Fear choked her throat as the snow crunched beneath her wobbly footsteps. She nearly stopped walking for the fifth time; overcome by nausea and terror. She closed her eyes and steadied her pace, thinking of Prim’s gaunt cheeks and her mother’s hungry stare. She had to do this.
She rounded the corner to the street where she knew Cray’s house stood. It was a dark night with no moon, but in the lamplight of his front window she could already see three other starving girls waiting outside. Humiliation burned her heart to be joining them. Her steps faltered again. She slipped behind a tree twenty yards away beside a merchant shop to spy on her competition. The merchant’s pig snorted at her; she gave it a sharp glare to be silent.
She took in the tall blond girl who had curled her hair for the evening. Then the girl with red hair that couldn’t be her true color; it was garish even under the lamp. Then the girl who clearly had as little resources as she herself had; brown haired and plain, but with larger endowments noticeable even under her winter coat. She was glad to know her advantage was her virginity. Something the others could not offer and of higher value to scum like Cray. He would pay her handsomely this time to take her innocence. Maybe to make up for the suffering she would surely face in his careless hands, but deep inside she imagined he would enjoy her tears.
She tasted bile in her throat again visualizing his red and sweating face over hers, the rupturing and tearing of delicate tissue, his hands on her skin. She choked and spit on the tree’s roots. Resting her face against the bark, she breathed in the cold night air, trying to keep her screams inside and regain confidence. She raised her eyes and saw the light over his front door click on. It was time to go to him. Dread weighed down on her like an anvil.
She wanted to run. She couldn’t. There was no food to be found in the woods. The snow had been packed so thick and high last week there was no way to hunt. The animals that weren’t hibernating through this agonizing winter had starved or frozen. Not even Gale could help. What little food he was able to trap barely fed his siblings and he and his mother had gone without longer than she had. She hadn’t seen him in weeks since he started taking double shifts in the mine to make extra income for his strained family. This was the only solution she found before her time ran out.
The merchant door to her left open suddenly and she was caught in the orange glow of their kitchen light.
“Katniss?” a soft voice called out into the night air, barely audible but reaching her ears in the still night air.
She gaped up at the young man in horror. She knew him from school. How he remembered her name was beyond her. Though they hadn’t truly spoken since they were small children, by no means did she want someone she even remotely knew seeing her now, in this state, in her shame and desperation.
She saw a smile sneak across Peeta Mellark’s face, his blue eyes lighting up in surprise at seeing her hiding outside the bakery’s back door. He hadn’t seen her pained expression. “What are you doing here?” he asked her quietly, minding his family resting upstairs. He held a bag of garbage in his hand and his apron was untied.
The door to Cray’s home opened the three girls darted into the light to vie for his attention, culling and begging him to choose them. Katniss’ face turned to the door and she stumbled out from behind the tree, managing one step towards his door before she froze again.
“What…?” she heard Peeta start his question then his voice caught in his throat. He saw the dress she wore, a relic from her mother’s day as a merchant’s daughter; something saved for a special occasion. The red lipstick applied thickly with clumsy hands. The high-heeled boots that gave her such an uneven gait.
“Katniss, no,” he breathed, glued to the spot where he stood.
She managed one more step towards Cray’s home and faltered again. She gasped for air, the fear crushing her lungs.
She didn’t realize he’d dropped the bag and was at her side until she felt Peeta’s fingers on her wrist.
“Let me go,” she sputtered out, tears threatening her voice.
“No, please, no,” he begged, pulling her back behind the tree.
She watched helplessly, with one eye from around the tree as Cray stepped onto his porch. Her tongue was numb and Peeta too went silent as they hid in the shadows. The Peacekeeper looked up and down the street for nosy onlookers, selected the blond girl and moved back inside. The other girls moved away quietly, shuffling back to wherever they came from empty-handed through the thick snow. Cray’s door slammed with a malicious boom.
Katniss dropped her head. There went her chance. Her one chance to get something to buy food for her starving sister and vacant mother, but she had let it slip through her fingers. She turned angrily to the baker’s son and shoved his hands away.
“Why did you stop me?” she gritted through her teeth, pushing him again. “I needed that!”
He stumbled in the light from his doorway. “Katniss, no. He’s…please, no.”
She stopped attacking him and started to panic in earnest. The fear of disappointing her family had replaced the fear of Cray’s touch. Could they survive another night without food?
“Please,” she heard Peeta’s voice. “Come inside.”
He put his hand on the small of her back to guide her towards the bakery, but she jerked away, still seething. Stepping reluctantly inside, the smell of fresh bread stabbed into her stomach and made the hollowness more tangible.
Closing the door behind them, Peeta gestured for her to take a seat on the worn wooden chair by the fire. Wiping his hands with his stained apron, he pulled two dented tin mugs from a rack on the wall. She sat senseless and mute as the grip of terror loosed, watching as he poured tea for them. He handed her the cup and she smelled peppermint wafting from the cup. She didn’t drink. She stared at the fire.
She refused to answer. What could she possibly say?
She turned her eyes to him. She hated him for discovering her. No one was supposed to know. Not even Prim or her mother. They may have suspicions when she came home with a few coins, but they would never ask if she didn’t want to speak of it. Now this young man knew she was willing to trade herself for food.
His eyes were not full of venom. They looked sad. She hated him even more for his pity.
“He’s a monster,” he finally said, dropping his eyes. She knew he was right. The girls he took in were frequently seen bruised, sometimes even limping. She had no idea what Cray did to cause it, but her imagination had nearly driven her mad thinking of what he would do to her.
She turned her eyes back to the fire while Peeta stood next to her awkwardly.
“Wait here,” he said suddenly. Putting his mug down on the work counter and pulling his apron over his head, he slipped to the door leading to their family quarters. He listened carefully, making sure his parents and brothers were asleep before he disappeared upstairs.
Katniss slumped back in the chair and took a sip of the tea. It tasted wonderful. It made her sad again. What was she going to do now? Would she lose Prim the community foster home? Would her mother drop dead in their cramped bedroom?
She looked around the bakery irritably. The smell of cinnamon and pumpkin invaded her nostrils. Smells that reminded her of her childhood when her father would bring her here. There were rolls in baskets behind the counter ready for the miners’ breakfast rush in a few hours and a few sitting on a tray next to a large wood fire oven. Wood. Her family could never afford wood. Here was a family who would never go without while hers starved to death. Why did they deserve luxury while she had to sell her body? Why did this boy have to spot her at that moment? She closed her eyes and gripped the cup, wishing she wasn’t too weak to crush it in her fist.
She heard his footsteps return and she opened her eyes to see him crossing to her, holding a tiny canvas bag clutched in his palm.
“This is all I have right now,” he said worriedly. “It’s not much, but…” he trailed off. She took the bag and stared at it. She could feel coins in it.
He turned and moved behind her to the work counter. He pulled a paper bag from a stack behind the counter and swept the six rolls from the just-baked tray into the paper bag. Rolling the top, he turned and thrust the bag at her.
She stared at it. “Do you think I want your pity?” she felt the bile threatening to return.
“What?” He shook his head as though he must have misheard her.
She threw the moneybag back at him, striking him squarely in the chest and he fumbled to catch it. “I don’t need your charity,” she growled.
“Shhh, Katniss,” he eyed the door to the living quarters. “I’m trying to help you,” he said, frightened. “You’re dying.”
The remark caught her off guard. She knew it to be true. Her bones were visible below her translucent skin. Her hair was dry and wiry. When she had stopped menstruating two months ago she knew she had grown dangerously frail. But dying was something she had not yet accepted for herself. Because if she died, Prim surely would.
She eyed Peeta up and down, wary like a wounded animal ready to attack. She knew him. Everyone knew him. He was kind and generous, sweet and shyly flirtatious. Gentle. Something about this kindness now, treating her like an incapable child, built up a rage within her.
Peeta pushed the bag of rolls and the purse towards her again. “Please. If not for you then for them.” Most everyone knew her family was in dire straits as well. Wrath devoured her as he used them as weapons against her pride. He was inches from her chair now.
She knocked the bags from his hands again and they fell to the floor. Before he could reach for them, she stood and roughly grabbed his groin.
His startled cry was muffled as she pressed her lips to his, shoving her tongue into his mouth. She knew she was being awkward and rough but she hoped that he knew as little as she did about sex.
He pushed her groping hand away from him and pulled his face away, his expression panicked. “No!” he nearly yelled, then quieted as her remember his sleeping family. “You don’t have to do that,” he stammered in a whisper. “I don’t want that.”
“The hell you don’t. I know what boys want. I know what they’d pay for,” she replied viciously, stalking closer as he backed into the wall.
“No-“ he started, but she grabbed his waistband and yanked open the fly to his pants, ripping the seam along the zipper. He released a startled cry and she shoved her hand into his pants and grasped his erection, growing despite his fear. She rubbed him faster. She moved in to kiss him so his moan would be muffled. His hands were still trying to push her away, but weakly. Maybe in fear she would hurt him in this extremely vulnerable position.
She released him and he exhaled, opening his eyes and looking for escape. He looked at her with an injured expression. She reasoned he couldn’t feel as horrible as she felt right now, dropping to her knees and pulling down his pants and shorts without warning.
She took a deep breath while he was reeling in shock and took him into her mouth. She couldn’t manage much, but judging by his reaction it was enough. He clamped his hands over his mouth to keep from crying out while she wrapped her hand back around the shaft, keeping the head in her mouth. Guessing on what to do from what she’d heard older girls whispering about behind the Hob as they passed around stolen liquor, she moved her tongue around clumsily, bobbing her head back and forth.
The taste and texture of him was unexpected. It wasn’t as awful as she had envisioned it would be with Cray, but then again Peeta was much younger and fitter than the Peacekeeper. His body was firm under soft, warm flesh. Even on her knees she could smell the cinnamon flour that seemed to come from his pores. She tried not to think of the person attached to this action as she worked. She tried to stay focused. Her jaw was sore, even after only a few minutes of movement.
His legs started to tremble when she realized she didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. She knew he was going to ejaculate from their Family Planning classes, but oral sex was not exactly a follow up topic at school.
His hand was at her cheek, gently pushing her away from him. She complied, coughing spittle as he pulled himself out of her mouth. He was grunting and moving his own hand up and down the shaft as he grabbed a tea towel from a sideboard and covered himself as his whole body tensed, then quivered and relaxed. He was whimpering and holding the towel against his groin while she slumped on the floor, panting.
She had done what she came to do. Made a trade for food and money to survive and accepted no handouts. But listening to Peeta start to cry was not comforting. She didn’t feel any sense of triumph while he stumbled away from her, sobbing and pulling up his pants and underwear. She felt like the monster.
He was behind her, pulling her to her feet and sniffling in her ear.
Peeta pushed her to the door, into the snow covered evening. She turned around, knowing she should apologize, beg his forgiveness, but her tongue was paralyzed with disgrace. He drove the purse and bread into her arms and shut the door in her face.
She stood silently in the night. The door of Cray’s house opened and she turned her face to the sound. The girl half stumbled, was half thrown from his house. Her coat was unbuttoned, her boots untied. The moonlight was reflected in the sweat and tears on her face. Cray’s door slammed and she lurched away, dazed. Katniss listened to her muffled cries fade as she disappeared into the darkness, until she could only hear Peeta’s sobs on the other side of the door.
The hot summer sun beat down on Katniss’ shoulders as she watched Prim swim in the shrinking lake while she skinned the dead beaver. She had taken to the lessons like a fish, but it was the outline of her ribs poking through the undershirt that worried her sister.
It reminded her of how Prim looked that winter night. When she visited the baker’s son.
Any time her mind drifted back to that moment, her heart ached. Peeta could no longer meet her eyes in school despite three shared classes. She feared she had robbed him of his kindness that night when she refused to accept a gift and instead turned his offerings into payment for unwanted gratification. She could never ask him if he was all right. She couldn’t even find a way to beseech his forgiveness even after all this time.
The bread had saved Prim, she was sure of it. Her mother even ate a roll that night she returned. She told them a drunken townswoman had dropped the bundle leaving the bakery and didn’t turn back for it, so she had stolen it. They believed her, happily. If they knew she was lying they didn’t let on. They didn’t want to face the ugly truth of their lives.
It was enough food for three days, and the money had gotten soup from Greasy Sae that lasted until the bitter cold finally broke and Katniss could hunt again. She was sure it was the nourishment that had finally brought her mother back to her.
Peeta had truly saved their lives. And now she found herself thinking the unthinkable again.
The punishing winter had turned into an intolerable summer. A drought had been moving through the entire region, suffocating crops and throttling livestock. The food was growing scarce, even here at the lake. The ducks had flown to better regions and the fish died in scores as the water levels dropped. Her mother’s patients couldn’t pay. She still treated them, but in trade for old clothes or firewood. Nothing to fill their stomachs.
Looking at Prim’s weakening figure, Katniss tried to weigh her options. There was always Cray. He watched her now that she was sixteen; he liked that age. He had grown viler since the winter, she thought, always with the stench of alcohol on him. But she had to go to him, she rationed. No, Peeta was not an option. He had thrown her out after she forced herself on him. She tried to tell herself that at least he had enjoyed it – what teenage boy wouldn’t? Isn’t that what she had counted on when she touched him? But then she would always hear his wracking sobs from behind the door and remember that just because it felt good didn’t mean it was a good thing. He hadn’t been ready. Neither of them had.
“Prim! Come in now, I’ve got to get to the Hob!” Katniss called out over the lake. Finding the dead beaver had been a stroke of luck. The animal had clearly starved and had no meat to give, but the pelt would be worth a trade.
Prim splashed over to the shore and clambered out on the rocks lining the south lip. Katniss smiled as she crossed to her and handed over a dry towel warmed on a rock. She collected the pelt she’d cleaned and carried Prim’s clothes along as they wandered back through the woods to the loose fence. As predicted, the heat was intense enough to dry Prim’s under things by the time they’d reached the fence and she could dress before they reentered town.
“I’ll be back soon,” she told Prim as she deposited her at the front door of their meager dwelling.
“Be careful,” her little sister warned. “The Hob is dangerous.”
“If only you knew,” muttered Katniss as she walked away, dabbing at her sweating brow with the towel she had retained from Prim. It was Saturday afternoon. Cray was probably there looking for liquor. It was the most dangerous place to be. She draped the towel around her bare shoulders to protect them from the searing rays.
Stepping inside, the heat was stifling. All the windows were open and vendors fanned themselves with paper and clothes, wiping their brows as they baked in the hazy air. Katniss’ hair immediately stuck to her neck and her clothes glued themselves to her skin. She wiped her hairline again with the towel and moved over to the tanner’s table.
“It’s not much,” she said, scrunching up her nose at the pelt Katniss was trying to sell.
“Bigger than anything you’ve got on the table now,” she countered, needing the extra pennies a hard bargain could earn.
“Still, it’s not like I have extra to throw around,” the woman replied, frankly and honestly. “I can only give you about six for it.”
“Six?” The response sounded more devastated than she had intended.
