Author's note: This was written for Day 7 of Prompts in Panem on tumblr. This is part one of two. I hope to have the second part up soon. My tumblr name is atetheredmind, so come play!
It happened a few weeks after Prim's last reaping.
Her name had not been chosen from the slips of thousands, and as she hugged her little sister in the square, after the two unlucky tributes had been swept inside the Justice Hall and the crowd had dispersed, Katniss could finally breathe; she could finally breathe for the first time in 18 years. Her sister was safe. They could be happy now. What else was there to worry about?
As it turned out, there was plenty.
At 22, Katniss hadn't done a lot of the things expected of her. She refused a job in the mines, and her particular skills set wasn't conducive to any sort of work in town—not that the Merchants, even if they hadn't delegated all their jobs to family members, would ever consider her for a position within their shops. Instead, she did what she did best: She bucked the Capitol's rules. She still hunted, trading the game she caught around town. In addition, she made contraband prophylactics from animal intestines and sold them in the Hob.
The idea had come to her when she was hunting in the woods alone one day and had spotted two squirrels rutting furiously in a tree. Birth control wasn't entirely legal in the districts—the Capitol needed its sacrificial lambs for the games, after all—but healers like her mother knew of herbs to prevent conception—or to terminate pregnancy. At some point, condoms had been sold in the Hob; a man from the Seam, Micah, had a connection in the Capitol and used to sneak shipments of condoms on the trains until someone higher up in the Capitol got wind of it, effectively putting a stop to the shipments. They never saw Micah again after that.
Gale had been particularly amused by her new craft and had told her that if he didn't have to work in the mines, he would have gladly helped her with fashioning the animal-skin condoms. But he needed the pay from the mines, the steady source of income, because he still had his siblings to care for.
Gale was another problem unto himself. After Katniss' last reaping, he had asked her to marry him. She had been utterly dumbfounded, to say the least—though, in retrospect, she now understood the cryptic things he'd said to her over the years, the lingering looks, the more-than-friendly touches. Flustered, she had told him what she had always told herself: She didn't want to get married, and she didn't want to have kids. She had Prim to worry about, and she couldn't think about anything else. He had been crushed, and a little angry, but he was persistent; he insisted they didn't have to get married until Prim was out of the reaping. He insisted he could wait.
She didn't have the heart to tell him he might be waiting forever.
Regardless, the two of them had lapsed into a strange limbo—they were something more than friends, but she didn't know how to define it. She never referred to him as her boyfriend, but she knew he was hers, and she was his; what else mattered? Before him, she had never given much (any) thought to sex. It was a purely biological impulse, she thought, needed for the purpose of recreating—and she had no intentions of ever doing that. But when her relationship with Gale turned physical, tentative kisses blossoming into heavy touching, she knew; finally, she understood the pull of sex. When he bent her over at the slag heap or took her up against a tree in the woods, she thought, at least they could have this; she could always give him this.
And true to his word, Gale didn't pressure her about marriage during those years. He seemed content with just exploring their physical relationship, and a large part of Katniss hoped it could always stay like that. But the day after Prim's last reaping, he began dropping hints about a larger commitment. She feigned ignorance, which had always worked so well for her in the past, but Gale's patience ran out. When he asked her again, point-blank, if she wanted to marry him, she didn't know what to tell him. "I need more time, Gale," she'd told him weakly, not sure if all the time in the world could ever be enough to change her mind. But she couldn't bear to disappoint him, not after everything, and he was stubborn; he was convinced he could wait her out. And she was sure she would never relent.
Coins in hand, Katniss crossed through town, heading for the bakery. It was a bittersweet day for her; Prim, her little sister, who wasn't so little anymore, was newly engaged to a boy from town. The news had been a little scandalous, as she was from the Seam, but most people seemed to forget that fact; seeing her blonde hair and blue eyes, they were willing to overlook her birth class and welcome her into theirs. Prim was easy to like. Katniss was happy for her sister; she really was. But she was also heartbroken. She had devoted 18 years of her life to helping raise her, protecting her; now that she was ready to start a family of her own with a man who would be responsible for looking after her, Katniss didn't know what to do with herself anymore. She had cried when Prim had announced the engagement, ruining the occasion for her sweet sister. And, now, ashamed of her dramatics, Katniss had decided to buy Prim a cake, something she never could have done before. To congratulate her, and to apologize.
Circling to the back of the bakery, she knocked curtly on the door and waited. She could hear a commotion inside and, finally, the back door opened. Barm, the eldest Mellark son, answered, a wide grin plastered on his face. When he saw her, his eyes lit up in recognition. "Oh, hey, Katniss. Here for the cake?" he asked pleasantly, and she nodded.
She had commissioned the cake a couple days ago. Barm, who had taken over the bakery from his father, had helped her with the details.
Joyous laughter echoed from somewhere in the bakery behind him, and he glanced behind him. "Sorry, things are a little hectic right now," he explained apologetically, but his face still glowed with happiness. "I almost forgot you were coming by today. Hold tight, and I'll get the cake for you."
He disappeared inside, leaving the door open, and she stared after him curiously. It was only then that she realized he wasn't wearing his usual apron. He looked like he was dressed for the reaping, actually, with a nice pair of slacks and a white dress shirt. Confused, she leaned through the doorway slightly, trying to peer around the corner, where snippets of indecipherable conversations drifted toward her. Just then, Barm emerged from another room, holding a box. She jerked back, a slight blush coloring her cheeks, but he hadn't noticed her snooping. "Here you go," he said, handing the box to her, and she dropped the coins in his open palm.
"Are you closed? I'm sorry to have intruded..." she trailed off uneasily, but he waved her apology off.
"Ah, it's fine. We didn't plan to be closed today, but, well, it's a momentous occasion," he said proudly, and at her clueless expression, he beamed. "Peeta, my baby brother, is finally getting married."
The box holding the cake nearly slipped from her hands, and she was sure her heart had stopped beating in that moment.
Peeta Mellark was getting married. Peeta, the boy with the bread. He was getting married.
Barm must have taken her stricken expression for surprise because he laughed, nodding his head as if he shared her thoughts. "I know. We didn't think it was ever going to happen. He never could stick with one girl for too long, and I was sure he was never going to settle down. But I guess he finally found the one. We're getting ready to head to the Justice Building right now, so it's lucky you stopped by when you did."
Katniss was lost, somewhere in time, somewhere 11 years ago. No, not lost—she was still at the bakery, but out front, crawling through the mud for a couple loaves of bread, the icy sheets of rain beating her relentlessly, beating her the way his mother had beaten him for burning the bread.
And she had never said thank you. Had never even spoken to him. Never even...never even...what? What did she not do that she could never do now?
She didn't know. She didn't understand the pit that had ripped open in her stomach. She felt lightheaded all of a sudden, and she shook her head, trying to shake the dread squeezing at her heart.
"You okay?" Barm asked, eyeing her strangely, and she snapped back to attention.
"Yes—yes, I'm fine, I'm fine," she babbled, shifting the cake to one hand so she could wipe the sweat from her forehead. "It's just—hot out here." He nodded in understanding. "Well, thank you—thank you for the cake. And...and..."
"Hey, Barm, you coming? We're about to head out," a voice called out behind him, a voice she knew well, and then he was there. Their eyes locked over Barm's shoulder, as they had done many times before, but this time neither gray nor blue flitted away.
Peeta stared at her, his jaw going slack as something indecipherable skittered across his face, and she was frozen to her spot, her heart in her throat. But Barm was oblivious to the exchange, throwing a confirmation to his brother over his shoulder. His words snapped Katniss from her daze, and she blinked rapidly.
"Congratulations," she squeaked, and she was gone before either could respond, walking as fast as she could without drawing attention to herself. But when she reached the Seam, she broke into a run, not sure where her feet were taking her.
It wasn't until she stumbled through the berry bushes at the rocky ledge where she and Gale always met for their hunting trips that she even realized she was in the woods. She collapsed on the ledge, her heart still beating wildly. Only then did she remember the cake in her hands.
What was wrong with her? She felt like she had lost something she never had. It was just guilt, she reasoned, that horrible feeling in her gut. Guilt that she still had never thanked him for the bread, for the beating he took to save her. She didn't know how to deal with the weight of a debt unpaid.
This was silly. She was being absolutely stupid.
Katniss stared at the box in her hand, opening it gingerly. The cake inside was small, covered in beautiful, hand-crafted primroses made of fondant. Or something like that. Barm had waxed poetic about how the cake was going to be prepared, but she hadn't understood most of the terms he had used. The icing was white, and inside the cake was yellow—at least, it should be; that's what Barm had promised. She admired the delicate flowers, wondering whose hands had crafted them. Barm had said his brother would decorate the cake, as he was much better at it than him, but he didn't specify which one, and she didn't ask.
