My very dear friends,
The past several months have been extremely difficult for me (health, work, stress, and some fandom stuff that still has me reeling) and things came to a crisis point in September. I disappeared for quite a while and went silent while I tried to get my life and health back in order.
But somehow, you guys never gave up on me, and that means more than I can say. Those unexpected reviews and PMs and Disqus comments carried me through some very low moments this fall! I owe you a lot of messages and ask replies (which is my next order of business, after a couple of long sleeps!), but in the meantime I want you all to know that my Christmas donation to Samaritan's Purse (see my Tumblr for pictures and details :D) was made in your honor. You guys have done so much for me, and it's a pleasure to help others in your name. (Especially with gifts of food and clothing and livestock, which are so in keeping with the themes of When the Moon.)
Now to this chapter! As promised, in Act Two the chapters move ahead a bit more quickly. Each one roughly encapsulates a month at Peeta's house, and this one is December. It's entirely too long (easily four chapters' worth of text) and three-fourths of it could probably have been condensed or moved to a subsequent chapter or cut entirely, but at the end of the day, this was the story I wanted to tell, full of nods and echoes and tangents and dreams. It's a pretty significant chapter in Peeta and Katniss's life together, and I truly hope you enjoy it half as much as I enjoyed preparing it for you.
An extra-special thanks to the delightful DandelionSunset (always my sweet pea and the world's best pre-reader), the exquisitely clever ghtlovesthg (for saving my sanity through mutual Everlark fairytale geekery), and the incredibly sweet foreverpeeta (for lifesaving care packages of very good chocolate! :D).
And with that, I believe I have something you were looking for…? ;D
P.S. Minor trigger warning, just in case: there's a hunting and butchering sequence about a third of the way through this chapter. It's not graphic, but I won't be heartbroken if you feel the need to skip it.
Chapter Eleven: Scarlet Ribbons (December)
The days rolled on. [The girl] had everything she could ask for.
And, each evening, the bear would come and sit by her side.
~ East of the Sun, West of the Moon, retold by Susanna Davidson
True to his word, Peeta takes me out skiing the very next day.
He repeats his offer over a breakfast of pumpkin pie – liberally blanketed with whipped cream and cinnamon-honey sauce – honeyed cream-coffee, sausages, and fried eggs on hearty rye toast. "If you'd rather hunt this morning, I understand," he says, but I'm already shaking my head in reply. After last night's feast, I'm in desperate need of some exertion, not to mention I'm curious about this talent of Peeta's at something I've never even heard of before.
A peek out the back door reveals the day to be bright and windless, but the air has turned bitterly cold since yesterday's snowfall. Peeta offers to postpone our outing – and my hunting ventures – till it warms up a bit, but I assure him that I'll be fine if he is. After all, I've hunted on far colder days, wearing much poorer clothing as I hiked through the woods, knee-deep in snow, seeking any flesh-and-blood creature to bring home for my starving family's table. I'm no stranger to wind-burned cheeks and hands so dry that the skin cracked and bled.
I suspect I could survive a raging blizzard in my fine wool coat lined with plush bearskin, to say nothing of these tall fleecy boots, fur-lined gloves, and scarf and cap woven from rabbit hair.
Peeta dons his heavy bearskin along with a well-worn brown wool stocking cap; leather gloves that were clearly passed down from another Mellark, maybe even his father; and a pair of stout boots. I try not to watch too closely as he does up the laces. His false foot doesn't look any different in a sock, but I can't help wondering if it's strange to tie laces over a prosthesis. Or how he decides that it's too tight if there's no flesh beneath for the laces to pinch.
He turns up his collar as he gets to his feet, but he has no scarf on beneath to protect his throat. I remember that my snowman still wears Peeta's cheery red scarf and wonder if that could possibly be the only one this wealthy boy owns himself.
"That's no good," I chide, and rummage in the niches till I find one of my old scarves from home – one of Dad's, really. The dull gray wool is pilled and snagged and worn thin in patches – even worse than Peeta's stocking cap – but it's much better than nothing at all. "Here," I say, turning down Peeta's fur collar and wrapping the scarf carefully around every inch of his neck, mouth, and nose, like I used to do for Prim. Our walk to school was a long one, and frost can bite the tiniest exposed patches of skin.
"We don't want you getting frostbite – or catching cold," I say to his wide blue eyes, the only bit of his face still visible after my thorough bundling, and he catches and squeezes my gloved hands in his.
"Thank you, Katniss," he says. His words are muffled by the scarf, but I hear warmth and gratitude in them.
Snugly bundled in wool and furs, we make our way out to the stable, where Pollux already has Peeta's skis waiting for us. He's mucking out Rye's stall and whistling like a songbird, and he pauses in his shoveling to give us a little wave in greeting.
The skis are just as Peeta described them: slender, lightweight runners of sleek burnished wood, longer than Peeta is tall, with a pair of straps about halfway along each one. They strike me as a variation on my skates, or maybe my skates are a variation on them.
Peeta hands me the poles – they're about waist-high on me, with a point on the end and a small circular frame a few inches above – and he carries the skis outside. He straps his booted feet onto the runners, exactly as I do with my skates, with a practiced ease, then he takes the poles from me and gestures behind him with the handle of one.
"Hop on," he says through my father's scarf. His eyes are bright above the gray wool, even merry.
I look from his face to the skis and shake my head. I'm pretty sure I can stay on them without straps, but if I understand the principle correctly, every time Peeta moves a foot forward, he'll be pulling my weight behind him. "You can't pull me too," I tell him. "You go on ahead; I'll walk along and watch."
He gives a little chortle of laughter. "Katniss, you're a feather," he says. "You weigh less than one of these runners. Hop on; it'll be fine."
I scowl at this behind my scarf, but I can tell he's determined so I comply, stepping carefully to place my feet on the skis, close behind his. "Hold on to me," he says over one shoulder. His voice is soft and a little hoarse, even through the scarf.
I hadn't thought about this part – about having to hold on to Peeta while I follow and learn – but it only makes sense. I remind myself that I hugged him twice yesterday; much to his dismay, I'm sure, but he's telling me to do this, so there should be nothing strange or uncomfortable about it.
I gingerly take hold of his waist, curling my gloved fingers around the fur of his coat. "Tighter," he says without looking at me. "We'll go slow, but I don't want you to fall."
His back and shoulders are a sea of welcoming white bearskin, and I don't need to be told twice. I slip my arms around his waist and pull myself flush against his back, burrowing my face into thick, soft fur and the resonant whisper of Peeta's glorious body heat beneath.
I remember hugging a white bear around the neck in a dream; remember sitting astride his broad back and tucking my hands and face into his lush fur for warmth. I remember breathing in the scents of ice and pine and the musk of a young man's body, not a bear's.
Hugging Peeta from behind encompasses all of those imagined blisses, and then some. I wonder if we could stay like this forever: my arms wrapped around his torso and my hips resting against his backside; my face pressed into fur so deep I could drown in it.
Peeta gives a little groan and rests a hand on both of mine where they lie, clasped over his stomach. "That's…g-good," he says. "B-Bend your knees a little and…and shift your weight from one foot to the other when you feel me move." He brings a pole to either side of him and presses their pointed ends into the ice-crusted snow with a soft crunch, then he bends his knees and his left leg, and mine, slide slowly forward.
Our first combined movements are small and stilted. I can tell he's trying hard not to trip up my shorter legs or make me lose my footing, but my body contours quickly to his, leaning even closer to follow the rhythm of his strong limbs. His left leg moves fluidly, making subtle shifts in direction as we glide into the woods, while his right – the prosthesis – makes short, sharp movements, driven by his knee, like a kickoff to maintain balance and momentum. The muscles over his ribs dance beneath my forearms as our combined weight shifts from side to side.
Skiing is faster than snowshoeing but slower than skating, albeit easier for balance with the wider runners and poles, and my body takes to it with equal delight. We move through the woods in quiet tandem, like a heavily furred four-legged creature that can glide, hushed as a snake, over snow. If this is how Peeta gets around in winter – a hulking form of broad muscle and bearskin, passing among the trees like a swift white shadow – I'm not surprised that all of the predators have moved on. I'd have been terrified myself at a glimpse of such a creature, even with a good bow in my hand.
We don't talk much as we go, save for a "You okay?" or "How's it going?" from Peeta now and again, and after a quarter-hour or so I spoon myself tightly to his back and lean up a little to rest my chin on his shoulder. After being nestled like a fox kit in the warmth of his bearskin, my face stings at the burst of blindingly cold air.
"Are you okay?" I ask his scarf-covered cheek. My legs are following his of their own volition now; I don't have to think or even consciously anticipate his stride any longer. But it must be wearing on him, however light he thinks I am, to have me hanging at his waist. "Do you want to take a break – or turn back for the day?"
He chuckles and I feel it deep in my chest, where my breastbone presses along his spine. "I was thinking about it," he replies, "but I have an idea about the trip home. How do you feel about skiing so far?"
"I love it," I admit, and assure myself that it has nothing to do with the warm bulk of a fur-bundled Peeta in my arms, nor the easy, coordinated movements of our limbs.
"Good," he says, stopping us abruptly as we move into a clearing. "Because you're leading on the way back."
He looks over his shoulder at me. I can't see his mouth, of course, but his eyes are grinning. "That's very funny," I answer dryly. "Seeing as there's no way I can pull you, even on runners." The image this evokes – of Lady pulling Peeta's sleigh instead of Rye – is almost laughable.
Come to think of it, I'm more like Buttercup than Lady. A kitchen cat in a pony's traces, attempting to pull a wagonload of goods.
Peeta tugs down his scarf with the handle of one pole. His cheeks are bright with exertion and cold and the widest smile I've ever seen on his face. "You won't have to," he says cheerfully. "You're going to stand on my feet, and I'll move us both."
This is an even worse idea than pulling me behind him, and I tell him as much in no uncertain terms, but once again, he's not taking no for an answer. "You'll navigate, and I'll push with you," he explains. "You put your hands on mine on the poles. You guide us, and I'll do all the work."
I shake my head against his shoulder and cinch my arms even tighter at his waist, and he gives a strange, choked laugh in reply. "I won't make you," he says quietly, his eyes softening. "I thought you might enjoy it, is all, but if…if you don't want to…"
I can't honestly say that I don't. It'll be colder in front, but no worse than when I'm skating, really.
"You won't hurt my feet," he adds with a crooked smile. "I only have one as it is, and these boots are plenty sturdy. Not to mention, you're light as a chickadee."
"Okay," I concede, and peel my body free from his with a reluctance that's almost painful, like tearing the scab from a newly clotted wound – though I can't think why pressing my body to Peeta's should feel anything like the beginning of healing.
He steps in a tight circle to turn the skis toward home and guides me up onto the runners in front of him, so my heels rest on his toes. Then he hands me the poles and – to my surprise and utter confusion – begins unfastening his coat. "Peeta, what are you doing?" I ask, aghast. "You'll catch your death –!"
My words break off in a startled gasp as his big hands cover my hips and scoot me backwards, so our bodies are flush once more – the reverse of how they were earlier, with his solid chest bracing my back and his hips nestled against my backside.
"That's better," he says, and begins refastening the bearskin, waist to knees, around both of us.
"Oh," I say – or rather, sigh. Holding Peeta from behind was nothing to this. Now I'm tucked between the radiant heat of his body and the heavy plushness of white bear's fur, warmed by its contact with him. My head lolls back a little, sinking into the cavernous fur-lined hood of my own coat. I'm not altogether sure I can move – and quite certain I don't want to.
Peeta chuckles, a hum against my fur-cushioned cheek. "Um, Katniss?" he says, sounding amused, and nudges my left knee with his. "Whenever you're ready."
I shake off the strange, sleepy bliss that engulfed me along with his bearskin and peer around the edge of my hood to scowl at him. "Pull your scarf up," I tell him sternly. "If I'm as little as you claim, I won't make for much of a windbreak."
He laughs at that, an unexpected joyous burst. "Duly noted," he says, and I feel his hand go to his face for a moment before he takes the poles back from me and stands them to either side of us. I put a hand squarely on each of his and we set off.
It takes a few minutes to work out the rhythm of the poles, but as he promised, Peeta's doing all of the work; my hands are there to guide him, nothing more. It's a little astonishing to feel those small hands directing such force. I suspect Peeta could propel us home without the runners, so powerful are the strokes of his arms with the poles.
And I barely even need to move my legs. Peeta's pressed so tightly to me that our legs slide forward as one, striding fluidly over the crisp snow. I don't doubt for a moment that I could go entirely limp against him and it wouldn't slow our progress at all – though, of course, I wouldn't do that. Peeta's clearly following the rhythm of my shorter-legged strides, but I'm trying to match the pace he set on the way out, for his own comfort. Long fluid glide on the left foot; sharp kickoff on the right.
"Katniss," he murmurs against my hood, making the fur lining tickle my cheek. "You can make a long stride with your right foot, too."
"I know," I reply, wondering what sort of fool he takes me for. "This way is easier for you, though, right?"
He gives that strange choked laugh again. "Yes," he says softly, and leans forward to rest his cheek against mine. Our skin is separated by layers of wool and thick fur, but I swear I can still feel his warmth – and sigh at it.
The trip back takes noticeably longer than the trip out, and I tell myself it's because of my inexpert leading and the extra resistance of my weight against Peeta, not any reluctance on my part for the "lesson" to be over, nor a deliberate slowing of our pace. My breath frosts in my downy scarf, and the wool slips down a little to expose the tip of my nose to the brittle air, but I don't care, and I don't take my hands away from Peeta's to tug it back up. Never mind how cold it is: I could move like this, my legs aligned with his as our skis whisper over the snow, for hours on end, relishing the firm warmth of his chest and hips pressed close behind me and the double-layer of plush bearskin holding me back against him.
We disentangle at the stable, and it's even harder to forsake the combined warmth of his body and the bearskin than it was to let go of his torso and the cushion of fur beneath my face, but I tell myself I'm just being silly as I hop off the runners and crouch down to unstrap his feet. We've enjoyed a wonderful morning in the woods; trying to prolong it is just plain greedy of me.
Pollux takes the skis and poles with a wink and Peeta and I return to the house, our cheeks and noses burning pleasantly from the cold, but instead of unbundling in the mudroom, he stamps the snow from his boots and leads me straight through to the living room.
I defiantly ignore the shiver in my belly at the thought that he might mean to massage my feet again.
Once we're in front of the fire, Peeta methodically sheds his layers and I follow suit, eager for the warmth of the flames on my skin. He seats me on the sofa and bends to remove my boots and socks, making my breath catch in anticipation, then he quirks a brow at me, lowers my bare feet to the floor, and comes to sit on the opposite side of the sofa.
Disappointment wrings my heart like a dishcloth. I remind myself of how ridiculous it is to expect Peeta Mellark to rub my feet, but it doesn't take the sting away. I look at his face – he's watching me with a curious sort of amusement – then down at his feet, which are still laced securely inside his boots.
Maybe he means for me to tend to him, I think. Which would only be fair, really. I'm about to slip from the cushion and oblige when, without warning, he leans forward to catch up my feet and tug them into his lap, pivoting me sideways on the sofa. I give a startlingly girlish cry, half a laugh and half a shriek, that reminds me of the squeals made by Merchant girls when their sweethearts catch them from behind on winter days and press icy kisses to their necks, then Peeta raises my feet a little and bends to pepper them all over, ankles to chilly toes, with quick, enthusiastic kisses.
My legs jerk wildly against the warm anchors of his hands, but I don't know whether it's an action of evasion or delight. "Peeta!" I gasp. "What are you doing?"
He presses his cheek against the sole of one foot and gazes up at me with eyes so radiantly happy that it makes my chest hurt. "You're going to stay with me," he says softly.
"Yes…" I reply, confused and breathless. He's known this since last night, and it certainly didn't make him go crazy then.
"You want to stay with me," he whispers.
For some reason this makes my lips curl upward in a smile and my eyes sting with tears. "Yes," I whisper back.
He gives a broken little laugh and turns to press a lingering kiss to the arch of my foot. My leg trembles so violently that it's a miracle I don't kick him in the face – and a greater miracle still that he then lowers both feet to his lap and proceeds to lavish them with deep, thorough strokes of his strong hands. "Let me do something for you," he pleads, tracing my arches with his thumbs in a way that makes my knees fall open and my shoulders prickle with goosebumps of pleasure. "Let me make you something; anything you like," he says. "Please."
I gaze at the beautiful boy tending to my small callused feet as though they were priceless treasures and give a broken laugh of my own. "Peanut butter cookies?" I suggest.
It feels at once far too much to ask and not nearly enough, but Peeta grins in reply. "I have an even better idea," he says.
He takes me into the kitchen and startles me with another unexpected gesture: lifting me by the hips and sitting me on the worktop, alongside his enormous copper stove. "Stay just there," he tells me with mock-sternness as he switches on one of the ovens and, as though for emphasis, sets a large mixing bowl atop my knees. As I watch in laughter and disbelief, he fills my lap with food: butter – so much butter – and sugar, both brown and white; silky baker's flour and eggs and generous dollops of peanut butter, so rich and creamy that my mouth waters at the merest whiff. After every step he steals the bowl for a minute or two of blending, and when all the ingredients are thoroughly combined he gives me a wink and goes to the pantry once more.
He returns, beaming, with his tin of milk chocolate and proceeds to coarsely chop what must be half a pound of delicious luxury, then adds it to the bowl. He folds the chocolate chunks into the cookie mixture and raises a spoon-tip's worth of the resulting batter to my lips.
"That's not cooked," I say dubiously, frowning, though the smell of the batter is downright intoxicating, and I'd like nothing more than to gobble it up this very second.
"I didn't think my huntress would be opposed to taking a meal raw now and again," he teases, but is quick to reassure me in the next breath: "It's fine, I promise. Much better than fine, in fact," he adds, playfully nudging my stubborn mouth with the spoon in the very same way that Dad used to entice Prim to take spoonfuls of Mom's pungent cough syrup.
I part my lips and take a careful lick of something much, much better than cough syrup.
Peeta laughs at my groan of pleasure and offers me a proper spoonful, which I devour without hesitation. "It's good, isn't it?" he says. "We all – Marko and Luka and I – loved to steal pinches of dough and fingerfuls of batter, but Mom would wallop our backsides if she saw," he explains, his voice shaking a little as though, even now, he half-expects to be punished. "So Dad figured out a way around her," he says, his eyes glinting merrily. "Anytime he was making something sweet – cake batter, cookie dough, pie filling – he'd send one of us straight to the sink with the bowl, which always had just a little extra left at the bottom. You had to eat it quick, of course, but it was always the best thing you'd ever tasted."
He smiles, shaking his head, and feeds me another spoonful. "One of the first things I did once I got settled out here was make a big batch of cookie dough and eat it all," he confesses. "I got wretchedly sick and couldn't look at brown sugar or eggs for a good month after that," he adds, laughing. "So I wouldn't recommend going overboard, but a few spoonfuls are a taster's prerogative."
He turns to get two baking pans and I steal a yet another spoonful, then he sets the pans on either side of me and begins expertly rolling tiny lumps of dough between his broad palms, shaping dozens of perfect golden dough-balls to cover the pans. When this is done, he flattens each one slightly with a fork, leaving the now-familiar cross-hatch pattern on their tops, and together we clean up the bowl's leavings with eager finger-swipes.
The cookies go in the oven then, but Peeta still doesn't let me off the worktop. Instead I watch, bemused, as he makes trips to the icebox and pantry, assembling a tray of food. He starts with several thick slices of last night's wonderful acorn bread, spreading them with a grainy mustard so mouthwateringly sharp that I can smell it from my perch, then heaping them high with perfect bites of cold roast turkey. He adds handfuls of honeyed almonds and plump cranberries to the tray, thick slices of a firm pale cheese with a sunny orange rind; even chunks of all three kinds of chocolate. Finally, he sets his little stovepot to brewing and pours a generous measure of cream into the tiny kettle that he uses to prepare our drinks.
"What would you like in your coffee?" he asks, setting the miniature feast across my knees.
I take two chunks of buttery white chocolate from the tray and drop them into the cream kettle with a quiet splash.
Peeta smiles. "I have an even better idea," he says, and goes back to the pantry.
I pinch my thigh half a dozen times in the thirty seconds that he's away, certain that this must be a dream.
The days that follow aren't all quite so idyllic, but not one of them is less than perfect. Wondrous. Utterly beyond the imagination of the Katniss who shivered and starved in Twelve less than a week ago.
What once was luxury beyond my wildest dreams has somehow, and quickly, become routine.
Every morning I wake deliciously content and warm in my enormous woodland bed, tucked snugly between deerskin and furs. More often than not, I wake from dreams so beautiful that it seems impossible my mind – more familiar with fear and cold, poverty and grief – could have conjured them.
A boy who loves a bird. A white bear who loves a human girl. A golden-skinned maiden bathing in waterfalls by starlight. A beautiful cougar who speaks with my grandmother's voice.
The huntress-moon sharing a feast of honey with the painter-sun, then shedding her shadow-gown to crawl beneath a white bearskin and take him in her arms.
I take to recording these dreams as soon as I wake, using precious sheets of paper from the desk in my "hobby room." I write as small as possible as I frantically recall detail after detail and don't let myself start a new page till every bit of white space on the previous one is covered, on both sides, with my cramped, crabbed writing. Part of that is thrift, of course, but I also really don't want to have to explain to Peeta where all his paper is going.
The truth, embarrassing though it may be, is that I don't want to forget these dreams – any part of them. I've had so many years of nightmares and hallucinations of food; to have a good dream in a pleasant place is the most wonderful kind of surprise. A truly unexpected bliss. They're like new fairy tales, these dreams, of the sort my father might have told me if he'd lived longer, and every few days I take the pages from the drawer in my nightstand and reread their strange, beautiful stories before going to sleep, half hoping to relive them in the night and half longing to dream a new tale for my collection. Even a few weeks ago, a good dream would have been bittersweet for the cruel awakening of cold and hunger that inevitably followed, but since I've come to live with Peeta, every morning I wake to a crackling fire and soft, beautiful clothing on the warming rack, snug slippers on the hearthstone, and the mouthwatering smells of a hot breakfast waiting for me in the kitchen.
Meals with Peeta are always hearty and delicious, and while he takes care to repeat those dishes that he (correctly) determines to be my favorites, he also ensures that no two meals are ever quite the same. Food is like a language with Peeta and just as nuanced as speech. At first all I can taste is luxury, then comfort, but after a week in his house I begin to taste subtler things, like happiness and affection, even humor. Every meal is like a painting, I discover, prepared to evoke a certain image or feeling. Most often I taste the spiced, sweet gold of autumn and sunset in his dishes, which is unsurprising as – I infer from the design of Peeta's bedroom – it's his favorite season and time of day, and I don't mind it a bit. There's something particularly exquisite about drinking in the ripe glory of autumn in the very dead of winter; about going to bed on the darkest, coldest night with earthy spices on my tongue and a belly full of sunset.
Breakfast is invariably enormous and fortifying, whereas lunch is lighter – but usually offered twice. If I go hunting, Peeta sends me off with a feast of cold foods in my lunch pouch, then prepares a second, modestly-sized hot meal while I'm gone – usually soup, fresh bread, and some sort of cozy baked sweet – for me to warm up with on my return. Supper is always rich and satisfying: a main course that I can't get enough of, countless complementary side-dishes, and a dessert that bring tears of pleasure to my eyes.
Peeta always serves breakfast in the kitchen; the better to refill my plate with sausages and fresh griddle cakes, I suspect. Lunch is typically shared in the living room, sitting side by side on the sofa or with me on the cushion and Peeta on the low little table opposite. I take to playfully stealing things from his plate, as much for his reactions as for the tidbits of food, and after three such occurrences, he proffers his plate to me in between bites of his own. Supper is always an elegant affair in the dining room and might be followed by cream-coffee or hot chocolate on the porch or tea or cider by the fire. Peeta always makes dessert, and always offers seconds.
My taste experience with breads is embarrassingly limited, and to rectify this, Peeta cheerfully devises a game. Every night before bed, I go to the kitchen and select three ingredients – herbs, nuts, cheese, fruit, a special kind of flour or grain – and set them on the counter, hidden beneath a dishtowel until morning. (If they need refrigeration, I leave a list instead.) The next day, Peeta comes down to a challenge: to make me a loaf of bread using those three things.
I warn him that I know next to nothing about breads and baking and will certainly come up with poor combinations, but he never fails to present me with a delicious new loaf that includes all of the ingredients I requested. My prevailing favorite features cranberries and a swirl of brown sugar and nutmeg, which Peeta serves toasted and spread with a sweet goat cheese, but there isn't one that I wouldn't beg for again and devour as soon as it was placed before me. Blackberry preserves, wheat berries, and bits of dark chocolate. Robust rye flour, made savory with crumbled bacon and mustard grains. Almonds, oats, and apple cider: a whimsical idea, chosen more as a joke, but Peeta does indeed manage to season dough with cider, and the resulting bread is the richest, most flavorful I've ever eaten in my life. Peeta cuts me a slice while the loaf is still piping hot at its core and slathers it with butter, and I breathe in sweet spiced steam with every greedy bite.
I wait for him to tire of our silly game, but he never does. After a week of it he gleefully suggests we try the same thing with cakes after New Year's, and I narrowly bite back a moan of pleasure at the thought of a glorious new cake every day.
Weather permitting, my mornings are always spent outside. Game is so plentiful out here that I can hunt every other day and still keep the icebox stocked with fresh meat, but Peeta is pleasantly insistent that I spend as much time outdoors as I want, and there are plenty of other activities to fill the hours. I skate almost every morning, before or after hunting, and notice my legs growing stronger and sturdier with lean contours of well-nourished muscle. My overall endurance improves, seemingly overnight, thanks to a warm home, abundant meals, and mornings full of invigorating exercise. I can move faster and for longer periods of time without tiring, and as often as possible, I climb a tree to eat my packed lunch, to keep my new muscles limber.
More often than not I spend a portion of my morning with Pollux, who does his best to be friendly but unobtrusive. His days are even quieter than I had originally imagined, as I discover early one morning when I hear someone splitting firewood and look out the window to see Peeta at the chopping block, coatless and swinging the axe in powerful, even strokes. Peeta, Pollux explains later via his slate, does just about everything: chopping firewood, shoveling snow-paths, cooking, baking, even a good portion of the housework. "Servant" was just an excuse to get us here, he writes. He'd do everything himself if we let him.
As it is, Pollux is responsible for little more than the stable itself: Rye's feeding and upkeep, the sleigh and cart, keeping the tools clean and sharp, and alternating trips to town with Lavinia. As a result, he's more than happy to help in any way possible with the game I bring home: supplying hot water for washing and scalding carcasses, discarding and burning entrails for me, offering to clean up my knives and the workbench when I'm finished. He even helps me cobble together two crude but efficient frames for stretching and tanning my rabbit skins, proving himself a capable carpenter.
One morning I return from an especially cold hunt to find my knives laid out with a mug of very black coffee beside them. Peeta never gives me plain coffee, and I look over my shoulder to see Pollux grooming Rye, pink-cheeked, offering a bashful smile in explanation. I blush in reply – Pollux's and mine is a natural friendship, I suppose, but this is the first I've thought of our interactions in such a context – and take a grateful sip from the steaming mug, which nearly comes out again when the liquid hits my tongue. The coffee is fragrant but overwhelmingly strong; a bitter cup with potent notes of anise and cinnamon. I can't think why anyone would drink coffee this way, and then I remember that an Avox has no sense of taste. They rely on sight and smell to enjoy their food, and Pollux's strong spiced coffee is, if nothing else, pleasantly aromatic.
When I tell Peeta about this at lunch, his first response is genuine surprise, though he laughs heartily at my reaction to Pollux's brew. "He's never even made me coffee," he says with a curious smile. "He adores you, you know. They both do."
Two weeks ago I would have denied this or at least made a half-hearted protest, and while the idea of being adored by Peeta's Avoxes brings a blush to my cheeks, I feel the warmth most in my heart. I've never really had friends before. Both Gale and Madge were, in their own ways, necessary to my survival, but Pollux and Lavinia seem to interact with me simply because they want to. Two silent people could be all but invisible on a property as large as this, and yet they make efforts to communicate with me whenever we encounter each other, even if only with a smile or a little wave across the room, and they'll even seek me out from time to time. They like me, or at least appreciate my company – or my voice – in this quiet house.
Lavinia is less "conversational" than Pollux, but she seems to look forward to our evenings together. Twice a week I shower in the beautiful waterfall cave and once a week I soak in the stone tub, and she is always there with my robe and slippers and plush, warmed towels, happy to ease me from comfort to comfort with hands as gentle as a healer's. I look up one night as she leisurely brushes my hair to find her eyes closed, as though in pleasure, and wonder if she might enjoy tending to my hair almost as much as I enjoy her doing it. It makes sense, I suppose: brushing and braiding Prim's hair was always a pleasant task for me, even when it was thin and brittle with malnutrition, and my hair has grown strong and silky after just a few weeks of rich food and luxurious Capitol soaps. I'm embarrassed by how often I toy with the smooth tail of my braid or run my fingers through the sleek length of my hair in the brief, unguarded moments when it hangs loose about my shoulders, and I can't really fault Lavinia for savoring the same sensations, especially since she has no sister with hair to brush and braid.
She always warms my nightgown and sheets before I go to bed and tucks me in with all the care of a parent or older sibling. More often than not, she leaves me with a kiss on my forehead.
But of course, that's only half of my bedtime ritual. Every night I take the warming pan from my side of the bed and carry it round to ease beneath the covers on the opposite side; to warm the sheets for my companion. I make sure they have an assortment of my very best pillows, all plumped up for their comfort, and turn the covers back a little in a welcoming fashion. I don't know if they want or even like all those things done for them, but once begun, I can't imagine not doing them. Since the night I decided to stay here, my unseen bed partner has become as much a part of my life as Pollux and Lavinia, maybe more so.
I discover almost immediately that I don't sleep well until my companion has joined me, no matter how late I've stayed up or how tired I am. If I fall asleep before they arrive, it's not a sound sleep, and I always wake again at the sound of the door opening, of footfalls on fur and clothing being removed. I tell myself it's caution; instinct, maybe. It's bizarre enough to be joined in bed every night by a silent stranger that you never see; sleeping through their arrival would be foolish in the extreme.
But I know better than that. It's a matter of comfort, not concern. Reassurance, for both our sakes. If they're later than usual, I lie, restless and anxious, and wait for them. For the whisper of blankets being drawn back, the soft sound of breath against the pillows, the slow radiance of warmth rising from the quiet darkness of their side of the bed, like a gentle dawn. Once they've arrived I fall asleep within minutes, wrapped in coal-warmed deerskin and fox fur and the strange bliss that accompanies my companion to our bed, and dream wondrous things.
Even though I know it must be one of the three other people who live here, I can't help thinking of my companion as someone else entirely: a complete stranger whose presence in my bed brings absolute comfort. Sometimes I imagine it's the white bear of my dreams, massive but gentle and devoted to my care, and smile to myself as the covers are tugged up once more, envisioning stout legs and a broad furry back and a muzzle on the pillows opposite mine. Such a thing must happen often enough in tales like the one I'm now living.
I never try to see my companion, speak to them, touch them, or acknowledge in any way that I'm aware they've arrived, and somehow I know it's imperative that I don't. Their response to my movements on my second night here made it clear that they're terrified of discovery. But that doesn't stop me arranging for their comfort in small ways before they come to my room. They are, in the truest sense of the word, my companion, and to my way of thinking, should be treated to the same degree of care at bedtime as I am.
I always warm their sheets, plump their pillows, and turn back the blankets for them, but on very cold nights I also take an extra fur from the chest at the foot of the bed and fold it in half to cover their side. When they arrive they always unfold the fur again to spread it over the entire bed, covering us both, and I wake in the morning to find the same fur folded in half over me and tucked snugly around my body, cocooning me in dense layers of plush warmth.
On nights when Peeta provides a bedtime snack – tea and some sort of baked sweet, usually on bathing nights – I save half of it for my companion and leave it on the nightstand on their side of the bed. I'm always awake when they arrive and listen with pleasure to their little gasp of surprise – or, as a pattern emerges, their quiet chuckle – followed by their weight settling on the edge of the bed as they sit and eat the food as noiselessly as possible. They must take the dishes with them when they leave, because the nightstand is always empty when I wake up.
On nights when I have no bedtime snack, I consider sneaking back to the kitchen for a cookie or a piece of fruit – who knows how often my companion eats? – but I could never steal food from Peeta, who feasts me at every meal. Asking outright for more would imply that he doesn't give me enough already – a ludicrous thought – and of course, I can't tell him the real reason I want it.
Peeta doesn't know about my bed partner – or, at least, we've never spoken of it. Only Lavinia knows, and she seems to find my devotion to their needs amusing; even adorable. I wonder constantly if she could be my unseen companion, and her amusement comes from the knowledge that it's only her in the darkness beside me; not a mysterious stranger, and certainly not someone in need of warmed sheets and baked sweets and an extra fur coverlet.
In the meantime, I find myself strangely satisfied with our nightly arrangement. My companion's presence in my bed is an undeniable comfort, and for all I know, they are what banished my nightmares of hunger and terror and my father's violent death and replaced them with fairy tales, each so beautiful that it almost hurts to wake from them.
But the very best part of my day, if I'm honest, is the time I spend with Peeta. I've never been one for conversation but Peeta draws it out of me, like the sun warming a honeypot till its contents spill out, smooth and fluid and golden. Our lives, I learn, are like fairy tales to each other. Bows and rabbit skins and feasts of wild things are as foreign and enchanting to him as vanilla extract and cheese buns and enormous blazing ovens are to me.
Peeta has the added privilege of a large family and a full complement of stories about them. He tells me that his mother was a twin but her brother, a known brawler, was killed at sixteen in a knife fight with a couple of coal miners. Unsurprisingly, she's been embittered toward Seam folk ever since. I learn that Peeta's middle brother, Luka, was named after his unfortunate uncle and that – Peeta confesses this with blushes – any of them might father twins one day.
I know about his aunt Rooba, of course, but Peeta explains that she went through a merry succession of husbands – her own and other women's – and lovers in her youth and has four grown children to show for it, who help her run the butcher shop. Peeta isn't especially close to his cousins, he says, but they all get together for holidays and the occasional birthday and make small bets about how long it will take for Rooba, who has been widowed since her early thirties, though not without romantic attachments, to set her cap at her brother-in-law.
He tells me about his father's brother Marek, a stocky red-cheeked bachelor who good-naturedly moved on to the shoe shop once all his nephews were old enough to put in a day's work in the bakery. He'd been good friends with Georgy Cartwright – Delly's father – since childhood, who was happy to give him a home and position when the new generation of Mellark boys began crowding him out.
Peeta explains that his grandparents had wanted many children, but something had gone wrong with Marek's birthing and Grandma Lydda was never able to conceive again. I tell him in turn about Grandpa Asa dying young and Granny Ashpet losing her baby daughter – Laurel, Dad told me once – in her grief.
I tell him why my father named me Katniss: how as a child he rooted out the plant's lifesaving tubers to feed his grieving mother and made flower crowns of its blossoms to cheer her – and, years later, he ruined his work boots harvesting the last tubers of the season for his pregnant wife, who craved them more than anything money could buy. Peeta smiles a lot during that story, but his eyes are soft, almost wistful. He tells me afterward that he's the first Mellark in three generations who wasn't named for a relative but after a boy in one of his father's favorite old tales; a boy with magical silver skates and a sharp-tongued sweetheart.
I tell him that my mother was an only child, and thus I have none of the colorful relations and stories that his large Merchant family provides, and he replies by telling me a breathtaking, bittersweet fairy tale about a childless couple who made themselves a daughter out of snow, with deep blue buttons for eyes and a bit of red ribbon for a mouth. She came to life, a beautiful human girl with skin as white as snow, and brought happiness to the couple all winter long, only to vanish in spring, melted by the sun's heat. But every winter when the first snow fell, somehow, she returned to the couple once more.
"The Snow Maiden," he says softly at the end. "Grandma Lydda told that story over the kitchen fire on snowy evenings, and until my dad was about six years old, he believed your mother was that girl. A snow-white girl with pale hair and blue eyes and a mouth like a scarlet ribbon."
These words trigger something in my mind; a happy memory, but one I don't want to share because of the blushes it raises. There's an old folk song my father used to sing to my mother, a lover's ballad:
How lovely you are, my darling
How beautiful, my love
Your eyes are like doves
Your teeth are like sheep
Your mouth is a scarlet ribbon
There are more verses too, at once silly and saucy, where the lover compares his beloved's more intimate attributes to strange things, like fruits and trees and fawns. Dad would sometimes start one of those verses just to tease us – he knew it made Mom turn beet-red and me cover my ears and hide my face – but more than once I heard him whispering the words to Mom at night, punctuated by hushed panting breaths and the slow creaking of their bedsprings.
"What's wrong?" Peeta asks with a small smile, clearly wondering what brought the sudden color to my cheeks and whether it's something to be appreciated or apologized for. "Does it upset you, hearing about your mom and my dad when they were kids?"
I shake my head and color darker still. "It just…reminded me of a song my dad used to sing," I say.
Peeta raises his brows with interest. "And…you're not going to tell me about it?" he says, his tone more teasing than actual inquiry. He knows the answer already.
I shake my head even harder. "Someday, maybe," I concede. After all, I'm here for the rest of my life, and Peeta can persuade with as little as a glance. I wouldn't be surprised if he gets the story from me before the end of the month.
I spend the largest portion of my day with Peeta, albeit in small blocks of time, usually centered around a meal, and once I've convinced him that I won't freeze or starve to death if he leaves me unattended and unfed for an hour or two, he slowly resumes the schedule that must have patterned his days before I came.
The first time this happens, I fly into a panic and nearly tear the house apart.
I return from a brief mid-morning hunt with two plump rabbits to show for it, and for the first time since I've come to live here, Peeta is neither there to meet me at the door nor in the kitchen making lunch. There's a single place setting at the table, covered to keep the dishes warm, but no Peeta. There's never no Peeta at mealtime. It's as though he's vanished into thin air.
The Capitol! I think. Hovercrafts and Peacekeepers with guns – but none of that could have happened without noise or a disturbance of some kind, and even if I managed not to hear it out in the woods, Pollux would have noticed and alerted me or, at the very least, Rye would have been agitated and fearful when I got back.
A wolverine? I wonder next, trembling and nauseous at the thought, never mind there are none in this area and they're even less likely to have found their way into Peeta's kitchen, let alone dragged him off. There's no blood on the floor or in the sink, so it's equally unlikely that he cut himself and is simply tending to the wound.
His leg, I think. Something happened and he fell, and he can't get up but he doesn't want to call for help. Or maybe he can't.
I race through the house, checking every room – the Capitol room, laundry room, living room, bathrooms, the spare bedroom, his art room, even my own rooms – without success. I push open his bedroom door last of all, convinced that he must have snuck out on his skis and fallen in the woods – and there he is, fully dressed beneath the creamy furs and sound asleep, his face nestled into the center of a sunset-orange pillow.
I've never seen Peeta sleep, except for during the Games. He's sick, I realize in horror. He must be.
