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oOo

 

I sit in the abandoned kitchen of my old house in the Seam that I’d once shared with my mother and sister, a cup of rapidly cooling chamomile tea in my hands.  Technically, it’s still my mother’s house and if anything happens to my sister, she’d be expected to leave the massive house in the Victor’s Village and return to the only place I’ve ever felt at home.    

 

But it’ll never be my home again.  

 

Even if my husband dies, I won’t return here.  There’s an abandoned business on the edge of the main street in town in my name.  Peeta and I have talked about me setting up shop selling herbal remedies with my mother and sister.  But so far it’s only been just that - talk.  

 

For sixteen years, this little house in the Seam has been home, and four and a half months of living in the house in the Victor’s Village with my husband isn’t enough to change that feeling.  

 

Taking a sip of of my tepid tea, I repeat the litany I’ve chanted every morning since we returned to District Twelve.  My name is Katniss Mellark.  My home is District Twelve.  My sister and husband survived the Hunger Games.  I have a daughter named Pulcheria who everyone calls Willow.  She’s the culmination of the love shared by Peeta and me, the two star-crossed lovers from District Twelve.

 

The last is a lie.  

 

My daughter isn’t my husband’s.  I’ve never tried to hide that from him.  Peeta knew before he married me that my child wasn’t his, but he’s claimed her regardless.   Willow’s actual father has had to settle for being her godfather and honorary uncle.  Gale’s got his own part to play and it doesn’t include being Willow’s father.

 

And so do I.

 

The country is on the verge of revolution. President Snow is counting on me to stop Peeta from fanning the flames.

 

I’m not sure how he expects me to do it.

 

Haymitch suspects that Snow thinks that Peeta’s love for me will keep him in line. Keep him scared.  I don’t know if Snow’s threatened him too, but I wouldn’t put it past him.  

 

So much has changed since the Reaping almost six months ago.  I’ve changed.  Grown even more cautious, more wary.  I have more to lose now.  More people who I love that the Capitol can use against me.  I’ve never been good at friends.  Madge and Gale were the only people outside of my family who could tolerate me until my trip to the Capitol during the Games. There, I met several people who tried to help me, guide me, protect me, even though it meant putting themselves in danger to do it.  They say that friendships forged under fire create bonds even stronger than diamond and I’ve found it’s true.  I think of Peeta and Haymitch as friends, and as much as the latter tries to deny it I think they feel the same.  But sometimes I find myself missing Finnick, Cecelia, Cinna, and Effie.  They were there for me when I needed them and the carefully worded phone calls do nothing to ease that ache.    

 

It’s not just me who’s changed.  

 

Gale’s changed too.  

 

My best friend’s grown up.  He’s no longer as impulsive and angry like he used to be.  He says it’s because he’s learned a bit more about the world, but I also wonder how much of it has to do with my other friend’s influence.  He and the Mayor’s daughter have become very close, in some ways closer than either of them ever were to me.  The old me would be jealous, but I’m happy he’s got someone else.  Not because I’m altruistic, but because it takes the pressure off of me.  

 

I also feel guilty when it comes to Gale.  I’ve always said I never wanted to get married or have kids, yet here I am, a wife and mother.  Gale and I always used to think, before I got pregnant, we’d get married eventually.  But the Capitol and President Snow changed all that.  I can tell it bothers Gale sometimes, being unable acknowledge his daughter.  I don’t blame him.  It bothers me.  I don’t like lying.  I’m not very good at it.  And this lie is a doozy.

 

Gale tells me he understands, and I honestly think he does.  It surprises me, but ever since he’s become the Mayor’s assistant, he’s matured.  There are times I almost don’t recognize him anymore.  He spends so much time with the Mayor and the new Head Peacekeeper, Captain Miner, that I barely get a chance to see him.  He’s so busy with this new project that’s taking place on the far side of town, on the other side of the mines.  When I do see him, he’s extremely tight-lipped about what’s going on.

 

Even our former refuge is often barred to us.  The electric fence surrounding District Twelve is on more often than not, separating us from the woods.  And when the electricity is off, Captain Miner often has patrols stationed along the perimeter.  I asked Gale about it once, wondering if she was doing it to try to keep us from slipping under.  

 

But he shook his head.  

 

“It’s not that, Catnip,” he said.  “Miner’s a professional.  It’s her job to protect the Capitol’s assets, which in her mind means she needs to protect the district and everyone within it.  She’s seen the packs of wild dogs and bears that roam these woods and she’s decided it’s her responsibility to make sure that these dangerous animals don’t terrorize our citizenry.”

 

“It sounds like you admire her.”  I wasn’t able to keep the disbelief out of my voice.

 

“I respect her. That’s more than I can say for her predecessor,” Gale retorted, referring to Cray.

 

“At least Cray allowed me to hunt!”

 

“True,” he conceded, running his hands through his hair.  “But Miner’s not so bad.  She could be taking her revenge out on us for spawning the tribute who killed her daughter, but she’s not.  As much as I’m sure she hates Peeta for killing Clove, she’s trying to trying to help us instead.  I respect that, Catnip.  That takes a lot of integrity.  Even if it means we can’t hunt.”

 

The fact that Gale uses words like citizenry and integrity shows just how much he’s changed.  Gale’s not the same person that he was.  He’s still my best friend and the father of my daughter, but he’s changed.  

 

He’s not the only one.

 

Prim’s also changed.  My sister, who was once so sweet and innocent, has slowly become hard and jaded.  She has nightmares now.  She doesn’t like to talk about them.  Not to me at least.  But she talks to Peeta, and he tells me that she dreams of being bathed in blood and watching everyone she cares for die while her body transforms into some kind of monster.  

 

I used to be so close to my little sister.  She was the only person in the world that I was sure I loved for so very long.  I still love Prim.  But that little girl who used to baby Buttercup and nanny Lady has died.  That innocent, gentle girl is another casualty of the Games.  The person who returned wears Prim’s face, but she’s not the same.

