"Ladies and gentlemen," Caesar Flickerman's voice booms out, "I give you not one, but two Victors of the Second Quarter Quell, the Star-Crossed Lovers from District 12: Maysilee Donner and Haymitch Abernathy!"
In two steps, she's in my arms. I spin her, dip her, and kiss her like a man insane. The audience screams. They want a show. They have to have a show. So I'm sure as hell gonna give them one. But all the while, I can only think one thing.
"Do you know, Maysi? Do you know how much trouble we're in?"
- pg 361 The Quell
Though I figured Prim was going to cry this morning, I had no idea she was going to cry quite so much.
"What if they send you away like Gale?" she's sniffing.
Despite the pain the mention of his name uncovers, and the worry that had settled into my chest hours ago and still won't leave, I laugh a little.
"I'm not as smart as he is, Little Duck. There's no way they're sending me to any sort of fancy school for my Duty. I'll probably just get a bow upgrade and sent into the forest full time now that they're hunting again."
Prim looks thoughtful, and bites her lip. The sobbing has stopped, but the tears still run down her cheeks when she asks, "Really?"
"Really. And, you know, with dad being a hero and all… " I reach over and wipe away the tears from her cheek, "it's not like they're going to send me into the mines."
The rebellion that freed us from President Snow's tyranny had lasted for over a decade, slowly and steadily growing into a war that gnawed on the little meat that was left clinging to the skin and bone of humanity. Inspired by the defiance of Haymitch Abernathy and Maysilee Donner, the tributes whose love made the Capitol bend, one by one, the districts peeled away, slowly starving the Capitol of its wealth and resources.
But at a terrible cost.
When the Capitol was teetering on the edge, and all of the districts were starving, District 13 emerged from the silence of its eastern stronghold. No one had even known it still existed, but it stepped into the chaos that was the seat of the government, and just took over. None of them even had to fire a shot.
President Coin was a genius, everyone said. According to common thought, without her, the entire nation would have fallen into complete and utter chaos. She reorganized the way the districts were run, the way people worked.
After a few years of President Coin's oversight, no one was starving.
But it wasn't in time to save my father.
The miner's rebellion in District Twelve had been one of the last, but one of the worst. The Capitol, desperate to hold on to one of its most important resources – the fuel for its energy – had blown up the underground stronghold that the rebel leaders, Gale's father and mine, had built. And the two of them died in the choking darkness, with about a dozen other men. Gale's father left his mother grim and his three sons resentful. My father left my mother barely functioning but with two young daughters who needed to eat. Lucky for us, the Capitol fell not long after.
Families of rebel leaders were and are given preferential treatment, as much as anyone ever gets. My mother immediately received medical attention that drove the intensity of her sadness away and made our family functional again. Now, once a year the families of the lost rebel leaders stand on the stairs of our districts' justice buildings and listen as President Coin makes a speech, praising our parents' accomplishments. Every year someone else is showcased, people like Elsa Mason in Seven and the Odair and Cresta clans in Four. Then we, the survivors who did nothing, get medals.
It's not very pleasant.
But Remembrance Day is months away and today is Duty Day, where all the eighteen-year-olds are assigned our Industries. In the months leading up to today we've gone through aptitude tests, interviews, brain scans, and a ton of other tests that I didn't really pay attention to. The process is supposed to be objective, fair, assigning young people to the tasks they are most suited for. Two years ago, Gale was sent to District Three to be trained at an engineering school. I never even realized that his skills making snares would translate into making other things, but I suppose that was dumb of me.
In general, I doubt I'll be posted anywhere special. I'm not that intelligent, definitely not book-smart like the top kids in school or even technically smart like Gale was. I'm strong and small, and really, I'd be a good fit for the mines, but I know they won't put me there. They say that Industries are assigned objectively, but not a single child of a war hero has ever been assigned something even remotely unpleasant. There have even been rumors that if you say too much, they'll shove you in a quarry or in the mines just to shut you up, but I've yet to see that happen.
For me, especially, Prim's fears are unnecessary. I don't say much at all. A lifetime of having people on the street coming up to me and shaking my hand, showering me with adoration that it's obvious I do not deserve, has made me distrustful.
I keep my mouth shut, even as we make our way to the center of town.
Although we could just as easily perform the Duty Day ceremony in our homes, due to its impact on our lives and our society, it's held on the steps of the Justice Building. Everyone has the day off from their Industries, and, though it's not required, a surprising number of people from the District show up. It's interesting, seeing where people end up, I guess. When Gale was given such a promising Industry, the entire district stood up and cheered, though I could tell he was pretty uncomfortable with it.