I climb onto the bed at once and kneel beside him, feeling his forehead, then ease a hand inside his collar to touch his back, then his chest. His skin is warm and flushed with sleep; neither hot nor clammy, and his throat isn't swollen.
Could he have eaten something bad? I wonder frantically. Or hit his head? I run my fingertips carefully through his curls, seeking lumps on his scalp. Mom deals with plenty of head injuries in miners, and sometimes letting the patient sleep is the worst thing you can do, though I don't remember why. I know she checks their pupils for something, though, so I carefully ease open Peeta's left eye with my thumb and forefinger, certain I'll know what's wrong when I see it.
"Katniss…?" he slurs, blinking to free his eyelids from my fingers, then, "Katniss!" he cries, much clearer, sitting bolt upright in bed. "What's wrong?" he asks, taking my face in his hands and gently turning it this way and that, as though seeking for a wound or signs of illness. "Are you all right?"
Am I all right? I want to shriek in both fury and relief at this boy who is clearly, entirely fine, but I bite my tongue and soften my tone. "You weren't there," I say, pretending I don't hear the almost childish dismay in my voice. "I came in from hunting and…you're never not there," I finish, far more feebly than demanding.
"I was napping," he says, flushing a little as his hands slip from my face. "I do that sometimes, mid-morning or after lunch, since I'm up so early. I left you a note," he says hopefully, but his face falls at something in my eyes. "You didn't see it," he realizes, and rubs his face with a groan. "I knew it was a bad idea," he says. "Katniss, I am so sorry. I didn't mean to worry you. I thought for sure I'd be up before you came in, but I made your lunch and left a note on the table just in case you got back early."
He walks me downstairs, his cheeks pink and creased with pillow-lines on one side, and I see what I looked straight past in my panic. On top of my covered soup bowl is a small piece of paper with a pretty chain of katniss flowers sketched down the left side. Katniss, it reads:
Taking a short nap to catch up from these baker's hours. Let me know if not okay. More soup on the stove. Mint tea in the pot. Bread keeping warm in the oven.
Made your cookies with dark chocolate this time. Hope okay.
Be up soon, but wake me if you need.
Once again, I'm torn between relief and fury, only this time it's directed at myself. Peeta made it clear to me where he was; I just wasn't paying attention. More to the point: he's not beholden to me in any way. He doesn't have to be in the kitchen every time I come in for a meal just because I've grown accustomed to it.
"Hey," he says softly, his fingertips brushing the cuff of my sleeve. "You were worried about me?"
"No," I lie, scowling, but it's a futile effort, and I don't resist the arm that pulls me to his side.
"I'd have been beside myself if it were me, you know," he confesses, resting his cheek against my forehead. "It's bad enough when you're outside for hours on end. If one day I couldn't find you, I think I'd run screaming through the woods till I did and frighten away every rabbit and deer for miles."
I laugh shakily at the thought, picturing heavy-footed Peeta stomping through snowdrifts, red-faced and shouting my name. He's depicting it in a humorous fashion, but like my fears for him, there's nothing truly funny about it. I bite back a choked little sound and turn toward him fully, slipping my arms around his waist and pressing my face into the curve of his neck.
His arms close around me as natural as breath, cradling me to him. "Hey," he says again, stroking the tail of my braid where it lies between my shoulder blades. "It's okay. We're both okay, and…I won't take any more naps."
"Don't be stupid," I grumble against his shoulder, making him chuckle. "You're a baker; that's how it works. I wondered how you always managed to be up so early and still go to bed after me."
"Up till now, it's been a combination of sheer enthusiasm and keeping myself really busy," he tells me, and I hear a smile in his voice. "I can't say the naps wouldn't help, but –"
"Then take them, silly boy," I say, leaning back a little to meet his eyes. "I can easily feed myself, and I'll know where you are now, so I won't worry."
But it's not worry I feel when I come in the next day to a covered lunch and another note: it's loneliness. I'm adrift without Peeta; it doesn't feel right to be moving about the house without him. To eat his fine food without him sitting across from me. To be awake when he's asleep.
Considerate as he is, Peeta makes every effort to coordinate his naps with my activities. If I'm hunting, he knows I'll be gone for a longer period of time, so he'll try to catch a couple hours of sleep then. If I'm skating or tanning rabbit skins, he'll aim for a short cat-nap on the sofa, so he hears me when I come in – or he might simply not nap at all those days. Regardless, I come back to a silent house and a sleeping Peeta about a third of the time.
It's overwhelming and a little frightening, how badly I want to just be with him and how purposeless I feel when he's asleep. Part of me wants to go up to his bedroom with my meal and sit beside him till he wakes. Another, deeply unsettling part of me wants to crawl beneath the covers and curl my arms around him; to press my face against the nape of his neck and share his warmth and his slumber.
It would be one thing if I were busier, but Peeta hasn't allotted – or allowed – me chores of any kind, aside from hunting, cleaning game, and tanning hides, so when I come in, I have very little to do. Eat the meal that he prepared. Work on a letter to Prim. Put my boots back on and go pester Pollux. Peeta doesn't sleep more than an hour or two at a time, so I don't want to do anything that takes me away for long or can't be easily interrupted, like skating or snowshoeing in the woods.
Oddly enough, it's Lavinia who presents a solution. After two days of watching me drift around the house, waiting for Peeta to wake, she takes my hand and leads me up to her attic, where a basketful of colorful skeins of yarn waits on her kitchen table.
Apparently this silent, beautiful woman can knit.
That afternoon I simply watch, fascinated, as a bright blue stocking cap takes shape between her needles. The next day she tries to teach me, but it's clear that my hands aren't cut out for such patient, elegant work. It gives me an idea, though – or rather, revives an idea that's been at the back of my mind since the night I chose to stay here. There are just two weeks till New Year's, and I've already amassed an impressive heap of perfect rabbit pelts. It may well be beyond my abilities, but I want to make Peeta a fur muffler as a present.
New Year's is one of our few remaining holidays in Panem. I don't know what the legends are in other districts, but in Twelve our oldest and bravest tell a sort of folk spin on the Victory Tour. For the last twelve days of each year, a fairytale figure called Father Christmas – a merry, bearded man, dressed all in furs – drives a sleigh, drawn by snow-white ponies, across the country, visiting one district each night and leaving little gifts on the residents' doorsteps. Twelve is his last stop, made on New Year's Eve, and according to legend, he leaves a shoeful of coal – our most precious commodity – and a stockingful of sweets for every child in the district.
Of course, Father Christmas is nothing but a myth; a whisper of memory from times of peace and plenty, long before the Dark Days, but it amuses folk to recount the old tales in the cruel dead of winter, and Merchant families even playact the legend to a certain extent. Merchant children leave a shoe and stocking on their doorstep on New Year's Eve, and in the night their parents fill the stocking with sweets and put a piece of coal in the shoe. Then on New Year's Day the children wake in delight and run outside to see what "Father Christmas" has left them.
Seam kids know the tales too, maybe better than Merchant children, and they put out a shoe and stocking up till the age of five or six. They're young and hopeful then, even the poorest ones, but their parents are lucky to have food to put on the table and can't afford coal and sweets to begin with, let alone as an extra treat on a special occasion. After a few years of waking to a flat stocking and an empty shoe, both hollow and stiff with cold, they give up the tradition, though on the very bitterest New Year's Eves, the coldest and hungriest of Seam folk – young and old – still leave out a shoe and stocking, just in case.
Prim and I never got coal in our shoes, but Dad left us something even better: small, fragrant blocks of pine that we could throw on the fire the next morning to make the house smell wonderful, and he always came up with little treats for our stockings too. Humble things that he collected on his hunting trips or made himself from foraged or scavenged materials, but we loved them more than any store-bought toy or sweet. Pinecones and acorns and pretty pebbles, the most perfect ones he could find; little stick-dolls dressed in scraps of cloth with smiling seed-pod faces; old socks made into whimsical hand-puppets, with black button eyes and colorful patches to cover the holes at toe and heel; even bits of crystallized honeycomb, as good as anything from the sweet-shop.
My father loved the old New Year's lore and traditions. He knew all kinds of tales and told us a few every year, and he did his best to give us as much "holiday" as his meager wages and the supplemental income from his hunting and foraging could afford. Most of the time this meant a stout peppermint stick from the sweet-shop, broken in half for Prim and me to share, and enough flour and sugar for Mom to make a little New Year's cake, but one very good year, after Mom had gone to put Prim to bed, Dad went to his hunting jacket and took out a perfect orange, as costly as two pounds of good flour and as bright as a miniature sun in our firelit living room. Happy New Year, catkin, he whispered, pressing the round, radiant fruit into my hands. I had never held an orange before, let alone tasted one. I burst into tears and hugged him as hard as I could.
We sat up well past midnight, the pair of us in Granny Ashpet's creaky rocking chair, drawn up close beside the fire, peeling the orange with utmost care and reverently eating the juicy sections. Dad wanted me to have the whole thing, but I wouldn't hear of it and made sure he ate exactly half of the orange himself – and we saved the peel for Mom. She dried it and grated bits into our tea and bread for weeks afterward. I was ten that New Year's, but I fell asleep on my father's lap like a contented toddler, my forehead nestled against the pleasant scruff of his midwinter beard and my sticky fingers knotting in the dusty green wool of his juniper sweater as he sang me a lullaby, each word sweet with orange against my cheek.
Gift-giving at New Year's – a further expansion on the Father Christmas myth – is common in Twelve. Even some better-off Seam families exchange little presents, usually handmade or secondhand. All the shops in town stay open late on New Year's Eve, in part so the Merchants themselves can go out and purchase gifts for each other, but also so that places that deal in perishables, like the bakery and sweet-shop, can sell all their stock before the holiday. The Hob does a fair bit of business on New Year's Eve too, as you might expect, as Seam folk with a few extra coins try to make them stretch as far as possible to give their families a bit of a treat at holiday-time. More than once I've seen a hungry miner pass up a much-needed bowl of Greasy's Sae's stew to buy a handful of cheap, crumpled ribbons for his daughters or a faded length of calico for his wife.
On New Year's Day, the shops are closed and the Hob is deserted. Even the miners get a rare holiday – without pay, of course. If the Harvest Festival is about the district as a community, with dancing and music and public feasts, New Year's is about family and loved ones – and at such a brutally cold time of year, most people are only too happy to stay at home and sit around the fire, singing festive old songs to keep warm. President Snow makes a speech at 10:00 in the morning, which they broadcast in the square, but it's not compulsory viewing and even he doesn't seem that excited about it. The only people who see it, I imagine, are the Merchants hurrying across the square, pies and beribboned parcels in hand, to spend the holiday with their relatives or sweethearts.
I have no sweetheart, and I won't be with my family for New Year's either. I'll be with Peeta, who, kind as he is, must be accustomed to receiving New Year's presents, and I don't want to disappoint him; not when we have decades of New Years ahead of us. I can't begin to guess what he wants, and there's little enough that he needs, but I suspect a fur muffler just might fit the bill. I got the idea for it the day we went skiing and I had to wrap him up in one of my father's old scarves because he didn't have an extra of his own. He usually turns up the collar of his bearskin against the cold, but there are no fastenings to keep it closed, so he has to hold the edges together with one hand. A muffler would serve perfectly, enclosing his neck, mouth, and nose in an unbroken loop of dense winter fur.
I start on it the very next day during Peeta's nap. I stuff my foraging bag with rabbit skins from the workshop and smuggle them up to my hobby room, then seek out Lavinia to borrow scissors, needle, and thread. This confuses her at first – she thinks I need something repaired, and I'm reluctant to reveal what I'm working on – but she finally surrenders a needle, a sharp pair of shears, and a spool of strong brown thread. I hurry these down to my room, only to stare at the pile of furs on my desk, paralyzed by inexperience and uncertainty. I've hemmed trousers and skirts, tacked on stray buttons and mended little holes and tears, but I'm no degree of a seamstress, let alone one who can sew fur and make it into something not only functional but pleasant to look at.
I lay out the furs like puzzle pieces – I worked too hard, fleshing and tanning every inch of them, to carelessly lop off bits to make them fit together easier – in a large loop, double-sided, that Peeta will be able to wrap around his neck twice, but my first needle-strokes are overly vigorous and pierce the pads of my fingers, making me hiss with pain. A moment later, to my astonishment, a pair of hands reaches around me and gently takes away the two furs I was attempting to splice together, and I look up into Lavinia's sympathetic face. I can't imagine how she came in without me hearing, but I'm relieved beyond words that it was her and not Peeta. She gestures at the furs laid out on the desk, raising her dark brows in question, and I nod vigorously. "Yes, please," I tell her. "Help would be great."
I worry a little that she'll simply take over the project and finish it herself, but she only provides me with a thimble, a few demonstrative gestures, and her silent, patient company. She brings a chair and her knitting and settles beside the fireplace, not unlike a kitchen cat, while I stitch and snip and curse quietly for days on end. Once the pelts comprising both sides of the muffler are securely spliced and ready to be sewn together, she invites me up to her attic to continue my work on her sofa, with a pot of cinnamon tea – far more palatable than Pollux's bitter coffee – for us to share.
Now and again Lavinia hums as she works, which startles me out of my skin at first and sends her into a fit of throaty giggles. I've grown so accustomed to her silence, her pantomimes and chalk messages, that I'd forgotten she still has vocal chords – still has a voice, really. She can laugh and sigh and groan and hum; lush, lilting melodies, as sweet and soothing as any of my mother's lullabies – she simply can't articulate words. I wonder for the first time whether retaining a wordless voice after losing one's tongue is more a blessing or a curse.
"You have a beautiful voice," I tell her shyly, half afraid I might offend. "Did you sing…before?"
She gives a noncommittal shrug, but the look in her eyes is heartbreaking. I wonder if this stunning girl was admired for her voice, like my father. If, like him, she sang to her sweetheart – the doomed boy who ran away from the Capitol with her – and whiled away the long hours of their trek across Panem with songs. If she meant to sing to her children one day, in their home in the wilderness bordering Twelve.
Not for the first time, I wonder if they would have been caught if Peeta had won an earlier Games and made his home in the woods a few years previous.
"I'm sorry," I whisper.
She touches her mouth with her fingertips, a gesture I've learned means Thank you, and turns back to her knitting. After a little she starts humming again, and this time I join in. I don't know the tune, but I make up a quiet harmony beneath it, like I used to do with Dad. Lavinia glances up from her needles and smiles when she catches my eye, and I smile back. It's the closest we've come to a conversation so far.
That night, and almost every night after, she hums as she brushes my hair before bed, and I hum along in harmony until I pick up her tune. Slowly, quietly, we teach each other new songs and recite them together as needles keep our hands busy.
I have the very good fortune to find a small flock of late, lost geese wandering the frozen lakeshore and shoot two for their rich dark meat – which Peeta is delighted to roast for us – and, more importantly for my purposes, their dense, precious down. I want to fill Peeta's muffler with goose down for an extra layer of warmth, and in light of my success with that garment, I've decided to attempt a second New Year's project in the time remaining: a rabbit-fur pillow, stuffed with down, for my night visitor.
If Peeta notices that I'm bringing home an excessive number of rabbits, he doesn't remark on it and continues to surprise me with a delectable, seemingly endless variety of roasts and stews and other savory main dishes with an abundance of meat in every bite. "It'll be New Year's soon," he reminds me – needlessly – over one such supper. "What would you like to send to your family?"
Prim and I exchange letters about every five days – I suspect Pollux and Lavinia's trips to town are planned around our correspondence – as well as baked sweets from our respective Mellarks. In the few weeks that have passed since I left home, I can tell she's already grown stronger, healthier, and happier. Her letters are more focused – the result of a plentiful, nutritious diet – and her handwriting is neat and steady. Prim has always been smart as a whip, but even that has improved with their new standard of living. She tells me that she has the top marks in all of her subjects now, but it doesn't surprise me in the least.
She writes that Mom went straight to work in the apothecary shop, taking to her old tasks like a duck to water. She took stock of what they had to work with the very first day and promptly sent Gale to the woods for pine needles, which she made into syrup and lozenges for colds, miner's cough, and the like. According to Prim, they've sold "gobs" of both already, to both Seam and Merchant folk. The family who runs the sweet-shop even ordered two bottles of pine needle syrup to use in special New Year's treats, and Prim expects they'll order much more as Mom prepares and stocks other syrups and extracts. They used to trade all the time, she writes, the apothecary and sweet-shop and bakery. They're all right next door to each other, and the apothecary used to supply a lot of flavorings that the other shops needed.
My sister is clearly delighted with her new neighbors, from the delicious smells that wake her every morning to the hot fresh bread, rolls, and sticky buns that Mr. Mellark or Marko makes sure to deliver well before she has to leave for school. They drop by with other things too, now and again – eggs, butter, meat, apples, and such – just to make sure that Mom and Prim always have plenty, and sometimes they linger for a cup of tea and a cookie – which, of course, they baked and brought over themselves. This surprised Prim at first – after Dad died, there were never men in our house unless they were sick or injured miners, and none of them ever came back for tea – but now she looks forward to those visits. She tells me, laughing – I can hear it in her words – that since the heavy snowfall shortly after I moved out here, all of the Mellark men have let their beards grow; even Luka, who's just seventeen and, in Prim's words, "can barely manage the sort of downy fuzz that you find on a piglet." Mom's teaching me how to make soap, she writes, the fine stuff, with lavender, honey, and cream. I've got bars of shaving soap curing for all three of them for New Year's.
Prim insists that I don't need to give her anything for New Year's, and to be honest, I wouldn't have a clue of what to offer, even if I had money to spend and access to shops. For the past three years, she's been the only person I gave any sort of New Year's gift to: a peppermint stick, all to herself; a rag-dolly, cut from the prettiest of our worn-out clothes; a colorful hair ribbon. But she's outgrown such gifts, seemingly overnight, and now that she lives in a cozy Merchant home over a very promising shop, with all her needs taken care of and extra spending money besides, she already has, or can clearly afford, anything I can think to give her.
"We can send whatever you want," Peeta assures me, "but bear in mind: they live next door to my family now, so they'll be up to their eyes in bread and cookies and the best pies you've ever tasted."
He grins at that, and I can't resist returning the expression. Prim gushes about Marko's pies in every letter, especially his famous golden crusts that melt in your mouth. He's taken to baking her miniature pies in little jam jars, both savory and sweet recipes, and dropping them off in the morning for her school lunch. She washes the jars when she gets home and returns them to the bakery, filled with sugar or milk as a thank-you, and he always brings them back the next morning – or sends them over with his father – with two new little pies baked inside. It's more indulgence than Prim needs, probably, but I'm glad of it. Without me around, she'll have needed someone to fill that older sibling role, to look out for her while keeping her spirits up, and Peeta's oldest brother seems to be doing an exceptional job at both. Then again: as naturally endearing as Prim is, I shouldn't be surprised to find her new neighbors going out of their way to indulge her at every opportunity.
"Snow ice cream," I decide. I don't know how well it will travel or keep, but it's something I know they can't make in town, owing to the coal-polluted snow, and the one thing I'm most eager for Prim to try. "And maybe ginger cake," I add, blushing a little.
Peeta serves warm ginger cake and custard every Sunday night, and just like we did the second night I was here, we eat from the same plate, our spoons taking increasingly greedy scoops of custard-drenched cake till they meet in the middle and Peeta concedes the final bite to me. I always mean to offer it to him in turn, but so far I haven't managed it. His ginger cake is just too good: it's impossible to pass up a crumb, let alone a bite.
"Of course," he replies, blushing slightly himself, and I wonder if he's also thinking of those Sunday nights at the dinner table. "I'll make shortbread too. If there's anything you'd like to get for them from the shops, just let me or Lavinia know and she can pick it up the next time she goes to town."
Lavinia goes to town two days later, and I cut my hunting trip short to spend more time hidden away in my hobby room, piecing together the rabbit skins to make my companion's pillow. I don't know if said companion is Lavinia, but I'd like to keep the pillow a surprise just in case, in part because I want to hear their reaction on New Year's night but also because I'm a little afraid of how she might respond to me making a gift for the stranger who shares my bed. So far she seems pleased by the things I've done, the little comforts I provide, but this is a much bigger gesture. This is hours of work; of blood and oily brain tissue caked under my nails, of washing and scraping and stretching dozens of little pelts, of burning eyes and pricked fingers and tears of frustration. I'm taking just as much care with my companion's pillow as I did with Peeta's muffler. I'm not sure what that means, and I certainly don't want to try to explain it.
Lavinia returns late that afternoon with a mysterious parcel that's as long as she is tall and a large order from the grocer's, including a bushel basket full of plump red cranberries. Peeta grins with sheer delight as he carries the basket into the kitchen and places it with aplomb on the table.
"What on earth do you need a bushel of cranberries for?" I ask, even as I cup a handful of the brilliant little fruits in awe.
"So many things," he replies, with a merry laugh. "I'm going to start simmering the wine and cider tomorrow, then there are breads and sauces and, if you and Lavinia are willing, maybe even a little something for the birds to enjoy for New Year's."
New Year's is less than a week away now, though I'm still astonished that he's planning to start the spiced wine already. It'll be simmering for days. "If we're willing…?" I puzzle. After all, Lavinia and I are both his servants, however well he takes care of us, and I'm long overdue to be assigned my tasks.
"It's something fun, I think," he says with a wink. "And of course, you don't have to if you don't want to."
He adds three generous handfuls of cranberries, their skins carefully pierced, to the roasting pan with the wild goose that will serve as our supper, and I retreat to my hobby room for a few extra minutes to stitch and frown and think. I've been here almost a month now, and while those weeks have been impossibly pleasant – beyond my wildest dreams, truth be told – the absence of any sort of real work has begun to gnaw at me. I hunt, of course, but that's little more than a few hours' labor every other day, even with the plucking and tanning, and all of this sewing is for gifts, not because Peeta asked me to do it.
Peeta hasn't asked me to do any sort of work thus far, except for hunting, and now he's talking about this New Year's project as though I can simply say no and go back to doing…well, nothing. Writing letters to my sister. Playing in the snow. Sewing with Lavinia. Enjoyable things all, but they're no way to repay the boy who's keeping me in furs and chocolate and fresh bread – and my family in so much luxury of their own that I can't think of a single thing to give them for New Year's.
I'm already cross from snags in my thread and misaligned pelts, and these thoughts only add fuel to my ire. I come down to dinner feeling impatient and irritable, and even roast goose with cranberries and golden-skinned potatoes mashed with butter and cream can't improve my mood. It's yet another reminder of the staggering luxury that I haven't earned and don't deserve.
Peeta notices straightaway that something is wrong but he doesn't press me to tell him, which somehow only makes it worse. He fills my plate with the very best cuts of goose, a heavy dollop of potatoes, and a hearty slice of bread – this morning's project, made with oats, clover honey, and chunks of milk chocolate – then he sits back in his chair and studies me with worried eyes. "You're working too hard," he says at last, frowning. "Is it the hunting, Katniss? How can I help?"
Suddenly, even his gentle concern irks me – because I haven't been working hard, not really. The shadows under my eyes are from stolen hours of fireside sewing, in which I'm making New Year's presents for him and my night companion – in my leisure time. I'm not working at all, save for bringing home fresh meat every other day.
"You can tell me what I'm supposed to be doing," I retort, tossing the bread back onto my plate untouched. "I've been here almost a month, and the only thing you've asked me to do is hunt."
Peeta's brows fly up in surprise. I haven't spoken to him like this since the night I first came here, and even though I know I'm being rude, I can't help it. This lopsided bargain has gone on long enough, and it's time and past I started earning my keep, whatever that requires.
"That's all you need to do for me," he says, puzzled. "It's more than enough. Though – if you don't want to –"
"Stop it!" I snap, pushing my chair back. My face is hot and prickling with true anger now. "Stop this 'if you don't want to' nonsense and just tell me what you want from me!"
Peeta blinks rapidly, stung by my words, and I feel like the snake in this sad old tale my father used to tell. On a cold and rainy day, an elderly man carried a small poisonous snake up a mountain because it promised not to bite him. When they got to the top, the snake bit the man anyway. Did you forget I was a snake? it asked the dying man as he lamented the betrayal.
"I want you to be happy, Katniss," he says softly. "I want to make the shadows under your eyes disappear. I want you to have every comfort you could ever dream of. I want you to smile and laugh and –" His voice breaks. "I want you to sing," he whispers.
"Sing," I echo dumbly, my mind catching at the most tangible of his strange demands. "Now?"
He shakes his head, and his eyes are so sad that my heart burns. "Only if you want," he says.
"Stop it, Peeta!" I snarl, getting up from my chair and jarring the table with an angry clatter. "Stop being so…so damn nice and easy-going about this! If you want something, tell me! I'll do whatever you want; I've said so from the beginning. I'm here for your pleasure."
He stares at me for a long moment, his wide eyes hurt and horrified, and I realize he's hearing everything I haven't said but have been thinking all this time.
He saved my life five years ago. He's saving it again, and the lives of my family. I'll do whatever he wants.
I said I'd do whatever he wants. And, of course, I will. Poorly, but I will – because I owe him.
I have nothing else to give him.
It's like he can see every moment when I laid in that beautiful forest bed, trembling or weeping or rigid with fear, waiting to offer him my body in exchange for his kindness. I haven't intended that in weeks now, but if he asked – if he wanted – I'd still oblige, no matter how uncertain and terrified I would be, simply because I owe him so much.
And now this boy, the gentlest, most generous person on this earth, knows it. Knows I would do anything to repay him for his gifts, even surrender my body for his pleasure.
A tear winks on his long pale lashes, and shame and bile push up my throat, choking me. Did you forget I was a snake? sobs a voice in my chest. You fed me and cared for me and held me so close, but I bit you anyway.
"No, Katniss," he says very quietly, getting to his feet. He sets his napkin alongside his plate; a strange, deliberate gesture, as the tear slips from his lashes to wet his cheek. "It's the other way around," he whispers.
He walks out of the dining room without looking back and I hear his heavy tread on the stairs. I wonder if he's going to get my things; the wretched, poor, ugly things I brought from home. I wonder if I should pack them myself and save him the trouble.
And suddenly I'm crumpled on the floor, grasping at the seat of my chair and gasping for breath with a pain in my chest that stabs deeper with every inhalation. If being with Peeta is the most wonderful feeling in the world, losing him is the worst; a hot, relentless pulse of pure agony. I feel like someone's torn out my heart and lungs and left me gaping and bleeding and broken in this beautiful room that I never deserved to step inside, let alone eat in. Let alone meals that were prepared just for me and fed to me by a sweet, wounded boy who only wants me to be happy.
I rock against the polished wood and grind my burning eyes against my forearm. What have I done? Good, gentle Peeta, the boy I sewed a muffler for from rabbit skins I tanned myself…how could I be so cruel? To suggest that I would rather be his whore than accept his kindness freely…he should kick me out of his house. I should kick myself out.
I should go. I have to go. I never deserved this beautiful home, or Peeta's kindness, and I've insulted both with my bitter words.
I struggle to my feet, my eyes and nose streaming, and stumble out to the mudroom. I step bare feet into my hunting boots and pull Dad's jacket from its hook, but I didn't switch on the light and can't find my scarves in the darkness. I'm fumbling blindly in the niches, my fingers seeking thin, pilled wool, when a hand at my shoulder turns me about and I am enveloped in a cloud of soft fur, so heavy that I sink beneath its weight and fall against a broad chest.
I don't need to see to know who holds me. Honey and cream and cloves, musk and warm wool and goose roasted with cranberries. I bury my face in the scents I never thought I'd breathe again and whimper with both grief and hope, grasping handfuls of the sweater beneath my fingers. "I'm sorry," I gasp through my tears. "I'm so sorry. I should –"
"Shh," Peeta murmurs against my brow, his strong hands on either side of me, cradling me to him with his precious bearskin. "Don't leave me, Katniss. Please don't go."
"I can't…" I choke, and he turns his face a little, nuzzling my temple with his cheek. I lean into the caress, like a lynx kit at the affectionate stroke of its mother's tongue, and Peeta draws me closer still.
"Come sit with me for a little?" he asks. The words are like a welcome kiss, brushing the crown of my head, and I nod against his shoulder.
He guides me into the living room and seats me on the sofa with the bearskin still draped around me, and though I know I don't deserve its comfort, tonight more than ever, I can't bring myself to shrug it off. He sits close beside me and toys with the fur of the collar for a moment, where it lies against my shoulder.
"Katniss, I don't know how I can make this any clearer to you," he begins, his voice very soft, as though he's speaking to a wounded animal. "The only thing I want – and I want it badly, more than anything in the world – is for you to be happy. For you to have everything that you want."
I look up to meet his eyes and find them solemn; even ardent. Peeta's not just being nice or easy-going; somehow, impossible though it may be, this is truly what he wants. My happiness.
"Why?" I whisper.
He gives a sad little laugh. The sound rubs against my heart like a burr. "Does it really matter?" he asks.
I consider that for a moment. After all, if I'm here to do whatever he wants, shouldn't I accept those requests out of hand? If he gave me chores, I wouldn't ask him why. I wouldn't even have questioned it if he came to my bed to take pleasure in my body. Why does it bother me so much that all he wants is to be kind?
"People don't help me," I say. It's an inarticulate explanation, but Peeta comprehends just the same.
"I did," he reminds me with a small smile. The smile of an eleven-year-old boy who took a beating so he could save my life with burned bread. "And ever since that day, Katniss," he says, "it's all that I've wanted. To feed you. To keep you warm and dry – and happy."
I look at him; at this boy I've snapped and snarled at like a rabid dog and insulted with my Seam-born sense of debt and duty, and I believe him. I don't understand, and I doubt I ever will, but I believe him.
"It's hard, Peeta," I confess, staring down at my hands in my lap. "Hard to accept things I haven't earned or traded for."
His hand inches into my line of vision, covering both of my hands with its broad warmth. "Surely that depends on the giver," he says.
I look up, confused, to find a strange, soft smile on his face. "What do you mean?" I ask.
"When your dad gave you little treats or wrapped you up in his coat or made you lunch in the woods," he says, tracing the curve of my cheek with his free hand, "did you feel you owed him for that?"
"Of course not," I answer, still perplexed. "He was my father; my family. He did those things because he cared. Because he wanted to take care of me; to make me smile. Because he loved me," I whisper, caught up in distant, cherished memories that Peeta has managed to evoke in detail with just a few choice words.
"Maybe," he says hoarsely. "Maybe he wasn't the only one."
His voice is raw and quiet but his eyes are fever-bright. "I don't –" I begin, and then his hands are on my face, pulling me to him.
For a mad, foolish second I think he's going to kiss me, but he only leans in to press his forehead to mine. Even so, we're so close that the tips of our noses touch, and I can taste the cider on his slow, shallow breath. "Katniss," he groans. "I care about you. I care so much. I want to take care of you and make you smile. I –"
"Why?" I whisper.
He makes a sound that might be a whimper and leans back a little so our foreheads no longer touch, though our noses still brush at the tips. "Because you left everything to come and live with me," he breathes. "Because you came here expecting to work and got angry when others served you instead. Because you're my huntress and my companion," he whispers, his eyes dark and soft as his thumb brushes my cheek, "and everything in this house belongs to you."
"Let me do something for you," I plead.
He leans back even further at that, frowning deeply, and I hurry to reassure him, "Something ordinary – I want to. To wash the dishes after you cook, or make lunch when you're napping or…just to help you. Not because of owing but –"
Because I care about you, I realize. Because I want to take care of you and make you smile.
I don't understand these feelings at all, but I don't know why I find them so surprising. From my reactions to his Games to the morning I wrapped him in Dad's scarf to my panic the first day he disappeared for a nap, this boy has mattered to me, but somehow, even as I cursed and scowled and pricked my fingers for nights on end, stitching him a muffler from my painstakingly tanned rabbit skins, I've never realized quite how much.
"Because…I want to take care of you too," I say quietly.
He closes his eyes and sighs so deeply that I feel it in my bones. "Okay," he murmurs at last, the corners of his mouth creeping up in a careful smile as he opens his eyes. "In that case…I think we should have supper. It's probably cold now, but I don't mind if you don't."
"I have an even better idea," I tell him with a cautious smile of my own.
I go to the dining room and cut several slices of Peeta's sweet chocolate-honey bread and put them in the oven to toast for a few minutes. While they're crisping up, I fill a platter with cold goose and cranberries and potatoes, plus an entire little golden spice cake that I find on the kitchen counter, which Peeta clearly baked for our dessert. I cut the toasted bread into quarters and spread some with butter and the rest with creamy goat cheese, then carry the works into the living room.
"I'll cook it myself next time," I tell Peeta, feeling a little ridiculous for making a tray of the supper he prepared when we could just as soon have gone back to the dining room and eaten it all there.
He picks up a square of toasted bread spread with goat cheese and looks at me as though I've brought him the moon. "This is perfect, Katniss," he says.
Unsurprisingly, we make short work of everything. The roast goose tastes even better cold, or maybe it's just my relief at the pain and conflict that have passed. We smile as we eat, offering each other bites and stealing others, and when every last crumb is gone, I take the dishes into the kitchen and run a sinkful of hot water. "You don't –" Peeta begins from behind me.
"I want to," I say, looking back at him. "Please, Peeta."
He concedes the plates, mugs, and forks but insists on drying the dishes as I wash, and he ousts me from the sink before I can start on the kettles and pans. "That's my mess," he insists, but gently. "I'll finish up. Pick me out some bread ingredients for tomorrow," he teases, "then go get some rest."
I choose a jar of almonds, the much-used bottle of nutmeg, and a handful of vibrant cranberries from his bushel basket, now holding pride of place in the pantry. Peeta obediently doesn't peek as I hide the ingredients under a clean dishtowel, but I hear him chuckle softly as he tries to guess what might be there by the sounds I made. As an afterthought, I slip a hand back under the towel and sneak out two cranberries, which I tuck carefully into a pocket of my trousers. There are more than enough beneath the towel for a delicious loaf of bread tomorrow, and I suspect my companion would enjoy cranberries as a bedtime treat.
"Katniss," Peeta says quietly, without turning around, and my heart sinks. I know he won't begrudge me two little cranberries, but I feel terrible for having taken them like a common thief.
My fingertips are already dipping into my pocket when he asks, "Why are there shadows under your eyes?"
He turns to look at me then, drying his hands with the towel on the drainboard. "Is it bad dreams?" he asks, coming over to me. He takes my face in his dish-dampened hands and his brow creases in a worried frown. "Is your room uncomfortable? Are you having trouble sleeping?"
It's little different than what he asked me in the dining room earlier, but this time his concern makes me smile. "It's a New Year's surprise," I tell him, and ask in turn, "What's your bird project for me and Lavinia?"
"I thought you might string a cranberry garland for the apple tree," he says shyly. "I know it probably sounds silly, but we did it for a few years when I was really little, when Grandma Lydda was still alive, and our apple tree was full of happy birds for weeks afterward, even when all that was left was the string."
I chuckle inwardly at the thought of how well my recent sewing practice will serve me in this and wonder if shy, ground-feeding mourning doves might venture to eat from a berry garland strung around a tree. I wonder what other wonders a New Year's celebration with Peeta Mellark holds for me.
"I'd love to," I tell him, and bask in the sun-like radiance of his smile.
I hide the stolen cranberries until Lavinia leaves me for the night then reach boldly across the bed to lay them on my companion's pillow. By firelight they glint against the buttery deerskin like rubies nestled in golden velvet.
In six nights there will be a pillow of heathered gray-brown rabbit fur in its place, stuffed with wild goose down and stitched together by my own hands. I wonder, not for the first time, whether I've taken leave of my senses by looking after my unseen bed partner in these strange, sentimental ways.
But their soft, happy sigh at finding cranberries on their pillow is all the reassurance I need.
I wake the next morning to an exquisite feeling of relief; a lightness so sweet and profound that I feel I could float downstairs to breakfast. I'm not foolish enough to think that last night's misunderstanding is the only one Peeta and I will ever face, but I hope beyond hope that it's the worst.
Peeta still doesn't give me tasks or chores – I suspect it's too ingrained, this need of his to tend and care and serve – but he no longer refuses my aid when I offer it. So for starters, I wash the breakfast dishes after we've eaten and come early to the kitchen at suppertime to see if I can help with the meal preparation in any way.
It feels better than I could have imagined to peel a potato or chop an onion. To have food beneath my hands; fresh and firm, not soft with rot or mold. Not apple peelings or eggshells or bones, the dregs of a Merchant's feast that I struggle to stretch into a nourishing meal.
When I tell Peeta this, he drops the apple he's slicing to come and take me in his arms, tucking me against him as though he can hide me from poverty and hunger with the strong bulk of his body. "I'm so sorry, Katniss," he says. "I never thought – I didn't realize cooking would be such a comfort to you, or I never would have kept you from it. You can cook and eat anything you want," he tells me, holding me by the shoulders and looking into my eyes. "Everything in this house belongs to you. That means every potato and onion and apple in the pantry and every egg and cheese and bottle of cream in the icebox."
I laugh lightly, though the words mean more to me than he can possibly imagine. "You're a much better cook than me," I remind him. "I'm more than happy to eat whatever you make."
"Well, that's a relief," he teases.
"It just…feels good to do this sometimes," I explain. "To know there's food – good, fresh food – for our table, and to see and feel and smell as it goes into a meal."
Peeta clearly takes my words to heart, because the next morning when I come in, pink-cheeked and bright-eyed from a bracing skate on the lake, he calls me into the kitchen and eagerly beckons me over to the table. The flour-dusted surface is spread with two kinds of dough, one deep brown and the other creamy gold, both rolled out smooth and uniform. To either side of the dough are tarnished copper shapes, clearly identifiable as pine trees, snowflakes, birds, deer, and rabbits.
"Grandma Lydda's cookie cutters," he tells me happily. "Dad sent them back with Lavinia the other day. Would you like to help me?"
Real cookies were almost as rare in my family's home as oranges, and I agree without hesitation. Peeta shyly offers me an apron – a simple panel of wildflower-patterned calico with a double-pocket in front – and we spend an exquisite hour pressing out whimsically shaped cookies and drinking enormous mugs of hot chocolate with stolen pinches of dough while our lunch of chicken dumpling soup simmers deliciously on the stove alongside massive kettles of cider and Grandma Lydda's spiced wine.
We eat our soup and bread at the kitchen table, eyes riveted on the oven door, impatient for the first pan to be done. When it comes out at last, a seeming eternity later, Peeta snatches up a golden pine tree that I pressed out myself and sets it, piping hot, on my plate. I break it in half and hand him the larger piece, and he pours me another cup of hot chocolate – for dunking, I discover – with a bashful smile.
The pale dough yields sugar cookies, thin and crisp and sweet; the perfect canvas for the little pots of richly hued frosting that Peeta retrieves from the pantry as we wait for the cookies to cool thoroughly. He paints each cookie like a tiny masterpiece: a brown beak here, a black eye there, a white tuft of frosting for a tail and a garland of cranberry-red dots stretching across a green-boughed pine tree.
The only thing missing is a knot of curly-haired children, squealing with delight as each cookie comes to life beneath their father's skillful hands.