 

I think Haymitch and Finnick tried to warn me that the Games change people.  I thought I understood what they meant.  I found out I really had no idea.

 

The only person who really seems to make Prim smile is my daughter.

 

My daughter makes us all smile.  

 

Willow’s a sweet baby.  Quiet.  Small.  She was born almost two months ago, on September 30th.  She came early, but Snow, much to my surprise and displeasure, had been sending doctors to visit me on a regular basis and had ordered my mother to phone them at the first sign of labor.

 

My daughter was born in Peeta’s house in the Victor’s Village, but unlike most people in Twelve, she had a whole team of physicians ready and waiting for her arrival.  It was probably a good thing.  The doctors said she was small, underweight, and that her lungs, while fully developed, weren’t ready for the hard task of breathing in and out this thinner mountain air.  My daughter spent the first few days in a special bed until the physicians were certain she was going to live.

 

I received a phone call from President Snow on October 2nd, congratulating me on the birth of Pulcheria.  It was the first time I knew what my daughter had actually been named.  

 

President Snow himself said, “It was not the name I would have chosen, I’m far fonder of Cordelia or Hippolyta as a name, but, alas, the public has spoken, and one must always keep the public happy.”  

 

The way he said it reminded me of the deal we’d struck the day he announced I was getting married.  So long as I managed to keep Peeta from encouraging the country to rebel, Snow would keep my family safe… a family which included my daughter and sister, but did not, I realized later, include my husband.

 

I wonder now if that was what Haymitch was so frustrated by when I made the deal with Snow over tea in the conservatory.  If he thinks I should have bargained for Peeta’s life too.  I’m just not used to playing the game and I wonder just how much my inexperience is going to haunt us.

 

Peeta’s been a good husband to me, as much as I expect anyone forced into marriage to be.  We’re not lovers, but in the months we’ve been living together, we’ve formed a sort of friendship.  We were essentially two strangers when we got married, and it takes time to get to know each other.  

 

The first time I felt actually close to him was when he sat with me for the whole twenty eight hours I was in labor.  My mother was barred from the room by the Capitol doctors, proclaiming only my husband could remain in the delivery room.  So Peeta stayed.  He tried to give me what comfort and encouragement he could.  I’d never felt that much pain or fear before.  I’m grateful Peeta was there.

 

It seems strange to think about, but in a weird way, becoming parents brought us closer together.  Peeta’s an amazing father and he loves Willow.  I know he told me he’d be a good dad to her, but part of me never really believed him.  

 

That part of me was wrong.  

 

I think Peeta considers Willow his, but he’s also good enough, kind enough, that he’s trying to share her with Gale.

 

A week after the Capitol doctors packed up and left, I woke up to find Peeta and the baby missing.  I was frantic.  Had Snow stolen my husband and baby?  I searched the house like a madwoman, tearing up the place until I found a note on my bedside table.  Sinking to the ground in relief, I read the simple message.  Peeta had taken Willow to the Hawthornes.  He wanted Gale to meet his daughter, someplace where the Capitol’s eyes couldn’t watch.  Snow would love to learn the identity of Willow’s real father.  It’s one of my goals to make sure he never finds out.

 

When he returned, Peeta didn’t talk about what transpired between him and Gale.  Gale won’t say anything either.  I think during that meeting, the two men came to an understanding.

 

I’m glad.  It’s hard enough being a new mother and subsisting on minimal sleep.  I don’t have the energy or patience to deal with conflict between my husband and the father of my child.  

 

I’ve got my own worries to deal with.

 

Yesterday, the Capitol doctor who’s been overseeing my care informed me that I’m now clear to, quote, ‘resume my sexual activities and no longer need to follow any pelvic bed rest instructions.’  The fact that he said it in front of Peeta made it even more embarrassing.  We’ve only just started really getting to know each other.  I don’t know if either of us is ready to have sex.

 

All I know is, I’m not.

 

I take another sip of my tea to find it’s gone ice cold.  I shiver, not entirely from the temperature, and stare down at the liquid morosely.  

 

“Katniss?” Peeta’s voice comes from the front door.  “Are you here?”

 

I glance up and see my husband standing just inside the entryway to my old home.  He looks curious and a little bit uncomfortable.  He always seems a little uncomfortable around me, like he’s not sure how to act or what to say.  And sometimes, at night, I feel his body shaking beside me.  I don’t know if it’s only from the nightmares, which he has regularly, or if it’s from something else.  But all I can do is hold him tight and try to comfort him the best I can.  

 

We’re in this together now.  

 

Whatever this is.

 

I smile at him.  “Yeah, I’m here.”  

 

He comes over to me and sits down at the chair across the table.  “Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Wasn’t sure if you’d be here or in the Meadow.”  

 

He’s talking about the woods.  The Meadow is a code that was created to prevent anyone from figuring out my illegal proclivities.  When we first got back, Peeta found me in the Meadow, staring at the electrified fence with tears in my eyes.  My safe haven had been taken from me.  I was surprised to find out that Peeta understood my loss. Together with Gale, the two men got me a trapping permit so when I could go out under the fence, any kills I made would be considered legal.  I appreciate their kindness.

 

But it’s just been hard.

 

I shake my head and tell him, “Didn’t seem much of a point.  I can’t gather much when everything’s trampled.”  I look up, meeting his blue eyes.  “So why’d you come looking for me?”

 

He shrugs.  “The official reason is that Willow needs to get fed and someone needed to find you.”

 

“And the real reason?”

 

“I wanted someone to talk to.” He smiles at me tenderly, reaching out to finger my braid.  “And I couldn’t think of anyone better than you.”

 

“Flirt.”

 

“Well, if a man can’t flirt with his wife, who can he flirt with?” Peeta retorts, the smile actually reaching his eyes.

