"Look, Cato's at it again."

At Madge's indication, Katniss turned her head toward the source of the commotion from across the street.

A crowd of boys had gathered around in a circle in front of Cato Jackson's porch. There was just enough gap space between them for Katniss to make out Cato standing in the middle of the circle, and a small girl crouched by his feet.

Her heart sank. Fuck, not again.

"Lick it up," Cato was commanding the girl. He wiggled his foot at her. Katniss couldn't understand what he was doing.

"Yeah, lick it up!" Brutus exclaimed next to Cato, "It's your job to clean up."

Katniss swallowed the bile that began to creep up her throat. She didn't know this little girl, but she remembered the day she saw the girl trudging down the street, stumbling behind Cato while he dragged her forward by a leash. She wasn't supposed to look up at anyone, but her sad, large and lightless brown eyes met Katniss' by accident. The vision had haunted Katniss ever since.

Though this small girl didn't resemble Katniss' sister in appearance, there was something about her mannerisms that reminded Katniss so much of Prim. She couldn't quite put her fingers on it. And of course, Prim didn't look broken like this girl did.

"Ugh," Madge groaned, "They are so disgusting."

Katniss barely registered Madge's words, because she couldn't tear her eyes away from the scene.

The little girl had curled into a small ball as Cato assaulted her. It was obvious that he was getting fed up with her lack of response. He raised his foot to practically the level of her nose.

"Come on!" he demanded.

When she replied by turning her head away, Cato's face contorted. He retracted his foot, before delivering a sharp kick across the girl's face. She recoiled violently, and her cry of pain echoed down the street, filling the neighborhood. Even a few wind chimes by the doors seemed to get jarred by the sound. It positively churned Katniss' guts.

But no neighbors peeked out their heads at the commotion. This was old news to them by now.

"Who the fuck do you think you are, you little cunt?" Cato snarled at the girl, "I'm the master here. What the fuck did I buy you for?"

"Come on, Katniss, we should go." Madge tugged at Katniss' arm, "I've had enough of watching."

"No," Katniss protested, before she could stop herself. "He can't do that."

Madge looked at her sadly. "It's his slave. He can do what he wants with her."

Katniss' mouth tightened. She knew Madge was right. Once a slave was bought, they were registered as the owner's sole property.

Stripped of their identity, or even humanity. The owners could kill them if they wanted, and no laws in the Capitol protected them against that. But the owners had the right to defend their properties. A citizen could be arrested, if they tried to steal, hurt or mess with another's slave without permission.

Katniss had grown up with a slave before. That was why she hated the idea of this whole arrangement so much.

She still remembered his name – Gale – although he was always referred to as "boy" by everyone. He was tall – in her childish eyes, he had towered over her, really. She thought he was handsome. She remembered his dark hair, his smoldering grey eyes, and the way he always looked so solemn. There was only one thing she remembered that made him smile. Her singing.

Her parents didn't know about the times her and Gale spent together, hidden away in the small room where he slept – their sanctuary.

Of course, they didn't spend any time together in that way. She was still a child, after all, and he wouldn't dare to touch her in that way. But he did something else that was forbidden – he told her about his life back home. In this place called District Twelve, far, far beyond the Capitol. When he told her about his family, she could see the strain in his eyes. Gale missed them so much. He would only light up, when he told her about his hunting trips through this forest, which was beyond the fence that cased District Twelve in.

When news reached Gale that his brother was whipped to death on the square by the Peacekeeper for stealing a turkey, that was the first time Katniss saw him cry. The same night, when he told her desperately that he needed to go home, that he needed to see his mother and sister – she told him to go and promised him that she wouldn't tell a soul. It was foolish and risky, but she couldn't bear to do anything otherwise. Gale snuck out in the middle of the night; she told him the security code to open the side fence. She had even packed food for him - anything from the kitchen that was light and might stay good for awhile, like beef jerky, crackers and small cans of beans.

She hadn't heard anything from him since. After a while, her parents gave up the search. It was amazing how they hadn't persisted in tracking down the boy more.

Even though the incident had been four years ago, she still wondered if he managed to make it to that train station, or reunite with his family. Her parents never got themselves another slave, mostly because she insisted that no one could replace Gale and she didn't want one. And their family didn't really need one, anyway, because almost every chore they needed to do could be completed by a machine.

