull her hand away from his as he would have expected.
Instead, the young woman looks out across the lawns and Peeta notices the way the moon strikes her fine, high cheekbones as she squints into the distance.
"Would you be opposed to a promenade through the gardens, Mr. Mellark? It's so stiflingly hot inside, I hope I might catch a breeze if we get far enough away from this house." She turns her emerald eyes back to Peeta who is beginning to look a little worse for wear, a sheen of sweat building on his forehead.
"I would love to accompany you, Miss Glimmer. I think the fresh air might do me some good." He offers his elbow and she slides a delicate hand over it before they start at a slow pace out into the damp yards of the mansion.
Peeta doesn't quite notice the sway in his step that isn't normally there, nor does he really understand why it feels as though his head his floating behind him like a balloon on a string. He only drank liquor that one fateful night- the one he tries not to remember- when he received Katniss's last letter.
Peeta also isn't sure quite why Glimmer seems so attractive tonight, her stories that much more amusing. He doesn't understand why a heat rushes through his blood when he thinks about what her skin might feel like under his hands.
"These are lovely," Glimmer states, brushing her hand lightly over the petals of the delicate yellow flowers. He's shocked that he's never noticed them before, but of course he never knew their name before. "Don't they smell lovely?" She questions.
"Evening primrose," Peeta says, his tongue thick and heavy in his mouth.
"The flowers-they're evening primrose. They only bloom at night."
Peeta nearly gags on the words that are nearly identical to the ones Katniss had used when she pointed the blossoms out at Garfield Park.
"How intriguing!" Glimmer remarks, leaning closer to the blossoms.
As she straightens up, Peeta's mind relives the memory so eerily similar to this, a day spent with a girl with dark hair that his fingers itched to tangle themselves in. Glimmer really isn't so bad though, he tells himself. Her stories are enjoyable if simple minded, but at least he knows she's not going to run off with some man from the Seam. His gut churns at the thought and he shakes his head.
Peeta isn't sure why he does it, but somehow his hand finds her chin, lifting it up as he lowers his lips to hers. She gives a surprised gasp but doesn't pull away, her hands finding their way to rest on his arms.
It doesn't feel the same as it did with Katniss. His lips are numb and he's not sure if he's making a mess of this kiss or not. It doesn't matter to Peeta though. Glimmer is a nice enough girl and she is all he has left. Katniss isn't coming back for him and his mother is still expecting him to get married.
When Peeta finally pulls his lips from hers and steps away, her eyes are wide and staring blankly at him. He ducks his gaze and fumbles his hands awkwardly for a moment before sighing.
"Miss Glimmer, I beg your pardon for-"
"Would you dance with me, Peeta?" she asks softly, surprising him by interrupting his apology. He looks up, seeing her lips curled into a tiny smile, and realizes that she's not furious or mortified by his lack of propriety. If anything, she looks rather amused.
Peeta continues to stare dumbly at her, the alcohol- because he finally realizes that this is all probably due to the moonshine- slowing his thoughts down to the speed of molasses. She takes a dainty step forward and places a gloved hand lightly on his arm.
"A deux-temp is playing I believe." She smiles gently, looking up at him through her eyelashes, which Peeta notices are exceptionally long and full. She really is quite beautiful. "Would you join me?" she repeats.
"Uh..." Peeta can't seem to speak anymore, his tongue like lead in his mouth, so he nods instead, which Glimmer is more than happy to accept as a response. She loops her arm wordlessly through his, leading him away from the gardens and back into the ballroom.
Peeta isn't sure how he manages to make his way through not only the deux-temp but a waltz as well before another guest requests Glimmer's attention. He is quite dizzy from the entire ordeal, but he didn't fall or step on Glimmer's toes, which is really quite an accomplishment considering his state. He must be sure to commend her finishing school if he ever happens to visit France because he is quite certain Glimmer is the only thing who saved him from looking a fool.
After he is finished dancing, Peeta notices his mother standing in a small circle of women across the room. She's watching him, wearing a shrewd smile that makes his stomach turn uncomfortably. He walks into an empty hallway so he doesn't have to look at her anymore but the nauseous feeling doesn't go away. Instead it continues to roil away in his stomach. Perhaps it wasn't his mother's look that made him sick - no, it definitely wasn't.