 

This easy camaraderie has been hard earned, but I’m glad for it.  It makes being married to him easier.  Not that being married to Peeta is all that hard.  He doesn’t put any pressure on me.  Whatever I’m willing to give is what he’s willing to take.  I have to remember some of the advice I’ve received from Effie and Cinna, as well as the other Victors, to give this gentle boy a chance.  Peeta’s in love with me and he’s just as much of a victim in this whole thing as I am, if not more.

 

I stand up, getting myself together, and hold out my hand to him.  “Come on.  Let’s go home.”

 

He takes it, his large hand dwarfing mine.  As we walk, we talk about little things, inconsequential things.

 

“Who’s watching Willow?” I ask.  

 

“She’s at your mom’s.”

 

It’s a fair question.  The shoemaker’s daughter, Delly Cartwright, is Willow’s main nanny.  The sweet blond haired girl loves babies and she’s very good with my sometimes cranky daughter.  Madge is Willow’s godmother and is often over to see her goddaughter.

 

Hazelle also often comes and looks after her granddaughter.  Peeta hired her soon after we returned from the Capitol to be Haymitch’s and our housekeeper.  It was Peeta’s idea.  He knew that Hazelle would never take charity and this was something he could do to help out someone I cared about.  

 

Honestly, Haymitch needed the housekeeper more than we did.  But as my stomach grew, and after I gave birth, it was nice to know that I didn’t have to worry about trying to keep the house clean and my family fed.  And also this way Hazelle gets to spend time with her granddaughter while still keeping the truth of Willow’s parentage a secret.  

 

“So what have you been up to this morning?” I ask him.

 

“Oh, you know, the usual.  Working on my talent and trying to forget why I need to bother having a talent in the first place.”

 

I squeeze his hand, letting him know that I’m here.  I think it’s cruel that the Capitol forces its Victors to rub their new lifestyle in the noses of their home districts.  Victors are required to develop a talent, a special artistic or some other almost useless skill they can show off in the Capitol.  Prim’s talent is flower arranging and she spends most of her time wandering around Twelve looking for interesting materials and plants that she can use in her arrangements.  Her specialty is medicinal herb wreaths.  She makes lovely, aromatic wreaths that are apparently in high demand in the Capitol.  I smile a bit at the irony.  In the Capitol, lavender and rosemary are herbs or weeds, but when my sister forms them into wreaths they somehow magically become art.  Prim finds it weird, but at least it makes her smile.  

 

Peeta and I have been working on our talent too.  A little bit before our wedding, Finnick pulled the two us aside and told us that I, too, was expected to develop a talent even though I wasn’t a Victor.  I don’t have the same pressure that Peeta and Prim do, but I was still expected to show off my gratitude to the Capitol in some way.  He helped Peeta and me come up with the idea of making children’s storybooks.  The first book, an illustrated version of various lullabies called ‘Mockingjay Songs,’ has apparently been a bestseller in the Capitol.  Peeta and I worked on the book during my last month of pregnancy, and the doctors and other Capitol hangers-on took the final draft with them when they returned to the Capitol after Willow was born.

 

Our next project is an old rags to riches story about a poor Seam girl who falls in love with the Head Peacekeeper’s rich bastard son.  It’s based on a real story, and the real ending wasn’t so happy.  But it sounds enough like a fairytale that the Capitol should eat it up.

 

“What part are you up to?” I ask.

 

“Trying to decide if we want to include the hanging tree section or not.”

 

This story was the basis for the old song ‘The Hanging Tree.’  But I don’t think the Capitol would appreciate hearing about how Aron was lynched to get back at his father and Tessa hung herself next to him in despair.  Yeah.  That’d go over well.

 

I shake my head.  “Yeah, um, as much as the Capitol likes star-crossed lovers,” I say pointedly, “I think they’d rather have a happy ending.”

 

“Wouldn’t we all?” Peeta replies.

 

I look up at him.  “I’m sorry.”

 

“Oh, Katniss, it’s not your fault,” he tells me, his voice stricken.  “None of this is your fault.”

 

“Can’t I still feel bad?”

 

“I can’t stop you.” He takes a deep breath and stares off into the distance.  “Part of me hates that there are these moments when I forget what happened. Like when I look at you and Willow I’m sometimes overwhelmed with happiness.  And then I remember just how this happiness was earned and…”  He trails off.

 

I stop for a second, slipping my arms around him comfortingly like I used to do to Prim.  Snow picked the perfect punishment for a good man like him, and I can’t help but hate the president even more than I did before for putting him and us through this.  

 

“It’s okay to be happy.  You’ve earned it.  If anyone’s earned it, you’ve earned it,” I tell him not for the first time, stroking his back lightly.  “You’re a good husband.  You’re a good father.  I don’t think Willow could ask for a better father.”  I’m not just saying that to make him feel better.  He adores my little girl and prefers to take the late night feedings and diaper changes just so I can get as much of a full night’s sleep as possible.  I still have to feed Willow, and I don’t trust the formula the Capitol provided.  But Peeta tries to pretty much do everything else.

 

“She smiled at me today,” Peeta says, letting me know that the moment of weakness has passed.

 

“Are you sure it wasn’t gas?”

 

Peeta chuckles, pulling back from me and taking my hand again so we can resume our walk back to the Victor’s Village.  “Nah, it was a smile.  She liked the song I was singing to her.”

 

I make a face at the thought of Peeta’s singing.  “I’m glad someone did.”

 

“I can’t wait until she’s older and I can embarrass her by singing her the lambkin song in front of her boyfriend.”

 

“You’re assuming she’s gonna have a boyfriend.”

 

“Or girlfriend,” Peeta says quickly.  “Although she’s not allowed to date until she’s forty.”

 

“When did that decision get made?”

 

He grins at me.  “Just now.”

 

“And you think she’s going to go along with it?”

 

“I’ve always looked forward to being a ‘do as I say and not as I do’ parent.”