The dark cookies are gingerbread, and Peeta mixes a batch of silky white icing to paint impossibly lifelike patterns on the russet-brown snowflakes and rabbits and trees that smell mouthwateringly of molasses and ginger. "Who are these all for?" I ask, in awe at the beauty of his handiwork. Surely he means to send these cookies back to town with Pollux before the holiday. The bakery could make a small fortune from just one tray of Peeta's intricately iced gingerbread snowflakes.
"For you, of course," he laughs, handing me a gingerbread rabbit that is almost too pretty to eat. "Have all you want. It's four days to New Year's, Katniss," he reminds me with a wink. "You don't think this is all the baking I plan to do?"
The next morning sees the worktop filled from edge to edge with even more cookies: more sugar cookies and gingerbread; crosshatched peanut butter cookies, peppered with chunks of chocolate; enough bricks of shortbread to build a hut for Lady; and something Peeta simply calls "butter cookies," so rich with butter and vanilla extract that a good whiff makes me feel half-drunk. Peeta pipes the batter artfully from what he calls a pastry bag, shaping perfect pine trees and little snowmen that would be too adorable to eat if they didn't melt so deliciously on my tongue. I didn't think anything could best Mellarks' famous golden shortbread, but I can barely keep my hands off the butter cookies when they come out of the oven, and Peeta has no interest in stopping me.
"I thought you'd like them," he laughs. "They're kind of impossibly good. It's one of a few things I remember really well from when Grandma Lydda was alive: her incredible butter cookies. She used to make one shaped like a kissing bough, with little ribbons of icing, for boys to give their sweethearts."
My cheeks grow hot and I hide my face behind a mugful of cold milk. Kissing boughs are one of a few New Year's traditions that Twelve has maintained since before the Dark Days, and I've learned to avoid them like venomous snakes.
A kissing bough is simply a piece of wood wrapped in red and white ribbons and hung in a doorway. Wood is costlier than coal in Twelve, but it can be had for the foraging, and after a windy autumn, you can even find decent-sized branches in the Meadow. Merchant families usually get hold of substantial pieces of firewood or even small evergreen boughs, whereas Seam families are lucky to have a stout twig to serve, wrapped in red and white rags, as even the cheapest ribbons are beyond their means. Dad always made sure we had a handsome pine branch from the woods for our kissing bough, and we had proper satin ribbons – one red and two white – that Mom carefully wrapped up and tucked away after the holiday so we could reuse them year after year.
Of course, the whole point of a kissing bough is kissing, and the rules are simple. If you pass under a kissing bough, however unaware, you owe a "forfeit" of a kiss to someone on the other side, and some Merchant boys and girls resort to devious tactics, such as hanging a kissing bough above the end of their counter, to claim kisses from unwitting customers or perhaps an ignorant sweetheart. Sometimes they hang a second kissing bough at their back door – I'm vigilant for those, since most of my trades are done at back doors – and laugh when their disgruntled parents catch them kissing their sweethearts on the back step of the shop. It's said to be bad luck to interrupt such a kiss, so all the parents can do is scoff and shake their heads and wait for the lovebirds to finish.
Every household in the district hangs a kissing bough of some sort, even if it's only a stick tied with colorful rags, and in one's own home, the kissing is more of a playful thing. There was no shortage of females in our house who wanted to kiss my father, and Prim and I used to lie in wait to see which of us could catch him first when he came through the door and hop up on tiptoe to peck his bearded cheek with a happy kiss. Dad was never home when we got back from school, but Mom dutifully kissed us both as we walked through the door, her eyes bright and merry with mischief.
The kissing bough hangs for the twelve days preceding New Year's, during which time kisses can be claimed at any moment. On New Year's Day, as part of the festivities – in very poor homes, it might be the only festivities – the kissing bough is taken down with great aplomb and the ribbons distributed. Red for sweethearts, white for friends, and always exchanged with a kiss.
Merchant boys typically give their white ribbons to their mothers or sisters and the red to their girls, who proudly wear them woven into their braids the next day at school. In a family with no sons, the daughters tie their red ribbons around a sweet or other small gift to present to their boys, who later sport the ribbons tied around their coat sleeves.
Once all the ribbons are gone, the kisses are used up. The father or oldest son puts the kissing bough on the fire – for many Seam families, that's the only firewood they'll see all year – and that marks the end of New Year's.
It's said to be bad luck to refuse a New Year's kiss, giving or getting one. Dad always said Grandpa Asa would never have gotten a kiss off Granny Ashpet if it hadn't been for New Year's – and a mass of coins saved for one perfect red ribbon. It's a silly old wives' tale, but someone always has a story about a spinster sister who refused a kiss and never got another offer, and it's not so far-fetched, really. If a boy cares enough to leave his home on New Year's Day to find you and give you a ribbon that cost him or his father a pretty penny, and you refuse him a simple kiss in return, it's likely he won't ask again.
I've never received a ribbon of any color, except from my father, and I don't expect to.
Most Seam families, like mine, reuse the same ribbons every year, so the ribbon distribution is just a symbolic thing. A special treat to savor for a precious hour or two. At the end of our New Year's celebration, Dad untied the white ribbons and gave one each to Prim and me, tying it round a pigtail as he pressed sound kisses to our cheeks, then he untied the red one and gave it to Mom. Sometimes he looped it round the crown of her head, like a wreath of bright berries, or twined it between her slender fingers as he leaned in to kiss her; a tender, lingering sweethearts' kiss that seemed to last forever. Red satin was striking against Mom's white skin and pale hair, even when it was just a crumpled old ribbon that had been used for countless New Years already.
I wonder how many shiny new red ribbons bedecked her hair when she was Peeta's father's girl. How many lingering sweethearts' kisses were exchanged at the back doors of the apothecary and bakery.
A few weeks ago Pollux took a sleigh-load of beautiful evergreen branches to town to serve as kissing boughs for Peeta's family and my own. My family hasn't hung a kissing bough – or celebrated New Year's at all, really – since Dad died, but I think it's expected of a Merchant household, especially one with a handsome shopfront and money for new satin ribbons. There are no boys in my family to claim those ribbons, and neither Mom nor Prim has a sweetheart. I wonder if their ribbons will be wrapped up and tucked away in a drawer to be reused again and again.
According to Prim's letters, Mom hung one kissing bough in their living room and another in the center of the shop; out of tradition, of course, rather than an interest in festivity or flirtation. My mother is hardly in search of kisses for herself, and Prim is far too young for them. Still, I wonder who will tie the first red ribbon around my sister's blonde plait and claim a kiss in return.
"Kissing bough cookies?" I ask Peeta dryly.
He blushes a little. "For the very reluctant sweetheart," he replies. "If you can't get them to step under your kissing bough, you bring one to them."
I wonder if he ever tried that with his girl and curse myself as the words leave my lips. "Sounds like a good method for you," I say. "You could go to town on New Year's Day and give your girl a kissing bough cookie, wrapped in a red ribbon. At the very least, you'd get a kiss out of it."
He turns red as a Merchant's sweetheart ribbon and shakes his head. "I don't think so," he says with a crooked smile. "Somehow I doubt the threat of being unmarried forever would convince my sweetheart to kiss me."
Something about Peeta saying my sweetheart makes my chest tighten and ache. He's never referred to his girl that way before, and it makes her more real, somehow. His love for her is evident in every inch of this house, in every scent and texture and meal he prepares, but with no one here to receive that tenderness but me, Pollux, Lavinia, and a few wild animals, it's easy to forget that there is a girl. A girl for whom he won the Hunger Games.
I've loved her for as long as I can remember, he told Caesar, but I don't think she even knew I was alive until the Reaping. She's beautiful, and a lot of boys like her.
I look at him, considering, and decide that this popular, beautiful girl of his must be a shrew. Who could refuse to kiss Peeta Mellark? He's sweet and handsome and smells amazing…and it's just a New Year's kiss; not a toasting, for pity's sake. "Maybe she'd kiss you for the cookie?" I suggest.
To my surprise, he laughs heartily in response. "Now that," he says, "I might almost believe."
The next morning I wake very early, dress in my oldest clothes, and quickly make my way downstairs. Peeta is already in the kitchen, of course, blending onions, cheese, and rosemary into the dough for my daily loaf, and I pop in to steal a handful of butter cookies and promise that I'll be back in time for breakfast. But it's the day before New Year's Eve; I have a plan to enact and no time to waste.
Pollux is a part of this plan, and he's already bundled up and waiting, coffee flask in hand, when I arrive at the stable. I've kept to hunting small game thus far – turkeys, geese, and dozens of fat, luxuriously furred rabbits – but I want to bring home a deer for Peeta's New Year's table, and I know I'll need help with hauling it back, maybe even with the butchering. Pollux is willing to do whatever I need – he's been emphatic on that point – but I want to spare him as much of the bloody work as possible.
Judging by hoof prints, Peeta's woods is home to a small herd of deer, and I've got my sights set on the sleek pretty doe I saw on my first hunting venture. I see her and a few others frequently enough, stepping nimbly among the trees as I pass, all but unnoticed, and I don't anticipate having to do much tracking at all, but with something as significant as Peeta's New Year's feast hinging on my success, I also don't want to leave anything to chance. Hence heading to the woods before dawn with Pollux, bundled up to our eyes against the brittle cold and fortified with hot, strong coffee and butter cookies.
We trade bracing sips from the flask as we make our way into the woods, noiseless but for the soft crunch of our boots in the snow, and I wash down the bitter flavor, to Pollux's silent glee, with frantic nibbles of cookie. I've warned him that, if need be, we'll set up a makeshift blind in one of the trees along my usual route, but luck is almost unbelievably on our side. We're barely fifteen minutes' walk into the woods when I spot three deer moving like shadows in the rosy pre-dawn light: the doe we're seeking; a rugged, broad-antlered buck that I've seen twice before and take to be her mate; and a second, younger buck, leanly muscled, with a low, narrow rack.
Time slows for an endless instant as I contemplate my options. The doe is almost too beautiful to kill; it's what's stopped me from drawing my bow on her more than once. Her face is long and finely boned, with liquid black eyes and a muzzle like velvet. By dawn-light her coat is pale as pearl; by starlight she would be silver. A creature too exquisite for any but the moon herself to hunt.
And I can't shoot her mate either, however magnificent a kill he would be. She nuzzles his cheek with her snout, closing her liquid eyes, and he returns the gesture, bowing his great pronged head and breaking my heart. I can't separate these two, and I certainly can't kill them both. There's a good chance she's already pregnant, and a doe as fine as her is most likely carrying twins. Two wide-eyed, perfect fawns, spindly-legged and spotted, that she'll hide behind mossy logs and ferns and clusters of wildflowers.
My father didn't hunt deer all that often, and he avoided does in winter altogether if he could help it. As a shivering child with a grumbling belly and empty pockets, watching a meal and income prancing beneath our blind without Dad so much as raising his bow, I asked him why, and he promised me an answer in the spring. Six months later, my breath caught in wonder as he showed me two fawns curled together between a fallen tree and a patch of wood violets, the bright black snout of one tucked beneath the delicate eye socket of the other.
Your breasts are twin fawns, whispers my father's voice in my mind, the words a pleasured gasp against my mother's white skin.
I swiftly take aim at the young buck, just behind his right shoulder. The perfect shot, Dad taught me as I leaned against his hip, squinting to follow the line of his arrow. A quick, merciful death, preserving as much meat as possible. Granny Ashpet could make this shot like none other, he said, and her arrowheads were so fine she barely marred the hides.
I think of my cougar-eyed grandmother, hunting does for her daily bread and tanning their hides for her wedding dress, and let the arrow fly. The young buck bleats and stumbles, the shaft of my arrow wedged firmly in his side, and the beautiful doe and her mate bound away.
The buck is breathing his last when I reach him, a weak puff of steam from his wet black snout, and I stroke the flat lobe of his brow with gloved fingers. He's handsome enough to be the doe's offspring, and I wonder if it hurt her when he cried out. "Thank you," I whisper. Dad did that sometimes, especially with deer. Thanked them for their lives; for their meat and hides and the money both would provide.
Pollux crouches beside me, a look in his eyes that I can only define as awestruck. He's never watched me hunt before, and this may have been my finest shot ever.
"The big buck would've been more impressive," I say with a flicker of regret, tracing the young buck's lifeless muzzle with a fingertip. "Or the doe." After all, I wanted a prize for Peeta's table. I came out here expressly for that doe, only to settle for the least of three fine deer. The young buck is hardly a poor haul, but either the doe or her mate – a prime buck, magnificent in maturity – would have made a true trophy.
Pollux shakes his head firmly. He touches my chest with his fingertips, right over my heart, then gestures in the direction the doe and her mate fled. Of course – he was watching my face all along and probably read it like a book. Both he and Lavinia, I'm learning, are disarmingly perceptive at the nuances of expression – as though, by losing the power of speech, they've become adept not only at communicating their own thoughts without words but at deciphering the unspoken thoughts of others, just from the set of their lips or the look in their eyes.
"You don't think Peeta will be disappointed?" I ask with a crooked smile, nodding down at the buck.
Pollux snorts and raises his eyebrows in a dubious expression. This is a common response to my questions and I've learned to translate it with ease: Really, Katniss?
I chuckle. "All right," I say. "Let's get this guy home. I've got a long morning's work ahead of me."
We carry the buck between us, his feet bound to a sturdy branch, and my shoulder burns pleasantly beneath the weight. I realize now how ridiculous it was to think I could bring home a deer solely for Peeta and me to eat. This young buck will yield a good sixty pounds of venison; enough to feed the two of us for months – or everyone I know for New Year's.
I've finally thought of something I can give as a present; something that can't be purchased from a shop in town, and I'm fairly certain Peeta won't mind. When I carve up the deer, I'll set aside parcels of its meat for my family and Peeta's – and for Rooba as well. She'll be as glad of good fresh meat as anyone this time of year, and she can either enjoy it with her family or sell it for a tidy profit. Venison is as good as gold at New Year's; Peacekeepers will pay top coin for even a small cut of steak. I figure I owe the district butcher something for teaching her nephew how to roast meat so deliciously, and a parcel of venison is the very least I can do.
And maybe I can even send some to the Hawthornes. Just a few pounds of meat and a good soup bone will be several days' feast for them, and surely Peeta won't begrudge me sharing a tiny portion of his food with my friends. After all, he knows that my hunting habits fed many families besides my own; he even expressed concern about the food supply with me moving out of the district. He knows Gale works in the mines and that the woods near to town are sparse with game – probably because they've all moved on to the sanctuary that is Peeta's stretch of woods – and he met Vick and Rory, maybe the whole family, when he took Prim there on her sleigh ride. And if nothing else, Peeta is the kindest, most generous person in the world. He won't object to sharing food with a hungry family.
Pollux helps me hang the buck from a sturdy tree behind the stable, then I send him inside for a while; to feed Rye, I suggest. The truth, of course, is that gutting something as large as a deer is a bloody, messy process, and Pollux has experienced far too much horror in his life already. Not to mention, this will be the first deer I've butchered on my own and I'm a little nervous about being watched. I want to save as much of it as I can; even the blood, which I collect in a clean bucket placed beneath the carcass.
When my father was alive, deer blood was often the only part of the animal we got to eat, except for stock made from a bone or two that he kept back for Mom. He would drain and gut his kills and trade the meat and bones with the butcher, then he would come home and make "deer sausage" for us: a rich, flavorful "meat" filled with spices and berries and seeds, sometimes even little chunks of wild onion or katniss tubers. Prim in particular devoured the stuff; it was the most delicious thing we had to eat and finding it on the dinner table meant a special occasion indeed.
It wasn't until I was old enough to tag along on a deer hunt that I discovered we had been eating blood sausage all this time: deer's blood mixed with a little of its fat, plus flour and seasonings, and cased in its stomach or intestine. I was as horrified as any child of eight would have been, but I knew my father and the value of what he brought to our table. "Deer sausage" didn't cease to be tasty and nutritious just because I knew what it really was – although I made absolutely sure that Prim never found out. I took Dad aside after that hunt and told him sternly – to his great amusement – that she could never, ever know what "deer sausage" was made of. Don't tell Prim? he echoed with a belly laugh. I've been keeping this from your mother for thirteen years! You're the one who needs swearing to secrecy!
I'm saving this deer's blood for Rooba. It seems fair, since Dad used to keep the blood for us when he sold her his deer, and the butcher makes a myriad of sausages, some of which must use blood for flavor – and even if not, she's hardly a woman to waste an opportunity. Who knows; maybe "deer sausage" will become the newest delicacy among Peacekeepers and Merchants?
While the deer continues to drain, I extract and clean the organs as best I can and pack them in snow in a second bucket for Rooba. My arrow pierced the heart, but it's a tough little muscle and will still make a fine meal, and the tongue and lungs and kidneys too. The rest of the innards I discard in the burn barrel, then I call Pollux back and set to work on skinning.
Removing a deerskin is not all that different from removing a rabbit skin, but if I want to make the best use of this one – and I do – I need to figure out how to get rid of the hair. Dad usually gave his deerskins to Hazelle Hawthorne for tanning and they split the profits afterward. She learned from Granny Ashpet when she was very young, and as a laundress, Hazelle had time and opportunity for tanning work that a miner did not. I can flesh and tan the inner side of the skin easily enough, though I can tell it will be longer and harder work than ten rabbit skins, but I need to ask Hazelle about the rest. I make a mental note to send a letter with her family's meat parcel, asking her advice.
This is my first deerskin, and I want, so much, to do it right – especially as I mean to make a present of it for Peeta. It'll be a simple gift – probably just a ragged-edged blanket, since I'm terrified of ruining a perfect deerskin with clumsy sewing – but I'm looking forward to it. To feeling the skin grow soft and supple as I work it again and again. To Peeta's face as I wrap him in a new golden deerskin, fleshed and stretched and tanned by my own hands.
Between the hauling and gutting, I'm exhausted by the time the skin is off, and I lament to Pollux that it's too bad I don't have a frame large enough to fit it. I can improvise with a couple of nearby trees, I suppose, or even stretch the skin across one side of the workroom, since I'll be tending to it for a good long while, and anyway, there's the fleshing and hair removal to come first. Pollux quirks a brow at this but makes no comment, neither on his slate nor in the snow. I wonder if he finds it amusing to catch me – Peeta's acclaimed huntress – at a loose end.
"So I know mealtimes are flexible here," calls Peeta's voice from the back door of the stable, "but is there any chance either of you can stop for a quick breakfast, since at least one of you promised to join me?"
I turn to reply, and the sheer awe on Peeta's face takes my breath away. "Not that…you aren't busy with more important things," he adds, his eyes flickering between the hanging buck and the fresh deerskin in my hands. "A deer, Katniss," he breathes, coming over to me. "You shot a deer."
"For you," I say. Despite the sharp cold of the morning, his praise makes me feel flushed and tingly all over. "For your New Year's feast."
"Our feast," he corrects softly, brushing my hot cheek with his fingertips. "Do you have to finish everything right away?"
"Soon," I tell him regretfully. "I hadn't considered how much longer it would take, or I wouldn't have said –"
He dismisses this with a shake of his head. "I guessed it was a larger venture, seeing as you left before breakfast and weren't back two hours later," he says, his eyes playful. "If you can spare a couple of minutes, I think I can get a hearty meal into both of you, or at least enough to tide you over till lunch."
Pollux and I follow Peeta into the stable to find that he has brought breakfast to us. The butcher-paper surface of the workbench is now covered with food: a platter of toasted sandwiches filled with sausage, potato, egg, and cheese; slices of apple and sections of orange; six beautiful gingerbread snowflakes, each one iced in a different intricate pattern; and an enormous flask of sweet cream-coffee. Pollux and I race to the sink to clean up then I pounce on the cream-coffee, to sounds of mock-indignation from Pollux and laughter from Peeta.
"I should have warned you," he tells Pollux with a sidewise wink at me. "I practically had to beg her to try cream-coffee the first time, and now she can't leave it alone. I'll bring over some bottles of cream later," he teases. "I hear your coffee is pretty incomparable, and adding cream can only make it better, right?"
Pollux raises his brows at me, though I doubt he's truly surprised that I told Peeta about his coffee, and he passes Peeta his own flask with a shrug. Peeta takes a generous sip and, to my everlasting delight, chokes as it goes down, though he covers the reaction with a manful sort of cough. "Very…flavorful," he rasps, blinking furiously, as though the brew somehow burned his eyes. Pollux laughs heartily, and I'm long gone in giggles of my own.
We compromise by combining splashes of Pollux's strong coffee with mugfuls of Peeta's cream-coffee. "You weren't kidding!" Peeta murmurs in my ear as he portions out cups for each of us. Pollux sips and nods at the blended brew, but I suspect that the virtues of cream-coffee are lost on him. Without a tongue, he can hardly discern sweetness or the rich, velvety texture that makes cream-coffee so irresistible, and I'm unsurprised when his second cup comes entirely from his own flask, accompanied by a little blush of apology.
While we eat, I share my plans for the deer – minus the skin, of course, which will be a surprise. I'm reluctant to tell Peeta that I mean to give so much meat away, especially as it's the first deer I've brought home for his table, and I wince a little as I mention sending a small amount to the Hawthornes, but Peeta's response couldn't be more positive.
"That's perfect, Katniss!" he says eagerly when I've finished. "Venison and soup bones for our families and friends – and Aunt Rooba will go crazy over the blood and organ meats. Butcher's kids grow up on the stuff, she says. The 'leftovers,' like baker's kids and stale bread."
"You're sure?" I say. "It's…well, our first deer, and –"
"And you're right: we should share it with everyone we love," he says quietly. There's a strange look on his face that makes my breath catch in my throat and my heart stumble a little. "Send as much as you like to town, just be sure to save plenty for yourself."
"Oh," I say, understanding his words now. Everyone we love. I need to make a parcel of venison for his girl too. How had I forgotten her? "Who –?" I begin, but he'll hardly tell me her name as easily as that, so I try another tactic. "How many in her family?" I ask. "Your girl – so I know how much meat to send."
He looks at me for a long moment, and the love and longing in his eyes make me ache. Not for me, not for me, not for me, chants a singsong voice in my head, like a madwoman or a taunting child.
"Just…send what you were planning on," he says hoarsely, "and…keep plenty for yourself. That'll take care of it."
Of course. He means to feed his girl – his sweetheart, corrects the mad voice in my head – and her family from his own family's parcel. The Mellarks are well able to afford the best butcher meat for themselves – they certainly don't need ten pounds of game – and he probably thinks of this girl as part of his family already. I decide to cut back all the portions a little bit, except for Peeta's, and make a separate parcel for her, to send along with the one for his family. They can deliver it from there; maybe even hand it to the girl or her parents along with their next bakery purchase, and it won't require dividing their own portion.
It's a good idea, if I do say so myself. It spares Peeta the embarrassment of sending the gift via Pollux and possibly having it rejected, and it prevents anyone from discovering his girl's identity. But it sits in my chest like a dull ache, and I can't begin to guess why.
My belly is pleasantly full with breakfast, and I focus on that instead as I go back out to carve my deer. By my calculations, it'll break down to a little less than a quarter for each of us – my family, Peeta's family, Rooba, and ourselves – with a few pounds reserved for the Hawthornes and Peeta's girl and her family. It's a long, labor-intense process, resulting in back, arm, and neck-aches and countless trails of sweat beneath my clothes, making my thermals cling and itch. I'm no butcher, just a practical hunter who knows where and how parts are connected. I worry that my cuts will make for inferior roasts and steaks, especially where Rooba's portion is concerned, but I remind myself that few, if any, of these people have tasted venison recently and, likelier than not, all of them will be overjoyed to receive a parcel of fine, free meat for their New Year's table, however it's carved.
When I've finished the bulk of the carving, with six surprisingly neat piles of prime young venison to show for it, I divide the deer's ribs between Peeta and his girl. I've never eaten venison ribs, but Granny Ashpet made them sometimes when Dad was little and he always said they were an underappreciated feast, with some of the most delicious meat on the animal. Finally, I wrap everything in plenty of butcher paper and label it carefully with a bit of charcoal that I suspect Peeta left for me when he took the breakfast dishes. Hawthornes, Butcher Shop, Bakery, Everdeens. I debate how to label the parcel for Peeta's girl and finally, perhaps a little spitefully, settle for being literal. Peeta's Sweetheart, I write in bold black letters. It's high time someone called her on her rejection of that sweet, gentle boy. Maybe it's not my place, but I'm his friend as well as his huntress, and he deserves much better than solitude with servants in the beautiful house he prepared just for her.
"This goes to the bakery," I tell Pollux, setting her parcel next to the one for Peeta's family. He reads the label then looks up at me, a small smile playing about his lips. I wonder if he knows who the girl is and finds my ignorance amusing.
I save the deer's head intact, to Pollux's shock and well-concealed nausea, and leave it, covered with a sheet of butcher paper, on the workbench. I don't have a plan for the antlers yet, but I wouldn't be able to work on them for a while anyway, and the brain keeps just as well inside the skull. There's no point in removing it till I've heard back from Hazelle on the dehairing the skin, and I've got plenty of work as it is with fleshing the hide.
I do that last of all, laying out the skin near the stable stove and kneeling on the floor beside it, sleeves pushed to my elbows as I carefully work away the fat and flesh, using my broadest, dullest blade and slow, shallow, meticulous strokes, so as not to mar the skin beneath. The flesh I set aside for burning as waste, but the fat I save in yet another bucket, this one for Hazelle. She renders it – any animal fat she can get hold of, really – into tallow, a hard white wax of sorts that can be made into candles, soap, salve, and dozens of other useful things. The oil I use for my bow is made of deer tallow, in fact. It's as good a wood preservative as any oil you can buy from a Merchant and much cheaper to boot. Hazelle used to make bow oil for my father from the fat on the deerskins he brought her, and once I started hunting with Gale, she did the same for us.
By the time I've peeled the last bit of flesh from my precious deerskin, I'm sweaty and sticky and impossibly sore from all the kneeling and stooping and tiny repetitive motions, but I still need to wash the skin and hang it for drying. Pollux provides a washtub of warm water and soap, as I've come to expect by now, but as I finish rinsing the skin he returns to me with a message on his slate, his first of the day: I'll finish cleaning up and hang the skin for you.
I shake my head automatically, despite how bone-weary and filthy I am. "It's okay," I tell him, lifting the dripping, leaden-heavy skin from the tub with trembling arms. "I'll just –"
To my astonishment, he whisks the wet skin out of my hands as though it weighs nothing at all and shakes his head firmly. Me, he mouths, hefting the skin a little, demonstratively, then he nods toward the house. Toward a hot bath and clean clothes and maybe even a nap.
Pollux has watched me handle dozens of rabbit skins in the past month. He even stretched some of them for me in the small frames he built, and all the deerskin requires right now is to be hung up for a thorough, day-long drying. He's so willing to help in any way, and this is little enough to entrust him with.
Not to mention, I'm too exhausted to refuse his offer. "Thank you," I moan in reply, on behalf of every muscle in my body, and all but run back to the house.
Processing the deer took so long that Peeta's in the kitchen finishing lunch when I return, but he drops everything to meet me in the mudroom and, ridiculously, hug me about the waist and swing me around in gleeful, giddy circles, making my feet fly out from under me. I give a little yelp of surprise, but the flush on my cheeks is a happy one, and I curl my arms around his neck without a care in the world for the hide-water they were elbow-deep in just a minute earlier.
"My huntress," he sings in a silly but surprisingly tuneful voice. The sort of voice that would never win a sweetheart with its beauty but could soothe a sick or sobbing child and lull them to sleep in his arms. "My clever, perfect, beautiful huntress," he croons against my temple.
I laugh at this foolishness, but his merriment is catching. My baker, I answer silently, pressing my face against the warm skin of his neck. My sweet, gentle, perfect boy.
"I thought a shower might be nice," he says, setting me down at last, though he still holds me close. "A shower, fresh clothes, and lunch on the sofa, followed by a nap?"
"Oh, you thought right," I groan, leaning my forehead against his chin. Something warm and feathery and familiar brushes the skin at my hairline, but I'm so tired and it feels so good, I don't pause to question what it might be.
"Did you save any deer fat, by chance?" he murmurs, a pleasant hum against my brow.
"Mmm," I reply drowsily. "In a bucket. I was going to send it to Hazelle for tallow, but keep as much as you like."
He chuckles softly and leans back, and my body protests it like the swift removal of a coverlet on a cold morning. "I only need a little," he tells me with a crooked smile. "Go shower before you fall asleep on me, and I'll have lunch ready when you're done."
I don't need to be told twice.
I'm out of my clothes almost before the bathroom door has shut behind me and unplait my hair as I switch on one blissfully warm spray after another, dipping back and forth between the rock walls of the magnificent cave shower. Peeta was exactly right; a shower is just what I need today. A bath would be cozier, but I need to rinse away the morning, and the pulse of the myriad little waterfalls is better than a balm on my sore muscles. I scrub my scalp and forearms and clean my nail beds over and over again, and for the first time ever, this incalculable luxury feels earned. A fit exchange for a deer hunter's labors: hauling and hanging and gutting; skinning and carving and fleshing. I wonder if the moon herself ever received such a reward at the end of a hunt: a cave of warm waterfalls and soap like the very essence of the sun to wash the grime of her kill from her silvery limbs.
I emerge from the shower into heated towels, waiting for me in Lavinia's patient hands. She wraps my hair atop my head before drying my body then pours out palmfuls of the spicy floral oil she often adds to my bath and massages it thoroughly into my neck, back, and arms. I don't know how she knew I was sore, but I'm so grateful for her ministrations that my eyes bead with tears.
She helps me into clean underthings, leggings, and a cream-colored sweater of silken-soft wool, and my warm, soothed muscles melt their way down to the kitchen. I find Peeta by the stove, deeply focused on scraping the last bit of something from a saucepan, but what he's working on doesn't look like my meal. There are baking sheets all along the worktop, each of them lined with waxed paper and holding four or five of Grandma Lydda's cookie cutters with a creamy brown substance inside, flecked with cornmeal, wheat berries, nuts, seeds, even little bits of fruit.
A month ago I would have been perplexed by such a sight, maybe even imagined the festive shapes to be puddings of some kind for our New Year's table or even his family's, but I know Peeta now, and his tender habits that make me cry in unguarded moments. I have a fair guess as to what these are – or at least, who they're intended for.
He hasn't seen me yet, intent as he is on pouring the last drops of his mixture into one final cookie cutter, so I come up behind him, stealthy as can be, and stand on tiptoe to rest my chin on his shoulder. "Is this lunch?" I tease.
He turns his head just enough to lean his cheek against my forehead, and he sighs – or maybe I do. "Hello to you too," he chuckles, a breathy sound with a catch in the middle. "It's breakfast, lunch, and dinner, actually, but not for us. These are suet cakes, for the birds."
Suet I know, a little, and it explains the creaminess of the mixture. When Dad was still alive, Mom saved every last bit of fat drippings from our meals and stored it in a jar on top of the stove, and once she had a jarful she'd mix it with flour, molasses, a precious pinch of cinnamon and maybe nutmeg too, and bits of whatever kinds of fruit Dad brought home, and make what she called a "suet pudding." A rich, earthy sort of spiced "cake" that warmed and filled your belly all at once, minus the costly fine sugar that made similar bakery cakes so alluring.
"Grandma Lydda called these 'bird cakes,'" Peeta goes on. "We made them when we were really little as a New Year's treat for the birds. Aunt Rooba would bring over a pound of lard and we would add nuts and seeds and crumbs from our stalest bread. Then, once the cakes hardened, Dad punched little holes in the tops and we hung them up in the apple tree for the birds to eat."
Nuts and fruits and seeds, molded into whimsical holiday shapes and held together with nourishing animal fat…everything a bird needs to sustain itself through the winter. No wonder they love this boy.
"Of course, these cakes are made with deer fat," he adds, and I feel his cheek tug up in a smile. "Rest assured: I only took a little from Hazelle's bucket. It just…seemed right to use that instead of drippings from bacon or sausage, especially at New Year's."
"Of course it was," I say, sinking down onto my heels to lay my cheek against his back. "You wanted that deer to feed everyone you love."
Peeta sets aside his saucepan and turns, almost abruptly, to cradle my arms in the curve of his and draw me close. "My huntress," he murmurs, his eyes dark and warm. "I told you all I wanted was your happiness, and you brought me a deer that will feed everyone, even my birds."
"I'm…your huntress," I say, but the words, obvious as they are, come haltingly to my lips. "I bring you game. It's…what I do."
"You bring me treasures," he corrects softly, and I wonder for a split second if he's figured out my plan for the deerskin, since he saw it briefly before breakfast. Or if he could possibly have guessed about the muffler, since I brought him rabbit after rabbit for the better part of a month.
Then again, as hard as I've worked on those skins, no one would ever call them – or a gift made from them – treasures.
"Lunch is in the living room," he says with a grin. "And your nap, if you like."
I follow him to the living room and nestle into a corner of the sofa while he portions out the meal that awaits us on the low table. A thick soup, rich with cream and bacon and roasted onion, with hearty chunks of potato and plump kernels of sweet corn in every savory spoonful. Cheese buns, crisp at their golden tops but still warm and doughy inside. Hot chocolate and bite-sized peanut butter cookies, perfect for dunking.
I forsake my corner of the sofa after a minute or two and inch over to rest my head on Peeta's shoulder as I sleepily spoon his delicious soup into my mouth, holding the bowl to my chest as the distance between my lap and my lips yawns ever wider. Drowsiness and hunger are fighting fiercely for control of my faculties, especially now that I'm in a soft seat with the quiet crackle of flames enticing me to slumber, and I don't protest when Peeta gently coaxes the bowl and spoon from my hands.
"You're asleep, sweetheart," he whispers, brushing a lock of damp hair back from my face where it lolls against his shoulder. "I'll save this, okay?" he assures me. "You sleep now, for as long as you like, and there will be lots more food when you wake up."
"Okay," I mumble, nuzzling my face against him like a sleepy fox kit. "Not too long, though."
I give a cross, sleepy whine when his shoulder eases out from beneath my cheek, but then my weary body is being maneuvered, with impossible tenderness, to lie on its side along the length of the sofa. My legs are lifted onto a cushion and a small pillow, sweet with pine, is tucked beneath my head.
"So good," I sigh, and then there is a coverlet of fur over me, soft and heavy and white as fresh snow, blanketing my small form from cheek to toes. "Thank you," I whisper, stretching out a hand to stay the companion who is tending to me with such care.
Warm, strong fingers close around mine, and I sleep.
I'm in the little shack by the lake with a lapful of rabbit skins, humming as I stitch them together in a large loop of dense winter fur. Another hums with me; a woman's voice in a sweet, soaring countermelody I've never heard before, and I turn to tell Lavinia how much I like this new tune of hers – but it's not Lavinia. The woman behind me is Seam-born, black-haired and startlingly beautiful, with clear olive skin and eyes the green-gold of a cougar's. Spread over a log on the floor between us is a fresh deerskin and she kneels beside it, removing the fat and flesh with deep, fluid strokes of a strange tool: a narrow strip of wood with a shallow blade embedded at its center, held between her strong tanned hands.
She ceases her humming but does not pause in her work. "Catkin," she says, "for whom do you sew these furs?"
An easy question, I think, however formally posed. "For my friend," I reply. "The boy who feeds and clothes me and keeps me warm. These furs will wrap his neck and keep him well and warm all through the winter."
She tips her head, considering, and something shifts – a flicker of green-gold light, a brief gust of wind – and my lap is filled with even more rabbit skins, only this time they form a wide pillow, which I am stuffing with silky handfuls of wild goose down.
Granny Ashpet's deerskin is on a frame now, stretched taut and nearly covering one wall of the tiny shack, and she stands barefoot before it, working the skin with a tool that looks like a branch or a long bone with a blunt, angled end. "Catkin," she says, "for whom did you pluck this down and sew these furs?"
Her question has the phrasing of a riddle in a fairy tale, but the answer is simple – deceptively so? I wonder. "For the one who shares my bed," I tell her. "Who holds me through the night, though we never touch, and warms me with the resonance of their heartbeat. This pillow will make their slumber as sweet and easeful as they have made mine, and perhaps bring them the sort of fairy tale dreams that their presence has brought me."
The world shifts again in a blink of my grandmother's feline eyes, and now I am on my hands and knees, fleshing my own deerskin, and Granny Ashpet sits cross-legged on the floor beside me, her lap draped with supple sheets of soft ivory leather. Two perfect doeskins, I realize; Granny Ashpet's bridal doeskins. She's sewing her wedding dress.
"Catkin," she says, and her voice is a whisper, an echo in the wind. "For whom do you flesh that deerskin?"
A third and final question, in the poetic manner of fairy tales, with the same answer as the first. "For my friend," I say again; a little bolder this time, oddly afraid that my response will not suffice. "To wrap him in warmth and comfort when he is sick or cold or afraid."
"The pale doe would have made a finer gift," she says. "You knew it well, and went to the woods for that very purpose. Why did you spare her?"
My grandmother is a skilled huntress with her own reasons for passing up game at one time or another. She knows the doe was beautiful – too beautiful to kill, as I told myself on more than one occasion – but there was more to my decision than that. Granny Ashpet knows all of this; knows all of my reasons, only too well, and tests me with her riddles and her eyes.
"For her mate," I admit softly. "A strong, handsome buck, as golden as the sun, who nuzzled her cheek and put fawns in her belly."
Her green-gold eyes flare strangely, like flickers of fairy-light over the lake at dusk. "Catkin," she says again, and her voice is less than a whisper now; less even than an echo. A soughing of wind through cattails, and it raises the hairs at the nape of my neck. "For whom do you flesh that deerskin?" she asks, and her hands still over her bridal doeskins for my reply.
"For a boy," I whisper. "A strong, handsome boy, as golden as the sun."
"For your mate," she breathes, in a voice like a dead tree groaning in the wind, and I shiver, but not in fear. "Do you wish him to nuzzle your cheek and put fawns in your belly?" she asks.
At these words I feel a kick deep inside the cradle of my hips, just below my navel. A tiny hoof, I wonder, or a dainty snout?
There is a fire in the shack's hearth now, and I see in its flames the image Granny Ashpet painted with her words. A strong, stocky boy with curls of creamed honey and a crown of antlers resting upon them. A gentle warrior who feeds birds and slays bears; who bakes and paints and tends to my humble needs as though I am the most precious being on this earth. I feel his warm, pale flesh beneath my cheek and hands as we lie together, skin to skin, nestled beneath a coverlet of white bear's fur.
I feel the fawn, or her brother, kick again, and the boy's chest hums beneath my cheek with quiet laughter at the gambols of his children. Twin fawns, I muse. This boy's dam was a twin, and his seed sprouted twins in my belly. One golden as the sun, the other silvery as the moon, and I want them – want this – so badly that I sob against my boy's chest and make the flame-vision shatter like an ice-crusted puddle at a heavy footfall.
"He is not mine," I whisper, as a chorus of taunting children and madwomen jeer in my head. Not for me, not for me, not for me…
Granny Ashpet shakes her head, and the look in her eyes is one of my father's own: affectionate exasperation. "Little Katniss," she says ruefully, "how can you strike the heart of a young buck without piercing either lung, and yet you cannot see what lies directly before you?"
"Katniss," says a soft voice. "Katniss, it's okay. You're okay."
My head lies on something solid and warm, and a gentle hand strokes my hair in slow, soothing motions. My eyes are wet and burning and my breath comes in short, shallow gasps. The patch of wool beneath my cheek is damp and cold.
