The Bough Unbowed
she had no heart so hardened
all under the boughs unbowed
Peeta is not surprised when Gale Hawthorne is reaped for the 74th games. Gale's 18 years old, the eldest sibling of four, a Seam boy - his name coming out of that bowl is almost an inevitability.
A thousand eyes watch in silence as Gale walks up to the stage, jerking his arm away from the Peacekeeper tasked to herd him up the steps. But Peeta looks across the way, to his right, where Katniss Everdeen stands with the other sixteen-year-old girls. She's standing stone-faced and still, her gaze straight ahead, unblinking.
The Gamemakers score Gale a 10. For a District 12 tribute, it's pretty incredible. He must have shown them his hunting skills, Peeta thinks. A bow and arrow could catch him squirrels, rabbits, deer...
It could catch him a child.
Gale's handsome, fast, strong - he could be the next Finnick Odair. But his interview is a disaster. Caesar Flickerman tries his best, but the young man's words are contemptuous, careless, flippant. He doesn't want the crowd to love him, and he wants them to know it.
In the very last few seconds, though, his eyes soften and he says: Katniss, I love you. I'm coming back to you, I swear.
Peeta feels sick in that moment, because he knows how this story will go. Gale will return a Victor, sweep Katniss off her feet and carry her away to his beautiful house in the village. He'll kiss her, make love to her, marry her. They'll have children who will never feel hunger.
Gale will do all the things that Peeta wants to do, the things he wishes desperately for, and Gale will deserve each and every one of them - because he grew up with her, because he is a good man, because he survived against the odds. Because Katniss loves him.
That's not how the story goes.
Gale Hawthorne comes in third place in the 74th annual Hunger Games. A bolt of lightning strikes him in the middle of a rainstorm as he's running for shelter, and it's so perfectly random that it can only have been a deliberate move by the Capital. A warning.
Peeta can feel his brothers' eyes on him as the sound of a cannon's blast rings out tinny from the television. They know about Katniss. That night, in the bedroom they share, they'll say to him: Maybe you've got a shot now, Peeta. He'll curl away from them, pretend not to hear, to be asleep.
He didn't want this. He only wanted her.
Peeta doesn't attend the funeral. He and Gale weren't friends, weren't even acquaintances, really, and it would be strange. Instead he sneaks a loaf of bread when his mother isn't looking and carries it to the Seam, knowing it will be empty during the memorial service. He leaves it on the front step of the Hawthornes' house. He's embarrassed by how little it looks, how little it will do for a family of four, but his mother would have noticed two loaves missing, and then he'd never be able to do this again.
By some miracle, his mother doesn't notice, and Peeta develops a routine: steal the bread on Saturday, hide it beneath his bed, rise early on Sunday mornings and leave the loaf on the doorstep. He does this for weeks, summer fading into fall, until one morning a voice behind him demands:
"What are you doing?"
Peeta drops the bread clumsily and stumbles back away from the house. It's Katniss.
"Hi," he says. "Um, I was just leaving them some bread."
She's clearly come from the forest, her boots caked with mud, a piece of dead leaf caught in the end of her braid. Her game bag is slung over her shoulder. There's a thin brown rope running through the belt loops of her pants, tightly knotted at the front. She looks thin.
It's a question Peeta's asked himself many, many times. Why? He'd eventually settled on the reasonable answer: The Hawthornes are not only a poor family, but a big family. Their primary breadwinner is gone. Peeta's family is big, too, but they can spare a loaf of bread each week.
(There is another reason, of course, one that isn't sensible, one that hums along in the back of his mind every step of the way.)
"I want to help," he says simply.
"Do you help every tribute's family?"
"No," he admits, his heart jumping into his throat as she steps closer.
"Have you been doing this all along?"
"No." He swallows. "I've been bringing it since...you know."
Katniss frowns, staring down at the crumpled brown bag that sits on the front step. "Hazelle didn't tell me someone was leaving bread." She shakes her head. "He...he wouldn't have wanted this. He didn't want charity."
Peeta doesn't know what to say. Gale is dead; his family isn't.
"What are you doing here?" he blurts out. "It's so early."
Katniss' hand drifts absently to her game bag. "I had to go hunting early this morning."
"So you're bringing them food." Katniss nods silently. "So why is it charity when I do it, but not when you do?"