 

“Let me know how that works out.”

 

My mother and Prim’s house is right across the street from ours.  It’s close, but not so close that we can hear each other’s screams when Peeta sleeps with the window open, which he does every single night.  It wasn’t too bad during the summer and early fall.  But lately I’ve had to start sleeping closer to my husband for warmth.  I’m just grateful Willow is finally able to sleep in a room adjoining ours where I can keep the door and windows shut so it’s warmer.

 

I knock on the door to my mother’s house and my sister opens it a moment or two later.  Prim’s eyes are wide and she looks like she’s had a nightmare.  

 

I drop Peeta’s hand. “What’s wrong, Little Duck?” I say, taking a step forward to gather my sister into my arms.

 

She shakes her head, pointing me toward the back of the house and the room that holds Willow’s cradle.

 

My eyes go wide and I feel Peeta stiffen beside me.  Something’s wrong with our daughter.

 

We run to see what’s wrong with our baby, and as soon as I enter the room, I see why Prim is so scared.

 

Standing there in an impeccable white suit with a bright red flower boutonniere is President Coriolanus Snow.

 

And he’s holding our daughter.

 

oOo

 

 

Chapter Text

Previously on Participant:  

 

We run to see what’s wrong with our baby, and as soon as I enter the room, I see why Prim is so scared.

 

Standing there in an impeccable white suit with a bright red flower boutonniere is President Coriolanus Snow.

 

And he’s holding our daughter.

 

oOo

 

Chapter Two

 

oOo

 

I take a few steps forward, holding my arms out to take my daughter.  “President Snow.  What an honor to see you.”

 

The man ignores my wordless request.  Instead, he smiles at me ferally.  “My dear Mrs. Mellark.  I thought we agreed not to lie to each other.”

 

I drop my arms in defeat, my eyes locked onto the infant in the President’s arms.  She’s awake, but rather than fussing like I’d expect her to be this close to her feeding time, she’s calm.  Instead, she seems to be staring with rapt fascination at Snow’s face.  

 

“What else do you expect my wife to say when the President of Panem is in her sister’s house, holding our daughter?” Peeta asks, squaring his shoulders.

 

Snow’s eyes flit to my husband.  “Ah, Mr. Mellark.  I do believe this is the first time we’ve had a chance to really talk.  Though I’ve quite enjoyed the conversations I’ve had with your lovely wife.  I hope you’re as stimulating a conversationalist as she is.”  The old man pauses.  “Has your wife informed you of our little tête-a-têtes?”

 

“We’ve talked.”

 

We haven’t really.  Peeta’s lying.  I hope he’s a better liar than I am.

 

“Ah.  I see,” Snow purrs, his eyes flicking from Peeta to me and then back again.  “I’ve always said there should be no secrets between man and wife.  It is good to know you two, despite, shall we say, circumstances, have managed to forge such a strong bond of marriage.”

 

“Why are you here, sir?” I ask, anxious for him to get to the point so I can get my family to safety.

 

“I wanted to meet darling Pulcheria, of course.”  Cradling the baby closer in his arms, he runs one finger down her cheek.  “She really is a beautiful child.  Why, I think she’s going to have blue eyes, just like you, Mr. Mellark.  I suppose that will make maintaining the fiction that she’s yours easier.”  He pauses briefly for effect.  “But we all know it’s merely a fiction, do we not?”

 

Peeta refuses to be cowed.  “Excuse me for saying so, sir, but I hardly think you’d take time out of your busy schedule just to come all this way to see a two month old infant, no matter how beautiful she is.”

 

Snow’s eyes glitter dangerously.  “You are correct, my dear Mr. Mellark.”  President Snow turns to me.  “My doctors have informed me that you have fully recovered from the birth of our darling Pulcheria.  They have reported that you are now able to resume your marital duties, my dear Mrs. Mellark.  I believe they have informed you of the same.”  His eyes narrow.  “Is that correct?”

 

I nod my head.  It’s what I’d been thinking about this morning.  I hadn’t had a chance to tell Peeta the news, and now he gets to hear it from Snow himself.

 

The feral smile returns.  “I’m pleased to hear that, Mrs. Mellark.  I think our darling Pulcheria here would be happy to have a playmate her own age, don’t you agree?”

 

Snow can’t be asking…  

 

Peeta seems to come to the same conclusion.  “There’s lots of kids her age around here.  I’m sure she won’t have any problem making friends when she’s old enough.”

 

“Ah.  You misunderstand me, Mr. Mellark.”  Snow’s voice becomes hard.  “I wasn’t talking about a schoolmate, I was thinking more in terms of something a little closer to home.  A brother, perhaps.  Or a sister.  I’m not picky.  Yes, I do think darling Pulcheria would be happier with a sibling close to her in age.”

 

“There’s no guarantee I’ll be able to get pregnant right away,” I try to protest.

 

“You bring up a good point, Mrs. Mellark.  One I shall discuss with my physicians.”  He fixes me with those frightening snake-like yellow eyes.  “However, it is abundantly clear that you will not get pregnant unless you try.  And it is my understanding that you haven’t been trying very hard.”

 

“What do you--”

 

Snow cuts me off.  “I suspect Mr. Mellark here is as virginal as a bride on her wedding day.  Well, not you, Katniss my dear, of course.  But you understand the simile.”  He looks at us, his eyes growing hard.  “People are starting to have doubts about the two of you.  They are starting to think this romantic tale you have woven is no more real than the plot of a novel or soap opera.  Some are starting to feel cheated.  Duped.  While others are coming up with even more dangerous conclusions.  Conclusions that threaten the very fabric of Panem.”

 

“It must be a very flimsy fabric,” Peeta interjects.

 

“More than you would think,” Snow snaps.  

 

His anger causes my heart to race and I want nothing more than to snatch my daughter from his arms and flee to someplace safe.   But I can’t, instead I take Peeta’s hand trying to convey to him that he needs to be more careful.