“I’m really sorry, it’s all I can afford,” the woman said quietly, and Katniss knew she wasn’t lying.
“Six is fine, then,” she tried to recover, receiving the coins in her hand and holding back the distress that threatened to show itself.
She wandered around the Hob blindly, wondering how on earth to buy any food for these six pieces. It wouldn’t buy even one meal for her sister and mother and herself. She found herself in front of Ripper’s liquor stand.
She asked her how she was fairing, she had heard her husband had been promoted to a safer position at the mine and wanted desperately to talk about something happy. Ripper seemed happy to oblige, talking at length about how glad she was the dangers that cost her most of her left arm would never happen to her husband.
The stench of old liquor was in Katniss’ nostrils before she felt his finger dip into the sweat on her neck. Her stomach twisted as she heard him hiss his hello into her ear.
“Cray,” she gagged. “What a lovely surprise.”
Turning to face him, she contorted her face into a smile. He was repulsive and hulking. She felt the muscles between her thighs contract in revulsion. “It’s certainly a pleasure,” he leaned on the word, eliciting a wince she tried to hide. “We hardly ever spend any time together, do we? You really ought to come visit me sometime.”
Tracing another beat of sweat along her neck, he whispered, “I can find all sorts of ways to make you sweat.”
The terror knotted itself in Katniss’ stomach and she tried to find a way to respond positively to a concept so appalling. Then, to her dread, her eyes drifted over Cray’s shoulder.
Peeta had walked into the Hob, holding a paper bag.
Had he seen her? She didn’t think so; his back had turned to her as he walked down to the herbalist at the far end of the warehouse.
“I’m sure you could,” Katniss finally managed to reply, hoping it sounded seductive.
Cray looked surprised and pleased that she was playing along. “It’s nice to hear you’re so…open to suggestion these days,” he laughed, licking his lips grotesquely.
“It’s the heat,” she said lamely. “It makes one do crazy things.”
“So does Miss Ripper’s fire wine,” he winked. He turned to the vendor. “How about a drop for the lady?”
Ripper eyed Katniss as she pulled the cork on a dark bottle. She dropped a thimble’s worth of liquor into a relatively clean glass and handed it to Katniss.
Katniss sniffed the cup. It smelled sickly sweet. She let the drop fall on her tongue. She grimaced and coughed and slammed the cup down.
Cray laughed at her discomfort. He swiped the bottle from Ripper and dropped a handful of coins on her countertop.
He pulled the cork with his teeth and took a deep swig. A trail of the red wine ran down his chin and he wiped it with his hand. He panted and looked at the gap in her blouse. “The things I could show you,” Cray growled at Katniss.
She closed her eyes, willing this nightmare to end. But opening them, she still found Peeta at her elbow, eyes wide as he regarded her interaction with Cray.
“Hey, neighbor,” Cray said, clapping Peeta on the shoulder. “Nice to see you in our neck of the woods. More rosemary for that salted bread?” He poked his nose into the bag for which Peeta had traded the cookies.
Peeta nodded, his jaw set and his eyes hard.
An argument broke out in the stalls far off and Cray sighed in annoyance. “Better go check this out,” he complained as he ambled away. “And Katniss? Don’t be a stranger.” He winked and was gone.
Refusing to look at Peeta, Katniss darted for the door and burst outside. The fresh air freed her like a caged bird. She kept moving until she put a hundred yards between her and the warehouse in the shade of the old pines.
“What the hell are you doing?”
She spun around, not realizing he’d followed her so closely. His eyes were fiery and angry. She didn’t know what to say. Her mouth opened and closed, then her eyes dropped to the ground.
“Katniss, what the hell are you doing with him?”
“What do you think I’m doing? There’s no water, Peeta!” she exploded. “There are no ducks. There are no deer; they’ve all left. There’s barely any fish. There’s nothing to hunt. It’s just like winter.” She stopped short. She’d not meant to bring up the winter ever again.
“You should have come to me,” he finally said, softly. She stopped.
“I…couldn’t,” she whispered.
“I’m not going to let you starve, Katniss. No matter what you…what happened.”
“I’m not weak!” she burst out angrily. “I don’t need you to save me.”
She regretted saying it. “I don’t,” she said stubbornly, unable to let go and apologize for hurting him. Again.
He shrugged pointlessly, unsure of what to do. Finally he dug in his pockets and pulled out a handful of small coins. “It was from my birthday,” he mumbled. “Take it.”
“Katniss, take it.”
She stared at the coins, her hands remaining at her sides. “Follow me.”
Confused, he followed her to the fence she and Prim had slipped under just thirty minutes prior.
She walked for nearly twenty minutes with him at her heels. They were deep inside the woods, far from wandering eyes. She finally stopped and turned all the way around, surveying the clearing she had discovered. Peeta examined the sunlight dappling the ground. It was cooler and pleasant in the shade, and he sat down on a fallen tree to admire this peaceful spot. Waiting to finally talk to the girl with gray eyes.
He’d watched her for a long time at school. A long time at every required assembly. Long enough that his brothers teased him when she walked by the shop. His heart raced. What would he say to her now?
She pulled Prim’s towel from her shoulder and was laying it out in on a mossy patch of earth and he watched her trying to figure out why she was doing that. He hadn’t brought food for a meal out here. When she pulled down her pants, his knees went weak and he understood.
Stumbling to his feet, he cried, “No!”
“I’m not going to just take your money, Peeta,” she said firmly, but her voice shook when she said his name. “Either I earn it or you keep it and I go to Cray.” Her eyes were turning red as she proudly fought her fear. She unbuttoned one button of her blouse and then pulled her shirt over her head.
He stared at her protruding ribs and easily visible hipbones. Her concave stomach hurt him. There was little left of her. He looked away as the tears stung his eyes. Even now, in the face of her misery, she still aroused him.
“I...No, Katniss. This is crazy.” He closed his eyes and pulled the money out of his pocket, stretching his fist out blindly.
He waited. He opened his eyes.
She looked at him hard. “Cray it is.”
“I’m not your charity.”
He angrily threw down the package of rosemary. Ripping at his shirt, he pulled it over his head. As he pulled down his pants, she laid down on the towel, feeling sick.
When he was disrobed, he moved over to her and she spread her legs so he could kneel between them. As he brushed her skin she could feel his hands shaking. She felt sicker and shook harder herself.
She’d not asked if he had a girlfriend; she realized she had no idea how much experience he had. He had older brothers, but did they talk about their conquests? His movements seemed uncertain. She jumped when he slid a finger inside her, testing her readiness but not knowing what to do. It didn’t really matter; she knew it was going to hurt. She was too nervous, too angry, too fearful and too guilty. The expression his face wore made her wonder if he’d enjoy this at all.
He leaned forward over her and she raised her legs to his sides. He struggled to find a good position, holding himself above her to not put his weight on her. He finally settled on his right elbow, able to touch her skin but not suffocate her skeletal frame.
She saw his eyes move to her breasts and she tried not to think about what he was seeing. The scrapes and scars of hunting and trapping. The jutting bones where curves should be.
His groping fingers found her breast and she flinched.
“Does that hurt?” he whispered.
“No, just. It’s fine,” she said. “You can...keep going.”
His palm was warm. It was gentle. She tried not to let the air rattle in her lungs. He was hesitant when he moved his mouth to taste the skin of her neck. He moved closer to get a better angle and she could feel how hard he was against her leg. It was hot. Something warm and wet smeared across her thigh. Her core tensed and ached.
He reached between them and guided himself to her.
She stared him in the eyes as he leaned forward and entered her. She covered her mouth to stifle the scream. He immediately pulled out, shaking violently.
“It’s okay, sorry,” she cried. “I’m okay.”
He started to pull away, “I don’t want to hurt you.”
She gripped her knees around his ribs desperately, reaching between them to grip him and lead him back to her. He froze and didn’t move for a minute, just staring at her while her rapid breathing slowed. He cautiously lifted her left knee and slowly pressed inward again, breathing hard.
Katniss threw her head to the side so he wouldn’t see her grimace. He stayed very still for a long time. Then, very slowly and carefully, he slid out only a bit. Then eased back. The slicing pain subsided to aching discomfort. Her teeth were chattering despite the heat when she finally rolled her head back to face him.
He was staring at the towel over her shoulder. She wondered where his mind was. It wasn’t here. Not as his knees scraped on the dirt. Not as her hair caught in his fist when he balled the towel edge up. Not feeling her lips and chin brush his collarbone as he bore down. The chirping birds and crickets seemed to grow quiet and her ears filled with the sound of her focused breathing, Peeta’s grunts and the sound of their sweating skin colliding. She focused on the feeling of the hot flesh of his back and along his ribs where her legs gripped him. Her fingers tangled in the hem of the towel. Perspiration broke out on his brow and his thrusts got shallower and faster. It was not a very long time before he gave a groan like something she’d never heard and he shuddered into her, letting his head hang while he recovered his air.
He pulled away carefully and she felt a great emptiness where he’d been. She lay on the towel staring at the trees above her. The sunlight sparkled in between the leaves.
She rolled over and vomited into the dirt.
It was Peeta who noticed the thin trickle of blood on her thigh as she stood to retrieve her shirt. She slipped and jumped when he reached a finger to catch the trail. He used the clean side of the towel to gently wipe her, and seeing the thin sheen of blood on his organ as well, he used the towel to clean himself and then got dressed.
They walked back to the fence in silence. All she could think was what she had just cost him and what she had given up. When she stooped to slip under the fence and felt the sharp stab of pain between her legs, the control she had managed vanished and she collapsed into wailing sobs on the ground. Peeta was right there immediately, holding her and bawling into her hair.
They clung to each other, shaking with shame and regret for a long time.
The light was starting to fade when they pulled apart and eased back under the fence. Peeta held Katniss’ hand to steady her steps. As they approached her home, he pressed the money into her hand. He stared at her face when they stopped outside her door. She wished she knew what he was searching for in her eyes. All she could offer right now was remorse. He released her hand and walked away into the falling dark.
She felt she would never see him again.
Stepping inside, her mother immediately noticed her ashen expression. Claiming the heat had overtaken her, her mother quickly drew her a cool bath. Katniss froze as Prim started to help her undress. She could feel moisture between her thighs. Her mother would surely recognize the blood and semen seeping into her underwear.
A miracle of mercy brought the knock of a worried young wife to the door. Prim and her mother left to tend her husband’s high fever on the other side of town. They bid Katniss farewell, asking her to eat something and promising to be back soon. She nodded and forced a smile as she waved them away.
Sinking into the bath, she stared at her underwear lying on the floor. She could see a few drops of blood, but also the milky ejaculate mixed with it. Her hand reflexively moved to touch the bruised skin, washing away the sensations. Her chest ached thinking of his face as he sat on the towel with dead eyes after she had been sick. She didn’t recognize him anymore. She squeezed her eyes against tears wondering if she’d destroyed the kind boy who had given her family two chances at life.
Anger flared up to combat her wallowing. Didn’t she give him something just as precious? She’d never have her purity back again; surely he thought that was worth something. Maybe more than the few coins left from a birthday gift. It’s not like every sixteen year old at their school got an offer like that. He didn’t even have to work for it. He just had to give her a few pieces. All the money he had in the world. She shook the thought away and focused on how she was going to deal with a return to school.
Surely he’d tell his brothers. And a few friends. When school started again in a few short weeks everyone would know she was for sale.
The terror took hold of her in a way she was unprepared for. She would no longer be asked to care for anyone’s children while the parents were called to school or government meetings. She wouldn’t be asked to weddings or birthdays. She would be a pariah. That she could handle. But Prim. Sweet Prim finding out her sister had become a prostitute to feed her. Her heart broke and her gasps for air filled the silent house.
She stumbled out of the bath and grabbed her underwear from the floor. She lurched into the kitchen and tossed the pair into the fire, willing it to burn away the vision of what her life would now become.
The whispers around the schoolyard that August were like sandpaper on her ears. Each time she looked up, she expected the girls in new dresses to be laughing and pointing at her. But they weren’t. They didn’t even seem to know she was there. Peeta behaved the same way, never looking at her or standing near her. She wished he would glance towards her, maybe make a sign of forgiveness or revenge, but to her dismay and relief he never did.
When Prim bounded down the steps at the end of the day, she was full of smiles. Katniss listened to her babble on about a butterfly she had spotted on the window during mining technique and realized the truth.
He hadn’t told a soul.
Gratitude like cool water rushed through her skin. Then guilt. He had again given her a gift she couldn’t repay. Honor.
The rain began to fall that weekend.
Katniss wandered through the woods, her game bag heavy on her back. She knew it was coming up. She didn’t want to look, but she always did. It was her imagination, she was sure, but she thought she could see the outline of where the towel lay still in the twigs. The small scratches in the dirt where her fingernails dug into the earth. Her feet stopped.
She saw him at school every day. But it wasn’t the same him. It never would be.
Her feet led her home. Katniss pulled the heavy beaver from her game bag and dropped it onto the table. Three squirrels followed and two rabbits.
“Now this is a treat!” Prim gushed.
“Well, it’s not every day my little sister turns thirteen,” she smiled softly.
Pulling out the cleaning knives, she set to work on the rabbit. She had only gotten half of the skin off when nausea overtook her and she had to run out to the garden.
“Are you all right?” Prim’s worried face was by hers as she stroked her hair.
“Yeah,” Katniss replied, confused. “I don’t know what that was. I’m okay now.”
The first missed period didn’t worry her so much. She had frequently missed months when food had been scarce. But now that the summer was over and harvest was upon them, the second missing cycle set her mind racing.
She sat at the kitchen table wringing the worn tablecloth, waiting for her mother to return from the herbalist. She had to tell her. Had to ask her. She was the only one who could tell her if she was or not. She cursed her luck being the daughter of the only healer in town.
The breathy laugh on the doorstep as Prim and her mother hurried in from the rain was short-lived. “Why, Katniss, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” she exclaimed. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Momma…” she started, but her throat sealed off and she choked.
“Katniss!” They dropped their parcels and hurried to her side, feeling her brow and cheeks.
She pushed their hands away gently, trying to find the strength to speak.
“I think…” she had to stop. “I could…” She closed her eyes. “I need you to help me find out if I’m pregnant.”
Opening her eyes was the most difficult thing she’d ever had to do. Her mother’s shocked face melted to disappointment before her eyes. Prim looked stricken.
She could only whisper. “I’m so sorry! It was only once, I didn’t think. I’m so sorry.” She put her face onto her hands, bit into palms and screamed.
Prim stayed beside her, one hand on her sister’s shoulder while Katniss keened. Her mother took a seat across from her at the table and stared out the window, watching the rainfall.
It could easily have been an hour when Katniss was finally too exhausted to cry anymore.
Her mother stood and collected the parcels from the floor. Prim pulled out a small glass vial and a few tiny pots from their stores. Dropping a bit from one and a few bits from another into the vial, her mother finally handed Katniss a tin mug and led her to the bathroom. She felt like a child learning to use the toilet as her mother helped her onto the seat and showed her how to hold the cup under her legs. Prim brought an eye dropper and they filled the vial of herbs halfway.