Somehow, looking at the primroses, she knew they had been done by Peeta's hand.
She slammed the box closed, but she didn't leave yet. She sat huddled on that ledge for hours, lost in thought. When the sun was low in the sky, she knew what she had to do.
Back at home, Prim wept when she saw the cake. They invited the Hawthornes over to share the decadent dessert—after all, rarely did anyone in the Seam get to indulge in such treats. Before Gale left, his family already trudging back to their house, Katniss stopped him on the porch and pulled him aside. He watched her so intently, she nearly lost her nerve.
"Let's do it," she finally managed to choke out, but he looked confused. "Let's get married."
Gale's eyes widened in disbelief. "Really? You mean it?" She nodded, and his face split into a grin so wide, her own cheeks hurt. Then he started laughing, and he lifted her into a hug, spinning her around. The sound of his joy was contagious, and soon she was laughing, too. When he placed her back on the porch, she swayed in his arms, slightly dizzy, but he held her tight. "I can't believe it," he said, then he cupped his hands around his mouth, shouting into the night, "Katniss Everdeen just agreed to marry me!"
She shushed him, mortified, but he kissed her anyway, a kiss both heated and slow. She fisted his shirt in her hands, and when he pulled away, he leaned his forehead against hers. "I love you," he whispered, his voice shaking with happiness.
The words stuck in her throat. They had never said them to each other, but she thought it was understood. It hadn't been an easy realization for her to swallow, but she knew years ago that she loved him. At the time, it hadn't been more than a platonic rendering, born of a mutual hardship and an understanding they had of each other that no one else could ever touch. And now, she knew it was something more. He deserved to be loved by her—by someone better, really—but he deserved to hear it, at least.
"I—I love you, too," she murmured tremulously, and he sealed the declaration with a kiss.
And in that moment, she was happy.
By the end of the summer, Peeta Mellark had married the shoemaker's daughter, and the two of them moved into a house not far from the bakery.
By the end of the summer, Prim had married and moved with her husband to a new house in town.
And by the end of the summer, Katniss and Gale were wed in a small toasting ceremony in their new (old) house in the Seam. She wouldn't let him use any bread from the bakery, however, insisting on the bland drop biscuits she had whipped up herself.
The first few years were good. She was happy with Gale, she was—at least, as happy as she thought herself capable of being. And he was happy, too.
But then he started asking about the possibility of children, and she knew the bubble of their blissful domesticity had been popped.
"Gale, you know I don't want children," she said slowly, carefully. "I've told you this before."
He just stared at her in disbelief. "I didn't know you meant...I mean, ever? You don't want kids—ever?"
"I thought you understood. I thought this was something we both understood." She could feel her precarious grip on a peaceful, undisturbed life slipping already.
He sighed. "I understand your hesitation, I do, but...if I were going to have kids, I would want them with you. You don't ever think about—about having my children, raising them together?" he asked, and she didn't know how to respond because the answer was no, never. How could he want kids when the reaping loomed every year, ready to snatch them from the tentative safety of their lives in District 12, however miserable? How could anyone?
"I don't want kids," she repeated stubbornly, and his face hardened, but he didn't speak of the subject anymore, at least for a few months.
Her opposition was only heightened the day Prim told her she was pregnant, and Katniss felt the fear as if it were her own child. And she knew then that she would never be free from the worry, the terror of the games.
The topic of children became a source of contention in her and Gale's relationship. After their first conversation, she thought he had dropped the notion, but soon, he began hinting at the prospect again, making offhanded comments that left her agitated and unsettled. When he finally asked her again, her frustration boiled over, sparking a heated fight between the two of them that ended with her crying in anger and him storming out of the house. He came back hours later, smelling of liquor, but he apologized profusely. He took her on the kitchen table that night, and she let him work out his rage on her.
After a while, that was all their relationship seemed to be: fighting and butting heads and furiously fucking to make amends. She always made him wear a condom, though, and eventually, he came to resent her for that, as well, until, finally, they stopped having sex. Now their relationship was just fighting and butting heads and tiptoeing around each other, waiting for the next eventual blow-up.
She was miserable. He was miserable. She was consumed with the guilt of denying him children, but she had warned him, hadn't she? He could leave her if he wanted, but she knew he wouldn't. He was just as stubborn as she was, and though most days she wished he had met and fallen in love with someone else, someone who actually wanted to bear his children, admitting defeat was a hard pill to swallow for her, too.
Katniss hoisted her game bag over her shoulder as she made her rounds through town. It was Wednesday, her usual day for trading. Once she'd started her business in the Hob, she'd had to switch her main hunting days from Sunday to Wednesday, as Sundays were typically a busy day in the Hob. The switch was just another thing Gale resented her for, she knew.
Leaving the apothecary, she headed for the bakery. At the back door, she rapped twice, already pulling out the squirrel she normally traded with Barm.
But it wasn't Barm who answered the door. It was Peeta.
Startled, she dropped the squirrel on the door step. "Oh!" she breathed, and they both leaned down to pick it up, fumbling awkwardly for the dead rodent. She let him pick it up, straightening up quickly, and he handed it back to her with an odd smile. Flustered, she took it from him, but then she held it back out to him. "Well, this is for you—or Barm—or, or whoever," she stuttered, trying to will away the embarrassed flush that had crept up her neck. With another smile, Peeta took the squirrel from her.
"I can give it to Barm for you," he said. "I'm filling in for him right now. Marnie—his wife, sorry—just had her baby, but there were some...complications, so he's taking some time off to take care of her and the baby while she rests."
Katniss nodded mutely, not sure what to say. It wasn't unusual for women of Marnie's age to have children, especially with the lack of any real sexual education and district-approved contraception, but she'd heard talk around town that the baby hadn't been planned; they already had two, and there was a bit of an age gap between this one and the others. Katniss knew from her brief conversations with Barm that this pregnancy had been tough on his wife. She wondered if her mother or Prim had assisted in the delivery.
Peeta seemed to notice her discomfort, and, perhaps realizing he'd said too much, he scratched the back of his head. "Okay, well, I can give this to him," he repeated, holding up the squirrel. "What does he normally give you in exchange?"
She cleared her throat, trying to look at anything but him. "Two loaves."
"Any kind of bread in particular?"
Her mouth went dry, and it took her a couple tries to force the answer out. "Raisin and nuts." He started to turn around, but then his body jolted, as if he had fully registered her words. He froze, and they locked eyes.
He remembered. All these years later, and he still remembered that day, too. His cheeks colored, and he finally broke her gaze. "I'll go get it," he muttered, marching back inside, and she took a deep breath, fighting her racing heart. When he returned, he held out a brown paper bag to her. "Here you go."
"Thanks," she whispered, taking a step back to make a hasty retreat.
"Katniss," he said, pulling her up short. He'd said her name; he had never said her name before. She stared at him, wide-eyed.
"You look good," he finished, his voice cracking.
No, she didn't. She knew she didn't. She looked like shit. She and Gale had had another fight the night before, and they were up way too late hurling accusations and insults at each other. Her face was lined with exhaustion, the circles under her eyes dark and puffy.
And yet, Peeta's words made her heart flutter. "You, too," she found herself saying before she could think, and then she was gone, darting around the bakery. Safe in her house she shared with Gale, she collapsed at the kitchen table, flinging the offending bag of bread halfway across the table. She dropped her head in her hand, glad Gale was in the mines; she really needed a moment alone, just a moment to think. What was wrong with her? How could it be 20 fucking years later and she still be so affected by the sight of him?
Since that day at the bakery, the day he got married, the day she'd finally accepted Gale's proposal, she had done her best not to cross paths with Peeta Mellark. He hadn't been hard to avoid, really, since he no longer worked at the bakery. With Barm in charge, getting supplemental help from his parents who still lived above the bakery, as well as his wife and his children, there was really no need for the two younger Mellark brothers. Rye, the middle son, now worked as an accountant at the Justice Building, and Peeta was a teacher at the school. He also coached the wrestling team. Their paths never really intersected, aside from when she'd spot him across town while visiting Prim.
She hadn't been prepared for seeing him today, for actually speaking with him. It was summer, and school was out, so she supposed that was why he had the time to cover for Barm at the bakery. She found herself wondering about him, about his life, allowing herself for the first time in a while a moment to really think about the boy with the bread. She wondered if he was happy.
