I know I said I probably wouldn't write this, or that it wouldn't be for a while, but then I couldn't get the story out of my mind, so thank you to those who encouraged me to continue this series for justifying me writing this chapter. This is the sequel to Never Going Back Again, if you haven't read it, it may be a bit confusing. I think this chapter summarizes all the major plot points, but the gist is that Katniss is a reformed juvenile convict in a modern day Panem. Panem suffers from class warfare between the "have" (the Caps) and the "have not" (the Seam). Katniss has been a Seam all her life, but after she took the fall for an accident involving Prim, she's found herself tangled with the Caps, including Peeta Mellark, whom she used to gain favor from her parole board set on sending her back to prison. Peeta knows now that their relationship was a lie, but agreed to stand by her when she was accused of another crime.
Rumours: Part 2: Second Hand News
I take a sip from my red Solo cup. It tastes vaguely of cherries, but mostly vodka – the expensive kind. From a Cap party, I wouldn't expect anything less. The night is warm. The air thick with humidity, in a way that leaches to your skin and offers no relief from the heat. There's a charge to the air, like thunder could crash at any moment and unleash a chaotic curtain of water. Clouds have gathered in the sky, obscuring the faint twinkle of stars. It would be impossible to see them from here anyway, not with the giant floodlights that bath the obscenely large backyard with an unnatural glow.
There's a swimming pool – twice the size of my house in the Seam – filled with classmates teetering on the edge of inebriation, playing a game that seems to be a hybrid between sword fighting and whack a mole with those limp Styrofoam pool noodles. On the far edge of the wooden deck, Mark Cato is draining the last bits of foam from a keg. Our eyes lock for the briefest moment and I can't look away quickly enough. Immediately I want to vomit, even though I barely have enough alcohol in my system to justify it.
We're technically allies now, Cato and me. Outwitting the legal system one overpaid lawyer at a time. After the accident that resulted in Peeta getting shot in the leg, we were all gathered in a small room to get our story straight. The laundry list of crimes committed were auctioned off like some sort of baseball card trade. It was all for show anyway. The Mellarks never planned on pressing charges, not once I was eliminated from their list of scapegoats.
When one of the wealthiest kids in town ends up with a bullet hole in their leg, and there are only two suspects, one from the Capitol District and one from the Seam, there are really no questions to ask besides, "Which trailer?" Especially when the Seam involved was already decorated with a criminal record. It was going to be simple to railroad me even though Cato was the one to pull the trigger. I was already proven to be hostile when I jammed a box cutter into Cato's leg, what was a firearm to add to the list of parole violating activities?
Haymitch and Peeta wouldn't allow it though. Haymitch had been mentoring Seam kids out of juvenile corrections facilities for years and watched every last one of them get swallowed back into the system. I was going to be the first one to make it out and he wasn't going to let some fool with a gun that he thought was unloaded, get in the way of my freedom. Cato only meant to scare me, not shoot me. It didn't excuse the fact that he almost let Peeta bleed to death because his harebrained scheme got out of hand.
Peeta stood by me even though he had every reason to throw me to the wolves. I had taken advantage of his feelings for me and used him to charm my parole board. Peeta thought that whatever had been developing between us was real, and maybe it could have been, but that possibility was tarnished now because of me. A Cap defending a Seam is unheard of, and by including me in the Mellark protective fold, he was putting his good reputation on the line. Any other Cap putting their neck out to defend Seam trash over one of their own would have been banished from the community, but Peeta wasn't like the others. He was good, and people respected him for more than his money.
In the end ,Cato claimed he had the gun on him for protection. A guy as wealthy as him, in a town with such a controversial economic diversity, couldn't afford to jeopardize his safety by roaming the streets unarmed. I admitted to seeing the gun, and misinterpreting the situation from our earlier altercation, stabbed him with my box cutter. Peeta then stepped in and attacked Cato, thinking I was being assaulted, and in the process, the gun went off. The Mellarks and Catos donated a large amount of money to gun safety awareness and all was forgiven in the town of Panem. One thing had changed though. I was one of them now.
I crash into a Cap, who is wearing two polos with both collars popped and a crooked baseball cap on top of his head. Marvel. He adjusts the aviators that are completely unnecessary at night and holds up his overly bronzed hands in defense.
"Watch it," he says, but his lips quickly turn up into a smirk. "Oh hey Everdeen," he says. His suggestive tone making my skin crawl. "I'm not packing any heat, but you can frisk me if you want to."