Instantly the gold urine turned bright blue. Katniss leaned over and vomited into the sink.
“Does Gale know?” her mother asked as she stretched a cool rag over her daughter’s forehead. Katniss lay on the on the cot in their shared bedroom.
“No,” Katniss whispered. She met her mother’s eyes. “It’s not his. He and I aren’t...it’s not his.”
Her mother blinked. “Who then?”
“It’s not his fault,” Katniss deflected quickly. “He didn’t even really want to do it, it was my idea.” It was, after all, the truth.
Her mother pressed her lips together, disbelieving and measuring her words. “In spite of that, it’s his responsibility too. You’ll need to tell him. The father.”
Katniss stared at the ceiling.
“Do you think…he’ll help?” her mother ventured.
Her heart broke in half. “Yes. He’s a kind boy. He’s a good man,” she corrected. He’d be a father in a few short months; he wasn’t a child anymore. “Oh, Momma, I’ve ruined his life!”
Her head throbbed in pain as she began to cry again. “Why why why?” she bit into the blankets until she finally slipped into oblivion.
“Did you tell him? The father?”
She looked up over the bowl of grain mush she was picking at. She dropped her eyes.
“Katniss, he does deserve to know,” her mother insisted. “This is his child too.”
They’d had this argument for three weeks now. Her mother pressed for more information, but Katniss couldn’t bring herself to betray Peeta. It wasn’t his fault, she reasoned. But she knew her mother’s fear. Soon she would not be able to hunt. Soon there would be no food again. And then another mouth to feed. She couldn’t survive without him now. What she had done to help her family had in turn doomed her. Had doomed them both.
“I know. I’ll tell him.”
Her mother nodded, cautiously optimistic and looked back to her own grain.
Katniss wouldn’t tell her mother his name. Ever. She never planned to tell anyone his name. She would ask for help when possible, but would earn it, she thought weakly. He could still live without this burden. And at the very least, she owed him that.
She counted on her fingers. Four months, nearly. She pulled the bulky sweater that belonged to her father over the bump that had sprouted on her midsection. April, she thought. Late April and the bump will disappear and a child would take its place. She’d be days away from turning seventeen. She stared at the reflection in the cracked mirror.
It was as if her guilt had marked her. The bump was her personal beacon of regret. She sighed heavily.
She really had to tell him.
The walk to school was pleasant enough; Prim had adopted a gentle way of speaking to her sister. She marveled how the young girl understood that each day was a struggle. She wondered if Prim could have imagined it was Peeta’s child growing inside her. Wondered if Prim blamed her for wrecking their family.
As she arrived at school, the group of students milling around outside caught her eye. They were all her age and from her class. She spotted Peeta at the edge of group and his vacant stare into the distance stilled her breath in her throat.
“Katniss!” Delly waved her over. She nodded good-bye to Prim while she crunched over the dry November leaves. “They had to move up the mine tour. We’re going today.”
“Today?” her mouth went dry. “Why today?”
“They’re going to be blasting out a new chamber next week,” Delly shrugged. “It’ll be too dangerous then.”
Katniss felt the sweat break out on her brow. Blasting. Explosion. Vapor. Her father.
“Are you all right?” Delly asked gently, remembering herself.
“Yes. Yes, I’ll be fine,” Katniss lied.
She kept close to Delly and her friend Madge as their teacher finally appeared and repeated Delly’s narrative. They filed to the East Entrance slowly, the chaperones corralling boys and girls that strayed from the group. Katniss kept looking over her shoulder at Peeta. She had to tell him.
The elevator down to the work floor was claustrophobic. She gripped the wire cage that trapped them inside and struggled to inhale. The air grew stale and thick with dust. Unconsciously, she clutched at her stomach under the thick sweater.
They reached the ground and filed out, standing silently against the rock wall while they waited for more students to come down in shifts on the narrow elevator. She finally caught Peeta’s eye when he stepped off the elevator, but he looked away immediately. Her heart ached.
As he stood wordlessly with his usual group of friends from town, she eyed the fair-haired girls and wondered which among them he would have chosen for his first. Valentine, the strawberry blond daughter of the letterpress worker followed him around last year, but she’d seen her dogging the butcher’s son lately. She looked at Madge and wondered if the mayor’s daughter had ever caught his eye. Delly had been betrothed to an architect from District 2 since she was born; her father knew someone that could offer her a better life even if she wouldn’t meet him before her wedding day. Katniss envied Delly’s ability to love everyone. She’d be happy no matter where she was. But Katniss would remain here, unmarried with a child, forever. It was rare for girls here to have children out of wedlock; it was too important to take care of your own family before starting a new one. She knew a girl who visited Cray had been rumored to be with child but the girl disappeared for several weeks and no baby was forthcoming. She wondered if she would have had the nerve to do what that girl did if she was carrying Cray’s baby. She absent-mindedly touched her stomach again. It wasn’t Cray’s child.
“Katniss?” Madge was at her elbow, looking at the hand on her belly. The group had started moving and she had been frozen in a daydream. A few of the Merchant kids laughed as they passed her, throwing mocking looks in her direction. Seam children were far more likely to end up here than any of them.
Katniss sighed and followed the group into the maze of tunnels. The heat and sweat made the entire place reek. The darkness pressed in on them and she tuned out the foreman’s explanation of tools and equipment. Her tongue felt parched as the day dragged on.
“This way to the assembly belts!” their teacher chirped.
“Will this day ever be over?” Katniss moaned. Delly smiled and Madge laughed. Sweating, she pulled the sweater off over her head. A tee shirt was enough down here. She stuffed her father’s sweater into her bag and spotted Madge’s raised eyebrows.
“Oh!” hesitated Madge. “Nothing, just…thinking about the miners.”
The assembly instruction was boring and torturously slow. Finally the teacher announced they were returning to the surface for lunch and return to afternoon classes.
“Aren’t you hungry? I’m starving,” Katniss noted to her friends at the elevator as they waited for their turn to ride up.
“Really?” Madge giggled at her. Delly shushed her.
“What?” Katniss furrowed her brow at her friend.
“Katniss…” Madge teased and reached forward and poked her in her stomach. “You’re a little bigger than I remember.”
Katniss looked down in horror. She hadn’t realized how the bump showed in her damp, sweaty shirt. She ripped her sweater out of the bag and covered her body.
“Oh no!” Madge cried out. “Don’t be upset, it’s good to see you with extra weight, Katniss! You were so thin for so long I’d been worried. I like you with a tummy!”
Delly shushed her again. “Madge – you’re being far too loud!”
Katniss looked up and saw the group of Merchant kids looking over at them and laughing. A few of the girls were blowing up their cheeks with air and her own face burned. Her face was fuller lately. It was getting too late to hide the inevitable. She had to tell him.
The ride up was awkward. Madge, Delly and Katniss squeezed into the car before she realized that Peeta was already inside. She tugged at her sweater nervously as she stood next to his stiff form, clutching at the cage again. He didn’t look at her.
Sitting on the ground in the schoolyard with the girls, she picked at the nuts and fruit she’d packed for midday break and opened the wax paper holding leftover roasted duck.
“Are you sure you want to eat that?” A voice intoned from her right. She glanced up to see Valentine strolling by. “I hear dark meat is awfully…fattening.” She giggled at her own cleverness and sat down at a picnic table with a few smirking girls.
Katniss pushed the meat away and willed herself not to cry.
“Don’t listen to her,” Delly said firmly. “She’s so mean. You’re still a twig. She just saw how defensive you were in the mine and wants to tease you. That’s all.”
But it wasn’t all, and Katniss knew that. The bump was small now but by the month’s end the secret would be public. She had to tell him.
The schoolyard whispers beat her to it. She imagined at first it was started as a mean joke, a girl saying something in a bathroom stall to another girl and they laughed. But as the days dragged on her stomach began to creep outward, the rumors took root. Her thin arms and legs in contrast gave them credibility. Even Delly and Madge eyed her stomach when they thought she wasn’t looking. It got back to her that most of the girls thought she was meeting Gale after school or on the weekends and she was able to breathe easier, knowing Peeta’s reputation was intact. She wondered if Gale had heard the rumors, too.
She sat on her bag to stay off the cold ground as she hid behind the schoolhouse cutting her Family Planning class. She could hardly see the point of attending. The “planning” part anyway. She could go to the birthing and nursing lessons, but her mother helped the new mothers in town figure that all out anyway. Besides, all the girls now stared at her curiously during that class. She wore her father’s looser and baggier clothes to try to hide it, but she suspected it was only fueling the fire. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. A nap would be lovely during this free hour.
A crunch of shoes on frozen ground snapped her eyes open. Damn, she thought. The hall monitor must have seen her empty seat and remembered she was in math this morning. But as she squinted against the sunlight, she saw familiar bright blue eyes meeting hers.
“Is it true?”
Her mouth opened but no words came out.
Peeta asked again. “The rumors. What people are saying…is it true?”
She broke their gaze and looked past his knees.
He seemed to stagger and had to lean on the bricks. “Oh no,” he whispered.
His eyes were so much older than she remembered. Was his face so drawn that long, dark winter? Had he lost weight since their heated summer coupling?
“I’m sorry,” she squeezed out.
“When were you going to tell me?!”
“When I figured out what the hell to do!” she stood up angrily.
He backed off from her rage. “I didn’t mean to yell, I’m sorry.” He saw her worry her hands over her stomach under a sweater far too large for her. “It would be…April. Right?”
He nodded back but then stared at the brick wall for a long time. She wondered if she should say something, but decided she knew nothing that would make this moment any less awful.
“Your birthday’s in May, isn’t it?”
She looked up at him in surprise. “Yeah, the 8th.”
He bit his lower lip. “I’ll be seventeen in March, at least.”
“The 15th, right? Your dad used to bring everyone cupcakes in Lower School,” she murmured.
He looked to her finally, a small smile playing at his mouth. “Yeah. Huh, I’d forgotten that.”
“It was the only time I’d ever had cupcakes.”
The silence between them grew. She struggled for the apology, the begging he deserved from her. Why was it so hard to tell him she had been so wrong?
“I can’t get the license alone; we’d have to go together. With your birthday in May, you’ll need your mother to sign off for you. Does she know?”
She stared blankly at him. “What?”
“The Justice Building will give me the license but you’re going to have to have a parent vouch for you.”
“A marriage license?”
“Yeah. The minimum age is seventeen. If your mom doesn’t know…I mean…I can tell her,” he said uneasily.
“No,” she whispered. The understanding was like an ice cold fist around her throat.
“Okay,” he nodded. “We can tell her together if you want,” he said, looking less than confident.
“My mother knows. No…to this,” she said shakily. “We’re not getting married.”
Peeta took his turn to stare at her. “I’ve taken enough from you, Peeta. I can’t make you - I won’t make you face this too.”
“But it’s my child,” he struggled.
“No one knows that. I’m not telling anyone. Not even my mother.”
“But it’s mine.”
She wrapped her arms possessively around her middle. “It’s mine. I’m doing this alone, Peeta,” she snarled with as much venom as she could muster in the face of his intolerable forgiveness. She had to push him away from this. She grabbed her bag and left him behind. “I – We don’t need your charity,” she threw over her shoulder as she marched home.
The Hob was a warm change from the chilled December air. All the people and goods packed inside made it cozy, despite the uneasy looks vendors gave her as she strolled through. She’d entered her fifth month now and the swell was obvious. Why try to hide it? Her mother had forbidden climbing trees, so she had to be content with the snare line but it was working well this mild winter. She had five fat rabbits and was going to have enough to get something for Prim for the holiday.
She removed her coat indoors. A woman with two small children on her left immediately grabbed their hands and led them away from her. She was wearing one of her own sweaters today and the fabric rode up along the front where it didn’t quite stretch enough across her stomach. A good four inches of her undershirt was visible. She sighed and moved to Greasy Sae’s stall.
“Look at those beauties!” Sae noted. “How many you selling?”
“Just three, today. I’m going to take one home and see if I can’t trade the other for fabric,” Katniss smiled.
“A big one like that, you’ll get something nice,” Sae smiled, taking the smaller kills in trade for an envelope of coins. “Would you like some soup?”
“Yes, please!” she grinned and hopped up on the counter like she used to. She saw Sae trying not to glance at her stomach. A familiar mourning crept into her heart. She looked up and met Sae’s eye.
As she handed Katniss the bowl, she cleared her throat. “I bet it’s a boy.”
Katniss shook her head in surprise. “Sorry?”
“You’re carrying a little bit low. My first was a boy and I carried him low. Girls seem to sit a little higher.”
The conversation seemed surreal. She never spoke about her condition. Not even with her mother when she gave her herbs or elixirs supposedly to help the unspoken thing inside her. She felt her face crack into a smile. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Greasy Sae smiled back at her. “Do you have a name picked out?”
“No,” admitted Katniss sheepishly. “I…I haven’t done much planning.” As though not speaking of the inevitable would slow down time.
“Well, my second granddaughter just turned three, she won’t need her crib anymore. Bring me six rabbits – or a buck, I’d love some venison – and I’ll get my son-in-law to bring it to your house on loan.”
Katniss pressed her lips together and squeezed her eyes shut. “Sae.”
Greasy Sae looked up at her.
“Thank you so much.”
Sae crossed over and put her hand over Katniss’ where she clutched the spoon. “Girl child, I know you’re scared. But you’ve weathered more challenges than this. And once you hold that little guy…” her voice trailed off and a joyful memory skittered through her mind. “None of what any of these idiots think is going to matter anymore.”
Katniss laughed as Sae went back to work. She started slurping her soup loudly to annoy her playfully and Sae threw a walnut at her to quiet down.
A fist jerked in front of her and caught the walnut mid-air.
Katniss dropped her bowl in surprise. “Gale?” She jumped off the counter in excitement, ready to hug him, but he pulled back. She looked up at his serious face and her heart sank. He was staring at her stomach.
She dropped her arms to her sides and looked away.
“Katniss. Why didn’t you tell me?” his eyes looked sorrowful.
“What was I supposed to say?” she answered. Looking up, all eyes were on them. “Let’s go someplace more private.”
“I don’t think we should leave alone,” Gale said, honestly and bitterly.
She tried not to show her hurt. He was right. They all thought he was the father.
“Then at least not here at Sae’s. We’ll ruin business,” she answered ruefully and moved to an empty table for the florist who was out of town.
Leaning against the table, she inhaled deeply. She hadn’t seen Gale in months. This wasn’t how she imagined their reunion at all.
“Who’s the father?” he finally murmured as they watched shoppers and vendors sneak peeks at them. She stayed resolutely silent. “He’s really worth your reputation?”
“He really is, Gale.” The comment seemed to bother him greatly. “Anyway, it’s not his fault.”
Gale snorted. “Right.”
“It was my idea.” Gale went silent and his eyes were hard. Katniss suddenly felt pity. “Gale…”
“What are you going to do?” he asked, halting her train of thought.
