Capital Vices and Distinct Virtues

Summary: Katniss and Peeta debate the merits of mankind, its virtue and vice, with District Twelve as a stage. Katniss begins to realize something she won't fully understand until after the rebellion. Canon-compliant CF interlude. Round 4 PiP Submission for the sin of pride, though all seven make an appearance.

Disclaimer: I do not own The Hunger Games Trilogy.

Note: I've used the slightly more archaic sin of acedia, in place of standard sloth. Set after Gale's whipping but before the arrival of the wedding dresses.

...

I grit my teeth as another agonized moan filters through the closed door and into the sitting room. I'm huddled in the crook of the couch, as far from the doorway as possible, staring out the window. Everything outside is white; the snow is bathed in the bright, clear light of a winter morning. I marvel that the light this time of year can seem so much cleaner than at any other, despite the darkness overtaking Twelve.

I glare at Buttercup, who is sprawled in a patch of sunlight on the floor, napping and utterly unperturbed by the proceedings mere rooms away. I envy the infuriating furball's detachment.

There has been a steady stream of the wounded, infirm, and starving parading in and out of my mother's kitchen these past weeks, ever since our kitchen table was vacated by Gale. I don't sit down to meals there anymore. I would feel like I'm feeding off the despair that's fallen over the district.

It doesn't matter which room I'm in; the sounds from the kitchen traverse the walls and echo through the heating grates, plaguing me everywhere I go. Despite the size of my lavish surroundings, the sound carries as if we still lived in our little shack in the Seam.

I feel like a cornered animal. Idle pursuits and pacing don't help, I'm too agitated. I know the calm of the woods could soothe me, but I can't risk going. Not after what happened to Gale. I'm on thin ice with Thread as it is.

Every sound that issues from the kitchen reminds me of Gale's anguish, reminds me that I am to blame for Snow's retaliation against Twelve. The man my mother works furiously to save might as well be my hunting partner. Both have families to feed, and both have no way to do so. Gale poached, this man stole.

Thread overlooked the usual punishment for stealing in this case- death by firing squad. But not because of any merciful inclination. No, the district has become well acquainted with his fondness for inflicting pain. Thread greatly prefers delivering lashes in a lengthy flaying to a quick execution.

Which, for this man's family, may prove lucky, provided he survives and recovers quickly enough to support them before they starve. Unluckily, he hasn't passed out as Gale did.

As a weary groan rises to the despairing wail of pain, I jump to my feet. I can't do this. I will run mad if I'm made to witness any further suffering, suffering that I am responsible for. How can my mother and Prim bear it? I've only been able to overcome my aversion to the sick and wounded for two people. One lay prone in that kitchen mere weeks ago, and the other I'd tended myself, then fought to stay with when the medical team pulled him from me.

Though the mines have reopened and the district is trying to recover from the two week lapse, people still stay off the streets as much as possible these days. Things have changed so drastically for the worse, that everyone behaves as if a strict curfew's been enforced. That's one of the few restrictions Thread has not yet levied on us. With survival nigh impossible under his ironclad control, everyone has something to hide or actions to conceal.

But currently, the threat of an increased Peacekeeper presence and Thread's watchful eye potentially finding me can't dampen the appeal of escaping this house. Hurrying to the entryway, I reach for my father's hunting jacket, but stop. No, it's definitely best to look the part of a Victor today. I'm less likely to be stopped, and I don't want to antagonize Thread further by wearing garments hinting at illegal activities. I know he suspects me of sneaking past the fence already.

Instead, I grab the flashy white fur I wore for the commencement of the Victory Tour. At least I'll blend in amidst all the snow. After wrapping a scarf around my neck, tucking it into my coat so as to be less noticeable, I'm so anxious to get outside that I grab the nearest pair of gloves and bound out the door.

Even staring out the window for hours can't spare me the blinding glare of a bright winter morning, and I squint to find the small pathway between snow drifts. We haven't had another blizzard in weeks, thankfully, but it snows regularly, preventing the snow from ever truly diminishing.

The cold is sharp and biting, like a blade, and it makes me think of the patient we had last night. He had been stabbed in the side not by Thread or any Peacekeepers, but by a fellow Seam resident. Apparently, while the man's neighbor was in the stocks for some minor infraction, our patient broke into his house and stole every last scrap of food the neighbor's family had.

When the other man got out of the stocks, he sought out our patient, intent upon revenge for his hungry family. Recompense was impossible; the food had long since been eaten. They fought, and the neighbor, harboring a concealed knife, emerged unscathed. But of course there was no real winner, as the neighbor was taken in by Peacekeepers and will undoubtedly be shot in a few days' time for attempted murder.

Families fighting families in disputes that have no winners? The Capitol is turning us on each other, turning us into animals. And we go right along with it, becoming the uncivilized brutes they've always assumed us to be. Are these the people I'd hoped would rally against Snow in the pursuit of something better? How can I expect them to risk their lives for higher ideals, when Snow has dehumanized everyone so thoroughly? How can there be hope for the future in a place such as this?

I hear a sound and realize that during my musings, I've reached Peeta's house on my way out of Victor's Village. He's just exited his kitchen, carrying a bag for the trash when I see him. I halt immediately to stop the sound of my feet in the snow, trying to avoid his notice. I'm in no mood to talk to anyone.

Peeta and I have always had a heightened sense of each other's whereabouts, at least since our Games, so I lower my eyes from his form as an added measure. It seems ridiculous, but I know he might feel my gaze on him and be alerted to my presence. I'm not taking any chances.

As he rattles about among the trash cans lining the side of his house, I look down at the gloves I've been fumbling with. Caught up in my concerns about the district, I've been trying to put Cinna's fur-lined gloves on all this time. I almost groan. In my haste to leave, I grabbed the pair Gale had rejected by the lake. They've been sitting on that table for weeks, waiting for me to find a needy recipient.