 

The President sees the gesture and gives me an approving nod.  “I have worked very hard to prevent Panem from ripping itself apart,” he says tightly, clearly still incensed at Peeta’s interruption.  “I will not have two teenagers threaten what I have worked so hard to preserve.” Snow gets himself under control, bouncing Willow a bit.  “As I said, some people are starting to have doubts.  I have doubts.  I don’t want to have any doubts.  Do you understand?”

 

“I don’t know what I can do to convince you that I love Katniss,” Peeta protests. “I do.  I’ve loved her since I was five years old.  I’d do anything for her!”

 

“I’m counting on that.  Besides, it’s not you I’m concerned about,” Snow says.  He looks at me pointedly.

 

I struggle not to fidget under Snow’s steady gaze. “I care about Peeta,” I hedge.  “He’s a good man.  And a good father.”

 

“But not a lover.”

 

Peeta and I share a look.

 

“Just what are you asking us to do?”  I finally ask.  I’m not any good at these games of verbal cat and mouse.  

 

“So direct.  That’s what I like about you, Mrs. Mellark.  It’s refreshing.”  Snow smiles at me briefly before sobering.  “I understand your marriage to Peeta is still unconsummated.  I wish for that to be rectified.  Immediately.”  There’s no room for argument in his tone.  “I want no one to doubt your commitment to each other.  And on your upcoming tour, you will be the epitome of a young happy family whose parents are desperately in love with each other.  I do not want to hear any talk of your romance being a trick to fool the Capitol.”

 

I swallow thickly.  “We’ll convince the districts, sir.”

 

“No.  Do better.”  He places my daughter in my arms, leaning forward to whisper in my ear, “Convince me.”

 

oOo

 

The walk back to our house is done in silence, the gravel crunching under our feet.  I glance at my husband and daughter, trying to make sure they’re both okay.   

 

Almost as soon as Snow left, Peeta swooped in, fretting over Willow, anxious to hold the little girl in his arms.  I was reluctant to let her go, but I know just how much Peeta needs my daughter’s love and affection.  He wants to be a good father.  He wants to keep her safe.  Seeing Snow holding her in his arms, knowing all it would take was one cruel twist of his hands or him choosing to let her go and, poof, she’d be gone, lost to us forever... I think that shook him more than any of the words that came out of the president’s mouth.

 

Peeta pauses on our front porch, looking over at me.  “What’d Snow say?”

 

I don’t bother asking him what he meant.  “He told me we have to convince him.”

 

“How?”

 

“I think he was pretty clear about that.”

 

Peeta looks at me in confusion. “About us…”

 

“Let’s go inside.”  I sigh.  “It’s not like anything we say is going to be any surprise to Snow at this point.”

 

“I hate this.  Knowing that no matter what we do, we’ll always have someone watching.”

 

“I do too.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Peeta says.  “I got you into this.  It’s my fault you’re not happy.”

 

“Peeta…”

 

“Don’t lie to me, Katniss.  I know you’re not happy.  I can tell.”

 

I don’t know what to tell him to make him feel better.  I’m not happy, but I don’t think anyone would be in my situation.  But I’m not as unhappy as I’d thought I would be, and that’s thanks to Peeta.  Deciding to take a chance, I lean up and give him a quick kiss on the cheek. “You make this life better.  I don’t blame you for any of this.  It’s not your fault.”  I cup his face.  “Come on, we need to go inside.”

 

Once we’re indoors, I take Willow up to her room.  Sitting down in the rocking chair Peeta bought just for me, I open my shirt to feed my daughter.  While she feeds, I hum softly to her the same songs my father used to sing to me when I was a little girl.  

 

Downstairs, I can hear Peeta pulling out pans and bowls, slamming them down onto the counter.  He’s baking something, probably bread, even though we already have plenty of baked goods.  Peeta keeps all of us stocked in baked goods even though we don’t really need them.  

 

I’m glad Peeta waited until Willow was eating before making such a ruckus downstairs.  Willow’s never been one of those babies who can sleep through everything.  She’s always been a light sleeper and startles awake at the oddest of sounds.   Considering Peeta jerks awake every other night or so with a nightmare, it’s a wonder that any of us get any sleep.

 

Eventually I the clamor downstairs lessens.  Good, he’s calming down. I glance down at my daughter and note Willow is starting to reach the end of her feeding and is falling back asleep.  To help her along, I hum the Valley Song.  It’s always been her favorite lullaby.    

 

When I finish, I look up to see Peeta standing in the doorway, watching us.  “I thought you were baking.”  I don’t bother to cover myself in front of him.  After he stayed through Willow’s birth, it seems kind of silly.

 

“Just a spice cake.  I’ll make the cream cheese frosting later.”

 

“Sounds delicious.  Are you feeling better?” I ask.

 

He sighs.  “Not really.”

 

I nod my head but don’t bother trying to talk anymore.  Talking isn’t going to solve our problems.  Snow was pretty clear about that.

 

Placing Willow into her cradle, I turn on her little nightlight and take the receiver for the baby monitor with me.  That’s one gift I’m actually grateful for.  

 

When we returned home from the Capitol, we found a huge pile of gifts.  Some of it was absurd.  I mean, who needs a two story chandelier?  But other gifts were actually really useful.  Like the baby monitor.  If I knew who’d sent it, I’d thank them.  However, most of the gifts came unlabeled and I have the uneasy feeling that many of them may have come from the Horns, and I don’t think sending a thank you note to their Avox daughter would be in good form.

 

When we get downstairs, Peeta helps me make dinner.  Our conversation is kept deliberately light.  It’s nothing special, just some basic stew.  While I work, Peeta takes the cake out of the oven, setting it out to cool.

 

“Are we gonna talk about this?” I ask, setting our two bowls down on the table.

 

Peeta sighs.  “We probably should.  We’re in this together, right?”

 

I nod my head, reaching my hand out to clasp his.