We all have inkers in our house. They etch Industry instructions on our wrists in purple ink every morning. For most people it's always the same, though for people like my mother, who has to see different patients every day, it changes. Even with Coin's infrastructure, there just aren't enough people in Twelve to require a hospital, so there's a small network of healers who do most of the work.
It would be no trouble at all to have the inkers just give out a different duty to each of us on Duty Day. But instead, we all gather while a Government Guide calls out our futures.
Like Effie Trinket, the ridiculous Capitol holdover, is doing right now.
Duties are called out by districts instead of names, starting with District Zero, which is what the fusion between Thirteen and the Capitol is now called. The first name we hear is that of Madge Undersee, the daughter of the mayor. She is given the title of Apprentice Concert Pianist for the National Orchestra, and the crowd gasps in amazement. This kind of posting is almost as significant as Gale's had been.
But it means moving away, and Madge looks nervous at the prospect.
My eyes glaze and I tune out during most of the names. Delly Cartwright's is noteworthy simply because she squeals with excitement at being sent to District Four as an Apprentice Early Childhood Educator. The crowd smiles good-naturedly before a loud yell interrupts us all.
We all know who it is.
Haymitch Abernathy, the face of the rebellion and my next-door neighbor.
A complete and utter drunk.
"Aren't we all exshited about our future?" he slurs, before falling down in the mud. A few Peacekeepers rush over to help him up, but he bats them away and stays where he is, yelling something that sounds like, "Have fun, idiots!"
The crowd mumbles uncomfortably..
"Now, now Haymitch. Celebrate a bit too much this morning did we?" Effie asks cheerily, redirecting everyone's attention as the Duties move on to the other districts. There aren't too many of us left, so it doesn't take long until we're in Twelve. That's normal. For people who are assigned menial labor positions, which are still the bulk of the population, we tend to stay where we are.
This is great news for people in One.
Not so much for here.
"Katniss Everdeen," Effie's voice rings out. I don't even look at Prim because I know how worried she is that it's taken so long to get to my name. I know logically that there's no way I'll be sent to the mines, there'd be a public outcry, but my heart still lurches in relief when she calls out, "Apprentice Music Educator."
It's not what I want, really. I'd rather be a hunter. I don't like singing in public, and I don't think I'd have the patience to deal with children. But it means I'll be here with Prim, I don't have to make new acquaintances or friends, and I'm not going into the mines so, for now, I feel good about it.
Until I hear Effie call out the next name.
"Peeta Mellark!" she shouts, briskly moving on in a way that makes me certain of what she's about to say over and over again until the ceremony is over.
"Coal Mining Technician – First Level."
"Oh no,"I think, "Not him."
I was seven when the hoverplanes carrying the bombs that killed my father roared over our district.
Prim was three. We were hiding in the basement of the bakery with the baker and his sons. My mother had tried to keep the man's wife alive through the night, but the extensive burns she had received from the first moments of the bombing were just too much for my mother's limited wartime resources.
As the bombs fell and my mother tried to save his dying brother, the youngest boy held Prim as she cried. I couldn't do it myself, I was shaking too much, worried for my father and overwhelmed by the terrible sound of Rye Mellark's heaving breaths.
But Peeta Mellark was different.
He was scared too, no doubt about it. In fact, he was openly crying as his oldest brother, my mother, and his father frantically tried to bind Rye's wounds in clean rags. But Prim was on the verge of hysteria, making thing so much worse. So Peeta took her in his arms and started telling her a story, something ridiculous that I don't even remember. When the story was over, he spun her around in circles until the bombing stopped, and she, exhausted from her tears, finally fell asleep.
At some point, in the middle of all that, his brother died. My father too, probably, but he was deep underground, trying to lead a rebellion.
Because of me, I am certain he had missed the few moments he might have had left to spend with his brother. The happy one who had always made everyone at school (when we could go to school, really) laugh.
I needed to say something. "Thanks," or "I'm sorry." Anything, really. But whenever I tried to talk to him after that night, I thought of my own father, the unbearable emptiness in my mother's face, and the way I couldn't stop the hollow place in my own heart from roaring open. My throat closed up before I could even part my lips. So I said nothing, and we, and the rest of the district just mourned our losses as the war came to a close.