Peeta hurries over to the nearest potted plant and empties the contents of his stomach, which consists almost entirely of moonshine, as quietly as possible.
"Oh, Jesus, Peet," Glenn says from over his shoulders and Peeta wishes he could fall through a hole in the ground. He never wanted his brother to see him drunk again after that one horrid night and yet here he is.
"I'll be okay, Glenn," Peeta assures his older brother as calmly as possible while he dabs a handkerchief over his lips and wipes the sweat from his forehead.
"How did you manage it this time, Peet?" Glenn asks, clamping a hand firmly on his youngest brother's shoulder, "Was it Axel again?"
Peeta nods, "Forgot to mention how strong the moonshine was." He pulls out the tiny metal flask. Glenn opens it to take a sniff, grimaces, and shuts it immediately.
"You should retire and sleep it off. I'll tell mother you felt ill - that the heat got to you," Glenn suggests.
"I kissed her," Peeta whispers, the words escaping from his lips on a sigh.
"Kissed who?" Glenn asks, his brow creasing in confusion.
"Glimmer Hamilton," he responds mechanically.
Glenn nods with a sigh of his own, "Well, Peet, that's your choice. Are you sure you meant to? Mother is bound to find out."
"I did-mean to, I mean." Peeta shrugs, "Glimmer isn't so bad. She's polite, pretty, well-bred-"
"You're starting to sound like Mother," Glenn interrupts him, "Go to bed, Peet. We can talk about it in the morning if you still want to."
Peeta doesn't argue, turning unsteadily toward the servant's staircase instead and making his way toward his suite upstairs. He's not entirely sure how he manages to find himself under the soft, downy quilt of his bed, but attributes it to his body's muscle memory before he quickly lets the dark haze of alcohol and exhaustion wash over him.
He immediately recognizes the soft voice calling out his name. It's only one word but it seems to rip his heart cleanly from his chest as it echoes against the black walls surrounding him.
Peeta looks around and realizes he's in a factory, a dark, seemingly abandoned factory. He frowns, unable to remember ever waking up let alone making it all the way to the industrial part of the city.
"Katniss?" Peeta calls out, his voice echoing between the machinery as he takes a step deeper into the dark depths of this factory.
A quiet whimper carries back to him and Peeta takes off suddenly towards it, his heart racing against his chest and jumping into his throat all at once. She's here. Katniss is here. That sound though. Peeta thinks she must be hurt.
Peeta is so preoccupied with locating where Katniss's cries are coming from that he doesn't notice that the floors are suddenly slippery, nor does he notice the wet sounds his tread starts to make with each step. It's not until a warm drip lands on the back of his neck on the thin sliver of skin that isn't covered either by his blonde curls or the collar of his shirt that Peeta realizes something is amiss.
He squints up at the ceiling, calling out Katniss's name but her cries are still so distant it's as though he hasn't made any progress towards her at all. All at once, the dripping picks up speed. Peeta can smell it before the moonlight streaming through the window allows him to see it. Blood. Reeking, metallic blood everywhere. The fine hairs on the back of his neck prickle as they stand up and he tries to rub the sticky liquid from his body with a shudder.
He takes several steps back, although it does no good considering the blood is coming from above him rather than from anything beside him. The thud of his back hitting something solid sends him jumping several feet in the opposite direction, the metal clanking of chains echoing between the dripping of blood.
Suddenly, the room is flooded with light and Peeta lets out a guttural cry as he reels backward, losing his footing on the slick floor and falling backwards into the blood pooling on the ground. His stomach curdles as he comes eye to eye with an entire line of cattle, slaughtered and hanging from a series of chains along a line where men would typically be working at gutting and cleaning them.
"Katniss!" he shouts, his voice an octave higher than it normally is, giving away his terror. He wishes he didn't sound so weak when Katniss clearly needs him.
Somehow, Peeta pushes himself back to his feet, wiping the blood on his hands over the thighs of his slacks as he walks. He tries his best not to think about the blood that continues to drip from overhead. When he finds a door at the opposite end of the factory, he calls Katniss's name one last time before letting himself out of the hellish room.
Her whimpers echo more clearly in this room though the air is heavy, as though someone drew a bath, or spent the entire day with the bread ovens fired and the window closed.
"Peeta?" Katniss calls out, his name punctuated by a hacking cough.