I open my eyes to find myself much as I had been when I fell asleep: leaning against Peeta, but this time his arm is around me, cradling me to his chest as his other hand caresses my hair. "I came to check on you and you were crying," he says, and his face, hovering over mine, is drawn with concern. "Were you having a bad dream?"
"Not bad," I rasp, rubbing my eyes against his sweater in a feeble attempt to staunch the tears that seem to be spouting up directly from my heart. "It was…a strange dream," I tell him. "An impossible one."
But which is more impossible? wonders a voice that is more my grandmother's haunting sigh than the cruel chorus of children and madwomen who persist in tormenting me today. That you could conceive and carry twin fawns, or that Peeta Mellark would choose you for his mate? Both prospects are equally absurd, and yet in waking to possess neither when just heartbeats ago I had both, I'm struck by a wave of grief that forces the breath from my lungs in ragged sobs.
"Shh," Peeta soothes, pressing his cheek to my forehead, and he rocks me a little. I'm in his lap, I realize, and draw in my knees to lean fully against him. "What was it about?" he asks gently, curling an arm across my shins and tugging me a little deeper into the warm nest formed by his body. "Would it help to tell me?"
Furs and deerskins and fairy tale riddles, I think. New Year's gifts and bridal gowns and a marriage bed blanketed in bearskin.
"Baby fawns," I whisper.
His breath catches. "Oh, Katniss," he says, and I hear my grief in his voice. "Was it a doe? The deer you brought home…was she –?"
"No," I say quickly, sick to my stomach at the thought. I'd rather die of hunger than shoot a doe now. "I-I saw the doe first," I sniffle. "I went out looking for her, even, b-but…I let her go."
"So…the fawns are okay?" he says hopefully, handing me his handkerchief. I feel a little bad for him, even overwrought as I am. He doesn't have a clue what my dream was about and is trying to console me on the basis of the tiny threads I've given him.
"The fawns are g-gone," I choke, wiping clumsily at my nose and eyes with the soft square of cloth. "They were inside me – m-my babies – stretching and kicking…a-and happy," I realize. The fawns were happy, nestled in my belly where I lay against my mate, and able to hear and feel us both.
"Oh," Peeta sighs. His voice is no longer sorrowful but awestruck. "You were pregnant with fawns, Katniss?" he breathes. "That…that might be the most beautiful thing I've ever heard. No wonder you cried to wake up from it."
I sit up a little, frowning at him. I'd expected a laugh, maybe a remark about how bizarre the dream was; not this breathless blend of awe and fascination. I'd think Peeta was making fun of me, but I know him better than that now, and even if I didn't, there's no teasing or mockery in his eyes. Just softness and a sort of naked longing – a hunger, almost – that tugs at the hollow of my belly.
"Beautiful?" I say in disbelief. "For me to be pregnant with baby deer?"
"Mmm," he says, closing his eyes for a moment as though savoring the thought. "You being pregnant would be a stunning sight in any case," he murmurs, smiling down at me, "but the fawns give it an incredible fairy tale element. I'll paint it for you someday, and then you'll see."
I stare back at him, confused and a little pitying. I've long suspected that Peeta wants children, but apparently the urge is so strong that he finds the notion of his huntress pregnant with game a beautiful thing. It must be all the talk of his sweetheart; of New Year's and kissing boughs and cookies.
I want to reassure him; to tell him that his girl will marry him one day soon and give him a houseful of curly-haired children to cling to his knees and squeal with delight over his beautifully frosted cookies, but my tongue refuses to form the words. "You're going to be an amazing father, Peeta," I say instead. "Your sweetheart is a very lucky girl."
He shakes his head with a sad smile. "It's me who'll be the lucky one," he says, brushing a stray tear from my cheek with his thumb. "If I ever win her heart."
I think of the choice venison I carved and parceled so carefully for that girl and wonder why the prospect of helping Peeta win the sweetheart he's loved for so long makes me feel like crying all over again.
"Supper will be another fifteen minutes or so," he says, brightening a little. "But if you're feeling up to it, you could come and help me fill the New Year's baskets."
Of course. Peeta will have finished his holiday baking while I slept, and the baskets for our families are going to town with Pollux in the morning.
I follow him to the kitchen to find the worktop covered with plates of cookies and breads and the table set with four baskets, each of which already holds a wrapped cake of some kind and a small covered crock. "Everybody gets ginger cake and custard," he explains happily, "and we'll add snow ice cream in the morning, but the rest is up to you. There's one for my family and yours, plus Aunt Rooba and the Hawthornes."
I look up in surprise and his cheeks mottle with a painful blush. "I thought…since you were sending them meat and things," he says fumblingly, "but if you think they won't…if it would upset them –"
"No," I assure him quickly. "It's…really generous of you. They'll appreciate it."
Gale might be too proud for charity, but Hazelle has three other mouths to feed, including tiny four-year-old Posy, who barely knows what sugar tastes like. A basket of rich New Year's sweets, on top of a parcel of venison and fat for precious tallow, might break Hazelle's heart, and she'll go half-crazy trying to repay Peeta for it, but she won't turn it down. It'll be worth the mountain of debt to watch her boys stuff their sunken faces with cookies and cake for one glorious day.
Peeta and I each take charge of two baskets and he urges me to pick as many things as I like for my family and the Hawthornes. He's made small loaves of several of my favorite breads to choose among, and I make sure both of my baskets get two different kinds, plus a little parcel of my beloved cheese buns and an assortment of festive cookies. I give Mom and Prim the ones I pressed out myself, that snug wonderful morning in the kitchen with Peeta, and the Hawthornes the handsomer cookies, shaped and frosted by Peeta's skillful hands. If we're already overloading them with gifts of food, said food might as well be pretty, and little Posy will fall in love with Peeta's snowman butter cookies on sight.
Supper is simmering in a large covered skillet at the front of the stove, and Peeta playfully swats my hand away when I try to peek beneath the lid, only to lift it himself and bathe our faces in a cloud of savory steam, rich with wine and cider spices and the succulent aroma of crisp-fried chicken. "This is my Grandma Brognar's recipe," he says. "Grandma Elske. She was a quiet, colorless sort of woman married to a big brute of a butcher, and according to Aunt Rooba, this was one of about three dishes she made that her husband didn't throw back at her with a bellow."
Peeta rarely talks about his mother's side of the family, and I'm beginning to understand why. "They sound charming," I reply, and he chuckles dryly.
"Grandpa Brognar's own rage did him in, they say," he goes on. "Aunt Rooba stood up to him one day; told him to stop knocking around Mom and her brother, and gave him a wallop to the jaw for good measure. She was thirteen, I think," he says, "and Mom and Uncle Luka about nine. The shock of it burst a blood vessel in his head and he dropped like a stone. Died a couple days later, and by all accounts, nobody was too broken up over it."
I raise my brows at this account. Peeta's grandfather makes his mother sound downright pleasant – and makes me wonder how on earth Peeta and his brothers ended up so nice and even-tempered.
This must show on my face somehow, because Peeta gives a genuine laugh then and continues, "We're all Mellark, for the most part: steady, mild, hard-working baker stock – boring, really," he chortles. "Luka's got a little of his namesake in him," he admits. "It's probably why he's Mom's favorite. But at the end of the day, even he doesn't have the Brognar temper. There's too much of Dad in all of us," he says with a wink.
I think of the baker, strong and gentle and generous, and consider telling Peeta that such a heritage is no bad thing. "So Grandma Elske calmed her angry brood with this?" I tease. "It must be some amazing chicken."
I say this by way of angling for a taste, and Peeta accordingly fishes out a wing and flakes off a forkful of white meat and golden batter, which he raises to my mouth. The bite melts on my tongue, not unlike a piece of bacon, except the chicken batter is slightly sweet, with a subtle tanginess and a whisper of cider, all of which combine to make me moan with pleasure.
"Well, she was a butcher's wife," he reminds me with a grin. "Grandma Elske could make grown men cry with her steaks and roasts, even if she started with the oldest, toughest cut of beef at the back of her icebox. And the secret to her chicken was the simmer," he confides. "After you fry it crisp, you drain the fat and drippings to make your gravy, then you put the chicken back in the skillet and simmer it with a little wine."
"And where does the cider come in?" I ask, stealing another pinch of batter from the wing.
"From the fact that the girl I live with loves cider," Peeta says quietly. "And I've yet to add it to anything that didn't turn out incredible."
This time it's my turn to blush.
We opt to eat in the kitchen while we finish filling our baskets, and most of the meal is devoured while hovering at the worktop: greedy stolen forkfuls of fried chicken, small red-skinned potatoes and carrots tossed with butter and garlic, and a heady golden gravy that makes me whimper at my first taste, which we mop up with slices of this morning's rosemary-cheese bread.
Peeta watches as I carefully select each item for my family's basket and the Hawthornes', and after a minute or two of this I feel his merriment fade. "Katniss," he says softly, drawing my eyes, and the expression in his is a heartbreaking combination of apology and regret. "Do you want to go with Pollux tomorrow and spend the holiday with your family?" he asks. "I didn't think – I should have offered sooner. Would…" His voice catches. "Would you like to go home for New Year's?"
This is the first time since the night I told him I'd stay that the thought of going back to town has even entered my mind, and the tug in my heart is related to his choice of words, not the alternative he's offering. "I thought I was home," I whisper. "But if you want –"
"Stay," he whispers back, coming forward to take my hands in his. "Stay with me, Katniss. Always."
New Year's Eve is a bustling day in Twelve, full of cooking and cleaning and last-minute holiday preparations, and it's looking to be an unusual one here, as I discover when Lavinia comes down to breakfast with me. Peeta's made both her and Pollux welcome in the house at all times, and no less during meals, but they prefer to keep their distance for the most part – especially, for some reason, when Peeta and I are together – and since I've been here, they've never joined us for a meal.
Pollux is already in the kitchen when we arrive, dressed warmly for his sleigh journey this morning and settling down at the table with a plate of sausages, eggs, and griddle-toast and a hearty bowl of oatmeal. "Good," Peeta says over his shoulder from the stove. "You're all here." He dishes up heaping portions for Lavinia and me and finally for himself, then we join Pollux at the table.
The four of us have never all been in a room together, though I know the three of them have been, countless times before, and it's a little bizarre for me. I've never been with both Pollux and Lavinia at the same time – I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen them within a stone's throw of each other – and a silly part of me has wondered if they even exist in each other's presence.
"Tomorrow is New Year's Day," Peeta announces, his bright eyes dancing. "Since it's the first New Year's we're all spending together, I thought it might be nice to share some of my family's traditions – unless, of course –"
"I think I can guarantee we'll love your family's traditions," I interrupt, to grins and nods from Pollux and Lavinia.
"Good," Peeta says again, a little shyly this time, with just a hint of a blush tinging his cheekbones. "I'll explain them as we go along, and if any of you don't like what we're doing, or you want to do something else, just let me know, okay?"
I let Pollux and Lavinia answer this time, knowing full well that if a Mellark New Year's is anything at all like an ordinary day with Peeta, I'll love every minute of it. Pollux shakes his head, which I've discovered is his way of dismissing a question that's too obvious to answer, and Lavinia quirks one dark brow, which can mean just about anything, but Peeta seems to translate it easily enough in any situation.
"Okay," he affirms with a grin. "All you need to know right now is that New Year's is one of very few days that the bakery doesn't open, and as such it's one of even fewer days when baker's kids come to breakfast in their pajamas."
I envision a small, chubby Peeta in thermals, red-cheeked and swinging his slippered feet beneath the table, and wonder what this translates to in Peeta at sixteen.
"When you're a baker's son, you learn to get dressed before your eyes are open and be in the kitchen before you've tied your shoes," he explains, his blush deepening. "But on New Year's we didn't have to be up for anything but breakfast, let alone get dressed for work, so we tended to linger in pajamas as long as possible – which is Marko's fault, really," he adds with a chuckle. "He was always responsible for getting me and Luka up and dressed, and on days when he didn't have to, he'd get himself up and leave us to our own devices. Once he saw that meant eating New Year's breakfast in our pajamas, he followed suit."
"So does this mean you want us in pajamas at breakfast?" I ask, finally catching his hint.
Beside me, Pollux snorts with laughter and Peeta turns crimson. "No – I mean…it's not that I want that," he clarifies hastily. "I just…you can – if you want. I mean –" He blushes, somehow, deeper still, all the way to the collar of his sweater. "You can wear anything anytime, of course, but…at New Year's, well…it's tradition."
I shrug, uncertain as to what all the fussing and stammering was about. "Okay," I say. "That's easily done. What else?"
Peeta smiles mischievously. "The rest you'll find out tomorrow," he tells us all. "But before you go to bed tonight, I need each of you to leave a shoe and stocking on the porch."
I'd expected this, or some variation thereof, but the instruction still tugs up the corners of my mouth in a smile as slow and irrepressible as sunrise. Peeta means to give us – three grown people, all of whom work for him in some capacity – coal and sweets on New Year's morning, like a coddled brood of Merchant children.
It's ridiculous and unnecessary and utterly adorable. If he treats his "servants," like this, I wonder, what on earth will he do for his children?
"Anyway, eat up," Peeta says cheerfully, gesturing at our plates. "Pollux will be leaving for town shortly, of course, so if anyone wants anything from the shops before New Year's, let him know."
Peeta and I finish our meal quickly and head outside with his two largest mixing bowls to collect fresh snow for the ice cream we're sending to town. We make several batches, using so much cream and sugar that I can barely breathe at the thought of the expense. There's one with nutmeg and vanilla, the first kind Peeta ever made for me and still my favorite; another with cinnamon and ground white chocolate, drizzled throughout with icy threads of honey; one with swirls of custard and crumbles of fresh ginger cake; and still another with splashes of cold cider and bits of honey-roasted almonds.
These we divide into half-gallon crocks and squeeze two into each basket, which are already packed to capacity with bread, cake, and cookies and topped, in true Peeta-fashion, with large wrapped bricks of shortbread, painted with the family name of the recipients and patterned with pine boughs and ribbons and little red birds. It's a good thing Pollux and Lavinia have been taking extra firewood to town all along: between the New Year's baskets – each of which must weigh nearly thirty pounds – and my parcels of venison, there'll barely be room in the sleigh for Pollux himself.
I run up to my hobby room to retrieve the letters I wrote last night before bed, to add them to the baskets for my family and the Hawthornes, and on the way back I meet Peeta coming out of his art room with a large flat envelope in his hands, about as big as a notebook. "These are for your mom and Prim," he says, carefully sliding out the contents to show me. "They're just sketches, but I'm including a note: whichever one they like best, I'll turn into a painting for their house."
He places the sketches in my hands and I gasp at the image topping the pile: a small figure in a hooded coat skating on the lake, as seen from the window of Peeta's art room. It's the sketch I saw on my first day here, or one very much like it, drawn on fine heavy paper and delicately painted here and there with splashes of color. Winter-blue sky; a red coat trimmed with white fur. Snowbanks dusted with a diamond-like shimmer. A black speck – a chickadee – perched on the back of a wrought-iron bench.
I've never seen anything so beautiful in all my life.
My trembling fingers discover half a dozen more sketches behind it, deftly captured and belonging in a fairy tale – the cold, breathtaking winter sort that Lydda Mellark told her boys around the fire. Katniss building a snowman. Katniss throwing snowballs. Katniss making a snow angel. Katniss on snowshoes. Katniss caressing a pony's broad cheek. Katniss feeding birds.
"I wanted them to see how happy you are," he says softly, tracing a fingertip around the image of me on my knees in the snow, surrounded by sparrows pecking at the breadcrumbs I'd brought them. "That your life isn't a desperate search for food and warmth anymore."
I look up at this boy, the very embodiment of food and warmth, in whose house I've never wanted for anything. This boy who's clearly stolen time from his much-needed naps to paint these beautiful little pictures of me, just to show my family that I'm all right here. "These are perfect, Peeta," I whisper, stroking each tiny painted sparrow in turn. "They'll love it."
He smiles, the sun-bearing smile that melts my insides like a honeypot's, and the words fall out before I can stop them. "Would you paint something for me sometime?" I ask.
I wince at the question but Peeta's smile only softens. "Maybe I already have," he says mysteriously, brushing my cheek with a fingertip. "And of course I will. Again and again."
We go downstairs and retrieve our coats, then the four of us each take a basket and head out front to finish loading the sleigh. "Be aware, Pollux: you may be reviving a centuries-lost Father Christmas legend today," Peeta teases as he maneuvers the Hawthornes' basket onto the floor of the sleigh, alongside their parcel of venison and the tallow bucket.
He's not far wrong. Pollux is much younger than Father Christmas in any of the stories I've heard, but a merry, bearded man driving a pony-drawn sleigh through the district on New Year's Eve is bound to bring a spark of hope to even the poorest, most desperate household.
"He's taking extra cookies," Peeta tells me quietly, indicating a large paper sack on the floor of the sleigh that I hadn't noticed him packing. "Not enough for everybody in town, of course, but there should be plenty for any Seam kids who might see him at the Hawthornes'."
I fist my hands at my sides and refuse to let myself hug this boy, for fear that if I do, I might never let him go. Why are you so good? my heart cries, perhaps for the hundredth time. Letting me send meat to the Hawthornes was more than enough, but he gave them a basket full of bread and sweets and snow ice cream besides – and now cookies for their starving neighbors' children. Peeta knows he can't feed everyone, but that doesn't stop him from helping the all the ones that he can, be they chipmunks or sparrows or hollow-eyed Seam kids.
"Thank you," I choke, nudging his shoulder with mine in a feeble alternative to a hug, and Peeta leans into the touch, pressing his cold cheek to my temple.
"It's the very least I can do," he murmurs. "Next time we'll send some flour or firewood."
I don't know whether he means the next trip to town or next New Year's Eve, but the generosity of both options prickles at the corners of my eyes. "Careful," I warn with a shaky laugh. "The Hawthornes are proud people, and they can be pretty aggressive about repaying their debts."
Peeta chuckles gently. "I've had a certain amount of success lately when it comes to canceling such debts," he reminds me. "I think these proud Hawthornes and I might be able to come to an understanding."
I look up at him, considering. He's done something, I realize, or will soon; something significant to help Gale's family. I wonder what it is, or if I even want to know.
He grins at my scowl and strokes the tip of my nose with a gloved fingertip. "So worried," he teases. "Are all Seam folk as passionate as you about refusing good things that are freely given?"
"Worse, probably," I admit, making him laugh outright.
Pollux drives off into the crisp winter morning, his pockets filled with sugar cubes for Rye and the katniss-patterned sleigh bursting at its seams with gifts, and the three of us remaining return to the house, Peeta to the kitchen and Lavinia and I to the living room, to string our cranberry garland for the apple tree. I finished my own sewing several nights ago and haven't kept company with Lavinia in longer than that, owing to the secret nature of the pillow project, so it's a doubly pleasant activity.
We sit on either side of the sofa with yards and yards of string between us and a needle on each end and thread berry after deep red berry toward the center. I start the humming this time with a jaunty folk tune – a favorite of my father's – only to break off abruptly when I realize it's the same song I was humming in my dream yesterday afternoon. The song Granny Ashpet hummed with me as she fleshed her bridal doeskins.
The same song that has been lingering in my head for weeks, like a copperhead in a mossy shadow:
How lovely you are, my darling
How beautiful, my love
Your eyes are like doves
Your teeth are like sheep
Your mouth is a scarlet ribbon
Lavinia makes a small sound and looks up from her work, perceiving my distress without me having to say or do anything to indicate it, but I shake my head in reply, not unlike Pollux dismissing foolish questions, and say simply, "Not that one. I'll pick a different song."
Stringing the garland takes a leisurely hour, punctuated here and there with sips of the cinnamon tea Peeta brings us, and when it's finished we all bundle up and trek out to the garden, juggling the yards of red berries between us. The birds are out in full force, thanks to the breakfast Peeta brought them earlier, and more than a few linger, tiny heads cocked to one side, to watch the three strange humans wrapping their dormant tree with fresh fruit.
It's a breathtaking sight: the sprawling tangle of dark branches that is Peeta's ancient apple tree, dusted with snow and draped with a garland of precious berries. Ripe fruit, red as rubies, on a slumbering tree. It feels like something from an old tale; something startling and a little magical. A portent of something wonderful, and not merely a tree full of delighted birds by morning.
"Bird cakes?" I ask Peeta. "Or do they have to wait till tomorrow?"
"Now is fine," he answers, his face downright gleeful at the prospect. "I thought we might tie some here and some in the trees along the edge of the woods. But if you don't want –"
But by then I'm halfway back to the house, intent on suet cakes shaped like birds and rabbits and pine trees. Peeta's already threaded them with loops of sturdy red yarn, and the three of us each take a baking sheet out to the backyard and hang their precious contents from low branches, taking care to leave several in the garland-bedecked apple tree.
The bird feast being assembled to eye-catching perfection, I turn for the stable. It's a little early for lunch still, and I need to check my deerskin and steal a little butcher paper to parcel up Peeta's muffler and my companion's pillow, but I've barely taken four steps in that direction when Lavinia gives a squawk of dismay and hurtles forward to bar my progress.
"What's wrong?" I ask her, perplexed. "I'm just going to the workshop –"
She shakes her head firmly, mittened hands held wide to stop me, and Peeta comes alongside her, chuckling as though at some secret joke. "I forgot to mention," he says. "You're not under any circumstances to go in the stable today. Pollux's orders."
"What?" I exclaim. This makes even less sense than Lavinia leaping into my path. "I need to work on my deerskin," I tell them both. "I need to make sure it's drying properly, and –"
"Pollux said it'll be fine till tomorrow," Peeta assures me, though his eyes are mirthful and a little too knowing for my comfort. "You can take it easy today; stay in the house with us and eat cookies."
I look from him to Lavinia, who is nodding emphatically, and decide that they've both gone mad. The deerskin might be all right without attention till tomorrow, but I absolutely need that butcher paper today. I scowl stubbornly, gearing up for a fight, and decide to use Peeta's own words against him. "Everything in this house belongs to me, right?" I challenge. "Does that exclude what's in the stable?"
"No, Katniss," Peeta says, suddenly serious, cupping my shoulders in his gloved hands. "Everything in this house, this stable, this garden – these grounds, if you want to be precise – belongs entirely to you."
He pauses a moment, letting this sink in, and I barge on, "Then why–?"
He laughs, all somberness forgotten. "A few things don't belong to you yet," he says meaningfully, tipping his head in the direction of the workshop.
I shake my head, completely at a loss now, and Peeta laughs again, even harder this time. "This will all make sense very soon," he says. "And I promise: your deerskin and your knives and things – everything will be just fine till tomorrow. But until then, you can't go in the stable," he concludes with a note of genuine apology.
"Fine," I huff. "Then can one of you go in and get me a roll of butcher paper?"
Peeta and Lavinia exchange glances and shrugs, then Peeta walks away, toward the back door that leads to the workshop. I strongly suspect that he left me with silent Lavinia on purpose. Even if she could speak, she wouldn't divulge whatever it is that's going on in the stable, and she definitely won't take out her slate for something as minor as this.
I give her a glare of frustration and she smiles innocently in reply. I decide that she most definitely had sisters back in the Capitol and was quite possibly the exasperating youngest of them.
Peeta returns, a full roll of butcher paper in hand, and exchanges it for my empty baking sheet. "This is what you wanted, right?" he says. It's his turn to be confused, and I relish the moment. After all, two can play this game of holiday secrets.
"Yes," I say firmly. "One roll of butcher paper. Are there any other new restrictions I need to know about?"
Peeta looks at Lavinia and they pretend to contemplate this. "Not that come to mind," he says.
"Good," I reply, and stride purposefully back to the house, leaving them both behind – and hopefully, as perplexed as I was a minute ago.
I'm not angry, of course; not really. Confusing as this decision of Pollux and Peeta's may be, I know they mean no harm by it. Pollux may enjoy teasing me at every opportunity, but he knows how much the deerskin means to me and would never compromise its care, let alone for a foolish reason. I just can't, for the life of me, think why he'd refuse to let me see it, nor can I figure out what Peeta meant about things in this house that belong to me, but not yet.
The muffler is easy enough to wrap, and I write Peeta's name across the top, as neatly as I can, with a pen from my desk. The pillow, however, large and soft as it is, presents a bit of challenge, and after several crumpled lengths of butcher paper and plenty of cursing, I tuck it back inside Dad's juniper sweater and slip it under the bed again. My best option is to simply leave the pillow on my companion's side of the bed for them to find tomorrow night. Wrapping it would be a waste of time on both our ends, and I can still use those crumpled sheets of paper for parceling game.
It's lunchtime now, or nearly, but before I head downstairs I go to my drawer to pick a stocking to leave out for "Father Christmas" tonight. When Dad was alive, the choice was an easy one, but now I have an array of fine socks to choose from, ranging from short, knobby-woven ones to downy woolen ones that reach above my knees. And among Merchant families, at least, sock length is a clear indicator of one's New Year's expectations. It's why some Merchant kids put out festively trimmed, oversized socks: a stocking must be filled, they reason, and the larger the stocking, the more sweets and toys will go inside.
Peeta will fill my stocking with impossibly generous things; I know this already, but there's no reason to be greedy about it. So I choose one of the socks I brought from home: a typical Seam sock, gray-green and much mended, worn in years ago by my father. If Dad were alive, this is the sort of stocking I would put on our doorstep, and it will do just as well here.
I bend to pick up one of my school shoes from its home by the fireside, reasoning that if coal will be left in said shoe, the older the better, but I pause before leaving the room, my eyes drawn to the empty nightstand on my companion's side of the bed. There are only three people living in this house besides myself, and each one of them will put out a shoe and stocking tonight – but that doesn't seem sufficient, somehow. Doesn't seem to account for my companion.
I'm not the only person here who knows about my night visitor – if no one else, Lavinia is aware of the stranger who shares my bed – but I wonder if I might be the only one who truly cares for them. I've made my companion a New Year's gift already; why shouldn't I fill a stocking for them as well? After all, Dad's sock has a mate. I can go out to the woods after lunch and collect pinecones and other little treasures to fill it; maybe even freeze a few "buttons" of Peeta's honey, like the crystallized honeycomb-sweets Dad always gave us, and parcel them in a makeshift packet of butcher paper.
I'm halfway to the door with both socks in hand and my shoe in the crook of my elbow when I pause again, this time at thoughts of Peeta. Peeta takes such care to serve everyone else before himself, and maybe he won't bother with his own shoe and stocking. Of a certain, he won't put the same degree of thought and care into his own "gifts" as he does the ones for Pollux, Lavinia, and myself.
Resolved, I tuck a sock into each hip pocket and creep across the hallway into Peeta's bedroom. There's a pair of heavily scuffed black shoes sitting by the fireplace: his bakery shoes, I realize. The boy who wraps me in furs and deerskin and the warmest, finest clothes still wears his father's gloves, a worn old stocking cap, and his work shoes from home. Stout, unhandsome things with reinforced toes – the irony of which clenches my heart like a fist.
I deliberately take the right shoe, the one belonging to the foot Peeta lost to the Games. I'll fill it with fragrant pine chips and leave it outside his bedroom door tonight, along with a stocking which, like my companion's, I'll fill with honey-sweets and foraged things. I'm my father's daughter, after all, and Dad showed me time and again that the woods could be a treasure-trove in any season. They won't be Merchant-quality treats, of course, but they'll be heartfelt; chosen or made expressly for the recipients. Not the dregs left over from gifts purchased for others and given half-heartedly to oneself.
I hide the shoe in my hobby room and go down to join Peeta in the kitchen for lunch, but I can barely sit still during the meal and I certainly can't focus on anything but my new plan. After about five minutes of this Peeta laughs softly, gets up from the table, and goes to the cupboard to get down my lunch pouch. "Just go," he tells me with a chuckle as he quickly parcels up the remainder of my meal, pouring the soup into a little crock, wrapping the bread and cheese in waxed paper, even putting my cider – and an extra ladleful from the kettle – into a flask to take along.
"I can't begin to guess why, but you're ready to burst," he says, slipping two iced gingerbread rabbits into the pouch before closing the flap. "Do you need your bow?"
Even though I've lived with him for a month now, Peeta's unexpected displays of utter sweetness never fail to knock the breath from my body. "No," I reply gratefully, "but a few knives would be good, and my foraging bag."
"Give me two minutes," he says, and hurries to the back door. It's an opportunity I hadn't expected, and I don't waste it. I go quickly into the pantry and take two of the honey jars – the robust, fruity amber kind and my favorite, the clear pale gold one that tastes of clover blossoms – and stuff them into my lunch pouch. The heat from my meal will keep them from crystallizing, and I can make honey buttons in the woods, just by pouring droplets of honey on a patch of ice or firm snow and letting the cold solidify them.
I'm in my new coat and boots when Peeta returns, my foraging bag and an assortment of hunting knives in hand. "I wasn't sure," he says apologetically. "Will these work?"
I don't know exactly what I'll need, so really, his selection is perfect, and I tell him so. "I'll be back soon," I promise. "I just need to get a few last things before tomorrow."
I enter the woods to the sounds of merry birdsong. Clearly, Peeta's gifts are already much appreciated by his feathered companions, many of whom are clustered about his suet cakes, pecking up greedy beakfuls of fruits and seeds and rich deer fat. An exchange? I ask them silently as I pass. Will you lead me to woodland treasures to serve as gifts for that sweet boy, and for my other friend?
I try to look at the woods with my father's eyes, seeking tools and toys and treats, not merely food and fuel for the fire, and I begin filling the socks straightaway with small findings. Two perfect pinecones here, a blue jay's bright, barred tail feather there. Pine needles, I think, cutting a branch of the greenest ones I can find. They're less tender and palatable this time of year, though they'll still make a robust, nourishing tea – and, more to the point, they'll smell wonderful. My companion, at least, seems to enjoy the scent, if their reluctance to return the pine needle pillow that I put on their side of the bed weeks ago is any gauge.
You smell like winter, Katniss, murmurs Peeta's voice in my head. Like leather and wool and pine and snow and game. You smell amazing.
I blush a little at the memory. I know Peeta was only trying to make me feel better, concerned as I was about smelling unpleasant after a hunt, but at least he's willing to pretend to like the smell of pine – and now that I think of it, he burns a lot of pine wood in the house, so he can't be all that opposed to the scent. He can always just burn his portion of needles if he doesn't want to keep them.
I hastily drink up the last of my soup and rinse out the crock with some snow, then I pluck the needles from their branch and pack the crock full with them. I'll divide and wrap the needles in something else when I get back; a scrap of fabric, knotted at the top, to make a little sachet of sorts that the recipients can use however they like.
Pine bark, I think next, and make precise, eager cuts into the trunk of the tree that gave me its needles. A few strips of the soft inner bark will make a tasty snack, however strange to a Merchant's palate, and I soak them in cider for a little extra flavor while building a small fire with my needle-stripped branch and the precious matchsticks I always keep in a pocket of my foraging bag.
I split the ends of a couple of branches to improvise toasting forks, and while the aromatic bark strips dry and darken over the flames, I hunker down beside my little fire, clean my soup spoon with snow, and use it to drizzle small dollops of both kinds of honey over the expanse of snow surrounding me. It's plenty cold today, especially for sitting in the snow, and the honey buttons solidify slowly, turning a cloudy pale gold, as I rotate my pine bark strips, taking care that they toast evenly without burning or catching fire at their tips.
I pronounce both treats done at the same time and bolt down the last of my bread and cheese so I can use its waxed paper wrap for the honey buttons. The pine bark is no longer sticky in the least, so I simply tuck it into a pocket of my foraging bag. I'll cut it into bite-sized pieces once I get back and make little butcher-paper sacks of it for both Peeta and my companion to enjoy.
My search for a small piece of pine to split into chips for Peeta's shoe turns up a fallen branch of what might be maple; straight and sturdy, a little thinner than my wrist. I'm not skilled at woodwork in the least, but what comes to mind at the sight of it requires little craftsmanship. I cut the branch down to about a foot in length, then slice away the bark as smoothly as I can and hollow out a shallow bowl on one end with my smallest knife. The result is a crude cooking spoon, but I know Peeta will appreciate it. He perceives even the smallest things I do for him as rare, precious gifts, though I can't begin to imagine why. I'm happy to help this sweet, generous boy however I can, and what I do is nothing special.
I find more pretty pinecones and feathers as I turn for home, but the true treasure of the day is my very last discovery: a bird's nest, blown from its tree and resting in the snow like a perfect bowl of twigs and down. It makes me think of my bird dream; of the nest of my bed of furs and deerskin. Of the nest of Peeta's hands, cupping my small feathered body to his chest.
Of his strong arms and warm, musky skin, so sweet and soft beneath my cheek.
I pick up the nest, blushing hotly, and dust the snow from its base with one gloved hand. This will make a fine gift for my companion. I'll put it on their nightstand this evening with a few honey buttons inside, and if they don't take it with them in the morning, I can leave subsequent treats or little gifts there too. A perfect bowl of twigs and down, I think. Where better to leave presents for the companion who exists only in my bedroom of fur and pine and wild rock?
I place the nest carefully in my foraging bag and make my way to the back of the stable – not to snoop, of course, but to borrow the axe and chopping block for a few minutes. I don't have the arm strength to swing the axe properly, but I only need a few quick blows to break my pine branch into chips that will fit inside Peeta's shoe.
I manage exactly two shallow swings before Peeta comes around the corner of the building, a flask in hand, and I abandon the axe and pine fragments to grab hold of my foraging bag and hide it behind my back. "You can't be back here!" I sputter, furious at being caught so near to completing my secret errand. "It's…New Year's surprises!"
Peeta smiles, a radiant, foolish smile that he has no right to wear when I'm shrieking at him like an angry blue jay. "You mean, this wasn't all some elaborate scheme to get you into the workshop?" he teases. "Anyway, I saw nothing – except your little red hood coming back through the woods, and I thought you might be getting cold."
He sets the flask on the chopping block alongside my clumsily cut pieces of pine. "Come in soon," he urges me with a wink. "Father Christmas doesn't come till everyone's in bed, you know."
It's just broaching sundown – maybe 4:00 – but his playful warning still tugs at my scowl, threatening to turn it into a smile. I wait till he turns away to pick up the flask and find it filled with his incredible hot chocolate, brightened with a whimsical splash of sweet mint – most likely a peppermint from the sweet-shop, melted into the mix.
This boy will father the pleasantest children imaginable, I decide. Not only will they inherit his sweet nature – and be well-fed beyond imagining – but they'll find it impossible to get angry at him, even when he's being exasperating. I wonder if I'll fill their stockings with pinecones and honey buttons, with colorfully patched sock puppets and stick-dolls with smiling seed-pod faces.
I hide out in my hobby room before supper to finish preparing the stockings for Peeta and my companion. I'd half forgotten that I no longer live with Mom and Prim, and as such, scraps of cloth – such as I need for my pine needle sachets – are in short supply. I could ask Lavinia, I suppose; she's bound to have something that would serve, but in a strange way, I don't want her to know about this. Whether it's pride or embarrassment or something else entirely, I don't want anyone but me to have a hand in these stockings.
As I contemplate a solution, I realize I already have something that would work for containing the pine needles, though I hesitate for a long moment before retrieving it – or them, rather – from what has slowly become my own drawer of precious things. The family plant book lives there, along with Prim's letters and the little notes Peeta leaves me on nap days – I feel compelled to save them, though I can't understand why – my parents' wedding photo, the spile Peeta gave me on my second night here, still tied with its red ribbon…and my parents' handkerchiefs. Dad's is large and red and serviceable; a workingman's pocket handkerchief, while Mom's is made of white linen and edged in fine violet lace, with a cluster of beautifully embroidered sweet cicely blossoms in one corner and her initials in an elegant curling script. A.E. – from the time when she was Alyssum Ebberfeld, not Alys Everdeen. A Merchant's daughter, not a miner's wife.
Precious though they are to me, I have nothing else to present the needles in, so it will have to be the handkerchiefs. I lay them flat on my desk, sprinkle both with a small heap of pine needles – Dad's, of course, can hold substantially more – then lift the corners and tie them snugly with leftover brown thread from my sewing projects, forming two neat pine bundles.
I debate briefly over which sachet to give to whom. Peeta knows my mother and will recognize the handkerchief as hers, as well as the significance of me giving it away, but if my companion is Lavinia, surely a sachet made of a woman's handkerchief would be a better gift. Dad's handkerchief means more to me of the two; do I give it to Peeta, who remembers my father from his visits to the bakery, or do I give it to the silent stranger who shares my covers of deerskin and fur and breathes in pine from my pillows as they sleep beside me?
I think of Peeta handing me his handkerchief on my first morning here, when I cried over the feast he'd prepared and served to me, then I think of yesterday afternoon, when I woke to find myself crying in Peeta's arms and he gave me his handkerchief to dry my tears. Of the two, it's Peeta to whom I most owe a handkerchief, and Dad's is ideal for the purpose. Far better than the scrap of cloth I gave him after the Reaping, when I kissed his cheek and fled because I had no words to thank him – nor begin to repay my debt.
With an air of decision, I tuck the sachet made of Dad's handkerchief inside the stocking for Peeta and the one made from Mom's in my companion's stocking. Whoever they are, man or woman or gentle white bear, they'll know A.E. is not me but someone close to me and appreciate the gift accordingly.
I put the remaining honey buttons in the bird's nest, not unlike half a dozen creamy golden eggs, then I top off both stockings with an extra pinecone or two, fill Peeta's shoe with bits of chopped pine branch, and bring everything back to my room to hide in my drawer of precious things till Lavinia leaves me for the night. I'm halfway downstairs when I remember my own stocking for Father Christmas and run back to grab one of my shortest socks and my school shoe, which I forgot in my hobby room this morning after stealing Peeta's shoe to use in my plan. I leave both on the frosty front porch, feeling ridiculous – they're the first to arrive and look more than a little silly: a solitary sock and a scuffed-up shoe, sitting at the top of Peeta's fine stone steps – and go to the kitchen to see if Peeta needs help with supper.
Our meal is as lush and delicious as always – it's beef tonight, roasted with garlic and mushrooms and so tender I can cut it with the edge of my fork – but I find myself unexpectedly restless and eager to call it a night. Whether to leave out the gifts for Peeta and my companion or to go to sleep and await "Father Christmas," I hardly know, but Peeta seems to feel it too. "Tomorrow can't come soon enough," he laments with a little laugh. "I always feel like this at New Year's – except, of course, I've usually got bakery work to make the time go faster."
I think of when my father was alive and realize that, back then, I felt much the same. New Year's Eve was an ordinary day for the most part, with schoolwork and housework and Dad coming home late – later than usual, even, as he made a few last-minute holiday trades in the square or at the Hob. But New Year's Day was always something to look forward to, even if only for a many-times-reused white ribbon tied around my pigtail and Dad staying home for the entire day, laughing and singing and cooking favorite old dishes that Granny Ashpet made when he was a boy.
Since Dad died, New Year's has been as hollow as a Seam child's stocking, left on a sooty doorstep for a fairytale figure who would never arrive. A half-hearted holiday that I've tried to maintain for Prim's sake with little gifts and treats, but this year…this year couldn't be more different. This morning we sent the Hawthornes more food than any Seam family has ever seen at New Year's, complete with bread and cookies and snow ice cream. In a good year my family would have "deer sausage" and suet pudding for our holiday meal, but this year Mom and Prim have choice venison and ginger cake with custard for their table, and we're hanging out suet cakes for wild birds.