I don't know if it's guilt or nostalgia but whenever I go to my father's grave, the large one, with the ornately carved headstone, I take a moment to lay a bunch of dandelions on Rye Mellark's small headstone. The flowers' fuzzy tops remind me of his hair, and they're happy flowers. Happy like he was.
But he's gone, and now his brother has been given one of the most awful Duties in the district, if not the nation.
Peeta Mellark has every reason to hate me, of that I am certain.
Looking across the line that separates the girls from the boys, I see his face fall into grim acceptance at the announcement of his Industry, as though he saw this coming. But everyone around him is shocked, and for good reason.
Everyone, I mean, everyone, was certain that Peeta would be assigned to Zero, or at least One. From what I understand, he's a really good baker, but more than that, he's the most talented artist the district has ever seen. The school, the bakery, the market, and anywhere else he could reach have all been covered with enormous murals he made. I don't know much about art, but Prim, who has an eye for such things, says that no one has painted anything quite so beautiful in hundreds of years. That he's some kind of prodigy.
And now Peeta Mellark with his baker's hands and artist's eyes will die in the mines.
"Bullshit!" Haymitch Abernathy's voice rings out over the disgruntled lull of the crowd. "It's complete bullshit."
"I assure you," Effie begins uncomfortably, "Duties are assigned with the greatest care and consideration for each individual's skillset." But it's a lie and she knows it. The year Gale went away, she made an impassioned speech about the artistic life in Twelve while standing in front of the bakery. She told Peeta he had quite a career in art ahead of him. I heard her. We all did.
Peeta's jaw is clenched as Effie calls out the ten other eighteen-year-olds who also have a Duty in the mines to look forward to and then the ceremony comes to an abrupt end. While the crowd begins to dissipate, no one will speak to him, or even make eye contact. I see his father and brother tentatively approach him.
When his father pulls him into an enormous hug, and his own body shakes with the tears he's crying into the larger man's shoulder, I look at the ground. I shouldn't be seeing this moment. No one should.
"You're staying," my mother says behind me. I can hear the relief in her voice. I don't want it. I don't deserve to stay here. Out of the two of us, I'm better suited for the mines.
Everyone in the district is, really.
There's still a sliver of time in the mornings left to hunt before I have to be at the school, and that's when I see him for the first time, coming back from the night shift. His headlamp is still lit, and he's trudging across what used to be the Seam but now is just a pile of ash where only scrubby plants grow.
Everyone else is already home, but he's straggled behind for some reason. We're the only people visible, and it's obvious that we see each other. I should say something, I really should, but I rush toward the Meadow instead, sweeping past him quickly, as though he isn't there walking in the other direction no more than ten feet away from me.
I'm about halfway to the fence when his voice rings out in the dim light of the early morning.
I have to stop, though I dread whatever it is he has to say. It takes me much longer than normal to turn around, and by the time I do, he's caught up with me.
"You dropped this," he holds out the small round of goat cheese that Prim snuck into my bag the night before. We're not supposed to even have goat cheese, or a goat, for that matter. It's not in the Allotment. But because what remains of my father is underneath a showy headstone that calls him a hero, we can get away with having just a tiny bit more. I'm even allowed to stay with them in our large house in the area still known as Victor's Village, despite the fact that everyone is supposed to get a new living assignment with their Duty.
Peeta himself can't live in the bakery with his father and brother anymore, his room now vacated for whatever Apprentice Baker might come in the next few years. He's in the miners' dormitory until he marries, and once that happens, he'll be given a tiny box of a house that, although it will have all the conveniences that Twelve can now afford (which I'll admit, isn't much), will also be sterile and depressing, with one small window in the front room.
His pale skin is dirty, and there are puffy purple bags under his eyes, but he smiles shyly at me, like we've just met in the schoolyard and the last time we talked his brother wasn't dying in the background. He presses the cheese into my hands and I can see that his thick knuckles are oozing blood. One of his fingernails is gone completely.
"Thanks," I mutter awkwardly, not sure what to say. His smile fades a little, sputtering into an almost unnoticeable tic, and his eyes focus on a point in the mid distance somewhere off my shoulder.
He's obviously exhausted. And probably hungry too. He's lost weight; his clothes hang on him loosely. Miners aren't fed any more than the rest of us. They used to be, but there was a food shortage a few years ago and they never adjusted the Allotments afterwards.
"Here," I shove the cheese back at him, "my stomach hurts. Prim insisted I take it, but… it'll probably just end up in the woods." I'm not a good liar, but hopefully my gruff tone makes up for it.