He had been married for nine years, but he didn't have any children of his own. She didn't give it much thought before, but there had been gossip around town about fertility issues; Prim had confirmed it to her indirectly, as she was the one trying to help his wife, Analise, conceive—to no avail. Katniss almost felt sorry for them—almost, because, she thought, out of everyone in the district, Peeta would probably make the best father.
She wondered how it made Peeta feel, knowing his wife couldn't conceive even one child, while his brother and his sister-in-law had more children than they had even wanted.
She wondered if he was happy, or if he was miserable like she was.
The following Wednesday, Katniss made her usual rounds trading, but before she went to the bakery, she checked the front of the store through the windows. All she saw were the aging Mr. Mellark and his wife assisting customers at the register; she couldn't tell who was in the back. With a sigh, she trudged around to the back of the bakery and knocked, holding her breath.
When the door opened to reveal Peeta, she didn't know if she wanted to curse or laugh. She tried to keep her face impassive, but he smiled at her, the warmth of it throwing her off guard. "Hi—again," she said nervously, fumbling with her game bag to retrieve the squirrel.
"Hi, Katniss," he said softly, and she wondered why he insisted on saying her name out loud.
"Is, uh—how's, uh, Marnie?" she asked, mentally kicking herself for her inability to string together a coherent sentence in his presence.
He pursed his lips, his eyes a little heavier now. "Better. She's still bedridden, but Barm is taking good care of her."
She nodded, pulling the squirrel out and holding it out to him. "And...the baby?" She didn't know why she asked, but it seemed rude not to.
"He's okay," Peeta replied, taking the game from her. He grinned suddenly, the action really lighting up his face, and she was momentarily stunned. "Though, I guess that's to be determined, really."
He scratched the dark blonde scruff on his jaw. "Another boy. I feel kind of bad. Pretty soon, this town's going to be overrun by Mellark boys. Everyone must be sick of us by now," he joked lightly, and she knew that wasn't true. The Mellark men were well-liked by most people. And if the alternative was anything like his witch of a mother, another boy was much more preferable.
Still, a small smile curved her lips upward. "I highly doubt that," she said, and his grin slipped somewhat. He stared at her for a moment, his blue eyes rooting her to that doorstep, and she could scarcely breathe. Suddenly, he blinked and shook his head.
"Let me get your bread," he said, turning away from her, and she took a deep breath, her eyelids fluttering closed as she tried to regain her composure. By the time he returned, she had a better grip on her emotions, and she set her face back into a mask of its usual indifference. When he handed her the bag, however, he hesitated. "I, uh, slipped a little something extra in there."
She scowled, already thrusting the bag back toward him, but he pulled his hands away. "What? I don't need anything extra. That's not the deal," she accused.
Peeta held up his hands defensively. "I just thought—I just wanted to give you something different to try. They're cheese buns. It's something new we're trying out here, and I just—I just want your opinion. Just...taste them. I think you'll like them."
She huffed, jerking her game bag open. "Fine, then let me give you something else—"
His eyes widened. "No! No, really, Katniss, it's fine. You're doing us a favor, honest," he insisted, his hand closing over hers on the paper bag, and he thrust it back toward her. "Please. Just...let me know how you like them."
She would have objected more, but the feel of his soft fingers on her knuckles gave her pause. He seemed just as startled by the touch, and her eyes flickered between their hands and his surprised face, which mirrored her own. With a great deal of effort, she wrenched her hand from his and took a step down. "O-okay, fine," she said shakily, her heart beating uncomfortably hard. Confused, she shuffled in two different directions before righting her course, walking away quickly. She heard him call after her, and despite her better judgment, she glanced back. He waved, and she lifted her hand in a halfhearted parting gesture.
That night, she ate the cheese buns before Gale could see them. She knew he would question their sudden appearance, just as she would, and, for some reason she didn't understand, she didn't want to tell him. About the cheese buns or about Peeta. The two men did not coexist well in her mind.
But the buns were incredible. When she ate the last bite, the cheese melting on her tongue, she felt oddly empty despite how satisfying they were. She sucked the grease and crumbs from her fingers earnestly, already craving more.
The next time Katniss went to trade at the bakery, Barm was back. Despite her twinge of disappointment, she was relieved. Peeta confused her, and she already had enough stress in her life.
So that Sunday, when Peeta approached her at her usual spot in the Hob, she stared at him incredulously.
"Hi," he greeted her with a small smile as he stopped in front of her booth.
She opened and closed her mouth a few times before her voice caught up with her brain. "What—what are you doing here?" she asked, her eyes darting around the Hob. Had anyone noticed him? Merchants didn't do business in the Hob often, unless they were buying alcohol or other contraband items. Her cursory survey of the warehouse revealed that no one seemed to be watching them, at least.
"Oh, well," he wavered, rubbing the back of his neck. "Well, I'm not at the bakery now, and I just—I just wanted to see what you thought of the cheese buns. Did you like them?"
She nervously tucked some hair behind her ear, clearing her throat. "Um, yeah. Yes, I did. They were...they were really good."
Peeta smiled again. "Good. That's good. I'm glad. Did, uh, did Gale try them? What did he think?"
She flushed in embarrassment, looking around again. "Well, he, uh—no, he didn't. I kinda...I kinda ate them all myself."
He chuckled this time. "That's fine. I mean, that's good. I'm really glad you liked them that much," he said, and she shrugged, playing with her braid. They lapsed into silence, and he looked as uncomfortable as she felt.
"Did you come here just to ask that?" she blurted, and his eyebrows lifted.
"Oh, no, no. I actually came to—to buy from you. A condom, I mean." His cheeks reddened, and he visibly swallowed. She stared at him in disbelief, her own face growing hot.
"Okay," she finally squeaked, shuffling through her supplies. She couldn't even bring herself to ask him what size he needed; she just grabbed whatever her hand landed on and shoved it at him, muttering the price. He dropped some coins in her open palm, cramming the condom into his back pocket.
"Bye," he mumbled, hurrying away quickly. Katniss scrubbed a hand down her face.
It wasn't until he was gone that it struck her how odd it was that he had wanted a condom. If his wife was barren, why would they bother with protection? And why would they even want to use protection if they were trying to conceive? Was Prim mistaken about Analise Mellark's infertility? No, her sister wouldn't have made a mistake like that. So, why did he need a condom?
The answer hit her so hard, she nearly fell off her stool. He was sleeping with someone else. Suddenly, she flushed with an inexplicable rage, feeling stupid, like she had been duped somehow. Why should she care who he was fucking? She didn't. His personal life was none of her business.
But when she saw him in the Hob again a week later, she all but growled at him. "I'm not selling you another condom," she spat, and he pulled up short in front of her booth, his mouth dropping open.
She folded her arms over her chest. "I'm not going to—to aid you in whatever it is you're doing," she said, and when she realized how loud her voice had gotten, she lowered it; there was still an edge when she spoke, however. "I'm not going to help you cheat on your wife."
His face paled. "What? Cheat on my—" he stopped himself, glancing around in alarm, then he leaned closer, practically hissing, "I'm not cheating on my wife. Why the hell—what would make you think I'm cheating on Lissy?"
She blinked, dread pooling in her stomach. "I just—I mean...well, I just thought—I mean, I had heard that you two...that she...well, I didn't know why you would need a condom. So I thought you were—with someone else..." Shit.
His faced hardened, and his jaw clenched. He was silent for a moment, then he responded in a low, dangerous tone, "I am not cheating on Analise. But you're right; I don't need a condom." He looked away briefly before his eyes flitted back to her. "I didn't really come to buy anything from you. I just came to see you. But I fucked up. I'm an idiot." He sighed, running a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry. I'll stop bothering you." With that, he walked away, and she stared after him, dumbstruck.
What had just happened?
Over the next few days, Katniss waged an internal debate about whether she should apologize to Peeta. He had been nothing but nice to her in her limited interactions with him, and all she ever managed to do was spit in the face of his kindness.
She should apologize, she finally decided. There was no easy way to go about it, but she screwed up her courage and marched from the Seam to his house in town. She hesitated on his front step, shifting her game bag between her hands. As a woman from the Seam, she knew how it would look, her coming to his front door, so she hoped the presence of her game bag would ward off any suspicions. And she was fairly certain his wife wasn't home; she was a cleric at the Justice Building and should be at work in the middle of the day. Chewing on her lip, she forced herself to knock before she could talk herself out of it. Then she held her breath.
When Peeta opened the door, he narrowed his eyes in confusion. "Katniss—"
"I'm sorry," she said quickly, surprising him. "For the other day. In the Hob. I had no right to—to say what I did. It's none of my business what happens between you and your—and your wife."