She almost convinced herself to walk away from Cato and the little girl, knowing there was nothing she could do. But another piercing wail stopped her blood cold. She whipped around to see Cato repeatedly ramming his foot into the tiny girl, while the girl curled into a ball with her twig-like arms thrown over her head in a pathetic attempt to protect herself. His friends cheered him on.

"No," Katniss turned toward them. Blood pounded in her ears like a hammer. "I can't let him do this!"

"Come on, Katniss," Madge said desperately. "Let's go."

"He's gonna kill her!" Katniss burst out. The next thing she knew, her legs were carrying her forward, across the street to the group of roaring and chuckling boys. She heard Madge's pleas from behind her; but adrenaline also pumped inside her, drowning out those pleas. She'd have more room to process rational thoughts later.

"Hey, stop it!" she yelled as she stopped a few feet away from the guys.

They all stilled, before turning toward her. Cato's leg was frozen, hovering in a backward arc as he prepared to kick the girl again. He turned his cold eyes on Katniss.

"What do you want?" he almost sounded amused.

Katniss swallowed. Now that she was here, with a group of very mean, very predatory-looking boys staring at her, she had no idea what she should say. She could get into trouble for this. Would get into trouble.

A whimper escaped the little girl on the ground. Her curls clung to her head, matted with blood, sweat and dirt. Her gray shirt was torn at the back, exposing slivers of skin; the dirty mark of a footprint was distinctly stamped across her back.

"Shut up!" Cato bellowed at his slave. Before Katniss could react, he let his foot fly into the girl once again, connecting with the space beneath her shoulder this time.

"Hey!" Katniss yelled. "Stop it! You're going to kill her!"

Cato merely sneered. He spat at the ground. "So what if I do? What the fuck you gonna do, Everdeen?"

"He's just disciplining his slave," Marvel interjected from beside him, "He has every right to."

Katniss' eyes shot daggers at them. She realized that Madge wasn't by her side right now. She was on her own for this one.

"I… there's nothing I can do." She finally said, "But look at you, Cato. You're a six-foot guy. Here you are, kicking a little girl that's less than half your size." She glanced at the battered girl. "Even if she's your slave, you're kicking a little girl. Don't you feel ashamed?"

Cato looked at his friends sullenly. None of them seemed to be able to provide an answer. His eyes twitched.

"She wouldn't do what I asked of her," he grumbled.

She looked at him challengingly. "And what did you ask her to do?"

Cato's eyes narrowed even more. "What are you? A Smoked Mutt lover?"

Smoked Mutt was the term that the Capitol people gave to those who came from the Districts. It originated from seventy-five years ago, when the Districts rebelled against the Capitol.

The uprising failed, and the streets were littered with bodies, blackened and smoking with the residue of the Capitol bombs. The images had originally prompted the term "Smoked Gutter Pigs". Later, it was changed to Smoked Mutts. It caught on as a fitting term, for the District people were dragged into the Capitol to service the citizens like dogs. The term was supposed to remind them of their history, of what had become of their predecessors who were violent dissenters.

Katniss glared at Cato. When she failed to find the proper response, his lips curled with a delighted smirk.

"Careful, Everdeen. If we find out you're a Mutt lover, you'll be hanged and gutted with the rest of them. Don't think your pretty little face can save you from that fate." He said, "Now, get out of here before I have you arrested for intruding on my private business."

Her fists clenched by her side. She wanted to launch at him so badly that every nerve in her body seemed to vibrate.

"Katniss," she heard Madge's voice behind her, and felt her friend's cold hand grasping hers. She was surprised that the other girl was even still here. "Come on, Kat."

She wished she could fight. Tear herself away from Madge. Reach into the circle and take the bruised little girl with her. Anything.

But she knew that wouldn't do any of them a favor in the future. Her logic warred painfully against her instincts. Before she knew it, she was letting herself be dragged away by Madge, taken farther and farther away from the scene.

When she saw Cato spit onto the ground and turn his attention toward the girl once more, she turned away, unable to see any of it anymore as bitter tears filled her eyes.

That night, while Katniss slept, she dreamed of a pair of broken, lifeless brown eyes and Cato's mirthful laughter while he kicked the child whom those eyes belonged to, until the little girl lay still on the ground.

When she woke with a start, she realized that the silky sheet that she lied on was darkened with her own sweat.

