Part Two: Lies
I have no idea how long I stand at the fence, sobered by blasts of cold air and fear that I'll hear an agonized scream as a sixteen year old girl is cooked alive.
Thankfully, the person who finds me is not our diligent new Head Peacekeeper. Instead, it's Peeta. I don't even hear him approach, which says something about where my head is; Peeta's approach is rarely catlike, even in heavy snow. I don't know he's there at all until he says, "Haymitch?"
I look over my shoulder and say, "The fence is on."
Peeta doesn't pretend not to understand. I wonder if he already figured it out. "I wondered why you came out here," he says. "Dad told me that you don't, usually. I saw you from my studio. Let's go for a walk." He nods for me to follow him.
I take long breaths as we walk, trying to get the image of Digger on the fence out of my head. The fence was never turned on when we were kids, so she never had the slightest reason to believe it would be. For most of Katniss's life, it's been at least a slight possibility. She'll have worked out ways to handle it. She'll check before she touches it. If she wasn't caught on it when it turned on, she's fine on the other side, and will get back however she has done it before.
This manages to make me feel stupid about my panic, but doesn't actually stop the panic.
Peeta leads us on a looping path out into the green, where Merle Undersee's niece has shoveled out all the paths. We end up between high snowbanks, and any bugs that are out here would be hard pressed to hear through that much cover. "When did she leave?" he asks.
"Early this morning. They showed up with wedding dresses last night."
He shudders. "Can I leave, too?"
I think he's joking at first, but his face is pale and set. I frown. "You're getting cold feet?"
"My niece was born last night," he says out of the blue.
"Her name's Betony. My brother is someone's dad." He takes a deep breath. "Jonadab seems happy. Really happy. Ed came to get me in the middle of the night. I stayed there. That's why there was no bread this morning."
"I offered to stay away and keep the focus off of them. You know. The way things are, I'm not a healthy person to be around." He walks a ways, then says, "Jonadab didn't argue. I guess I thought he'd argue, and say Betony would need her Uncle Peeta or something. He's right not to argue. He shouldn't argue. But I thought he would. We always got along. It was Ed I sometimes fought with. Jona looked after me as much as he could."
"You want me to beat him up?"
"No. He's a dad. It's his job to keep her away from things that'll get her into trouble." His face twists a little. "I'm just tired of the grown-up stuff. I want to take Katniss to a dance or... I don't know. Have a snowball fight with her. Sometime before the wedding dresses come out."
"Let's get her back on this side of the fence, then you can have all the snowball fights you want. Though she'd pretty much take you apart with that aim of hers."
He nods. We both know there won't be a snowball fight. Even before the Games, I doubt she ever took time out from her busy schedule of surviving to throw a snowball at a friend. The "grown-up stuff" may be new to Peeta, but for Katniss, it's old hat.
Then I remember that the crazy boy took on tesserae to feed strangers, was forced to kill an innocent girl to stop her suffering, nearly bled to death alone in the arena, and lost his leg. He's not as young as he wants to be, either.
There's nothing I can do about it, so I just hate the Capitol as we walk among the empty houses. Neither of us heads home. On an unspoken agreement, we both head over to the Everdeens'.
Ruth nods grimly when we tell her that the fence is on. Prim pats her shoulder and says it will be all right. No one says outright that Katniss is in the woods, but no one is surprised when a pair of Peacekeepers shows up around three, both of them looking smug.
"We'd like to see Katniss Everdeen," the woman says.
"And who exactly are you?" I ask.
"Rhea Squires," she says. "Assistant to Head Peacekeeper Thread. This is my colleague, Silvanus Brock. Now that we have all been properly introduced, we would like to see Katniss Everdeen."
Ruth snorts. "Good luck. Let me know if you find her. She's been off for hours."
"Without telling her mother where she's going?"
"Have you ever had a sixteen year old daughter, Officer Squires?"
This is a rhetorical question - Peacekeepers have to remain unmarried and childless for twenty years while they serve - and Squires doesn't dignify it with an answer. She just says, "I believe we'll wait for her here. To make sure she's all right, of course."
No one even pretends to believe this, least of all Squires, who is smiling in a frankly predatory way. The other one, Brock, isn't much older than Peeta and is so new that the buttons on his white coat are still shiny. He looks like he might have at least a little bit of concern about where a young girl disappeared to on a miserably cold day. I'm sure Thread will root that out of him soon enough.