 

“It’s just… other than that, I don’t know what Snow expects us to do.  I love you, Katniss.”

 

“I know.”

 

“But you don’t love me.”

 

We’ve had this conversation before. It never gets any easier.  I feel like I should return Peeta’s feelings.  And I like him.  I do.  He just confuses me. I know I feel something for him, but it isn’t the same kind of love I feel for Prim, my father, or even Willow.  It’s different and I don’t have a name for it.  I’m not even sure if it is love.  “You’re a good friend,” I say instead.  “And you’re my husband.”

 

“But you don’t feel the same way about me that I feel about you.”

 

I hate seeing the pain in his eyes, pain I’ve caused, but I won’t lie to him.  I can’t.  “I’m not like you, Peeta,” I tell him sadly.  “There’s only two people in this world who I’m sure I love.”

 

“Willow and Prim,” Peeta says without hesitation.

 

I nod my head again.  There’s nothing I can say to make this better.

 

Our back door opens and a rusty voice calls out, “Hey kids, ya decent?”

 

Haymitch.

 

“We’re in the kitchen,” Peeta calls back, shaking his head wryly.

 

“Why am I not surprised?” Haymitch drawls, sauntering into the room.  “Hello, Sweetheart.  Kid.  Heard about your surprise visit.”

 

“Prim told you?” I say with a sigh.  I’m grateful for his interruption, but I’m not sure I really want to talk to him about my love life.

 

“Girl was scared. Came running, desperate for her old mentor’s help.  Can’t blame her.  Snow’s a scary bastard, but he already knows that.”  He pulls out a smooth metal flask and takes a long pull.  “Seems you two are in a bit of a pickle.  Or, rather, his pickle hasn’t been in you.  Am I on the right track?”

 

I make a face at his crude metaphor but he’s not wrong.  “Something like that,” I answer. “Snow’s not convinced we’re as in love as we’re supposed to be.”

 

“Can’t say I blame him,” he says, narrowing his eyes at the two of us.  “You guys are in a heapload of like.  You haven’t quite fallen in love.  Stepped in it a few times.” He pauses to take a drink.  “Now, please tell me you two have at least played tonsil hockey.”

 

Crossing my arms over my chest, I give him a look.  “What’s that?”

 

“Right.  Need to lay off Jo’s slang for a bit.  Kissing.” He makes a smacking sound.  “We’re talking about kissing.”

 

Peeta and I blush.  We’ve experimented with kissing.  Nothing like the makeout sessions I had with Gale that one night, but they were nice.  I found myself liking Peeta’s kisses and sometimes I wanted more.

 

Peeta regards the older man.  “Of course we have.”

 

“Have you kissed him like you meant it, Sweetheart?  I’m not talking about those dainty pecks you displayed at the wedding.  I’m talking about tongue battling, teeth clacking, lip smashing kisses.”

 

“We’ve come close.”

 

“Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, sweetheart.  And I’m afraid Snow ain’t playin’ horseshoes.”  He pats Peeta’s hand awkwardly.  “That’s alright.  Now I know the girl here at least has done the deed once.  What about you, kid?  Have you ridden the beast with two backs yet?”

 

Peeta shakes his head.

 

Haymitch gives me a sympathetic look.  “Ah.  I feel sorry for you, Katniss.  This is gonna be a whole lotta fun.”

 

“Can we just get on with it?” I ask, glaring at the older man.  “Why are you here?”

 

“I figured you two wouldn’t want to be in the family way just yet, not while you’re still figuring out if slot A goes into tab B.” He demonstrates with his fingers.  “Or is it C?  Or D.  Not like there’s a lack of options.”

 

Peeta’s had enough.  “Get to the point, Haymitch.”

 

“Thought I’d come by and see if you need any mentorly advice.”

 

“I’m not really sure we need your help,” Peeta says, mimicking my crossed arm stance.   “My brothers talked a lot about it so I’ve got the gist.”

 

Haymitch rolls his eyes.  “Kid’s got the gist.  Can you believe him?” he asks me what I think is rhetorically.  “Well, even if you don’t need my advice, you probably do need this.”  He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a rectangular box that’s about the size of my hand.  On it is the word ‘Trojan.’  “Now, we’re gonna have to hope these’ll fit you, kid.  ‘Cause prophylactics are hard to come by out here in the sticks.”

 

“What are these?”  Peeta picks up the box curiously, turning it over in his hands.  “What’s a prophylactic?  What in the world are you talking about?”

 

Haymitch sighs.  “I was afraid of this.  You ever heard of a condom?”

 

Peeta shakes his head.

 

“I have,” I say, eyeing the box nervously.  “They’re illegal, but a few people sell them.”

 

“Thank goodness for small favors.  Now I suppose it’d be askin’ too much to hope you know what to do with a condom.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

Haymitch sighs.  “I expected as much, seeing as you got knocked up.”  The mentor squares his shoulders and takes a deep breath before launching into his explanation,   “Right, so you slip this little sheath onto the kid’s sword.  It’s like rollin’ on a sock.  Only you gotta make sure you leave room for the toes at the end.”

 

The metaphor goes over my head and I see Peeta’s just as confused as I am.

 

“You two ain’t makin’ this easy on me,” Haymitch grumbles.  “You never did.  I don’t know who I pissed off to be stuck with the pair of you.”

 

That’s it.  I’m done.  “Look, if you don’t want to help us, you can just leave.”

 

“Trust me, it’s tempting.  But I’m trying to do you kids a favor.  Now.  Ya got a cucumber?  I only want to do this once.”

 

oOo

 

I stand in Willow’s nursery, sipping a cup of tea, listening to Peeta read our daughter a bedtime story.  We both know she’s a bit too young to fully understand what’s happening, but Willow seems to like being read to and Peeta likes reading to her.  He asks so little of me.  At least I can give him this.