He regrets it immediately; she looks away, jaw clenched, and he wants to apologize. He almost does.
"Because I made a promise. Because you don't know them," she says finally, and her gray eyes meet his, and he knows now that they're not just talking about a loaf of bread for the Hawthornes anymore.
"Maybe I want to know them," he says softly, and he can see that she knows it, too, because her eyes widen just the slightest bit, and a hint of color returns to her cool, dark cheeks.
"Don't do this again," Katniss says stiffly. She bends down and picks up the loaf of bread, cradling it in her arms. "This is the last one." She disappears inside the house.
It's not the last one.
The next time she sees him outside the house, three weeks later, she shakes her head. "You don't listen, do you," she says, dark eyes slightly narrowed.
"Nope," Peeta replies. He'd thought about it: what kind of person would he be if he stopped helping a family survive, just because a girl rejected him? A terrible person. Not himself - not the person his father would want him to be. And so he kept bringing the bread.
Katniss sighs heavily and swings her game bag off of her shoulder, digging through it aggressively. "Fine. Take this," she says, thrusting something at him. In the dim light he can just barely make out the form of a rabbit, blood matted into its fur. He feels queasy at the sight of it. He's never been good with blood, with dead things.
"I don't need it," he says firmly. "I don't want anything from you." And it's not true, there are things he wants from Katniss; her smile, her laugh, her warm breath on his neck, her body moving beneath his in the dark. But he doesn't want them as part of an exchange. He wants them because she wants him to have them.
She steps closer, the rabbit dangling by its ears from her shaky hand. "You have to," she insists, her voice catching. "Please, just take it."
He weakens at the desperation in her voice. He doesn't understand whythis is so important to her - only that it is. "I can't carry a dead rabbit through town with me," he says, licking his dry lips.
She knows he's right, and she glances at the house behind them, still dark and quiet in the early morning. "Wait here," she says. "I'll walk with you."
Katniss seems surprised when he's still there twenty minutes later, waiting patiently by the front door. "Sorry," she mutters, and he thinks she means for keeping you waiting, but it's hard to tell with her.
"S'okay," he shrugs.
She shakes the game bag a little, and he can see there's something in there - the rabbit. He nods, and they set off for town.
After a few minutes of silence Peeta realizes that the things he knows about Katniss Everdeen - that she sings like an angel, that their parents dated in their youth, that Gale Hawthorne loved her - are not things he can discuss with her. Not now, anyway. So he asks, "How's your sister?"
Katniss looks at him suspiciously. "How do you know my sister?"
"I don't." Peeta pauses. "I've seen you with her. I've seen you bring her by the bakery, to look at the cakes."
She nods, looking down at the ground. "She's fine."
"How come...how come you two never come inside?" he asks hesitantly. A frown creases her forehead.
"We can't afford anything," she says finally. "Your mother made it clear we're not welcome."
Peeta snorts. "My mother..." He shakes his head. "She's not always there. If you look in the window and it's me, you should come in."
"Sure," she says, in the way that means no, never.
The sun is just beginning to peek over the horizon when they reach the bakery. Katniss follows Peeta to the back entrance, by the pig pens, and pulls the rabbit once more from her bag. He takes it gingerly, holding it far away from his body, and he thinks he sees her suppress a smile at his squeamishness.
"Are you sure I can't give you something for this?" he asks quietly, nodding towards the door. "One more loaf of bread?"
"No," she says simply, turning away, and he knows not to argue. Peeta sighs.
"Okay. Bye, Katniss."
She glances over her shoulder, as if she'd already forgotten he was there. "Bye."
"What is this?" Peeta's mother demands, dropping a package on the table before him. It's Katniss' rabbit. He'd carefully wrapped it in paper and tucked it away in a corner of the kitchen that morning, intending to give it to his father, but she'd found it first.
"A rabbit," he says carefully. His mother hasn't hit him in two or three years - not since he grew taller and stronger than her - but her words can be just as bad as her fists.
"Where did you get a rabbit?"
"I traded it," he says. Sometimes it disturbs Peeta himself, how easily he lies to his own family. "The girl from the Seam started coming around again." Katniss had stopped showing up with her squirrels after the last reaping.
"I didn't tell you you could trade with her," his mother snaps. "How much did you give her for this?"