I roll my eyes and push passed him, taking my stance in my usual corner on the outskirts of the crowd. It's close enough to the commotion to make a valid appearance but far enough away that nobody tries to engage in conversation. Just the way I like it. The number of odd looks flashed in my direction have diminished in the last few weeks meaning that I've become a regular fixture in their world. Mission accomplished, I guess.
Madge slips up beside me holding a matching plastic cup, we nod at one another in acknowledgment then sip on our drinks in silence. Madge doesn't want to be here anymore than I do. Her mother forces her to come to these parties, I think. Hosts the parties herself sometimes under the guise of wanting kids to drink responsibly under the safety of a Cap roof instead of running off to the Slag Heap with the Seam trash for debauchery.
Madge's cup is full of water though. I don't know how she survives these parties sober.
"Where's Peeta?" She asks.
That's a good question. My eyes scan the crowd in search of his familiar mop of blond curls. The party is on its last leg. That stage where everyone can only manage intermittent slurring and are barely even half conscious anymore. It's easy to spot Peeta because he's one of the few that's still engaged and speaking animatedly. That boy could carry on a conversation with a wall if he had to.
"Talking to Delly," I say and gesture my cup in their direction.
"Oh," Madge says. We nod at one another and continue to drink in silence. We may only seem like casual acquaintances, but right now Madge is one of the best friends I have.
"Katniss, hey!" I'm suddenly wrapped in the arms of Delly Cartwright and nearly spill my drink down her back in startle. One would think that Delly was drunk, with her round flushed cheeks and overly enthusiastic smile, but being this friendly was just a part of her nature. I respond weakly to her embrace and offer her a small smile in return. Peeta is a few paces behind – his leg not fully healed, leaving him with a bit of a limp. He tucks his hands in the pockets of his jeans and eyes me carefully. Waiting for Delly to release me, he places a hand against the small of my back and kisses me on the cheek.
"Hey you," he says with an affection that doesn't reach his eyes.
I swallow thickly and force a corner of my lips up to a half grin. "There you are," I say in reply, unable to hide the sadness in my voice.
The awkwardness goes unnoticed by Delly, who continues to bubble with excitement. "I can't believe high school's over. It's surreal, isn't it? Are you excited for graduation?"
I smile tightly. They're letting me walk at the ceremony but I won't get the diploma unless I complete summer school. I'd rather just take the GED exam and get it over with, but it's important to Prim that I get my diploma so I'm putting forward my best effort. It's only a piece of paper, it's not like I'm going to use it for anything.
"Yes," I say lamely.
"Where are you going in the fall?" Delly asks. "Will you be in New York with Peeta?"
I look to Peeta for the briefest moment, our eyes barely locking before I turn back to Delly. "I'll probably still be here."
"That's too bad," Delly says gavely. "At least it's not too far. And with all the training Peeta will be getting, he'll be able to cook you the most fantastic meals!"
Peeta's attending the International Culinary Center in the fall. It's not something we talk about much, the fact that he's leaving while I'll be staying behind. We don't talk about our future or our relationship at all, it makes the sham easier.
"I can't wait," I say with forced enthusiasm. Peeta presses a kiss to my forehead and tightens his arm around my waist. He's much better at this game than I am. He knows exactly how to behave to make this seem real.
One would wonder why we still carry on with this charade now that all our legal issues have been cleared. I question that sometimes too.
After the news of Peeta's accident was leaked, the Caps were easily satiated by the story that was spoon fed to them by the press. The Seam folk however, had seen too many rich kids walk for their crimes to accept such a flimsy story. There was outrage over how the crime scene was handled and all the evidence that had mysteriously disappeared. Snow had actually balked to the pressure and fired Crane and half the Sheriff's department to quell the uprising. It was no use, the damage had already been done.
I was essentially blackballed from the Seam community for standing by Peeta and the Capitol agenda, but the little sympathy I maintained was used as a weapon. What started out as a game to trick my parole board into keeping me out of prison, turned into the fragile thread that was holding the town of Panem together.
"If you want to keep them from writing you off while saving your own hide, you need to justify siding with the enemy. Nobody can deny a tragic love story," Haymitch reminded me.
On my last day of employment at Arena grocery store, Town Supervisor Corionalus Snow himself came to my register to purchase a single long stemmed rose. Arena didn't have a proper floral department, so the stock was wilted with brown rimmed petals, quality not suited for the most powerful politician in town. He had step foot in Arena with purpose however, and the quality of the roses seemed to be the least of his worries.
