Author's Note: This work was originally posted on FFN in June 2012. The depictions of abuse in this story are graphic and partly based upon real experiences. These events still take place in Panem, though there are no Hunger Games and the Mellark bakery and Mellark household are separate.
Thank you my absolutely amazing beta, Soamazinghere!
My deepest thanks to those who have read this story before and have had it resonate with them in some way.
Katniss startled at the shrill voice, still holding the lid of the garbage can in one small, wet hand.
"Get out of here! Do you hear me? Out, you filthy Seam brat!" the woman hollered angrily, stepping out the bakery's back door and picking her way down the wet wooden steps. She marched past the pigpen, through the puddle left by the rainspout, straight towards the little girl.
Katniss gently replaced the garbage can lid with numb fingers and took a few steps back.
At the commotion, a boy's face peeked through the speckled curtain in the window above, taking in the scene in the alley. Ruffled blonde hair, ruddy cheeks, big eyes. Katniss recognized him from school but didn't know his name.
"Always pawing through our garbage," the angry woman – his mother – continued, all of a sudden towering over the girl with only the gate standing between them. "Don't you understand, you stupid thing? Out!"
But I'm already out, Katniss thought, taking another step back just before a chapped, red hand caught her in the side of the head. She stumbled sideways. Her skinny arms shot out as she fell, scattering the bundle of tattered baby clothes she had been carrying into the mud. A spike of pain shot up through one of her wrists as her hands made contact with the ground.
When she looked up through her stringy, wet hair, the boy at the window was gone.
"Get out of here!" the baker's wife screamed before turning on her heel and stalking back up the stairs and into the doorway. She wiped her hands on her apron in disgust, then glared at the child once more before slamming the door.
Katniss knelt in the mud, no longer feeling the cold, sharp rain or the hunger that made her lightheaded, just the horrible ache in her arm that wouldn't go away. She clutched it to her chest, let it hang limp, cradled it, but found no relief in any position.
Finally, although she was tougher than most children, she did what any eight-year-old with a broken arm would do. She cried.
"Mother," she wept. "Mother."
But even though her mother was a healer, Katniss knew that she wouldn't hear her cry for help. First, Father had died in the mines. She and her mother and her little sister, Primrose, had been just barely surviving on the grain and oil allotted to them by the government to cover exactly one month of bereavement. But the food hadn't stretched far enough, and for the last week the family had hardly a meal to split between the three of them. Then both mother and Prim had developed coughs and fevers, and even though Katniss had tried her hardest to care for them, yesterday morning Mother wouldn't wake up. This morning, it had been Prim.
Katniss hadn't eaten in four days and found herself alone in the world overnight. She had been trying to trade some of Prim's old baby clothes for food, without success. In the end, she had resorted to digging through the merchants' trash bins for scraps.
Muffled voices could be heard from inside the bakery, a man and a woman barking back and forth. Then the door opened once more.
She's coming to beat me, Katniss thought, stifling her sobs as she concealed her injured arm inside her jacket. She frantically struggled to stand up, but only ended up skidding in the mud and falling hard on her knees.
"Easy there," a man's voice said this time, but it was gentle. "Don't move too fast. Let me help you up."
Katniss began to cry afresh when big, warm hands – not unlike her father's – scooped her up and placed her on her feet. The baker, Mr. Mellark, knelt down to look into the little girl's face, plastered with wet black hair, tears and dirt. Her thin coat was soaked though by the rain and her red corduroy jumper was caked with mud. She had no stockings and was wearing just a pair of brown leather sandals, even though thick, woolen socks and rain boots would've been more appropriate for the weather.
"There now. Is that arm hurt?" he asked with tender concern before suddenly recognizing the face in front of him. "Oh! It's Katniss Everdeen, isn't it? I didn't recognize you without your braids."
Katniss nodded feebly, cradling her bad arm to her chest.
"I know your mother," he said, smiling but looking a little sad. Katniss' father had been a coal miner from the Seam, and she took after him – dark hair, grey eyes, olive skin. But her blonde-haired, blue-eyed mother had been from town. "Let's get you home so she can fix up that arm," the man continued, gripping one of her thin shoulders. He frowned at how bony it was beneath his hand.
"But Mother won't wake up," Katniss sniffled, "and neither will Prim." Her small face scrunched up with tears once more.
Pity flooded Darrow Mellark's face before melting into sober understanding.
"Oh, Katniss… How long have you been alone? You must've been hungry," he realized aloud, looking towards the trash bin.
Katniss sucked in her bottom lip to keep from sobbing more. The boy from school was now standing by the gate, peering through the fence at them.
"Don't you worry about your mother. It'll be okay. Let's get you inside and take care of that arm, and we'll get you something to eat before we do anything else," said the baker, picking her up and carrying her like a much younger child. He was warm and strong and smelled like the yeast and flour that he put into the breads he made.
"Dad," the boy said a moment later, tugging on the hem of his father's apron and holding out a muddy handful. His eyes were big and serious. "She dropped these. Don't forget these."
He had picked all of Prim's baby clothes out of the mud.
"Yes. Thank you, Peeta," Mr. Mellark said. "Come on now. Let's all get out of this rain and we'll figure out what to do."
With the soaked Seam girl in his arms and little Peeta trailing close behind, Darrow Mellark mounted the steps and entered the warm bakery.