Peeta pursed his lips, scratching his chin thoughtfully as he stared over her head, and she fidgeted in the silence. "No, it isn't any of your business," he said brusquely, and she flinched. He sighed, dropping his gaze to her face. "But I suppose everyone in this district has made it their business, so I'm not surprised you know. But I accept your apology."
She inhaled deeply, relieved. "Okay, well...that's all I wanted to say."
His brow creased as he stared at her, and his face softened. "Would you like to come in? For some tea?" he asked, opening the door wider, and she gawked at him.
"Isn't that—isn't that inappropriate?" she choked out, glancing around apprehensively.
Peeta slumped against the door frame with a wry smile. "More inappropriate than discussing my wife's infertility on my doorstep?"
Cringing, Katniss flushed in horror, and she opened her mouth to apologize again, but he waved it off. "It's fine. Stop apologizing. Have some tea with me, and we'll call it even, okay?"
With one last look over her shoulder, she tossed her game bag over her shoulder for added effect and followed him inside as he stepped aside to let her in. He led her to the kitchen, and she tried to discreetly inspect their home. It was nice. Cozy. Better decorated than her and Gale's house. She wondered if that was something Merchants were taught growing up, how to decorate their homes. She and Gale didn't much see the need for frivolous things like decorations, not when that money could be better spent on essentials. Like food and clothes. She felt a little envious, but she swallowed the feeling, standing awkwardly in his kitchen while he dug through the cabinets for cups.
"You have a nice home," she said quietly, setting her bag down. He looked back at her with a forced smile.
"Thank you," he said tightly, and she wondered if he was uncomfortable because he knew her house in the Seam was anything but nice. "Lissy's doing, I guess. I don't...really care for that stuff. Please, have a seat."
She perched awkwardly in one of the chairs at the kitchen table, as if she were ready to take off running at any moment. Peeta sat down across from her, setting two tea cups and a kettle down between them. "Would you like sugar?" he asked, offering her a cup of sugar cubes, and she shrugged.
He spooned a couple into her cup, then poured her some tea. He didn't put any sugar in his cup, she noted. He handed her a spoon, and she used it to stir her tea while he sipped from his own cup. They sat in silence for a moment, and she gulped her tea eagerly for something to do. Peeta watched her intently, and she began to squirm, setting her cup down.
"So, uh, condoms," he said abruptly, startling her. "That's an interesting trade. How did you get started doing that?"
She stared at him as if he had sprouted a second head. Birth control was normally a conversation she could have with anyone without batting an eye; it was just a trade to her, after all, and not something she found shameful. However, discussing it with him made her break out into a light sweat. "Um. Well. I figured there was a real—a real dearth in birth control in this district," she said, looking at a cabinet behind him. "And, I guess, I figured since I had access to the, uh, components that I might as well." She shrugged, fidgeting with the spoon. "My mother helped me in the beginning, to figure out how to make them. Since her family was, you know, in the apothecary business, she knew a lot of useful information."
He nodded, and then he smiled. "You're really smart. Very resourceful."
She looked at him sharply. Was he mocking her? His expression looked genuine. "I...have to be," she said, unsure, and he just nodded again, sipping his tea. She struggled for something else to say. "How do you like teaching?"
He looked pleasantly surprised. "You know what I do?" She furrowed her eyebrows in confusion. Was it weird that she knew? She hid her face behind her cup, embarrassed. "I really like it. I teach reading and writing, things I enjoy. And I get to coach wrestling, which keeps me active. So it's good."
She nodded. "What do you do in the summers?"
He grinned. "Lose my mind." She raised an eyebrow, and he laughed at himself. "I get a little stir-crazy. Probably drive everyone else insane because I'm bugging them, trying to find something to do. I take odd jobs here and there. I bake. I draw. A lot."
That surprised her. "You draw?" He nodded, looking a little sheepish. Then he pointed to a picture that hung above the sink. Her eyes widened; the charcoal sketch was so vivid, so precise, that she immediately recognized the apple tree from behind the bakery. The one she had collapsed under 20 years ago. She swallowed thickly, trying to find the words. "That's really...really...good. It's really good," she said lamely, draining the last of her tea. She set the cup down. "I should probably—I should go."
"Wait," he said, stretching his arm toward her, but he flattened his palm against the table. "Katniss...I would really like to be your friend."
That pulled her up short. "Friend?" she repeated, and he nodded. Was that a joke? "You want to be my friend?" He smiled this time. "Don't you already have enough friends?"
He snapped his fingers. "You know what? You're right. I forgot I already made a new friend last week, so I guess I've hit my quota for the year." He grinned at her, and her lips twitched in amusement. "I do have friends, but I would still like to be yours."
Friends. She didn't really have any friends, she guessed. Gale used to be her best friend, but now that they were married and constantly fighting, she didn't really talk to him anymore, not like she had in the past. She used to be friends with Madge Undersee, but they drifted apart after they finished school, though Madge was pleasant enough when they ran into each other in town. And Katniss got along with the other vendors in the Hob, especially Greasy Sae and Ripper, but she couldn't say she'd ever invite anyone over for tea, or they, her. Really, the only person she talked to extensively was Prim, but Prim had a daughter to raise now, patients to tend to.
Katniss was kind of lonely, she realized. It wasn't a feeling she was used to; she usually liked her solitude. But maybe she could use a friend now.
"Okay," she said simply, and he quirked an eyebrow.
"So you'll allow it?" She nodded, and he smiled widely. "Okay." Sliding her chair back from the table, she stood up and grabbed her bag. Peeta stood up, too, and followed her to the door.
She turned around to face him. "Well...thank you for the tea, Peeta," she said, suddenly realizing how close he was to her. She was so unprepared for his proximity that when he pulled her into a hug, she found herself hugging him back before her reflexes kicked in and her body stiffened. He was already pulling away, the action so quick, but in that brief moment, she noticed three things. The first was how sturdy he was, how broad his chest was pressed against hers. The second was how he smelled, like cinnamon and dill—she thought she recognized—a scent that was so strangely alluring, so oddly masculine. The third was the way the soft scruff on his face scratched her neck. Gale always shaved; he said he hated the feel and smell of the coal dust collecting in his beard while he worked in the mines, and she agreed.
Peeta stepped back, looking as equally flustered. "Uh, sorry. Was that out of line?"
"N-no, it's fine, you're fine," she stammered, fumbling with the doorknob. "Bye." She tried not to rush out of his house, but it took every ounce of her self-control not to run as she crossed through town back to the Seam.
Katniss paced her living room, trying to quell the anxiety surging inside her. She and Peeta were just friends, barely that, even, as they had been mostly strangers not even an hour ago. She hardly knew him; she didn't know him enough to be fretting this much about him. It was only a hug. Peeta probably hugged all his friends. Just because she was emotionally and physically withdrawn, that didn't mean others were as uncomfortable with affection as she was. She replayed the way he wrapped his arms around her and flushed at the memory.
She needed a bath. Heating up some water on the stove, she gradually filled their small copper tub. By the time she had stripped off her clothes and slid into the tub, the water was only lukewarm, but she still sighed, the tension melting from her bones. She washed herself leisurely, lathering a washcloth with soap and running it over her body. Leaning her head back, she dragged the washcloth up to her neck, and, unbidden, she recalled the way Peeta's beard had grazed against her throat. She gasped, her eyes snapping open as the thought sent a pulse of desire between her thighs. Shit.
So, she was horny. Fine. She and Gale hadn't had sex in a while, and her body just craved a release. She brushed the washcloth over her breasts, and her other hand dropped under the water between her legs, her fingers quickly finding the bundle of nerves that begged for her attention. The tips of her fingers pressed down, moving deliberately, and she tried to conjure up an image of Gale to spark her arousal. But it was Peeta's grin, his bright blue eyes she saw, his broad back and his soft beard she felt when she shuddered in pleasure, gasping as she came. As the high of her climax subsided, she sank farther into the water, racked with guilt and shame, until the water lapped over her mouth. She shouldn't be thinking about another man like that. A man who was also married. What was wrong with her?
Katniss quickly climbed out of the tub and toweled off, dumping the bathwater out back. When Gale came home from work that evening, in her guilt, she sought out his affection. He regarded her suspiciously when she sat in his lap at the dinner table.
"What's gotten into you?" he asked, and she shrugged, pressing kisses along his neck.
"I just thought you might like a little relief after your day," she murmured, sucking on his pulse point, and he groaned, his hands sliding under her shirt. She unbuttoned his pants and slipped her hand inside to grasp his growing erection. "Let's move to the bedroom."
They had sex for the first time in months; after he'd came, he peeled the condom off his cock and settled between her legs, finishing her using his tongue. Arching underneath him, she couldn't help but wonder what Peeta's beard would feel like against her thighs as he pleasured her with his mouth.
