Author's Note: If you haven't read "East of the Sun & West of the Moon" – a beloved Norwegian fairy tale with nods to "Beauty and the Beast" and the myth of Cupid and Psyche – you'll still be able to follow this fic, though it will, of course, be much more fun if you know at least the basic storyline. You can read the fairy tale in its entirety at Sur La Lune Fairy Tales (dot com), and it is also included in most fairy tale anthologies (including Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book). There are some lovely illustrated editions out and about, including a very unique retelling by Mercer Mayer, in which the heroine has long dark hair and wields a bow. (And yes, her boy is blond. :D)
On a sidenote, I feel slightly clever in there already being an Appalachian precedent for this – namely, an Appalachian retelling of the fairy tale called, variously, "Snowbear Whittington," "Whitebear Whittington," "Three Drops of Blood," or "Three Gold Nuts."
This story is affectionately, humbly dedicated to DustWriter, who writes the most beautifully excruciating Peeta/Katniss angst I've ever read and who made me fall in love with AUs. (A few obsessive evenings of burning through her AUs effectively derailed the serious post-Mockingjay fic I'd been working on for months and sent me catapulting into writing this one.) If you're of a consenting age, find – and read – "Bliss" NOW. Really.
Chapter One: The Bargain
Wherever the landscape is wild, the winters long and bitter, and the villages small and isolated, magic and mystery thrive.
~Naomi Lewis, Introduction to East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon
They had not enough to eat, and their clothes were patched and worn because they were very poor…
Late one night, when the wild wind blew terribly against their little cottage, there came a tapping at their door.
The family was huddled by the fireside keeping busy hand and mind and trying very hard not to hear the wind's horrible howl.
~East of the Sun and West of the Moon, retold by Kathleen and Michael Hague
The snow has been falling, thick and heavy, since before the Harvest Festival. It's a cruel winter already – a tradeoff for having our first Victor in 24 years, everyone says. The next Parcel Day is still four days away, and already our navels seem to rub our spines. It's been so cold that Prim and I moved our mattress to the floor in front of the kitchen fire, hoping to take advantage of the heat. Prim sits there now, petting her hideous, feral cat, Buttercup, while pondering math homework. It's a joke, really; expecting any sort of learning from children who are steadily freezing and starving to death.
Lady, Prim's spotted nanny goat, bleats plaintively from her bed-box at the foot of our mattress, and Prim leans over to stroke her between the ears. We usually keep her out behind the house in a lopsided little hut that Prim and I pieced together from branches and bartered old crates, but it's been so viciously cold this winter that we had to bring her in. She's pregnant, due in early spring, and we can't risk losing the kids – or her. And two weeks ago, we started pulling the hut apart for kindling. Hungry as we are, we'll never eat Lady – it would be a poor investment in the long run, sacrificing our future income for a few days of meat, not to mention it would shatter Prim – but if things get any worse we'll have to sell her. She's been subsisting on kitchen scraps ever since the grain ran out, but there are fewer and fewer scraps for us to eat, let alone pass along to her. Once the snow lets up, I'll try the trash bins behind the grocer's. A half-rotted squash would feed all of us for a day.
In the meantime, our house smells musty, like livestock. Prim is tireless in cleaning up Lady's waste, at chasing her outside whenever the weather warms up a merciful degree or two, but I can only be thankful that the bitter cold minimizes the smell of dung. I refuse to sleep with Lady – or with Buttercup, for all the good that does me – but sometimes I wake to find Prim curled up in the bed-box with her.
I wash the supper dishes, hands shaking in the tepid water. I'm wearing one of Dad's sweaters over two shirts of my own, but it's not the cold that's breaking me. Hunting has never been as poor as this winter. There's nothing to feed ourselves, let alone to trade for other foodstuffs. Supper tonight – the heartiest in a week – consisted of four blackbirds and our last two potatoes. I'd hoped to make a pie out of them – blackbirds have precious little meat on their bones, and the potatoes were small and shriveled – but there wasn't enough flour, so I used a few spoonfuls of it to thicken a gravy instead, adding sprinkles of our precious salt and dried herbs, and baked it all in a pie pan in hopes that no one would miss the crust.