The presence of the Peacekeepers makes even carefully coded discussion of the real subject too difficult, so we all make stilted small talk. Prim tells Peeta that the wedding dresses came in and offers to show him (making it look like she's teasing her future big brother unmercifully). Peeta begs off, saying it would be terrible luck for him to see them. Ruth asks me how Hazelle is doing, and if I enjoy living in a human house. I joke that I keep thinking I've gone into the wrong place by accident. Prim asks after Peeta's brothers (with whom she was apparently friendly during the Games); curiously, he doesn't share the news about his new niece. I decide to let him take the lead there.
There's just not that much small talk to make in the end. We go into the kitchen and settle around the hearth. Squires and Brock lean up against the wall near the fireplace.
Ruth and Prim start sorting herbs, and I find the chessmen that go with an ornamental chess table that came with the house. The men are still sealed up in plastic bags. Apparently, the Everdeens do not sit around the game table every night. Peeta has never played chess either, so I teach him. I'm not half bad at it, but once Peeta picks up how the pieces move, he's intuitively good. I am somehow not surprised by this. His biggest problem is a tendency to sacrifice good pieces to save pawns, which is also not surprising. I berate him for it, telling him to imagine that Katniss is the queen. I am disgusted with myself for this, but on the next game, he manages to get his priorities straight.
It gets dark outside.
"Maybe you should call her," Squires suggests.
I lean back in my rocking chair and yell, "Katniss! Hey! Katniss!" I shrug and say, "Sorry, no answer. Guess she forgot her leash." I point at the communication devices that Peacekeepers - and only Peacekeepers - carry. Wouldn't want regular folks to be able to warn each other about surprise drop-ins.
Squires stiffens and crosses her arms. Brock shifts uncomfortably.
Ruth starts fiddling around with dinner. She asks the rest of us (including the Peacekeepers) if we'd like a snack. Brock starts to say, "Yes, ma'am, if it's no trouble," but Squires gives him a glare and he changes it to, "No, thank you, ma'am." I offer him a chess game after I beat Peeta, but this is turned down as well. Apparently, Thread is cracking down on the Peacekeepers fraternizing with locals. Since I don't want Brock to end up wherever the others have gone, I stop teasing him. Peeta and I start another game.
It's nearly seven o'clock when the door opens. Squires looks frankly angry, and Brock looks surprised. I hear Katniss say hello. Her voice is tight and controlled.
Ruth goes to the kitchen door, holding her hand up behind her to tell us to go along with anything she says. "Here she is, just in time for dinner."
That she's been fiddling with dinner for over an hour should reveal this as a lie, and probably does, but it's nothing that the Peacekeepers could nail to her. For all they know, she was just fidgeting from nerves. The problem is going to be Katniss.
"Head Peacekeeper Thread sent us with a message for you," Squires says nastily.
Ruth takes the chance to jump in. "They've been waiting for hours."
I tense and glance at Peeta, whose eyes are wide. Katniss is going to have to lie, and there's nothing he can say to get her started.
She manages to come up with a stiff, "Must be an important message."
"May I ask where you've been, Miss Everdeen?" Squires asks coldly.
This is it. I expect Katniss to stumble here, to stutter. Instead, she says, in a fully exasperated voice, "Easier to ask where I haven't been." She comes into the kitchen, and I have to keep Peeta sitting down before he runs to her. Her face is pale, her lips actually white. Her pupils are wildly dilated, and if her jaw gets much tighter, she won't be able to speak. She flings a bag down on the table and looks at us. I see a flicker of relief in her eyes.
"So where haven't you been?" I ask.
At this, Katniss spins a story about trying to find a male goat to get Prim's goat pregnant. I don't know where it's coming from, and it is perhaps not terribly convincing on first telling, but Prim backs her up. Peeta and I, acting like we're here at all hours normally, and not just waiting to see if she's dead, join in and embellish the story. Katniss loosens up, manages to cover up most of the stress in her voice, and adds details about wrong directions, arguments with townspeople, and insistence that we all gave her bad information. Ruth (generally as bad a liar as Katniss) refrains from the game, but doesn't make any wrong moves.
We could have rehearsed it, and probably should have. I don't know where she pulled this lie from. It's like the smiling girl who tossed kisses into the crowd at the tribute parade... sometimes, she just appears and manages things. That's probably why Katniss is still alive.
"What's in the bag?" Squires asks.
If there's physical evidence, it will be in her bag, but I'm not worried. If the fence came on while Katniss was out, she'll have known something was up, and gotten rid of anything incriminating. She empties it to reveal bandages, which Ruth appropriates, and peppermints, which Peeta steals and passes to Prim.
"None of you deserve candy!" Katniss announces with manic cheer.