They do me no good. Though they're lined with fur, they're huge, and when I finally get them on properly, they slip off at the slightest movement. It's bitterly cold, but I don't want to go back to the house. Not only would I be re-entering my mother's triage, I'd have to slip by Peeta undetected again.

"Katniss?"

Or not so undetected.

I raise my eyes to meet his. Peeta's back on his porch, and now that I've got nothing to lose, my eyes peruse him in detail. He's wearing a sweater knit with several deep colors and thick, dark brown pants. Despite the obvious warmth of his garments, I marvel that he can stand to be outside without a coat. He'll catch his death. I tell him so.

"So will you, standing stock-still in the snow," he replies. "What are you doing?"

When I answer, "Nothing," he clarifies. "Where are you going?"

I sigh. I should have figured my plans for an afternoon of freedom, away from people as much as possible, would be thwarted. I know that as soon as I tell him, he'll insist on accompanying me.

"Nowhere," I say with finality, lowering my voice to warn him off prying further.

"I'll come with you."

I want to tear my hair out, he's so predictable. I could have said I was going to march up the steps of the freshly constructed gallows in the square, and he'd tell me to wait up while he double knotted the laces on his boots. The thought makes me feel suffocated, but also, just a tiny bit, secure. We walked together after the blizzard, the day I told Haymitch I wanted to start an uprising and found the Hob razed to the ground. He'd insisted on joining me every step of the way that day, too. He's trying to protect me. Like I try to protect him.

It's in deference to this instinct of his, one I can well understand, that prevents me from dashing off as soon as he enters his house to grab his own coat and gloves. I debate asking to borrow a pair of his, but I feel certain they'd fit my small hands no better than Cinna's. I jam my hands into my coat pockets before he returns, not wanting him to see my cold hands and ill-fitting gloves. The sight of them screams 'vulnerability' to me, and I won't let him see me weakened, even in a small way, if I can help it.

We walk along in silence, which suits me perfectly. I am in a dark mood and have little to say that merits vocalization. Unfortunately for me, Peeta picks up on this almost immediately.

"Katniss, what's wrong?"

"Nothing," I mumble shortly. That does the trick for a few minutes, but Peeta is not easily deterred.

"Really, I can tell something is bothering you. If you don't want to tell me you can say so, but I want you to know that whatever it is, I'm here to listen if you'd like."

"I wish you'd trust me," he sighs, half to himself, a moment later.

I do trust him. I'm just not used to sharing information and engaging in discussions as equals. I've been a caretaker of so many people for so long, it's hard to remember that as co-Victors, Peeta and I are on the same footing. In the Games, I was the one with expertise, the leader. But here, surrounded by people, on a precarious footing with the government, Peeta's abilities and perceptions equal if not surpass my own.

And I promised I'd stop keeping things from him in the dusty attic of the Eleven's Justice building. I can give him this. I can let him peek into this tiny chink in my armor and still remain largely unaffected.

"It's just- It's nothing really, not anything specific." I sigh. It would help if I could ever manage to communicate at least half as well as he does.

"Sometimes I'm just tired of trying so hard, faking and hiding and failing at all of it, all to protect what I can of District Twelve. And I just wonder, 'why?' What is worth saving? I tell myself it's the people, of course, but sometimes they seem just as bad as those in the Capitol. If we're going to try to start a rebellion, we'll be risking our lives all over again, and endangering our loved ones. If we're not going to run because of the people we'll leave behind, shouldn't they at least be worth staying for?"

Peeta looks at me, perplexed. "How do you mean?"

I'm at a loss. How many ways can my words possibly be construed? I spelled it out for him, perfectly clearly.

"I mean, when things go bad, why do people have to get rotten along with them? Life is tough enough, and then people take advantage of it and get ugly. It just makes it hard to believe in anything at all sometimes. Least of all the better world we're supposedly striving for.

"Because the same people are going to live in that 'new' world, so how different could it really be? How can someone who understands that others suffer, and knows suffering themselves, make selfish decisions just like those in the Capitol? What is the point of an uprising, then? When people are only ever going to be weak, and selfish, and wrong."

Finally saying this out loud, I realize how truly disheartened I have become since walking into town and seeing the new stocks, whipping post, and gallows. The dejection I feel can't be lessened by the calm and wild freedom of the forest. I have no way to alleviate my stress without hunting, and have instead become more firmly mired in a world controlled by people like Snow and Thread. Their influence is everywhere, as ubiquitous as the actual snow littering the landscape. It's taken a toll on me, but I haven't stopped to let myself acknowledge it until now.

Sometime during my speech, we stopped walking. Peeta listened quietly as I ranted, and now I can tell he's mulling over all I've said, as we stand at the entrance to Victor's Village.

"I don't agree," he says softly but surely. "It's not only like that."

Somehow, having my viewpoint questioned after realizing how much it's affected my spirits enrages me. It's like he's denying a truth I've finally discovered about myself.

"Oh really?" I say, my voice rising. All of the sudden, I'm aching for a fight. Maybe it's not fair to Peeta, who only wanted to be supportive and show interest in my well being, but he asked for me to open up, so he'll get me, in all my thorny, hostile glory.

"And how would you describe it?" I challenge. "With the beatings and the whippings, the stocks full and that brand new noose itching for a neck to squeeze? With everyone whispering in Thread's ear, reporting their neighbors before someone can report them? It's not even Merchant against Seam anymore, it's everyone against everyone," I snarl.

Peeta's mouth tightens and I can see that intriguing muscle twitch along his jaw. I know he's seen what I have. It's written all over him. But that's not enough. I dig at him further.

"Deny it," I spit out.