She sighed. It was hard to admit. “He asked me to marry him.”
Gale jerked his head to stare at her, eyes wide. “You’re getting married?”
“I said no.”
Gale’s brow furrowed. “Why?”
Katniss sought the words. “Because…Because….He can do better, Gale.”
Gale sucked in air and leaned against the table next to her. “He really can’t, Katniss.” He smiled at her sadly. “You’re going to be a great mother.”
She laughed bitterly.
“I’m serious! When have you ever let Prim down? Or your mother? You’d die for them. If your kid so much as sneezes you’re going to wage war on winter itself.”
She laughed harder. “You know, you’re probably right,” she grinned.
He grinned back at her. “You always did know how to get into trouble.”
“I’ve won that competition,” she nodded, patting her stomach.
They sat in pleasant silence, meeting the eyes of the onlookers who turned away embarrassed.
“I’m sorry they think it’s you, you know,” Katniss whispered.
“I’d die of shock if they had any more imagination than that,” Gale replied wryly. “Do you think it’ll look like you or the father?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it. He is handsome,” she mused. “But all the same, I kind of hope it has the Seam look.” She stopped short. She looked at Gale’s face and knew she had said too much.
“Well I hope it does look…fair,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Just to exonerate me, you know.”
Damn, she kicked herself. Would he figure it out? She looked at his face and realized there were plenty of contenders. Gale was scanning the Hob, looking at any fair skinned boy to see if he glanced at the girl sitting next to him. She stifled a smile. He’d never imagine the shy, kind baker’s son in a million years.
“Come on, I need to get some fabric for Prim,” she said, standing and stretching.
“You’re getting big, you’re sure it’s just one?” he teased.
They wove through the gawkers to the cart laden down with fabrics. Gale helped her lift away the better-selling dense fabrics on top to the more decorative and frequently unsold materials. She rummaged through until she located a light blue she loved. She nearly climbed in under the upheld layers to retrieve it. She started to yank on it when something caught her eye. Pink.
“Can you grab that?” she asked, her face buried in the fabrics as she tried to reach further under the stack.
His hand reached past her and grasped the pink fabric. She pushed her back against the layers above it to gently lift them so it wouldn’t tear. They worked slowly and pulled out a sheet of pink material the color of the evening primrose that grew near Katniss’ home.
She pulled her torso free of the cart and stood up into Peeta.
She started. “What are you doing here?” She heard Gale drop the layers of fabric behind her back on to the cart with a soft thud.
“My mother needed baking twine and didn’t want to come here alone,” he stammered, eyes darting between her and Gale. “I saw you guys and…thought you might need a hand.” He pushed the pink fabric into her arms.
She could sense Gale sizing him up behind her. A Merchant boy who had actually stopped to talk to a pregnant girl from the Seam was very, very suspicious.
“Thank you,” she said woodenly. “Gale, do you know Peeta Mellark? He’s the baker’s son. He goes to school with me.”
“A pleasure,” Gale spoke through gritted teeth.
“Did you finish the math homework?” Katniss tried to sound as distant as possible. “I can’t figure out the answer to the one about the fulcrum.” Maybe if she kept things formal Gale would think he was being overly suspicious of Peeta.
“Oh, um, no. I haven’t done it yet,” Peeta stammered, his eyes leaving Gale’s angry face.
“Oh,” Katniss managed. A dreadful silence settled over them and the whispers from surrounding booths crept up on them like the tide.
“Was it you?” Gale whispered the question over her shoulder to Peeta. She knew he could read her. He knew what she was doing. He knew.
Peeta’s eyes were wide. He said nothing.
Gale stepped around Katniss and faced off with Peeta. “Was. It. You?”
“Yes,” Peeta croaked feebly.
Katniss grabbed Gale’s arm, sensing he was going to murder Peeta right there in the Hob. “Gale, not here,” she hissed, her eyes surveying the dozens of people watching them unabashedly.
“I’m sorry,” Peeta was whispering. “It was an accident. I didn’t mean for you…to get blamed. I know things aren’t easy for your family-“
Gale advanced on him and Peeta stumbled backward. “Don’t you talk about my family, Merchant!”
“Stop!” Katniss wasn’t whispering anymore and she threw down the fabric to step between them.
Mrs. Mellark appeared from around the cart and surveyed the scene. Her eyebrows were raised as she saw Katniss’ palm on her son’s chest and her other holding the dark haired man’s arm.
“Peeta, you come away from them,” she ordered sternly.
“Peeta,” Katniss’ whisper was pleading. “Please-”
Peeta looked at Katniss helplessly. “I’m really sorry,” he whispered. “To both of you.” He met Gale’s eyes again.
“Peeta, get away from them!” Katniss winced as his mother shouted her order. It echoed in the warehouse. All other voices went silent. Everyone was staring at them. She looked over her shoulder and Gale’s face was red. His eyes were looking to her right.
“Gale?” She followed his glance and saw his own mother, Hazelle, standing about a hundred feet away. “Gale, what’s going on?” She was staring back and forth between her son and Katniss’ distended belly.
Peeta looked at the woman Gale so closely resembled. He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes. He turned to his mother.
“It’s mine, Mother.”
His voice was perfectly audible in the still of the Hob, but she still gasped: “What?”
“It’s my baby, Mom.”
Katniss realized she was crying. She ripped her hand away and ran for the door, pushing shoppers out of the way and knocking down a man with a cane. She burst outside as she heard Mrs. Mellark’s scream.
It was harder to run and she was winded already, but she pushed her feet in a shuffle until she reached her home. She crashed through the door, slamming it behind her and sitting down in front of it, too breathless to continue crying. She kicked her game bag away from her angrily.
Prim’s bright eyes popped up from the chair where she was reading. “Katniss?” She stood and walked over to her cautiously. Katniss realized she must look wild and frightful.
What did happen, she wondered. Peeta just told everyone in town he screwed me, she thought resentfully, but she couldn’t say that to Prim. Besides, he had damned himself as well. And freed Gale. She shook her head to Prim and her sister didn’t press it. She sat down next to Katniss on the floor and started to unbraid and re-braid her hair while she stared.
They were sitting by the fire roasting chestnuts a few hours later when their mother stepped into the door.
“How is Rory?” Prim asked. Katniss remembered that her mother had gone to see Gale’s younger brother for his persistent cough this morning.
“He’s doing much better. It’s not tuberculosis,” her mother said stiffly, facing away from her children as she took off her boots. She turned around and looked at Katniss.
“Hazelle told me.”
Katniss had to look away and close her eyes. She opened them and said firmly, “It is not his fault, Momma. Peeta is a good man.”
Prim was watching them both carefully. At Peeta’s name, her mouth fell open.
Her mother sighed. “I know, Kat. I know,” she said, pulling out a kitchen chair and sitting heavily. “Gale said that the boy proposed?”
Katniss nodded reluctantly. She felt guilty that Gale had needed to defend Peeta to her own mother.
“And you said no?”
“Momma, I can’t make him do that. You don’t know how it happened.”
“What do you mean? Katniss, he’s offering to marry you!”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t!” she stood up to face her mother.
“I made him do it!” she screamed. “He didn’t want to, he wanted to just give me all his money so we could buy food, but I wouldn’t let him!” She started to bawl. “I was so angry,” she cried. “I was just so angry that I couldn’t take care of you. I wanted to earn it. I made him…” She dropped to the floor, clutching her womb. “He was so kind to me, Momma. I ruined everything.”
She heard Prim crying softly next to her.
“Katniss!” Prim squeaked as she crawled to her sister and wrapped her arms around her. “Why? Why?”
“I just wanted to be able to take care of you,” Katniss whispered, clutching on to Prim for dear life. She looked over Prim’s shoulder and her mother’s face was in her hands and her shoulders were shaking.
She steeled herself and felt a sick pride that her mother hurt as much as she did now. If she had gotten a job sooner they may have had savings that awful winter. But she didn’t. And Katniss had to take up the slack. But making Peeta pay for what happened was far too cruel. She wanted her mother to pay more.
Katniss released Prim slowly and dried her eyes. She stood up. “Come on, I have rabbits for dinner,” she said hoarsely.
She wistfully looked at the two rabbits she pulled from the bag, wishing she had been able to make the trade before disaster struck. She would have to give Gale another rabbit soon to trade for her. The Hob would be too uncomfortable for her until after…she stilled her hands. Until she would have to go there with her child. Diapers and baby clothes. Sae’s crib. Bottles and rattles. She gripped the countertop and waited for the panic to pass.
It was late when they were sitting down to the table for their stew. They were eating in silence when the knock came at the door.
Her mother stood quickly. Late visits usually indicated an emergency.
“Oh!” she heard her mother’s shock upon opening the door. A man’s voice said something quietly to her. “Yes, yes,” she stammered. “Come in. Would you like some stew?”
“Thank you, that would be lovely. If you could spare any, of course,” Peeta’s father was saying as he came into view. Katniss’ face burned with embarrassment until Peeta came into view behind him.
The skin by his right eye was red and swollen; a bruise blossoming in the center of the injury. Katniss briefly questioned whether Mrs. Mellark had hit him right there in the Hob or waited until they’d gotten home to the bakery.
Prim jumped up quickly and ran to the apothecary cabinet in the sitting room. Pulling a clean towel from the shelf, she wet the towel with a few drops from one vial and wrapped some soothing leaves in the center. Hurrying back to the door, she pressed the towel gently to Peeta’s injured face.
He winced at first then relief flooded his features. “Thank you,” he said gratefully.
“Please, sit down,” Mrs. Everdeen said, gesturing towards an empty chair. “Katniss, please bring in another chair.”
Katniss stood slowly, cursing her mother in her mind for making her reveal the bulge to Peeta’s father. She had been hiding at the table. She turned her back to Mr. Mellark and stepped closer to the fire to grasp the heavy wooden chair her father had built himself. Peeta was immediately next to her, taking it from her.
“I’ll get it,” he said softly.
She turned away, unable to face him in her home in front of their families.
He dragged the heavy chair to the table and offered it to his father. Prim made room for him next to her. Her mother placed to bowls of stew in front of them with mismatched cups of tea.
“This is marvelous, Larkspur!” Mr. Mellark raved at the cooking after a long, uncomfortable silence.
Her mother smiled, “It’s thanks to Katniss. She brings in these beautiful rabbits.”
“And squirrels, too,” he smiled as Katniss looked up in surprise. “Sae sometimes still has one or two left when I do my trading. They’re wonderful.”
Katniss tried to smile at his compliment, but the presence of Peeta across from her made it difficult.
“Well,” coughed Mr. Mellark. “I suppose I should explain why we’re here.”
Her mother set down her teacup purposefully and nodded.
“I um…heard the predicament my boy has put Katniss in,” he said and Peeta’s eyes dropped to his lap. “And he and I both intend for him to do the right thing. He’d be seventeen in March, but if you’re all right with it, I’d like to get them to the Justice Building before then. As soon as there’s an opening.”
“That’s fine with me. Prim is very capable of handling patients when I’m out,” her mother replied solidly.
“So I’ve heard!” Prim beamed at Mr. Mellark’s confirmation.
“There is an open tenement near the bakery,” he continued. “I don’t know if you’d be all right Katniss living on the other side of town. I still need Peeta’s help at the bakery, but if you prefer her being closer he can make the trip.”
“I suppose not. I hadn’t really thought she’d move out so quickly,” her mother frowned.
“Well, there’s got to be something nearby here and the woods too,” Mr. Mellark added hastily. “I’m sure she’ll want to get back to hunting soon enough. And Peeta wouldn’t mind the walk, would you?”
“Stop it!” Katniss burst out suddenly.
“Katniss!” her mother hissed.
“We’re right here. We’re people. You’re deciding our lives!” she yelled.
Her mother looked back at Mr. Mellark with puzzlement then back to Katniss. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it mattered so much to you. Did you want to live in town by the bakery?”
“I’m not marrying him!” Katniss growled at Peeta.
“Katniss,” Mr. Mellark’s soft voice broke in. She raised her eyes to his. “You know…you know this is the only option.”
It was. Now that Peeta had announced his paternity to the town they’d both be pariahs if they didn’t marry.
“But…” she struggled. No argument presented itself.
“What about your wife?” Mrs. Everdeen asked, nervous to speak after Katniss’ admission. She was indicating Peeta’s face. They had all guessed the source of this harm.
“She’s still coming to terms with this. It’s not going to be easy,” Mr. Mellark spoke to Katniss on this one. “Time will make this easier. I promise.”
Katniss looked across the table at Peeta’s downcast face; his eyes rimmed in red.
“I don’t think it will,” she said back, and rushed from the table.
Lady was in her pen out back, chewing on some dead wild grass that stuck up from the frozen earth. Katniss plucked a carrot from the feedbag and warmed it in her hands before offering it to the goat. Lady chewed thoughtfully, and then meandered over to sniff at the carrot.
The back door opened behind her.
“They’ve gone,” Prim said quietly. “Peeta was kind of upset, so his dad took him home.”
“I bet he is,” Katniss said bitterly.
Prim moved to stand by her to pat Lady. “I don’t think Momma will make you if you really don’t want to,” she said quietly. “She just doesn’t want you to lose him. He really does want to help.”
The words were painfully honest. “I know, Prim.”
The wind picked up. “He left this for you.” Prim held a small package of brown paper to her sister.
Katniss pulled at the corner, wondering what a baker makes as a proposal gift. Her fingers paused when she was able to see inside.
“No,” she smiled sadly. “This is for you,” she said, handing the parcel of pink fabric to Prim.
Her mother had walked her all the way to the bakery the next morning. She didn’t usually make this trip, but Katniss could guess she wanted to make sure she had to face how rude she’d been to Peeta and his father. The point was made as she and Peeta sat outside on the steps behind the bakery shivering in the cold.
The anxiety of knowing what she needed to say was burning like a coal in her stomach.
“Did you figure out the math homework?” Peeta asked clumsily.
“The one you asked about yesterday.”
“Oh!” Katniss laughed hastily and hollowly. “I didn’t even do it, honestly. I was just trying to throw Gale off your trail.”
“Oh,” Peeta smiled. “I didn’t figure it out. I was hoping you had the answer.”
“No,” she shook her head.
Little flurries began to fall. They watched the white freckles litter the ground.
“You don’t have to marry me,” he said quietly. “I’ll help either way.”
Katniss stammered trying to answer. “I didn’t mean to…I…I just didn’t think they were being fair to you. It’s not your fault.” She sighed. “You shouldn’t have to deal with this. Too,” she mumbled.
He glanced at her sideways.
“It’s okay. Now,” he murmured. “I’m better. Now. Really.” He turned to looked at her. “I do want to marry you. I mean-” he flushed, “I think it would be…better that way. But if you don’t want to, it’s okay. I’m still going to help whether or not you marry me.” He sounded flustered. “It’s mine.”
“Oh,” she repeated, feeling stupid and not knowing what to say.
They lapsed back into silence.
“I’m...Peeta, I...I’m so sorry.” She felt her whole body aching with the release of the words. “I’m so, so sorry.”