"Should you go into the woods, feeling sick like that?" he asks, looking at me with concern and ignoring the cheese altogether.
There's one thing I know will probably convince him, and I'm so uncomfortable with him knowing the real reason I'm giving him the cheese, that I decide to go for it.
"Just monthly stuff. I'll be fine."
Instead of the disgusted face I expect, he just looks at me with sympathy, "Ugh, that's rough. I'm sorry, Katniss."
That's what I should be telling him. I'm sorry about his Duty, about his brother, about his mother. But I can't, I just stand there stupidly and hope he'll take the cheese.
As he does, his eyes focus over my shoulder and light up.
The sun is rising.
I wonder when the last time was that he saw the sun.
My Duty ends up surprising me. I try to start out gruff with the children, but almost every single one of them wiggles his or her way into my heart almost immediately. For some reason, singing brings them more pleasure than I ever expected. I suppose there's little else beautiful in their regimented lives, something I managed to escape as the child of a war hero. A few days into the school year, though, the art teacher, a pregnant woman from Nine, gets put on bed rest.
Somehow I get assigned her art classes.
They're excited to be able to draw, even with their single crayon allotment and single sheet of paper. But after explaining to a tearful child who burned through her monthly crayon in three days, I realize how much Peeta had to work to scrounge together the paints for his murals. He must have made them himself somehow. And it reminds me again and again how unfair things are. This Duty would have suited him more than it ever does me.
Without anything to draw with, the little girl cries every day, though she tries to hide it.
Three times a week, when I sneak into the woods I see him. He always walks home alone. We've taken to wordlessly waving at each other as we pass. Some days, when the sky is cloudless and we can see the edges of dawn as the sun begins to rise, he looks happy. Other days, when it's dark and cold and it looks like night will last forever, his feet drag behind him and his wave is slow, almost nonexistent.
On one of the sunny days, he calls out to me, his voice ringing happily across the Meadow. I take a moment and decide this time I'll be the one that runs to him, but when I turn, he's already nearly reached me.
"I heard you're teaching the art classes," he smiles a little.
I don't. What is he getting at? Is he trying to make me feel worse than I already do?
When I don't say anything, he looks at the ground and kicks a stone, "I just… uh… well, I know they don't have a lot of supplies. I know how to make dyes and paint and ink and things, from stuff around here like berries and milk and different kinds of rocks. So, I was just wondering maybe you wanted me to show you on Rest Day?"
This is unfair.
Of course, I should say yes. I want to say yes, to not have to deal with the crying little girl and children sighing over green suns and blue grass. But is this any good for him? To sit down and show someone else how to do what he deserves to do?
And can I handle the guilt? I already feel so much.
"Please say yes," his voice cracks just a tiny bit as he asks.
I take a deep breath.
He smiles just as the sun crests over the mountains and something in my heart feels tight, as though the clothes it wears have suddenly become a size too small.
He shows up at my back door early Sunday morning. After a long night caring for a woman in labor, Prim and my mother are still asleep. I'm sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of tea. I don't expect the knock, and when it happens, I spill tea all over the book I was reading.
After opening the door with little ceremony, I rush back to my book and try ineffectually to dab up the tea before it stains the page. It's too late though.
"Um… hi…" Peeta says, standing in the doorway. "Can I come in?"
I nod, biting my lip with frustration. "I'm sorry, I just spilled tea all over this and completely ruined it. " I throw down the towel I was using to wipe up the mess and slide into my chair with a sigh. Everything, the mess I've made, the fact that he's here when he should hate me, it's all just too much.
He steps inside and his eyes fly around the room. I know this is a lot nicer than he's used to, and the thought that I live in such relative luxury embarrasses me.
"Can I see?" he asks, gesturing towards the book.
I don't know why he wants that, but I push it towards him. From his pocket, he pulls a ragged paintbrush that doesn't look to last much longer.
"The tea too?" he asks.
I push that towards him as well. What's left in the glass has steeped too long, and the normal tea in the saucer is too cold. I'm not going to drink it anyway.
He bites his lip and dips his brush into the dark tea, then with a quick motion pulls it across the stained page, in the margin where there are no words. I watch him as he works, making tiny brush strokes in the dark tea, then long sweeping ones with the light.
"Sometimes," he mutters, "you just have to take things that look ruined, and make them into something else."
Standing up, he pushes the book towards me.
He's quickly painted a dandelion, of all things, growing out of a hill that was, as of two minutes ago, nothing but a drying tea stain. It's beautiful, and looks like it should have been there all along.