"There's a special election coming up," he said, barely acknowledging me as he clipped the stem to a sharp tip with a small dagger he had slipped from his jacket pocket. He tucked the delicate white flower into his coat's lapel and twisted it until it was positioned perfectly.
The plans to incorporate Panem were no longer a secret and the campaign was in full swing. According to polls, the vote was at a dead tie. Naturally, the upper class was excited about the prospect of expensive pretty streets and fancy festivals to flaunt their wealth. Those of us living on the edge of poverty weren't as enthusiastic about being cut out of the picture. We may have disliked the distinct class lines, but being tied to the Capitol gave us access to good schools and added value to our dilapidated land. If Panem became a municipality, those from the Seam that made the boundaries wouldn't be able to afford the new taxes and those who fell outside of the line would be living on worthless land that would most likely suffer from crime and chaos.
The white of Snow's eyes were stained yellow and his cheeks gaunt, making him resemble a reptile more so than a human. There was something unsettling about this man, who had somehow been able to charm the town into following him. I suppose making one a millionaire would inspire loyalty in anyone. He may not have been the CEO of Cicrcenex – a medical technology company that was the livelihood of Panem – anymore, but he'd always be remembered as its founder.
"What happened here a few weeks ago was unfortunate," he said, and the smile he offered was more sinister than comforting. "Sometimes when we're pushed to extremes, we act in rash ways. Wouldn't you agree?" I felt my mouth go dry but managed to nod. He was making it clear that he knew what he could hold over me. My poaching, my drug trafficking, my illegal trades. I was putty in his hands, just as I had been when I was trapped working at Arena.
"I have a problem, Miss Everdeen," he said and plucked an especially rotten petal from his rose. "Panem is at a very delicate crossroad, you must see it. Some feel that there may be preferential treatment to certain sectors of the community. This incident that took place here, it's only made matters worse. Even a fool could see what's happening. Evidence turns up missing, motives don't quite add up, and of the players involved there's a very obvious case of – " He trailed off and grinned, his voice taking on a melodic lilt. "One of these things is not like the other." His thin silver brow arched in amusement and all I could do was press my lips together tightly to hide my fear of this man.
I wondered if he knew about the tapes. Knew that although Cato pulling the trigger was immortalized on film, proving his guilt, there was equally incriminating footage of me feeding drugs to Peeta. An offense that would send me back to the slammer in a second, should it ever come uncovered.
"It's odd when someone of your social standings finds themselves entangled with more upstanding citizens, especially with your record and all. One could wonder that perhaps, you may have been pressured or coerced into cooperating. Or the same could be said about them." His tone was knowing as if the subtext of his words weren't obvious enough on their own. He knew about the tapes. He had to. "Although I shouldn't be surprised I suppose, I hear that you and this Mister Mellark are quite fond of one another."
"Yes," I said, but my voice betrayed me and broke its silence with a desperate shout.
"It's a charming reminder – the two of you – that these barriers in Panem are simply a myth," he said. "Two lovers separated by circumstance, embracing the values of a new Panem, binding the community and building a home."
"Funny," I said, with a defiance I hadn't known I possessed. "I thought this home you speak of didn't have enough room for all of Panem." The city limits on record in the county offices showed a clear boundary that separated the northern districts from the less desirable southern ones. Snow's plan was to basically build a wall between the rich and the poor.
"You're a lot like your grandfather," he said, which was odd because not only had I never met him, but the man had disowned my mother, Prim and me when my mother dared to fall in love with someone not worthy of the Odair fortune.
I lifted my chin and gathered my composure. "How so?" I asked.
"You inspire loyalty," he said. "It's quite dangerous if you don't know what direction to lead your followers." He counted a few bills and dropped them on the counter. "Tragic, your grandfather's passing. It was far too soon." There was something mysterious about his tone, like there was a threat hidden in his condolences. "This vote is very important to me, as I'm sure your freedom and your lovely sister is to you. I'd hate for one of us to end up disappointed." And then with one last chilling grin, he was gone.
My freedom and quite possibly Prim's safety was dependent on Snow getting his way. Peeta and I would have to continue our romance through at least the special election. Nobody would buy me aligning with the Capitol District on my own accord. But what was I really doing? Leading those, whom I considered to be my family, blindly into a trap all for self preservation.