She waited for his response. All he gave her was a quiet “I know.”
She watched him catch snowflakes in his upturned palm, desperate for him to understand. “You…you were just trying to help me. I was so…angry. I just…ruined everything. After my father died,” she shook her head. “I mean, my mother…” She gave up. “I wish you’d never found me that night last year.”
He inhaled sharply. “I should have done something before then. I knew things were bad and I just stood by.”
“This is not your fault.”
“I should have told your mother what you did.”
“You wouldn’t have done that to me,” she whispered. “You know you wouldn’t have.”
“I should have!” he spat.
“This is not your fault!” she yelled, feeling the knot in her throat. She realized she was gripping his coat in her fist. “Sorry,” she mumbled again, letting him go. “You know...I...forced you. You know that,” she whispered.
It took a long time, but he did finally nod.
She nodded with him, then gave up and slumped down in the chair. Now that it was said out loud she didn’t know how she could live with it.
But then he spoke again. “I’m glad it was me and not Cray. If I’d found out he’d...done that to you...I would have hurt him. My family doesn’t need that kind of trouble from his friends.”
She searched for a response. This was not going as she expected.
She heard the words as they left her mouth. “I will. Marry you, I mean,” she whispered.
His eyes were wide on her.
“If you’re still up for it. You’re right. It’d be best for both of us. Mostly me, but…” she trailed off.
“No, it’ll be good.” He was smiling slightly. “Um. Do you want something to eat?” he turned to face her.
She wanted to say no, but he was already on his feet, offering her a hand. “I made those cheese buns your dad used to buy,” he said offhandedly, pulling her into the kitchen.
“The ones with basil and goat cheese?” Her watering mouth disintegrated her resolve. “I can’t believe you remembered that.”
He smiled truly as he slipped behind the counter. “You knocked me down twice to get to the counter when your dad opened the door.”
“Oh no, I think I remember that. Sorry. Again.” She flushed with embarrassment.
“It’s been a long time, Katniss. I think we can let that one go,” he chuckled gently as he handed her a cheese bun and a paper napkin.
She let herself giggle as she bit in. The warm cheese exploded flavor into her mouth and she sighed in satisfaction. “This is so good,” she said with a full mouth.
He laughed. “I have no idea what you just said!”
She laughed back and the warmth of the ovens and the food made her feel a little bit better.
“Peeta.” Katniss and Peeta looked to the voice.
Mrs. Mellark stood in the doorway to the storefront. Her face was pale and her eyes were dark as she watched the two teenagers.
“Mom,” Peeta coughed. “You know Katniss,” he introduced them as though trying to make it a social visit.
“Not as well as you do,” she shot back, ignoring Katniss’ outstretched hand. “So,” she said with a thin smile. “You’re going to be my daughter-in-law. Nice of you to let me know.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Katniss stammered, her cheeks burning.
“We hadn’t been dating that long Mom, I told you that. It was an accident,” Peeta rushed in. Katniss looked at him in surprise.
“An accident it spilling flour on the floor, Peeta. This is a life you’ve created that you have to take care of,” Mrs. Mellark cried. “You’re not even through school. Neither of you! I can’t look at you right now…” she stormed out of the room to the back yard, wringing her hands.
“Sorry about that,” Peeta said. “She’s not quite used to the idea. It’s her first grandchild.”
“You told her we were dating?”
“Oh,” Peeta flushed. “Yeah, I told both my parents that. I didn’t want to tell them that-“ He stopped himself. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, thank you,” she said.
“It’s nothing,” he shrugged, turning back to the ovens and pulling out a dozen cheese buns.
“You’re going away?”
Delly was tearful but smiling. “Yep! My fiancé just turned seventeen, and he sent a messenger asking if we could get married soon. I think we’re going to try to get to the Justice Building in Two in the next month.”
“A month?” Katniss gasped. “That’s so…fast.”
“I know,” Delly replied a bit wistfully. She dropped her voice, “But the school there is much better. They have more resources. I can learn to be a teacher much faster there.”
Katniss had to agree with her. They were really underfunded here; no one entertained scholarly pursuits. Delly could have a much better life in a district like Two.
“So you’ll be gone…” she started, then stopped.
“Oh, Katniss, I’ll come back and visit. I can’t wait to see your baby!” Delly suddenly covered her mouth and looked around. They hadn’t spoken about it publicly.
Katniss smiled ruefully at her protruding stomach. “Delly, everyone knows. Don’t be embarrassed.”
“Sorry, I just love babies,” the blonde girl smiled sheepishly. “I can’t believe you and Peeta are going to be parents.”
Katniss’ eyebrows went up. “You know about Peeta?”
Delly covered her mouth. “Oops! I’m sorry. My mom’s cousin’s neighbor’s daughter was at the Hob this weekend; she told my mother. I didn’t think it was a secret anymore.”
“I guess not,” Katniss scowled.
Delly went quiet, unsure of how to continue. Finally, she offered, “You’re really lucky.”
Katniss nearly laughed. “How do you mean?”
“Peeta’s such a good boy. I mean, man,” Delly blushed. She looked nervous. “To be honest…I kind of wished he was my boyfriend.”
Katniss’ eyes were wide. “You did?”
Delly nodded shyly. “I mean, I’ve always known I was going to marry Diehl, but Peeta and I played together as kids and we’ve lived close by one another for my whole life. He’s always been so nice and thoughtful. Sometimes I hoped if things fell through…” She shook the thought away and turned back to her friend. “But I’m so happy he’s got you. You’re smart and funny and brave. You’re both really lucky!”
“Are we talking about your secret boyfriend?” Madge sidled up alongside their conversation, a sly grin on her face.
“I guess it’s not really a secret anymore,” Katniss sighed, stretching her aching back.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell us, Kat!” Madge smiled. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Well…” Katniss struggled for a reasonable explanation.
“You know how my mom is,” a voice said from behind them.
“Oh, right. Sorry, Peeta, I forget sometimes,” Delly said sympathetically.
Katniss stopped and turned around slowly to face Peeta. He smiled at her sweetly and ducked forward to kiss her on the cheek.
Madge smiled and turned to Delly. “Let’s leave the lovebirds alone. I’ll help you pack.” They sauntered away, casting glances over their shoulders.
“You told Madge?” Katniss murmured, aware of the eyes on them from behind.
“She heard about what happened in the Hob,” Peeta said. “I guessed if you hadn’t told her you didn’t want her to know about…what happened.”
“No one but you knows.”
She watched him kick some rocks ahead of them as they walked.
“Why didn’t you just tell the truth?” she asked in a low voice.
He looked surprised. “What do you mean? Tell them why we were out in the woods?”
She nodded. He furrowed his brow and opened his mouth, but said nothing. He sighed and slipped his hand into hers, watching the children behind them spying on them. “I’ll walk you home.”
He lived closer in town than her, so he dropped into the bakery to let his father know he was taking her home. Mr. Mellark nodded, eyeing Katniss through the window and giving her a friendly smile and a wave. She waved back, forcing a benign smile. Peeta hopped off the porch and took her hand again as he walked her towards the Seam.
When they reached her front door, she poked her head inside and found they were alone.
“Would you like some tea?” she asked woodenly, inviting him in.
He nodded. “I’ll start a fire; it’s cold in here,” he said, moving towards their living room.
By the time she had turned around he had a small blaze going in their fireplace. “You’re good with fires,” she said, handing him a steaming teacup.
He smiled timidly. “I’m in charge of setting them at the bakery. I’ve had a lot of practice.”
They sat down; she in her father’s chair and he in the chair her mother usually claimed in the evenings.
“It would have been easier on you if you had told everyone the truth.”
Peeta nodded seriously. “But it would have been a lot harder on you. And the baby. Our baby.”
Her face burned. He was as good as Delly said. She felt the shame return.
“Greasy Sae thinks it’s a boy.”
He turned his face. His eyes looked brighter. “Really? How can she tell?”
Katniss found herself smiling. “She says boys sit lower. He’s a little low, see?” She stood up and turned towards Peeta, running her hand along the stomach. Peeta leaned forward eagerly, trying to see what she meant.
“Can I touch your stomach?”
His hands were warm on her stomach, but she felt a shiver run up her spine as his fingers traced below her belly button. She was captivated by the look of entrancement on his face. His blue eyes were full of wonder as he touched her.
“Um,” she said, taking his hand. “Do you feel that bump there? My mom said that’s his shoulder.”
“Wow,” he whispered, staring and watching her stomach between his two hands.
She was staring at him again when he looked up and smiled at her. She felt embarrassed at being caught and pulled away. He briefly looked disappointed, but sat back in her mother’s chair.
“Have you thought of any names you like?”
She hadn’t. “No,” she said honestly. “I was kind of avoiding thinking about it, to tell you the truth.”
“It’s embarrassing, Peeta. I’m sixteen. Nobody wants to talk to me about it either.”
“I want to talk about it.”
“You do?” He nodded.
She watched him for a long time. “I’m scared.”
“I don’t know how to be a mom.”
“My dad is giving me a lot of advice lately-“
“I can’t hunt anymore. I can still get the snares, but it’s hard to run and I get scared of the lynxes and bears now. Even after, I can’t hunt with the baby and if I leave him at home my mom can’t work. I don’t want Prim to have to miss any school to watch him either. But I don’t know how to raise a baby and they’d both be better at it.” She started hyperventilating. Spots were appearing in front of her eyes and she squeezed them shut. She felt warm hands on her face, stroking her hair and a soft voice soothing her. She opened her eyes to look at Peeta kneeling in front of her.
“Katniss,” he was cooing to her softly, just above a whisper. “I’m here. You’re not in this alone.
“I’m up at dawn for the early shift at the bakery; I’ll be up when he wakes. And you’ll always have your mom and I have my dad for advice. They’ll know what to do when we don’t. It’s okay. This happens all the time.”
Peeta blushed. “I’m not supposed to know, but my parents got married because of my oldest brother. He was…a surprise.”
Peeta smiled. “Yeah. They were older, but he was born seven months after they got married.” He laughed quietly.
Katniss felt a wave of relief. “Wow. How did they explain that to their parents?”
Peeta perched on the arm of her chair. “They were dating when it happened. Everyone assumed they were going to marry anyway. So they did.” He shrugged.
“So you told your parents we were dating in secret,” Katniss realized. “Because your mother doesn’t like Seam kids.”
Peeta nodded. “They can’t really fault us when it’s the same as what they did.”
Katniss looked up at him. “It’s not, Peeta. They don’t know that, but…you do.”
Peeta sighed loudly. “It doesn’t matter anymore, Katniss!” He stood up and whirled around to face her. “It’s not the end of the world; it’s not ruining our lives. Why do you have to make this something bad?”
She thought her jaw might hit the floor. “But…but…you can’t…I’m…you’re stuck with me. With us.”
“Maybe I want to be stuck with you!” he said. He stared at her wide-eyed for a moment, then grabbed his coat off her mother’s chair and ran out the door.
She was fastening the tie on her braid when the knock came to the door.
“Katniss! Peeta’s here for you,” Prim called from the front room.
She was surprised to see him after Friday. And nervous over what to say.
“Hi,” he breathed, his air forming little steam clouds in the chilly morning. He gripped a paper packet in his hands. “Um. I was going to see Delly off at the train station. Did...did you want to say goodbye?”
She nodded. “Yes. That would be nice.” She called over her shoulder. “Mom? I’m going to the train station with Peeta. Delly’s leaving today.”
“All right.” Her mother appeared, wiping an herbal concoction from her hands. “Hello, Peeta.”
“Mrs. Everdeen,” he nodded.
“Oh, did you make something for Delly? Katniss, should you take her something?”
“It’s just sandies,” he shrugged. “She really likes them.”
“It’s fine, Mom,” Katniss mumbled. “We should go; it’s getting late.”
“Okay.” Mrs. Everdeen eyed Peeta and Katniss standing awkwardly in the doorway; unable to look at one another. “Have a good time,” she worried.
Prim squeezed Katniss’ hand with a sad smile and sent them out the door.
They walked silently across the Seam, listening to children playing inside the homes surrounding them. The smell of snow and ice hung in the air.
Katniss broke first.
“Why would you want to be stuck with me?”
Peeta sighed. “I just. I don’t think a baby is the worst thing that’s ever happened.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “It shouldn’t be your burden to bear,” she murmured.
He didn’t say anything more as they walked along the frozen ground.
“It was. That was nice of you to say. I, um. I felt better. Talking to you about the baby was nice. I don’t talk about him. Or her.”
“I still want to talk about it,” Peeta ventured carefully.
“Okay,” she smiled.
“Okay.” He smiled a little. “Did you think of any names yet?”
“No,” she laughed. “I’m not good at naming things. I should just let Prim do it. She named our goat Lady.”
“Rye named our pig Lucy.”
“I don’t think we should use either of those,” she said.
Katniss looked at the changing size and construction of the houses as they entered the merchant’s quarters. “Do you know anything about Diehl?”
Peeta shook his head. “I hope he’s kind. She’s so loving, you know?”
Katniss looked at the swell straining the buttons on her coat. “Did you love her?” she asked quietly.
“Did you love Delly? If...this...hadn’t happened. Would you be with her?”
He didn’t hesitate. “No.”
They were at the station.
Delly was tearful and shaking. Peeta held her for a long time, promising they’d come see her and that she should call often. Madge kissed her cheeks and told her she’d always remember their friendship. Finally Delly turned to Katniss.
She held open her arms and ran to Katniss. Katniss reeled at Delly’s overwhelming affection.
“I’m so happy for you,” Delly whispered.
“You’ll be just as happy,” Katniss whispered. “Who wouldn’t love you, Delly?”
Delly stepped back and blinked through her wet eyelashes. “Thank you. Take care of Peeta for me,” she laughed wistfully.
Katniss felt her breath catch. “I will.”
Delly’s mother was wiping her eyes and her father’s nose was red as they led her onto the train with her bags. She waved from the window. The engine started up. They watched her in the window until the train disappeared from Twelve.
Madge began to cry in earnest and her father led her away from the station with an arm around her shoulders. Katniss watched her. She turned at the sound of the sniffle.
“Don’t be sad for her, Peeta,” she murmured. He rubbed his red eyes.
“I know, it’s for me.” he sighed. “If Prim was getting married and moving away, wouldn’t you be sorry for you?”
Katniss pictured Prim in the worn white dress she’d borrow from Madge or Bristel and a lead weight dropped onto her heart. “Oh.”
“Yeah,” Peeta smiled.
“At least Delly’s going someplace better than here,” she sighed as they trod slowly away from the station. Even their Justice Building was worn and caked in grime. “I don’t want Prim to ever go away, but if it was to a good family in a district with resources...” She had to stop.
He was silent for a moment. “Did you want to go to another district? If we weren’t pregnant?”
She didn’t hesitate. “No.”
She thought he smiled a little. They rounded the corner into the town square.
Katniss pulled her coat tighter as the merchants setting out carts and tables in front of their store front. Eyes peered from behind curtains as they walked by. Peeta reached over and took her hand in his.