His brow furrows, and for a second I wonder if I've finally broken his formidable composure. Peeta is slow to simmer, but he has a temper like anyone else. It's so rarely displayed that once present, it commands the notice of everyone who knows him. It's quite a feat to bring it to the fore, and I readily anticipate it's appearance.

But he doesn't jump to retaliate in kind, and this infuriates me more than any emphatic, undoubtedly perfectly-worded comeback would have. Gale would have responded. He would have risen to my level of ire and then surpassed it, and by now I could count on being engaged in a full-fledged argument, despite the fact that I'm confident Gale would have agreed with me on most points.

Peeta seems so insistent on remaining reasonable and thoughtful, and looks so earnest in whatever he's about to say, that I deflate a bit. Huddling further into my coat, I settle down to listen to what he's so bent on discussing.

"I'm not going to deny what you've described, because I've seen similar things. It's happening, it's reprehensible, and it's wrong. But it's not the whole picture and you know it," he chastises gently.

"Are you saying I'm being willfully ignorant then?"

As we continue walking, I angrily relate the story of the man who'd stolen from his neighbor, then been stabbed for it. "That man stole from Seam children. Children he knew," I emphasize. "And their father, so intent on revenge, got himself a death sentence instead. So what do his children do now that their father, their neighbor, and their justice system has not only failed them, but victimized them? What's the rest of the picture that I'm not seeing?"

Peeta runs his hands through the waves of this hair agitatedly. I'm getting to him, I think triumphantly. There's no words he can use to spin this story in a better light.

"So what happened after he was stabbed?" Peeta asks.

"What?" He just looks at me. We both know I heard him, but I'm not sure where he's going with this. "Well, he was brought to my mother, who stitched him up."

"That's interesting," he says. I narrow my eyes. What's interesting?

"Who would help a man like that? A man who stole from hungry children," he queries.

I quickly look down at the ground. Damn it. I hope Peeta's question is rhetoric, because I believe it was actually the neighbor who stabbed him that had frantically called for my mother at our doorstep. I can't fathom how someone could be angry enough to draw a knife on another, and then so remorseful they bring attention to their crime trying to save the victim.

"Your mother helped him, for one. Without judgment. And for free."

"Well it's not like we could require payment; with my Victor's winnings we don't need the money for food or supplies," I explain.

"Actually, you could, but you won't. And even if you weren't a Victor, do you think your mother wouldn't try her hardest with the resources she had? You heard Haymitch. She healed people at a time when doing so was a risk to her own safety. And she still does it, even knowing it may be for nothing, that she may have another wasted life's blood on her hands."

I'm completely taken aback. I've never thought about the toll those unsaved lives have taken on her. How much strength it must take to open the door and accept another dwindling life into her palms, knowing in many cases that no matter what, it would be in her hands that they would die.

I don't like these thoughts, this wholly different view of my mother Peeta has given me. It doesn't fit with the way I've categorized her in my mind, so I push it away. But Peeta correctly reads my resulting discomfort. Having no counter argument, I walk beside him in hesitant silence. We're just approaching the town square as he continues.

"I think the world strives for balance, Katniss. People will never stop sinning, never be anything but imperfect. The beautiful thing is that many really do try to temper it with good. To achieve some sort of balance, even in dark times. I bet for every example of vice in Twelve you can give me, I can match it with some virtue."

Despite the turn our last topic took, I'm confident that there's more bad to be found in the district than good. Especially considering the new structures dominating the square.

"Thread," I say confidently. I don't even need to vocally accept Peeta's challenge, the self-assured look I shoot his way is enough. There's no way Peeta can find someone to combat Thread's cruelty and wrath, the vicious temper he exerts over everyone less powerful than himself.

"Thread?" He repeats disbelievingly. I arch an eyebrow. I'm winning already.

"Okay, Prim. She has endless patience and is the gentlest person I know, whether she's healing human or beast."

My stomach boils at his answer. How can I disagree? I can't. Prim is everything that is good and right, everything precious, all in one person. That she's managed to survive and thrive in this place only increases the miracle of her kindness. But Peeta knows Prim's worth, and knows she is my weakness. Of course I could never argue against her example, even if I wanted to.

"No fair, using Prim. She's not a good example of an average person from Twelve."

"Well, no fair using Thread," Peeta says readily. "He's not even from Twelve."

"It doesn't matter if he wasn't born here, he lives here and certainly affects life here," I point out.

"He's only been here a few months," he counters. "He's obviously hand-picked by Snow, so he's not indicative of an average person from Twelve either."

"But fine," Peeta sighs. "Just to prove it to you, Sae. She's seen darker times and many tyrannical Peacekeepers. She's patiently waited them out and worked for a better life for decades. And even while struggling and suffering, she managed to raise good children, perhaps in the hope they can make the world a bit better. So, several weeks of incredible cruelty by one, set beside a lifetime of peaceful survival against the odds, all to create something of worth by the other. Doesn't that balance, at the very least?"

I almost regret telling Peeta about Greasy Sae on the way home the day Thread burned the Hob. Peeta prevented me from drawing unnecessary attention to her, and I'd told him about the collection she'd started for us during the Seventy-Fourth Games. Peeta realizes it's not necessary to mention her generosity. He knows I'm already thinking about it. What he doesn't know about is the respect and trust she showed by giving me her business when I'd just started to hunt. Or the advice and encouragement I've received from her over the years. Or the undemanding friendliness and ear to bend on the rare occasions I wanted to talk.

So I know I have to discount this portion of the argument. Act like Thread, and therefore Peeta's answer, doesn't count. Because Peeta's right. Sae has had a profound effect on my life, and I'm just one person. How many lives has she touched for the better, in all her years? This, to me, outweighs the fear I've had of Thread's wrath during his brief reign. Thinking of the effect she has had on Twelve, I am able to walk past the gallows without shivering for the first time.