And I'm spending New Year's with the kindest, most generous boy in the world, who refuses to get angry at me, no matter how badly I treat him; who wraps me in his priceless bearskin and dries my foolish tears and finds the idea of me pregnant with fawns a beautiful thing. He painted seven little pictures of me, this impossible boy, simply to show my family how happy I am here, and tonight he means to playact the Father Christmas legend for the sake of his servants: to fill our shoes with coal and our stockings with sweets – and who knows what else?
I owe him so much more than a fur muffler, even if it is the finest gift I've ever held in my hands, let alone made with them.
I eat dessert – an apple dumpling as big as my fist – but don't linger over it, and Peeta doesn't try to keep me. "I know," he says with understanding as I get up from the table. "Pajamas at breakfast?"
"Pajamas at breakfast," I affirm, making him smile, and I pause beside my chair, just for a moment. I know tomorrow is a holiday, with a Mellark family routine and traditions to discover and follow, but –
"Sleep as late as you like," he says softly. "I can always bring you up a tray."
I release the breath I hadn't realized I was holding. "Good night, Peeta," I whisper.
I get ready for bed quicker than I ever have before, even on the coldest night I can remember back in the Seam, when we only had enough coal to fuel one fireplace and the floors hissed with frost beneath my feet. Lavinia brushes out my hair and helps me into a festive nightgown – soft ivory flannel, patterned with chickadees and pinecones and little red berries – that I suspect Peeta bought for this very occasion, then I all but chase her out of the room. She raises a brow at me as she goes, but it's the amused version of the expression.
Once she's gone, I do the usual things to prepare for my companion: carrying the warming pan to their side of the bed, turning back the covers a little, plumping the pillows. I'm on my way to retrieve the bird's nest from my drawer when there is a quiet knock at the door and I practically jump out of my skin. My companion doesn't knock, I remind myself. Lavinia must have forgotten something, or have some last question for me before bed.
I open the door to find Peeta there, holding up the sock that I left out on the porch and wearing a frown of mock-consternation. "This isn't a very optimistic sock, Katniss," he says sternly. "I know I bought you some that go up to your knees."
I take the cold, rejected sock from his hand without a word, exchange it for the longest one I can find in my drawer, and bring that back to him, all without so much as cracking a smile. He holds up the replacement sock for a moment, solemnly considering its length, and gives an approving nod. "That's better," he says.
I close the distance between us in two quick steps, wrapping my arms around his neck and breathing in the scent of his curls, and his arms encircle my waist, lifting me a little against him. I don't quite know why I'm hugging him like this, dressed in my nightgown on the threshold of my bedroom, and I don't care. It's New Year's Eve, and he came to demand a longer sock because the one I left out wasn't sufficient to hold everything that he wants to give me.
I don't understand what it is, but the way I feel for this boy makes my heart hurt. It's a strange pain, warm and breathless and swelling, as though the sun itself occupies what used to be my heart and will one day burst its shell of flesh and consume me with golden flames from within. I care about you, I tell him with a wordless moan against his cheek, and he gives a quiet whimper in reply. I care so much it frightens me a little. I care too much to call it caring any longer, but I don't have another word to describe this feeling.
"I'm so glad you're here, Katniss," he murmurs. "That you came to be with me, and that you stayed."
"I'm glad too," I whisper.
Truth be told, I can no longer imagine life without Peeta. In one short month he's become as essential to my survival as food or air or warmth in winter; as vital as my own heart and lungs. Part of me suspects that if he hadn't come to my family's house to make that bargain, I would be dead by now – not from cold or hunger, but from the absence of him.
But of course, I tell him none of this. It sounds foolish enough in my head, and as impossibly kind as Peeta is, he couldn't help but find such a declaration ridiculous.
I reluctantly loose my hold on him and take a small step backward, but his arms linger around my waist, tethering me close. "I know it's a little late to ask," he says softly, "but what would you like for New Year's?"
"Breakfast with you," I answer without hesitation, and he laughs quietly, shaking his head.
"You'll get that and so much more," he assures me. "I meant: for a present."
I consider this question much as I do when he asks if I want anything from town. I have more of everything than I could ever ask for; too much, as he promised from the beginning. Clothes, food, furs; even fine Capitol soaps that soften and brighten my skin and smooth my hair into a sleek fall of silk.
Where a month ago I had almost nothing – a sooty hovel of a home, bare cupboards, worn-out clothes and a starving family – now there is nothing I lack. Nothing I want, nor can think to ask for, from this boy whose greatest wish in all the world is for me to be happy.
There is something, little enough, that would make my New Year's perfect, and likelier than not, Peeta's already incorporated it into his holiday plans. But he asked, and so I reply, a little shyly, "I'd like an orange. The only one I'd ever had before coming to live here was a special New Year's treat from my dad," I explain. "So, um…it would be nice to have an orange tomorrow."
Peeta offers me oranges or orange juice often – practically every day – but a New Year's orange is special, and I know he knows it. "An orange," he echoes with a sad smile. "A district full of shops and festive presents, and all you want is an orange?"
"Well, not quite," I admit, my cheeks warming. "I'd like you to share it with me, by the living room fire. Dad and I split that first orange, and…it feels right to do the same with you."
The sadness fades from Peeta's smile, supplanted by something that looks ever so slightly like wonder. "It would be my pleasure, Katniss," he says. "It could be a new tradition, all our own."
His words evoke a dozen future New Years in this place; bright half-moon sections of a dozen perfect oranges, sunny and ripe and so plump with juice that it trickles between our fingers as we bite. I imagine Peeta's wife won't look kindly on such a tradition – her husband pausing in his New Year's celebration to share a special orange with his huntress – but I don't see her in this vision. I see only Peeta and me, wrapped in furs and firelight, taking fruit the color of the sun from each other's hands.
"Yes," I tell him quietly, my mind full of a dozen New Years to come; a dozen oranges and a dozen fireside embraces. "I'd like that."
I wait at the door till he disappears down the stairs, then I go to my drawer of precious things and take out the gifts I hid before supper. Strictly speaking, shoes and stockings are meant for New Year's morning, but Peeta is always in the kitchen before I'm awake, and my companion must rise even earlier. And surely they'll appreciate a surprise gift at bedtime just as much as one that appears in the morning.
I place Peeta's shoe and stocking outside his bedroom door and the stocking for my companion outside mine. Then I lay the bird's nest, with its precious honey-eggs, in the center of my companion's pillow, and go quietly to bed.
I don't intend to stay awake, but I've worked too much woodland magic tonight, and I can't fall asleep without at least knowing my gifts have been received. And in any case, it's nearly impossible for me to sleep before my companion has arrived.
They come, late and very quiet, and give a soft gasp when they reach their side of the bed. I wonder if they like their nest with its eggs of gold and long for a glimpse of their face by firelight, gazing down at my gift, but I know I don't dare turn and look and instead huddle deeper into my own pillows, squeezing my eyes shut as I keep my back to them. They sit on the bed, as on nights when I leave them a snack, and I strain my ears for the sound of their fingers, swishing against the deerskin pillow as they pick up the nest and bring a honey-sweet to their mouth with a sigh of pleasure.
There are more sounds then, soft pleasant ones, as they empty their stocking of its contents with careful hands and place each item on the nightstand in turn with a chuckle or a sigh. I know when they reach the pine sachet, made from my mother's precious handkerchief, because they gasp once more – at the initials or the embroidered blossoms or gift itself, I can't be sure – then breathe deeply, inhaling its sweet, resinous scent.
I don't know what, if anything, I expected in return, but when their weight lifts off the mattress and they walk around to my side of the bed, I stiffen a little, instinctively – not with fear, of course, but something like anticipation. They've only come to my side once before, the night I meant to offer myself to Peeta, and then it was to put away the plant book for me, as I'd fallen asleep holding it to my chest. To cover me with an extra fur, as I'd gone to bed in the flimsiest of nightgowns and they'd felt me shiver with cold. To brush a bit of hair back from my face, their fingers light as a butterfly's wing against my skin.
I feel fingertips on my cheek, hesitant and careful and so fleeting that I ache, then something settles on my pillow, just beyond where my hand lies, and my companion returns to their side of the room to undress and crawl beneath the covers.
They've never left me a gift before. Curious as I am, I don't open my eyes or move at all till I hear their breath slow and deepen with slumber, and even then I peek between my lashes, half-afraid they'll know I'm looking.
It's my turn to gasp.
Everything about my companion: their name, their face, even their gender is a mystery that only deepens with each tender gesture or movement or even sound that they make, but this gift is the most perplexing – most impossible – thing so far. I'm a skilled forager by anyone's reckoning, and I combed the woods for over an hour this afternoon, seeking all things edible or eye-catching. What lies on my pillow is both; a true midwinter treasure, and one I haven't seen in this season since my father died.
While easy enough to locate in spring or fall, in winter this plant is buried beneath acres of snow, but Dad could sniff it out of a drift like a hungry dog after the tiniest scrap of food. It's like anything of value, catkin, he laughed as I grumbled and scowled at my inability to locate even one plant while he turned up cluster after cluster of glossy green leaves and round red berries from seemingly random heaps of deeply drifted snow. You just need to remember where you left it.
Of course, the woods were as much a part of my father as his own flesh and blood, and the location of its every wonder lay behind his eyes, as clear as a map. I learned a little of his wild-craft before he died, but he had been born in the woods, and in a strange way, the woods saw him as its own child, especially after his parents died, and imparted to him secrets I will never discover, even if I search for a lifetime.
What lies on my pillow is clearly a gift from the woods, but does this mean it's finally claimed me as its own, like Dad and Granny Ashpet, or is it my companion that the woods loves? The touch on my cheek came from human fingers, but never have I wondered more fiercely whether the stranger in my bed might be the gentle white bear of my dreams, who comes to me in snow and caves and fairytale palaces, and always bearing the unlikeliest of gifts.
Resting on the deerskin at my fingertips, colorful as a kissing bough by firelight, is a sprig of wintergreen, bright with berries.
I wake, impossibly, to the sound of sleigh bells.
I tell myself it must be Pollux, returning very late – but surely he wouldn't have stayed in town overnight. He'll have come home last night, like always, perhaps after I went to bed. I don't always hear the sleigh, and Pollux would have taken pains to be extra quiet if he was coming in especially late.
The first bright fingers of sunrise are peeping over my windowsill, and I hear the bells again.
I scramble up onto my knees, eager as a child to look out the window and catch a glimpse of snow-white ponies and a magical sleigh that cannot possibly exist, but my hopeful peek is foiled by a sudden series of urgent knocks at my bedroom door. No one ever knocks in this house, let alone in such a panic, and I spring from the bed to find Lavinia outside my door in a nightgown of evergreen flannel, her hair bed-tousled and blazing about her grinning face as she tugs impatiently at my arm.
I don't know whether it's the sleigh bells or her unusual appearance or the sheer joy that seems to have risen with the sun this morning, but I laugh delightedly and give her a hug about the shoulders. "Happy New Year to you too," I say into the fragrant, fiery silk of her hair. "Should we go and see what Father Christmas left us?"
We race each other down the stairs like a pair of children, and I beat her to the front door by an arm's length. The stone porch is as broad and cold as a frozen lake beneath my bare feet, but I couldn't care less. At the top of the steps are three shoes, each filled to the brim with precious pieces of coal, and alongside each shoe lies a stocking, packed full as a sausage.
The steps, dusted with snow, are marked with a man's boot prints, climbing up and going down again, and just beyond the steps, breaking the downy blanket of fresh snow that must have come overnight, are sleigh tracks and the prints of a pony's hooves, approaching from the lake and departing into the woods.
I'm not sure whether Pollux or Peeta was driving the sleigh, but I strongly suspect the other one came along to sweep away the tracks that led back to the stable. And I imagine I'll hug the daylights out of both of those foolish, impossibly sweet boys when I find them.
I bend down to pick up my stocking, which is stretched to its knee-high limit and heavy as a brick. I can barely guess at the treasures its soft brown wool contains, but peeping out over the top, like the radiant curve of the sun itself, is the bright round face of a perfect orange.
My very own New Year's orange; the second one I've received in sixteen years. The only gift I asked for, tucked into the top of my stocking, so it would be the very first thing I see on New Year's Day. My eyes prickle at the corners, warning of tears to come, and I tell them sternly that it's only the cold of the morning. I absolutely can't break down at every little gift and gesture from Peeta, or I'll never get through this day.
Shivering beside me with an armful of her own shoe and stocking, Lavinia picks up my shoe and presses it into my free hand, then tugs me by my sleeve back into the house. Burdened with gifts, we hurry to the kitchen for our promised breakfast. The house is heady with the scents of sausages and sticky buns and griddle cakes, and my stomach growls in anticipation, but the table – the entire kitchen – is empty. There is no Peeta, no food; only enormous kettles of cider and spiced wine, simmering quietly at the back of the stove, as they have been for nearly a week now.
"Well, are you coming?" calls Peeta's merry voice from the direction of the dining room, and Lavinia and I race back out of the kitchen, practically colliding in the doorway as we follow the scents of a feast to their source.
Even if I had a hundred years to dream, I could never have imagined the sight that awaits us in the dining room. Both the table and sideboard are filled with food; so much food – surely, more food than the four of us could consume in a lifetime – that there is no place for anyone to sit and eat. Heaps of crisp-fried bacon, thick slices of ham, and several kinds of sausages. A platter full of soft-fried eggs, another of poached, and a third scrambled with herbs. Griddle cakes, the deep molasses-brown of gingerbread; some iced in breathtaking snowflake patterns and others left plain, with a pitcher of custard to pour over them. Even more griddle cakes with festive bits of peppermints and chocolate sprinkling their fluffy golden faces, and still others flecked with spices and redolent with cider.
There are sticky buns, fat as flour sacks and glistening with golden caramel, and cheese buns, still steaming from the oven. There are loaves of four different kinds of bread, surrounded on all sides by pots of jam and preserves and goat cheese and honey butter, and bubbling skillets of spiced apples and peaches with bottles of cream to splash over them. There are pitchers of orange juice, milk, and cider as well as stovepots – three glorious stovepots, one of which must contain cream-coffee, another hot chocolate, and the third tea of some kind.
And standing in front of the fireplace is the boy responsible for all of this, dressed as promised in a gray thermal undershirt and trousers of red plaid flannel. Peeta's clearly been cooking and baking for hours, but his hair is still mussed as though he only just climbed out of bed, and he's smiling at me as though he's just seen the sun rise for the first time.
"Happy New Year, Katniss," he says.
I dump my shoe and stocking onto the first chair to hand, but his arms are around me before I can take another step. "Happy New Year, Peeta," I whisper, curling my arms snugly across the strong planes of his back.
He hasn't showered this morning, and the natural muskiness of his body, distinct even over the delicious scents of all the foods he prepared, is startlingly pleasant. It astonishes me, how much I like it; how badly I want to breathe in till it fills my lungs, even part my lips and drink it in, like hot cider or spiced wine. How badly I wish I were tucked beneath deerskin and furs and could turn over into that scent – and these arms.
Home, I think, pressing myself so close that my breastbone is flush against his. This table spread with food and this sweet boy, rumpled and warm from his bed.
"Thank you for the stocking," he murmurs against my cheekbone, pulling me closer still, and I smell honey on his breath. Sweet clover honey, snow-chilled into creamy golden buttons, and toasted pine bark soaked in cider.
"What stocking?" I wonder innocently, even as my cheeks warm and my heart swells. "It's Father Christmas who fills the stockings, Peeta; not me."
"I didn't know Father Christmas brought treats made of honey and pine bark," he says, his mouth curving against my skin. "Or filled shoes with bits of pine for the fire."
"He does in the Seam," I answer, my lips turning up in an answering smile.
Lavinia clears her throat with what sounds like amused impatience and I reluctantly draw back from Peeta, letting my hands linger a moment longer at his waist to savor the heat of his skin through the texture of his thermal shirt. "So: food," I say, glancing over at the table. "I see chairs, but no place for a person to sit and eat. Is this another Mellark tradition?" I tease. "No plates or cups or forks; everyone just digs in?"
He laughs; a rich, blissful, effortless sound. A laugh so full of joy, it makes me wonder whether I've ever truly seen him happy before. "No," he assures me. "The tradition is the big breakfast, to be eaten while wearing pajamas. I went a little overboard, so I thought we might take our plates and eat around the fire in the living room."
At this moment, I can't think of a better way to start the New Year.
There's a vigorous stamping of boots from the mudroom and a rustle of a parka being removed and hung up, and then Pollux appears in the doorway, his cheeks pink with cold above his beard. He's dressed in flannel and thermals like Peeta, and his thick sandy hair – usually hidden beneath a stocking cap – sticks out in every direction.
He's clearly the source of the sleigh bells that woke me this morning – and the one who brought precious New Year's gifts to my family and the Hawthornes – and I blindside him with a quick, fierce hug. "Happy New Year, Father Christmas," I whisper against his shoulder, only half in jest. He smells of woodsmoke and snow and the musk-hay-and-dung scent of little Rye, and his face is flushed – but pleased – when I pull away.
In a strange way, this is my family now. This burly, bearded man who loves to tease, even without words; this stunning red-haired woman with patient, skillful hands and eyes full of secrets – and Peeta Mellark. Victor, painter, baker's son; a boy who could have had anything and everything he wanted, and yet he chose to take a house in the woods and share his riches with two Avoxes and a fatherless Seam girl.
I should be homesick this morning; should be lonely for Prim and Mom and maybe even Dad, as he appears in my memories of New Years past. But I'm not. What I have in this moment, I want forever. Peeta and cozy feasts and our silent companions, sharing this fairytale house in the woods.
Peeta produces four large trays from a drawer in the sideboard, along with dishes for each of us, and we set to filling them with growling stomachs and wide, eager eyes. "Take as much as you want," he urges us as he cuts a slice of bread – my favorite, made with cranberries and a swirl of brown sugar and nutmeg – and spreads it with goat cheese, then lays it on my tray with a shy smile. "And come back for more. There's to be no working today, so we can sit and eat breakfast all morning long if we want."
I nip a piece of bacon from my tray – it's too crisp and golden-brown and perfect to wait another moment – and crumble it eagerly on my tongue as I follow Lavinia to the living room, my arms full with a miniature feast all my own. I spy a roaring fire within and parcels strewn about its hearth; the sort of New Year's morning Seam kids can only dream of, and Lavinia's about to walk through the doorway when I catch at her nightgown with a frantic hand and a little cry of distress, pulling her backward.
"There's a kissing bough," I tell her urgently, motioning upward with one shoulder.
Hanging in the doorway that leads to the living room is a flawless, fragrant pine bough, thick with needles and bearing two long satin ribbons, one red and one white. I wonder vaguely why a boy with Peeta's money would decorate his kissing bough with just two ribbons when he could easily afford an entire ribbon stall, and then I remember what this is and what it's for. My mind fills with boorish Merchant boys and coy Merchant girls, ducking and dodging in a dance of back doorsteps and sales counters and shrieks of laughter, cut off by another's lips, and I feel a little sick inside. No one's ever tried to kiss me, ever – except Darius, the redheaded Peacekeeper, who tried to bargain me into a kiss on a summer's day without waiting for the excuse of a kissing bough – and I've made very sure they never had the opportunity. Today will be no different.
"If you walk under it, you owe a kiss to whoever's on the other side," I explain. Lavinia's probably never heard of or seen a kissing bough before, but I'm certain she'll understand the danger in opening oneself freely to strangers' kisses.
Except the living room is empty. Lavinia peers inside, then back at me with a meaningful, owlish blink.
"I know no one's in there now," I say patiently, "but –"
But I don't get to finish my sentence, because she maneuvers swiftly to push me into the room ahead of her and then comes in after me, pressing a sound kiss to my cheek as she passes. She shrugs as though this was this was the simplest solution in the world and settles into one of the armchairs with her breakfast tray, looking very pleased with herself.
"It's just tradition, Katniss," Peeta says as he and Pollux come through the doorway in turn. If I didn't know better, I'd think they both look a little wounded. "Everybody hangs a kissing bough, even if they don't put out shoes and stockings."
He's right, of course. Rich and poor alike hang kissing boughs in their homes, and that's where we are, after all. Home. Not a shop, with devious workers to scheme away kisses from unwary passersby.
The kissing bough in my family's home made me happy. It meant tender kisses from my parents and lingering kisses between them, even a playful childish peck on my cheek from Prim every now and again. And the three people who share this house with me are as good as family, really. None of us is a lusty Merchant boy or sly Merchant girl, and no one's going to leap at me, all grasping hands and pursed lips, and cover my face with greedy, unwelcome kisses. So why should it be unsettling to see a kissing bough here?
I look at Peeta and blush hotly, though I don't know why. He certainly has no interest in kissing me, with or without a New Year's bough, though I suppose he might mean to kiss Lavinia. And Pollux surely isn't in search of kisses, here or anywhere else. Peeta's right – it's just tradition. Everyone hangs a kissing bough. It's just what people in Twelve do at New Year's.
"Are you upset?" Peeta asks. "I didn't mean…it's just tradition," he says again, quietly.
His face is all apology now, maybe even a little sad, and I hurry to reassure him. I refuse to ruin this perfect day just because of my gut reaction to a silly tradition. "No," I say. "I was just…I avoid kissing boughs, except at home."
His face breaks into a glorious smile. "Then it's handy you're at home," he replies, but there's a lilt of a question at the end.
"I'm home," I answer softly, and I see Pollux and Lavinia exchange a glance, though I'm not quick enough, or adept at their facial cues, to interpret it.
Pollux takes the other armchair and Peeta and I end up on the sofa, as we do so often at lunchtime. As I fill my mouth with bite after bite of spicy gingerbread griddle cakes – topped with both custard and an icing snowflake – my eyes drift to the hearth and the impossible array of parcels scattered there.
Families with a little extra money – Merchants, mostly – will make or purchase gifts for each other, in addition to the ones they put in stockings, and exchange them in front of the fire on New Year's Day. It's another tradition that stems back to Father Christmas legends. A very, very old tale from Grandpa Asa's side of the family says that Father Christmas would throw parcels of food and coal and even warm clothing down the chimneys of the very poor, as their hearths were cold on New Year's Eve, and they would wake in delight to build a fire and enjoy a meal with their family.
To my knowledge, no one gets unexpected, lifesaving parcels down their chimneys anymore, let alone the poorest families, but the tradition of fireside presents on New Year's Day stuck around nonetheless. Even in my family's home, where gifts were as rare as gold, Dad always made sure there was something beside the hearth on New Year's morning for Prim and me to discover and enjoy, even if it was just a pile of good firewood or a small loaf of soft bakery bread.
I remind myself to bring down Peeta's muffler after breakfast to add to the pile of parcels. I wasn't sure how I was going to present it to him, and it's still upstairs, tucked away in my drawer of precious things. Maybe if I bring it in while no one's looking, I can sneak it among the gifts and draw less attention to it, and myself.
"Mellarks open gifts after supper on New Year's," Peeta says, clearly following the direction of my gaze. "It adds to the suspense, because you have all day to snoop around the packages, lifting and squeezing and shaking them. But if you want to open them sooner, we certainly can," he adds. "Most of them are for you anyway."
I look up at him in surprise. "For me?" I puzzle. Even when my father was alive, it was rare for there to be a special New Year's present at the hearthside just for me.
Peeta laughs lightly. "You're more beloved than you realize," he says, gesturing at the parcels with his fork. "See for yourself, if you want."
Too curious to resist, I set my tray on the low table and crouch down beside the sea of hearthside parcels…almost all of which are addressed to me. There are a couple labeled for Peeta, Pollux, and Lavinia, and a few others for "Peeta and family," but everything else is Katniss, even the gaily striped box that clearly came from the sweet-shop. One large, soft parcel bears my mother's handwriting on its brown paper wrap and another, small and square, bears Prim's.
"My family sent me presents?" I whisper.
"So did mine," Peeta says with a crooked smile. "I told you: you're more beloved than you realize."
I climb back onto the sofa, slightly dazed by this revelation, and resume my breakfast in a distracted fashion. I've always known better than to expect gifts at holiday-time or any other, even when Dad was alive and could now and again afford little treats for his girls, but now that I'm living in luxury with Peeta, everyone seems to be giving me presents.
Neither Peeta nor I talk much as we eat. There's so much food and it's all so rich and knee-weakeningly delicious that our mouths are preoccupied with enjoying every last bite. I glance around at Pollux and Lavinia, curious how they're approaching a feast that they can't taste, and find them both taking many enthusiastic but careful bites.
Lavinia catches my eye and gestures at her plate; a swirl of her slim fingers, like smoke rising, then she motions at her nose. Smell, I guess. Their sense of smell is probably heightened in light of their absence of taste, and the scent of food is easily half of its flavor.
"They ate little better than pig-swill in the Capitol," Peeta murmurs, leaning toward me so Pollux and Lavinia won't hear. "Avoxes can't taste, so Capitol folk reasoned: why bother giving them anything that tastes good?"
I look up at Lavinia again, who either heard what Peeta said or guessed at it, and she nods gravely. She points to Peeta then rests that hand on her heart, and Pollux imitates the gesture. They've both used the hand-heart gesture in several different contexts, always related to Peeta, but the meaning here is so obvious it makes my eyes burn.
"I think you might be more beloved than you realize," I tell Peeta quietly.
He gives a sad little laugh and leans close to reply, "The first message Lavinia ever wrote to me on her slate was I love you. She'd been here for just over two months, communicating only in gestures. She kept thinking a hovercraft was going to come and take them back to the Capitol again, to be slaves or worse…I think she was afraid to believe that this was her life now," he says, barely whispering the words. "I did everything I could to reassure her, and one afternoon I brought a tray of lunch up to her room and she just sort of blurted it – with chalk, of course."
I tip my head a little to look into his eyes. No sixteen-year-old boy's eyes should be so full of compassion and tenderness, let alone this one, who loves so much – his Avoxes, his birds, his girl – and receives so little in return. Peeta deserves to be treated the way he treats me: to be wrapped in furs and fed exquisite food; to be cradled and comforted and have his feet kissed like treasures – even the prosthetic one.
Especially the prosthetic one, I resolve, and every remaining inch of his right leg.
"And Pollux?" I ask lightly.
He laughs again, warmly this time. "I was still a little hazy from the surgery," he says, "but I think Pollux first told me he loved me when I asked if he'd be willing to move out here."
"Okay," I concede with a grin, entirely unsurprised at such behavior from friendly, effusive Pollux. "Maybe you do know how loved you are."
Instead of brightening, as I expect, his smile falters a little. "I think I do," he says. There's no self-pity in his voice, just a somber sort of acceptance, and it's one of the saddest sounds I've ever heard.
I set a hand on his and give it a quick squeeze, oddly desperate to cheer him. "You never know," I say. "You haven't opened your presents yet."
The effect this has on him is instantaneous and a little startling. He sits bolt upright, eyes wide in disbelief. "You didn't…" he whispers, shaking his head a little.
"Didn't what?" I puzzle.
I have no idea what he was about to ask, but this is clearly the wrong answer. Peeta settles back onto his cushion again, deflated; his face not so much sad as subdued. "Never mind," he says, without bitterness. "I, um…I was thinking of something else."
We clear our plates without further conversation, then Peeta offers to go to the kitchen and bring us all seconds. "It's no trouble," he assures us. "And you're all so comfortable; I'm happy to do it."
Lavinia makes an indignant sound and points at the doorway, making him laugh. Clearly, it took her very little time to sort out the nuances of the kissing bough. In theory, if Peeta makes multiple trips between the living room and the kitchen, he – or one of us – could claim another kiss each time he walked through the door. "No," he promises with a chuckle as he bends to take her plate. "I'm not doing it in the hope of extra kisses."
His eyes flicker to me for a split second and a hot flush suffuses my cheeks and throat once more – and again, I don't understand it. I know better than to think Peeta wants to kiss me, even as part of a silly New Year's tradition. That he'd even consider it is ludicrous. He's madly in love with some beautiful, popular, oblivious girl to whom I sent venison yesterday, via his family.
And of course, I certainly don't want to kiss him.
Peeta collects my plate and Pollux's and leaves for the kitchen. The moment he's out the door, Lavinia gives me a square, speaking sort of look, but I can't make heads or tails of it. "What?" I ask her.
She tips her head toward the pile of parcels and I remember that she knows about the muffler. "Not yet," I say. "I wasn't sure. I'll bring it down later."
Judging by her face, this is not the answer she was looking for, though it appears to have thoroughly perplexed Pollux, which is an unexpected delight. She doesn't persist, though, and when Peeta comes through the doorway a few minutes later, I quickly avert my eyes, focusing on the last sips of hot chocolate at the bottom of my battered little mug.
It's something about seeing him under a kissing bough. The bakery had one hanging up in the middle of the shop, like at Mom and Prim's, and another at the back door, where I presume all the baker's sons claimed their fill of kisses from pert, pretty lips, but I can't recall ever seeing Peeta beneath either bough, let alone kissing anyone. Ever.
It shouldn't be so surprising, really. After all, he's loved this girl of his – if his interview with Caesar is to be believed – for as long as he can remember, and unlikely as it is for a good-looking Merchant boy, maybe he's been saving his kisses for her rather than snapping them up at every opportunity, from every pair of lips.
It's unlikely – no, impossible – but for the first time ever, I wonder if Peeta might have told his district partner the truth about their kiss being his first.
Who were you saving it for? whispers Larkspur Collins in my mind, her voice full of wonder even as the life drains from her body. Would Peeta have lied to a dying child? A thirteen-year-old girl who wanted nothing more from life than a kiss and a toasting, both of which he gave her?
He gave her a name, too; the name of his sweetheart, and whatever it was, it had a powerful reaction on the dying girl. Her hands grasped the front of his jacket with the last ounce of strength in her body. You have to be the one, Peeta, she said, even shaking him a little for emphasis. You have to go home. Go home…a-and love her…
Peeta's clearly dedicated himself to loving his girl, however oblivious she may be to it. Does that mean saving his kisses for her too? In which case, I have absolutely nothing to fear from his kissing bough.
I think of the parcel of venison, complete with a fine slab of ribs, that I wrapped up and labeled for Peeta's Sweetheart and wonder if she's opening it right now. If her mother is rubbing the meat with handfuls of costly herbs for their feast this evening, or if they've been invited to the bakery for supper, since Mellarks exchange New Year's gifts in the evening.
If she'll finally realize Peeta's intentions because of my willful scribbles across the top of her parcel.
I cut a savage bite of cider griddle cake from the plate Peeta brought back for me and choke a little as it goes down.
"You okay?" Peeta asks. He holds out a mug of cream-coffee with an enticing golden cast to it. "I added a few spoonfuls of sticky bun sauce," he says. "I thought you might like it."
I take the handle gratefully and wash down the bite of griddle cake with a long sip of the sweet, buttery brew. "Thanks," I croak.
I remind myself that whoever this sweetheart is, she's not sitting by Peeta's living room fire on New Year's morning, eating his griddle cakes and sipping sticky bun cream-coffee that he prepared just for her. And I resolve to have at least one more New Year's exactly like this one before she moves in with her blonde braids and delicate Merchant tastes and takes my place on the sofa and at the table.
About halfway through our second round of breakfast, Peeta leaves again and returns with an armful of everyone's shoes and stockings – or rather, everyone's but his. "These you can have anytime," he says, laying my plump sausage of a stocking alongside my plate. "You can start on them now or save them for later."
Lavinia makes an enquiring sound and points out the absence of a shoe and stocking for Peeta, and his cheeks go faintly pink. "I, um, snooped into mine earlier," he confesses, and I feel his eyes on me as I stare pointedly at my plate. "But I can go get it if you want, so we can all have them at once."
He runs upstairs for a minute and returns with a face as hot and bright as a Merchant child's sunburn, albeit almost deliriously happy. He takes his seat beside me again, this time with a lapful of my father's sock, packed full of woodland things, and his own work shoe, heaped with bits of pine branch.
"This is the most wonderful thing anyone's ever done for me, Katniss," he murmurs, and I look up at him with flames in my own cheeks. "I mean it," he says, and his fingers inch across the sofa cushion to brush my hand. "It's…I had no idea this was why you went out to the woods yesterday. It's perfect, all of it. The cooking spoon and honey sweets and pinecones and the toasted bark. I haven't had pine bark since –"
"Oh!" I cry, recalling it in an instant, and I wonder how I could have been so stupid. Peeta ate pine bark in the arena; lived on it, really, along with a soup of pine needles, spices, and snow, and I had the nerve to give him toasted bark chips as a New Year's treat. "I'm so sorry," I whisper. "I was trying to think of foraged things to put in your stocking, like Dad used to do for us, and I've eaten a lot of pine bark. I didn't mean –"
My words break off as his hand turns mine palm up and curls around it. "I love it," he says, emphasizing the words with a little squeeze of my hand, and I wonder how he can be so unbelievably nice about this when I've given him something that must have triggered horrible memories of fear and hunger and pain. "I never minded eating pine bark in the…back then," he says. "It made me think of you, so getting pine bark from you was…well, perfect, really – and you even flavored it with cider."
I stare at him, my mortification replaced by a cold, clearing burst of sheer confusion. I never minded eating pine bark. It made me think of you. "You thought about me in the arena?" I say.
This makes no sense whatsoever. Peeta and I weren't friends back then. We were barely even acquaintances, and whatever he's said about apples and apple trees reminding him of me, or of wanting to take care of me ever since the day he saved my life with burned bread, he had much more important things than Katniss Everdeen to occupy his thoughts in the arena.
He stares back at me for a long moment, and something in his eyes makes my throat flush with a strange heat that has nothing to do with embarrassment or shame. Then his gaze shifts to our joined hands in a tangled flicker of gold, and he whispers, so quietly that I'm half-convinced I imagined it: "All the time."
I remind myself that this is clearly one of his kind lies, but I'm not quick enough to prevent the skip in my heartbeat. He means survival things, I tell myself. If Peeta thought about me at all in the arena, which is unlikely, it would have been in relation to things like hunting and foraging. In which case: maybe eating pine bark did remind him of me, in a practical sort of way.
"Now this," he says, a little hoarsely, as he turns back to his stocking and takes out the pine bundle that I made from my father's handkerchief. "This, I suspect, might be one of the most precious things that you own. I know what you carry for handkerchiefs, and…a-and…" He turns the sachet over and over in his hands, as though searching it for his next words. "I know this was your dad's," he says finally, raising his eyes to mine. "I know how much it must mean to you, and…I know you wouldn't just give it away."
He's right – painfully right – on all counts, and I have no words to reply.
"I can't begin to thank you for all – for any of this," he says, and one of his hands settles on the scuffed shoe on his lap. The shoe I chose because of everything it represented – his lost leg, his life at the bakery, the frugality he practices in his own routines while showering the rest of us with fine new things – and I see in his eyes that he knows. "It's the most incredible gift I've ever received," he says, and he takes both of my hands in his and brings them to his lips. "I'll cherish every bit of it," he promises, each word a little kiss against my fingers.
"It's nothing special," I whisper. "Hardly worth cherishing." But still a warmth blooms in my chest, like a golden rose spreading its petals to catch every last drop of gratitude and affection beaming down from Peeta's face.
I'm a little wary of looking in my own stocking, knowing only too well that whatever lavish treats Peeta gave me will make my odd assortment of pinecones and foraged foods look even more feeble and worthless in comparison, but he encourages me – and Pollux and Lavinia – to do so with an almost childish insistence. He's playing his role to perfection this morning. If you didn't know better, you'd think he has no idea what's in the stockings and is just as eager as the three of us to see their contents.
My orange, of course, is at the top of my stocking, and I take it out carefully to set on the table between Peeta's plate and my own. "For later?" I ask, and he confirms it with a nod and a shy smile.
Beneath the orange is a seemingly endless array of costly sweet-shop candies: creamy peppermints, roasted chestnuts, and golden toffee buttons. Beautiful ribbon candy, curling back upon itself again and again in glossy, colorful folds, and gumdrops too, spicy and vibrant and shimmering with sugar. Gumdrops were Dad's favorite sweet, on those rare occasions when we had a few extra pennies for the spending, and they made his breath smell wonderfully of licorice and cinnamon and mint. I bring a purple one to my mouth in disbelief and try not to tear up as the flavor of sugared anise bursts across my tongue.
I've enjoyed very few sweet-shop candies in my life, even at holiday-time, and Peeta has lavished me with enough of them in one morning to make even a spoiled Merchant child blush. "These are perfect, Peeta," I whisper, cupping a handful of the brightly colored sweets filling my lap. "I never…thank you so much."
"I had nothing to do with it, you know," he teases gently, though his eyes are sad, as they are so often when I see or taste something wonderful for the first time. "But I'll fill every last stocking in your drawer with gumdrops and peppermints if it means seeing you this happy every morning."
There's one thing left in my stocking; something heavy and hard to the touch, and I slip a hand down to the toe to retrieve it. My fingers identify it at once as a jam jar, and I fish it out to find it filled with applesauce, with a red satin ribbon tied around its neck and a cluster of katniss flowers painted on its lid.
Peeta gives me some form of apples every day, sometimes at every meal, but like my New Year's orange, this is special. I know without asking that the contents of this pretty jar came from Peeta's apple tree; from the precious wild apples he was so determined to preserve, so he could share them with me.
Apples have always reminded me of you, he said. If you hadn't come to live with me, I would have sent you jars of applesauce for New Year's.
"A jar of applesauce for New Year's," I echo, and Peeta smiles.
"I've been wanting to do that for a while," he replies.
Pollux and Lavinia have both emptied their stockings as well and are perusing the contents with open curiosity. Peeta gave them more cookies than candy, which makes sense in light of their missing tongues. Sweets are meant to melt on your tongue and fill your mouth with flavor, and Pollux and Lavinia are no longer physically capable of such a pleasure. But they seem to have found a way around it, not unlike Pollux strong's coffee: as I watch, Lavinia drops two peppermints into her tea, stirs it well, and breathes deeply of the resulting steam before taking a long sip.
Peeta offers us thirds of his breakfast feast, but after two towering platefuls, three brimming mugs, and a handful of gumdrops, I'm not sure my stomach will ever have room for food again. I tell him this, which Pollux and Lavinia affirm with emphatic nods, and he gives a delighted laugh. "Right on schedule," he says. "Back home, when we're all so full with New Year's breakfast that we can't eat another bite, we bundle up and make our way around the square, visiting friends and neighbors and dropping off little gifts of food."
I can't deny that going outside sounds like an ideal way to shake up my system after such a rich meal, but we're nowhere near any other homes or families out here, and somehow I know Peeta doesn't mean for us to go into town. "We gave the birds their treats yesterday," I remind him. "What other neighbors did you have in mind?"
He grins. "Wait and see," he tells us. "Go change into warm clothes, and we'll all head out in a few minutes."
Of course, none of us have any intention of leaving Peeta to finish the breakfast clean-up on his own, and though he insists that he can manage by himself, he's clearly pleased by our offer of assistance and doesn't protest as we help him clear the dining room, parcel up the food we didn't eat, and wash the dishes. Afterward Lavinia and I run upstairs to exchange our nightgowns for thermals and sweaters and corduroy trousers then we meet Peeta back in the mudroom as we all don scarves and coats and boots.