She lay awake for most of the night after that, Gale snoring away beside her, dead to the world.
The next week, Peeta sidled up to her booth in the Hob casually, and she fought the blush that heated her cheeks, trying not to think about her recurring fantasies that centered around him. "'Morning," he said, and she nodded in greeting.
"Come to purchase more condoms?" she asked, and he chuckled sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head.
"Ah, no, not this time," he replied, showing her a bottle of clear liquor he bought from Ripper. "But I thought I'd come bug you, anyway."
A shy smile tugged at the corner of her lips. "So, is this your idea of friendship? Because I'm starting to rethink this arrangement."
He grinned. "Have I scared you off already? This might be a new record for me. Maybe I need to draft a contract for all my new friends to sign or something," he mused, bracing himself against her booth.
"You should probably include a trial period so they can change their minds after a predetermined time frame," she suggested, and he pretended to mull her idea over.
"Or maybe I should start paying for my friends' time with cheese buns," he said with a crooked smile, and this time she blushed.
Clearing her throat, she brushed some loose pieces of hair off her face. "Is that part of the deal? Because forget what I said earlier. I think you might just be my new best friend," she replied, smiling when he laughed.
"Bribing friends with baked goods; I see. I guess I've been doing it wrong all this time," he lamented dramatically, and she shrugged.
"Ply them with cheese buns, and I think you'll never find yourself in short supply of friends."
"Well, now I know why I decided to befriend you. You clearly have all the best ideas," he said, quirking an eyebrow, and she rolled her eyes, playing with her braid. With a sigh, he looked around before flashing her another smile. "I guess I should leave you alone now before I scare off your customers. They might think I'm buying up all your condoms," he joked, and she scoffed, smiling, anyway.
"Yeah, you should probably start baking right away if you plan to make any more friends," she said, and he bowed to her.
"Thank you for imparting your wisdom on me, Katniss." With one last smile, he walked away, her gaze lingering in the direction he'd left long after he was gone.
Fucked. She was fucked.
Making friends with Peeta Mellark was a terrible, ill thought-out idea, she realized. He came around too often, tracking her down at the Hob when she worked to "keep her company," he'd said. She was at least glad he actually purchased things while he was there, whether it was more alcohol from Ripper or some stew from Greasy Sae, because then it didn't look like he was solely visiting her. But he must have been because she'd never seen him in the Hob before. Was she his only friend who didn't work normal hours in an officially approved job? She just might have been; somehow, she doubted he had any other friends from the Seam.
And yet, despite knowing it was a bad idea, she still couldn't bring herself to send him away. She rather enjoyed his company. He made her laugh, something she didn't do often anymore—or ever, really. Peeta wasn't the only Merchant to patronize the Hob, not in the least, but he was the only one who spent time in her company, almost exclusively. Surely, people had to be talking.
That fact was confirmed to her when Gale confronted her about it over dinner one night.
"Are you fucking Peeta Mellark?" he asked, his voice razor sharp, his gray eyes glinting.
She blanched, dropping her fork to her plate. "What? No! What the hell—why would you even ask me that?" she demanded, her temper flaring.
He regarded her coldly, his eyes narrowed as he stared at her. "Thom told me Mellark's been hanging around you at the Hob. Why would he be hanging around you?"
Her nostrils flared, but underneath her anger she felt fear bubbling. "He's not—hanging around me. He's there to buy shit. He's there to buy alcohol and food, and he—he buys condoms from me. He stops to chat with everyone there," she said as evenly as she could, knowing she was partially lying.
Gale snorted, leaning back in his chair. "And what does he need condoms for?"
"I don't know! Ask him, ask his wife! Ask whoever he's sleeping with because it's not me!" she yelled. "I hardly even know him!"
He just shook his head, a sneer pulling at his lips. "Can you blame me for being suspicious? That guy's had a hard-on for you since school."
Her eyes widened. "What? What are you talking about?"
"Oh, come on, you can't tell me you didn't notice," he said with a scoff. "He stared at you all the time! You mean to tell me you didn't notice? Bullshit."
"No, I—" Katniss faltered, gaping at him as she tried to digest the new information. Had she noticed Peeta staring at her? Of course. But because he liked her? No. That couldn't have been it. It was because of the bread. Because he expected a thank you or some kind of acknowledgement. That was why. Wasn't it? She shook her head, desperately clinging to her denial. "It doesn't matter what he thought of me in school. I'm not fucking him, and I can't even believe you would accuse me of something like that!"
She pushed away from the table and snatched her plate up, carrying it to the sink where she dropped it, loudly. She heard Gale stand up behind her.
"Whatever. I'm going to get a drink at the Hob," he said through gritted teeth, but she didn't acknowledge him. Their front door slammed shut, and she inhaled shakily. She was trembling now, and she gripped the sink so tight, her fingers turned white.
It didn't matter if Peeta liked her in school. That didn't mean he still liked her. That was a long time ago, and he was married now. If he had actually liked her, he would have said something sooner.
It didn't matter. She didn't like him, anyway.
But, then, why couldn't she stop thinking about him? Why did she think of him when she touched herself? Horrified, she buried her face in her hands. What had she gotten herself into?
It had to stop. She had to stop it. She couldn't be friends with Peeta Mellark anymore.
As he approached her booth the following Thursday afternoon, Peeta smiled easily at her, but she kept her face hard, an action that didn't go unnoticed by him. He frowned, stopping before her. "What's wrong?" he asked, genuine concern in his voice, and she shook her head.
"You need to stop coming around here," she said, her voice low. Her eyes darted around the Hob, wondering who was watching them, waiting to report back to Gale. Peeta's brow furrowed.
"Because." He watched her expectantly, and she huffed. "Because people talk, Peeta."
He looked at her oddly. "Yeah. I know they do. People always talk, Katniss. What's your point?"
She ground her teeth. "Stop playing dense. People talk, and they think you and I—you and I..."
He just blinked. "You and I what?"
"Oh, come off it, Peeta," she hissed, her fingers curling into fists. "You know what they're thinking."
He sighed, rubbing his scruffy chin. "So, what—a man and a woman can't just be friends anymore? Without something illicit going on?"
She glared at him. "No, not when the woman is from the Seam, Peeta. You know how that looks to people."
His eyes darkened, his lips pursing stubbornly. "I don't care about that shit. These arbitrary class differences that dictate who can be friends with whom, who can love—" He stopped himself abruptly, swallowing, and she felt her pulse throb in her neck.
"They're not just arbitrary, Peeta; they're real," she ground out, a flush heating up her face. "And I have to deal with them every day. I have to deal with people judging me, looking down on me. So it doesn't matter what you care about because this affects me. I can't be your friend anymore."
His face fell then, the corners of his mouth and his eyes creasing with sadness. He dropped his head, and her heart constricted painfully. But when he glanced back up, he smiled ruefully. "Okay. I'm sorry. I will respect your wishes," he said, his voice thick. "It was nice while it lasted, but I guess I knew it couldn't last forever. Take care of yourself, Katniss."
Shoving his hands in his pockets, he walked away, and she tried not to stare after him. She looked down, blinking against the tears. What was wrong with her? She felt horrible, the anger over the situation giving way to a new anguish. She bit down on her lip, hard, but her mind was racing.
It wasn't fair. Why should anyone besides her get to decide who she could or couldn't spend time with? She didn't have a friend in this whole damn district, and she was supposed to drive away the only person who had ever really gave a damn enough to befriend her, just because the prejudiced assholes of this town thought it was improper?
Her head flew up, and she looked in the direction he'd left. Glancing at Greasy Sae to her right, she made up her mind. "Hey, Sae, can you keep an eye on my booth for a minute? I gotta get something from my house." Sae nodded, and Katniss darted around her booth, walking briskly out of the Hob. She spotted Peeta not too far up ahead, ambling toward town, and she jogged to catch up to him.
"Peeta, wait!" she called to him quietly, and he stopped, turning around with an expression of surprise, but his face slipped into one of dejection when he looked at her. Slowing to a stop a couple of feet away from him, she glanced around nervously. "It's not that I don't want to be friends with you. It's just...I can't deal with people gossiping about me, spreading rumors and telling Gale things that aren't—true."
He nodded sadly but didn't speak. She took a deep breath, wrapping her arms around her stomach. "I—I do want to be your friend. I do. It's nice to have someone to talk to..." she trailed off, and he looked at her wistfully. "I guess, I just don't really have friends. Close ones, anyway. I'm handling this all wrong, I guess." She tugged fretfully on her braid, and he smiled at her finally, a small one. "Maybe...maybe we can still be friends. You just can't come around the Hob anymore."