As we approach the Justice Building, I know who my next example will be.

"Fine, then. Cray. Wherever he is now, he lived here for ages. Let's see you tackle the way he used desperate women to slake his lust."

Peeta has barely pursed his lips in thought before they're moving again. But what they say makes no sense.

"Haymitch."

"Haymitch?" I inquire skeptically.

"Yeah, Haymitch," he reiterates. "Chastity. To balance the lust. He never goes near anyone. All these years, and he's chaste as a monk. That can't be easy. And according to the gossips my mother associates with, people have tried. Haymitch has even more money than Cray, and bedding a Victor is seen as a potentially big payday."

I wonder how he knows the last bit, people's perceptions about bedding Victors. Is it from his own experience? Has he…

"Or so I hear."

Relief sweeps me, and I wonder at it. I suppose I'm glad to hear that there's still a possibility everyone in Twelve won't be trying to get me into bed sooner or later.

"Why hasn't he…" I trail off, unable to speak the words I'm thinking in association to Haymitch. The concept is too foreign.

"Can't you guess? I'm pretty sure he's worried there could be an accidental pregnancy. That he could be the cause of the Capitol targeting a child. That everything could be taken away from him. I think he'll avoid that at any cost," Peeta says.

Could it be that Peeta understands my thoughts on children? Mirrors them now that he too is a Victor, and any child of his would surely be targeted?

"I think the only reason he lets himself get close to us outside of mentoring is because we became his kids of a sort, after we'd already been targeted and our lives appropriated by the Capitol. What more harm could he possibly do?"

I think about this. Are we as children to him? How much does Haymitch care for us, exactly? And is his self-imposed exile partially to prevent the Capitol from taking any offspring of his? We are more alike than I even thought.

"That might be so, but you haven't convinced me that balances out Cray. And you shouldn't have brought up Haymitch. In a district where there's never enough to go around, his drinking problem is wasteful gluttony. He could have used that money and more to help out many in the district, not just Ripper. He could have been employing people and patronizing dozens of establishments, if only he'd been conscious," I snap.

I think of Hazelle, who I'd recently convinced Haymitch to hire as a housekeeper. Someone could have been living on those wages for the last twenty five years, if only he'd bothered to reach out and spread his wealth around. The difference that would have made to a family like the Hawthornes is immeasurable.

Peeta pauses outside the bakery, the destination I'd chosen once I knew he was joining me, and stands deep in thought. I have an order for more little cakes for Prim that I may as well pick up. Though I respect his privacy too much to ask about it, I've never known the reason Peeta lives apart from his family. I suspect he's lonely, though, so if I can give him an excuse to see them, I'll do it.

After several moments, Peeta huffs a cloudy breath into the frigid air, and I know I've stumped him. He looks chagrined to be thwarted so early in our debate.

"You've got me. I can't think of anyone who embodies temperance."

But I can. I look back at him, standing before his childhood home. He's barely old enough to be considered a man, and yet he's seen and dealt with things that would bring a seasoned adult to their knees. We both have.

But while Haymitch lashes out in fear with a knife, and I scream my throat raw in terror, Peeta picks up a brush in his trembling hands and creates. Instead of falling prey to the darkness that resides in all Victors' souls, he resists, and pours his fear out onto canvas, forcing it to bend to his will, manipulating it the way he sees fit until it's something of worth.

Peeta is substantial and his strength formidable. My observations suggest he was no stranger to violence as a child. And yet now that he has the physical ability to best almost anyone in Twelve, he remains one of the most forbearing and benign people I know. Even when he was in the Arena, he refrained from violence whenever possible.

And his expertise with words is unsurpassed. I know that from an early age, he's heard every cruel phrase and slanderous term in the book from his mother. Yet, I've never heard someone suffuse their speech with such generosity, esteem, and good humor as Peeta has.

He has always tempered the hardships in his life with unflappable self-control, always responded to extremes with the moderation of his own behavior and the understated strength of his sense of self.

And more than that. He's always sought to soften the harshness of Twelve. At least he has for me. All the way back to that day in the rain, when his single action outweighed all the neglect and cruelty I'd seen for weeks. To today, when he braves my ire, trying to prove that there is still good to offset the bad.

Peeta is temperance. The remembrance of his kindness in the past and the knowledge of who he is today will always partially soothe the wounds this world inflicts.

But I can't tell him that. First, because I'm a coward and I'm not good at saying things. Second, because I fully intend to win this debate.

I realize Peeta won this round without even trying. He just doesn't know it. I let him think we disqualified wrath and patience. Lust won out over chastity. Peeta assumes he's lost gluttony versus temperance, but in actuality, the odds are not in my favor. He's convinced me with Sae and given me something to really think about with Haymitch.

We ascend the steps to the Mellark Family Bakery, and he holds the door for me as I enter. I'm annoyed. I don't want to be proven wrong.

We're instantly assaulted by warmth and the smell of sugar and dough in all their delicious permutations, but it's not enough to distract me from catching the tail-end of Mrs. Mellark berating Peeta's father over a few missing loaves of bread.

I quirk my eyebrow at Peeta, who looks embarrassed and sheepish at the display. He clears his throat loudly, interrupting his mother mid-diatribe. Seeing me in the doorway with her son, she turns and storms loudly up the stairs without so much as a word to Peeta.

I will never not hate that woman.

"Oh, Katniss! Peeta!" I can tell Mr. Mellark is trying to assuage the uncomfortable situation with increased joviality, and I pity the extra effort he has to make because of his wife. "I've got your order out back, I'll be right out with it."

While he's gone, Peeta walks behind the counter and wraps up two fresh cheese buns. They must be straight out of the oven, because I can see steam wafting from them. My mouth waters in anticipation. As Peeta opens the till and deposits several coins inside for his purchase, I hear the heavy footfalls of his mother in the rooms above.

