Music rings through the square from the band positioned on the stage in front on the Justice Building as people dance jubilantly around. Others were helping themselves to the large buffet of food, the likes of which District 12 has not seen since their last Victory Feast twenty-four years previous when Haymitch Abernathy had returned from his Victory Tour. As the crowds celebrates, I catch glimpses of people amongst the party.
Prim, sampling the range of desserts on one of the many over-flowing tables with wide-eyes and a fast-chewing jaw. While she had not gone hungry in the six months since I returned from the Capitol as Victor, we still lived modestly compared to most winners of the Hunger Games, and I would not allow chocolate or other expensive frivolities in the house, when my money could be used for better purposes. Thankfully my mother and Prim agreed with me, and were more than happy to continue eating the products of my daily hunting trips, if it allowed me to buy medicines and food which they could use to help the injured, sick or starving people in the Seam. That's not to say that I didn't use some of the money selfishly: there was a fine billy goat in our yard to keep Lady company, a dozen new dresses in Prim's closet with matching hair ribbons, and a silver-handled hairbrush on my mother's dresser that closely resembled the one I had to sell for bread shortly after my father was killed.
I see my mother sat with Hazelle Hawthorne at a table on the edge of the square. There is a small smile on her face, which was all the proof I needed that she had truly risen from the deep depression that had consumed her since the accident nearly six years ago.
Gale is running around with little Posy perched on his shoulders and clutching his hair tightly in her tiny fists. His brothers and five other boys chase after him, jumping as high as they could in an attempt to tag Posy as "It". This game had been a family favourite for years, and it always ended in the same way - Gale would eventually slow down and bend ever so slightly so that one of the boys could just reach Posy's foot, then let them brag about their victory without ever telling them that it was because he allowed it. Watching him with his siblings always makes me simultaneously envious and glad that my parents only had the two of us; while I longed for the laughter and games of the Hawthorne household, I knew that I would never have the endless patience that Gale has with kids. He never tires of carrying, chasing or cleaning up after the three of them, whereas I take any opportunity to escape the two family members I have so that I can be alone.
Effie is in the centre of the dance floor, gyrating madly to a rhythm completely different to the traditional jig the band plays. Her golden hair/wig looks dangerously close to toppling off of her head. Dancing nearby, but with nowhere near as much enthusiasm are Octavia, Flavius and Venia. All four of them have consumed a generous amount of wine, and the prep team spent a large portion of my makeover time this afternoon telling me how 'pleasantly surprised' they are with the hospitality in District 12. Of course it would surprise them, the only impression they had got of the district before this party was the two half-starving Seam kids they saw stuffing their faces with as much food as they could reach each year. I smirk to myself at the thought of the Capitol imagining how savage and uncivilised we are, and how much that would offend them.
Cinna and Portia are seated on a table with Mayor Undersee, and are chatting animatedly with Madge. I know for a fact that, despite the horrors of the associated games, Madge loves the Tribute Parade, and watches it on the big screen in the square each year in complete awe at the costumes. She had told me when I got back that her favourite tribute outfits of all time were mine and Peeta's.
Peeta. The only person who I can't see in the congested space. Cinna catches my eye as I scan the crowd for my 'fiance' and furrows his eyebrows at me in question. I mouth the word 'Peeta' at him, and he nods in understanding before slyly pointing over his shoulder with one hand in the direction of the Victors Village, and miming drinking with the other. Ah, so Peeta has drank too much. Everyone has had a drink tonight, but the visiting Capitol citizens, district officials and Victors were allowed a lot more alcohol than the rest of the party. Unfortunately for Peeta, he has neither the tolerance of Effie or Haymitch, nor the sense to stealthily throw away any drinks offered to him like I have done.
I work my way through the crowds, accepting hugs and words of thanks from random passers by, trying to hide myself and waste time until Cinna gives me the signal that it is acceptable for me to go home without it being frowned upon. At least Peeta has the excuse of being drunk; I couldn't go down that route as I have an early hunting trip planned for the next morning with Gale, and I have seen Haymitch the morning after the night before too many times to want to experience a hangover whilst trying to catch dinner.
I suddenly feel a pair of arms wrap around my waist and pull me down the alley between the Justice Building and the coal processing plant. I tense and pull my arms forward, ready to fight my way free from this unknown attacker when a familiar voice calms me down.
"Relax Catnip, I'm trying to rescue you, not kidnap you!" Gale's voice soothes my momentary panic. He lets me go and I spin round to face him. "You looked bored as hell out there, so I thought I'd save you for a few minutes."
"My hero!" I simper, and bat my eyes at him in a mocking parody of the way two merchant girls from school do whenever Gale passes them in the street.
He chuckles, "Now that's just creepy coming from you. If only I was your hero, but unfortunately for me, you've never needed a man to rescue you. Plus, now you're an all great and powerful Victor, there's no way I could ever be a knight in shining armour. You're way tougher than me now!" The banter between myself and Gale has always been easy. Out in the woods with just the two of us, there was never any need for us to be anything but ourselves; and ourselves just happened to be sarcastic, cynical and mocking.
Even after Gale kissed me in the woods that one time, it has never been awkward between us. The last few weeks while I was away on the tour without him was awful. Not only was he not there, but I had to pretend to be someone completely different to who I really was. I had to be a smiley, innocent girl who was deeply in love with Peeta Mellark. I had to be Capitol Katniss. It wasn't an easy act to maintain. Luckily for me, Cinna knew me well enough to find any excuse for me to be left alone, and when it was just him and me in a room, we would lapse into a comfortable silence where I could relax and imagine I was back home, and that I had never entered the Hunger Games.