I'm distracted from my thoughts by the feeling of Peeta's lips, warm against my forehead. "You'll miss me a little, right sweetheart?" He says.
"Oh please," I manage to say. "You'll forget all about me once the first New York socialite crosses your path."
I can feel his lashes flutter against my cheek as he closes his eyes and let's out a heavy breath. "I wish it were that simple," he says.
He says these things sometimes to hurt me, I think. He's too kind to turn his back on me when he knows that I need him. That's the only reason he agreed to play along with this act. That and to stick it to his mother, who about had a heart attack the first time he took my hand into his. I refuse to believe any affection he holds for me is still genuine. It makes this arrangement easier that way. But then he strokes the end of my braid in a way that makes my heart react in an unexpected way.
I'm about to do something stupid, like kiss him selfishly when we hear a scream. It's loud enough that everyone should have heard, but Peeta, Madge, Delly, and I are the only ones who seem to react.
"What was that?" Delly gasps, but Peeta and I don't wait around to reply, we're both darting towards the house where the scream originated. The halls are still crowded with an incoherent mob of peers and we push our way through, throwing open every door along our path in search of the source of the cries.
We're halfway down the corridor when Peeta encounters a door that's locked. He squares his shoulders and hurls himself against it until the frame gives way and he barrels into the room. It's almost pitch black and I feel along the wall for the switch, while the occupants politely tell us to, "Fuck off."
Through the dim light that shines through the heavy curtains, I can make out two male figures hovering over a girl who appears to be shivering. I find the light just as Peeta is ripping one of the men from the bed grunting, "No you fuck off."
The guy stumbles into me and I catch him, coming face to face with the same pair of sunglasses I'd ran into before.
"Get out of here!" Peeta roars at them with an amount of fury I didn't know he possessed.
Marvel scoffs at the request, but still obliges and leans over to collect his discarded shirts from the floor. His accomplice, his cousin Gloss, begins to dress as well and they stroll leisurely towards the door. "Relax man," Marvel says easily. "We were just having a little fun."
When they finally leave, I move quickly to the bed and help cover up the girl. She's completely naked and seems almost lucid, like she's on something. Even if I didn't know her face, her olive skin and black hair immediately gives her away as Seam. It's not uncommon for Seam girls to show up at Cap parties, offering their bodies for drugs or money. I'm heartbroken when I recognize her as Leevy, a girl the same age as me. Her family lived only a few doors down from mine.
She thrashes against the blankets and beats her small hands against me. "Don't let them leave," she pleads. "Wait," she calls out towards the door.
"Leevy, please," I say and try to hug my arms around her tightly, but she refuses to stop fighting me.
"I know what I'm doing," she shouts into my face, her eyes glazed over from her high. "You're ruining everything!"
Eventually, she allows me to help her dress and I guide her to Peeta's Mercedes. She's silent in the backseat. Her face hard as stone and eyes unmoving. We're just pulling off the road that leads to the Seam when she speaks. "You think you're so much better than us now, don't you Katniss?"
I turn to look at her but have no words.
"You're just as much a whore," she says, her voice strangled by threatening tears. "Everyone knows it. You think just because you bagged yourself a nice rich one that no one sees right through you?" She loosens her seat belt and pulls herself forward between mine and Peeta's seat so that she can speak to him. "Better get your kicks while you can, she'll bleed you dry and leave you behind, just like she did with Hawthorne."
That was a blatant lie. My friendship with Gale may have been strained due to the increasing tensions between the Caps and Seam, but I never took advantage of our relationship. I look to Peeta, hoping that he hasn't been effected by Leevy's venom. Before I can read his expression, Leevy is struggling with her seat belt.
"Just drop me off here," she demands even though her house isn't for another half a mile. "Nobody's buying you and your charity. Don't nobody want to see your face around there."
It's obvious that Peeta doesn't want to leave this girl stumbling into the night, but knowing it isn't his place to decide, he looks to me for approval. I stare hard at Leevy's stubborn face, Seam people and their pride always getting the best of me. I turn back in my seat so that I'm staring out the windshield and fold my arms across my chest before I nod. Reluctantly, he pulls the car off the side of the road and Leevy hurries out, running off into the darkness.
"Are you okay?" He asks after a deafening silence fills the cabin.
"It's true, isn't it?" I say, my voice even and hollow.