My being a Victor means nothing to her, she continues to treat me with absolute contempt. And despite his winning the Games, she's still awful to Peeta, completely stingy with her affection. It's hard to believe this could be better than she's treated him in the past.

As Peeta closes the change drawer, I meet his eyes again. "Avarice," I rasp, as rage slowly creeps up on me at the thought of her.

"She can be pretty greedy, you're right," he admits sadly.

"Peeta, she begrudges starving children the scraps from her own trash!" My voice is shaking. I'm actually surprised that I've managed to speak about any part of that day, even though I took care to avoid specifying which child I was referring to. As if Peeta doesn't know. But the memory never fails to shake me, and actually acknowledging it, even in a vague reference, is unimaginably painful.

Though I try to contain my reaction, Peeta is back around the counter and at my side before I can even blink away the burning sensation in my eyes. He rubs my upper arms consolingly, pain written all over his face as he mutters words of comfort softly. His breath rustles the wisps of hair around my face.

I find myself wanting to bury my face in the crook of his neck, wanting to wrap myself up in his arms for comfort, but that is not allowed. We didn't convince Snow. I don't have to fall all over him anymore, so I shouldn't. I've chosen the rebellion and Gale along with it, ever since his whipping. Peeta is Snow's choice for me, and I shouldn't be second guessing myself every time I want to feel safe and protected.

Besides, his father will return soon. So instead of sinking into his embrace, I pull away. And I'm right, Mr. Mellark is back in mere moments. But I feel leaden and bereft all the same.

Mr. Mellark holds two boxes for me, one of which is the order of small cakes for Prim, the other his signature sourdough bread for my mother. He tries to ignore one of the parcels as he tallies the order, then pretends to be perplexed when I point it out to him.

I appreciate his gesture, but I'm no fonder of charity now than I was before. Once I dictate the correct sum to him and pay, I roll my eyes as I notice his final attempt to send me off with something free. As he turns to wrap the boxes in parcel paper and twine, he stuffs a lone pink-iced cookie between the paper and the box of cakes.

I suppose it's just one cookie, and I can give it to Prim.

Undoubtedly thinking himself very sly for his supposed success, he hands my packages to Peeta for carrying and happily ushers us outside. We step out of the warm orange glow, away from the delicious fragrance of bread, and into the soft gray of the cloudy mid-afternoon.

"What about my dad," Peeta says quietly, as we start across the square. "He's a generous person."

I can't argue that. Wasn't he just being lectured by his wife for giving away bread loaves? What about the cookie burning a hole in the package I carry? There have been other cookies too. Cookies given freely to a scared, shell-shocked tribute, even though I might've killed his son. Cookies I wasted in an attempt to numb myself to the charity I'd received in the past. And bread loaves. Delivered to the Seam in my absence even before I was allied with Peeta in the Games.

Yes, Mr. Mellark's charity tempers his wife's avarice. I will gladly admit that Peeta has a point. Because he deserves to feel proud of one of his parents. But like my experiences with his mother, I cannot idly discuss the affecting gestures made by his father. They're too personal.

The most I can manage is an emphatic, "He is." I hope the warmth in my voice conveys my appreciation of Mr. Mellark. Especially after I just confronted Peeta with the awfulness of his mother's behavior.

He smiles at me gratefully and hands me a cheese bun. Without thinking, I pull my hands from my pockets to take it from him.

His eyes widen at the sight of my bare hands. "Katniss, where are your gloves?"

"They're in my pocket." I've been keeping my hands inside them, but they're so loose it's like I'm not wearing any. On such a bitterly cold day, it's not enough to keep my hands warm, not nearly, but I'm too proud to ask that we stop so I can get some. "I don't want to get grease stains on them," I fib.

Really, there's no way I could hold a cheese bun with the cumbersome things on. Peeta sets the packages down on a bench outside the bakery and looks skeptically at my pockets. I quickly tuck Cinna's gloves further inside, lest he see their size.

He extends the bun toward me slowly, but when I reach for it, his other hand darts forward, his fingers tangling with mine. His hand is bare too, and I know he's shrugged off his own glove while I was distracted by the cheese bun. I feel like a foolish rabbit caught in a snare.

He yelps as my icy skin comes into contact with his warm fingers, and pulls his hand back. But not before depositing a piping hot cheese bun in each of my hands. The warmth emanating from the bread seeps into my frosty fingers and they start to throb as they thaw.

The heat is so welcome, I almost don't want to eat them and lose my new hand warmers. But the enticing aroma is too tempting, and I succumb with a blissful bite. Gathering my parcels once more, Peeta leads me a few shops over, mumbling about 'errands of his own, apparently,' but I'm far too busy munching happily to pay much mind. I even wait outside obligingly as he enters a nearby shop.

It's only when I'm polishing of the last bite of the second cheese bun, the one that was probably meant for Peeta, when I register the faded mannequin in the window and realize I'm standing outside the clothier's.

The dread that clenches at my stomach is confirmed when Peeta steps out of the shop clutching something light green and fuzzy to his chest. Descending the steps to my level, I can see him holding back a smile as he takes in the betrayal on my face. I know he's bought me something while I was distracted by cheesy bread. He played me twice with the same two cheese buns.

Tucking the light green material under his arm and reaching into his pocket, he withdraws a plain handkerchief, and takes my hands into his own gloved ones. He painstakingly wipes the tips of my fingers free of oil from the rolls and then pulls his purchase out from where it's been held in place.

They're mittens. Thick and lumpy and pastel. Nowhere near as utilitarian as gloves. But they do look impossibly warm and soft. And they're green. I glance up at him, wondering if our chat on the train during the Victory Tour had a part in his selection of the mittens before me today.