He walks further into the room towards the source of her voice, his gut churning away as he frantically searches around factory machines. As he walks, a strange dust kicks up into the air. He's in a cotton mill, he quickly realizes, coughing as the dust stings his eyes and sears against the inside of his throat.
Peeta tries to walk more nimbly in hopes that the dust will stop rising, but it seems to have taken on a mind of it's own, rising up from the floor like steam, like a fog, choking his breath with each step. Katniss doesn't call out to him anymore. Instead her coughs are the only sound that guides him towards her.
Katniss's sudden, shrill scream pierces the air, coming from the opposite end of the factory. Peeta is half mad with fear at the sound, but his feet carry him forward through another heavy, factory door into a textile mill, his mother's textile mill.
Another scream comes from above and Peeta's head snaps back, his eyes roving the rafters only finding several black birds- like ravens, but they don't look quite right. As if they realize he's watching, the birds all begin screeching, each call more like Katniss's scream than the next; each shriek tearing his soul into smaller shreds as Peeta realizes he might never find her.
He searches the isles, under and between each massive machine, his hands clamped firmly over his ears in hopes to shut out the horrid noise around him. When he reaches the other end of the room however, Katniss is still missing and the tears streaming down his cheeks give away the effect the awful birds are having on him.
Peeta runs through the doorway, the birds instantly falling silent as he finds himself outside, in the cold dark streets of the industrial district of the city. He turns around full circle, trying to gauge which block of the city he finds himself on. He almost would have missed her had she not rustled, her form catching the light and dropping a shadow on the ground before him.
"Katniss!" Peeta is at her side in an instant, his hands gently roaming her arms, her hair, her face.
"Peeta," She answers hollowly, her cold hands reaching up to bury themselves in the curls at the back of his head.
She is so frail beneath his hands, as though she might snap in two if he touches her the wrong way. She's so tiny, so thin. She's starving again, much closer to death than he's seen her in a long while.
"Are you alright? Katniss, what are you doing here?" Peeta asks softly, brushing her loose, dark locks back from her face, searching for any signs of injury but he finds none.
"I miss you," she says weakly, her grey eyes flitting across his face.
Peeta leans forward, pressing his lips to her chilled forehead, "Then let me take you home. Let me take care of you," he begs.
She fixes him with a sad gaze, "I can't, Peeta." The tears welling up in her eyes are unmistakable.
"Why not?" Peeta asks, tangling his hands through her dark, coarse hair, pressing his cheek to hers so that his lips are even with her ear, "Why won't you let me help you?"
"You can't," she murmurs, settling her body closer to his, as though she finds any space between them unbearable, "You can't help, Peeta." Her voice cracks and he pulls her as close as he can when he feels her body tremble against his.
"Let me try," he pleads but she shakes her head before he's even able to finish the short sentence.
Her voice sounds distant as she speaks and Peeta realizes that she's somehow drifting away from him though she was in his arms only moments earlier. He tries to scramble against the force separating them but his mind surfaces from the dream before he's able to return to her.
She was right. He couldn't help her. His head throbs and when he opens his eyes, the light sends a stab of pain shooting to the back of his skull. He notices a tall glass of water that someone must have placed on the bedside table sometime during the night. Slowly, he reaches out and takes a long gulp, which is like a bit of heaven when it hits his parched tongue.
Peeta tries to convince himself that is was all just a dream, a trick played by his drunken mind to torture him with the memory of Katniss, but the images have shaken him and he sends word to Carl that he should make his way to the Mellark Mansion promptly this morning.
Peeta tries to divert himself while he waits by drawing, but his hand trembles anxiously and his body itches for action. When Carl finally enters the suite, the older man is pacing the floor anxiously in the morning light, trying to ignore the spinning the alcohol seems to have left behind in his mind.
"Sir?" Carl asks hesitantly. Peeta has noticed that the boy approaches him like this more often than not of late and he suspects that he must truly be a mess if the Seam boy is concerned about speaking with him.
Peeta runs a hand haphazardly through his already messy curls, "Carl, we need to find her. I need to know. I need to be sure she's safe, that she's better off."
Carl nods with a sympathetic look in his eyes.
"There is no place you should leave unsearched, Carl," Peeta says desperately to the younger boy.