 

Peeta finishes the story about a lumberjack and his big blue ox and closes the book, looking up at me.  “Do you want to put her down?”

 

I shrug.  “Do you?” I ask.

 

Peeta smiles, running a hand over Willow’s baby-fine black hair.  “Yeah.  I kinda do.  They’re only this little once, you know.  And she’s growing so fast.”  The love and wonder I see on his face as he gazes down at my child makes me forget for a moment that Willow isn’t really his.  

 

I wish Snow hadn’t given us this ultimatum.  Peeta’s a good man.  I think, given time, we would’ve come together on our own.  Snow’s demand threatens to destroy the friendship and trust Peeta and I have spent the last few months painstakingly building.  I don’t want to lose what I have with him.  But I can’t sacrifice my family either.  I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.

 

With Willow settled, Peeta walks over to me.  I can tell he’s nervous.  He’s got the same set to his shoulders he had on that day in the Justice Building.  Like he’s unsure of what he’s supposed to do.  And I know this time, unlike then, it’ll be up to me to take the lead.

 

“Do we--”

 

I nod my head.  “Yes,” I say, cutting him off.  I know what he’s going to ask.  He’s asked the same question in various forms all night.  “Snow’s made himself clear,” I tell him.  “We don’t have a choice.  Not if we want to keep the people we love safe.”  

 

Peeta nods.  “It’s just… I don’t want to hurt you, Katniss.”

 

“If we do this right, you won’t,” I tell him.

 

“I wish…”

 

“I know,” I sigh.  “Come here.”  I open my arms, letting him decide if he wants to take the next step.  

 

After a moment he does, wrapping his whole body around me.  We stand there for a time, just taking comfort in each other, before I tilt my head up and kiss him gently on his jaw.  Then I repeat the motion on the other side.  

 

He pulls back, reaching up with both hands to cup my face.  “Katniss, are you sure?”  His eyes bore into mine, searching for an answer.  

 

I nod my head, pulling his head down to mine to capture his lips.  Unlike our previous kisses, this one is deeper, more sensual, nothing like his first kiss or even any of the kisses that have come after.

 

I run my tongue over his lower lip, asking for entrance.  

 

He pulls back in confusion, the tendon in his jaw working overtime.  “That’s--”

 

I silence him with another kiss.  Snow’s made it clear what we have to do.  And as much as I don’t want to, I know what will happen if we don’t.  Prim’s modified body is proof enough Snow will make good on his threat.

 

I take a step back and reach up to clasp his hands in mine.  “Come on,” I whisper, leading him out of the room.  “Let’s go to bed.”

 

oOo

After, Peeta buries his face against my neck and cries.  I hold him close, stroking his back.  Trying to give him comfort and solace.

 

“Never again, Katniss,” he whispers brokenly.

 

“We have to.”  My voice catches and I realize I’m crying as well.  I tried to tell myself that I’d be okay.   That we’d be okay.  But I was lying to myself.  I hate what Snow has made us do.  I hate what he’s going to continue to make us do.  I hate Snow.

 

“I hate Snow,” Peeta mutters, unconsciously echoing my inner thoughts.

 

I don’t dare say anything out loud.  And really, what could I say to make things better?  Instead, I just hold him closer and wish we lived in a world where Peeta’s and my family could be safe.


oOo

Chapter Text

Previously on Participant:  

 

I don’t dare say anything out loud.  And really, what could I say to make things better?  Instead, I just hold him closer and wish we lived in a world where Peeta’s and my family could be safe.

 

oOo

 

The day of the Victory Tour arrives.   As much as I’m tempted to spend the first part of the day hiding out in the Meadow or my old house, I don’t want to miss Prim’s last few moments at home.  After this, she’ll be spending most of the year with Snow’s granddaughter Lyta as her paid friend and companion.  It’s not the ideal solution, but at least it keeps her out of the Victor prostitution ring.  

 

Prim was understandably devastated when she found out, but she seems resigned to it now.  She’s been spending the last few days holding Willow or Buttercup for comfort.  It’s almost like she thinks she’ll never see them again.  Which is ridiculous, because Prim’ll be back in late May for the Reaping.  And what’s more, Willow, Peeta, and I will all be accompanying her on the Victory Tour.  

 

The change wasn’t that much of a surprise.  Both Finnick and Haymitch hinted at it when we were in the Capitol.  Snow confirmed it when he delivered his ultimatum.

 

Prim looks up from the couch where she’s cradling Willow.  “Do you ever think things will go back to the way they were?” she asks me, her eyes filling with tears.

 

Instead of answering her, I sit down beside her.   Wrapping my arms around them both, I tell her,  “We can’t go back, Little Duck.”

 

“I wish I’d died in the Games,” she whispers brokenly.

 

“Don’t say that!”

 

“Why?” She suddenly pulls away from me.  Jumping to her feet with Willow still in her arms, she starts pacing around the room.  

 

I feel my heart give a little lurch of fear.  I know Prim would never hurt my daughter, but I can’t stop the instinctual pull to try to get my baby back.  “Prim-”

 

She doesn’t let me finish.  “It would’ve been better than having them change me, make me into something I’m not.  I killed someone, Katniss!”

 

Prim’s anguished exclamation startles my daughter and Willow lets out a loud wail.

 

I rise to my feet, trying to figure out who to comfort first, before deciding on my sister.  “You can’t know that.”

 

“But that’s what they said!” Prim says, tears springing to her eyes.  “And it feels right.  I know I killed him. I know it!  I just wanted to get away!  I just wanted to come home.  And I killed him!”  

 

She seems to register Willow’s tears, trying her best to comfort the screaming infant.  But Willow’s scared, and nothing Prim does seems to calm her.  

 

“I’m a monster, Katniss.  Even the baby hates me.”  She sounds so broken, my heart clenches painfully in my chest.   