"Peeta," I say emphatically, "I do not want any mittens from you."

"Katniss," he stresses in a fake-serious voice, "how can you expect to nock an arrow if you have no fingers left?"

I glare.

"Besides, I'm just spreading my winnings around. Like Haymitch should have, remember?" He grins at me impishly.

He's mocking me. I do not find him amusing.

So I tug my hands from his to stubbornly put them in my pockets, and back into Cinna's gloves. Undeterred, Peeta reaches out for my elbows, then trails his hands lightly down my arms until he reaches my wrists, gently pulling my hands out from hiding. Squeezing the tips of Cinna's gloves between his fingers, he pulls them down my hands. They're so oversized that they easily slip down. Despite its coldness, my flesh feels over-sensitized as the material softly drags over the pads of my fingers. I catch my breath at the acuteness of the sensation.

When I glance up and see the playful look on his face, I realize with a start that the motion had me utterly transfixed, and I've been completely subdued these past moments. A fact which has not gone unnoticed by Peeta, as he bites back another grin.

I scowl at him reproachfully for the laughter that fills his eyes as he subdues his mirth.

But before I can work up some indignation and reclaim lost ground, he's cradling my chilly fingers again. He starts tugging the soft green mittens up my hands with the utmost gentleness, as if he holds something delicate and precious, and not my calloused hands.

Once on, he pulls the sleeves down over my wrists, ensuring body heat won't escape. The feel of his leather-encased hands touching my own has left a tingling warmth coursing all the way up to my elbows. I hug my arms close to my body to savor it. We are silent for a while after that. I rub the soft wool between my thumb and forefingers as we walk on, listening to the snow crunch under our feet.

"What about envy, Peeta?"

His head dips a little. "I know I was unfair after the Games because of my jealousy. I can't tell you how so-"

"Not you," I say.

I hesitate a moment. I would prefer Peeta never know Gale wanted to leave him behind, but this entire exercise is about opening his eyes to the way things really are. How can he guard against the malice in the world if he refuses to acknowledge it?

"I'm talking about Gale."

Peeta seems surprised that I've mentioned Gale in a negative way. But ever since our time in the woods, his words and actions have been weighing on me. They don't sit quite right, even considering his hot-headed nature.

"He resents all merchants, simply because of their higher economic status." I can't pretend I don't harbor similar feelings myself, and is it any wonder, with the differences between them and the Seam? But I know it's not to the extent Gale does, and I can see past the distinction, and recognize people for qualities beyond this. I'm not so sure Gale can.

"Even when they're good people. He openly disdains Madge, even when she's giving him business."

"Well, that may not be commendable but I can understand-" And suddenly, I can't hear Peeta defend Gale. Not with what I'm about to tell him, so I interrupt.

"The day he was whipped, Peeta, I met him in the woods. I told him I wanted to run. He was all for it."

"You told me he had his own plans," Peeta interjects

"His plans were originally to come with me. But then he found out I wanted you and Haymitch with us, and it was a sticking point." I look up into his eyes apologetically, as I deliver the truth. "He wanted to leave you behind."

I watch Peeta. He's bothered, I can see it all over his face, from his creased forehead to his pursed lips. His gaze is unfocused as he takes it in. That his life means so little to Gale.

Were I to disappear, there is no way Peeta wouldn't be questioned and punished. Maybe killed. He is my co-victor, my 'sweetheart,' my future husband, if Snow has his way. So he'd be among those held accountable when I couldn't be found. He would be the person they made an example of for Panem.

And Gale was okay with relegating him to this role. There's no way he didn't know what would await Peeta and Haymitch. Gale is brilliant when it comes to cause and effect. And to think Peeta feels guilty. The comparison is laughable. He may feel jealousy, but he hasn't let it rule his actions.

When I deliver the final blow, I feel profound sadness. "Because of envy. He has no other reason to dislike you, besides your being Merchant and my fiancé," I finish with a mumble.

All at once, I'm consumed with remorse. I feel like I've just trampled something fleeting, something beautiful and rare, and I instantly want to alleviate any hurt I've caused. But I'm trying to show him reality, and the fact that it's brutal and painful is what I've been telling him all along.

He turns away, but I can still see the mournful look in his eyes. Peeta has no great love for Gale, but I know he respects him. To find out your own life has been so cavalierly dismissed by another…it's horrible. I experienced it under the apple tree in his yard, after his mother made it clear she didn't care whether I lived or died, so long as I wasn't within sight or earshot of her bakery. But Peeta was there to comfort me. To show me the opposite of what his mother did.

And suddenly, I realize that this debate of ours, this competition to prove the true nature of things, is just a reflection of that day. Life is cruel, and harsh, and unsympathetic. And then along comes Peeta, striving to prove otherwise, and with his effort, becomes one of the few things that stands out in defiance of the status quo.

But who will comfort Peeta when he admits to Twelve's bleak prospect?

I softly snake my mittened hand down his arm, to rest in his oversized palm. I want to lessen some of his pain. I want to take it back into myself, where it was eating at me. I want forgiveness for laying the truth bare before him. He doesn't say anything, or even look at me, but I can feel the answering pressure of his fingers around mine, and I think he might be grateful.

He doesn't talk for a long time after that.

But we walk, shadowing the line of the fence around Twelve, two silhouettes against endless, empty white. When he does speak, I've lost the context of our discussion.

"Then I guess it's even more admirable that Madge brought him that medicine."

"Huh?"

"If he openly resents her, as you say, it makes her kindness all the more exceptional."

And his. He helped carry Gale from the square, even watched over him the next morning. Had he witnessed Gale's reaction in the woods that day, he may still have done so.

"And kindness is a virtue that flies in the face of envy," he adds.