"One loaf of the sourdough." It's close enough to the truth. She stares at him for a long moment, clearly having some kind of internal debate. One loaf of bread for an entire rabbit is an excellent trade. But Peeta doesn't do excellent things; only foolish, clumsy things.
"She's a stupid girl," she mutters, walking away. "A rabbit's worth at least three."
Somehow, slowly, Peeta's Sunday routine becomes their Sunday routine. Katniss meets him in the early morning on the Hawthornes' front step, slips inside to do - something, he's never quite sure what, and he's never invited - and walks with him to the back of the bakery. She gives him a rabbit, or a few squirrels, occasionally a bird, and he offers her bread or sweets. She always refuses them. And then she leaves.
They have a few classes together in school, and they eat lunch at the same time, but they never speak. He would - he wants to - but he doesn't want to jeopardize the tentative companionship that blooms between them in the early morning light each week. So instead he averts his eyes when they pass one another in the hallway or enter a classroom together. And she's always there on Sunday.
"You should really get your own game bag," she tells him one morning, but there's a hint of teasing to her tone. He smiles, and she smiles back. He thinks, this could happen, someday.
Peeta's good at getting people to talk - and though it's harder with Katniss, he wears her down.
Mostly she talks about Prim. He likes to listen to her talk about her younger sister, to experience the kind of love and pride that only siblings can feel for one another, even if it's secondhand. Katniss tells him funny stories about Prim's pet cat and goat, about the old man who visits her mother at least three times a week seeking help for ailments that don't even exist, about Gale's family, who think it's the baker himself and not his youngest son who leaves them bread every week.
"You never tell me about yourself," he says one day, keeping his voice light.
"There's not much to say," she replies, looking away.
"I don't know. I bet you're a lot more interesting than you think."
"Can we walk a little faster?" she says. "I have things to do today."
Fall turns to winter and the mornings grow colder, much colder. Peeta notices that Katniss' bag grows lighter with the passing weeks; she still brings him a squirrel or two on Sundays, but they're smaller, skinnier. Her thin winter coat isn't enough to keep her warm and when he tucks his arm around her on their walk to town she leans into him for one brief, delicious moment before pulling away.
"Someone might see," she explains, and he nods, though he'll never understand why that would be such a terrible thing.
The week before the New Year he finally gathers his courage. She hands him a squirrel as usual, and he bends down, placing it gently on the ground. She frowns, confused. "What are you -"
He places his warm hands on her cold, hollow cheeks and presses his lips to hers.
Katniss makes a sound of alarm in the back of her throat and Peeta breaks the kiss, but she doesn't pull away. Her eyes are wide and frightened, like an animal who's just realized it's caught in a snare. He drops his hands from her face, taking one of her gloved hands in his own. Hers is trembling.
Peeta looks at her steadily, willing her to be calm. Their breaths mingle in the air between them, little white clouds of warmth in the winter chill. He leans in again, and this time she kisses back.
"I really like you," he breathes, their foreheads pressed together.
"I know," Katniss whispers. "But...we can't."
Peeta drops a soft kiss on her forehead, then her cold, red-tipped nose. "Why not?"
She doesn't answer, and he shuffles forward, the toes of their shoes bumping together awkwardly. He backs her up until she's pressed against the side of the bakery, and he moves in for a deeper kiss, touching his tongue just slightly to the crease between her lips. She parts them in response, her hands settling on the middle of his back, pulling him closer. Peeta thinks he might die, thinks he might want to, because surely life can't get better than this.
By early February it's slipped into their routine more naturally than either could have imagined: meet at the Hawthornes', walk to the bakery, kiss, say goodbye.
"I want to see you more. Outside of this," Peeta tells her one morning as they walk towards the bakery, hands brushing together but never clasped.
Katniss looks down at her feet, chewing on her lip. "I don't know," she says finally. "Where would we even go?"
It's a good question - he can't bring her into the apartment over the bakery, because then his mother will know. She'd bristle at any suggestion involving school. It's too cold outside to spend time together in the town square, or the meadow in the Seam, or even - he swallows - the slag heap. "Your house?" he says, knowing she'll never agree.
But she's quiet, thoughtful, for a long moment. "Maybe," she says, and he turns his head so she can't see the ridiculous grin stretched across his face.