Blackbirds baked in a pie… Like something out of an old tale, Mom said. Truth be told, we were so glad to have meat of any kind that none of us cared what it was or where it came from, let alone that it was baked without a crust.
There's a knock at the door – polite, not urgent – and I don't know whether to laugh or cry. After dark, in this weather, it won't be Peacekeepers. Most likely it's someone needing my mother – badly, for them to be out on such a night. A birthing, maybe? I'm half-tempted to shout at them to go away. Even if my mother delivers the baby safe and sound, it's unlikely to live out this lean winter.
The knock comes again, no more insistent than before, and I dry my hands on the dishtowel. Not a birthing, then. Any business for Mom means some tiny token for us – a loaf of bread, maybe, or a cut of meat – not the best nor the freshest, but something sufficient to split three ways. And in this brutal winter, we can't afford to pass up any opportunity to get food.
I pull open the door, wincing at the rush of wind and blinding snow, to see Peeta Mellark, Victor of this year's Hunger Games, standing outside in his heavy white bearskin coat. He's turned up the collar against the cold and holds it closed over his nose and mouth with one gloved hand, but it's unmistakably him.
Everyone knows about Peeta and the bear. It's one of those moments that will be replayed, over and over again, till they come up with something cleverer and even crueler than the Games.
No one in Twelve ever wants to go to the Games, least of all me, but when the cameras panned out from the Cornucopia this year, I knew it should've been my arena. A hunter's arena. A forest of scrubby pine circling two jagged mountains, so cold that the tributes' breath steamed from their platforms. It snowed every night – not heavily, just enough to keep the tributes from getting too comfortable. Elk and black bear – aggressively territorial and too large for most of the tributes to kill, let alone make use of as food – populated the woods; predatory eagles the mountains. I could feed three people with four blackbirds; I would've survived the entire Games on a single kill. A pelt, meat, bones and teeth and claws for weapons…I almost cried when a bow-wielding Career shot a charging elk and went to the carcass only to retrieve his arrow.
They were down to the final two – Peeta and Cato, the final surviving Career, locked in fierce hand-to-hand combat in the thick of a snowstorm – when the true muttation arrived: an enormous white bear, three times the size of either tribute. It attacked and savaged Cato, dragging him off Peeta and tearing open his throat – a gory wound, but not precise enough for a quick death.
Peeta climbed to his feet, reaching for the spear he'd lost in the fight. His right leg was failing; a wolverine had torn the calf open to the bone before he'd managed to club it to death, and he'd bound the gash with a clumsy, makeshift tourniquet, but it was clear he could barely match Cato at this point, let alone a massive bear. Even in the blizzard, his blood pooled vibrantly on the snow.
He didn't have a Career's accuracy of throw and was clever enough not to attempt it. Bracing himself with the last of his strength, he poised the spear with both hands and let the bear charge him. The force of its own body drove it onto the spear.
The dying bear crashed forward, trapping Peeta beneath it – I couldn't imagine it hadn't crushed him with its weight – but, twenty tense seconds later, the carcass shifted and rolled to its back as Peeta emerged from beneath, bloodstained and shaken but still alive. Watching from my home in the Seam, I sat breathless beside Prim, a fist pressed to my mouth, and wondered why my eyes were watering.
With Gamemaker precision, the wind dropped, the heavy snowfall ceased, and a brilliant amber sunset beamed down on the triumphant tribute from District 12. And for that moment, the sweet baker's boy became a glorious hunter. Somewhere in the Capitol, teenage girls have posters of that moment: Peeta braced on a bloody spear, standing over the carcass of an enormous white bear, his hair like spun gold in the sunset.