"What, because we're right?" Peeta wraps his arms around her and she yelps. The Peacekeepers notice, but she covers by making a face like she's annoyed with us. Peeta doesn't miss it either, but he uses their established relationship to guide her gently to a more comfortable position.
He kisses her, and she accepts it, looking at him like he's been naughty, then she looks at Squires. "You have a message for me?"
Squires purses her lips. She knows perfectly well that we're all lying, but no one has missed a beat that she can pounce on. "From Head Peacekeeper Thread," she says. "He wanted you to know that the fence surrounding District Twelve will now have electricity twenty-four hours a day."
Katniss pushes it by asking, "Didn't it already?"
"He thought you might be interested in passing this information on to your cousin."
At this, Katniss doesn't bother to sound jovial. Her voice is coldly sarcastic. She knows that Squires can't pin her on anything not directly said. "Thank you. I'll tell him. I'm sure we'll all sleep a little more soundly now that security has addressed that lapse."
There is nothing whatsoever for the Peacekeepers to do. Katniss has now wasted several hours of their time and they have nothing for it. I have an absurd desire to pick her up and carry her around on my shoulders, possibly in front of a cheering crowd. She did it.
Unfortunately, as soon as the Peacekeepers leave, she practically collapses against Peeta, who sets her down gently in his rocking chair. She claims she slipped on the ice, but we all know she's lying. Ruth takes her boots off and discovers a broken left heel, and after a little embarrassing-looking maneuvering, a bruised tailbone. Peeta and I are firmly sent out of the room while Prim and Ruth get Katniss into pajamas.
We stand under a heat vent, and Peeta waits for it to turn on and start blowing hot air around before he says, quietly, "Don't talk about my niece."
I frown, but I guess I understand. If Peeta's brother thinks Peeta is a danger magnet, then Katniss must be frankly radioactive. Still, Peeta should know that if he and Katniss are going to be a family, there will be a lot of interest in a baby born in the family.
And it finally occurs to me that there's more to it than danger. Peeta, who's always been more attuned to the narrative than anyone else, understands this perfectly... and has decided to protect his niece from the narrative itself. There will be no fawning shots of the pretty baby for the Capitol to ooh and ahh over. There will be no questions about when Katniss and Peeta plan to give her a cousin. There may be a rumor that Peeta's estranged brother has a child, but there will not be a narrative, no matter how powerfully he could work it. Betony Mellark will not belong to the Capitol.
I put my hand on his shoulder and nod.
He nods back.
Ruth invites Peeta and me to have dinner. Katniss eats in the rocking chair, and her appetite doesn't seem to be particularly diminished. I wonder if she's eaten anything all day. Prim sits with her after we eat, and they talk about sisterly things (at least what I assume are sisterly things; I can barely hear). Peeta helps Ruth with the dishes. She is tentatively friendly with him, which is the best I've ever seen. She doesn't actively dislike him - in fact, I think she likes him a great deal - but she has been distinctly cool toward him, probably because she thinks Katniss is in over her head, which I can't argue with. Now, she tells him stories about his parents in school, and how they were in drama club together. Peeta seems not to have known any of this.
"Dad never even mentioned doing plays!"
"Oh, Dannel was very good," Ruth says. "I used to help him memorize his lines sometimes. Mirrem was the real star, though. She could make anyone believe anything. I'm sure there must be pictures of them somewhere at the school. They must have done half a dozen shows together before they shut down all the extracurriculars."
I doubt Peeta misses Ruth's distaste for Mirrem (which I realize in retrospect may have been because she had to endure watching Danny kiss her quite frequently), but he seems utterly delighted to have information about his parents in some sort of normal relationship. I wonder if either of them has ever told their sons anything. I should talk to Danny about it. About a lot of things.
But I know I won't. Something has changed since the Games. Danny's my oldest friend… but I've started to think of him as Peeta's father, rather than thinking of Peeta as Danny's son.
After we clean up, Ruth puts some sleep syrup into a cup of tea for Katniss. She can't quite walk on her own, so Peeta scoops her up and carries her upstairs. Prim excuses herself to do homework.
Ruth sighs. "He's a good boy, isn't he?"
"Yeah, he is."
"Glen found him wandering around the Seam once when he was about three. He had bruises on his arm." She holds three fingers to her upper arm to indicate what sort of bruises, then takes a deep breath and looks out the window. "Glen was so angry. He took the boy back, and he was ready to have words with Dannel, even though I told him it was that witch he married. Dannel was as angry as Glen when he saw the bruises. She almost died giving birth to the boy, then treated him like that. I'll never understand it if I live a million years."