Two weeks later they're in their usual spot by the bakery's back door, kissing breathlessly, when Katniss pulls away abruptly. "Our neighbor's having a baby," she says. "Her contractions started this morning but my mother said it's going to be a long labor. She and Prim might be gone all night."
It takes him a while to understand why she's babbling about babies and contractions, and then realization washes over him. "Oh." They'll be gone all night. His groin stirs at the thought, and he's glad his cheeks are already flushed, or she'd see him blushing. "So...do you want to...hang out?" She nods, and he kisses her again softly. "When?"
Katniss shrugs. "After dinner?"
"Okay." He smiles down at her. "I'll be there."
She gives him directions to her home, using the Hawthornes' as a reference point, and she's so flustered she almost forgets to give him his squirrel before leaving. "I don't need this, you know," he reminds her, but she only shakes her head and waves as she walks away.
Peeta can't keep the smile off his face all day, and when his brothers and father take a break for lunch he settles at a table in the corner of the kitchen and pipes frosting onto a little stack of sugar cookies. He makes a lily, a primrose, a dandelion; he wishes he knew what a katniss flower looked like, but if he asked anyone he'd give himself away.
He rushes through dinner - a hearty stew - and tells his family he's off to a friend's to study. About an hour after sundown, he's knocking on her front door.
Katniss answers the door after the longest ten seconds of his life, and she smiles at him nervously. She's dressed in pants and a long-sleeved shirt, something that she'd wear on a regular day at school, but her hair falls in loose waves over her shoulders, ending just above her waist. He thinks she looks beautiful.
"I brought these," he says, handing her the package of cookies, and she takes them to the kitchen table, where they sit. She spreads the cookies out on a plate and studies each one carefully, her mouth curving up into a smile as she recognizes each flower.
"I'll have to save this one for Prim," she says of the primrose cookie, but her face goes slack when she sees the dandelion. She looks at him, eyes wide. "How did you know?"
"Nevermind," she says quickly. "Thank you, Peeta. These are beautiful."
"Thanks." He smiles crookedly. "Not too beautiful to eat, I hope."
Katniss laughs. "No, not too beautiful for that." She breaks the sunflower cookie in two and hands him one half, and they eat together quietly, contently.
When they've finished, Peeta clears his throat. "So your mother and Prim...they deliver babies?"
Katniss nods. "Prim mostly watches, hands her supplies, things like that. So she can learn to do it herself one day."
"You're not interested?"
She wrinkles her nose. "No, I don't like to see people in pain...I don't like blood." At his incredulous look, she smiles. "Human
Peeta laughs. "I was gonna say." He edges his chair a little closer. "So what do you want to do after we're done with school?"
"I don't know..." Katniss presses her fingertip to the cookie plate and lifts it to her mouth, licking the crumbs off. Desire floods through him at the glimpse of her soft, pink tongue. "I hadn't really thought about it. I might get reaped before then."
"You won't get reaped," he says automatically, though he has nothing to back it up. He knows she takes out tesserae; not as many as Gale Hawthorne had, but still. They add up.
"What about you?" she asks. "Do you want to run the bakery?"
"I do." Peeta nods. "But I don't know. Ned and Brody get first dibs since they're older, so I might have to find something else."
"Oh. That's too bad." They're quiet for a moment, and then she says abruptly, "Do you want to play a card game?"
Peeta shrugs. "Um, sure."
"We don't have to," she says. "I just - I'm not sure what to do. I haven't spent time with...a friend...since..."
Is that how she thinks of him? A friend? Peeta isn't sure how he'd label his relationship with Katniss, but he doesn't kiss his friends. He doesn't ignore them at school, and bring them home only when his family is gone. If he's a friend, he wonders what Gale had been.
"No, I like card games," he assures her, determined to steer away from those avenues of thought. "I'm just surprised. You don't seem like the type."
"I like to play," she says with a smile, and he knows that she said it with nothing but innocent intentions, but it sends a jolt of heat straight to his groin nonetheless.
"Alright," he says. "Let's play."
They settle onto the couch and she teaches him a game called gin rummy. Peeta keeps mixing up the rules, and she thinks it's funny, but he wonders what she'd think if she knew it was because all he can concentrate on is the curve of her neck and the swell of her breasts.