Peeta raised an eyebrow. "So...friends who don't see each other, then?" His tone was teasing, and she was glad his eyes had lost that sad look. She smiled bashfully, trying to fight it, and she looked away from him, squinting into the distance at the woods.
"There's a meadow, near the edge of the woods, past the Seam," she said quietly. "If you want to talk sometime, maybe...we can meet there." He was quiet, and when she finally glanced at him, his face was slack with disbelief. She started to backtrack. "It was a stupid idea, never mind—"
"No!" he interrupted. "No. I mean...I just, I've never been there before. I think that would be...nice. I would like that." He smiled at her, a shy smile, and her heart rate spiked. This was wrong; she should tell him she changed her mind.
But she smiled at him instead.
They met in the meadow on Wednesday. She returned from a hunting trip in the woods to find him lying near a patch of dandelions, and she watched him silently for a moment. His eyes were closed, his face lifted toward the sun. She was almost sorry to disturb him. Approaching quietly, she stood over him and nudged his arm with the toe of her boot. He jumped, his eyes flying open, but he smiled as he squinted at her.
"I didn't even hear you," he said, sitting up.
"I wouldn't be a very good hunter if you did," she retorted, and he laughed. She sat down cross-legged beside him, setting her bag down. "I can't stay too long because I've got to trade this game before it goes bad."
Peeta nodded, picking at the blades of grass near his knee. They were quiet for a moment until he spoke up, "This is really nice out here. I think I'll bring some parchment next time to draw." She hummed a noncommittal sound, propping her elbow up on her knee and resting her chin in her palm.
"I'm sure that would be nice. The apple tree you drew was incredibly realistic," she finally said, hesitant, and he turned his eyes on her.
"Thanks," he said, his voice soft. "Spent a lot of time looking at that damn tree, I guess." She looked away then, swallowing her shame at the 20-year-old memory, and she wondered if his fascination with that tree had anything to do with her.
Digging through her game bag, she pulled out a smaller pouch and opened it to reveal some strawberries she had picked. "Would you like some?" she offered, setting the pouch down on the ground next to him. He nodded, snatching one up and biting into it.
"Thank you," he said around the strawberry, his eyes lighting up. "These are good." Katniss smiled, picking one up for herself. Chewing thoughtfully, Peeta dropped the stem of the strawberry to the ground and sucked the juices off his fingers. She squirmed as she watched him. "We—well, not me anymore—but at the bakery, they've got a really good strawberry shortcake. You should try it sometime." She bit into her strawberry, her fingers catching some of the juices that dribbled down her chin. "Or...I could make it for you," he suggested, and she looked at him sharply.
"Oh, no, I couldn't let you do that—"
"So, you can share your food with me, but I can't?" he asked wryly, then he grinned. "Sorry. I'm doing it anyway, so you're just gonna have to deal. That's what friends do."
She rolled her eyes, swallowing another bite of strawberry. "Fine." They lapsed into a brief silence while they ate more of the berries until she spoke up again, "Reaping's this Sunday." His gaze shifted to her face, then off into the distance. It was the first reaping in 20 years where she didn't have to worry about someone being chosen, whether it was herself or someone she cared about. Last year had been Posy's last reaping. Until her niece, Aster, hit reaping age, she had a brief respite from the dread and stress of the games.
"Yeah," Peeta said darkly, and she was reminded that he had nephews to worry about, nephews who were reaping age.
"Sorry..." she offered weakly, and he just shook his head.
"Not your fault." He stared at the ground for a moment, silent. "It's not really my nephews I worry about, if I'm being honest. I know the odds favor them." He looked up at her. "It's my students. I teach a lot of kids from town and the Seam. I know them pretty well. It's tough, worrying about them." He swallowed, his eyes a stormy blue. "A few of them...I've known a few of the ones who've been chosen, over the years. They don't ever come back."
Her breath hitched slightly. "I..." She didn't know what to say. She never considered how it might be for him as a teacher, watching his students get shipped off to die. Shaking her head, she looked away. "I just don't get it," she said simply, her mouth curving into a frown.
"I just—I don't even understand how people can want kids. It was horrible enough worrying about my sister. I know it's going to be horrible when it's Aster's time. And, I mean, I can only imagine how it feels when it's actually people you know, people you care about, who are chosen. I just don't get it. I just—sometimes I feel like the only person in this district who doesn't suddenly and completely forget what that mind-numbing terror feels like every damn year when it's time for the reaping."
He laughed, a dark, biting sound, and she startled, gawking at him. "You're probably right," he mused, leaning back on his hands. "Sometimes, I think, maybe it was a very cruel blessing that I could never have kids of my own."
She cringed at how callous she had probably sounded to him. "Sorry, I didn't mean...sorry."
He shrugged. "I meant it. I've had a lot of time to think about it. Maybe I should be grateful. I don't know." He paused, looking at her. "Every year around this time, I wonder, who's it going to be? Will it be someone I know? Because most of the time, it is. I know most of these kids at least casually, even if I never taught them directly. Every year I watch, suffering in a silent kind of misery because I know these kids aren't coming home. I'll never see them around school, in my classroom, on the wrestling team." His voice was raw, and the sound tugged at her heart. "There was one kid one year, Doran. He was on the team. He was...he was a really good kid." Katniss remembered him; he was also from the Seam. "I thought, maybe he could win. He was strong. Really smart. But...he was gutted in the bloodbath by a Career."
Katniss stared at his profile. She could see the tears shining in his eyes, and she didn't know what to say. Cautiously, she inched her hand closer to his, the one that rested in the grass close to her, until her fingers nudged his. She wrapped her hand around two of his fingers, squeezing in what she hoped was a comforting gesture, and he looked at her, his mouth parting in surprise. His gaze dropped down to their hands, and she was about to retract hers when he squeezed back. He smiled at her then, and her heart fluttered.
They sat there for a little while longer until Katniss begrudgingly left to do her trading for the day. Peeta decided to stay in the meadow for a bit, and she waved goodbye with a promise to meet him there next week.
When she wandered into the meadow a week later, Peeta was already there, sketching in a parchment pad. She snuck up behind him to look over his shoulder. He was drawing the woods and the fence that separated it from the meadow.
"That is really good," she commented, making him jump, and she tried not to laugh.
He chuckled, shooting her an exasperated look as she sat down next to him. "One of these days, I'm not going to startle when you approach."
"Good luck with that," she said with mock sincerity, smiling when he laughed again. He set his pad aside and showed her a basket he had brought with him.
"For you," he said, and she took the basket from him warily. "It's probably a little melted now, though. Sorry." Curious, she peered inside. A strawberry shortcake wrapped in plastic was nestled inside on a plate. She looked at him sternly.
She sighed. "Peeta—"
"Nope, I don't wanna hear it. You're gonna eat it, and you're gonna like it," he asserted, picking up his pad to start drawing again.
She scoffed. "And what if I don't like it?"
He shrugged. "Impossible. The Mellarks make the best damn strawberry shortcake in the entire district."
"No one else makes strawberry shortcake in this district."
"Exactly." He winked at her then ducked his head back to his drawing, the stick of charcoal scratching across the parchment. Sighing, Katniss unwrapped the shortcake and picked up a fork he had included.
"What about you? Are you going to eat?" she asked, but he shook his head.
"I ate enough while I was making it for you. I'm stuffed. That's all for you."
Carefully, she scooped up some of the shortcake with her fork, making sure to get a large bite of strawberries and whipped cream, and she shoveled it into her mouth. Chewing slowly, she moaned in the back of her throat, and she blushed when she realized he was watching her. She swallowed. "You should include cheese buns and strawberry cupcakes in that friendship contract of yours."
He chuckled. "I thought you might appreciate it." She scarfed down the rest of the shortcake, and he drew in silence. When she was finished, she pushed the basket aside and stretched out in the grass beside him. He glanced at her. "No trading today?"
"I got it done earlier," she said, looking up at him. He turned his eyes back to his paper, but a smile played at the corner of his lips. She watched him as he drew. After a few minutes of silence, she asked him, "Did you know either of the tributes chosen?"
His hand stilled, his face falling, and he glanced at her with a nod. "Siobhan was in my class a couple years ago," he said solemnly. She didn't know what to say, so she chewed on her lip.
"Peeta," she said a moment later, and he hummed a response. "Did you and—Analise ever...think about adopting from the community home?" At his look, she rushed to add, "You don't have to answer that if you don't want..."