"So…" he smiles a little, showing the lines of coal dust embedded in the crinkles by his eyes, "we might as well start with dandelions, actually."
The sudden rush of emotion that I felt at his choice of flower fades. He has no idea I've put those flowers on his brothers grave. It was just on his mind as a good choice for dye creation.
By the time Prim wakes up, he's shown me how to grind up dandelion root and make it into reddish brown ink. As soon as she sees, her face lights up and she drags him into the basement, showing him all of our stores of herbs. They pull multiple glass bottles off the shelves, and by lunchtime, the table is full of the beginnings of more reds, as well as oranges, yellows, blues, greens, and even purple. The longer we work, the more Peeta comes alive, laughing and joking with Prim, and even my mother after she wearily descends the staircase. But not with me.
"The problem is getting the stuff," he finally says. "It takes months to gather enough. I don't really know where to find it easily."
"Katniss does!" Prim offers. "She brings us whatever we ask for!"
"Oh, wow," he grins, turning to me. "I didn't realize you were a gatherer as wellas a hunter."
"She can take you right now," Prim says firmly. "Show you all the best places."
I swallow. There's no getting out of it now.
He's loud, and even though I'm not tracking anything, the noise irks me. At least, I tell myself it does. But really, I'm confused, more than anything else. Spending the day with someone who has every reason to hate and resent me is not what I planned on doing.
Neither of us says much, until I find a copse filled with mulberry trees. His eyes light up and he begins to gather the berries scattered across the ground. When he crouches certain way, his knee makes a horrible groaning sound, and he falls backwards.
I rush over to make certain he's okay, but he lightly pushes me away and gruffly says, "I'm fine. Don't worry about it."
Neither of us say much for the rest of the afternoon.
When I show the children the inks, at least four of them actually jump out of their seats and hug me. By the end of the Art Allotment, most of them are covered in splotches of reds and blue and green. The little girl, the same one who spent the last week crying, hands me the picture she painted, insisting I take it.
I don't deserve such a gift.
The next day, though, my desk is covered in flowers, pretty stones, and other little scraps that the children are able to acquire. I decide enough is enough, and gathering all the items together, I put them in a box and stand in front of the class.
"I wanted to… um… thank all of your for your gifts," I announce as Art Allotment begins, "but unfortunately, you're giving them to the wrong person."
"What do you mean?" a small boy asks.
I'm not certain if I should be saying this, but I do anyway. They need to know. "Do any of you know the mural outside the school?"
The crying girl raises her hand, "Oooh ooh miss I do! The one where everyone is sad and in lines and it's all gray then they are flying and there's colors and smiles and everything's happy!"
I nod and smile, but I'm overcome with the sharp realization of just why exactly it was that Peeta Mellark was sent into the mines.
"Well, the person who painted that is the same person who…"
"Who made us these colors?" an energetic little boy cries, "Wow! He's the bestMiss Everdeen!"
Nodding in agreement, I begin awkwardly, "So I… uh… I think that–"
"We should bring him presents too!" another child cries.
Before I can even make a suggestion, they're all discussing amongst themselves what exactly it is they can do to show their appreciation. In the very back of the room, a shy boy raises his hand.
"Yes, Liam?" I say, signaling for quiet and getting it, for once.
"I know who he is. I mean, his name."
I hiss in a breath. I don't know if they should know. But before I can stop him, the boy says softly.
We spend the rest of the Allotment decorating the box for Peeta's gifts. The children chatter among themselves, talking about how wonderful he is. A few of them know that he's working in the mines, and by the time the end of the time has arrived, most of the children are outraged.
"Why is he there?" they cry. "They made a mistake in his Duty!"
I say nothing.
That night, I add my own gift to the box, wrapping it in tissue paper and burying it under bits of shiny glass and the bundle of wilting flowers that have been tied together.
Hopefully he won't notice who it's from.
"It was the children's idea," I say the next morning as he sorts through the box, eyes wide and shining. "They wanted to thank you for "the colors." That's what they call them. "
"Tell them I say thanks," he says roughly, voice thick.
I nod and awkwardly excuse myself as I head into the woods. I'm a few steps into the tree line when he calls out for me.
I pretend I don't hear.
For the rest of the week, we don't see each other, though I head to the Meadow at the same time each morning. The days are getting shorter, and it's likely he no longer lags behind with any hope to see the sunrise. I don't blame him. He deserves rest.