It lasted little more than a moment. Peeta stumbled away from the bear, his leg streaming blood, and went back to help Cato, who'd nearly bled out already. He tore a sleeve from his own jacket and made a compress for Cato's neck, but the blood quickly pulsed through the material, seeping between Peeta's fingers as he applied more pressure. However badly wounded himself, Peeta would clearly be the Victor in a matter of minutes, outlasting the most ruthless Career to fight in the 74th Hunger Games.
To the astonishment of all of Panem, Peeta wept at the realization. He removed the remains of his jacket and pillowed them beneath Cato's head, then – keeping one blood-slick hand on the compress – began to murmur gently to the dying Career. Comforting nonsense about the vibrant orange of the sunset, the diamond-like shimmer of the snow. How peaceful it would be to fall asleep in this beautiful place. He was still murmuring when the cannon fired. Still murmuring when the hovercraft came.
It was a controversial victory, perhaps – Capitol viewers had watched from the edge of their seats, expecting Peeta's kindness to be a strategy, a distraction, so he could take Cato's knife and slit his throat completely – but after his defeat of the bear, who begrudged Peeta a sentimental gesture or two? An enterprising Gamemaker retrieved the bear's carcass, had the pelt removed – as well as the teeth and claws, to be crafted into jewelry and sold to swooning Capitol socialites at outrageous prices – and presented it to Peeta during the recap with Caesar. The crowd erupted. Victor Peeta Mellark and the image of the white bear had become inseparable. Five months later, he began his Victory Tour in a coat his stylist made of the bearskin. A gesture of compliance, perhaps, but a stunning one.
And now he stands on my doorstep, majestically bearlike in his fur and wreathed in blowing snow. He lowers the collar from his face, blinking fiercely in the light from inside, and says – shouts, really, against the wind – "If you will give me your daughter Katniss –"
"You what?" I blurt, too confused to be polite.
His cheeks darken. Clearly, I am not who he expected to answer the door. "I…Good evening, Katniss," he says. Despite the blush, his voice is pleasant and even, but then, Peeta's always been good with an audience.
"Do you want my mother?" I guess, my mind reeling from what I think I heard him say.
He ducks gratefully out of the storm, stamping the snow from his boots before coming inside. Prim looks on curiously from the kitchen doorway; Mom, seated at the table in the living room, frowns slightly. "Peeta Mellark," she says.
His presence is too big and bright for our tiny, squalid house. His blond hair, his fair skin – made paler still by winter – are almost luminescent in the darkness, the white fur of his coat radiant by coal-firelight. I gesture frantically to Prim and we hurry into the kitchen to move our mattress out of sight, propping it up against the wall.
Peeta nods an acknowledgement to my mother as he draws off his gloves, but I know he couldn't possibly have missed our pitiful attempt at tidying up. My face burns with shame. "Could I speak with you for a moment, Mrs. Everdeen?" he asks.
"Of course." Mom rises to bring a second chair to the table. Peeta called at a good time; it'll be firewood by the end of the week. "Would you like tea?"
"Yes, thank you."
He seats himself across from Mom and they engage in small talk about the bakery, his brothers, the Victory Tour. The Harvest Festival two weeks ago, celebrating his return to the district. I busy my hands preparing the tea, my mind confused and racing. If you will give me your daughter Katniss… Could I possibly have misheard him?
We have plenty of dried mint in the cupboard but barely a tablespoon of proper tea leaves. Still, a visit from a wealthy Victor merits the very best. I dump the entire contents of the tea tin into our battered pot, compensate for the shortage with a few pinches of mint, and pour on hot water. Our nearly empty honeypot is crystallized with the cold, and we won't have milk again – let alone cheese to sell – till Lady kids in March. We have three mugs – all chipped – no saucers, and certainly no cakes or cookies to sweeten the cup. It's a feeble tea to set before the baker's son, let alone a Victor, but something tells me that's not what he came for.