He sighed, running a hand through his hair. "I wanted to. But she...didn't. You have to understand that—she felt—feels—broken, in a way. She told me she didn't want a child that wasn't her own, our own. It makes her angry, I guess. And the kids in the home, she..." He faltered, looking at her sadly. "Well, she thinks they're broken, too. And she doesn't want a reminder of her own brokenness."
Narrowing her eyes, Katniss looked away to glare at the sky. She understood what he hadn't said: Analise thought those kids were broken because they were from the Seam. Because Seam children were the ones who were most often left homeless and parentless.
"You didn't want kids?" he asked quietly, and she shook her head, dreading this conversation. But she was the one who had initiated it. "And Gale...?"
"He does," she said sullenly. "He's not too happy with me. But he knew...he knew before we married. Guess he just thought I'd change my mind..." Her voice caught, and she cleared her throat, closing her eyes against the glare of the sun.
Peeta was quiet for a while, and she heard the scratching of his charcoal again. Finally, he muttered, "I guess it's funny how things work out." She didn't know if "funny" was the right word, but she grunted petulantly. "Here, I drew you something."
She opened her eyes and looked at him in surprise. "Oh?" She sat up as he tore the parchment out of his pad and handed it to her. Her eyebrows shot up when she realized he had sketched her, lying in the grass, her face turned toward the sky, her braid coiled on the ground. Her jaw dropped, and she looked up at him, a slight flushing warming her face. "Oh," she squeaked. "It's really good, Peeta, but...what am I going to do with a picture of myself?"
He grinned at her then, taking the paper from her. "Okay, fine. I'll just keep it for myself." His eyes glinted mischievously, and the flush ignited her entire body. Ripping out another sheet of paper, he gave that to her. It was the picture of the woods he had been working on earlier. "You can have this instead."
She smiled, gingerly skimming her fingers over the image, careful not to smudge the charcoal. "I...thank you." She looked up at him, worry creasing her forehead. "You keep giving me things, and I haven't really given you anything in return..."
With a shrug, he gathered his things and stood up. "So, give me something next week if you want. But I don't expect anything. Your company is enough." Scooping the basket up, he smiled down at her. "I gotta head back. See you next Wednesday?" She nodded, and he tipped his head in parting before turning away. Her eyes lingered in his direction until she couldn't see his form anymore, and one thought crossed her mind: What was he going to do with that picture of her?
The first words out of her mouth when she saw him next were an apology. Siobhan had died in the arena on the second day. Neither District 12 tribute had lasted long, no thanks to their drunken mentor, Haymitch Abernathy. She wondered if he had even sobered up long enough to help them in the games, but she guessed—knew—that answer to be no.
Peeta shrugged halfheartedly, his eyes troubled. He had brought his sketch pad with him, but he just sat it aside, choosing instead to lie in the meadow on his back and stare at the passing clouds above.
"Sometimes, I think to myself, eventually I'm going to stop feeling anything during these games. By now, I should be used to it, you know? I should be numb to it. It has to stop hurting at some point, right?" he asked, pain bracketing his face. She didn't know how to answer that. Was she numb to it yet? She certainly hadn't been when Prim was at risk. "But then I think...the day that happens, the day it no longer hurts, I'd be no different than those in the Capitol. That's the day I'd be truly lost."
She nodded, and they sat in silence, but it was comfortable this time. After a while, he began to describe the shapes and images he saw in the clouds overhead, and she just listened to him. His voice was soothing, a gravelly rumble in his chest she could feel in her own as he spoke. Pulling up the dandelions that surrounded her, she tied the stems together until she had a long strand of flowers. Then she knotted the ends together to create a loop.
"Here," she said, holding it out to him. He squinted at her.
"What is it?"
"It's a crown. I made it for you," she said, feeling a little silly, but he sat up with a smile and took it from her. "You said last week to give you something, so...now you have a crown. My dad used to make them for me," she added, compelled to explain, and she picked at her shoelace.
"Thank you." There was a note of awe in his voice when he spoke. He placed it atop his blonde curls, and the grin he shot her was dazzling. "How do I look?"
Katniss smiled at him. "Like a king," she quipped, and his grin twisted into a lopsided smirk. He grunted, scratching at his beard.
"King of the meadow, maybe," he remarked, bitter amusement lacing his voice. "Not much competition out here for the title, though, so..."
She quirked an eyebrow. "You don't think I could take you for the crown?" she teased, but the look he shot her was more devastating than humorous.
"Oh, I think you could absolutely destroy me, Katniss," he uttered, and she felt her heart stop. In that moment, she knew; she finally understood just how dangerous of a game they were playing, the two of them.
Peeta wasn't in the meadow the next week when she arrived. Katniss frowned as she scanned the area; the clouds were thick and gray overhead, a slight breeze whipping loose strands of her hair around her face. She decided to sit down and wait. And wait. She was about to get up and leave when she spotted him walking toward her. She nearly sighed in relief, unsettled by how upset she had been in his absence. As he got closer, she saw how troubled his face was. She narrowed her eyes as he plopped down next to her, but he didn't say anything yet.
"I thought maybe you weren't coming," she said hesitantly. He sighed, dropping his chin to his chest.
"I almost didn't," he said, and she just stared at him in confusion. Smiling sadly, he finally looked up at her, and she noticed the cut on his bottom lip; the area was red and swollen, split down the middle in a scabbed-over line. Her eyes widened.
"What happened to your mouth?" she asked, and he shook his head.
She narrowed her eyes again. "Did someone...hit you?" Was it his mother? That woman's abuse was well-known around the district, but her children were older now, moved out. She couldn't still be hitting them, could she?
Peeta ran a hand through his mussed curls, his face darkening. "It's not a big deal," he mumbled, and she felt rage swelling in her chest.
"Peeta, tell me what happened," she demanded, as if she had any right to demand things of him. Finally, he sighed again, and reached into his pocket, throwing an object down on the ground between them. Her eyes dropped to it, and her mouth parted in surprise. It was a condom. The condom he had bought from her weeks ago, to be exact. Alarmed, she glanced back up at him.
"Lissy found it," he said sourly, and her face paled. "Accused me of having an affair. She wouldn't listen to me..."
"And she—and she hit you?" she asked incredulously.
Peeta looked away, pocketing the condom. "She gets angry sometimes," he said after a beat. "She's not a bad person. It's just...things haven't been easy for her the last few years. I try to be understanding; I try to hold my tongue. But...sometimes I can't take it. And she snaps." He picked at some blades of grass between his legs, and she stared at him, speechless. "I told her that obviously I wasn't fucking someone else since the condom hasn't been used. She didn't care too much for my sarcasm," he said drolly.
Her stomach twisted. "Did you—did you tell her...about—about me?" she whispered fearfully, and he looked at her, his eyes narrowed.
"No. I wouldn't do that. You told me you didn't want anyone to know." He shrugged as if it were that simple. She wondered how his wife would react if she knew he was meeting up with a woman from the Seam every week. Nervously, Katniss looked away, not sure what to say. This was her fault. Peeta was always taking blows to save her, to protect her. First, his mother, and now, his wife. Why did he keep doing it? When she never gave him anything in return, not even her appreciation?
She found herself leaning closer to him then, her arm reaching for him. He froze when her fingertips grazed his swollen lip, his eyes wide. Her heart was in her throat as her face hovered just inches from his, and then she pressed her lips to the tender cut. She both heard and felt him inhale sharply; she started to pull away, but his hand gripped her elbow, holding her in place. Their hot breaths mingled, warming her lips, and her eyes locked on his blue ones; they were darker than usual, his pupils thick, nearly swallowing the entire iris. Her blood thundered in her ears, and she was sure he could hear it.
They were in something of a standoff, neither knowing whether to pull away or push forward. Finally, Peeta broke the stalemate.
"Don't stop," he pleaded, his voice strangled, and before she could even think, she melded her mouth to his lip, the tip of her tongue laving the cut. He made a choked sound in the back of his throat, his fingers tightening around her elbow, and the noise emboldened her. Cupping his jaw with her hand, she sucked his lip into her mouth. She tasted something metallic, and her tongue swiped over his reopened cut, tasting more of his blood. She sucked greedily on his lip, wondering if she was hurting him, wondering why she couldn't stop.
He groaned, deep in his chest, and then his tongue was touching hers, sliding into her mouth. She gasped in shock, but he pulled her closer so that she was practically in his lap. Curling her fingers into his hair, she opened her mouth wider to his, and their tongues clashed eagerly.
At that moment, a drop of water hit her forehead, her nose, her cheek. But she didn't notice until it was raining steadily, and she blinked uncomprehendingly, jerking away from him. They stared at each other, both breathing heavily as the rain fell harder around them, hitting the grass in a loud, steady rhythm. The blood on his lip trickled down his chin in a pink, meandering line. Without much thought, she jumped up and pulled him to his feet with her. Then, she was running, back to the Seam, back to her house. She could hear his feet pounding the dirt behind her, just over the deafening sound of the rain beating the ground as they ran to escape it.