Eventually, he gives up fighting it. Instead of taking his turn, he sets his cards down, scoots closer and captures her mouth in a kiss, running his hands around her waist. Her own cards flutter to the floor.
Peeta leans her back, her dark hair fanning over the pillow at the end of the couch. They kiss for a while, but the tension never leaves her limbs, and he realizes her feet are still planted on the floor beneath them. She's twisted at the waist, and it can't be comfortable.
"Put your feet up," he says gently, and she does, shifting them onto the cushions. He settles between her legs, his pelvis resting against hers, and he holds back a groan. Every other time they've kissed there were so many layers between them, boots and sweaters and coats and gloves, and now there's just the thin fabric of their shirts and their pants. Now he can feel the heat of her body, the rise and fall of her chest, her heartbeat pounding beneath her ribcage.
Peeta kisses her deeply, his tongue edging into her hot mouth, and he shivers slightly as her cool hands run over his lower back, beneath his shirt. He whispers kisses across her jawline, her earlobe, before he settles on her neck, sucking gently at the soft skin.
"Oh," Katniss gasps lightly, stretching her head back, and he sucks harder, breathing roughly against her neck.
He's so lost in the taste of her, the feel of her, that he doesn't realize his hips are moving at all until she grips them in her hands, pausing their steady motion. He's hard. He freezes, embarrassed, certain that she'll kick him out now, never look at him again.
But she doesn't. Tentatively, she lifts her own hips up into his, his erection pressing against the heat between her legs. He moans her name into her neck and she squeezes her legs around him tighter.
Peeta kisses her again, a long kiss, and he pulls back to look her in the eyes. "I'm not...I don't...I didn't come here just to do this," he stammers. "I don't only want..."
"I know," she says, and he can't read her expression; it could be fear, excitement, lust, anything. Not for the first time he thinks that no matter how close he gets to Katniss Everdeen, he'll never know her. But for the first time, it scares him.
"Okay," he says, and he dips his head to her collarbone.
Somewhere along the way, Peeta's shirt ends up on the floor. He pulls back, fingering the hem of hers nervously. He's seen a girl's breasts before, but this is different. This is the girl. He brushes her hair back from her face with his other hand. "Can I?"
Katniss sucks in a breath, then slowly nods. She sits forward and he pulls the fabric over her head; it feels like unwrapping a gift. But his face falls when he sees what he's uncovered.
"Oh, Katniss," he says without thinking, flooded with concern. "You're so thin."
She looks startled, then scowls, wrapping her arms around her middle, attempting to cover herself. "I'm fine," she says, but he can see the faint ridge of her ribcage peeking between her fingers.
"I didn't know," he whispers, thinking of her game bag, how it grew lighter and lighter with the passing weeks, of the rope he'd seen knotted around her hips until she'd started buttoning her coat all the way against the winter chill. She'd been giving her food away - to her family, to Gale's family, to him. And he'd taken it, every time.
"I'm fine," she repeats, voice trembling, and she reaches for her shirt. "Give it back. You don't -"
Then the front door opens.
"Katniss?" Prim makes it halfway to the darkened living room before she realizes there's another person in the room with them - a half-naked person. "Oh! Oh no! I'm sorry!"
Katniss scrambles away from Peeta, clutching a pillow over her chest. "Prim," she gasps out, "What are you doing here?"
"Mom needed more ointment!" the younger girl calls, already in another room. "I swear I'll be gone in thirty seconds!"
Katniss grabs her shirt from the floor, her entire body shaking. Peeta finds his own discarded shirt and pulls it over his head.
"See? I'm gone. Bye!" Blocking her view of the living room with her hand, Prim makes a beeline for the door.
"Bye," Katniss answers half-heartedly. Peeta tries to meet her eyes, but she avoids him determinedly.
"Should I...go?" he finally asks.
Long seconds pass. "I think so, yeah."
He nods, but doesn't move. "I don't want to," he admits.
She stares at her hands, then bends down and begins to pick up the playing cards they'd knocked to the floor. "You should," she says quietly.
Katniss doesn't meet him next Sunday. Or the next, or the next, or the next.
Thanks for reading! This is part 1 of 2. Not sure when the second half will be done, but I really wanted to write an AU exploring what would happen if Gale died in the games.