He knows he shouldn't be doing this. Katniss is a married woman now. It's really no use searching for her when he will never be able to have her again, but he needs to know. He needs to know that she is safe and loved and cared for.
"I need to find her," Peeta whispers, his words heavy with a pain that never seems to go away these days.
Carl frowns up at his master but nods anyway. He's noticed the way Primrose Everdeen seems burdened by a sadness that wasn't there before. Her cheeks aren't nearly as hollow, but her soul seems emptier since Katniss left. Carl wants to find Katniss just as much as Peeta albeit for different reasons.
"I won't let you down, Mr. Mellark," Carl assures him, "But are you sure she's still in the city?"
Peeta's heart stills for a long moment. It had never occurred to him that she might have left the only place she's ever known. She might be in another city now or perhaps even living in the countryside. A vision of her walking through his father's wheat fields crosses his mind, stabbing his chest mercilessly. What he wouldn't give to take her there, away from the rest of the world, where he could keep her safe in his embrace.
Peeta shakes his head slowly, both to rid his mind of the vision and to answer Carl, "I don't know." His voice is weak and shuddering, "I need to see her one last time, Carl."
Carl reaches out a small hand, giving Peeta's arm a gentle squeeze with a firm nod before turning and leaving as silently as he arrived. Peeta lays back in bed, staring up at the ceiling as he tries to fight the despair that threatens to overwhelm him with each breath. He doesn't know what he'll do if Carl never finds her. It's unthinkable. He's quite certain he can't survive without her and the thought alone is terrifying.
"Where is she?" The shout from the front of the saloon is familiar. Dread fills me before my mind even has a chance to register who the voice belongs to.
"Don't see why it's any business of yours, boy," Haymitch's gruff reply carries into the back room before a fist slams against something, probably the bar.
"Don't toy with me, old man."
Haymitch's dry laugh follows and I decide it's best just to face whatever's coming rather than let things continue to escalate.
"Gale," I call from the doorway, gaining his attention instantly and he looks furious.
"Catnip, what in God's name is going on?" he demands, quickly crossing the room and lowering his voice, though it still sounds just as deadly when it's quieter.
I haven't been at The Hob all that long, but to be completely honest I thought he would find out I was missing sooner than this. He's my dearest friend and he would never have believed that I ran off and eloped with a man he'd never even heard of. It begs to question how he knew I would be at The Hob but seeing him here now floods me with a homesickness I haven't felt since that first night I performed.
"Gale," I start but stop. What do I tell him? How do I explain how I got to this point? If I think he's furious now, just wait until he hears the truth. I know he'll be disappointed in me.
"She's singing in the shows at night, boy," Haymitch pipes up from his place behind the bar, relieving me of the painful task of breaking the news, "But I think you already knew that."
Gale looks at me, eyes wide, demanding that I tell him the truth of the matter, pleading for me to give him some reasonable excuse as to why I am here at The Hob so early in the morning. When I don't attempt to speak, his shoulders visibly slump and he runs a hand over his dark hair, leaving it a hopeless mess that would drive Hazelle mad.
"When Thom's little brother mentioned something, I didn't want to believe it," he mutters, wringing his calloused hands against one another, "It took me a week to gather the courage to come here and see for myself. Catnip, why would you do this?" he asks sadly, settling dejectedly into a chair at the nearest table.
"Prizefighting wasn't an option for me," I answer softly because it's the only way I can really show him my desperation. He of all people should understand. Gale has gone to the limits to protect his family as well.
We're both silent for a long while before he lets out a tired sigh, leaning forward so his elbows are balanced on his knees. Somehow I manage to look him in the eyes and find the familiar shade of grey already watching me.
"You know there is no going back now, Katniss," he murmurs, the sorrow in his voice tugging at my chest, "You'll be considered a ruined woman-"
"Gale, I haven't-" I start to defend my reputation. No matter what anyone else thinks, I can't have him thinking I have sunk so low as to sell my body.
He shakes his head slowly before I can even finish, "I believe you, Katniss, but that doesn't matter. In the eyes of the rest of the world, you are ruined simply by being associated with a place like this."
I know this of course, but something eases within me knowing that Gale at least won't think the same thoughts. Another long silence falls between us, each of us contemplating what kind of world we must live in that two young people like ourselves should be forced into such circumstances as we are.
"I'll look after them," he promises in a low tone, "I want you to know that, Katniss. I'll look after them as my own family."