But on Sunday morning, when I open the back door, ready to spend a quiet morning hunting, I find two strips of cardboard tied together with twine and sitting on the stoop.
I recognize the size and shape. They're the flaps that closed the box the children painted. As I unwrap them, I am startled to see the insides covered with tiny paintings of me, specifically my hair, all done in smooth precise strokes.
"I have to say, such pretty hair belongs on your head. Not in some miner's paintbrushes," his voice rings out across the yard.
He's leaning against the side of my house, arms crossed.
"It'll grow back," I tell him. "Consider it… interest on an apology."
His face falls, "Apology? What for?"
"My sister… you… when we were kids," I struggle for words, "He died and you were busy doing what I couldn't. And I'm sorry. So, so sorry."
He looks at me and chuckles sadly, "Katniss, holding that little girl was the only thing keeping me from curling up in a corner. I was seven. I couldn't…" he chokes on the words, "I couldn't just watch my brother die."
I stare at the ground, breathing heavily.
"Plus, all of those dandelions you put on his grave every year. You don't have a clue what that meant, still means to me."
"He always made me laugh," I say softly as he walks up the two steps until he's standing directly in front of me. His eyes are intense as he gazes at me.
"You gave me beauty, Katniss. When I didn't have any. And now… here, with these kids and the painting. You're doing it again."
I don't remember much from school, but there are little bits and pieces that float to the top of my brain sometimes, when situations become just too complicated to describe. And right now, it feels like we're being pulled together by gravity, the hugeness of our shared past generating an inescapable force. The closer we come, the more I can see the toll the mines have had on his face, his pale skin more lined and careworn than should be for someone his age.
My eyelids are just fluttering closed when a voice calls out across the yard.
"Hunting good this morning, there Katniss?"
We both take deep shuddering breaths and step back from each other.
"I should go," Peeta says awkwardly. "I promised my father I'd come to the bakery for breakfast."
I nod, looking everywhere but at him.
"Thanks again for the brushes," he says quietly, then adds, "Can I see you again? On purpose?"
"Sure," I whisper, though I am not at all sure.
He reaches out and touches my hand, "I'll be back again. Tonight." Then, without looking back, he jumps off the stoop and runs towards the Hawthorne's house and then down the hill.
"You're playin' with fire, sweetheart," Haymitch calls out from his porch. "And that boy's gonna get burned."
I glare at him, "You're drunk, old man."
"You know as well as I do why that kid's in the mines. It ain't cause he's short and strong, that's for damn sure. Government's not gonna take too likely to the daughter of a war hero getting mixed up with the likes of him."
Crossing my arms, I walk towards him, in hopes of allowing Prim and my mother a chance to sleep in, "So? He's there now. Nothing can be done about it. "
"Just you remember that in four years, Prim's up for her Duty. And, course she won't be sent to the mines, you and I both know that, but they've been having trouble with some kinda plague in Eight for about a decade. Gonna need some good doctors there. Course… not many of them survive…"
My blood runs cold, "They wouldn't."
He shrugs, "Probably not. But Maysilee and I didn't think she'd get killed for running off with that woman from Ten after the War ended, either."
I say nothing. Everyone knew Maysilee Abernathy had died in an accident on the way to Ten.
No one had ever told me it wasn't an accident before.
"Point isn't so much if they will do it or not," Haymitch throws back a flask of something. "Point is… they can."
That night, the sound of small pebbles hitting my window wakes me up.
I wrap myself in a robe and go down the stairs as quietly as I can. I hear Prim's bed creak as she stirs, but then settles.
He's standing at the back door when I open it, and the first thing he does is hands me another picture. In the moonlight, I can just make out what it is.
"The trees remind me of you," he says softly. "A few years ago, when I was digging through the woods trying to find something to make paints with, I saw you in one. You were singing the Valley Song. I… couldn't really breathe, you sounded so beautiful."
"Peeta, I'm sorry, but I can't see you again," I force out.
His hopeful face falls, and instantly he looks ten years older than his actual age. And my heart is filled with the knowledge that, despite what I do, he's not going to last in the mines. Men like him are canaries. They fall first, telling the foremen when they need to back off before whole crews of men just give up and die.
"I… understand," he says quietly, his voice distant and detached.
It breaks me.
Not knowing what I'm doing, or why, I kiss him, and instantly my body is overcome by a rush of fire, starting at the base of my skull, shooting down my spine, and flickering to the very tips of my fingers. He's not the first kiss I've ever had, I'm not even innocent anymore. Gale and I had spent a few quiet afternoons exploring each other's bodies in the month before his own Duty Day. It had been obvious to both of us that he was leaving, but it seemed like something we should share with each other. I certainly didn't regret it.