Strangely, Haymitch was my only other refuge on the tour. When nobody was around he would let me drop the act around him and goad me into an argument to let me blow of some of the rage that built inside of me while I plastered the fake grin on my face for the crowds. Occasionally, when he knew that even insulting him wouldn't help my mood, he would slide whatever bottle he was drinking from across the table to me, and pull out another full one for himself. Although I didn't want to end up an old alcoholic like him, I could see why Haymitch drank the amount he did.
"More like half great and powerful - don't forget I only won because 'a man' helped me to." I scoff.
Gale's face turns serious as he stares into my eyes. "Katniss," he began. If I hadn't known from his expression, the use of my real name always shows he's not joking, "I don't believe for a second that you couldn't have won without Peeta. Hell, it probably would have been easier if you weren't looking out for him."
Shame bubbled up inside of me at his words. Little did Gale know that I had been having very similar thoughts these past couple of weeks. On the victory tour, guilt almost suffocated me when I saw the families of the tributes whose deaths I had been responsible for. Not only the ones I had killed directly, but also Rue and the boy from District 3, who was killed in retaliation for me destroying the supplies at the cornucopia. The nights after we visited those districts were the worst for me, and I stayed awake for as long as possible, before the nightmares took over with a vengeance. It was on on of these nights when I worked out why Peeta hadn't seemed affected by any particular district. He hadn't killed anyone in the games apart from the girl from District 5, and honestly, that was more him accidentally poisoning her. Hardly something to feel guilty about, as if she had studied edible plants for longer then she wouldn't have eaten the toxic berries in the first place. When we watched the footage back on the stage when we were crowned victors, I saw that Peeta had lied to the careers about finishing off the girl from District 8: by the time he got back to her she had fallen unconscious and had stopped breathing. He knew her end was coming within the next new seconds, so he walked away and the cannon boomed.
"Well, we'll never know." I say diplomatically, avoiding Gale's gaze so he can't catch the lie in my eyes.
"Yes, we do know." He whispers, leaning so close that I feel his breath on my ear. A shiver runs down my spine.
"We have to get back to the party." I stutter pathetically. Maybe I drank more than I realised earlier, my brain was clearly losing the higher levels of function.
Gale stood straight and looks straight into my eyes with such intensity that I have to look away. We walk to the end of the alley, and he tells me that he'll check that the coast is clear. After all, it would not do to have the Capitols favourite lovebird to be seen emerging from a darkened alley with a man other than her fiance. Gale blends into the crowd and signals me forward with a slight twitch of his head. Nobody else would even notice the gesture, but to me it was a well known hunting signal, as obvious as if he'd jumped up and down waving his arms.
Another half an hour goes by, where I dance with Prim, watch many Seam residents smuggle food into their pockets, and have my cheeks pinched repeatedly by Effie before Cinna finds me. He stages a loud conversation telling me that I need sleep after such a long day, and then quietly informs me that he'll keep Prim and my mother at the party for at least an hour. I smile gratefully and weave my way through the crowd, waving to my mother, Madge and Portia as I go.
As I near the green in the centre of the Victor's Village, I hear a strange moaning sound coming from the house on the other side of my house from where I stand. I creep towards the Mellark's house, and there on the front porch next to the open door, is Peeta, slumped in a heap against the wall with his head hanging in front of him. Clearly, whoever was responsible for getting him home was too eager to rejoin the party to actually get him inside the house. I take the steps quickly and crouch next to the drunk boy, slinging his arm over my shoulders as I lift him to his feet.
"Katniss?" he slurs against my shoulder "That you?"
"Yeah, it's me. You OK?" I ask, wanting a warning for if he was going to vomit so I could get far enough away to avoid the splash back.
"You're always rescuing me. I'd be dead without you." he mumbles.
"Come on, you didn't drink that much" I tell him as I walk us through the hallway and towards the living room.
"Not now!" he says indignantly. "In the games. I was dead, and you stopped it. You're so... so... good!"
I smile slightly at the thought it took him to come up with the word 'good'. I sit Peeta down on the couch ease him back to lay him down on it. Looking around for a blanket, I find one folded on the hamper in the kitchen, and by the time I cover him with it, Peeta is snoring softly.
I close the door as gently as I could as I leave and head next door to my own house. I am surprised to see that the living room light is already on when I walk in, and even more surprised to see Gale sitting on the plush couch against the wall.
"Hey," I say, "What are you doing here?"
"I just wanted to make sure you got home OK, Cinna told me that you had left." He says with an odd expression on his face, staring at the floor. He looks fidgety, child-like and uncomfortable, nothing like the calm and deadly hunter I know him to be. "Didn't think I'd beat you here."
"I was next door." I tell him, confused at his change in attitude.
He stands up abruptly and walks past me to the front door, never catching my eye as he mutters to himself. I catch small snippets of what he is saying "so stupid... of course..."
I follow him outside, trying to catch his attention as he stalks down the stairs and back towards town, but he ignores me.
"Gale!" I yell in a final attempt.
He stops, but does not turn to face me. "I'll see you in the woods tomorrow Catnip." he says quietly before breaking into a jog and rounding the corner, out of sight.
I sigh and head indoors, going upstairs to bed for another night of terrifying dreams.