I place a mug of tea and the honeypot at Peeta's right hand and he looks up at me suddenly. His blue eyes are earnest and strangely intense; I blush and quickly move away. If you will give me your daughter Katniss… It had all the ballast – and raw nerve – of a prepared speech. But for what purpose? Give. Me. Katniss. Those words in that order make no sense whatsoever. Not from Peeta, not from anyone.
I return to the kitchen, where Prim is drying our few supper dishes, and prepare tea for her and Mom. Both would love honey, but the pot has barely enough left in it for one serving, and I've already offered it to Peeta. I would love a cup of tea myself to settle the flutter in my stomach, but there are only three mugs, and Peeta's holding the third. I nudge one toward Prim – she smiles sadly, comprehending; hollow as she is, she'll save me at least half of her portion – and carry the other in to Mom.
Our house is too small to afford privacy; still, I try to look preoccupied as Mom asks our visitor, "What can I do for you, Peeta? Something for your father, perhaps? We've little enough at the moment, I'm afraid."
"No, Mrs. Everdeen. I…"
I freeze at Mom's shoulder, feeling the weight in words yet unspoken. Peeta takes a sip of his tea, leaving the honeypot untouched. For all his social pleasantries, he's made no move to remove the white bearskin. Mom gestures encouragingly for him to continue.
He looks up at her – only at her – and his bright eyes are steady as he speaks. "If you will give me your daughter Katniss – to come and live with me in my Victor's Residence – I will make you as rich as you are now poor."
A stunned, disbelieving silence envelopes the house. Like our blackbird pie, it's something out of an old tale: a golden young man in a white bearskin, striking strange bargains with desperate souls on the cruelest night of winter. My pulse pounds at my temples, heavy and resonant as a tribute cannon. I seem to have forgotten how to breathe.
Mom recovers her voice first. "I beg your pardon?"
Peeta tries again, appearing – for the first time in his life – to be lost for words. "If you will give me your daughter Katniss –"
"Do you want to marry her?" Mom interrupts, frowning. "You're both full young for that."
Peeta's pale cheeks flush scarlet. My chest is so tight that it hurts. "I-I want her," he says carefully, "to come and live with me…in my Victor's Residence. In return for this, I will pay you generously." He clears his throat. "More than generously. You will have a new house, warm clothes, plenty of food – anything you desire. You will never be cold or hungry again."
I try to speak but my throat is frozen. Give me Katniss. I want her. In return…House. Clothes. Food. I look over my shoulder at Prim, who is hovering, wide-eyed, at the kitchen doorway. Almost thirteen, she should be developing a figure like our mother's at that age; instead, she's thin as a rail. Hollow-cheeked, lank-haired, scrawny as a boy. If I go with Peeta –
"Why do you want her?" Mom asks. Her voice is cool and even. Either she's past shock, to discuss this as a simple business matter, or she's caught in the very thick of it.
"I want…" For a moment, I'm afraid Peeta's going to say it all again. "I'm lonely, Mrs. Everdeen," he says instead. "My new home is…remote. I have a small household staff; Katniss would be very well taken care of. Have the very best I can give her."
"Why her?" Mom persists – my mind is stuck back at the foreign concepts of household staff and well taken care of. "Why not one of your brothers – or a friend from school?"
"My brothers don't want to leave town," he explains without skipping a beat, clearly having anticipated this question, "and my father needs them at the bakery, now that I'm gone. My friends, similarly, are needed at home." His blue eyes flicker to me for the first time as he adds, "I have a high regard for Katniss. I think we would…deal well together."
This is hardly an answer, though it – the look and his words – makes my stomach flutter strangely. Mom's lips tighten; her patience is wearing thin. "You want her to work for you?"
"I want her to live with me." His voice breaks at this – is he nervous? "I want her company, Mrs. Everdeen, nothing more." He clears his throat again. "Nothing…untoward. In return, you and Primrose would be assured a comfortable life."
And with that, I know he's lost her. Mom has left Prim and I to our own devices for the past five years – let us fade and fail, very nearly starve to death – but deep down she's still a proud apothecary's daughter. An exchange of this sort is unthinkable.