I expel a disbelieving breath, which rises in a wispy cloud of vapor between us. He's still trying to convince me, after all I've revealed. His resilience is astounding. Not to mention, even after my revelation, Peeta has refrained from saying anything detrimental about Gale, which I really appreciate. Gale's brashness is troubling, but that doesn't make him less important to me. The last thing I need is for both to be spiteful of the other. Thankfully Peeta's magnanimity has spared me that.

But I'm still nervous about Gale's desire for rebellion. Sometimes, he's the embodiment of inspiration, the most admirable person I know. I feel as if we're of one mind. But then, he'll say or do something that is wholly alien to me, and it's as if I don't know him. His temper flares so high, and his anger burns so hot, he's suddenly unrecognizable. Like the day in the forest, when his animosity was turned toward me. He was right, and I was ashamed. But the vehemence of his words, the hatred I felt from him…it shook me to the core, and I can't forget it.

Then I consider Peeta, steady and accommodating. He would never hope to leave Gale behind. Peeta, who also wants to change things, but has never looked at me and seen a product of the Capitol, even at his most unreasonable. And unlike Gale's uncompromising judgment, when Peeta felt rebuffed and envious, he at least recognized that I attempted to do right by everyone. Gale only sees weak acquiescence to Snow's demands.

The light is starting to wane by the time we approach my house. We've been out for most of the day and I'm ready to rest my feet by the fire. But there are still vices to address. As I start to ascend the porch steps, I turn back to speak. But as evening and the temperature fall, patches of ice have formed, and my foot pivots right on a slick step.

In the extended instant I have to regain balance, my hand shoots back to grab at Peeta, scrabbling for purchase in the hopes that his sturdy frame can brace my fall. Unfortunately, my fumbling only drags him down with me, and I fall backward off the first few steps. His body and the snow break most of my fall, but we both end up in a snowy heap of limbs.

When we're sorted, I blow the locks that have come out of my braid away from my face. Now I'm cold and sore in several places. I can only imagine Peeta feels at least as badly. I cringe, anticipating an annoyed comment about how my velvet tread and hunter's grace have deserted me outside the forest, until I realize this is Peeta, and jeering remarks, even in jest, aren't his style.

Once I've sufficiently extracted myself from our entanglement, Peeta chuckles and says, "We have to stop meeting like this Everdeen."

His eyes are sparkling as he waits for me to get the joke. I know he's referring to the Victory Tour, when I'd tackled him outside my house in this very coat, sending us to the ground in a similar spray of snow. But I don't laugh with him, because all I can think about is the kiss that went with it. How it miraculously made me feel safe and secure, even though we were moments away from boarding a train ultimately headed for the Capitol.

I can't resist glancing down to his lips, as if the sight of them will aid me in reliving our kiss. The corners are still upturned in laughter, and I can see the hint of a dimple with every movement they make. His smile melts away and I meet his eyes, searching out an explanation for its disappearance. He looks back at me expectantly, and I'm at a loss.

Apparently he was saying something. I feel heat suffuse my face as he repeats himself. "Are you alright?"

I should be asking him, seeing as I'm the one who knocked us over and he ended up on the bottom. As I break eye contact and nod in affirmation, he brushes a dusting of snow off my cheek, his hand lingering to tuck an escaped lock of hair behind my ear. In doing so, his thumb grazes the shell of my cold ear, and my eyes dart back to his. Peeta looks back at me, eyes bright and unapologetic as vapor puffs from his slightly parted lips.

I badly want to lean into him, to seek that warmth and comfort I know I'll feel, but I have to resist the pull between us. I'm not supposed to touch this boy anymore. I'm not supposed to want to touch him. I'm going to start an uprising, not be a star-crossed lover. Anything between us is not fair to Peeta. And I'm decided.

I rise to my feet and help Peeta up, and we cautiously navigate the steps to my front door. My hand hesitates on the doorknob. I hear no sounds from within, and I still haven't spoken my intended words.

"We've talked about your mother, Peeta, but not mine." I'm not sure how much of this Peeta knows, but I expect it will put this debate firmly in its place. I stare at my hand on the door as I dredge up the words.

"You know that today, she's a competent healer. But you also saw things after my father died. She completely shut down. That's why I learned to forage and scavenge, and to shoot and snare. Because she wouldn't do anything.

"There's no denying that her acedia nearly cost the lives of her two children." I started the sentence calmly, rationally, but by the time I've named the unspeakable price we'd almost paid, my voice has devolved into an angry hiss.

"Our lives, our needs, didn't even register, Peeta. What sort of mother is that? What sort is yours?" By now I've stepped closer, to ensure he hears every bitter syllable and understands the potency of the anger still broiling in me. "On the subject of mothers I'm afraid you've no hope of proving your point."

My brow is set, my jaw locked. I imagine my eyes are flashing as well, plainly displaying the fury and resentment I still harbor. My thoughts reel with the accusations I've never levied for all her failings, dutifully tallied since my eleventh year. And Peeta sees it all, every bit.

But he doesn't shy away in the slightest. He stands with me at the door, a hairsbreadth away from my rage, and obligingly witnesses my pain and anger. And to my very great surprise, it helps. Knowing someone is aware that this fire still rages in me, that it's consumed all the respect I once had for her, leaves me feeling almost liberated. Peeta sees it, and accepts it.

The only thing that breaks our closeness is the sound of a door opening nearby.

Peeta eases back slightly as Hazelle exits Haymitch's house, her long day of housework done. She doesn't notice us as she wearily starts towards the Seam to scrounge up a meal for Gale's siblings. I know she'll make the rounds on her way back, checking whether any of her old clients are willing to give her their washing again, as several weeks have passed since Gale's whipping. If she gets some of her old business, she'll be up long into the night, scrubbing the skin off her hands in the scalding water and lye.

And then she'll do it all over again tomorrow. So her four children can eat then, too. Just like that, the fight goes out of me. I have no hope of winning this match.