I lean forward, my hands shakily finding his as I try desperately to hold back a sob that his words have summoned inside of me. I wish things were different. I wish it could have been a realistic possibility for us to run off and made a living on a farm like he had once dreamed not all that long ago. Things aren't different though, and we have both been forced into coming to terms with that fact.
"Thank you," I whisper as his rough, worn hands grip mine fiercely, "I love you, Gale."
"You know I love you too, Catnip," he shakes his head slowly, "I wish I could do more."
"It's enough," I counter firmly, "Just make sure Prim is safe. That's more than enough."
One of his thick hands leaves mine, reaching up to tug gently on the braid resting over my shoulder, "You just be safe, too, Katniss. Don't you let some man take advantage of you," his words are choked as he speaks and we both know that, honestly, I already am. I let them look at me, lust after me night after night. But I understand what he means and I nod. He doesn't want me to work in side dealings just as Haymitch has forbade. Even now, he's still trying to protect me in what small way he can.
"How did you know I was here?" I ask meekly after a moment.
He lets out a soft snort, "Thom's little brother was here two weeks ago. Mentioned seeing a girl who reminded him of you and could sing like a songbird. I stopped by your place on the way home one night and when your mother said you moved away… I knew."
A smile tugs at the corners of my mouth despite the heaviness of our conversation. Gale and I have always had a natural intuition about one another that amazed our families.
"How is your fighting going?" I question, trying to bring some normalcy to our encounter. This has become our normal now; two occupations that must remain hidden under the cloak of night. I note the yellowing bruise just behind his right ear, almost covered by his dark hairline.
He smiles ruefully, "As well as can be expected. I win more often than not." He shrugs, "I'm bigger than a lot of the guys there."
"I can imagine." I reply with a little laugh as I settle into a chair beside him. Sae appears out of thin air with two cups of coffee, which she settles onto the table before disappearing back behind the counter again.
Gale sips at his gratefully and chuckles as well. If we weren't both here in The Hob, I could almost pretend this was a normal weekend meeting with him. It dawns on me just how much I have missed his presence in my life. Even before I left for The Hob we hardly saw one another, both to busy trying to survive to find time for one another. This moment is nice and I soak in every second of it I can. Something about his manner leads me to believe he feels the same.
He stays until late morning, it being Sunday and his one day off from the factory he started working in after the incident with Thread. In fact, Gale doesn't make to leave until Johanna and Clove wander downstairs for a quick lunch before they begin to prepare for our show this evening.
"You can come sometime you know," I offer to him as I walk with him to the door.
He frowns, a deep crease marring the normally smooth expanse of his forehead, "I don't know about that, Catnip. I don't want to see you like that."
"I don't do anything besides sing." I smile softly, "But I understand if you don't come. I just wanted you to know that you could, that I am not trying to hide from you."
He nods, leaning forward and wrapping me in a warm hug as he murmurs his final goodbyes against my hair. I watch him go until he turns the corner at the end of the block returning to a life that I once knew but now just seems like a distant memory.
"That was a beautiful song you performed earlier," a cool voice says from just behind me where I'm seated at a table full of working men.
It seems like a lifetime since I started singing at The Hob, nights all string together with a seemingly endless line of men jostling one another to get a closer look at the Girl on Fire. I don't know how word travelled so quickly. I'm not sure why they flock in droves to hear me sing.
I'm not particularly pretty. I don't dance provocatively. I don't even draw people to me with a naturally sociable personality. But they do come. Men of all ages and social standings. Haymitch can't seem to believe it either, though he's not complaining with the extra profit he makes by selling out the show each night with standing room only.
I turn in the direction of the smooth voice to find a man of about thirty, attractive and clean cut with a well-trimmed beard, smiling at me. I've never seen him before, which at this point is quite unusual since most of the men are semi-regulars depending on the night and the weather. The men I was speaking with sober up immediately and shuffle off towards other tables without another word, leaving me alone with the stranger.
"I admit, I don't believe I have ever been quite so fascinated with one of Haymitch's girls- perhaps any performer for that matter," he sticks out a gloved hand, which causes me to pause for a moment since this man is clearly not from the working class, especially not with fine kidskin gloves like those.