"You can't punish yourself, Katniss," he says. "You're protecting yourself and your family just like anyone else would." I lower my chin to my chest and try to convince myself that he's right, even though I know he isn't. Look at what he puts himself through to protect me, he'd do a lot better without me. "Can I take you home now?"
I chew on the inside of my cheek but don't move to respond. Peeta puts the car in gear anyway and turns back onto the road and we speed away from the Seam, leaving the dirt road behind us for the clean freshly paved asphalt.
The Odair Estate is located on Victory Lane, across the street from Haymitch Abernathy's manor and directly adjacent to the Mellark's Estate. We've been living there for six weeks now, ever since our trailer in the Seam was torched. It's still unclear who lit the flames. Both sides of town had reason to hate me. All of our possessions were lost in the fire, save for my father's hunting jacket and plant book.
Now that I was cozying up with a Cap, my mother's family, the Odairs had reached out an olive branch and offered us a place to stay. All it took was the prospect of more money, for the family that had denied us for years to warm up to us Mutts. Charming family values we have.
Peeta moves up the long driveway and brings the car to a stop just outside the main entrance. "Are you sure you're all right?" He asks and kills the engine even though he's only dropping me off. He reaches his hand across the console and takes my hand into his. Every time he holds me, even in this simplest form, I feel strangely at ease.
I stare down at our woven fingers. Even though it's summer now and he's been spending most of his days outside, his skin is still pale against my own. His broad thumb strokes the back of my hand, igniting a pleasant warmth through my core.
"Sometimes I forget," I say, my words leaving me before I've had the chance to stop them.
His grip on my hand tightens and his breath seems to hitch in his throat. "Forget what?" He asks carefully.
I wish I could blame it on the alcohol, but my mind is achingly sober and I'm hyper aware of the placement of our linked hands in my lap and how the tips of his fingers barely graze the hem of my shorts. It's this energy that makes my body hunger for the contact its been denied since the last time we came together in Arena's stockroom. When our bodies joined in a haze of tangled limbs and crashing lips.
"That we're only just pretending," I say.
This is all the encouragement he needs before he's leaning across the console that separates our seats and pressing his lips against mine. He's not at all hesitant, he knows if he leaves that door open, I'll second guess these feelings and put an end to it all. His free hand cups my cheek in his warm palm and lifts my chin to lean deeper into his kiss.
The warmth that consumes me becomes unbearable and I crave for his touch more than any hunger I've ever known. I struggle with my seat belt and the leather squeaks as my weight shifts against it, while he pushes his seat back as far as it will go. Refusing to allow our lips to break contact, I scramble across the console and into his lap, my legs straddling his hips while I'm pressed awkwardly against the steering wheel. He grips my thighs with firm hands until I feel him hard against me, eliciting a grunt that is swallowed before the origin is determined. At the same time his lips trail down my throat, devouring the sensitive flesh with alternating licks and suction. I hiss when I fell his teeth bite down at the base of my collar bone just as he lifts his hips to thrust against me.
I have to steady my hands around the back of his seat, my palms slick against the leather and I pull myself forward, breaking the delicious contact between our hips to find his lips again with mine. Our kisses are sloppy and uncoordinated, mouths desperately crashing together between shallow breaths. We're like a summer storm, highly charged and quickly moving through the hot unstable air, before breaking apart and weakening into nothing. There was no telling when this moment of all consuming lust would strike again and we greedily savor every blissful second. Come morning, clearer heads will prevail and we'll remember that I'm too selfish and that we both want different things and all the other reasons why this will never work.
Until then I revel in the faint salty taste of his skin and the way the heel of his palm strokes the buzzing between my legs into a chaotic submission while his other hand explores every curve of my body. His fingers are just finding the courage to find the button of my shorts when the light by the front door comes to life bathing us with an invading glow. I untangle my hands from where they had become lost in his blond curls and smile at him shyly. I'm sure my cheeks are as red as a tomato, they certainly feel warm enough.
"Looks like it's curfew," he says with a weak laugh, his breathing still labored.
"Looks that way," I agree. Peeta opens that driver's side door and I awkwardly dismount him, having to crawl out of the car backwards to unwrap our limbs and find my footing on the driveway.
He offers me a sad smile as I cross around the front of his car and place my hand on the brass handle of the Odair Estate's extravagantly large front door. We stare at one another across the dim driveway for what seems like eternity, neither one of us wanting to let go of this moment until the thick summer air gives way to a cool rain.