Because my mother almost forsook two in her sloth. But Hazelle has bled, sweat, toiled, and fought to save four. Posy wasn't even born yet when the seemingly insurmountable task was laid at Hazelle Hawthorne's already tired feet. There is considerable blame to be placed on my mother for the length and severity of her acedia. But nothing compares to Hazelle's industrious diligence. And both Peeta and I know it.

He turns back toward me and seals his victory with a sentence." What about that mother?"

I'm not proud to say I growl at him a little bit. But he's not finished.

"I think it's safe to say, there's a lot more virtue in Twelve than you're admitting to yourself. I know it's hard to see in the present circumstances, but you can't let yourself forget it's there. Just think of all the people we spoke of today. And to think, I haven't even mentioned the best District Twelve has to offer," he says with a grin in my direction

The look in his eyes is so soft and affectionate, I know he's talking about me. Which is ridiculous, considering the last vice I know I must mention. His esteem for me is too much, and I avert my eyes, uncomfortable, miserable, and even a little heartsick that the truth about me will disappoint him. But I'm not comfortable speaking of it out in the open like this.

As Hazelle ambles out of Victor's Village in the dusky light, I grab Peeta's sleeve. Enough of this topic, enough of the cold. "Just get in here."

We step inside, and I'm relieved that our entrance is met with silence. Whatever the outcome, the worst of that man's suffering has passed. I'm not sure where my mother or Prim have gone, but they are not here. Perhaps they had to make a house call, or maybe they needed a breather after this morning.

As I unwrap my scarf and hang my coat, Peeta waits by the door, having successfully seen me in. But I'm not ready to let him go yet. I carefully lay my new mittens with the gloves I should have brought, and gather my focus as I prepare to end our discussion.

Catching sight of myself in the hallway mirror, the one my mother and Prim now use to make sure everything is in place before leaving the house, I wonder if I'll ever stop seeing myself at eleven, starving and hopeless, looking back through my eyes. I find myself back under that tree often in my mind. I remember resignation and quiet despair slowly being replaced by a cautious, unbelieving hope at the sight of that bread.

My eyes dart up to Peeta's reflection, and I meet his eyes as he watches me in the mirror. I hold his gaze for a long moment, before saying, "Pride," condemning the girl who looks back from the glass before me.

Peeta has a skeptical puzzlement about him before he shakes his head slightly and approaches me. But I have to get this out. I struggle to bank my sorrow and self-recrimination as I clarify.

"You saved my life that day with the bread, no question. You saved Prim's life. You saved my mother. That was the first day she woke up after my father, even a little. You showed me compassion and generosity, and you suffered for it. You showed me there was the possibility for a tomorrow, and I didn't even acknowledge it. I never thanked you. Not once in five years. I saw you almost every day, and I said nothing. Because I hate being weak. Because I'm too proud."

Peeta must have removed his gloves while setting my parcels down on the side table, because I can feel the roughened pads of his fingers as he slides a hand past my jaw line and into my hair, his palm cupping my cheek.

A thrill thrums through my veins as I think he's going to kiss me. My lips part automatically and my eyelids droop in acquiescent anticipation. But he doesn't. Instead, he rests his forehead against mine.

He's staring at me earnestly, and I plaintively look back. "You're the opposite Peeta. You give so much of yourself to others."

"No. That's not the way it is, Katniss. Not even close. I told you in the cave that you owe me nothing, and I meant it. How can you be too proud when you value the life of another over your own? The whole district was moved when you volunteered for Prim. It spoke of your incomparable bravery, but also of your humility. So much so that it drew the attention of the nation. Panem is in awe of you. I am in awe of you."

My stomach swoops and trills like a mockingjay in flight.

"What of the berries? That you were willing, once again, to sacrifice your own life for the chance that both of us might be spared. And don't tell me it's because you owed me, because you already saved me in the cave."

He turns me slightly so I can see my reflection.

"All the hardship life has shown you, you take onto your own shoulders so Prim won't have to. Does that sound prideful? Don't think you aren't humble, Katniss. Because it couldn't be further from the truth. You don't value yourself enough."

He draws away then, and I mourn the distance between us. "Please reconsider your summation of Twelve," he adds gently. And with that, he opens the door and steps out into the cool blue of the gathering twilight.

I stand and do just that. I think of the cases he made, and reconsider my own. I continue to do so as I sit by the fire, eating leftover stew.

When my eyes grow heavy, I walk upstairs to my room, still thinking.

Earlier today, I desired Gale's approach. I was brooding and the world seemed irredeemable. It made me want to lash out and fight with Peeta. But Peeta had an entirely different method of reaction. His insistence on a calm, collected discussion has left me with a much more peaceful outlook.

Buried under sheets and blankets, I decide that Peeta probably won our debate. Thread's wrath can't compare to Prim and Sae's gentle patience. Peeta's temperance outdoes any gluttony on Haymitch's part, and Mr. Mellark's charitable generosity assuages his wife's avarice. Hazelle has always been far more industrious than my mother's been slothful. And the thought of Peeta's perception of me, as someone humble and not prideful, warms me.

But my points about Cray and Gale can't be overlooked. And I still don't see things the way Peeta does. I must acknowledge the good, it's true, but I still see a preponderance of vice in the world. I can't just ignore the seventeen years that have taught me to see in this way. Does that mean Peeta's efforts were wasted?

I decide they weren't. As I drift off, I feel actual happiness. I'm lighter, buoyed up, and not only by the reminders of the good I've seen and the knowledge that there's still a reason and purpose to what we must do. It's also because someone cares about how I see the world, someone is invested in showing me it's still worthwhile. They want me to feel hopeful about tomorrow. That, I find, is the best feeling in the world. And only Peeta has given me that.

fin