Occasionally men from the upper class will find their way to The Hob, but they usually do their best to blend in and make themselves scarce, often buying private time with a lady of their choosing as soon as the show is finished. I've never seen one sitting around in the saloon, socializing with others who could identify them later.
"I'm Seneca Crane." He offers with a winning smile, one that I'm sure he has been trained to give since he was born. "I don't believe I have ever caught your name, unless you were baptized The Girl On Fire, that is."
He reaches out for my hand, as gentlemen often do, and presses his lips gently to the soft skin on the back of my hand. I do my best to hide my surprise, instead trying to pass it off as demureness as I duck my gaze, "It is not my policy to provide patrons with my name."
This is the simple truth. The only way I can attempt to protect Prim and her reputation is to hide the identity I grew up with.
"A shame," Seneca replies smoothly, "I am sure a lady as exotically beautiful as you would have an equally intriguing name."
The gaze he levels at me sends a shiver through my spine and not the pleasurable type that Peeta always managed to elicit. This shiver leaves me feeling anxious, looking for some legitimate route of escape from this befuddling man.
I catch Johanna's eye from across the room and her look tells me all I need to know. Whoever Seneca Crane is, he's not someone I want to associate with for long. I'm just wracking my mind for an excuse to part ways with the handsome man when Haymitch's gravely voice speaks from beside me.
"What are you doing here, Crane?"
"Just having a look at The Girl On Fire for myself," the younger man replies genially, "There are all kinds of whispers roaming the darker rooms of the city and I wanted to see if any of them were true."
"And?" Haymitch takes a step closer to me. Never in my life been more grateful for the smell of stale alcohol. Something about the man before me doesn't settle right, leaving my belly twisting nervously.
"And I find I am not at all displeased with what I have seen," Mr. Crane sends me another smile that leaves me taking a hesitant step back. My blood chills under his watchful gaze. Something tells me that this is one man it would have been better to disappoint.
"Wonderful," Haymitch says tensely, motioning subtly for me to back farther away, which I do.
"How much would we be talking about if I were to purchase her contract from you?" Seneca asks. His inquiry causes me to freeze, blood rushing from my cheeks as I pale with understanding.
"You know none of my girls are here under contract, Crane," Haymitch spits venomously. I don't believe I've ever heard him speak so passionately before. "You know I don't deal in that kind of business."
"A loss to your establishment and bank account, I'm certain." Seneca replies, not at all unsettled by Haymitch's reaction, "Then it is probably best if I speak to the lady myself since you have no legal right to speak for her."
As he turns to face me again, I wish I would have gotten farther away from their conversation when I had the chance. His cold eyes find me and my stomach twists into knots.
"My dear, how much is Haymitch paying you to sing for him?" he asks, a strange curl pulling at his mouth somewhere between a smile and a snarl, "I assure you I could provide at least double what he is paying should you come to The Arena."
My face blanches at his offer. I have heard of The Arena by now. It only takes a few days in an establishment such as The Hob to learn of the most famous brothels in the city, of which The Arena is one.
"Sir," I say, trying to sound utterly offended but my voice tremors in a way that sounds more hesitant than anything. I sound just as afraid of him as I feel. "I do not-I wouldn't..."
"She doesn't deal in what goes on upstairs," Haymitch cuts in, saving me from speaking the words myself.
"My apologies," Seneca says earnestly, placing a gloved hand over his heart, "Clearly I've misjudged the situation. It really is a pity."
I duck my gaze to avoid the disappointed glance he sends me.
"If you ever do change your mind, The Arena would be honored to have you sing for us, Miss," Seneca says, producing a hat from thin air. He gives a gentleman's bow, "It was truly my pleasure to meet you."
"Here," Clove says, shoving a small, cloth bundle into my hands.
"What is this?" I ask with a frown, lowering my leg from the stool where I had been pulling on the silk stockings that Madame Trinket ordered me to wear tonight.
"A late birthday gift," Clove rolls her eyes. "Johanna insisted that you needed one and she paid me handsomely to get it for you."
My frown deepens as I unroll the nondescript white cloth to reveal the gleaming dagger inside, "What on earth would I ever need this for?"
"Well, Johanna has an extra belt so you can keep it on your leg of course," Clove answers with a heavy sigh as though that explains everything.
When she finally notices me staring at the knife with a deep furrow in my brow, she lifts up her own skirt.