She levels Peeta with a disapproving stare, and her voice is frigid as she replies: "And what kind of mother would I be, to sell my daughter for my own comfort? To trade one daughter's happiness for the other's? My answer is no, and I'll not apologize for it."
I wait for more persuasive words, for an elaboration on promises far too good to be true, but Peeta only nods slowly, aware of the finality in her tone. "I understand, Mrs. Everdeen." He glances at me before adding quietly, "I apologize if the request caused offense. I give you good evening."
Without another word, he sets down his tea and rises to go, taking with him the promise of food, warmth, clothing – of surviving more than another day or two of this terrible winter. The vague idea of companionship, of being taken care of, barely registers in my mind as my paralysis breaks.
"Yes," I choke.
Peeta turns sharply about, his eyes wide and focused only on me. "What did you say?" he whispers.
"Yes," I repeat, quavering but resolved. "I'll go with you."
"Katniss!" Mom hisses, the same time Prim wails, "No!"
I bite back an echoing sob at my little sister's grief, reminding myself that if I don't do this – if I don't leave her – neither of us will survive this winter. "You need the food, Mom!" I exclaim. "That's the last of the honey and the tea. I used almost all our flour making gravy for the blackbirds – the first meat we've had in a week, and it took me all afternoon to get them! We've got a cup of oats and one egg –" I suck in a shaky breath, wiping fiercely at my eyes – "until the next Parcel Day. Lady won't give milk again till spring, and that's if we can keep her fed her for three more months. Prim needs a new jacket and boots and –"
I collapse into myself with a sob that turns to a cough, wrapping my arms across my thin chest. I see Peeta move out of the corner of my eye, a blur of gold and white, as though he took a step toward me, then thought better of it.
Mom grips Prim's hand, unrelenting. "We'll figure something out."
"What, Mom?" I plead. "There's nothing left! Nothing to sell, nothing to hunt –"
"Please – Katniss, Mrs. Everdeen – it's all right," Peeta interrupts. He's backed toward the door and his face is very pale. "I'll come back for your answer tomorrow –"
"You'll stay and hear it now!" I'm shouting at him, but he can't leave, can't walk out of here, taking Prim's food and clothes – her very life – with him. I turn to Mom and the memory pours out of me like blood from a wound. "When I was eleven years old, Peeta saved my life."
Someone catches their breath – Peeta or Prim – but I can't tell, can't stop, can't look away from Mom's cold, stern face. She's never heard this before, and it's time and past she did. Time and past she understood the debt I've been living under these five years.
"Dad was dead and you were in your own world, leaving two little girls with no one to feed or take care of them. No money coming in. Drinking broth made of mint leaves because it was all we had to eat. I went to the Hob – a little girl, going to the Hob – and tried to sell some of Prim's old baby clothes –" My voice breaks. Why does the memory of those stupid baby clothes make so sad? "And no one wanted them. I dropped them in the rain and didn't pick them up again because I was too weak. I went behind the Merchant houses, hoping to find some food in their trash bins, but the baker's wife saw me and yelled at me and chased me away…"
I'm eleven years old again, terrified of the baker's wife, drenched and shivering and hollow with hunger. "I crawled under their apple tree to die – die, Mom!" I sob. Mom shakes her head, frowning in confusion, not sorrow, and the tears spill down my cheeks at her detachment, even now. "There was nothing left. I could just as soon die under that tree than crawl home and die, watching Prim die, and then –"
I look at Peeta for the first time through my tears. His face is blanched white as bone. Does he even remember that day? Is he embarrassed that I brought it up?
I look away again – he won't want to remember this part. "Peeta dropped two loaves of bread in the fire and his mom hit him in the face for it. I don't know if he burned it on purpose, but when she sent him to throw the bread to their pig, he threw it to me instead. That bread kept us alive, Mom!" I cry. "Me and Prim – and you! I've never said thank you, and I've never paid him back. And now he's offering to take care of you and Prim, give you a good home, food, clothes. He's the richest man in the district; he can do it, and he will.
