"Peeta, I swear you are the mopiest person alive," I flick a fragment of sticky old dough at his face as he leans against the counter and stares forlornly out the window. It's five in the morning, and I think that, other than the poachers and the miners coming home from the night shift, we're the only people in District Twelve who aren't in bed. Today is Will and Dad's turn to sleep in. Even though I got in last night at about midnight, Will refused to trade shifts, like the brat that he is. I'm so damn tired I almost regret spending last night taking a walk with Esther Cole.
"Shut up," is all he says, and then heaves a melodramatic sigh, continuing to gaze outside. He's making those puppy-dog eyes, the ones that the girls go crazy for and drive me fucking nuts.
I get a running start and slide onto the counter, making a cloud of flour that fills the kitchen. He hates it when I do this, since we have more to sweep up, but the sheer pleasure of annoying someone so difficult to annoy is worth the extra work. When I skid next to him and the lump of dough that rests untouched on the counter, he acts like I'm not even there. I lay my head on his and sigh heavily.
"Knock it off, Rye," he mutters.
"So the girl you like, but have never said a single word to has last been seen in the company of the Gale Hawthorne? Big deal. There are at least seven other girls that I see staring at you on a regular basis. Plenty of fish in the sea."
"You've never seen a fish."
That is actually kind of true. No one sells fish in the market – they take too much work to ship from Four and no one but the mayor could afford them, anyway. I've heard that there are some at the Hob, straight from the forest, but having never been to the Hob, I guess I haven't ever seen a fish in person.
"They were in the Games one time."
Peeta looks like he wants to hit me, "Katniss isn't a fish, regardless."
"Oh I don't know… I bet she's pretty wiggly. 'Course, we should probably ask Gale–"
And that does it.
In less than a second, he slams into my abdomen and we're wrestling on the floor. This is my favorite part of the day. Making Peeta mad.
According to Will, and especially Mother, I can infuriate pretty much anyone, but Peeta has been a lifelong challenge. He's almost unbearably even-keeled. The only things that even seem to get to him are the ever-so-lofty concepts of cruelty and broad injustice. The former is something I'm not really into myself, and the latter, well, I don't have the power to really commit even if I wanted. So for a long time, no amount of picking got me anywhere. But a few years ago, I found the thing that sets him off.
We were walking home from school, running a little late, and the Everdeen girls were standing in front of the bakery. The little one was looking at the cakes, all excited about the flowers. Living in the Seam, I guess she doesn't see too much pretty in her life. No one does, around here, really. But, anyway, the older one was just standing there, looking sort of uncomfortable, but also really pleased with her sister's excitement. Her eyes kept flickering to the door, and I knew just what she was worried about. Mother hates Seam kids, and if she had seen them, she'd be sure to chase them away.
I laughed the whole time, because I finally had it. The upper hand.
Since then, I've used the thought of Katniss Everdeen to my advantage as much as I can. But the ringing sound in my ears that starts when Peeta inadvertently knocks my head against the floor as we wrestle makes me wonder if it's really to my advantage anymore. He's getting really strong, and his rage is making him even tougher. Before I can gather my thoughts to fight back, a huge hand grabs my collar and yanks, until I'm staring into the angry eyes of my dad.
"Boys, you cannot be doing this," he whispers harshly, looking actually upset for once. "What would happen if your mother woke up?"
Neither of us says anything. The house-wide strategy on dealing with mother is to lay low and appease. Wrestling in the middle of prepping bread for the day isn't exactly doing either. Dad's in his pajamas: enormous brown pants (even on him) and the rattiest shirt imaginable. It's pretty obvious that he rushed out of bed. And we all know why.
I really do appreciate it, and so do the backs of my hands.
"I started it," I shrug. "I was messing with him." Peeta looks like he wants to argue, but instead he goes back to his spot on the counter and picks up where he left off kneading the dough, only this time he's doing it almost viciously.
Dad yawns loudly, but he doesn't leave. Instead, he picks up the broom and starts sweeping the worst of the flour that I brushed all over the floor with my ass. Trying to ignore my guilt, I turn and begin leisurely stoking the oven. Even without being able to see it, I know that Dad's looking at Peeta with concern.
"You alright, son?" he asks softly. I ram the poker a little more quietly so I can listen in.
I can barely hear his response, but I think it's, "Don't worry, Dad. I'll be fine."
"He's pissed because Katniss Everdeen was last seen sneaking into the woods with Gale Hawthorne," I call out over the scraping sound of the metal in the embers.
Dad looks just a little bit like I've punched him in the stomach, but he responds pretty casually. "They've been hunting together for years, Rye. You're just always asleep when they show up to trade. I…" his eyes flicker to Peeta and then back to me, as he says with a chuckle "I don't think it necessarily means they're engaged."
"They don't have to be engaged, Dad…" I wiggle my eyebrows.
Peeta throws down the pan he was about to put the dough in and shouts, "You know what, Rye? Next time you're in your room sulking because the girl you're in love with this week told you to buzz off, then we can talk. Alright?" His voice echoes through the room, and we all take a deep breath. Peeta looks stricken. He knows he's been too loud.
Complete silence falls over the kitchen after that. Enough, in fact, that we can hear a door upstairs creak open, and the rush of feet on the stairs.
"Oh shit," I hiss. I can feel my shoulders hunch in anticipation of the door swinging open and my mother's angry voice. It's worse when Dad's here. So much worse. I'd rather get hit than watch her scream at him, if I have to be honest about it.