“Do you want a cheese bun?”
“Yes,” she smiled.
She was amazed at how hot the bakery was even in the early morning. She’d hoped to sit and have a few minutes alone with Peeta, but a line had formed that would soon go out the door.
“I should help,” he said to her ear. “Let me get you some cheese buns first, okay?”
She nodded and slipped into a corner behind the door. He called to his oldest brother to hand him a box of three for Katniss and her family. Rye handed over the box with a little wave to Katniss. She remembered him from when he was in his last year at the Upper School and Peeta was in his first. She forced a smile as the line turned to stare at her getting free food.
Peeta kissed her on the cheek as the customers watched. “I’ll see you tomorrow at school.”
She blushed and hurried out the door.
Katniss bumped into another customer climbing the stairs. “Sorry, I-”
The snide chuckle made her look up. Valentine had raised her eyebrow and was looking back and forth between Katniss’s womb and the box of cheese buns in her hand.
“Couldn’t think of another way to get free food?” she sneered at Katniss. “You Seam sluts are all the same,” she said, slamming her shoulder against Katniss as she stormed past her.
Katniss felt her temper explode. She turned. “He’d rather knock up a Seam slut like me than a frigid Merchant bitch like you.”
Valentine was irate. Katniss smiled as Valentine’s pale cheeks turned bright red. She fled the bakery porch and Katniss watched her run all the way back to her home. She was sure she’d hear about this tomorrow, maybe even this afternoon, but as she walked home eating a warm cheese bun she felt the best she’d felt in a long time.
“I want to quit school.”
“You’re not going to.”
“Valentine and her friends make fun of me to my face. They all stare at me.”
“You’re a pregnant sixteen-year-old, they’ll stare at you everywhere.”
“Momma, I’m not going back.”
“Katniss, you are going to school until the baby comes and then Peeta is going to bring you your lessons and you are going to graduate in the summer session and that is the end of it.”
“The END of it.”
She twisted her scarf in her hands again.
“Stop that. You’ll tear it,” her mother fussed at her.
They sat on a bench in the great hallway of the Justice Building waiting for Peeta and his father. People departed, wishing each other a happy Spring Festival as they prepared to close up early for the holiday break. The hour grew late. They waited.
“It’s probably just business,” her mother muttered nervously. Katniss knew her fear: Peeta had changed his mind over their month of courtship and abandoned her to burden her family’s insufficient resources. Katniss imagined he’d finally just come to his senses.
She spotted Peeta’s blond hair sprinkled with snow as he jogged up the stairs from the doors. His father was close behind.
“Sorry we’re so late,” he said breathlessly.
“Not at all, there’s plenty of time,” Mrs. Everdeen said with relief, standing to nod to his father.
“Let’s get going,” Mr. Mellark said, gesturing towards the registration desk.
The clerk seemed to have trouble understanding why Mr. Mellark and Mrs. Everdeen were asking for a marriage application until Katniss sighed loudly and shrugged off her coat. Under the fitted white dress her mother demanded she wear her pregnancy was unquestionable. The clerk quickly handed over the forms with discomfiture.
Their parents filled out names, birth dates, lineage and permission agreements before they were called to go to the magistrate’s office. Katniss’ palms started to sweat as they stepped into the ornate office. It smelled of old books and musty furniture and she sneezed at the dust. Peeta handed her a handkerchief from his jacket and she realized his father had him dressed well too. She wiped her nose and awkwardly handed it back to him with a sheepish smile. He made a face and gestured for her to keep it, stifling a laugh.
Their parents handed over the forms to the magistrate and answered his preliminary questions. He read over the pages carefully and announced, “Well, this all appears in order.” Looking over his reading glasses, his eyes pausing on her belly, he called Katniss and Peeta forward.
“You’ll need to sign here…and you here,” he gestured to two black lines at the bottom of the page. One was labeled Husband and the other Wife.
The magistrate handed Peeta a pen with a long white feather. The quill waved lazily as Peeta applied his name to their license. He held the pen out to Katniss and she could see the feather shaking in his hand. She stared at the paper. She couldn’t move.
A minute passed. The clock in the corner ticked loudly.
“Miss?” the magistrate asked.
“Katniss?” Peeta leaned towards her.
“Come now, Katniss,” her mother’s voice sing-songed behind her. “Sign it.”
She couldn’t move.
Peeta cleared his throat. “Can we have a minute? Alone?” He implored the magistrate.
“Just a minute, though. I have a number of appointments left this afternoon.” He swept up and his billowing black robe followed him.
“You too?” Peeta asked his father and Mrs. Everdeen. “Just a minute?”
They nodded with apprehension and stepped outside, the door clicking shut behind them.
She dropped into a chair and propped her face in her hands as she rested her head on her elbows. She had one more minute as herself.
A tickle at her neck made her squirm. Maybe a moth. It came back stronger and she brushed at her neck. Her fingers caught the feather. She looked up to see Peeta smiling as he tickled her neck with the feathered pen.
“Stop it!” she said, but her smile betrayed her. He was always able to make her smile.
“Look at this ridiculous thing,” he laughed, waving the pen in the air over his head. He brought it back at her and she jumped from the chair giggling and darting away. He chased her around the desk laughing and lunging at her with the feather.
She stopped dead and he nearly crashed into her. She was clutching her stomach.
“Katniss, what’s wrong?” he said, throwing the pen down and rushing to place his hands over hers.
“Do you feel it?” she said, her eyes wide.
He didn’t understand for a moment. Then, ever so slightly, he felt the movement under his fingers. He gasped. She took his hand in hers and put them on her belly. He felt the shift of her skin as the child stretched and settled back down.
She watched him as the involuntary smile took over his face, his eyes shining.
“Yeah,” she breathed.
She pulled away and moved around to the front of the desk again. Her eyes found her signature line. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply.
“You remember last winter?”
Her eyes fluttered open and she saw Peeta watching her.
“Yes,” she whispered. She waited.
“I was really excited to see you that night.” She must have looked puzzled because he continued, “I thought you’d come to see me. I thought one of my brothers had told you.”
“Told me what?”
“That,” he seemed to be fighting to find the words, “that I was going to ask you to let me take you to the winter rally. I was up making those pumpkin cookies your dad always bought you. I remember you eating them all before you’d even leave the bakery.”
The image of her father handing her the package and the smell of the cookies as she would shove her entire nose in the bag flooded her memory. The taste crept into her mouth and made it water.
“Oh?” was all she croaked out. “You were…going…?”
“Yeah. I’d been thinking about it all year. I tried to ask you to the Harvest Festival, but I kept chickening out. You were always with Gale, I figured he’d asked you by the time it finally arrived.”
She shook her head. She didn’t know what to say.
“So I saw you outside, and I thought you’d heard and I was really embarrassed,” he smiled. “My brothers like to tell on me.”
Her mind had wandered now. The idea of how glad he was to see her that night. Of what she had done to him, kneeling on the wooden floor of his kitchen. His face as a child watching her trying to eat a cookie in one bite. His sobs. The feel of the towel beneath her back in the woods. His fingers knotted with hers when she grew nervous walking to school. Her eyes finding his watching her at the Harvest Festival. Of his body between her legs.
His words were in her ears. Maybe I want to be stuck with you. We were pregnant. Together.
He was kneeling in front of her when she came back to her senses.
“I’ll take good care of you, Katniss. Of both of you.”
She looked into his glassy eyes. The door opened behind her and she heard three sets of footsteps walking in. Peeta stood up.
She reached to the floor and picked up the pen. She signed the marriage license.
They sat on two wooden crates in front of the fireplace, clothes and jars and packages wrapped up and stacked around them. Peeta stoked the fire while Katniss opened the packet of bread his father had handed his son after he dropped off the last crate of his clothes.
He stood and walked over to the area that would become their kitchen when they finally unpacked, and found the slotted metal tray and a thick hand towel. Bringing it back to her, she arranged the perfect slice on the tray and he balanced it carefully on the spit hooks above the fire. She watched the bread brown slowly. Pulling it free with the towel, he took her hand.
“So,” he said.
“So.” She smiled.
“Cheers, Mrs. Mellark,” he blushed.
“Cheers,” she smiled at his shyness. He lifted the slice to her mouth. She took a bite although she was too overwhelmed to taste anything. She chewed and swallowed hard, then took the piece of bread from him and held it to his mouth. His eyes watched her as he chewed and swallowed.
And it was done.
They climbed the stairs to the bedroom after deciding it was too late to unpack anymore. She stared at the small double bed while she listened to Peeta wash his face in the bathroom. There was no hiding now. She wondered if her mother had told Mr. Mellark they weren’t really dating. Probably not. She’d never have found them two beds anyway; her mother wanted her to marry him from the start.
She looked at herself in the mirror she’d leaned against the wall. Her face was cold from washing and her hair was loose. She felt the rough towel against her back in her memory. The sheets would be soft and cool. She looked down at her billowing nightdress. If he’d want to at all like this.
If he’d ever want to again.
She heard the water shut off and climbed into the bed. She pulled the sheets up to her armpits and bit her tongue. Her wool nightgown felt heavy but she was still freezing.
He gave her a pinched smile as he padded over in his pajamas. She swallowed hard.
He climbed into bed. “Goodnight,” he said.
He reached over and turned out the light.
As his breathing slowed and deepened, she crawled out of bed and slipped into the bathroom. She turned on the creaking faucet and buried her face in her nightgown to cry.
“Can I wear this?” Katniss asked, holding up Peeta’s green wool sweater.
He glanced up from the confusing Sae’s handwritten crib reassembly instructions and burst out laughing. Her undershirt was bunched up over her six-month belly and her skinny legs stuck out of his old sleep shorts. She looked ridiculous.
“Stop it!” she cried indignantly. “Nothing I own fits!”
“Of course,” he gasped. “It’s just…you look funny.”
She huffed and stomped back upstairs.
“Oh Katniss! I’m just teasing you.”
“Shut up!” she yelled and slammed the bedroom door.
He sighed and smiled to himself. He gave up on the crib and climbed the stairs to knock gently on the door.
“Katniss?” he pushed open the door, relieved they hadn’t installed the bedroom door locks yet.
She was sitting on the floor in his sweater and her own underwear, crying.
“Oh no! I was just joking with you, I promise!” He hurried over and sat next to her on the floor.
“It’s not the sweater,” she muffled. “I’m so…ugly.”
“What?” he gaped at her.
“I’m fat and ugly!” she exclaimed, drawing away and standing up, stomping to the mirror. “Look at me!” she yelled, pulling off his sweater to reveal her undershirt still bunched over the swell. “I look like your stupid pig.”
“Katniss,” Peeta said, standing slowly and moving behind her in the mirror, “you’re beautiful.” He wrapped his arms around her and rested his chin in the crook of her neck so they could both look at each other in the mirror. “Besides, that pig won blue ribbon at the livestock show three years in a row, you know.”
She scowled and tried to pull away, but he held her firm, laughing. He was always so much stronger. She gave up and hung her head.
“Katniss, really. You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”
She didn’t respond, she just gazed at their linked reflection in the mirror. His hands were warm and strong. He moved them to cover her belly and kissed her gently on the neck, returning to resting his chin there. He smiled softly at her. She felt a smile creep across her lips and saw it reflected in the mirror. For that moment, she felt beautiful in his eyes. The baby kicked his hands. He laughed and strummed his fingers, searching to feel movement again.
Katniss chuckled at his tickling fingers. “He always moves more when you’re around.”
Peeta looked up at her reflection. “We shouldn’t plan too hard for a boy. What if it’s a girl?”
“Which do you hope it is?”
He smiled. “It doesn’t matter to me. I just hope that he or she looks like you. District Twelve could use more beautiful.”
He kissed her on the cheek and headed back downstairs to work. She watched him go, the smile playing at her mouth long after he disappeared.
The squirrels Gale had brought her that morning sat by the cutting board, ignored and uncooked. She was still at the window, watching Peeta chip ice away from the doorway. Despite the chill he was sweating from the effort. She watched a trickle of sweat from his temple work down his face to his nose. When it dropped, she felt a tightness between her legs. Realizing she had been holding her breath, she suddenly inhaled and tossed the knife down on the counter.
She climbed the stairs to the bedroom and slipped into the bathroom to splash water on her face. As she brought the towel her face she looked at herself in the tarnished mirror. She had to get control over the situation. The hormones would drive her mad.
In the few weeks since Peeta had called her beautiful, she hadn’t been able to stop noticing him. The way his eyelashes turned spun gold in sunlight. The shy smile he’d give her when he kissed her cheek good night. How much she liked to see his form coming down the street from the bakery each evening. The way his muscles contracted and relaxed when she watched him assemble a rocking chair for her. The smell of his skin as he lay in bed by her but not close enough. The gnawing desire to feel him inside her again.
She stared at herself in the mirror. She hated how badly she wanted him. She knew she couldn't ask for that. She dared to wonder if she could make him want her. She sighed as the guilt crept back. Even if she had the ability, she felt she didn’t have the right to try.
She heard the door open and a voice mixed with Peeta’s fill the kitchen. She smiled as she recognized the chirping laugh. She climbed down the stairs laboriously.
“Prim!” Katniss breathed. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to drop these off for your dinner with the Mellarks,” Prim said, holding out their mother’s beaded hair combs. “Why are you out of breath?”
“It’s hard to get up and down the stairs,” Katniss groaned. “He’s getting heavy.”
“Or she,” Prim suggested. “I hope it’s a girl. What are you going to name her?”
“Or him,” Katniss reminded her. “And I have no idea.”
“How about Prim?” she grinned.
Peeta laughed. “I don’t think we can replicate you, Primrose.”
“True,” she laughed.
“Would you like some tea?” Peeta asked.
“Oh no, I have to run,” she said. “Mom is delivering the Stones’ baby tonight. I’m going to help her.” She looked over to Katniss. “Just think,” she smiled kindly, “it’ll be your turn in just two months.”
Katniss felt the familiar terror grip her.
“And you’ll do a phenomenal job,” Peeta assured Prim. “Let me know what it turns out to be, I’ll send pink or blue cookies. Or both,” he laughed.
Katniss glanced down at her belly and prayed all the times her mother said it was just one was true.
Prim waved as she ran off towards the Seam.
“I forgot we were having dinner with your parents tonight,” Katniss murmured, fingering the combs. The baby kicked in sympathy.
“Katniss, they like you.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“My brothers ask about you all the time. My father thinks you’re wonderful.” He coughed. “And my mom...is really coming along.”
“Uh-huh.” She pocketed the combs. “I’m going to shower.”
She picked at the combs in her hair as they neared the bakery.
“Peeta!” His mother embraced him. “Katniss,” she said crisply.
“Mrs. Mellark,” she choked.
“Katniss!” Mr. Mellark was at the door and pulled her in with his strong arms. She nearly fell as he swept her into a firm hug. “Look at you,” he grinned. “Not too long at all!”
She blushed. “Still three months.”
“I can’t wait,” he grinned, hugging Peeta. “My first grandchild. I hope it’s a girl.”