Peeta's in his bearskin as always, and as I've done ever since the morning of my ski lesson, I hand him one of Dad's scarves to wrap his neck. After tonight he'll have a nice thick muffler to keep him warm, I remind myself, and smile at the thought.
Pollux is absent from our group, presumably changing back in his loft, and I'm not surprised when Peeta leads us out to the stable. He's carrying a hamper that I spied beside the icebox earlier, and I imagine he's bringing it for Pollux himself, as the only "neighbor" of any sort that we have out here.
But as we walk into the stable, where a bundled Pollux awaits us with a grin, I discover what Peeta meant with a little laugh of surprise. The front of Rye's stall has been framed with evergreen branches, and hanging above the stall door – directly above the pony's long white face – is a kissing bough, exactly like the one in the house, with one red ribbon and one white wound among the needles.
Lavinia gives a merry laugh of her own and skips forward to lean over the stall door and press a sound kiss to Rye's broad brown cheek. "That explains the red ribbon," I tell the pony as I come alongside Lavinia to stroke his strong neck with a gloved hand. "You've clearly got a sweetheart."
I've grown attached to this stocky pony, more so than I ever was to Buttercup or even Lady. Rye brought Peeta to town the night he came to make our bargain, and he carried me here the very next day, to the place that I now call home. He brings firewood and kissing boughs and New Year's baskets to our families and friends and returns with food and clothing and letters from my sister. Without Rye, it would be impossible for us to live out here, or at least, to live in the manner we do, with fresh fruit and cream and butcher meat on the table almost every day.
And if I'm entirely honest, Rye is good company. He's not unlike Pollux, really: quiet, friendly, playful. He turns toward my hand where it lingers against his neck, hoping for a treat, and I'm unsurprised to feel Peeta come up behind me and slip a piece of carrot beneath my palm. Peeta adores his pony and takes a particular delight in making me interact with him, and I turn my hand palm-up, letting Rye lip up the treat with a happy whuffle.
A month ago I looked at Rye for the first time and saw fresh meat for starving Seam folk. Today I see him as part of the household, no less than Pollux and Lavinia, and the idea of eating horse meat is as upsetting to me as shooting a pregnant doe.
Not to mention, Rye appears frequently in my visions of a future in this place. A future filled with curly-haired children, climbing all over the long-suffering pony and plaiting ribbons into his mane – and likelier than not, considering their father, feeding him his weight in sugar cubes.
I stand on tiptoe and press a kiss to Rye's face, just beneath one large liquid eye, and he blinks placidly in response, as though what I did was a pleasurable thing. "Two sweethearts," Peeta murmurs, and I look over my shoulder to see him watching me with eyes so full of longing that it almost seems painful. I imagine he must be missing his own sweetheart desperately today, especially when even Rye is receiving New Year's kisses beneath a beribboned bough.
Peeta's hamper, we discover, is filled with a packed lunch for the four of us to share later – and plenty of carrots and apples and sugar cubes for Rye. "I thought," Peeta says, "since no one has any work to do today, and the four of us are all together, well…I thought we might play in the snow for a little." He blushes deeply at the words and barrels on, "It's what they used to do in all the old tales Grandma Lydda told us, back when snow was deep and white and free of coal dust. Making snowmen, throwing snowballs, skating or skiing – to which end," he adds with a brilliant smile, "I have some early presents for all of you."
He dips back to the workshop – the door to which is closed for the first time ever in my experience – and emerges a moment later with two pairs of skates and a pair of skis with poles. The skates are twins to my own: curling silver blades beneath foot-shaped platforms with sturdy straps at the toe and ankle, but the skis are a little shorter than Peeta's and strikingly beautiful. Sleek and shiny with lacquer, the runners are red as ripe currants with clusters of painted white katniss blossoms framing the foot straps.
This ridiculous boy has bought me my very own skis, and like the sleigh and the bathtub and my fine fur-lined coat – like the shortbread he packs for my lunch and my jar of New Year's applesauce and the notes he leaves me when he naps – he's covered them with my namesake.
Peeta's offered to get me skis on more than one occasion, and I always replied that I didn't need them. Not because I didn't enjoy skiing or don't want to try it again: I liked sharing his skis entirely too much. Having him in my arms, then being in his, held close to his body and wrapped in his bearskin. Skiing on my own would be fun, I imagine, much like skating on snow, but it would lack the delicious intimacy of following another's movements with close-pressed limbs while sharing your coverings and body heat.
"You bought me skis," I say, and realize in those words how very much I've changed in the past month. I would never before have assumed a costly gift was for me, even if it had my name – or namesake – all over it.
Peeta gives me an apologetic smile. "I know you said you didn't need them, but I thought they might be nice to have, just in case," he says. "If you don't like them – or want them –"
"No," I assure him, my face warming, "they're beautiful and I love them. I just…maybe we could go out once more on your skis?" I ask in a rush, and Peeta's smile spills out from his lips to flood every corner of his face with a joyful radiance.
"I'd like that, Katniss," he says. "We can ski together anytime you want."
I try not to look too elated. I know he's just being nice – clearly, he can't have enjoyed sharing the skis as much as I did – but I'm feeling a little spoiled right now. My own skis: handsome, katniss-bedecked skis that my father would have wept over, and the opportunity to share Peeta's skis again – and again.
I stroke one sleek runner admiringly, tracing each painted blossom in turn, as Peeta cheerfully presents the pairs of skates to Pollux and Lavinia. "I keep saying you can spend time outside whenever you like," he laughs. "Well, now you have no excuse. Skates for the both of you, and you're welcome to use my skis anytime you want."
"And mine," I chime in, thinking Lavinia might prefer the shorter runners.
Pollux accepts his skates with a grin and wiggles his eyebrows at me – I anticipate skate-races and snowball fights on the lake in the very near future – and Lavinia hugs hers to her chest, as though they're an especially precious thing, and closes her eyes for a long moment. I wonder if, like me, she's never owned skates before – or if she skated long ago, as a resident of the Capitol, and lost that privilege along with her freedom and her tongue.
"What about you?" I ask Peeta, frowning as the realization dawns. "Where are your skates?"
He shakes his head with a smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes. "I don't…I'm okay without," he says. "I can slide around the ice well enough in my boots, if need be – and of course, I've got skis."
I wonder how much of this is him treating us to lavish gifts while keeping nothing for himself and how much is concern or embarrassment over his leg. "If you can ski, you can skate," I tell him firmly.
I mean for the words to sound like friendly encouragement but they come out sounding like an order, and caught up in this little burst of authority, I set aside my new skis, snatch Pollux's skates away from him, and press them into a wide-eyed Peeta's hands. "Skate with me, Peeta," I entreat, deliberately softening my tone. "I'll help you. You can lean on me for balance and –"
"Yes," he breathes, closing his fingers around the skates, almost greedily, as he leans toward me. His eyes are dark and warm, and I feel an overwhelming compulsion to lean up and press a quick, happy kiss to his cheek.
Not for me, not for me, not for me…
"Okay," I say, blushing hotly. "Let's go to the lake."
We make our way through the fresh-fallen snow, and somehow or other my hand ends up curled at Peeta's elbow. I tell myself it's just New Year's inducing a certain air of festivity, or maybe that I'm helping him keep his balance across the deepest drifts. When we reach the lakeside bench, Peeta kneels in the snow to fasten my skate straps, and once he's finished I playfully trade places with him, pulling him up beside me then slipping from the bench to kneel at his feet.
I half-expect him to stop me, to insist on putting on his own skates, but he doesn't. He simply watches me with a look that's half wonder and half disbelief – the way he says I look at even the most ordinary things when they're unexpectedly given to me. I'm not sure what part of having his skates strapped on for him is so unbelievable, but his expression makes my heart swell and glow like an ember.
"Is this okay?" I ask as I snug the strap at his right ankle, cradling his foot on my thigh. The prosthesis looks no different in a boot, and of course he wears a sock over it as well, so the limb doesn't even feel particularly different through the weathered leather, but I still can't help wondering whether I'm fastening the skates too tightly or otherwise.
"It's perfect," he whispers, but his eyes never leave my face.
Peeta may well be the gentlest boy in the world, so slow and tender and careful at everything he does, but this counts for absolutely nothing when it comes to coordination and agility. He's stocky and clumsy and substantially heavier than me, maybe doubly so in his bearskin, and keeping him upright on the ice is a bit like a desperate squirrel trying to stop a falling oak tree from hitting the ground. We're barely six steps onto the lake when his left foot sails wildly in a sharp diagonal, and trying to push it back only succeeds in toppling us both onto the ice. Peeta lands on his back and I sprawl gracelessly across him, pulled so abruptly by his weight and the force of its fall that my face smacks into his chest and I can't breathe for several moments – and even then I'm gasping for air through a thick layer of white bear's fur.
"You okay?" Peeta asks, cupping my head with one gloved hand, but his body is already shaking with silent laughter.
"Fine," I grunt through a mouthful of fur, and I lift my head with a groan.
"Hey," he says softly. His eyes are brighter than I've ever seen them – the blue of a crisp winter morning – and his hand lingers at the back of my hood. With a sigh and one quick movement, I could lay my head on his chest again, and I'm astonished by the force of the urge I feel to do just that.
"You still want to teach me to skate?" he asks, softer still, and for a moment I wonder if he might have heard my thoughts.
"Of course," I reply, climbing off him with another groan or two, then I help get his skates beneath him and slowly heft him up from a crouch. "I fell a dozen times when I first tried to skate," I tell him. "The main thing is to keep your knees slightly bent at all times – you'll have much better control of your movements that way – and relax into a fall, not tense up."
"Relax into a fall?" he says dubiously, but his eyes are smiling.
"It'll save you a world of aches and bruises afterward," I promise.
We have ample opportunity to test this theory. It takes Peeta's limbs a good while to find balance; to equate sliding a foot across ice on something as thin as a knife's blade to what he does on ski runners in deep snow, but he's steady and persistent and impossibly patient, with both his body's limitations and my own inexpert instruction. "Are you tired of this yet?" I ask, with more than a little apology, as I help him up from his fifth fall.
"Not at all," he assures me with a grin. "I'm having fun. You're a good teacher, Katniss."
I shrug this off as I get him upright once more, but an idea has come to me at the thought of skiing, and I skate around behind him and take hold of his waist. "This might be a bad idea," I warn. "But suppose we try it this way? I can prompt you to bend your knees and keep your strides small, and maybe having extra weight behind you will slow you down a little."
More than one of his falls has been the result of an overenthusiastic foot.
He gives a shaky laugh. "As you well know, you're light as a chickadee," he teases. "But it's worth a try."
I nudge the backs of his knees and they give beneath him, though he recovers quickly with a robust laugh and attempts a few cautious strides forward. When these are successful, his strides broaden – emboldened by success, he's getting ahead of himself again – and I catch hold of his right thigh, hoping to shorten the movement, but instead I startle him and he tumbles forward with a gasp, skates skittering madly for purchase on the ice. He catches himself on his hands and knees, and I crouch down to help him up yet again.
"Maybe," he rasps, "maybe I could hold on to you? That way you can set the pace, and it might be easier than trying to, um…hold me back."
There's a certain sense to this, despite our size difference, and I anticipate it'll be much easier to pull Peeta on ice than snow. "Okay," I say, and I guide him behind me, placing his hands on the wool over my hips. "You can feel the stride," I explain, swishing my skates back and forth to demonstrate, "and the weight shift. Just keep your knees soft and make small movements."
This proves the most successful of any of my methods thus far, which makes sense, really, when I think of learning to ski behind Peeta. With me in front setting the pace, he's able to follow remarkably well, so there's barely any dead-weight to pull behind me, and when my strides get too ambitious, his hands tighten on my hips, slowing me down. His knees bump the back of my legs every now and again, but it's a brief nudge and my balance is good. We don't take a single fall with me in front.
Peeta's hands on my hips are at once comforting and unsettling. Broad and strong and so steady, I feel a whisper of their heat with every movement of my thighs, and it helps me feel in tandem with him, as though our bodies are fused somehow; parts of the same whole. But it's also a very intimate hold. No one has ever touched my hips before, let alone held me by them, except for that one exuberant moment after Peeta took me skiing – when he lifted me up onto his kitchen worktop and fed me peanut butter cookie dough – and when I stop to recall it, my breath hitches in my throat.
"Are you okay?" Peeta murmurs against my hood. "You're probably getting tired of lugging me around. We can stop if you want."
I don't want to stop, not at all, which tells me clearly that it's time and past I should. "Sure," I tell him, easing free from his warm grip and skating in a little circle to face him. "I think we lost Pollux and Lavinia."
"They like to give us space," he says, chuckling as though this is a beloved old joke. "I want to work a little on your snow-girl, and then we'll challenge them to a snowball fight, if you like."
Peeta refers to his snow-Katniss – the snow-woman I made nearly a month ago now, which he sculpted to look like me – as my snow-girl, never as "Katniss" or his own creation. He's strangely devoted to maintaining her appearance and comes out after every substantial snowfall to clear and, if needed, re-carve her features with a meticulous degree of patience. He's added other little details over the past few weeks as well: a sheath of arrows across her narrow back, pebble buttons down the front of her carved "coat," a foraging bag over one "shoulder."
We help each other out of our skates then Peeta takes both pairs and my hand for good measure. "Come with me," he says with a grin, tugging me toward the snow-Katniss. "It's rare that I get the subject in the same room as the portrait, and I've got plenty to do after last night's snow."
"I thought there was no working today," I tease.
"This isn't work, Katniss," he replies, quite seriously, though his eyes are practically sparkling. "This is art. Pure pleasure."
He stands me alongside the snow-Katniss, like Pollux did when he tried to explain that she looked like me, and sets to work with no finer tools than a pocketknife and his gloved hands. He clears away the excess snow much as I remove the fat and flesh from a hide: slow, shallow strokes of the blade, taking care not to cut into the solid-packed snow beneath. I've watched him do this from a distance, but there's something breathtaking about being close enough to see every precise flick of the knife and sweep of a fingertip, clearing away snow dust. About the flash of long golden lashes and a blue brighter than the sky as his eyes flicker between my face and hers. About how carefully he shapes her lips, squinting a little as he assesses the contours then traces them with his thumb, and not to remove snow dust. It's a lover's touch, needless and tender, and a mad part of me wonders if he would kiss that carved-snow mouth if I weren't here, waiting and watching.
I wonder if it was a kiss that brought Grandma Lydda's snow maiden to life. After all, kisses are powerful things in nearly all of the old tales. Perhaps the couple who made her trudged away from where she stood, hearts heavy with loneliness, and she came to life not by a fairy's whim or a slant of light but a kiss from a passing village boy, drawn in by her small nose and stubborn little chin and that beautifully carved mouth that cries out to be kissed.
Perhaps she didn't melt in the spring but left to spend the balmy months with her sweetheart, the reverse of an even older tale of Granny Ashpet's, where the king of the earth and the queen of its bounty both loved a maiden, one as husband and the other as mother, and the girl divided her year between their kingdoms. Perhaps the snow maiden wintered with the parents who formed her, then lay all spring and summer and autumn long in sweet dappled shadows with the boy who had kissed her to life.
"You're looking very thoughtful," Peeta says, gently drawing me out of my fairytale wonderings.
"I was thinking of the snow maiden," I reply, "from Grandma Lydda's tale. You said they didn't know how she came to life, and I thought…maybe a kiss," I confess, blushing.
Peeta smiles at this but, to my relief, doesn't laugh. "I've wondered that myself," he says. "Suppose they made her at New Year's, near an evergreen tree, and tied ribbons to its boughs to give their pretend-child a festive home for the holiday. There's a special magic in New Year's kisses," he adds, very softly, as he traces the snow-Katniss's mouth once more. "At least, there was in Grandma Lydda's old tales."
Pollux and Lavinia join us then, laughing as they stumble through the drifts and point proudly toward the stable where they've built a lumpy, lopsided snow-Pollux and snow-Rye. "What, no sleigh?" Peeta asks with a wink, and Pollux gives him a good-natured shove in reply.
I take a moment to examine my own snowman and dust the fresh snow from his round head and scarf – Peeta's soft red scarf, still looped jauntily about his neck, even after a month of wind and snow. He's a child's creation, crudely formed and silly, but he's also a symbol of my new life here. One of the first things I did on my very first day at Peeta's house was play in the pure, sweet snow, making snow angels and throwing snowballs – and building this snowman.
"He's still my favorite," Peeta says, coming alongside me to fuss with the snowman's scarf. "When I saw him, I knew you could be happy here."
I look up at Peeta; at his worn wool stocking cap, my father's threadbare scarf, and his own priceless bearskin. At this gentle boy of opposites, who gave his fine new scarf to a snowman and wears a poor man's clothes instead. I want, more than I would have thought possible, to tug down Dad's scarf and press a kiss to Peeta's cheek, but he has a sweetheart, however oblivious, and I've made him a fur muffler as a material token of my admiration. I'm his huntress, a half-wild creature who shows her regard with gifts of meat and fur and feathers, not kisses and caresses and tender words. Peeta wouldn't welcome such behavior, and it would be embarrassing of me to try.
A snowball sails over my head: a warning shot, launched by an eager Pollux, and the fight is on. Peeta gives a playful shout and returns fire on my behalf, taking care to direct the game away from our snow-people so neither will be struck by a wayward throw. His throws aren't as precise as mine, but he's the strongest of us all, so his snowballs fly fast and hit hard. Pollux yelps when the first one strikes him squarely in the ribs, but he waves aside Peeta's apologies with a grin and gestures for the game to continue.
Lavinia makes small snow pellets, about the size of chicken eggs, and throws them at everyone – even Pollux, to his surprise and dismay. He gives her a look that clearly says Whose side are you on? but she only laughs and dodges back as she quickly forms snowball after snowball and tosses them at all of us. I focus my attack on Pollux, naturally, but he gets even fewer hits than before – because, I realize of a sudden, Peeta's shielding me. I thought he was just playing aggressively, moving in front of me to be nearer his target, but then he raises an hand to catch a snowball that would have struck my shoulder and hurls it back, half-powder, at Pollux.
He's been doing this all along, dancing in front of me and catching most of the blows, and I had simply thought it was how he played the game. But I see now that he's protecting me. He has been, all along, blocking their throws with the strong bulk of his body and concentrating his own throws on Pollux because Pollux is concentrating on me.
I don't know whether to be furious or touched or deeply confused by this behavior, but neither Pollux nor Lavinia look particularly surprised. They finally give up on trying to hit me at all and join forces, combining their snow-artillery and hurling every bit of it at Peeta, and something hot and fierce flares in my gut. I run directly into their line of fire and throw myself at Peeta, knocking him to the ground, then I huddle atop him, covering his head and chest and hips with my small body.
Safe, my heart growls, like a cougar over her cubs. Mine.
"Katniss," Peeta gasps beneath me. My face is mashed against his from forehead to nose tip, so close that I taste my name on his breath. The snow beneath us seeps through the knees of my trousers where they bracket his hips, but I couldn't care less. "Katniss," he says again, a sweet sigh of cider and honey and pine bark.
I rub my forehead against his in a semblance of a head-shake. "Safe," I tell him, and slip both hands beneath his head to cradle it a little. My sweet boy, I croon silently. Safe at last.
"I'm…okay, you know," he says, unconvincingly. His voice is rough and raw, less than a whisper. "It's just a game."
And what happens in the arena is just a game, I think. A game of fear and hunger and blood, where a wolverine and a bear and a brute Career hurt Peeta, hitting and crushing him and tearing his flesh, and all I could do was watch and weep.
I'm a huntress. I've killed more rabbits than any Career has ever seen; skinned and carved them and tanned their pelts to make a garment for this boy. I can sever a turkey's spine with a single bowshot and strike the heart of a young buck without piercing either lung. I'm small but fierce, worse than any wolverine, and no one is ever going to hurt my boy again.
His hands creep up to my face, slipping between the fur lining of my hood and my hot cheeks. "Sweetheart," he whispers, with a groan so deep I feel it between my thighs, where they part over his belly. "I thought I was protecting you."
I sit up quickly with a keening pain in my heart. Either Peeta is dazed from hitting his head – here on the ground or on the ice earlier – or he misses his girl so desperately that he's seeing her everywhere today. I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised. Our mouths were all but touching a moment ago, and Peeta believes in the magic of New Year's kisses. Maybe he thought I had become her, somehow – which hurts more than I could ever have imagined.
"I'm s-sorry," I stammer, mortified by my behavior. Beneath me, Peeta lies flushed and warm; his eyes a dark, drowned, drowsy blue. "I don't know what –"
"You protected me," he says, sitting up to bring us face to face once more.
"It's the first time I could," I whisper, and at once his arms are around me, holding me so close that my heart swells to bursting and hurls itself against my ribs, again and again. Let me out, let me out! it cries. Out of this tiny cage and into his hands.
I know I'm being foolish, trying so fiercely to protect Peeta from a friendly snowball fight, but for some reason he welcomes it. I want to take care of you too, I told him on the night I hissed and snarled and struck at him like a viper, and still he wrapped me in fur and held me close. Maybe he's never had such friends before, or known such care.
I think of his response to the stocking full of foraged things and butt my head against his neck like a goat kid in search of a pat. As much as it's in my power, this boy who gives me everything will never want for anything, ever again.
"How about some lunch?" he murmurs against my ear. "There's plenty of New Year's still to go, and I'm starting to feel a little sorry for Pollux and Lavinia."
I pull back in surprise and look around us to see that the Avoxes are gone – over at the stable, working on their snow-figures once more. Peeta wasn't kidding about them giving us space.
"I'll tell them," I say, climbing off him. "I owe them an apology as it is."
I dread the interaction that will come, anticipating coldness or hostility at my strange behavior, but both Pollux and Lavinia are smiling when I arrive, and I've barely opened my mouth when Pollux seizes me in a bear hug and kisses the top of my hood. "I'm sorry," I mumble against his parka. "I just…went a little crazy for a minute."
He shakes his head firmly and releases me so he can take out his slate. All okay, he writes, then he turns the slate back to add another message. Lavinia reads this one over his shoulder, only to give a startled sound and wipe away half of it with her damp mitten.
It now reads: We know you l
I raise my brows. We know you would have been sufficient; maybe even funny, coming from Pollux. What else did he write that Lavinia didn't want me to see?
I look up from the slate to find his eyes unusually serious. The way he looked at me the first time we went into the woods, when I tried to dust out the words he'd written in the snow.
You love him, I'd said. So do you, he replied.
I shake my head at the words that hang between us. "No," I tell him. "I care about him; take care of him."
Pollux shrugs, a noncommittal gesture that suggests he either doesn't believe me or doesn't see much difference between what he implied and what I countered with, and Lavinia hits his shoulder with a scowl. She tugs his slate over to her, pulling on his neck in the process, and wipes away all of its contents with a mittened hand.
Know how much you care, she writes. Weren't upset. Or surprised.
"Okay," I say, mollified a little by her reassurance. "I'm sorry, though. I didn't mean to break up the game."
Pollux snatches back his slate, rubs away her message with the heel of his hand, and writes quickly.
Trust me: NO ONE was upset that it ended like that.
I've barely read the last word when Lavinia yanks the slate away and smacks Pollux in the chest with it. I've never seen her like this: a little angry and thoroughly exasperated. Then again, she's known Pollux much longer than I have, and I imagine the effect he has on people only increases with time.
"I thought you came to apologize, not start another fight," Peeta teases from behind me. He looks, more than anything, highly amused by Pollux and Lavinia's altercation. "There's lunch in the stable, if anyone wants to join me."
We follow him inside and strip off our damp outer garments while he lays out the woolen blankets he keeps in the sleigh, in a sort of picnic fashion, in front of the stable stove. We join him, sitting cross-legged in a circle, and he sheds his own outer layers, then sits beside me to unpack our meal.
It's not unlike the typical contents of my lunch pouch, times four. There are tall flasks of cider and hot chocolate, half-loaves of three kinds of bread with butter and goat cheese for spreading, cold sausage and hard cheeses and boiled eggs, iced gingerbread and frosted sugar cookies, apples and carrots – plenty for us and Rye to enjoy – and an enormous crock filled with morsels of cold roast chicken.
I turn my face against Peeta's shoulder to hide my tears and press a kiss to its curve. He catches his breath, but I pull away again without looking at him. I'm a huntress, after all; a feral thing, suited to gifts of meat and hide and bones, not kisses and caresses. Peeta can't like it when I forget myself like this, and I know he doesn't want such tender gestures from me.
But it doesn't stop him from making a sandwich of cold chicken and goat cheese on nutty seed bread and shyly offering it to me.
None of us is especially hungry, in light of our massive breakfast, but all the exertion in the snow has stirred up our appetites, and we each eat a respectable fourth of the meal with ease. I'm still a little hungry when we're done, not to mentioned surprised at the absence of a baked sweet for dessert, but Peeta grins in answer to my puzzled half-frown and reaches back into the hamper to remove a dense round cake, dark gold in color and about the size of a dinner plate.
"I promised you cakes after New Year's," he reminds me as he reaches for a knife. "I thought this would be a fun way to start. I call it 'Rye's Cake,'" he says, his eyes dancing. "It's made with rye flour and oats, apples, carrots, cinnamon, molasses – and a few sugar cubes, of course."
We all laugh heartily at this – a cake made of Rye's favorite foods, with his namesake thrown in for good measure – though I can't deny my mouth is watering at the prospect. "Can Rye have some too?" I ask, more out of curiosity than anything else. Lady will eat absolutely anything, but I have no idea if ponies share the same sort of appetite.
Peeta grins. "He's a baker's pony, Katniss," he says. "He's stolen shortbread and cookies and bites of sandwich right out of my hand. I'd be wounded if he didn't gobble it up."
He slices the cake into generous fifths and takes the extra himself over to Rye's stall. "Hey boy," he says, calling to the pony with an affectionate cluck of his tongue, but Rye's long face is already reaching over the door as he stretches his neck toward Peeta, eager for a treat. "Easy now," Peeta says, breaking off the point of the slice and holding it out on his palm. "Give that a try."
Rye lips up the bite of cake as greedily as he would a carrot or piece of apple and immediately swings his muzzle toward Peeta's other hand, which holds the rest of the slice. Peeta laughs and breaks off a larger piece this time, and Rye takes it directly from his fingers.
"Horses have a sweet tooth," Peeta explains over his shoulder as he feeds Rye the rest of the slice, bit by bit. "It's why they like sugar and apples and carrots so much. You don't want to go overboard, of course, but it's a good way to get them to behave when they're being stubborn." The cake being gone, he presses a quick kiss to the pony's muzzle and ruffles his mane then comes back to join us at our stove-side picnic.
After watching Rye devour the cake, I'm a little doubtful as to how good it can taste to a human palate, but my first cautious bite is so moist and rich and sweet that I melt a little against Peeta. You should know better by now, chides a voice in my head. Has this boy ever made anything that was less than delicious? "This is amazing," I sigh, gazing up at him in what is undoubtedly both wonder and disbelief.
"My pony has good taste," he replies with a grin, and eases an arm around my shoulders.
I don't sit up again as I finish my cake, and Peeta doesn't take his arm away. I've grown increasingly sleepy since we sat down to our meal, and my eyes drift shut as I lean against Peeta's shoulder. "Right on schedule," he says tenderly, brushing back a strand of hair that's escaped my braid. "Once we've gone round the square, visited the neighbors, and finished lunch, Mellarks always nap. New Year's is a busy day, and we've got supper and presents still to come – and bakery work the next morning, all the earlier."
"You want us to nap?" I ask drowsily, and am rewarded with a kiss on the top of my head.
"Yes," Peeta murmurs against my hair. "Anywhere you like, for as long as you like. I'll be up first to start supper, and I can wake the rest of you if it starts to get late."
He helps me to my feet and back into my coat, cap, and scarves, then he bends to clean up our picnic while Pollux and Lavinia each take a handful of carrot and apple pieces over to feed Rye. "Go rest, Katniss," he urges. "This will only take a minute or two, and we'll wake you in plenty of time for supper."
I make my way back to the house, but by the time I'm there and out of my outerwear and boots, the wave of sleepiness has passed. I know I should probably still nap and undoubtedly will, but first I need to take advantage of everyone's absence and hide Peeta's muffler among the hearthside presents. I change clothes before I do, though, leaving my snow-dampened corduroys on the warming rack to dry thoroughly and slipping back into my festive nightgown, which is still flung across the foot of the bed where I left it this morning in my rush to dress for going outside.
Barefoot on fire-warmed fur and wrapped shoulders to ankles in pretty flannel, I tie the red ribbon at the neckline of my nightgown, feeling warm and content and spoiled beyond words. As an afterthought I tug the tie from my braid and finger-comb the sections, then shake my head at my reflection. Katniss Everdeen, wearing a nightgown and unplaiting her hair in the middle of a day of pure leisure. This might be the most unusual part of Peeta's New Year's yet.
I tuck the wrapped muffler under my arm and scurry downstairs, swift and silent as a field mouse. I can hear Peeta in the kitchen, washing the dishes from our lunch, and no one is currently in the living room, so I dip beneath the kissing bough and make my way to the fireside to slip the muffler between the striped sweet-shop box and the large, soft parcel from my mother. No one will notice another gift hidden there.
This being done, I pause beside the low table where my New Year's orange still lies and cup it in both hands, like the treasure it is.
"We can do that now, if you want," says Peeta's voice softly from the doorway, and I look up to see him standing directly beneath the kissing bough, a dishtowel in his hands. "Unless there's a special time, or way – or you're too tired –"
"Not at all," I tell him, and wonder why I've suddenly lost the ability to draw an even breath. "I mean: now is great."
"I'll be right back, then," he says, and I sit in the armchair nearest the hearth, toying with the orange, while he returns to the kitchen. I feel like I did on the lake today when he held me by the hips: comforted and unsettled all at once. There should be some sort of ritual to what we're about to do, not just sitting here and sharing an orange, and I feel a little foolish for having suggested it. Peeta wants to make this our own tradition, but what significance is there in sharing a single orange on New Year's Day when he feeds me all the oranges and orange juice I want every other day of the year?
Peeta comes back with his hands full: an empty soup bowl, his pine-patterned teapot, and the enormous bowl-sized mug. "I made cinnamon tea for us to share," he says shyly, setting the mug on the table and pouring it full. "I thought: cinnamon and oranges go well together, but if you don't –"
"That sounds great," I blurt. "So, um…where should we…?"
"You tell me," he says. "This was something you did with your dad – at the fireside, right?"
I think back to that New Year's, sitting on Dad's lap in Granny Ashpet's rocking chair, and I blush. I can hardly sit on Peeta's lap, but it doesn't feel right to just sit side-by-side on the sofa, like on every other day. "Sit here," I tell him, clambering out of the armchair. The seat is plenty wide; I should be able to squeeze in alongside him.
"Okay," he says, looking a little confused as he takes the seat. "What about you? Where will you be?"
"Um…right there," I reply, pointing at the worrisomely narrow remainder of seat cushion beside his right hip. "We're supposed to sit together, and if you inch over a bit –"
"Katniss," he interrupts, very quietly. "You can sit on my lap if you want. If you…it's okay."
I've been in Peeta's lap before, when he comforted me after my dream of Granny Ashpet and the twin fawns – and also the day he tried to put me to bed on the sofa, when I clung to him in my sleep and forced him to sit and hold me for half an hour. And this is just sharing an orange and tea; I'm neither crying nor sleeping nor begging to be held.
"Okay," I say, and settle carefully on his knees. "Is…is this all right?"
Peeta slips an arm around my waist and tugs me firmly backward, so my back is against his chest and my backside rests on his thighs. "More than all right," he sighs into my hair. He reaches for a blanket from the warming rack to drape across my lap, then he curls both arms around my waist and leans up to rest his chin on my shoulder, spooning himself against my back. "Do you want to peel the orange," he asks, "or should I?"
I steal one big hand from where it lies against my ribs and press the orange into it, and I feel Peeta smile against my neck. "Fair enough," he says. He takes the orange between his hands, resting them on the blanket that covers my lap, then he pierces the skin with his thumbnail and peels it back with about three smooth motions of his broad thumbs. "In spring Dad makes an orange curd filling for wedding cakes," he explains with a chuckle. "So we've all gotten pretty good at peeling oranges."
I reach for the bowl he brought, having guessed it's for collecting the orange peel and any seeds we might find. "I figured you'd want to keep this for something," he says, laying the peel inside. "Unless there's something special you did with it that New Year's – like putting it on the fire to scent the house?"
Peeta saves all of his orange peels: for his birds, for scenting the hearths, for adding to cider and tea, for grating into breads and cakes like my mother did. "We enjoyed the peel from that New Year's orange for a long time after," I tell him. "Even a little bit of it added to tea or bread made for a special treat."
"I'll do something extra special with this one, then," he promises.
He runs a thumbnail along one seam and gently opens the peeled orange into two perfect halves, and my mouth waters at the sight of the plump sections, all but bursting with juice. "What now?" he murmurs against my shoulder, and I turn sideways on his lap, drawing up my knees beneath the blanket.
"Now," I say, "we each take a half and, um…we feed each other."
It's a simple thing, little different from what my father and I did six years ago, and yet there's something heart-catchingly intimate about doing this with Peeta. We've fed each other bits of food before but never like this: curled together beneath a blanket in a fireside armchair, with me in his lap.
Peeta slips an arm beneath my knees to pull me even closer, and we take turns separating our orange halves into sections and raising the bright half-moons to each other's mouth. The second one bursts with juice between Peeta's teeth and squirts my fingers with sweet stickiness, making us both laugh. I bring that hand to my mouth, meaning to lick it clean, but Peeta catches my wrist and draws my fingers back to his mouth instead. "That's mine, greedy gosling," he teases, and closes his mouth around my juice-spattered fingers for a quick, thorough suck.
I feel his tongue, hot and soft beneath my fingertips, and something lurches in my belly, something deep and fierce and terrifying. I pull my fingers from his mouth with a wet pop that only intensifies the feeling, and I realize he's just as startled as I am. His face is flushed, but not with embarrassment, and his eyes are wide, the pupils enormous. "I'm sorry, Katniss," he whispers. "I was just being silly."
"I know you were," I whisper back. He was just trying to lick the juice from his orange from my fingers, as might a child. It's a ridiculous thing for a sixteen-year-old to do, maybe, but not unheard of, and Peeta's been in a playful mood for most of the week. I can understand why he did it. I just don't understand why it felt like that, so hot and strange and primal.
"We can stop, if you want," he says. "I can leave –"
"No," I plead, curling my fingers in the front of his sweater. "I don't know why I reacted like that, and I'm sorry. Please stay?"
"Always," he sighs with evident relief, and he nuzzles my forehead with his cheek. "Can you reach the tea?" he asks. "I just – it might be…safer."
I cradle the mug to his chest, where we can very nearly both sip from it at once, and in between mouthfuls of warm, heady cinnamon we bring orange sections to each other's lips. Now and again one will leak a few sticky golden droplets onto our fingers, but we lick them clean ourselves, and I try not to look too closely at Peeta's tongue as it runs along his fingertips, nor remember how it felt beneath mine.
Little by little my drowsiness returns, and I rest my head against Peeta's shoulder as he continues to feed me orange sections and small sips of tea, cooled by his breath. "This is nice," I murmur.
"It is," he agrees, the words a fragrant sigh of cinnamon and sweet orange against my brow. "Maybe we could do this again sometime – before next New Year's?"
"Any day," I yawn, burrowing my face into the warm, musky hollow of his neck. "Every day."
I must fall asleep then, because the next thing I know, I'm lying on a bed and abruptly cold, despite the heavy fur spread over me. "No," I whimper, reaching blindly in the direction where I last felt warmth and catching hold of a woolen sleeve over a muscular forearm. "Please don't go," I whisper. "Lie down with me, just for a little."
If I were slightly more conscious, I would be mortified by these words, but in this strange dreamlike moment I'm aware only of a desperate need to keep this person close. They don't reply, but neither do they pull away – or make any move at all – and I add as a final plea: "It's New Year's. No working, and everyone naps after lunch. Please."
My fur cover is carefully turned back, and with a little give in the mattress, I roll into someone's arms. It's sweet and musky and deliciously warm there, and I press closer still to lay my cheek on a firm chest. A heart pounds beneath my ear, fleet and frantic, like the hooves of a doe racing a wolf pack. I like this place, I think. I belong here.
"You have no idea, do you?" whispers Peeta – the fairytale riddle, repeated a fourth time now – and I feel his fingers in my hair, stroking its length from scalp to tips. "My huntress. How fitting it is to call you that."
I curl my arms around his waist and tangle my fingers against his spine. I wonder if I am the moon again. If I'm naked beneath this coverlet, or perhaps pregnant with his fawns. "I hunt for you," I say.
"You lay snares with your eyes," he whispers, a distant echo as sleep overtakes me once more. "And I step into every single one of them. Gladly."
It's fully dark outside when Lavinia comes to wake me, and I've never been so reluctant to move in all my life. I'm in my own bed, lying on top of the blankets and covered with the extra fur from the chest at the foot of the bed, with a pine needle pillow tucked beneath my head.
I frown, stroking my fingers over the place beside me. No one's there, of course, and the fox fur coverlet is cool to the touch, not warm with the echo of another's body heat. I only dreamt that Peeta lay down with me; that we held each other as we slept away the afternoon.
But I know I fell asleep in the armchair as we shared our New Year's orange and cinnamon tea. If I only dreamt that he carried me up to bed and then stayed when I asked him to, how did I get here?
"Lavinia," I say, sitting up, "was Peeta…was I alone all afternoon?"
She steps close to the bed and tilts my chin with a gentle hand, regarding me solemnly, then she lifts my left arm and guides the sleeve beneath my nose. I breathe in, feeling ridiculous, and the smell that meets my nose is faint but unmistakable.
Musk. Boy-musk. The musk of Peeta's body.
"Oh no," I groan.
At least half of what I remember from earlier is a dream, this much I know for certain, but Peeta's scent on my sleeve means that we were physically very close, for an hour or more, and not long ago. That, likelier than not, I asked him to lie down with me here, and he did.
I'm not sure why he agreed – to spare my feelings? to indulge a half-conscious request? – but I feel terrible for it, especially in light of what I recall of sharing our orange at the fireside. Curling up in his lap. Falling asleep on his shoulder. Pulling my fingers from his mouth in horror when all he wanted to do was lick up a few stray drops of orange juice.
I wonder if I could stay up here for the rest of the night and have Lavinia just bring me a plate of supper.
Apparently I speak this thought aloud, because Lavinia raises her eyebrows sharply and tugs up the slate from beneath her sweater. NO, she writes in large block letters, followed by a list of sorts:
She's right, of course, on all counts. However embarrassing it will be to face Peeta tonight, I can't very well skip a New Year's feast that I helped provide, and as doubtful as I am about him liking the muffler, it's my huntress gift. The fur and down from my kills, cleaned and tanned and stitched together into something practical and warm, just for him. If I'm not there when he opens it, he might not even know what it is.
And however much I don't deserve presents, I owe it to Mom and Prim and whoever else sent me things to go downstairs and open them.