But it never felt like this.
He kisses me back with the desperation of a man who knows his own days are numbered. We stumble backwards into the house, until my back is pressed into the kitchen counter. His rough hands clasp my face, his thumbs drawing little circles on the delicate skin beneath my ears. His fingers are so delicate, so precise in their motions, that I whimper into his mouth.
"I'm sorry," he murmurs, kissing down my throat, "I shouldn't be… I just… I've loved you for so long, Katniss."
I don't know what to say back. That this is all so sudden, but the fact is, he is unlikely to make it through the winter, and my body is screaming for him, so what does it even matter? So instead, I just kiss him more, until his hands snake around my bottom and he lifts me up onto the counter. I can feel him pressing against me, and the desperate need is awoken even more strongly.
"I…" he starts to say, but I press my fingers to his lips and with the other hand, untie the sash on my robe.
We come together hurriedly, quietly, but it doesn't matter, he still makes me cry out. I bite down on his shoulder hard to muffle the noise, and when he spills inside me moments later, the realization of what we have done crashes down on both of us.
"I should go," he mutters, zipping up his pants as I tie up my robe. He won't look at me, like he's done something revolting and can barely stand to remember it.
I don't know what to do, so I offer to make him some tea.
"I can't," he says.
And then he leaves.
The next day, my students rush in to tell me that the murals throughout the town have been painted over. I sit, as in a daze, trying to understand what it is that I've done that could drive him to do such a thing, when one cries out, "I saw the Peacekeepers doin' it last night!"
"It's not right," another one pipes up.
I shush them, and tell them to focus on their drawings, but they whisper conspiratorially amongst themselves.
There's a point where I just give up and stare at the wall.
In Music Allotment, we sing the Valley Song. It's on the schedule. They've been practicing it for weeks. Afterwards, I cry in the bathroom, though I have no idea where the tears are coming from.
"The Peacekeepers painted over the murals," Prim spits out furiously at dinner. "When I went to the Justice Building and asked why, they said they were inflammatory propaganda. Removed with direct instructions from the President herself."
"Shut up and eat your pears," I tell her, chewing on my lip.
When she doesn't, I leave the house, stomping all the way to the Meadow.
There's no way to avoid him, or the huge gaping hole that's suddenly opened between us. I don't understand why he's behaving the way he is. I gave him what we both wanted.
Obviously he didn't want it after all.
"They painted over them," he says, as if in a daze. A moment later, he adds bitterly, "I mean, I guess I'm surprised they took this long. They're what ended me up in the mines in the first place."
"I'm sorry," I say, not knowing what else to do.
He shrugs, "It's my fault. I did all of this to myself."
"What are you talking about…?" I begin.
"There are so many rules, and regulations, and allotments, and duties," he looks at me and there's nothing but pain in his eyes. "What we have to do, when we have to do it. Everything's run by schedule. Right now, what are you supposed to be doing?"
"It's Dinner," I say. "But… I don't really have to follow the rules like everybody else."
"Well, for everyone else, they have Dinner, then an hour of Reflection, then the household's Cleaning Cycle, where you each get five minutes to take a shower, then it is Rest. I'm supposed to be Resting now, and then in an hour, it's off to the mines. Same cycle. Same nothingness. No beauty at all.
"Honestly, Katniss, I'd rather starve to death. I'm not me."
"Peeta, I…" I try to interrupt.
"Look, I am so sorry about last night. I was desperate, and everything went so wrong."
"I'm sorry it wasn't what you were hoping for," I mutter.
"Are you kidding me?" he gapes. "It was amazing. But… you deserve so much better than a fuck on the kitchen counter from some coal miner who's marked for death. You have no idea… I've been dreaming of that moment for so long. I wanted it to be special. Not just a pity lay."
I don't know what to tell him. That it was, then suddenly it wasn't. That it was amazing until he left and it now it feels like my heart is hanging open like a broken screen door.
That I want to do it again, but the thought of his own death and the possible danger to Prim hangs so heavy over me that everything seems pointless.
"The children are furious about your murals," is the only thing I can say.
He rests his head in his hands.
The next day, all of our colors have been stolen.
The students are strangely accepting of the circumstances, and draw with their pencils instead. At the end of the Allotment, the stand in front of me in a line and hold out their drawings.
"Please give these to Mr. Peeta," they say. "It's important."