“Tired of boys?” Peeta asked.
“Yes!” They shared a laugh. Katniss saw Mrs. Mellark eyeing her without a smile. She swallowed the knot in her throat.
“We’re starving in here!” Rye poked his head in the door. “Let’s eat!” He smiled at Katniss.
She hurried into their cramped dining room. Peeta set down the basket of rolls he’d brought and pulled a chair out for Katniss.
“When are you due?” Kirsch asked, eyeing Katniss as she struggled into the chair.
“April 14th,” she wheezed. He looked doubtful.
Rye whistled. “My kid brother’s having a baby. Crazy. Always thought Kirsch would get that Kendall girl in trouble first,” he grinned.
Kirsch tried to put Rye in a headlock and they struggled until Mr. Mellark bellowed for them to settle down. “I’m so sorry, Katniss,” he sighed. “This is why you want a girl. It never ends.”
Katniss covered her mouth and tried not to laugh.
Peeta rolled his eyes.
The conversation was surprisingly light as the boys tormented each other and Mrs. Mellark kept resolutely quiet. When Mr. Mellark presented a small plate of brownies for dessert, Katniss was already stuffed and content.
“So,” Mrs. Mellark asked as she watched Katniss pick at her second brownie. “What are your plans for work?”
Katniss glanced up. “Excuse me?”
“What are you going to do?”
She looked at her mother-in-law. “I hadn’t really thought about it yet,” she mumbled.
“Because I don’t think this bakery is going to make enough to support another family,” his mother said pointedly. “And at twenty, Rye is next in line to run the place-”
“Mom, I think Peeta will be fine-” Rye tried to interject. She cut him off.
“So I think you ought to consider what’s best for my son and my grandchild and get a job.”
“Mom,” Peeta said. “It’s fine. She hunts, we’ll have plenty of food.”
“Oh good,” she replied, “she can run off to the woods and leave you with the baby. That will work out nicely, won’t it?”
“Dear,” Mr. Mellark warned.
“Are you meeting your Seam friend out there? Or do you just go to the slag heap to see him?”
“Mom!” Peeta shouted and stood up. “That’s my wife!”
Katniss’ face was on fire as she screamed. “I’ve only ever been with Peeta!”
“Because he has money and you don’t!”
Peeta slammed his fist down on the table with such force it silenced them all. Katniss saw the small cracks in the wood where he had struck it. She’s forgotten how strong he was.
He spoke very, very quietly and slowly.
“Katniss is my wife. I love her. You will never - ever - speak to her like that again. Or you will never meet your grandchild.”
He pulled Katniss to her feet and dragged her to the door. His father rushed after them.
“Peeta, please. She didn’t mean that.”
“It’s all right, Dad,” he said. He hugged his dad. “When she apologizes we’ll come back. You’re welcome in our home - if that’s all right with you,” he confirmed with Katniss.
She could only nod.
“Here,” his father pressed another brownie into her hand.
“I’ve already had two,” she confessed sheepishly.
“Then this one is for my granddaughter,” he insisted. “I want to fatten you both up.”
Katniss tried to laugh, but it was nearly a sob.
Walking home, it took a long time for either of them to find words.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. His voice sounded hoarse. She wanted to cry too. She shook her head.
“Don’t apologize,” she begged. “It’s...why we were out in the woods.” She felt the tears slip. “I never...Gale and I...” She wiped her face as she walked. “It’s not why I married you.”
“I know, Katniss,” he whispered. He swallowed hard. “When we were together...I...You’re my only too.”
“I know,” she breathed.
They walked in silence.
“We’ll be all right,” he said. “I can work in the mines.”
She froze. “No.”
“Katniss, I can’t work for her if she feels that way.”
“NO!” She stomped her foot and grabbed his jacket roughly. “No. I don’t care if she hates me, I won’t ever let you put your life in danger down there. I - we need you.”
“She should apologize to you.”
“You know?” she smiled bravely. “I don’t really care what people say anymore. Valentine, your mom, my mom. Nothing matters.”
He gave her a quizzical look.
She blushed. “Because you love me. After all I’ve done. What I’ve done to you. You love us. Nothing else in the world could matter to me.”
“I’ve always loved you.”
She stared. “What?”
An incredulous expression passed over his face. “Katniss, that’s why I brought you in to the bakery that night. Why I went out with you to the woods. Why I didn’t tell your mother. Why I wanted to marry you.”
He took a deep breath. “It’s why I forgave you. Why I can forgive me, too.”
She started to cry. “I don’t deserve it.”
“Whether or not you do,” he smiled softly, “it’s not something you can change.”
He lead her home while she sniffled, helping her into the tub since she couldn’t see her feet to step over the lip.
He tried to make her laugh, teasing her about winning a blue ribbon, but she could only smile weakly.
She sat in the tub, listening to him turn down the bed. She poured the water over her hair and body, trying to wash away the memory of dinner. She brought her hands to rest on her stomach.
“He’s going to take such good care of you. Of us,” she whispered.
She pulled herself gracelessly out of the tub and wrapped a towel around her body. She rolled her eyes when it wouldn’t go all the way around her midsection. She looked for her robe. It wasn’t in the bathroom.
She stepped outside into the bedroom.
It was dim, but he’d lit a few candles around the room. The bed was turned down and he was waiting for her.
“Come here,” he murmured.
It took her a moment to make her feet stumbled forward to where he sat on the bed. He reached up and pulled the ill-fitting towel away from her. She felt his eyes roam her body; her breasts, her legs, her womb, the parts of her she couldn’t see anymore. She wondered what he saw.
He stood up and she took a small step back and watched him unbutton and pull off his shirt and undershirt. When he pulled off his pants, she could see. He still wanted her.
When he was in front of her she was suddenly nervous. She leaned forward on her toes and kissed him gently. He returned the kiss, deepening it with passion. When he gently eased his tongue into her mouth, she felt the movements all the way down to her groin and wanted more.
“You’re so beautiful, Katniss.” He pulled her into his arms and kissed her again. She slipped away and lay down on the bed.
He moved to her. When he pushed two fingers inside her she balled a pillow into her face to stifle the shout. The quick pinch gave way to a flood of pleasure she hadn’t anticipated. It was so unlike the first time. She started to buck her hips back against his fingers, forcing them farther inside her and rubbing harder against the nerve bundle.
He kissed her again and again, whispering against her lips things she’d dreamt of hearing for over a year. His fingers twisted and rocked and she found herself making noises and movements she couldn’t control.
He could feel the throbbing as she started the thrash, screaming into the pillow she was holding over her face. She yelped as he yanked his fingers out of her and jerked the pillow away. He slammed his fingers back growling, “I want to watch you.”
Her hands found his shoulders and she dug her nails into his bare flesh as she rode her climax out. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she shifted her hips away from his hands.
She stared breathlessly at him. “You’re beautiful,” she told him.
She sat up, forcing him to stand and looked him in the eye as she ran her fingers down his chest, tracing the muscles she loved to watch. She wrapped her fist around him and started to gently pulse back and forth as she watched his eyes close. He leaned his head back and moaned deep in his throat.
His hands were suddenly at her shoulders. “Now,” he said, pushing her down. “Right now.”
She grinned devilishly and raised her knees to her sides. He guided himself to her, watching her face cautiously as he started to push in. She grimaced slightly at the first stretching sensation, but her jaw fell open as the intense fullness made her shudder in pleasure. She dropped her head back on the pillow and sighed out a long “yes”.
He held her knees as he started to pump his hips, already grunting and gasping her name. She moaned and writhed on the sheets. She fisted the blankets as she pushed back again him. She was close again, riding her first wave and smiling at him as she caught his eye.
“What?” he gasped at her.
“I’m having a really good time,” she laughed and groaned at the same time.
He laughed too, and then stopped as he furrowed his brow in concentration. He sucked in his lips and appeared to be biting down, trying to withstand the pleasure.
She reached up to her knees and took his hands. “Don’t hold back,” she whispered.
Nearly immediately he was crying her name and balancing over her and the swell as he convulsed. A drop of sweat slipped from his brow to the tip of his nose. She rose up to kiss it away. He lifted his face and they tasted each other’s effort on their lips.
“I’ve wanted to do that again for so long,” he breathed.
She lay back on the bed and mourned as he pulled out of her. He collapsed next to her on the bed. She rolled her head to look at him. “Why didn’t you try?” she smiled. “We’ve been married for a month.”
“I didn’t know you wanted to!” he confessed. “I guess I thought you’d be worried about hurting him. Or her,” he added. “I know your mom said it’s safe-”
“You talked to my mom about this?” Katniss said up in alarm.
“No,” he flushed bright red. “When my dad and I brought the bed upstairs, I was setting up the mattress when she brought over these sheets. She said,” he coughed uncomfortably, “it was safe to do it up until really late. Almost-time late.”
Katniss bit her lip. “That’s awkward.”
“Yeah,” he laughed again. “I think I said ‘thank you’ or ‘how about that’. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”
Katniss grinned in the dark.
“I’m here. With you. We’re a family now.” She held her breath. “Can you believe me?” he whispered.
“Yes,” she breathed.
He rolled onto his side and took her hand. “Can you forgive yourself? Can you let it go?”
She started to shake her head, but he gripped her hand and demanded she meet his eye. “Katniss. For me. For our child. Please. Let it go.”
She swallowed hard. She nodded.
He smiled at her. HIs fingers tangled in her hair. He pressed his lips to hers. “I love you.”
He blew out the candles around the bed and found her in the dark. He pulled her into his side and she was surrounded by his strong arms.
“Peeta?” she whispered.
“Mmm?” he yawned.
“I love you.”
He was quiet for a long time.
“You just want me for my body,” he suddenly teased her. She was stunned before he said, “Katniss. I’m trying to make you laugh.”
“Oh,” she stumbled. “I. Oh.”
He laughed. “You always took yourself too seriously.”
“I did not!”
She saw him roll her eyes at her.
“I did not!” She sat up.
He laughed again.
“What?” she steamed.
“I love you too.”
She was disarmed. She folded her arms and laid back down. She could hear him trying not to laugh. “Good. Thank you,” she muttered.
He couldn’t contain it and started laughing out loud. She didn’t last long before she was laughing too.
Katniss leaned back in the rocking chair and tried to bounce the berries off her stomach into her mouth. The third berry missed her mouth and skittered across the dirty floor. “Damn,” she sighed.
At nine months, it was going to take her a minute to get out of the chair. She braced her arms and pushed up and out of the seat, huffing and puffing against the weight. The baby shifted in protest and she knew she’d have to go to the bathroom before trying to retrieve the berry.
She heard the knock when she was on the seat and called out to come inside. When she walked out of the bathroom she was startled to see Peeta’s mother standing awkwardly inside her door.
It had been over two months since their disastrous dinner. Peeta had gone to work before school and after, but did not speak of her at all. Katniss had asked him about his mother and he had said he tried to work when she was sleeping or making dinner for his brothers. She didn’t think they were speaking but Katniss was too uncomfortable to ask for details.
Now Mrs. Mellark cleared her throat.
“I was hoping my son was home,” she fumbled.
“He’s not home from school yet,” Katniss answered.
“Oh, of course,” Mrs. Mellark frowned. “I forgot,” she said lamely.
Katniss expected her to turn and leave, but she didn’t. She coughed. “Would you like, um, to sit down? He won’t be long.”
“Yes, thank you.”
She sat in the rocking chair Peeta had assembled for Katniss. “This is very comfortable.” Katniss said nothing and struggled onto their sofa.
They sat in silence.
“How is...the baby?”
“Fine,” Katniss mumbled. “Big.”
His mother gave a weak smile. “You’re smaller than I was with Peeta.”
Katniss nodded. She looked up in alarm as his mother suddenly burst into tears.
“Why did this happen?” she cried. “He’s such a good boy. Why did this happen to him?”
Katniss felt the shame she hadn’t felt in months rain over her. “It’s my fault. It was my idea,” she whispered.
“I told him to be careful,” Mrs. Mellark cried. “I knew he was crazy about you. He couldn’t hide it,” she sniffed. “But I know Seam girls,” she ground out through her tears. “I know you want a Merchant boy to make your life easier.”
“That’s not what happened,” Katniss cried out.
“Don’t lie to me!” Mrs. Mellark shouted. “Peeta’s the best boy in the District!”
“That’s why I love him!”
Katniss clapped her hand over her mouth. Mrs. Mellark continued to cry.
“Then why did you let this happen?” she bawled.
“It just did,” Katniss sighed miserably. “These things just happen. I know it happened to you too.”
Mrs. Mellark shook her head miserably. “Don’t remind me.” She leaned back in the chair and rested her head against the back. “Three boys and twenty one years. A few good. Most bad.” She looked at Katniss sadly. “And now it’s your turn.”
Katniss looked at her hands. “It’s not.”
Mrs. Mellark laughed mirthlessly.
She looked at Katniss. “Why?”
“Because of Peeta. He loves - truly loves - so much more than anyone in Panem. He’s a better person than any of us. He’s so different. He makes me better. He makes us better. He...he makes me happy. He makes us good.”
“Love doesn’t feed you,” Mrs. Mellark said quietly. “Love doesn’t buy clothes.”
“No,” Katniss admitted. “But it does make the hunger and the cold easier to bear.”
Mrs. Mellark stared at her for a long time. “You’re not the girl I thought you were, Katniss.”
Katniss sighed. “I didn’t want a baby. I didn’t want that for my family or me. Or Peeta. But it’s happening. And,” she smiled weakly, “he’s happy. I want that for him.”
Mrs. Mellark sighed. “I guess...I...I apologize for what I said to you.” She looked at her hands. “I guess I’ve always thought an unplanned baby was a bad thing. Because of me. But,” she sighed. “I suppose it’s not the worst thing, is it?”
“It’s happening,” Katniss said.
“Yes, it really is,” Mrs. Mellark smiled.
“No, no, no,” Katniss stood up. “It’s happening!” Mrs. Mellark watched the wet stain spread from her groin to puddle on the floor. “Oh no!” Katniss began to hyperventilate. “What do I do?”
“Didn’t you take Family Planning?” Mrs. Mellark asked.
“I cut class!” Katniss wailed. “I need my mom!”
“Okay, okay,” Mrs. Mellark jumped up. “Let’s just breathe and relax. You have plenty, and I mean plenty, of time. The baby isn’t going to be here for many hours.”
“That sounds terrible,” Katniss moaned.
“It gets worse,” Mrs. Mellark warned. “But trust me, in the end, you won’t mind. A baby really isn’t a bad thing at all,” she smiled.
“Ow!” Katniss crushed Peeta’s hand with the contraction. “Katniss, you’re going to break my hand!”
“I’ll break your face if you ever do this to me again!” she screamed. He yanked his hand away and she caught him by his neck. “Do you hear me?”
Her mother hurried over and pulled her fingers away. “Peeta, why don’t you go get her some water?”
Peeta ran in terror from the bedroom. Prim put her hands on her hips. “Katniss, you need him to be alive in the morning.”