"Don't tell him that story."
"I won't." She shakes her head, looking after Peeta with a lot more compassion than I usually see. "Dannel left her then, you know. When he saw the bruises. He packed up all three boys, and moved them to the first apartment he could get his hands on. They were separated for four weeks. I looked in on them every day. The boys wanted to go back to their mother. Dannel finally gave in. I don't know what went into it. We stopped talking not long after."
I start to ask why, then I realize the timing. I should have realized it earlier when she was talking. Danny only left Mirrem once. Peeta and Katniss would have been three. Then Prim was born less than a year later. The local rumor mill had a field day. Glen met with Merle and me to give us a mine inventory, and we both heard him lose his temper (a rare occurrence) about the whole situation, and Danny swore helplessly to me on several occasions that there was no possibility that Prim was his.
It had to be uncomfortable for all of them. Glen covered it up by being aggressively friendly with Danny, but Danny and Ruth cut ties with each other entirely. Until now.
Even now, I'm not sure they've really become friends again.
I help her put the dishes away. By the time we finish, it's been quite long enough for Katniss to get to sleep, and Peeta is still not back. We go upstairs together.
Katniss is definitely asleep, snoring. Peeta is sitting in a chair beside the bed, leaning forward onto the pillow, also asleep. One arm is cradling her head, the hand resting on her forehead. The other hand is wrapped around hers.
Ruth sighs and touches Peeta's shoulder gently. He stirs. "You should go home," she says softly.
He blinks a few times, then nods. It takes a minute to disentangle himself from Katniss, especially since she won't let go of his hand, but he finally does. He leans over to kiss her, then looks sheepishly at Ruth.
"Oh, go ahead," Ruth says.
Peeta kisses Katniss's forehead and brushes her hair back. Ruth sighs and leads us downstairs. "I'm glad you were both here," she says, giving us our coats. "Thanks for staying."
"No problem, Mrs. Everdeen," Peeta says.
She thinks about this, then shakes her head and says, "You may as well call me Ruth."
He smiles, and we leave.
When I get back to my house, there's a note from Hazelle that she left me dinner, and will be back in the morning to clean the curtains. I doubt Katniss will be out and about passing along the Peacekeepers' message, so when she comes, I tell her about the fence.
She glowers and starts pulling my curtains down. "Well, not that he'd ever do such a thing even if he were in shape for it, but I'll tell him."
"Are you doing all right? I mean, I ate at the Everdeens' yesterday, if you want to take that stew you made home."
"Thanks, I will. The money helps, but sometimes there's nothing to buy in town. Where's your food coming from, anyway?"
"Direct-shipped," I tell her. It occurs to me to wonder why my food is coming fine when it's not coming to the stores, but then I remember what Sae said about punishing the people for anything Katniss did. I guess this is one more wedge to drive into District Twelve. I expect if I ordered enough extra food to take into town, mine would start arriving late and spoiled, too.
Hazelle works this out without saying anything, then asks me to help her get the heavy curtain rod down. My living room is blindingly bright.
"This is a nice view," Hazelle says. "You should open your curtains more."
I look out. If I ignore the fence and the little Cornucopia, I can see quite a way into the forest. A large rock juts up majestically, and ice crystals make it glisten. There might be a little waterfall out there; I don't know. But I can't look out there without seeing Digger, looking up at the window just before Beckett turned on the fence. I don't say anything.
Peeta comes by with bread. He's baked extra for Hazelle and her family and tells her that he hopes Gale is feeling better. She seems stunned. He has his paint box with him, and heads over to the Everdeens'.
The next day, I go into town. There are several people in the stocks, including Delly Cartwright, doing two hours, with a sign beside her naming her crime: wearing the wrong shoes. No one breaks the sumptuary laws because no one can afford to, but her folks own the shop, and apparently, she decided to do something rebellious. She is chatting cheerfully with Brock, who seems stunned by her. Ed Mellark is sitting on the ground beside her, his hand on her leg. Delly is far from beautiful, but Ed is looking at her like she's extraordinary.
Maybe she is.
There's also a man doing ten hours for insubordination, which I'm guessing means he mouthed off to the wrong person, and a woman doing five hours for "spreading slander." I ask her what she said, and she snaps, "If I tell you, they'll put me in these damned things for another five hours."
There's a good deal of blood in the snow under the whipping post, but no one is currently occupying it. The gallows are still mercifully unused.