"Most of the girls wear one."
"Why?" I ask, astounded that I have never heard of this before.
"You never know when you might need to protect yourself." Clove shrugs, her hips swaying slightly as she leaves the room adding, "Especially in our line of business."
I hurriedly get to my feet, climbing the stairs and finding Johanna's door slightly ajar. I knock lightly, "Johanna?"
"Come in." She replies and I find her at the small mirror in her room, pinning a new trinket in her hair made of silver and crystals, "Do you like it? Mr. Carmichael gave it to me last night."
I nod noncommittally. I still don't understand how she can spend the night with a married man like that and take gifts from him. She told me once that it doesn't mean anything and that he of all people can afford to buy her gifts. He does own several stores in the shopping district after all, but it still doesn't seem right.
She turns to face me once she has the trinket fixed in her hair to her liking, "Did Clove give you that?" She nods to the knife in my hand.
"Yes," I answer, my knuckles whitening on the hilt of the weapon, "She said you wanted me to have it."
Johanna nods, "You need one. I don't care if you don't go up into the rooms with men like most of us girls. I saw the way Crane looked at you and you're better safe than sorry."
"What do you mean?" I frown. When Crane left, I thought that would be the end of it. I would never make contact with him and he obviously understands that I have no interest in working at The Arena.
Johanna stares at me for a long while and the silence begins to stretch out uncomfortably between us before she seems to decide something and shuts the door to her room.
"Katniss, did you know anything about Crane, or The Arena before the other night?" she asks quietly, placing a hand on my shoulder and leading me to sit down at the rickety table.
"I know that The Arena is a brothel. You told me that much," I admit, suddenly aware that there must be more that she didn't tell me.
"What do you know about Coriolanus Snow?" she asks, an eyebrow arched already certain that I will recognize the name.
"He's with the mob," I reply simply. Coriolanus Snow is a household name these days after that big bank heist that the police could never pin on him.
Johanna nods slowly, waiting for me to say more, but when I don't she continues for me, "Crane might own The Arena on paper, but the money all belongs to Snow. Crane is just his puppet with a respectable face."
A scowl creases my brow as the meaning of her words sinks in. Suddenly the air seems too thin in the small bedroom and I sink to sit on the worn mattress.
"You don't want Seneca Crane's attention, Katniss," Johanna adds gently, settling herself beside me with her hands in her lap, "You will find that he gets whatever he wants one way or another."
"He wanted me to work at The Arena," I whisper, my voice suddenly hoarse as fear strikes my body stiff, "but I told him no."
Johanna shakes her head solemnly, "That doesn't mean it's over. I expect he will be back- sooner rather than later- and next time he'll bring reinforcement. He will be sure to have a plan-some way to woo you."
"Woo me?" I repeat, bringing a sad smile to her lips.
"Perhaps woo isn't the best word." She shrugs, "Persuade? Either way, you had better keep that dagger close. You might find use for it sooner than you would like to imagine."
I squint at the woman beside me, scrutinizing her voluptuous form, wondering why she has decided to help me- befriend me. I ask her as much a few moments later when I can't think of any reason our friendship might prove useful to her.
She shrugs once more, "I don't know. Maybe it's nice to see a girl with a little bit of virtue for once. Or perhaps I just detest Seneca Crane."
"Why do you dislike him so?" I ask as she stands, ushering me toward the door of her room so she can be alone to finish preparing for the evening's show.
"He preys on poor girls whose families have no other way to survive," Johanna answers coolly, her voice clipped and her eyes glazed, somewhere far far away from this little room above the saloon, "My sister worked for him once."
I frown as I step into the hallway and her form blocks the doorway, "I didn't know you had a sister."
"I don't," she states flatly, "Not anymore at least. I will see you at the show."
She doesn't wait for me to answer before shutting the door in my face, a soft click echoing in the quiet hall as the door latches into place.
I make my way back to my own room, stunned by Johanna's sudden revelation about her sister. One thing is for certain as I slip into a gown for this evening's show- I refuse to work in Seneca Crane's establishment. How I might go about rebuffing any future offers is a question I think I will be mulling over for a long while yet. If anything Johanna said was true, he's a much more dangerous man than I had originally thought and he sounds as though he isn't one to take no for an easy answer either.
AN: Please feel free to let me know what you thought! I'd love to hear from you!