"Capitol, Capitol, the City of Dreams. A land of riches, a fantasy that gleams." The children that grew up here had all learned the chant. To Katniss, it was more like a city built on hard labor, blood and nightmares.


"Happy Birthday again, Kat!"

Katniss smiled, as she gently touched the surface of the laminated ironwood bow that Prim gave her. Her sister was the best. The best. She already anticipated the time she can try this out.

"I can't believe you're eighteen now!" Prim sniffs, snapping her out of her trance as she stared at her new bow. "My sister is growing up."

"Hey!" Katniss grinned. She couldn't help it, when it came to Prim. "I'm your elder."

"Okay, fine," Prim said, "You'll get to use that line on me in three months."

"Damn right I will." Katniss said. Her little sister would be turning fifteen in three months.

And today was her eighteenth birthday. Her mother had thrown her an elaborate party earlier, where she insisted that Katniss invited her schoolmates, like her daughter was still thirteen. She wanted Katniss to be "more social".

Yeah, okay.

Katniss didn't talk to that many people at school, and she hated the thought of a party; so she was doing it more to appease her mother. In the end, she ended up inviting Madge, and had Madge bring over some of her friends too, like Delly, Bristel and Thom. Her mother was appeased, so mission was accomplished. Thank god for Madge.

And thankfully, the party was over now, and she was left alone with a living room to clean up and Prim, the one person that she truly didn't mind hanging out with.

Prim opened her mouth to say something, but was cut off abruptly when a musical chime echoed through the house. Their doorbell chime.

They looked at each other. "I wonder who that could be?" Prim said.

"Yeah, did someone forget something here?" Katniss wondered out loud, before shaking her head. "Let's see who it is."

They didn't have to go to the physical door to find out. Instead, Prim pulled out her Home Security device, where the screen is directly linked to their wireless door camera and would show them who was outside. As the device lit up, its screen showed the top of a shock of pink hair, which was instantly recognizable as Aunt Effie's head. And the top of a strange blond head beside her. Effie looked up at the camera and smiled at them, her teeth gleaming behind her lips, which were painted with a fuschia heart shape across the middle.

"What the hell?" Katniss blurted out. She felt wary. "Who is that guy?"

The musical chime resonated again. The sisters shared another look, and Prim sighed.

"Maybe she brought you a stripper," she said.

"Prim!" Katniss exclaimed. The darn things her little sister says.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I meant exotic male dancer." Prim grinned impishly.

"Aunt Effie did not bring me an exotic male dancer!" Katniss protested. Then, she remembered who they were talking about. "Well, at least I don't think she would…"

After another minute of debate and three more chimes from Aunt Effie, each one increasingly impatient, they finally pressed the Unlock button on the device and went to greet Effie. And the new guest.

As Effie breezed in, a blast of cotton candy perfume hit them. Katniss tried not to cough, as her aunt enveloped her in a giant hug; the fur of her coat – she still wore that in May? – chafing against Katniss' neck.

"Happy birthday, my darling, darling girl!" Effie gushed. Katniss tried to smile back. Her aunt was always so excited – there was this bottomless pit of energy which she seemed to feed from; which actually seemed kind of scary. "Oh, and Prim!"

"Thank you, Aunt Effie," Katniss said. Then, her eyes darted toward the figure that stood behind Effie the whole time, who remained silent as a stone.

Oh, no.

That was Katniss' first thought.

The blond head that they saw earlier belonged to a boy indeed. And even though this was the Capitol, he still wasn't dressed in what was deemed the normal attire by any means.

In fact, he was dressed in what looked like a tank top and a pair of tight pants, all made of constricting, black and leathery fabric. And that wasn't even the worst – there was a bow tie around his neck. And she couldn't see his eyes very well, because they were lowered to the ground and fixed there.

She didn't understand. This guy looked like a regular at one of those high-end clubs where some of her more adventurous classmates loved to frequent. She didn't know what those people actually looked like; but she often heard Glimmer bragging about her crazy nights out, and her descriptions of the said dancers, even including what she had them do. Apparently, the clubs often held a mix of dancers, both from the Capitol and the Districts. The District dancers rarely make it to the high-end clubs like the Capitol ones would.

She suddenly had trouble breathing.

"Well, aren't you going to invite us in?" Effie announced with a flourish, making Katniss start. "I have a very, very special present for you, Kat."

Katniss was sure she didn't want this very, very special present.