I look for Ripper, but don't find her. Wenna says she's hiding because she was seen scavenging again. Greasy Sae is at her hovel, but she's watched by a Peacekeeper who makes sure she doesn't sell any of her soup. Selling food without a license is also against the law. At this point, I don't even know where she's getting food to put into her soup, and she doesn't offer the information.
When I go past Ed's shop, he and Delly are coming back from the square. She's limping pretty badly, and he's guiding her along. She raises her hand in greeting.
I wave back.
"We're having lunch!" she calls. "Join us?"
I look to Ed, who shrugs. I join them.
Ed makes lunch in his kitchen. He has stale bread from the bakery and squirrel salad. It's not as bad as it sounds, and it's at least feasible that people are catching squirrels in town. He says he got it from a trap.
"I hear you have some good news in your family," I say.
"I'm surprised you found out," Ed says bitterly. "Peeta ran out of the house like he was afraid it was catching."
I think about what Peeta said about offering to stay away, and I wonder where reality ends and Peeta's perception starts. I say, "I think he wants her not to be involved in the circus around the Victors' Village."
"I'm sure that's it," Delly says. "Peeta's not turning his back on anyone."
Ed still looks annoyed, but says, "Okay. Right. It's his martyr complex. Totally not being ashamed of us."
Delly changes the subject. "How are you, Haymitch? We haven't seen you since the Victory Tour ended. And have you heard from Cinna? He was very nice. He said I have a nice smile."
"Well, you do have a nice smile," I say. "I talked to him. And he sent wedding dresses to Katniss."
Ed's eyebrows go up so fast it's almost funny. "They're really playing it up, aren't they? Are they really going through with it?"
"Far as I know."
"Does she at least love my brother?"
"Yes," I tell him, with no hesitation at all. "What about you two? Hearing from anyone?"
"If I did, it didn't get through Thread."
"If Thread stopped something, you can be pretty sure you'd know about it."
Ed stands up, lifts his shirt, and shows me five lash marks on his back. "He said it's about unapproved advertising events. Don't tell Peeta. Or Jonadab. Or Dad. None of them know. Just Mom, and I told her not to tell, too."
I rub my head. The Mellarks are full of secrets. I'd guess if I went one at a time to each of them, I'd get five secrets I wasn't allowed to tell the other four. "Are there baby pictures?" I ask, though I don't really care.
"We don't have a camera," Ed tells me.
"I do," Delly says, and grabs her purse. She pulls out a picture of a red, squalling infant.
As far as I'm concerned, all babies look the same, especially in District Twelve, where the only difference is whether they have blond hair or black hair. This one has blond hair and mostly looks bald. Eyes range from Katniss's silvery-gray to Peeta's bright blue, but I can't tell which one the baby has, since its eyes are squeezed shut. I pronounce it the most beautiful baby ever to have dirtied its diapers, then head home. I see Peeta's light on up in the attic, where he paints.
A few days later, he comes by with bread and a new painting wrapped in cloth. This one isn't for me. He asks if I can find a reason to take it to Jonadab, who lives above the inn.
"You don't think I'll bring unwanted attention?"
"Maybe when the Quell starts," he says. "But I think you're okay now." He unwraps the painting to show me. It shows the baby looking much more attractive than it does in Delly's photo. Jonadab and his wife, Sarey, are holding it and gazing at it lovingly. In the background, Peeta's made an idyllic, woodsy scene, with cute animals and large flowers. It's bright and cheerful, and looks too much like my arena for comfort. He bites his lip, then, with a decisive air, pulls a pencil from his pocket, turns the painting over onto the table, and writes on the back, "Lots of love from Uncle Peeta. Shh."
"I can take it over," Hazelle offers. I didn't notice her come in.
Peeta looks up, surprised. "You can?"
"Yeah. Your sister-in-law's parents decided they need someone to wash the tablecloths after all. I can bring it over with a pile of them. I owe you for helping me find a job."
"It was Katniss's idea," Peeta says, looking down sheepishly.
"Still." Hazelle looks down at the painting, which Peeta has turned back over. "It sure is a pretty picture. The baby's pretty, too. I think your brother'd like you to come see her."
Peeta snorts. "Right."
Hazelle looks frustrated. "If you think any new father remembers anything from the day his baby was born other than that the baby was born, you're crazy. Go talk to your brother." She crosses her arms. "And you know? Bring your own painting."
"You said -"
"And you reminded me that it's Katniss I owe. Now, shoo."
Peeta looks confused.
I just shrug. "You heard the lady."
After a while, he goes. I never do find out whether or not the picture makes it to Jonadab.