“That’s a matter of opinion,” Katniss growled. She balled the sheets in her fists and whimpered. “Mom, I’m so tired,” she whined. “When will this be over?”
Her mother stroked her hair piteously. “Soon, honey. You’re doing really well.”
Katniss let her head fall back on the pillow with a sob. “I don’t think I can do this.”
“It’s a bit late for that,” her mother chided gently. “It’ll be over soon. You’re almost there.”
Peeta tiptoed back into the room with a glass of water. He offered it to her gingerly.
“How’s your mother doing?” Mrs. Everdeen asked.
Peeta smiled. “She’s all right. My dad is pacing all over the living room.”
“I’ll go talk to them,” Mrs. Everdeen offered. “Katniss. Don’t kill him while I’m gone.”
Peeta sat down on the edge of the bed and reached for Katniss’ fist clutching the sheets. Prim fidgeted. “Um, I think I’ll go...wash my hands.” She darted from the room.
Katniss bit back a scream as another contraction bore down on her. Peeta scooted to sit next to her. He put his arm around her shoulders and let her claw his arm and knee while she cried.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered when it passed.
“It’s okay,” she moaned. “It’s how it is.”
“I wish there was something I could do.”
“Just stay here,” she pleaded. “I don’t want to be alone.”
He rubbed her shoulders and they waited. He suddenly laughed. “We really should pick a name.”
She laughed. “Can’t stall anymore.”
“Do you like bread names?” Peeta hinted.
“I like your name,” she admitted. “But what if she can’t bake?”
“Well, I like your name too,” he said. “How about a flower?”
“We couldn’t name a boy after a flower,” she pointed out.
He laughed. “Well, we could. I don’t think he’d like it. Or ‘flour’. Flower, flour,” he tried to explain.
She laughed until the pain began again. She gripped his knee while another contraction passed. “It’s happening so fast,” she whispered. “I’m nervous.”
“It’s okay,” he smiled. “Next time we’ll know what to do.”
“Next time?” she looked up at him.
“When we have more kids,” he said. “I mean,” he giggled, “let’s wait a while-”
“You want more?”
He looked surprised. “Well...I thought so. If you want,” he said quickly. “I know this is a joint decision. I just...I love my brothers. And I see how much you love Prim,” he added. “I want this little one to know what that’s like.”
She still stared. “You want another one with me?”
He tucked his chin to face her. “Of course. I love you.”
She felt the tears come even though she was smiling. “You-” But the pain cut her off. She hunched over. “Peeta,” she gasped.
He scrambled to the foot of the bed. His jaw fell open. “Mrs. Everdeen!” he screamed. “Mrs. Everdeen!”
Mrs. Everdeen and Prim burst into the room. Mrs. Everdeen pushed him off to the side to sit with Katniss while she rolled up her sleeves.
“What? What is it?” Katniss cried out.
“That,” Mrs. Everdeen told them, “is the head. Okay, here we go.” She pressed her lips together. “Next contraction, you’re pushing, Katniss.”
“I can’t,” she cried. “I’m not ready.”
Peeta took her hand and knelt be her side. “We’re ready, Katniss. We’re ready.”
“Okay, start pushing,” her mother commanded.
Katniss looked at Peeta. He nodded. She pushed. And screamed. And pushed again.
Prim wiped her forehead with a cool cloth. They breathed. She pushed again. She cried. Peeta cried. She pushed. She sobbed. She rested her forehead against Peeta’s cheek.
“It’s a boy!” Her mother’s tearful voice was full of pride. “It’s a boy.”
Katniss was crying. Peeta’s whispers were against her damp cheek. “Katniss. We have a son,” he cried softly. She closed her eyes and shook her head.
She felt him leave her side for a brief moment. She squeezed her eyes shut. The pressure returned to the mattress by her elbow.
“Katniss,” Peeta was crying. “He’s so beautiful.”
She opened her eyes. She couldn’t breathe.
He was so beautiful.
His eyes were shut, but his tiny hands were moving. He appeared even smaller cradled in Peeta’s strong arms. She saw sparse blond hair that matched his father’s color. She could barely breathe through the joy swelling her heart and lungs.
“My baby,” she whispered.
Mrs. Everdeen helped Peeta lay the baby on her chest. His little fingers stretched and touched her skin. He was warm.
Prim leaned over her shoulder. “Katniss,” she sighed happily. “He’s perfect.”
Peeta settled back against her side so they could both stare at their child. Peeta gave his parents a happy little wave as they crept inside the bedroom. His father started to cry so hard his mother had to help him back into the hall to compose himself.
“Do you think he’s sad it’s not a girl?” Peeta joked.
Katniss laughed. The baby stirred. He whined and bleated. He cried. Katniss smiled harder. “He sounds perfect,” she grinned.
“He sounds hungry,” her mother smiled. “Let’s teach you how to nurse.”
Prim ushered Peeta to calm his parents with peppermint tea while her mother showed her how to feed her son. When he latched she gasped and giggled. “I’m feeding him,” she breathed.
“You are,” her mother smiled. She gazed down at his little hands clenching and releasing against her daughter’s skin. “Katniss, he’s beautiful.”
“I know,” Katniss grinned sheepishly. “He looks like Peeta,” she said honestly.
“The hair. And that nose,” her mother agreed. “But those are your lips.”
Katniss looked down. “He has my table manners.”
Her mother grinned. Peeta poked his head back in. “I think my father is having a nervous breakdown.”
Katniss could hear Mr. Mellark blubbering through his tears downstairs. “Is he all right?”
Her mother stood up from the bed. “It’s called First Grandchild Syndrome,” she said knowingly. “I’ll go talk to them. Peeta, help your wife with your son.”
Peeta slipped back next to Katniss. “Do you want to help me?” she whispered nervously. “I have to do both sides or I’ll be lop-sided,” she teased. Peeta laughed and she shifted their fussing child to her other breast. She tried to find the spot her mother sat to press when Peeta supported the baby’s head.
“This looked easier when Mom did it,” she frowned. “Oh! There he goes.”
Peeta watched. Katniss thought her heart might break at the look of love on his face. He looked to her. “Can we call him Bliss?”
He nodded. “I’ve never felt so happy. I don’t - I can’t think of any other way to express that. I want him to know how happy he makes me.”
Katniss nodded. “Bliss is perfect.”
She blinked and rolled to look at the clock. She heard Peeta’s stirring from behind her. “Has it been three hours already?” he groaned.
“Three hours and twelve minutes,” she muttered.
“I got him,” Peeta sighed. His warmth dissipated from her side and he padded to the wailing baby in the crib. She smiled, thinking of how they both agreed the crib would only be in their room for a week and one week only. She counted two months now.
He was back and Bliss was eager to find his mother. She pulled down her nightgown straps and Peeta set him on her chest.
She yawned and dozed while he fed. When he was done and falling asleep on top of her again, Peeta took him to change his diaper and put him back to bed. He stumbled back to Katniss and collapsed face-first onto the mattress.
“Only forty five minutes until I have to go to work, too,” he grumbled into his pillow.
Katniss smiled and rolled to stroke his hair affectionately. “I was thinking of going hunting today.”
Peeta’s head popped up. “What? Why?”
She frowned in the dim light. “For meat, what else?”
“But there are wild dogs out there.”
“I’ve shot them before, too.”
“I don’t want you to go.”
“It’s not safe.”
“Peeta, I’m armed. I’m not running barefoot through the woods picking daisies.”
“It’s not safe!”
Bliss stirred and she shushed Peeta. “Stop telling me what to do,” she hissed.
“Katniss, if something happened to you I don’t know if I could survive.”
She was silenced. He turned over and sat up, facing her but looking to the crib. “I thought I knew how I loved you when we got married, but...but I didn’t understand it at all until we were a family.” He looked at her. “You two are my life. You’re everything to me. If either of you ever got hurt I don’t think I could live without you.”
Her heart was aching again. It had been like this ever since she saw him holding Bliss that long day two months ago.
“I know it’s not the same for you,” he sighed. “For me. And that’s okay,” he added quickly, “but for Bliss-”
“It is the same.” She sat up. “It is the same, Peeta.”
He opened his mouth to speak but had forgotten how to.
“I thought...I wouldn’t ever need this. I wouldn’t want it. But I do,” she fumbled. “I thought he would just be another mouth to feed. You’d just be someone to help shelter him and make sure he did his homework. Only it’s not that at all.”
She listened to the rapid breathing from the crib at the foot of the bed. “He’s my heart; living and breathing outside of me. And watching you with him...you made me see why this happens. That this life isn’t work and pain. It’s love and hope. And happiness. Peeta,” she smiled through her watering eyes, “you saved me again. I guess this time it was from myself.”
He leaned over and pulled her to him. His embrace was so tight she thought her ribs might crack, but she didn’t care. It felt wonderful.
“So you won’t go hunting?” he whispered.
“I’ll go, I just won’t tell you. How’s that?” she whispered.
“Peeta, we need to eat,” she admonished, pulling away so she could rest her temple on his shoulder. “I am very grateful your parents have shared so much food, but they need income too. And I’m dying for some turkey,” she exhaled.
She was met with silence. “How about if I take Gale with me?”
“Do you promise to use him as a body shield if there’s danger?”
She laughed gently. “Fine. Just don’t tell him that.”
“All right,” Peeta smiled. “I don’t like it but I know you need this.”
“You really are too good for me,” she grinned. “How’d you ever get stuck with me?”
“I knocked you up.”
“That was my idea.”
“It sure was. Best birthday ever.”
She laughed until it woke the baby.
It only took him three years to convince her for another, but another year to get pregnant. Not that they minded the trying.
This time Mr. Mellark was able to meet his granddaughter without collapsing entirely into tears, but he did return the next day with three dresses and four dolls. The next week brought a stuffed pony so big Bliss could sit on it. The next month was a shower of hair ribbons.
“She doesn’t even have hair yet,” Katniss complained to Peeta on his next day off from the bakery. They sat in the middle of a pile of gifts in their living room with no place to put them. “And she can’t lift these dolls! They’re bigger than her!”
“At least Bliss likes the one dressed as a coal miner,” Peeta offered.
“He’s already given Bliss more toys that he can play with in his lifetime!” Katniss flopped back and laid on top of the giant pony. “We haven’t even gotten through the clothes Delly brought that never fit Diehl Junior. And your mother is going to rot his teeth with those cookies,” she pouted.
“Hey now, your mother gave him an entire chemistry set before he could read,” he argued. He gave up and held up a set of dolls in costumes. “What are we going to do with the other three? Does Prim like dolls?”
“She’s seventeen. She likes Kerf Anderson.”
“How is she seventeen?”
“Peeta, Bliss is four.”
Bliss ran over and held up his fingers. “I’m four, Daddy!!”
Peeta keened and yanked Bliss into his arms. “No! You’ve got to stay my little guy forever! You can’t grow up.”
“I’m the big brother,” Bliss announced to them. He wriggled away from Peeta and ran to the bassinet by his mother. He held his finger to his lips and shushed them needlessly. “Joy is sleeping,” he whispered loudly.
“Thank you, Bliss,” Katniss tried to nod seriously. “You’re a very thoughtful brother.”
Bliss puffed out his little chest proudly and ran to the window at the sound of a child’s squeal. “Mr. Gale is coming! Can I play with Ember?”
“Yes, please go outside,” Peeta said, looking at the wreckage of gifts and toys scattered across their living room. “Stay in the backyard.”
Katniss chased after Bliss to get his coat on and Gale’s daughter nearly jumped out of his arms to chase Bliss around the house on her wobbly legs. “Bliss, she’s younger than you!” she called. “Play nice.”
Gale rolled his eyes. “She’s rougher than he is, I promise. Madge is beside herself that she won’t wear dresses.”
“She’s two, Gale,” Katniss said. “A dress would be destroyed in five minutes.”
“That’s what I told her mom.”
Katniss grinned and ushered him inside.
“Hey Gale,” Peeta whispered. He was rocking Joy back and forth in his arms. “Madge didn’t make it?”
“She’s finishing up a gift for Joy,” Gale told them. “She said she’d be over in just a bit. Probably a dress Joy will never wear, knowing her mom.” He winked at Katniss’ smirk.
He peered down at the bundle. “Holy cow. She’s the spitting image of you, Katniss.”
“She’s got his eyes.”
Peeta shook his head. “Barely,” he smiled.
Gale whistled. “Two Katnisses in one house. Good luck with that.”
“I’m terrified,” Peeta admitted.
“You’re hilarious,” Katniss scowled. She went to the back window to spy on Bliss.
Bliss was pulling an early carrot up from the garden. He handed it to Ember, who ignored the dirt and stuck it in her mouth. Katniss grimaced, but the toddler gave Bliss a gap-toothed grin and tried to chew the carrot.
“Bliss is feeding your daughter dirt,” Katniss sighed as she returned to the living room.
“That’s all right,” Gale grinned as he collected Joy from Peeta. “I should admit she’s the one that gave him that black eye last month. She handed him her building blocks...in his face.”
“Sounds like love,” Peeta quipped.
“If he gets her pregnant at sixteen I’ll murder you,” Gale murmured, cradling Joy adoringly.
“I’ll murder him first,” Peeta said.
“Come on now,” Katniss grinned, taking Peeta’s hand. “A baby isn’t such a bad thing.”
Peeta twisted to smile at her.
“It’s the best thing.”
That night they lay in bed and listened to Bliss creep to the door to Joy’s room to sneak in and sleep on the floor next to her crib.
“He loves her so much,” Katniss sighed happily.
“He reminds me of you,” Peeta murmured. “He’s going to look after her like you looked after Prim.”
“She still needs looking after,” Katniss argued.
Peeta laughed gently. “You were always a good mother.”
Katniss felt his smile against his temple. “You were always a good husband.”
“It’s all I ever wanted to be to you,” he confessed. “I practiced proposing when I was six. That first day I saw you, I went right home and practiced.” He smiled at her sideways. “To my credit, the sack of flour in the basement said ‘yes’ the first time.”
She laughed softly. “I should have said ‘yes’ the first time.”
“Yes you should have.”
She poked him in his ticklish ribs and he squirmed with a devilish grin. He caught her hands and they wrestled under the sheets. He pinned her underneath him and pressed his nose against hers.
“Don’t start something you can’t finish, Mrs. Mellark,” he teased.
“I’ll be up in thirty minutes to feed her anyway,” Katniss whispered. She lifted her chin and caught his lower lip in a seductive, gentle bite. “Hardly see the point of going to sleep.”
“It would seem like a waste of a perfectly good night,” he murmured, lowering his hips to rest against hers. She spread her knees and he slid between them. He kissed her deeply.
“Katniss?” he whispered. She traced her tongue along his neck and he shuddered. “Katniss.”
“Yeah,” she whispered as she kissed his earlobe.
“I love you.”
She felt the familiar burst of happiness in her stomach every time he said it.
“I love you too.”
He wrapped his arms tightly around her and held her close to him for a long time.
“Let’s have another baby.”
She hit him with his pillow.