As the girls led their guests to the living room, Prim asked if Aunt Effie and the boy wanted water or wine. The boy said nothing, and didn't look up either. His silence was actually starting to creep Katniss out.

"Oh, wine for me, please. Ice wine, if you've got it. And water for him." Effie sang out.

Katniss wondered why the boy couldn't reply for himself. Who was he? He wasn't mute, was he?

"So, Kitty Kat," Effie began, once she had her glass of wine in hand. Katniss absolutely despised that term, but her aunt seemed to take such delight in calling her that, like she was a fluffy pet. Freakin' Effie. When Prim gave the water to the boy, he took it and appeared to look up at Prim briefly. Katniss could've sworn she saw Prim faltering. "I was at the annual Adult Entertainment auction earlier."

Katniss' throat felt like sandpaper. She dreaded Effie's next words like she dreaded a train wreck. Prim shouldn't even be here and listening to this. If Effie made the boy dance for them, she was leaving –

"And I got him, all for you." Effie looked affectionately to the boy, who stood next to her in a nearly military pose. "His name is Peeta."

"Pita?" Katniss repeated dubiously.

"No, Peeta. Like, Peeee-tah." Effie stretched out the vowel. Then, she turned to look at the said boy with the bread-sounding name. "This is your new mistress, Peeta."

New… mistress?

The term didn't register with Katniss for a few seconds. Then, her eyes widened with horror, as the realization hit her like a brick to the temple.

How could she have been so dense?

This boy wasn't just a dancer. He was an actual slave.

How could Effie… well, that explained this guy's submissive behavior, which she mistook for him being odd earlier.

"But… why?" she stammered out. Why on Earth would her aunt go and do this? Her stomach was quaking so badly with nerves that she felt like she was going to throw up.

"Why? Kat, I thought you'd like him! He isn't just any slave. He's especially skilled in that area. You know which one I'm talking about."

Katniss' cheeks flamed, and she had to fight the urge to cover Prim's ears. Her sister just looked on with shock.

"I just thought, you turned eighteen. I was your age once; I know what girls your age like. I'm a cool aunt." Effie grinned, like she was sharing something conspiratorial with Katniss. "God, I remember my first pleasure boy. Trust me, nothing gets better than them. And since I'm such a cool aunt, I decided to get you the coolest gift on the day you blossom into a woman!"

"And you… discussed this with my parents?" Katniss asked in a strained voice.

"Well, of course I did!" Effie stated, "To be honest, they didn't take to the idea at first. But then, they remembered how sad you were when you lost your previous slave. They thought maybe this can make it up to you, since they feel bad for having lost Gale before. Also, don't tell your father, but your mother had a pleasure boy too, years before she married your dad. She knows, girl. Her pleasure boy was blond and handsome like this one, but this one's even more good-looking! God, your mom confided in me how much pleasure her boy brought her –"

Katniss gawked at her aunt. She never knew that. And now she did, and that was really unnecessary. She was speechless.

If Effie thought she was warming her niece up to the idea of having this slave, then she failed, because Katniss couldn't feel more repulsed.

Dense as Effie might be, she didn't miss the expression on Katniss' face. Her own fell slightly in response. "What's wrong, my dear? He's clean if that's what you're worried about! He's tested and everything –"

"Look, Auntie, I –" Katniss rubbed a hand over her weary eyes. She tried not to look at Peeta, whom Effie was talking about this entire time like he was an inanimate object in the background. He was gorgeous; she would be blind not to recognize that. But the outfit was ridiculous. And she didn't think he looked at her once. His head was still inclined. "I just – I do not want a slave. I don't want to own one."

"What? Don't be ridiculous," Effie waved her hand. "Look at him, Katniss. How can a girl not want him? He is so beautiful, isn't he? Look at those soft blond curls." When Katniss gave no reaction to that, Effie tutted impatiently. "Come! Feel how soft it is!"

"Aunt Effie…" Katniss managed to force out. She could feel Prim's wide eyes on her, and had to resist the urge to tell her sister to go to her room. Prim would not take well to that. "I do not want him. Please take him back where you boug – found him."

Effie's face fell completely. She looked crestfallen. Prim's anxious gaze darted between the two of them.