The door swings open to reveal, thankfully, Will's scowling face.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" he waves his arms in the air. "You woke me up! If you don't keep your mouths shut, she'll be down any minute. Normally, I don't care what you idiots do, but Abigail and her parents are coming for dinner tonight, and I don't need Mother in a bad mood." He runs his fingers through his tight curls, "Oh, hey, Dad. See they woke you too."
"Mornin' son," Dad grunts, heaving a sack of flour over his shoulder.
Will slumps into a chair at the table. He's nineteen. Done with school, reapings, and everything else. Now he's engaged to the daughter of some minor civil servant in the Justice Building, and about to start a job there himself. Mother is proud, which is the only emotion she seems able to pull off these days, other than anger. Will never was any good at baking. I mean, he could do it well enough, there wasn't any way around it. But he didn't like it, and he certainly didn't live for it. Not like Dad. Not like Peeta.
I'm somewhere in the middle I guess.
So Will takes care of the books now, which is good, because it's one less thing for Mother to do. But once he's gone, then she'll be back to keeping track of the accounts. We'll have to watch every single ounce of flour, or live with the consequences.
I'm all grown. It shouldn't be a big deal. I could stop her if I really wanted, could have for years really. But the knobbiness of my knuckles even now proves that I don't, and the small scars on Peeta's cheekbones and jaws prove that I haven't. I never really tried to protect him, and he always got the worst of it. It wouldn't have taken much. Just a diversion every now and again. Mother never was one for being talked back to, and I was always pretty good at it, when it didn't matter so much.
But never when it came to standing up for him.
I am such a coward.
The four of us work together to open the bakery. It takes so much less time with all of us, so we're left sitting around the table eating stale doughnuts a full half hour before we have to open the doors. Most of the chores for the entire day are already taken care of, actually
"You really should talk to her, Peeta," I break the congenial silence, my mouth still full of sweet, but too-dry pastry. "What's the worst thing that could happen?"
While Peeta glares at me, as though he's pretty certain of the worst thing that could happen and definitely doesn't want to talk about it, Will rolls his eyes, "Are you still at this again? She's from the Seam. It's an inconvenient match at best."
"Katniss is a sweet girl, and a good shot," Dad says calmly before getting an animated look in his eyes. "Did you see the squirrels from yesterday? All through the eye!"
"Yes, yes I know," Will sighs wearily. "She can shoot things. But if Peeta's going to run the bakery…"
"Hey!" I interrupt. "What am I, chopped liver?"
They both look incredibly uncomfortable for a long moment, before I chuckle, "Just kidding, you know I don't want to run this place."
"It does bring up an interesting concern, though," Will tugs on his chin thoughtfully. "Just what are you going to do when you're finished with school?"
I shrug, "Whatever I want?"
Dad looks nervous, "Rye…"
"What should I say to her?" Peeta changes the subject abruptly, looking at me with annoyance and understanding. "Katniss. If I were to talk to her, what would I even say?"
Thank you thank you thank you, little brother.
Will snorts, but Dad leans forward in his chair, a faraway look in his eyes. He's about to go off on one of his long-winded sentimental speeches, and I think we'd all be better off without hearing it.
"Well, you could just say 'Hello,' for once."
Will makes another noise of disgust, "Yes, of course. 'Hello.' The key to a woman's heart."
"He's never said a single thing to her! What's he supposed to do? Write a damn poem and recite it on her doorstep?"
"It certainly worked for me."
"That's because Abby is the soppiest girl this side of the Capitol."
He pushes the chair away from the table with a screech and glares at me, "That's my fiancé you're talking about."
I roll my eyes, "Katniss Everdeen guts squirrels by herself. She doesn't want a poem. She's practical. If you reallywant to talk to her, Peeta, I'd say get on her sister's good side. Which shouldn't be too hard; I think that girl loves pretty much everybody."
"I still think it's a bad match," Will sighs.
I'm about to argue with him, when the door swings open.
"What's a bad match?"
It's her. Her hair is up in rollers, and she's still in a dressing gown, but she looks pissed already. The four of us idling about is an easy way to make that happen, I guess. Normally, this would be when Peeta comes up with a story to save all our asses. He's done it for me a thousand times. But the color's drained from his face, and he looks almost as bad as someone whose name's been drawn in from the Reaping bowl.
I should speak up. I'm a better liar than he is, and that's saying something.
But I say nothing.
"Peeta was just saying how he thought some Seam girl was cute," Will begins, trying to downplay the situation. He's almost as bad at lying as dad is, so he can't change the story much. But at least he's trying. "I was busy telling him that it would be a bad match."
She laughs scornfully and the curlers in her hair vibrate. I can't stop looking at them.
"I wish I could say he could do better, but honestly, I don't even know," she laughs again and then turns to Peeta. Her voice takes on the mocking tone that has dominated the way she's spoke to him for much of our lives, "So if you're man enough to bed one of those sluts, Peeta, you might as well try. I highly doubt any of them would stay with you even then, though. Unless, of course, it's to use you. Suck you dry. But you'd be too much of an idiot to even notice."
He doesn't say anything, just looks at the ground. But I can see his hands trembling under the table in rage, pain, fear, I don't even know, while I just sit and chew on my stale doughnut.
I am such a coward.