I take the papers and stuff them in my bag without a second glance. I won't make any promises, but I'm not about to tell them no, either.
In Music Allotment, the children sing the Valley Song perfectly, but I sigh and look distractedly at the clock.
The rest of the day passes in much the same manner.
My mother, Prim, and I have just finished our Dinner when the bell in the town square begins ringing furiously. It only rings for things like emergencies and celebrations, and nothing is Scheduled, so something has to be going on.
We open the front door and look down to see a group gathered in the square around the school. Across the way, Hazelle, Rory and Vick look as confused as we are. Haymitch is halfway down the hill, and he looks as sober as we've ever seen him.
"We're gonna miss the show," he grins.
I gather my bag over my shoulder out of habit, and we rush down the hill after him. Vick Hawthorne gabs a mile a minute about the possible things it could be, waving around a small device Gale sent him that he insists he can use to record the event. Rory finally pinches his arm and grunts for him to shut up.
The night mining shift is just gathering outside of the dormitories, as we pass them. I see Peeta, but he looks at the ground, obviously avoiding me.
As we round the bend that leads to the school, a group of children's voices ring out into the late evening.
My students. Singing the song that I taught them. Standing around the spot where the mural used to be. Standing around something that…
Vick holds his recording device high and cackles with excitement.
"Katniss…" Prim breathes. "Do you see this?"
I see it.
The children are not artists, so what they've done is nothing in comparison to what was there before. But not for lack of trying.
Peeta is shown in the center, although the only way I can tell it is him is by his miner's uniform and bright blond hair. A monster who looks strangely like Effie Trinket is dragging him into the mines. The Peacekeepers are painted in dull browns, shown covering up the original mural. Their faces are drawn in sharp frowns, and dull storm clouds gather.
But on the other side then there is a woman drawn in brilliant colors, with an absurdly long braid, bathed in the light from the sun, who holds a box full off rainbows. She's surrounded by children who grasp the rainbows in their hands and seem to be hurling them at Effie and the Peacekeepers.
I hear a gasp behind me.
"It's not fair," the little girl, the one who used to cry because she didn't have a crayon, shouts at the Peacekeepers who have gathered around us. "It was pretty and you covered it up. We want it back! We want the colors!"
"We want it back! We want the colors!" another boy calls out. And then another, and another, until the entire square is cheering together.
"We want it back! We want the colors!"
Some of the children run through the crowd, handing out small bottles of dye. I recognize them from our classroom. Prim grabs one and grins at me. I can see the wheels in her mind spinning before strong arms grab my waist and spin me around.
He kisses me deeply, passionately, and the look in his eyes is so marvelous I can barely stand it.
"You did this?" he asks.
I shake my head. "They did it."
"I'm sorry… about yesterday. I didn't want you to think that I didn't want you it was just, the timing was wrong and…"
"Speaking of timing," Haymitch butts in, "it looks like you might want to get out of here, boy." He nods his head over at a group of Peacekeepers who are talking amongst themselves, looking at the growing crowd that is so much more than just children, and then back at Peeta. "I've heard the woods areparticularly nice this time of year."
"He wouldn't make it five miles," I say, before realizing how terribly cold it sounds.
Haymitch takes a swig from his flask, "So he doesn't go alone. I hear you can handle yourself alright, sweetheart."
"Don't be ridiculous," Peeta says, "she has her sister, and her mother to worry about. Who knows what could happen to them?"
"It's gonna happen whether you stay or go now, boy," Haymitch shrugs. "I told her to be careful. She didn't listen. Best thing you two can do is run. I'll look after them. You'd be surprised what I've got left in me yet."
Peeta looks at me with poorly disguised hope in his eyes, "I'm dead anyway, Katniss," he shrugs. "I've got to go either way."
"Katniss, go," Prim says, looking like she'll never forgive me if I don't.
I take his hand, and the resounding chant makes me feel strong.
"Okay then," I say. "We run."
"Well look at this, Gale" Professor Beetee Halloway says to me. "There appears to be a bit of an uprising in your home district. Recorded by none other than your littlest brother. It's on the very topic we were just discussing: artistic repression. What exactly do you think we should do about this?"
"Put it on the video stream, and broadcast it," I respond automatically before the question of what exactly going on strikes me. "But who sent it? No one down there knows about the Movement."
Beetee smiles, "Ah, but that's where you're wrong, young man. I suppose Haymitch Abernathy is not content with starting just one revolution."
- pg 236 The Dandelion