"You don't want him?" Effie looked at Peeta with a bewildered expression. "But… why not? He's so gorgeous. He can do anything you want him to. Katniss, I just – I just wanted to get you something special this year, something most of your friends don't even get to have. I thought you would like him." When Katniss' expression didn't budge, Effie grew more agitated. "He cost me an arm and a leg, too!"

"Well, can you return him?" Katniss asked, and hated that she was now participating in talking about this boy – Peeta – like he was a merchandise. But she hated the fact that she felt guilty about rejecting Effie's gesture even more. As utterly bonkers as her pink-haired, flamboyant aunt was, she knew Effie wasn't a bad person. Effie was just like almost everyone else in the Capitol. She didn't get to know another slave as a person, like Katniss had the chance to do. She didn't know anything about the Districts, other than that they were dark, scary places crawling with poor people. Effie thought the slaves were lucky to have been brought into the luxurious lifestyle of the Capitol.

And it shouldn't have surprised Katniss that her aunt thought this would have made her happy.

"Well," Effie said heavily, "If you don't really want to accept your present, that's your choice. He'll be taken back to the Castle. I got him there. He won't be short of offers, mind you. I think this awful girl – Clove is her name? – was very keen to make her offer on him."

The breath stopped in Katniss' lungs.

Clove? As in Clove Barrow?

It had to be. How many Cloves did she know, especially a terrible one?

No. No no no.

Clove had been her classmate since grade three. She knew Clove well enough to know that girl was bad news. Once, when they were in grade six, a bunch of boys dared Clove to do something crazy. She did, by hurling her lunch knife at a sparrow that hopped on the ground. The hit was precise, and forceful enough to drive the pointy end through the sparrow's head, instantly killing it. It wasn't even that which got to Katniss – it was the look that was on Clove's face afterwards. Instead of looking remorseful, the pinched-face girl was grinning like she won a prize. For a fleeting moment there, she didn't even look humane. The boys looked like they regretted asking Clove.

Another time, during grade eight – Clove made another girl go to the hospital by pulling out her hair in chunks and then breaking her hand. When the students and the teachers heard the victim's cries, they rushed out of the classrooms to find Clove twisting her hand until it almost completely turned on top of her wrist. Clove's eyes held a slightly crazed, distant expression, and even the adults were afraid to approach to stop her.

Even though Katniss didn't know Peeta, she was terrified she'd condemn him to a life under Clove.

"Are – are you sure?" she asked Effie, the tremor in her voice barely perceptible. "That Clove wanted him?"

"Yes, I'm absolutely positive, seeing as I was bidding against that wretched girl." Effie turned up her nose at the thought. "You don't know how close she came to winning over me. I was determined to get him for you, but that girl was persistent too, until the very end. After I won the bidding, she came over to me and said, 'Aren't you too old and wrinkly for him, granny?' The nerve of this awful girl!"

Katniss winced. "I'm sorry, Effie. She is pretty awful, don't listen to a word she says. And… look, I really do appreciate the gesture you made for me." She looked to Prim. In return, her sister arched her eyebrows discreetly, before shifting her gaze toward Peeta's direction. Katniss almost forgot the blond boy was still there. She forced herself to look at him.

For a nanosecond, his eyes darted up, and collided against hers. It was the first time he truly looked at her, and she him.

Her chest seized abruptly. Holy fuck, his eyes were so blue.

He looked away again, the ground drawing his gaze as if it held a special magnetic force.

For a moment, she imagined Clove as Cato. Mangling Peeta and using him for her twisted pleasure, knowing he had no power to protest or fight back, unless he wanted to be punished or killed.

Shit.

She might not want him as her slave. But if she assigned him to an even worse fate, even inadvertently, she couldn't live with herself.

"Okay. Okay, I'll take him." The words tumbled out before she could stop herself. She thought she was still making up her mind about it, but her runaway mouth seemed to have another design.

Effie's eyes lit up. "So you'll accept your present? I knew you won't really resist! You'd be crazy to!"

Katniss swallowed the lump in her throat. Fuck, what had she agreed to? "I… I accept him," she said dazedly.

He looked up at her then. Her chest once again clenched at the piercing shade of his eyes, and her throat bobbed as she swallowed.

She couldn't make her mouth form the shape of a smile, as the weight of his gaze remained on her like a hammer on her chest.


Please review! As this is my first attempt to return to writing on here after a long time, I'm pretty nervous about it. Your comments and feedback will be greatly appreciated :)

Happy upcoming New Year!