"So yes, I'll go live with him!" My voice is keening, almost a shriek, but I can't stop now. "I'll do whatever he wants! I'll clean his house, darn his socks – I'll lick his boots if he asks me!"
"Katniss." Peeta stands three feet away, but I feel his voice like a gentle hand on my arm. I look at him again; his eyes are too bright, almost feverish. Can he possibly be crying too, or does it just seem like the whole world is because I am? "You don't owe me anything," he says raggedly.
"I'm going with you," I say firmly – or try to; my voice wobbles with tears. "End of discussion."
I wipe at my streaming eyes and nose, collecting myself, forcing myself to meet his eyes. Peeta looks for a moment as though he's about to change his mind – a blubbering, angry, starving Katniss was surely not what he was bargaining for when he walked into our house this evening – and then Prim blurts, "How long would she go with you?"
I wish she'd asked anything but this. We all know the answer – even her, deep down – have known it since Peeta first made his offer, but this forces it out into the open. I can't bear the look on Peeta's face. Like the rest of the district, he adores Prim. He can't lie, and he can't tell her the truth. Can't tell her I'm going away forever so she can have food and clothes and a warm house to live in.
So I answer for him, but I don't have his fine words, and it comes out harsh and a little exasperated: "For pity's sake, Prim: he'sbuying me, not renting me for a few months to see how we get along!" Peeta flinches at that, but I barrel on: "You wouldn't expect him to make you rich in exchange for just a month or two of my company, would you?"
Prim bursts into tears, and I turn quickly to Peeta, silencing him with a look. I really don't want to know how he would answer my question, and another word of kindness will break me entirely. "Yes," I say again, my voice a little steadier. "If you will take care of my mother and sister; if you will…supply them with food and clothes…a-and a better place to live –" I can't wrap my mind around that most of all – "I will come and live with you in your Victor's Residence."
Mom's shock and Prim's sniffles temporarily cease to exist while I wait for Peeta's response. He exhales slowly, a long shaky sigh that conveys strangely little relief. "Thank you, Katniss," he says. "My father will come tomorrow to discuss arrangements with your mother. If it's…agreeable to you, I'll collect you after supper on my way through town."
Tomorrow. Go with Peeta forever, tomorrow. But then: why not? The sooner I go with Peeta, the sooner Mom and Prim are taken care of. I have next to nothing to pack. And the last thing I want is to sit for days fretting over the decision I've made, dealing with endless questions from friends and neighbors – Gale! I wince at the thought. He'll shake me till my teeth rattle for making such a mad bargain. I can't leave without saying goodbye to my best friend…or can I?
"Tomorrow after supper would be perfect," I tell Peeta.
I offer a hand – it feels like the sort of deal that requires a closing handshake – and Peeta takes it in both of his. His hands are strong and warm and easily envelope my small, grubby, work-roughened hand, and for the first time, I wonder if my side of the bargain might not be so bad. A lifetime of cooking and cleaning in a Victor's Residence for kind, solid Peeta Mellark would be infinitely better than any future I could devise here in Twelve.
"Thank you, Katniss," he says again, squeezing my hand briefly before releasing it. "Until tomorrow."
I walk him to the door. The wind has eased, but the snow continues to fall in thick, heavy flakes. Somehow, since the promise of food-clothes-home for Prim, the winter night has become beautiful.
Peeta hesitates at the threshold, pulling on his gloves. "Katniss, don't do this," he says suddenly, so quiet that neither Mom nor Prim will hear. "Not to repay a debt."
His startling Merchant-blue eyes catch and hold mine. I wonder why it matters, and why it feels like he would break the deal right now if debt was my only motivator. "I'm not," I tell him – a half-lie. I owe him my life, and we need what he's promised. All of us.
He considers this for a moment, clearly unconvinced, then turns up the collar of his bearskin. "Until tomorrow, then," he murmurs, and vanishes into the snow.