On her doorstep, she fumbled with the front door, her hands shaking, and she shoved it open. Stumbling inside, she whirled around, but Peeta hesitated on the doorstep. Seized with fear, she yanked him inside, praying no one saw him, saw them. She slammed the door shut behind him, and then they just stared at each other, their chests heaving from their sprint to her house. She knew his eyes mirrored her own, wide with trepidation and doubt and want. So much want.
"Katniss—" he started, his voice quivering, but she didn't want him to talk. She was afraid that if he talked, the spell would be broken, and she'd have to think about what they were doing. She didn't want to think; she just wanted to do.
So she silenced him with her mouth, her tongue finding his again. He cradled her face in his hands, and she guided him into the living room backwards. She hit the couch and grunted, but he swallowed the sound, pinning her body between his and the couch. His hardness pressed into her stomach, startling her, and she pushed him away. Stumbling backward, he gawked at her, but when he noticed her staring at his groin, he flushed in embarrassment. "I—I...I'm sor—"
But she was tugging his shirt upward before he could finish, and then her fingers floundered with the buttons on her shirt. Getting the hint, Peeta peeled his wet shirt off the rest of the way and dropped it to the ground. Her hands stilled, her eyes riveted to the broad expanse of his chest and his shoulders, the tautness of his stomach. Heat spiraled through her body, spiking between her thighs. She wanted him. Oh, God, she wanted him.
Peeta moved in front of her, his fingers quickly unfastening the rest of her buttons, and when he pushed the shirt down her arms, his mouth covered hers again. She sucked on his tongue hungrily, and he pressed his hardness into her. She bucked her hips against his, eliciting groans from both of them, and then he lifted her into his arms, carrying her around the couch where he lowered her to the cushions. He leaned back, and she eagerly unbuttoned her pants, shimmying out of them. He helped her, yanking her boots off along with her pants. Only her underwear remained, and he stared at her, something unreadable on his face. She trembled, the doubt from before surging stronger, but she was desperate to ignore it, to escape it.
"Peeta," she whimpered, sitting up on her elbows. "Don't—don't stop." Roused by her plea, he rose to his feet and undid his own pants. She scrambled to remove her bra and panties, and when she looked at him again, her stomach bottomed out. His cock strained upward, impossibly hard, protruding from a patch of dark blonde curls. Slick with desire, she lay back on the cushions, her legs spread in invitation. His eyes raked the length of her body, lingering on the glistening juncture of her thighs; his stare only made her ache more.
"Katniss..." he murmured hoarsely, swallowing thickly. "You're beautiful. You're so beautiful. I..."
She reached for him, her body thrumming with need and desperation. "Now, Peeta. Now, now, now," she begged, wanting to feel the weight of his body on top of hers, just as she had thought about, night after night. He settled between her legs, capturing her lips and her tongue in a heady kiss, and she slid her hands through his damp hair. Her hips cradled his, but when she felt his cock slide through her dark curls, she gasped, pushing on his shoulders. "Condom," she managed to get out, and he snatched up his pants from the floor, digging the condom out and freeing it from its pouch. The irony of the moment was not lost on Katniss, but she pushed the thought away, impatiently helping him roll it down over his cock. He groaned at her touch. His flesh was hot, even through the condom, and he was heavy and thick in her hand.
She pulled him back to her center, lifting her pelvis to his, and when the tip of his cock slid between her folds, he held her hips down to push into her. She moaned loudly, drowning out the sound of his own relief. She felt full, stretched wide; it was almost painful. She expected him to keep moving, but he stopped once the full length of his cock was buried inside her. She squirmed anxiously, but he kissed her mouth, her neck, her breasts, sucking off the lingering droplets of rain. His tongue teased her pebbled nipple, and she arched against him. When his hand slipped between her thighs, his fingers brushing her swollen clit, she gasped, clenching him inside her reflexively.
"Fuck," he hissed, but his fingers bore down harder, drawing circles, and she clawed at his back. "There?" he asked, his teeth scraping her nipple. She nodded frantically. "Is that what you want?"
"Yes!" she gasped, rocking her hips in time with his fingers in what little space she had to move. His large body trapped her to the couch, and he sucked her nipple into his mouth, humming his approval of the way her body gripped his cock. His fingers moved deftly between her thighs, the pleasure coiling tight inside her.
"I'm—I—" Words escaped her, and when his teeth tugged on her nipple, she came with a breathless shout. He groaned as she trembled underneath him, pulsing around him. And then he was moving, pulling his cock out just to push it back in. She whimpered in her bliss, opening her legs wider for him. His thrusts were hard, relentless, his hips driving hers into the cushion, and when his fingers began moving between her thighs again, she gasped in surprise, still sensitive from her first orgasm. But the pain was exquisite, and her hands simultaneously pushed and pulled at his chest, unsure what she wanted from him.
He kissed her, swallowing her pleading sounds. "It's okay, it's okay," he whispered into her mouth, his fingers rubbing her clit with unforgiving mercy. She moaned then, a whining mewl, and soon her hips jerked against his wildly, desperate for the relief he promised her. "God, this is—fuck, this is so good. So—so good, so much better than I've imagined," he whimpered in her ear, and she wanted to tell him the same, but her coherent thought was long gone by that point. With one artful stroke of his fingers, she exploded again, crying into his neck. Peeta grunted, thrusting erratically until his hips strained against hers. He moaned her name into her shoulder, and she felt him throbbing inside her, her own body still quivering with pleasure. It took a while for her to stop shaking, the only sound in the room their labored breathing.
But as the ecstasy subsided, the doubt filled its place. The full weight of what they had done finally settled on her. Her stomach twisted with guilt, and she pushed on his shoulders. "You—you have to go," she stuttered, still dazed from her orgasms, but the horror was pushing through the haze then.
He sat up, his somewhat softened cock sliding out of her, and she tried not to think about how empty she felt. He looked stunned, and she scrambled to pull her underwear on. "We shouldn't have...oh, God, we shouldn't have done that," she whimpered, rushing around the couch to grab her shirt and shrug it on. She distractedly rebuttoned it, missing a few in her haste.
When she glanced at him, he had already put his boxers and shirt on, but he held his pants in one hand and the used condom in the other. "What—what do you want me to do with this?" he asked dumbly, and she gaped at him.
"I don't...I don't know...Rinse it out and take it with you. You can't leave that here!" she cried, borderline hysterical, and he struggled to put his pants on with one hand. Once he had pulled them up over his hips and slipped his shoes on, he crossed into the kitchen to the sink. She turned away while he washed the condom, trying not to hyperventilate. She looked back at him as he shuffled toward her, fastening his pants. His hair was disheveled, his cheeks flushed a rosy color, but his blue eyes reflected her terror. "Katniss—"
"This was a mistake. This was a—this was a huge fucking mistake, Peeta," she said, her voice catching. She stepped back as he moved closer, and he halted. "You're married, and I'm married, and...oh, my God." He looked stricken at her words, his hands falling to his sides. "You have to go. You have to go. Now."
Wordlessly, he started for the front door, but she stopped him, panicked. "The back door! You can't leave through the front!" she hissed, and he swiveled back around. She pointed toward the back door, her hand trembling, and he brushed past her, looking as dazed as she felt. He stopped, however, turning to face her.
"I—I'm sorry, Katniss. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry..." he muttered, his words dying out. She just buried her face in her hands, too scared to look at him. And then he was gone, the back door shutting quietly behind him. Breathing deeply, she gathered the rest of her wet clothes and carried them to the bedroom, but she pulled up short when she saw her reflection in the mirror. Her hair was knotted, sticking out in odd places, pulled from its braid. As she tried to smooth it down, she gasped, peering closer at the mirror. There were streaks of blood smeared on her neck, her chest, her chin. From his lip. Frantically, she spit into her hand and tried to rub it off, her hysteria rising.
Bath. She needed to take a bath. She filled up their tub quickly, discarding her shirt and her underwear before sliding down into the water, not even caring about the tepid temperature. Lathering the washcloth, she scrubbed herself furiously, as if she could wash herself of what she'd done. When her hand slipped between her thighs to clean herself, catching on the tender flesh there, she whimpered, and a hoarse cry escaped her throat.
Soon, she was sobbing into her hands, overcome with shame. She sank farther into the water while she cried, and there she stayed for hours, until the water grew cold, until her throat was raw.
What had she done?
What had she done?