I give Lavinia a resigned little shrug and climb out of bed. I look at her then, really look at her, and realize she's taken special care with her appearance tonight. She's utterly stunning at all times, of course, even sleepy and unkempt like she was this morning, but tonight she seems to have stepped out of one of Grandpa Asa's fairy tales. Her vibrant hair is braided round her head in a fiery crown, and she wears a long, billowing skirt of green-and-red plaid with a finely woven sweater of evergreen wool. It turns her pale skin the color of fresh cream and her hazel eyes the warm caramel-gold of the sweet-shop's toffee buttons. Neither Peeta nor Pollux will be able to take their eyes off her.
I know well how it feels when someone's eyes slide over you, relegating you to part of the scenery, and up till now, I've been glad of it. Being invisible, as it were, makes trading and scavenging much easier and, of course, spares undue attention to the state of my patched, shabby clothing – or, in our leanest days, my hollow, scrawny body, little better than tendon and bone beneath my father's overlarge sweaters.
But tonight, somehow, I know it will hurt to be overlooked.
For the first time ever, Lavinia doesn't give me a choice of clothing. There's a single outfit on the warming rack, and she hands it to me one deliberate piece at a time. Underthings the color of a storm cloud. Silvery silk stockings, feather-light and fragile as cobwebs. A month ago I would have snagged them beyond repair simply by touching them with my callused fingers. Four weeks of Capitol soaps and creams may have worked wonders in softening my skin, but still I draw the stockings up my legs with breathless care.
Finally she slips a dress over my head: the dove gray one from my drawer that Peeta bought for me before I came here. Like the stockings, it's made of silk; soft and shimmering like starlight on the lake, with delicate cap sleeves, a knee-length skirt, and little pearlescent buttons that span from the collar to the high waistline.
I've never worn anything so beautiful in my life, and Lavinia gives a little gasp at the sight of me in it. Beautiful, she writes on her slate. Silver. She gestures at my eyes, and I look in the mirror to gasp in my turn.
My olive skin is light with its winter pallor, but the dress turns my Seam-gray eyes to silver and makes my black hair luminous, even tangled as it is from my half-hearted unplaiting and a good deal of slumber to boot. I've never thought of myself as beautiful in the least, but in this fairytale dress of lake waves and starlight, I could almost believe it.
Lavinia seats me at the dressing table and brushes my hair till it lies smooth and sleek about my shoulders, then she helps me into a pair of high-buttoned shoes; the sort that Merchant girls wear for holidays and toastings and Reaping Day. I look between us as she does so, taking in our fine clothes with a frown of puzzlement. It's not uncommon to dress up on New Year's, of course. Back when Dad was alive, it was one of few days in the year when Mom took out her pretty Merchant dresses, to Prim's and my delight. We stroked the lace and velvet with awed fingertips at every opportunity and dreamt of a day when we would have something as fine to wear ourselves. Our holiday dresses – like our everyday ones – were hand-me-downs, bartered from a neighbor or at the Hob and made over by Mom with scraps of lace from the remnant bin or a little bric-a-brac.
But what Lavinia and I are wearing tonight is the sort of thing that the wealthiest Merchant girls wear at New Year's. I've seen them crossing the square in giggling bunches, lamplight glinting off their high-buttoned shoes and silk stockings and jewel-bright hems peeping out from beneath their long wool coats. They make themselves pretty for their parties and their sweethearts; for the ribbons and kisses to come at the end of the night.
But even if Peeta has declared this a daylong party, neither Lavinia nor I have a sweetheart in attendance. So who are we dressing up for?
Lavinia kisses the top of my head – pronouncing me "done" – and goes to the door, but I hesitate beside the bed and finally reach beneath the pillow I slept on last night, where I tucked the wintergreen sprig from my companion before falling asleep. I've nearly convinced myself that I only dreamt their strange gift and half expect to find nothing there, but the proof meets my fingers straightaway: plump bright berries and cool green leaves, and none the worse for spending the day under my pillow.
I tuck the sprig behind my right ear; a splash of festive color against my dark hair and a striking contrast to the muted colors of my dress and stockings. It feels very right to wear it this evening – and of course, if one of the people present is my companion, maybe they'll react to seeing it.
I want them to see it; to know that I treasure their gift…but I wonder if I truly want them to react. If I truly want to know.
But by then Lavinia has a hand around my wrist and is tugging me impatiently out the door. Once we're in the hallway, she points at the wintergreen sprig with a mysterious smile and tilts her head to lie on her hands, miming sleep. She's never made this gesture before, but I can easily guess what it means.
"Yes," I whisper, leaning close to her ear. "They left it on my pillow last night."
It feels jarring to mention my companion outside of my bedroom; to talk about them at all, really, as though I'm betraying their trust. But Lavinia only smiles widely and scribbles a quick, cryptic message – It's about time – before putting away her slate.
I wonder briefly what she means, but the moment we reach the top of the stairs, my mind and senses are caught up in a rich cloud of the most glorious smells imaginable. Burning pine wood and freshly cut pine boughs. Hot roast venison and spiced wine, tart with cranberries. Baked squash and fresh bread and a heady golden cake.
And oranges. The entire house is redolent with orange, sweet and spiced, as though Peeta threw peels on every last hearth and boiled kettles full of them till even the timbers of the house echoed back their scent. Something jolts in my belly, the same hot, eager something that terrified me in that brief half-second when Peeta sucked on my fingers, and I wonder if the smell of oranges will have this effect on me for the rest of my life. It doesn't remind me of my father any longer: of one glorious New Year's in a dark expanse of poverty and cold and hunger; of cuddling in his arms and drifting to sleep on his lap. It reminds me of Peeta now: of warm, musky hollows and cinnamon-sweetened breath in my face; of firelight on our skin and a fur coverlet turning back as strong arms close around me.
Not for me, not for me, not for me! says the voice in my head, screaming now, like a sobbing child pounding its fists as it flails on the floor in a tantrum. I stumble on the stairs and try to turn around, but Lavinia curls an arm through mine, steadying me, before guiding me down the rest of the way.
I think I might love this red-haired girl, who comforts me better than my own mother ever did, without even knowing what's wrong. "Thank you," I tell her, snugging my arm around hers in turn. Her eyes seek no further explanation, and I'm happy not to provide one.
We arrive at the dining room then, and I forget my strange moment of distress at the fairy tale that awaits us there. On the table, set for four tonight, is a true New Year's feast: at one end, a hearty venison roast sprinkled with rosemary – no, pine needles – and on the other venison ribs, their dark, delicious curves rubbed thoroughly with herbs and mouthwatering at a glance. Between these are platters of squash and boiled potatoes, both slick with butter; a round loaf of bread, bursting with cranberries; a small mountain of fresh cheese buns; Peeta's soup tureen, full of a rich, gamey stew – most likely venison, in a stock made from its bones – and a savory rice dish with mushrooms, chestnuts, and shallots. On either end of the table are bowls of honey-glazed nuts and baked apples and, of course, tall steaming pitchers brimming with Grandma Lydda's spiced wine.
The fireplace and sideboard are framed with fresh pine boughs; not for kissing, just for decoration and their sweet, resinous scent, and there are smaller boughs on the table as well, along with half a dozen plump beeswax candles, their golden columns studded – festively and fragrantly – with allspice berries, star anise, and little chips of cinnamon.
Pollux is waiting by the fireplace, dressed in a thick gray sweater and dark corduroy trousers, and I look at him just long enough to see that he's trimmed his beard for the occasion – and then my eyes light on Peeta. He stands at the table, his curly head down as he places a spoon – the crude maple one I made for him in the woods yesterday – in the rice dish, and the sight of him knocks the breath from my lungs like a blow.
I've seen Peeta in both Capitol finery and tribute costumes, any of which could take your breath away with their beauty, ingenuity, and grandeur. Before tonight, I might have said he couldn't wear anything that would surprise me.
Tonight he stands beside his feast dressed like a Merchant on his wedding day. A shirt of soft white linen with full drop sleeves; a waistcoat of deep blue velvet, fastened to the neck with bright brass buttons; and crisp brown trousers. I've seen such a boy often enough, golden-haired and laughing as he leaves the Justice Building with his new wife on his arm. A pink-cheeked Merchant bride in her mother's wedding dress, her golden hair braided round her head and threaded with green or white ribbons.
Merchant boys might dress like that at New Year's too, I suppose, but bundled as they are in jaunty scarves and heavy wool coats, I wouldn't know the difference. Tonight Peeta is a bridegroom arrayed for his toasting, and I can't tell whether that breaks my heart or steals it from my chest.
He looks up, his blue eyes widening as they find me, and his mouth drops open. His chest jerks with a ragged breath. "Katniss," he says – or maybe he sighs it. "You…you're the moon."
I look down at myself…at this weightless garment of silvery gray that dances about me like a curl of smoke and leaves my legs bare. Dressed in shadow and wind, I think, and my hair silken-smooth, unfurling behind me like a banner.
Do you share my dreams? my mind clamors, half in terror and half elation. Did you lie in my arms in a willow cradle after painting the sky for me? Is that why you find my fawn-children beautiful – and is that how you are able to paint them? Because you saw that moment too: your huntress and mate, naked in your arms, and your twin fawns moving in her belly?
He comes to me in the span of a single heartbeat, but he doesn't take me in his arms like I expect. He doesn't touch me at all – it's almost like he's afraid to – but stands with his hands fussing at his sides and his eyes full of something at once tender and sharp with sorrow. "I never thought," he whispers, half raising his right hand, as though he wants to stroke my cheek but doesn't dare to. "I knew you were beautiful, Katniss – so beautiful – but this –"
"Please hold me," I whisper. I should know better than to ask him for anything ever again, let alone today, but the space between us pulses like an angry wound and I can't bear the ache a moment longer.
His arms close around me, sleeves billowing like swan's wings, and I nestle my cheek against the warm velvet of his waistcoat. "You look beautiful too," I murmur. He still hasn't showered, and I hide my smile against one musky shoulder.
"This is traditional Mellark holiday garb," he says, combing his fingers through my hair with a shaky laugh. "I've never heard it called 'beautiful' before, but I'll take it."
I lean back to look into his eyes and wonder how this perceptive boy, wise well beyond his years, can be so painfully oblivious. Is it so impossible to believe that he's handsome, when it's plain as day to those around him? Does he think that the loss of his leg makes him unattractive – in any way? Or is it his sweetheart's rejection that makes him defer a compliment to his clothing?
I bite back a scowl at thoughts of her and wish I'd kept that extra parcel of venison for Peeta instead. A girl who can't see Peeta Mellark for the prize that he is will hardly see the value in venison ribs.
"You scented the whole house with oranges," I say, and wonder foolishly if their fragrance reminds him, and will forever, of me. Of holding his huntress at the fireside and feeding her oranges and cinnamon tea. Of carrying her upstairs to bed and joining her there when she asked. "Was that our orange peel…from earlier?" I ask, willing my cheeks not to flush.
"It was indeed," he replies, smiling through a determined blush of his own. "I promised to make you something extra special, and you'll get it after supper. It's a New Year's surprise," he adds with a playful wink.
We sit down to supper, with Pollux and Peeta at the ends of the table and Lavinia and me on either side, and I consider again how like a family the four of us have become. It feels good – and oddly natural – that we should share this New Year's meal, like kin or sweethearts or the very closest of friends.
I think of Mom and Prim, of course, and even miss them a little, but it's more a matter of curiosity than true longing. I wonder what they're eating tonight, and where. Whether they liked the cookies I chose for them, and how they felt at their first taste of snow ice cream. How many ribbons bedeck their kissing boughs, and where they will go at the end of the night.
"I have it on good authority that your mom and Prim are enjoying New Year's supper with my family," Peeta remarks, as though reading my thoughts. He fills a bowl with venison stew, thick with carrots, onions, and potatoes, and passes it to me with a smile. "Aunt Rooba and her kids will be there too. They're a pretty lively bunch," he chuckles, "but the nicest people you ever met, and they always help in the kitchen."
I smile back at him, envisioning tiny Prim surrounded by Rooba's robust, stocky brood and Peeta's broad-shouldered father and brothers. She'll be dwarfed in their presence – a wood violet among boulders – and wrap each and every one of them around her dainty fingers with one winsome smile.
We eat without haste: first stew, then ribs, then roast – then we start all over with the stew again. Peeta has outdone himself with venison, and I resolve to bring home another young buck as soon as I can, if only to see how else he can prepare it. The stew meat is vibrant with pepper and red wine; the ribs rich with garlic, crushed and rubbed deeply into the meat; the roast earthy and pleasantly sharp with whispers of pine – and all of it so impossibly tender that it melts off the bones and falls apart on my tongue. "Peeta," I sigh appreciatively, "maybe you should have been a butcher's son."
He laughs. "High praise indeed," he replies. "Aunt Rooba told me that very thing after a month of working with me in the kitchen, and I hoped that meant I was ready to cook for you." I raise my brows at this, making him blush. "It's enough for me to be a huntress's companion," he says. "To be worthy of filling her table and cooking her game."
"Peeta," I chide, but my cheeks are burning at his praise – and hotter still when I realize that Pollux and Lavinia are watching me with identical expressions of amusement. "Everything you make is delicious beyond compare," I tell him firmly. "I'm the one who needs to be worthy of it."
He shakes his head, and his smile falters for a split second. "I told you," he says, very gently. "It's the other way around."
I remember those words only too well from the night I was certain I'd lost him, along with this home – this whole fairytale life – because of my anger and desperation to repay his goodness in any way possible. I remember his tears – his grief – at the thought that I would rather offer up my body for his pleasure than freely accept his gifts.
The only thing he wants in all the world is to give – to me – and I tried to cheapen his goodness by paying for it.
"I know," I say quietly, "a-and I'm sorry. It's just…old habits."
"I know," he answers, and slips his hand among the pine boughs and candles to squeeze mine reassuringly. "I'm not angry, Katniss, and never would be. Those habits helped you survive, and I can only be grateful for that."
I turn my hand beneath his and squeeze it in turn. "But I still don't deserve your cooking," I insist.
"That may well be true," he teases. "As much as I love these two – " he gestures at Pollux and Lavinia with his free hand – "I can't really trust them when it comes to opinions on my cooking." He gives them a rueful smile – clearly he means no offense – and they reply with grins. "And for all I know," he says to me, grinning himself now, "you're just being nice."
"Does that sound like me?" I ask.
The words are out of my mouth before I've had a moment to think about them, and everyone at the table laughs at once; a short burst, quickly subdued, but enough to make my blush return with a vengeance. All three of them have seen me at my worst, even if only for a moment. I managed to be angry at Peeta the very first night I came here, cold and poor and hollow with hunger, as he showered me with luxury and comfort. Rubbing warmth into my hands and feet, bringing me to a golden kitchen that smelled of fresh bread, feeding me hot chocolate with toast cubes and sweet apple slices, leading me to a bed covered in furs.
It's difficult enough for me to "just be nice" when I like what Peeta does. There's no danger of me flattering his cooking, or anything else.
"Fair enough," Peeta says. Our hands are still entwined among the evergreen, and he strokes his thumb across my palm in small, exquisite circles. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying to make you the most amazing meals in the world."
"I should hope not," I answer with a deliberately impish grin. "I'm expecting the most amazing cakes in the world, starting tomorrow."
"You'll get them," he promises, bringing my hand to his mouth and pressing a kiss to the knuckles. "And so much more."
Lavinia makes a small sound, and I glance away from Peeta to see her watching us intently, a half-smile curving her beautiful mouth. We're not doing anything wrong or even unusual for us, but something about having witnesses to this moment makes me quickly withdraw my hand from Peeta's and turn back to my meal.
It's too intimate, I think. They might misunderstand. Might see a lonely boy and a hungry girl, seeking something more than company from each other.
I raise a boiled potato to my mouth and break the butter-slick skin with my teeth. Huntress and companion, I think. It's more than I ever dreamt I'd be to anyone, let alone Peeta Mellark. More than enough, in this fairytale life he's given me.
We all eat and drink heartily of everything on the table, and yet there's still a meal's worth of food, maybe more, left over when we're done. My eyes linger on the end of the venison roast – one scrap of tonight's feast, containing more meat than my family saw for weeks on end this winter – and I know there will be a sandwich of it in my lunch pouch tomorrow. Cold, deliciously piney venison on cranberry bread, and maybe a little crock of boiled potatoes too.
"Our dessert is a little…out of season," Peeta cautions as he leaves to retrieve it from the kitchen. "I hope no one minds."
He returns with the cake I smelled earlier and half forgot about in the face of so much venison, prepared so many delicious ways. It's twice the height of Rye's cake and covered in silky cream-colored frosting, with a pattern of perfect little oranges and leafy vines winding across the top and spilling down the sides.
Peeta bakes for me daily, but not usually cakes and never this fancy. "I mentioned this to Katniss earlier," he says, "just offhand, as something my Dad makes in the spring, and then I realized it was a pretty mean trick to play on New Year's. To tell someone about an amazing dessert at holiday-time and then proceed not to make it for them."
He cuts a generous wedge and serves it to me on a little pine-patterned plate. It's a rich yellow cake, flecked with spices, with two glorious golden layers and a thin layer of creamy orange in-between. "It's the wedding cake I told you about," he says, his eyes at once shy and eager. "With orange curd filling."
My heart skitters in my chest like a terrified mousekin, and my breath stills in my lungs. A piece of wedding cake, baked and sliced and served to me by a Merchant bridegroom on New Year's Day. If we were on our knees before the living room fire, we would be married by now.
Not for me. Not for me. Not for me.
"Is it okay?" Peeta wonders, perceptive as always. "Did you want something else?"
Of course he doesn't mean it like that; doesn't mean anything by it. He made this particular cake because he'd mentioned it to me earlier, nothing more. Being a wedding cake had nothing to do with it. Maybe he thought it would be especially appropriate for the occasion in light of our new tradition of a shared New Year's orange – or even just our mutual love of oranges.
"It's perfect," I tell him. "Did you use my orange peel in it?"
"Not quite," he says with a small, secret smile. "I made you something else with that; something special, I hope. This uses half a dozen oranges on its own."
I envision sitting in Peeta's lap as his broad hands peel half a dozen oranges on my knees, one after another, and open them gently into perfect halves of plump, juicy sections. "Half a dozen oranges," I say faintly. "Now you're just spoiling me."
"It was never my intention to do anything else," he says tenderly, brushing my cheek with a fingertip. "Try it."
I raise a forkful to my mouth and whimper with raw pleasure. The icing is buttery and weightless and sweet all at once, the cake spiced with nutmeg – Peeta's favorite, and mine too – and the orange curd is sheer bliss: bright and juicy as an orange should be, but smooth and creamy at the same time. My tongue can't comprehend what it's tasting, but it wants more – so much more.
"Good, I take it?" Peeta teases as I cut another forkful and let it melt on my tongue, savoring each one of its lush flavors with little sighs and moans. "Dad makes dozens of these every April. We peel so many oranges that our fingers smell of them for weeks," he laughs. "Mom makes us wash our hands twice before kneading so the breads don't all taste like orange."
I imagine Peeta's strong hands scented with oranges for weeks on end and feel an echo of the hot lurch in my belly from earlier. I hope he doesn't mean to make this cake often. A Merchant wedding cake, and his fingers fragrant with orange…There's a good possibility my body might combust.
I wonder if he's ever made this cake for his sweetheart, or if he means to, and the thought sours the bite in my mouth. Of course he will. She's a Merchant girl – deserving of a Merchant wedding cake – and he's a baker's son. He could woo her with cakes alone, if he wanted – and at the very least, he'll bake for their wedding day. Fine white bread for toasting vows, and a cake to feed each other before the fire.
But she's not here now, I think. He's loved her as long as he can remember; even won the Games for her sake – and yet he shares his New Year's feast and this precious wedding cake with two Avoxes and a Seam girl.
It's a bitter thought, but it enables me to finish my slice, and when it's gone Peeta shyly places a little butcher paper packet – my butcher paper packet; the one I made last night to hold his honey buttons – on the table beside my plate. "I'd have loved for this to be in your stocking this morning," he says. "But for obvious reasons, it had to wait."
I smell cinnamon and orange before I've even opened the packet and wonder, though I know better, what sort of game he's playing. Inside are thin strips of our New Year's orange peel, now a clear, pale gold, encrusted with fine sugar.
"I candied it to make a sweet," Peeta explains, a little breathlessly. "I simmered it in our leftover cinnamon tea, and it's supposed to dry for a day or two but I wanted it for tonight, so I cheated and dried it quick in the oven and –"
"It's perfect," I assure him, closing a hand around his, and it is. Our New Year's tradition of cinnamon and firelight and one perfect orange, captured in a sweet that can be eaten at any time and bring back that moment in every exquisite detail. I wonder if I should eat them all at once and linger in that moment for as long as possible or save them for the days that lie ahead, filled with blonde braids and laughter and curly-haired children.
"Half of them are yours, right?" I say. "If we share an orange, that means sharing the peel too, right?"
Peeta shakes his head with a crooked smile. "I ate all your honey buttons," he says. "I thought this might make an even exchange."
"It was your honey that I used to make them," I remind him.
"This was your orange," he replies.
Our orange, I think fiercely; our tradition, and I resolve to find ways to share these little treasures with him. "At least have one with me now," I say, and Peeta agrees without hesitation. We each bring a sugared golden strip to our mouth and share a sigh of pleasure as we bite down. The orange peel is tender between my teeth and achingly sweet, tempered perfectly by strong notes of cinnamon tea. I know little enough about the sweet-shop's confections, but I doubt anything they make could surpass this.
"You should make these for your sweetheart," I suggest, without bitterness, caught up as I am in the heady flavors of candied orange and cinnamon flooding my mouth from just one tiny piece of peel.
Peeta's eyes soften. "Maybe I already have," he murmurs; a whisper of spiced orange, close enough to smell but not to feel on my skin. "And of course I will. Again and again."
Pollux and Lavinia are already clearing the table before Peeta and I have left it, and though both insist they don't require – or, I think, want – any help, it's Peeta's kitchen, and he'll hardly leave its clean-up to others. The four of us make short work of the dishes and parceling up the remainder of the food, then Lavinia all but propels me toward the living room.
"Right on schedule," Peeta calls from behind us with a laugh. "Presents by the fire."
There are more spiced beeswax candles inside, I note with a smile, and evergreen boughs too, framing the windows and the huge stone fireplace. Peeta's air of festivity clearly spilled over from the dining room this evening.
Pollux and Lavinia take the armchairs again, leaving Peeta and me the sofa. "It's my turn to play Father Christmas, I think," Peeta says, throwing a wink at Pollux, and he bends down to collect and distribute the gifts lying beside the hearth. I'm surprised by how many make their way to me, even after seeing the labels earlier, but my attention is focused almost entirely on the muffler in its hiding place. Will Peeta notice it among the parcels as not having been there earlier? Will he guess it's from me?
When he finally picks it up, I hold my breath till my lungs burn and watch him turn the parcel to find the name of the recipient. When he does, his eyes narrow a little – in puzzlement, I think, not anger – and he looks directly at me.
Well, obviously, I think. Who else would have wrapped a New Year's gift in butcher paper?
"Another present, Katniss?" he wonders, setting the crude package on the low table as carefully as if it were made of glass. "You gave me a whole stockingful of them earlier."
"It's…a New Year's surprise," I answer feebly.
"You've given me too many already," he says quietly, setting a small, cube-shaped parcel on the table in front of me. "I'm not sure I can handle another."
We start with the gifts for "Peeta and family," all of which clearly came from the bakery: a box of beautifully iced cookies, two golden loaves of the very best bakery bread, and what must be one of Marko's famous pies. A custard pie, I think, capped with a crust of what looks like burnt sugar, and Peeta moans with eagerness at the sight of it. "Buttermilk pie!" he cries, not unlike a delighted child. "This is just…you have no idea…hold on a minute!"
He springs from the sofa and sprints out to the kitchen, returning seconds later with a handful of forks. "I just can't," he says, taking a forkful of custard and crust from one edge of the pan and devouring it with a groan of pleasure.
I try – and fail – to imagine how amazing a pie would have to be to affect Peeta like this.
"You have to try this," he insists, eagerly proffering forks and the pie pan. "I know you're probably not hungry at all – I'm not either – but this…this…" He trails off into inarticulate exclamations, making me laugh heartily.
"All right," I concede, and scoop up a second forkful next to the one he ate. The crust crumbles on my tongue, as flaky and perfect as Marko's reputation claims, and the cap of caramelized custard is so sweet it makes my teeth ache – but that doesn't stop me taking another, greedier bite.
"See?" Peeta says, taking another bite for himself. "Now that you've tried Marko's pie, you'll see that mine don't even compare."
"This is amazing," I admit, stealing a loose bit of crust from one edge before passing the pan to Pollux. "But I'm happy with the baker I have."
Peeta smiles up at me, and to my surprise he doesn't blush at my words. "That's because he lives to bake for you," he murmurs. "He chases you around the house and showers you with fresh bread and cookies all day long."
"I wouldn't want it any other way," I murmur back, and our fingers tangle briefly over the sofa cushion.
While Pollux samples a few curious bites of Marko's pie, Lavinia hops up from her armchair with a little cloth sack that I hadn't seen her bring in and takes out a red stocking cap with a crest of sorts at the top, like a cardinal's, and wide black bands on either side for lacing beneath the chin. She slips it on my head with a quick kiss to my cheek and grins widely at the picture I make.
"A cardinal!" Peeta says with a happy little laugh. "Lavinia, that's incredible!"
"You made me a present?" I say, and she nods eagerly. Clearly, it wasn't only me who crafted things in secret this month. I feel bad that I don't have something for her in return, but she shakes her head in response to my unspoken words and bends to give me a hug. Accept a gift freely given, her arms say, and I nod against her shoulder with a quiet, "Thank you." I'm not good at this, not at all, but I have a feeling I'll get plenty of practice at it tonight.
She turns to Peeta next, producing the bright blue stocking cap she was working on the first day she invited me up to her attic. It's crested like mine, only with black ear flaps, and it fastens with white bands beneath the chin. "A blue jay!" I exclaim, and Peeta grins as Lavinia pulls it over his curls, with a kiss to the tip of his nose for good measure.
"I love it," he says, leaning up to give her a hug. "Thank you so much."
She turns to Pollux last of all, who is watching her intently, the pie forgotten in his lap. The last cap from her bag is russet brown and has no crest, only cream-colored "cheek patches" and a black chinstrap. She glances back at Peeta and me with raised brows, awaiting our guess. "A sparrow," I say.
The plain, friendly bird, so common to Peeta's garden, seems especially fitting for Pollux, who practically lives outside and shares his roof with a sleigh-pony, and the drab colors suit his fair skin and vibrant, ruddy beard. She carefully eases the cap over his thick, sandy hair, not playfully as she did with Peeta and me, and bends down to press a kiss to his bearded cheek. She doesn't offer a hug and he doesn't try to claim one, but his eyes are wide when she pulls away and follow her back to her armchair.
Once she's seated, Pollux gets up and hands Peeta a bulky square parcel from among the gifts on the low table. "This is from you?" Peeta says, raising his brows, and Pollux gives a vigorous nod in reply.
Pollux is clearly a finer carpenter than I realized. Beneath the brown paper wrap is a hinged box with a handle on top, all raw wood but skillfully pieced together. Peeta opens the lid with a gasp of awe to reveal a shallow tray with several dividers, which lifts out to reveal a compartment below. "Pollux," he breathes. "You made me a paint-box."
Pollux nods again, blushing a little, and Peeta turns to me to explain, "I kept wanting to take paints outside with me last summer – to go into the woods or down to the lake and paint things as I saw them – but I'd have to carry them on a baking sheet or something and it ended up being more trouble than it was worth. This is perfect," he tells Pollux, his voice brimming with admiration and gratitude. "You know you didn't have to do this."
Pollux shrugs and makes the hand-heart gesture, the one he makes so often to or in reference to Peeta, and Peeta gets to his feet to seize him in a hug. "Thank you so much," he says. "You take such good care of me – both of you," he adds to Lavinia, peeping his blue-crested head around Pollux's shoulder.
"All of you," he says softly, letting go of Pollux and looking back at me. I wonder if he'll still feel that way when he opens my gift: a crude thing of animal skins and feathers, nothing like the beautiful presents Pollux and Lavinia made for him.
Pollux leaves the room then and I glance after him, wondering if Peeta upset him somehow by mentioning Lavinia and me in his response to Pollux's gift. "Don't worry," Peeta says, settling beside me on the sofa again with a broad, almost giddy grin. "I think you're about to discover why you couldn't go in the workshop for the past two days."
I see the gift before I see Pollux – it's that large, and he has to guide it through the doorway ahead of him – and I stumble up from the sofa cushion, my mouth agape. It's a tanning frame; a sturdy, handsome one, not unlike what Granny Ashpet used in my dream for her bridal doeskins. My deerskin is laced into it by dozens of thin cords, anchoring it to the frame on every side.
This is exactly what I need for processing my deerskin – Peeta's deerskin. However optimistic I felt that day after the hunt, I know now that there's no way I could successfully stretch and tan that precious hide without this wholly unexpected gift.
I remember my lament while skinning the young buck – how I wished for a frame large enough to fit its skin, and Pollux merely quirked a brow in reply – and I realize he probably started on this weeks ago, as soon as I first mentioned hunting a deer for New Year's. This is why he insisted on cleaning up for me that afternoon; on hanging the fresh deerskin to dry. He had the frame in place already, probably hiding in Peeta's cart, and would have spent an hour, probably two, just lacing the deerskin into it. For me.
I run across the living room and seize him around the middle in a rib-cracking hug. "Pollux, you stupid boy," I cry, grabbing fistfuls of his sweater to prevent my hands from flailing at his back. "Why would you do something like this?"
He loosens my grip at his waist with a throaty chuckle and gently holds me back at arm's length. He rests his palm over his heart, then places it over mine.
"Oh," I whisper, and shrug off the hands on my shoulders to hug him again, less fiercely this time.
I'm not accustomed to being loved; it confuses and even frightens me a little. And Pollux and Lavinia are supposed to love Peeta: kind, gentle, generous Peeta, not cross, impatient, feral Katniss. I don't understand what there is in me that they can think to love, but their affection is as great a gift as the cardinal cap and tanning frame they crafted for me...maybe even greater.
I think I might love this burly, red-bearded man who teases and provokes me as I imagine a brother would and yet helps and looks after me like the closest of friends. He's rapidly become what Gale used to be: a hunting partner and friend, albeit gentler in nature and quicker to laugh and smile. "Thank you," I tell him, a tear-dampened sigh against his sweater. "For everything."
Pollux takes my face in his hands and kisses the crested top of my new cap with a crooked grin, then he chases me back to the sofa. He has one further gift to give, of course: a square parcel, much like Peeta's, that he places in Lavinia's lap, and I have a fairly good guess as to what it might be.
"Something for knitting, I bet," I murmur to Peeta as Lavinia tears open the heavy brown paper, and he nods in reply.
"Count on it," he whispers back. "You're not the only one he adores."
It turns out to be a hinged box; very similar to Peeta's, albeit broader, and where Peeta's sectioned tray was empty – awaiting charcoal and brushes and paints – these are filled with knitting needles and small scissors, and the compartment below is piled high with skeins of fine yarn in deep, vibrant tones. The kind that costs as much as two loaves of bakery bread.
I've long assumed that Pollux and Lavinia receive wages of some kind, but this gift will have made a substantial dent in Pollux's income, no matter how well Peeta pays him – and Lavinia appears to understand that only too well. Her eyes are narrowed as she looks up from the costly yarn in her lap, and she touches her lips with one hand in her usual gesture of thanks. Pollux gives her a nod in reply and raises a hand to brush her cheek. He doesn't attempt a hug or a kiss, and she makes no move to offer them.
Beside me, Peeta gives a quiet chuckle.
"What was that for?" I whisper, looking between Pollux and Lavinia, seated in their respective armchairs once more, and Peeta shakes his head.
"The dance," he says cryptically. "Sometimes I wonder whose benefit it's for."
I shake my head at this, thoroughly at a loss, but Pollux and Lavinia are progressing on to their other gifts, and Peeta gestures for me to watch. There seems to be a certain order to this business of unwrapping presents, however perplexing, and I settle back onto my sofa cushion to oblige.
There are gifts for both from Peeta, of course: new boots for Pollux; sturdy and fleece-lined, and a handsomely tailored coat of midnight-blue wool for Lavinia. Neither is a particularly necessary gift – what they have already is well-made and as good as new – but each is uniquely suited to the recipient's needs and demonstrates Peeta's perpetual thoughtfulness. The insulated boots are ideal for the amount of time Pollux has been spending in the snow lately, and the coat gives Lavinia something pretty and practical to wear outside and on her trips to town.
There are also small square parcels for both of them from Prim, which shouldn't surprise me, and both turn out to be bars of handcrafted soap, which doesn't surprise me at all. I laugh as Pollux turns the cream-colored bar in his hands and wonder if my sister has taken it upon herself to ensure that everyone in the district shaves their beard this winter.
It's my turn for gifts next, apparently, and Peeta hands me a broad, shallow box wrapped in dishtowels. "I think I know what this is," he says with a chuckle, and I draw the cloth back to reveal a crate filled with twelve jam jars, with a tiny pie baked into each one and a note lying across their tops:
By now you'll have sampled my famous buttermilk pie and declared that you still prefer Peeta's baking. This comes as no surprise – or, for that matter, insult – to me, but Prim is insistent that my pie-making skills get a fair trial. To which end: she's selected her twelve favorite recipes, sweet and savory, which are here for your tasting pleasure.
Enjoy, or not.
I pass the note to Peeta, who has guessed at its contents and is already laughing. "He is the pieman out of all of us," he reminds me. "You'll at least try them, right?"
"Of course," I assure him with a grin. "I just refuse to prefer them to yours."
Next up is an envelope, heavy with coins, and I open it to find more money than I've ever held in my life, along with a scribbled note in heavy black ink; written on butcher paper, no less:
Thank you for the venison parcels. Everything sold within minutes of being unwrapped, and I have no doubt that the blood sausage I'll put out tomorrow will go likewise. I've sent you payment in kind, which should have made its way to my nephew's icebox, as well as a portion of the profits. Peeta's a good boy and I know he must be spoiling you with gifts of all kinds, but he forgets that trading women such as us like to have a little coin tucked away for a leaner day.
If you get another buck, I would be over the moon to take a portion of it.
"Do you know anything about a parcel from the butcher shop?" I ask Peeta, and I look up from the letter to find him grinning from ear to ear.
"I almost cooked half of it this morning," he replies, "but that would have ruined the surprise – and it was yours, after all, so I didn't want to assume. She sent two pounds of thick-cut bacon, a dozen of those sage-and-apple sausages, a nice ham steak – and not a thing for her own flesh and blood," he adds with a good-natured laugh. "I guess there's something to be said for this business of paying people back for their kindnesses."
To be honest, I hadn't expected payment of any kind from Rooba, and certainly nothing so lavish. I'd simply wanted to share a portion of our New Year's deer with Peeta's kin: with the woman who was responsible for teaching him to cook meat, no less, which education I benefit from at least three times a day.
I wonder if I've been living with Peeta long enough that I've started acting like him. Giving valuable things to others and expecting nothing in return…Maybe it's not so impossible that I might one day be able to accept such gifts freely.
I reach next for the gaily striped sweet-shop box. I'd half assumed it was from Prim and am startled to find it labeled From Madge. "Madge?" I puzzle. "Why in the world would she send me a New Year's present?"
"Because," Peeta answers gently, "you're friends, and I have a sneaking suspicion she misses you. Before you two started sitting together at lunch and things, she was always off on her own. I imagine she's a little lonely without you."
I think of quiet golden Madge for a long moment. I'd never even considered her a friend till she brought me clothes to wear to Peeta's house and stole the last bite of ginger cake from my plate – till she told me we were friends. We talked so little, and rarely about anything but schoolwork. Does she really miss my company?
I lift the box lid to find two little rounds inside, wrapped in gold foil and nestled in bright purple tissue. "Sugar plums!" Peeta exclaims.
I know sugar plums from the sweet-shop window but never, ever thought I would eat one. They're among the most expensive of the shop's confections and only available between the Harvest Festival and New Year's.
My father and I used to collect sacks full of wild plums at the end of summer and sell them to the sweet-shop and, sometimes, the bakery. The woods of Twelve is rich with wild plums; from old homesteads, Dad told me once. Before the Dark Days – long before Twelve was surrounded by wilderness – there were many homes and families on this land, and with them came fruit trees. Both the homes and families are long gone, of course, but many of the fruit trees remained as the wild woods grew up around them, and the tenacious plums flourished.
The sweet-shop paid well for those plump little fruits. They wanted them for sugar plums, of course, which I used to think were just fresh whole plums dipped or glazed in sugar, but when I asked Mom about it once, she shook her head with a merry laugh.
I used to think that too, she said. They're a sort of comfit. They dry the plums and combine them with other fruits and spices and sometimes nuts, then they seal them up inside a hard sugar shell. As a Merchant child – and later, a Merchant's sweetheart – I suppose she had many opportunities to sample the costly sweets.
"I think I've had three of those in my entire life," Peeta says, eyeing the two foil rounds wistfully, and I hand him one without a second thought.
"Katniss, no," he protests and tries to hand it back, but I close his fingers around the wrapped sweet and push it firmly toward him. "I certainly don't need two," I tell him. "And clearly, you love them. It's yours."
"You've given me too much already–" he begins, but his words trail off at the conviction in my eyes. "Okay," he says, very quietly. "Thank you, Katniss."
The next item is wrapped in what appears to be old school papers, and I unwind them to discover that's exactly what they are: Rory's Hawthorne's schoolwork, written on the cheapest paper that Seam families can buy. Frugal Hazelle answered my letter on the blank backs of her son's school papers.
What she's sent are hasty but thorough instructions for tanning a deerskin, from fleshing to smoking. She could be arrested just for having written this, and what lies at the center of these pages could get her whipped, even executed. It's a slender piece of wood, its ends worn satin-smooth by decades of use, with a long, blunt blade embedded at its center. I'm certain I've never seen such an implement before, and yet something about it is oddly familiar.
Wrapped around the middle of the strange tool – weapon? – is a scrap of finer paper: the blank bottom of the letter I sent Hazelle, trimmed off and reused for her reply. Its message is brief:
This is your Granny Ashpet's hide scraper. Jack gave it to me after she died, but I know he would have wanted you to have it.
"Oh," I whisper. "Oh."
I take the tool in both hands, my fingers closing around its smooth ends in disbelief. I know exactly what this is now – and why I recognized it. Granny Ashpet used this tool – this very tool – to flesh her bridal doeskins in my dream. A shiver wriggles its way up my spine, but it's a feeling of anticipation; expectation, even. This is the sort of thing that happens in many of the oldest tales: someone – a dead relative or sometimes a fairy – appears to the hero or heroine in a dream with some sort of instruction, and when they wake this impossible instruction leads them to a tool – or weapon – that changes the course of their future.
My huntress grandmother has led me to one of her most prized tools, which she used to process the doeskins that would become her wedding dress. What does this mean for me?
I look up into the silence to find Pollux, Lavinia, and Peeta all watching me with identically rapt expressions. "It's my grandmother's," I explain, lifting the scraper between my hands and angling it to show them the blade. "Granny Ashpet's tool for cleaning deerskins. Dad gave it to Hazelle when his mother died, and now she's giving it to me."
"That's incredible," Peeta gasps, half-reaching to touch the wood, then thinking better of it. "She must have made it herself, and…Katniss, this is amazing," he says. "For her to give it to you now, when you've just shot your first deer…it's like your grandmother's trying to teach you things from, well…beyond the grave."
She is indeed, I want to tell him. Perplexing, unsettling things, and I'm not sure they're all to do with hunting, even though she speaks of them in that language.
It's not always bad for a huntress to be caught. Especially when she loves her pursuer.
How can you strike the heart of a young buck without piercing either lung, and yet you cannot see what lies directly before you?
But such thoughts are edged with bearskin coverlets and firelight, and I sidestep them to open my final presents. There's a bar of creamy soap from Prim, flecked with lavender buds and pine needles and smelling deliciously of both, and a knitted shawl, the color of Grandma Lydda's spiced wine, from my mother. Made of the same deep-toned, silky yarn that Pollux bought for Lavinia, skein after costly skein of it; it's almost large enough to wrap around me twice.
Mom knitted this for me, night after night after night. To keep you warm in the woods, says the note pinned neatly to one corner. My eyes mist with stubborn tears.
Mom and I haven't communicated much at all since I came to live here. She included a short, strained note with Prim's second letter, asking if everything was all right and Peeta was treating me well – which of course was her way of asking if he was using me, physically, as a part of our bargain. I hadn't forgotten her distress the night I left home, for fear that such was what awaited me – nor my own fear on those first uncertain nights in Peeta's house – and I wrote back as delicately as I could that Peeta was everything kind and respectful and simply wanted my company.
Her reply, while short, was markedly relieved and maybe even a little affectionate.
She hasn't written since, except for a line or two at the end of Prim's letters every now and then, sharing something about the apothecary shop, but what lies in my lap is better than a hundred letters full of tender words. A tangible declaration of her love to wrap around me, like my rabbit-skin baby bunting sixteen years ago.
Peeta's thumb gently catches a tear on my cheek. "You okay?" he murmurs, and I nod numbly in reply. I drape the shawl around my shoulders with a small, stifled sob, then I reach for the last two parcels.
First is a large flat envelope, identical to the one Peeta sent to Mom and Prim, with the beautiful sketches of me playing in the snow. I catch my breath in anticipation, eyes flickering to Peeta, and he gives me a bashful smile. "I have a bit of a confession to make," he says. "I made eight of those little pictures. Seven of them went to your family, but I kept my favorite for you."
I slip the picture from its wrapping with unsteady hands. It shows me sitting on the bench beneath the rose trellis in my bright red coat, scattering golden peanut butter cookie crumbs over the snow for a small mourning dove, its plumage painted in velvet shades of dusky brown and gray.
Just three days after being saved from starvation myself, I shared a portion of my food with a wild creature.
I'm not surprised that Peeta kept this most precious picture back, and even with it held securely between my hands, I want it so badly that my heart aches. "I love it, Peeta," I say, gripping the edge of the heavy paper with desperate fingertips. For the first time I notice the scrawled PM in the lower right hand corner, half-hidden by the shadow of the garden bench. "I love it so much."
"I'll get a frame for it, then," he says. "Or maybe Pollux can make one."
Pollux nods at this, but my eyes are drawn back to Peeta. He seems happy that I like the picture but…nervous, somehow. Distracted, even. I pick up my last present; the small wrapped cube, and hear his breath catch. I can't imagine any sort of gift that would make him so anxious, not when he's given me furs and fine clothing and the richest food imaginable without batting an eye, and I peel back the paper with a worried frown of my own.
It's a small decorative box, the sort that Merchant girls use for little keepsakes, skillfully painted to look like the night sky. Blue-black, with patches of brighter blue, and everywhere pinpricks of white and silver stars.
Would you paint something for me sometime? I asked him yesterday, and he replied, Maybe I already have.
It's a stunning gift, made with exquisite care and far, far too fine for me, though I love it already and will cherish it for the rest of my days, even if I have nothing worthy to keep inside it.
"Katniss," Peeta says raggedly. "Open it."
I look at him in surprise and find him white-lipped, almost trembling. Surely this fine, precious box is the gift, not merely its container? "Please," he says.
I tease the seam of the lid with a fingertip and carefully ease the little box open. I anticipate a special sweet, a feather; an acorn, maybe. Something little and endearing.
Inside, nestled upon a bed of cloud-gray tissue, is a pearl. Silvery-white as the moon and as big as the nail on my little finger, anchored on a fine silver chain.
"Peeta…" I breathe, and promptly run out of words.
Jewelry is a luxury beyond the imaginations of most people in Twelve. Merchant women wear pretty brooches or pins on very special occasions, but Seam folk are lucky to afford a ring for their wedding day. My father, passionate as he was about music, sold his beloved dulcimer to buy the cheap silver band that circles my mother's ring finger.
What Peeta has just given me could probably buy wedding rings for every couple in the Seam.
"Is…is it all right?" he rasps. "I…it's meant to be like the moon in your dad's tale: 'a tiny pearl in the sky.'"
My heart stutters at hearing my father's words on Peeta's lips, let alone those particular ones. "You remember that?" I whisper.
"Every word," he whispers back.
I look down at the pearl in my hands, lying in a cloud-bed within a box of night sky. At how perfectly Peeta captured an image from a story he only heard once – and then made a gift of it to me.
Katniss…you're the moon, he said to me earlier this evening. Is that how he sees me: as the huntress moon of my father's tale? Is that why he gave me this precious jewel, packaged with such deliberate care and attention to detail?
"If you don't –" he begins, but I don't let him get any further than that.
"I love it," I say, grasping his hand. "I want it." I don't deserve it, I add silently, not at all, but my longing for that tiny iridescent moon resting in the hollow of my throat overrules any such protest. I absolutely can't accept such a gift, and I want it too much to refuse.
I lift the pearl from its cloud-bed with shaking hands and open the clasp on the chain, but before I can raise it to my neck Peeta's fingers are on mine, easing it from my grip. "Please, let me," he says.
I tug off my new stocking cap – it feels childish and out of place at this moment – and sweep my hair over one shoulder, turning my back to Peeta and staring into the flames of the hearth. My heart is racing; toward something or away from something, I can't be sure, and then I feel Peeta's fingers brushing my skin, guiding the chain around my neck and clasping it at the nape, and I sigh into his touch. Warm breath and a fleeting softness join his fingers; a tangible, wordless whisper against my neck, just above where the clasp lies, then he takes the sleek fall of my hair in both hands and draws it gently to spill down my back once more.
This is no pearl, I think; no ordinary jewel from a Merchant's shop window. It's a bead of pure moonlight; a fairy's treasure, as pale and luminous against my dusky skin as the moon herself against the night sky, and I wonder how Peeta managed to capture it. Did he lie in wait for moonbeams in the woods, like a boy in an old tale, and catch one in a magic jar? Or did he simply sit by the lake one night, strong hands outstretched patiently, and the moon came to him on silver skates to give him a piece of herself?
I wonder if she loves him, this boy of cream and honey and warm golden sun.
I turn back to Peeta and take his sweet face in my hands. "It's too much," I tell him, my voice breaking. "Far too much, but…but I'll take it, if you want."
"It's all I want," he whispers, stroking the pearl with one gentle fingertip, his eyes soft with awe. "All I've ever wanted, Katniss."
He reaches for his own gifts then, and it's my turn to be nervous. There's a bar of soap from Prim, of course, and two parcels from his family: one contains clothing, I think, and the other dishes or kettles, but I can't focus on anything but the muffler in its butcher paper wrap. Peeta's clearly saving it for last, and that's not what I wanted; not at all – and especially not now, when he's just hung the moon around my neck and all but begged me to accept it. My gift to him is animal skins, and not fine ones either, like bear and deer and fox: rabbit pelts, plain and common as mud, clumsily stitched together and stuffed with feathers from a wild goose. Peeta has finer fur than that on his bedroom floor.
I have a good mind to snatch it away and promise him a different present instead. Rooba gave me plenty of money for the venison; I can send some with Pollux or Lavinia the next time they go to town and have them bring me back a proper gift for Peeta.
There's only the wrapped muffler left on the table now, and Peeta reaches for it carefully, as though it might crumble to nothing or flee from his hands. I should watch him open it but I can't – can't – not after all he's given me today. Instead I fuss with the night-sky box; the moon nest, I think madly, tracing patterns on its painted lid. Are you the bear and deer made of stars, I ask the pinpricks of brightness, or the children of the sun?
The butcher paper falls away with a soft hiss and takes with it all the air in the room. "Katniss," Peeta says. He's as near as my left hand but his voice is muffled and distant, as though there are many miles and a snowstorm between us. "Katniss."
I don't look up. I can hear in his voice that he's not pleased. Its sweet sound is rough, even broken, apparent in just those two meager syllables of my name. He's confused. Horrified. Maybe even offended.
"Katniss," he says again, and the sound is more ragged still. A plea.
I look up to find the loop of fur held between his hands…and his eyes red and welling with tears.
This gentle boy filled my New Year's with luxury: oranges and skis, a painting of me, and the moon on a silver chain, and I gave him an old sock full of foraged things and a muffler made of dead animals – that made him cry. For all I know, he feeds the rabbits too, and I've just given him over a dozen of them, their fleet, soft bodies reduced to patches of fur to wrap around his neck.
Tears burn in my eyes too. "I'm sorry," I choke. "I should've known it was a bad gift. I just…it's a muffler," I explain, though he can't possibly care. "To keep your neck warm when you wear the bearskin, a-and…I filled it with down from those geese–"
I'm don't know how it happens, but suddenly I'm in his arms – in his lap – held in a crushing embrace as he presses his wet face to mine. The muffler lies in my hands; a heavy loop of dense winter fur, plush with down, and I curl my fingers greedily around its softness.
"Katniss," he sighs, again and again, as he rocks me against him. "Katniss…my huntress…You dress me in fur."
"I want to take care of you too," I whisper in reply, wiping the tears from his cheeks, and he turns a little to kiss my fingers.
"So you skinned and tanned and sewed for me," he marvels, and he brings my other hand to his lips to cover its fingers with kisses as well. "I've never been given anything so precious," he says, "except, maybe, the night you agreed to come here, or the night you chose to stay."
"It's only rabbit skins," I demur, but weakly. His words are tugging at my heart; loosening it from its place like a spade at a stubborn root. One good sharp pull and it will slip cleanly from my chest into his hands, for him to do with however he pleases. To grate or roast or feast upon whole – or replant in new soil of his own.
"Your rabbit skins," he reminds me. "You could have kept them; made something for yourself."
"But I don't need anything," I reply. "Except to keep you warm." And safe, I add silently. So safe, my sweet boy.
I tug off his new blue jay cap, mussing his curls a little in the process, then I fold the muffler in half and slide the double-loop over his head. He moans at the feel of its fur against his skin, and I smooth his curls with an apologetic hand. "See?" I say, tugging one layer up to cover his mouth and nose. "It's much better than my dad's scarves."
"It is," he murmurs through dense winter fur and plush goose down, and he bends to press his forehead to mine. Rabbit fur brushes the lower half of my face and I nuzzle my nose against its softness – and the bridge of Peeta's nose buried snugly beneath.
"Just promise me," he says, tugging down the muffler so his words are clear: "No more gifts, Katniss." Above the heathered gray-brown fur, his eyes are damp but grave. "I can't…you've given me so much, and this best of all," he says. "It's too much. More than I can bear."
I wonder for the briefest moment if this is a delicate way of telling me he doesn't like my gifts and doesn't want any more of them, but of course I know better than that. Peeta loved his stocking of foraged things and shoe filled with pine chips, and impossible as it is to believe, he cried over the muffler for the same reason. There's no doubt in my mind that he'll treasure it and put it to use at once, like the crude wooden spoon from his stocking that served a portion of our supper.
As incomprehensible as it is, Peeta treasures everything I give him, be it a gift of fur or fresh meat or just a squeeze of the hand. I can see that now, and it only makes me want to give him more: to overwhelm him with furs and foraged foods and little gestures of affection.
My eyes flicker over his shoulder to Pollux's fine tanning frame and my deerskin laced at its heart. I envision wrapping Peeta in the supple golden leather it will become and turn my face to hide a smile. "No more gifts," I promise, my lips brushing the velvet of his waistcoat with each word. "At least, not tonight."
"Well, then," Peeta says, clearing his throat. "There's just one thing left to do, isn't there?" He looks up, nodding to Pollux, and gently sets me back down on the cushion beside him. "New Year's ends the same everywhere, right?" he asks quietly.
He gets up from the sofa and goes to the doorway to lift down the kissing bough. Of course. Distributing the ribbons and burning the bough, signifying the end of New Year's.
He returns with the bough in his hands and Pollux follows after, carrying a second bough; Rye's bough, I think. He must have brought it in at supper.
They set both boughs on the low table with a certain air of festivity. "Since Pollux shares a roof with Rye, I figured he should do the honors with Rye's bough," Peeta says with a crooked smile. "You remember how this works, right?" he asks him.
Pollux gives a small nod and deftly unwinds both ribbons. Like the ones on Peeta's bough, they're at least two feet in length and made of fine, glossy satin. Merchant ribbons, for a Merchant's daughters and sweethearts.
He takes the white one in his hands and walks over to me. My mouth drops open like a fish's.
I've never received a ribbon of any color, except from my father, and I never expected to. A friendship ribbon is, to some, less exciting than a sweetheart ribbon – it's just a token of esteem, really, and no one ever wears them the next day – but Merchant ribbons are costly, and Pollux only has two. Both are equally valuable.
He proffers the ribbon, a little uncertainly, and I get up to hug him for the third time tonight. The last white ribbon I ever received was from Dad, just weeks before he died, and this unexpected gift means more to me than Pollux – than anyone, I think – can possibly imagine.
Pollux drapes the ribbon around my neck with a playful grin – my friend, I think, as sure and sound as the white satin lying against my skin – then he leans in to press a kiss to my cheek.
Red for sweethearts, white for friends, and always exchanged with a kiss.
His mouth is soft, in contrast to the bristle of beard surrounding it, and his cheeks are pink when he pulls away – as, I imagine, are mine. This wasn't a true kiss, of course, but it's the first I've ever received from a man who wasn't my father.
Pollux returns to the table to pick up the red ribbon and his eyes flicker to Lavinia. Something in their gaze makes me catch my breath – anticipation? longing? a warning? – then he walks over to her and holds out the ribbon, lying across both palms like a bright seam.
I'm hardly wise to the nuances of body language, but Pollux's message is clear. He's offering the ribbon, but if Lavinia wants it, she has to take it from him. I wonder what else he's offering with it.
Pollux isn't from Twelve, but he's clearly been told the nature of these ribbons and the significance of their distribution. You're not the only one he adores, Peeta said.
Lavinia stares up at him for a long moment but makes no gesture, no expression; nothing to indicate her response. If Pollux knows about the ribbons, she must too. Is this her way of saying no?
It's bad luck, I want to tell her, for Pollux's sake, but I doubt such a warning will have any impact on a girl who's lost her tongue and her family and lived the life of a Capitol slave.
She rests her white hands on the arms of her chair and slowly gets to her feet. Then she takes two deliberate steps, closing the distance between her and Pollux, and tips her head a careful fraction of a degree to kiss the corner of his mouth, where his lips meet his beard.
When she draws back, catching up the ribbon in her slim fingers, neither of them is blushing.
They return to their respective chairs as though nothing happened, and I wonder if, despite the strange edged thing I saw in their gaze, nothing did. Surely they've both kissed others before, countless times, and this was merely a New Year's kiss. A bit of fun to salute the holiday's end. Merchant boys and girls exchange such kisses in the street and hurry on to another pair of lips without a second's thought.
Lavinia loops the red ribbon loosely at her throat, like a scarf – like cloth – and all at once it occurs to me, with the force of a thunderclap that pierces your eardrums and shakes your house to its foundations. Cloth. Seam families that are even poorer than mine tie red and white rags around their kissing bough instead of ribbons. Scraps of cloth.
Peeta wears a scrap of red cloth at his wrist; has worn it six months now. A token of his sweetheart – or from her, people said.
I don't know how I didn't realize it sooner. Maybe because it's so impossible.
A Seam girl gave him that. A Seam girl with colorful rags on her kissing bough and no father or brother to claim the red one for his sweetheart.
Peeta loves a Seam girl.
A great fist closes around my heart, crushing it to dust.
No wonder he's been so slow and careful in his courtship. If she's anything like me, her pride would force her to refuse his gifts – or at least, insist on repaying him for them by any means possible. Maybe I'm the trial run, to see what it takes to win a Seam girl; to see what she wants and likes. If Peeta can make feral, angry Katniss Everdeen content and happy, any other girl will be supple as dough in his skillful hands.
No wonder I envisioned him with a black-haired, blue-eyed daughter.
I draw in a shallow breath and it slices through my lungs like an angry fistful of knives. I can't breathe but I need to; I need air but it hurts. It hurts so badly to take it in.
Peeta's on his feet now, going to Lavinia with his white ribbon. It'll be striking against her red hair, I think, but I'm not really paying attention.
A Seam girl.
A Seam girl.
Peeta's pearl should go to her. A treasure like that could feed her starving family for a year. I should offer that right now; should take it off and give it back to him, for her sake, but I can't. It's mine. My perfect bead of moonlight, hung around my neck by a golden boy with the sun in his touch and his voice and his eyes.
My boy! rails a voice in my head. Mine to feed and warm and protect.
Little Katniss, Granny Ashpet replies, how can you strike the heart of a young buck without piercing either lung, and yet you cannot see what lies directly before you?
"Katniss," Peeta says, his voice soft and very near.
I look up, hot-eyed and broken all over, to find him standing in front of me with a red ribbon in one strong hand. "Happy New Year," he whispers.
A Merchant bridegroom, offering a sweetheart ribbon to a Seam girl on New Year's Day.
I can't play this game anymore. Can't be the girl he practices on with his rich gifts and delicious food and tender touches. Can't care for him so much, bringing him wild gifts from the woods and wrapping him in furs and skins I tanned myself, when I'm only here to prepare him for her.
"It...it goes in your hair, right?" he says hesitantly. "May I?"
I hate him, I think. This sweet, gentle boy, whose kindness is the worst sort of cruelty. Cradle a girl in your arms and feed her with your own hands. Warm her feet with your kisses. Put a jewel around her neck – and then set her aside and do the same for the real girl. The one you want.
The one you love.
"I'm sorry," he whispers. I'm not looking at him anymore – can't look at him anymore – but his voice is hoarse and full of grief. "I didn't mean to make you angry."
The ribbon droops at his side, a gesture heavy with defeat, and my right hand reaches out of its own volition to close around it.
Red satin and warm fingers. My ribbon. My boy.
I don't care, I tell myself firmly – and I realize that it's true. I've always known about Peeta's sweetheart; what difference does it make that she's from the Seam? It's New Year's night in a fairytale house in the woods, and Peeta Mellark is offering me a red ribbon. My rabbit skins are looped around his neck and I wear his pearl at my throat. In this moment, no one and nothing else matters.
"Yes," I tell him quietly. "It goes in my hair."
I stand up quickly and turn my back to him. My hair isn't braided tonight, for him to weave the ribbon through the plait, so I expect him to just pull it back in a long tail and tie it with the ribbon. But instead I feel cool satin at my brow and gentle fingers at the back of my head, and I realize he's tying it like my father: like a wreath of bright berries, encircling my head like a crown.
He turns me back to face him, and my heart loosens another degree at the smile curving his lips. A soft, radiant, disbelieving smile. "Beautiful," he murmurs, adjusting my ribbon crown a little, and his fingers brush the wintergreen sprig at my temple. "So beautiful."
He lowers his hand and turns to pick up the bough; to set it on the fire and signify the end of New Year's.
"Wait," I croak. "Don't you want your kiss?"
The bough slips from his hands, hitting the hearthstone with a sound like rain. His shoulders are rigid; his eyes wide and his face white to the lips. "What did you say?" he whispers.
I don't know why I said it. It's tradition, of course: Red for sweethearts, white for friends, and always exchanged with a kiss. But Peeta's not my sweetheart, nor am I his. Surely no kiss is necessary for this ribbon to be exchanged.
"It's bad luck," I add in a rasp, and wonder why I can't keep my mouth shut. Peeta doesn't want to kiss me and I certainly don't want to kiss him. All this harping on about it is clearly making him uncomfortable.
"That's only if I ask and you say no," he says, his voice tight and strange.
He's right, and I'm flooded with shame at the reminder. It sounds like I'm asking for a kiss, which of course I'm not. I don't want to kiss him. And he obviously doesn't want to kiss me.
And here we are: a perfect fairytale New Year's filled with feasting and laughter and gifts, ruined in one fell swoop because Katniss Everdeen clumsily tried to uphold a tradition.
I look at him: at the flicker of firelight on his fair skin and my precious rabbit skins at his neck, and the words fall out, naked and unbidden and painfully true. "Please, Peeta," I whisper. "I want to."
I don't know why – can't begin to imagine why – it should matter at all, but it does. At this moment, more than food or air or shelter from the cold, I want – I need – to kiss Peeta Mellark.
He stares at me, his lips parted slightly and the blue of his eyes swallowed up by the black of his pupils, as I step over the fallen kissing bough to reach him. "This is my first kiss," I tell him quietly, toying a little with the loops of fur at his neck. I mean it as an apology; a warning, even, but his eyes go wider still, as though I'm offering something precious beyond price.
"You promised, Katniss," he rasps. "No more gifts."
My first kiss, I think wryly, wrapped in a red ribbon and given to Peeta Mellark on New Year's Day. As though a kiss from me could be a gift to anyone, let alone him.
"It's not much of a gift," I say, "but it's yours if you want it."
"Yes," he whispers, startling me with the hushed force of his response. "I want it."
I stare at his lips for several moments. I've felt them on my hands, my fingers, the crown of my head, even my feet; warm and soft and sweet. And I kissed his hand the night I learned about him buying the shop for Mom and Prim. There's little enough in a kiss, I suspect, and less still in a New Year's one, however necessary it is to exchange.
So what am I waiting for?
I curl my fingers around the fur of his muffler, close my eyes, and lean up to press my mouth against his.
I only mean for it to last a moment; a quick touch of lips and away again, but Peeta's mouth softens under mine and it feels so good, so impossibly good, that I tighten my fingers on the muffler and press closer still. His big hands catch at my waist, holding me to him, and all I want in all the world is more of this. This boy and his hands and his mouth, so warm and soft and sweet against mine. The musk of his body fills my lungs; I taste spiced wine and orange peel on his breath.
He draws back then, just a little, but enough to break the kiss. Without the anchor of his lips I melt back to the floor, but he keeps one hand at my waist, holding me close, while his other hand goes to my face, to stroke my newly kissed lips with the firm pad of his thumb, again and again and again. "Oh, Katniss," he whispers, his eyes dreamlike and soft with wonder. "Your mouth is a scarlet ribbon."
I gasp at hearing these words from his lips; these lips that I kissed just a heartbeat ago. They're lovers' words, fanciful as fairy tales and perhaps even older in origin. Surely the brawny, gentle baker never sang them to his bitter wife. I wonder if Peeta learned the song from Grandma Lydda, along with her breathtaking winter tales, or if, like so many in Twelve, he heard it sung on a festive night by my father.
I wonder, a little madly, if this is why ribbons are exchanged for kisses. I'd always thought it an unfair trade – give a costly ribbon and get a mere kiss in return – but surely a red ribbon for a scarlet one makes an even exchange…
"So…can I burn the bough now?" Peeta murmurs. "Or was there more you had in mind?" His eyes are dark and warm as a summer night, and I find myself wanting to curl up in their depths. To nest in that deep, drowsy blue and sleep the year away, only to wake again next New Year's and do the whole wondrous thing all over again.
I blush a little at the direction of my thoughts and step back to retrieve the bough for him. One ribbon equals one kiss; Peeta knows this as well as I do, and there are no ribbons remaining on the bough. I wonder whether I'll get another one next New Year's, and what his mouth will taste of then.
The bough meets the flames with a quiet hiss, and Peeta crouches by the hearth for a moment, stirring the wood till the new branch catches fire. And with that, New Year's – with all of its feasting and gifts and rare magic – is over.
I'm a little melancholy at the thought, as I was back when my father was alive and the end of New Year's meant countless long dark evenings without him at home – but why should I be? None of us goes to a job in the mines tomorrow. We'll all be here; back to "work" as usual but also feeding birds, playing in the snow, sharing grand meals – and each other's company – as much as we want. Life in this fairytale place is like an endless holiday, and I for one am greedy for more of it.
"Thank you," I tell Peeta as I collect my gifts, keeping the painting and the night-sky box closest of all. "Thank you for the most incredible New Year's."
"No, thank you," he says, coloring slightly as he brushes my cheek with his fingers. "You've spoiled me with gifts, Katniss, and I'm begging you for a little respite."
I consider the deerskin in its frame once more and smile. "It'll be a good month, at least," I estimate.
Pollux and Lavinia exchange hugs with both of us before going their separate ways, and Pollux traces the red ribbon-wreath across my brow with a little smile. I offer several times to help carry the deerskin back to the workshop, but he insists on taking it himself, along with Granny Ashpet's hide scraper. Kept you away for two days, he writes. I can do this much.
I turn for the stairs myself, to follow Lavinia up, but Peeta draws me back for a last lingering hug of his own, with an armful of presents between us. "I don't want it to be over, Katniss," he confesses against my forehead, cradling me close with both strong arms.
"It isn't," I tell him, "not really," but I know he's right. There was an undeniable magic to this day: to our meals, the skating, these gifts – not to mention our New Year's orange, and what came after.
I doubt Peeta will ever share my bed again, no matter how I plead. Not even next New Year's.
"Sleep as late as you like," he murmurs, and it lessens the sting a little.
"Always," I murmur back.
By the time I reach my room, Lavinia has already turned back the covers, put the warming pan beneath them, and laid out a fresh nightgown for me. She seems in a strange hurry to turn in for the night, and every few seconds she raises a hand to the red ribbon at her neck, to stroke the ends with her slim white fingers.
Lavinia's not from Twelve, no more than Pollux, but she's clearly been affected by the ribbon exchange. I wonder what it meant for her to get that red ribbon – for him to offer and for her to accept – and how it felt to kiss a man with a beard.
I wonder if, in winters to come, Peeta will grow a beard like his father and brothers. I wonder how different it will feel to kiss him then, his soft mouth encircled with downy tufts of pale gold.
Lavinia doesn't offer to brush and braid my hair or even help me into my nightgown, and I don't ask her to. She presses a distracted kiss to my forehead and leaves, barely a minute after I've arrived, with an apologetic half-smile.
When she's gone, I sit at the dressing table and look at myself in the mirror. Mom's wine-red shawl wrapped around my shoulders and a dress of luminous gray silk beneath it. Peeta's ribbon encircling my head like a crown, bright as berries against my black hair, and Pollux's ribbon draped about my neck, crisp and white as a frozen river. A sprig of wintergreen at my temple and a pearl on a silver chain, moon-pale and glowing against my olive skin.
I am a strange fairy creature tonight: a New Year's maiden, all black and red and green, illumined with whispers of silver and moonlight. And I have never felt more cherished – or more beautiful.
I touch my mouth with my fingertips, foolishly expecting it to feel different, somehow. Mine is a kissed mouth now, I realize, or rather, a kissing one, and blush a little at the thought. I may have no sweetheart, and most likely never will, but I have undeniably given away my first kiss – and before witnesses, no less.
I decide here and now that Prim never, ever needs to know about that.
I carefully remove all of my New Year's finery and gifts, save for the pearl, and change into my nightgown. The wintergreen sprig goes into my drawer of precious things, along with Prim's soap, Pollux's ribbon, Lavinia's cap, and Mom's shawl. I prop Peeta's little painting up on my dresser, using the night-sky box to hold it upright, so I can see both from my bed. Then I brush my hair and braid it loosely, twining Peeta's red ribbon around the middle strand.
I'll wear the ribbon in my braid tomorrow, of course; it's what's done in Twelve. Girls weave their red ribbons into their braids the next day and boys tie them round their sleeves, as a sort of badge of honor. I may be no one's sweetheart, but I'll wear Peeta's ribbon proudly.
Last of all I reach under my bed for the final gift of the night: the rabbit-skin pillow I made for my companion and tucked inside Dad's sweater for safekeeping. It's a humble gift, much like Peeta's muffler, but more luxurious than anything I could have imagined before living here. I wonder whose head will lie on it tonight, cushioned by plush winter fur and a deep layer of goose down.
I lay it at the top of my companion's side of the bed, near the edge, where I imagine their head lies each night, then I do all the usual little things for their comfort: moving the warming pan to their side, turning back the covers. I glance up at the pillow now and again as I do so and realize it looks drab in the firelit dimness of my room, especially among the other, finer furs and golden deerskin pillows.
Resolved, I go to my drawer of precious things and untie the red ribbon from the spile Peeta gave me. It's a proper ribbon, long enough to tie around the center of the pillow and give it a little festive air.
Red for sweethearts, white for friends... I have no idea who my companion is, but our curious relationship – our shared slumber, the little comforts we provide for each other – is more intimate than that of friends, even without talking or touching or interacting in any way. It's unlikely that they'll know about the ribbon tradition, but if they do, a sweetheart ribbon feels most appropriate.
I press a kiss to the center of the pillow, right over the red ribbon, and get in my side of the bed. I'm not tired in the least, owing to my nap in Peeta's arms, and I want more than anything to hear my companion's reaction to the pillow, but somehow sleep seizes me anyway…
It's an earlier time, or perhaps a later one. A future I can barely imagine, where the town square is blanketed with pure white sugar-snow and Merchant children frolic through it without care, making snow angels and snowmen and eating little white heaps from their mittened palms.
One boy stands off by himself, working on a snowman of his own. He wears a heavy coat of white fur and a muffler of heathered gray-brown furs about his neck: rabbit skins, from the woods. I wonder who made such a thing for a Merchant boy, whose father has money for fine wool and leather. Who loved him so much to hunt and skin so many rabbits, to tan their hides and make a garment of them to keep him warm.
I wonder if he knows how beloved he is.
I come closer and discover that he's not making a snowman but a snow-girl. A beautiful young woman, lifelike in every way from the shoulders upward, with a small nose, wide cheekbones, a stubborn little chin, and a long braid lying over one slim shoulder. He shapes her lips with a pocketknife and dusts them clean with his breath.
"Your mouth is a scarlet ribbon," the boy whispers, tracing the snow-girl's lips with a fingertip, then he tugs up his coat sleeve and carefully unwraps a scrap of worn red fabric from about his wrist. I've seen this cloth before. The boy kisses it when he's alone, sometimes with tears on his face. He lays it now across the snow-girl's finely carved mouth and it contours to the shape of her lips, turning them the color of living flesh.
With a little sigh, the boy presses his lips against the girl's lips of scarlet and snow, and I come to life beneath his mouth.
It begins as a quiet warmth, radiating from the place where our mouths meet. A slow, steady thawing; not the painful sort that follows frostbite but a gentle spring thaw, characterized by trickling water, willow catkins, and brave tiny blooms. Before my eyes is a haze of deep blue, white, rose-pink, and gold – dawn, I think, then the boy draws back a little and I realize the colors were him: the rose and cream of his fair skin, the blue of his eyes, the gold of his lashes and his thick soft curls. All the beauty of sunrise in one boy's face.
"That was my first real kiss," he says, stroking my cheek with a fingertip. "I've been waiting a long time to give it to you."
He opens his coat of fur with a sigh and wraps it around me, drawing me into the radiant heat of his strong body. His mouth is like a spring morning, warm and wet and sweet with nectar and blossoms, and I bring my own to it again and again, desperate for more.
I'm made of snow, or at least I was when this began. Cold, lethal, easily broken. And everywhere that this boy and I touch, I feel warmth – sweet, drowsy waves of it, stemming from our mouths and our hearts and our hips where they press together – but I'm not melting. I should be dying from such heat, and yet I've never felt more alive.
The boy breaks our kiss and looks down at my body, blushing deeply. Where moments ago I was made of packed snow and crudely shaped below the shoulders, now I have arms, a torso, hips and legs; even feet, buried to their ankles in the snow, and yet I feel no cold. The body of a young woman, dusky-skinned and slender, with proud little swells of breasts. Two wild plums, I think, small and firm and tipped with dark buds.
The boy brings shy fingers to the curve of one tiny breast and my body presses into his touch, like a bough burdened with fruit and ripe for plucking. "So beautiful," he whispers, even as ruddy color flames at his cheeks and throat. Something flickers in my belly in response, but it's a pleasant heat: the wet warmth of a spring thaw, leaving the earth damp and soft and eager for seed.
I wonder what this boy will plant inside me.
I'm naked in his arms, seeking his kisses and aching for his touch, but these are only the outward signs of the true wonder he's wrought here. Just moments ago I was made of snow, with no more feeling than the drifts from which I was formed – and content in it. Content to be a creation of water and cold wind: still and somber, unloved and unloving.
But with one kiss, this boy has given me flesh and blood, complete with the yearnings and hunger that are part and parcel of such a nature. To move; to touch and feel in turns. To love and be loved – even make love, wrapped in bearskin and sweet sighs and the warmth of this boy's body – of both of our bodies now. I can feel the frantic race of his heart against mine, even through his clothing, and wonder if it will be likewise when we lie together, all tangled limbs and damp hollows and mouths meshing in moans.
Flames bloom in my own cheeks at such thoughts, but I am astonished only, not ashamed. With one kiss, this boy made me human.
With one shy press of lips, he kissed me to life.
I wake with a quiet start to the sound of sobs from the opposite side of the bed. Rough, ugly, wracking sobs, fighting their way from someone's chest, and so deep that they shake the bed a little.
My companion is here. They found their gift – the pillow that took hours of work and dozens of rabbit skins to complete, to say nothing of the goose down – and it's made them cry.
I curl tightly on my side and bury my face in my pillow, fighting tears of my own. How could I have been so wrong? I wanted to make my companion happy; to show how much I care for them. I know the pillow was a crude sort of gift, but they seemed to like the stocking of foraged things and the bird's nest of sweets – and they left me a sprig of wintergreen in return; something I've never been able to locate in the winter woods, neither here nor nearer to town. I had thought them uniquely attuned to the woods, even beloved by it. Why should a rabbit-skin pillow be such an upsetting gift, let alone for one who comes every night to a bedroom of fur and pine and wild rock and lies between sheets of deerskin?
After an endless, agonizing span of minutes, full of wet gasps and whimpers and shallow, shaky breaths, their sobs at last begin to ebb and I feel them get up; a quick shift of weight on the mattress. I hear their feet, heavy and stumbling over the pelts, as they come around to my side of the bed. This is it, I think. They've come to scold me for this terrible gift – or perhaps for presuming to give them a gift at all. I know I'm not supposed to know about them to begin with, and before last night I had left them only small edible things; snacks at bedtime, such as anyone might appreciate. But this is clearly the worst gift I could have provided, and now I've ruined everything just by trying to offer something special.
I bury my head deeper in my deerskin pillow. I don't want to see my companion's face and especially not at this moment. I'm not sure I ever want to know who they are, but I definitely don't want to discover it as I lose them, and this, forever. Maybe they'll leave me alone if they think I'm asleep – or just move on to a different bedroom.
They give a deep sigh, almost a moan, and a hand settles on my head. I tense in anticipation but it's a caress they're offering; a tender brush of fingers over my loosely braided hair. A friend's touch, or a lover's.
I feel lips against my hair then; ragged breaths and the dampness of many tears. My weeping companion is kissing me. Once, twice; their lips press the crown of my head and linger there, and I feel the warmth of their breath on my scalp.
They're not angry, I realize in wonder, nor saddened by my gift. It moved them to tears – and to give me these kisses. But why?
Red for sweethearts, white for friends, I recall, and always exchanged with a kiss.
They kissed me because they're supposed to. I tied their pillow with a red ribbon. Had I intended it as a sweetheart's token?
Are you my sweetheart? I ask them silently. Will you wear my ribbon tied around your sleeve tomorrow?
Their hand eases toward the nape of my neck to stroke the length of my braid; once, twice, then they draw it gently to lie over my shoulder, their fingertips brushing the skin of my neck in the process and making me shiver with pleasure. They make a small choked sound; another sob, though I can't imagine why the sight of my braid by firelight would affect anyone like that, then they press a final kiss to the crown of my head and return to their side of the bed.
I listen as they undress, as they turn back the covers and remove the warming pan, and as they rest their head on the rabbit-skin pillow for the first time. They settle onto the bed with a sound that's half a sob and half a moan: the sound of a cheek meeting fur, I hope. Of unexpected bliss.
As their breath slows with sleep, I stare into the hearth and ache to dream – of ribbons and kisses and oranges, of pearls and paintings and fur – but my slumber is soft and silent as a midnight snowfall. Perhaps because this New Year's was a fairy tale in itself, concedes my subconscious mind with a begrudging yawn, and no dream could ever hope to surpass it.
I wake in the cold gray light of a winter dawn, alone as always, with my right hand curled beneath my chin. Tucked snugly inside, as though by a benevolent fairy or Father Christmas himself, is a perfect orange, with a red ribbon tied around its center.
Author's Note: If anyone hasn't guessed, I love fleshing out backstory and cultures and sneaking in nods to folk and fairy tales and even myths wherever possible. Such oral traditions would be even more precious in a dystopia like Panem, and I see Katniss's father and Granny Ashpet (both of whose names are deliberately taken from Appalachian folklore, Ashpet being the Appalachian Cinderella and Jack the hero of a whole school of tales!) and Peeta's Mellark grandparents all being rich sources of such lore.
On a related note, the "old folk song" that appears throughout this chapter, described by Katniss as "lovers' words, fanciful as fairy tales and perhaps even older in origin":
How lovely you are, my darling
How beautiful, my love
Your eyes are like doves
Your teeth are like sheep
Your mouth is a scarlet ribbon
is a simplification of Song of Solomon 4:1-3 (NIV):
How beautiful you are, my darling!
Oh, how beautiful!
Your eyes behind your veil are doves.
Your hair is like a flock of goats
descending from the hills of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn,
coming up from the washing.
Each has its twin;
not one of them is alone.
Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon;
your mouth is lovely.
Ghtlovesthg and I had a great conversation about how the Song of Solomon would persist indefinitely on the whispers of lovers, even and especially in a dystopia like Panem, and who better to pass it on than Katniss's father, with his rich heritage of songs and tales?
Finally, in writing about New Year's, I wanted to create a "corruption" of Christmas that was canon-compliant and believable in that context yet still contained clear threads of the (secular) Christmas holiday as we know it, albeit with a Panem "twist" (ex. Father Christmas leaving a shoeful of coal and stockingful of sweets for children in the coal-mining district, the Victory Tour aspect of his journey). To the best of my knowledge, Twelve's tradition of kissing boughs and the ribbon exchange is my own invention (with an obvious connection to mistletoe, of course), and I'm a little besotted with the idea. :D