 

I don’t know what to say.  Peeta’s always been so much better at dealing with Prim when she’s like this.  I’m not good with words.  Instead, I start to hum the old lullaby that my father sang to Prim to try to calm her down.  I approach my sister warily, gathering my daughter into my arms.  

 

Willow calms almost immediately and begins rooting around for my breast.  Even though it’s not time for her to eat, I let her nurse.  It’s a comfort to both of us.  

 

Tugging on Prim’s hand, I lead her over to the couch.  

 

She lets me.

 

When we’re seated, she lays her head in my lap.  

 

I finish the lullaby and start in on the Valley Song.  The same song my father used to sing to us when we had nightmares.  Behind me, I hear Peeta’s footfalls.  I sense him stop in the doorway, taking in the scene, but I don’t stop singing.  

 

When I reach the end, Peeta clears his throat.  “Sorry.  I didn’t want to interrupt.  I thought you’d like to know they’re here.”  ‘They’ refers to Effie, Portia, and Cinna and their prep teams, along with whatever camera crews they’ve brought with them.  Effie mentioned they were also going to send someone to help with the baby.  I’m not sure what kind of help that will be, but I know better than to argue.

 

Glancing down at my sister, I stroke one finger down her tearstreaked face.  “Time to get ready, Little Duck.”

 

“Do we have to?”

 

I nod my head.  

 

She sighs and gets up, stopping briefly to clutch at Peeta before heading upstairs to spend time with our mother.  She’s not going to see her again for a while and I know Prim’s going to miss her.


I stand up, adjusting Willow in my arms, repositioning my shirt so I’m not exposed.  Our daughter’s fallen asleep.  Good.  

 

I smile at my husband.  “It’s been a tough day,” I tell him.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s not your fault.  None of this is.”  In a way, what Snow’s forced us to do has made us stronger.  We’re in this together.  

 

I reach out to take his hand, and together we head to the front hall.  

 

Standing there, watching us, is Cinna.  The stylist smiles at me.  “Have you missed me, Katniss?”

 

“I haven’t had time to miss you,” I reply, giving him a small smile.  

 

“Now that I can believe.  So, introduce me to this little lady,” he motions to the baby in my arms.

 

Dropping Peeta’s hand, I tilt the baby out so he can see her a little easier.  “Cinna, meet Willow.”

 

The man leans forward, smiling.  “She looks like her mother.  Beautiful.”

 

“Thank you,” Peeta says.

 

“And how are you taking being a new father?” Cinna asks.

 

“No one ever told me about the lack of sleep,” Peeta replies with a light laugh.  “I’m sure I have huge dark circles under my eyes.”

 

Cinna makes a show of examining my husband’s face.  “They’re not bad,” he says with a smile.  “I’m sure Portia and her team can take care of them for you.”

 

I shift uncomfortably.  “Um, is Portia dressing me?”

 

“We talked about it,” Cinna says, “and we agreed to let me be in charge of your wardrobe.  We both assumed you would prefer working with someone you already know.”

 

“Thank you,” I say with some fervor.

 

We say goodbye to Cinna, bundling up against the cold before heading to our house.  

 

We don’t make it far.

 

“Oh, Katniss!  Peeta!  Just the two I was looking to see!” we hear the unmistakable tones of Effie Trinket in full escort mode call out to us.

 

We pause, waiting for the Capitol woman to mince her way over to us in her absurdly high heels.

 

“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Effie,” Peeta greets.  “You look… well.”

 

“Oh?  Really?  Such a kind thing to say!” She pats her hair.  “Why, I had my wig done special for the Quell, and since this will be my last time being with you lovely dears, I wanted to go all out!”

 

The wig the woman mentioned is an odd confection of multi-hued orange and gold strands that try to mimic fire, but don’t fully succeed.  Her outfit is one of those odd Capitol suits that’s so tight and confining I don’t know how she’s not falling over.  The only thing I can think of is that she’s practiced this facade for so long that she can do it in her sleep.

 

I frown, thinking about Effie’s new job as Caesar’s co-host and announcer for the Hunger Games.  I miss the real Effie, the woman who mentored me through my time in the Capitol and made sure I understood just what I was getting into.

 

“Well, it really shows,” I say, trying to look as sincere as I can.  

 

“Thank you, Katniss.  I can see your manners are as charming as ever.  Now dears, I know you aren’t expecting it, but I wanted to bring you a little gift.”  She reaches into a gaudy handbag and pulls out a brightly wrapped box with a metallic gold bow stuck on top.  She hands it to Peeta with a flourish.

 

Peeta looks at it in confusion.  “Thank you?”

 

“Oh come on, open it!”

 

“No, really, Effie, this is far too nice.”  He shakes his head.  “I don’t want to - the paper, the wrapping, it’s just so beautiful.”

 

She waves his protests away.  “Oh don’t be an old stick in the mud.  Go on, go on!”

 

Careful not to tear the paper, Peeta gingerly unwraps the package, revealing the treasure inside.  

 

“Is that…” I trail off, my eyes going wide when I realize just what she’s given us.

 

“Of course it is, dear!  Why, I know that you’ll get good use out of them.  I even got you the largest box I could!”

 

Inside is an economy size box of Trojan condoms.

 

oOo

 

There’s another pleasant surprise when we get on the train.  Lavinia’s there.  She’s been assigned to us to take care of Willow when Peeta and I aren’t able to.

 

I feel like I’m a horrible mother.  I hadn’t really thought that far ahead.  I’d assumed Willow would be with me the whole time, especially since I’m still breastfeeding.  

 

But at least I know I can trust Lavinia with my child.  I sense Effie’s hand in this.  She probably knows most of the Avoxes who are assigned to the Tribute Center.  I know I never told anyone, other than Annie, about Lavinia, but it’s possible, even likely, Annie told Finnick, and Finnick passed it on up the chain.

 

I’m grateful she did.

 

The train is richly appointed, and there’s an extra car to house Prim’s flower arrangements and larger versions of the art from our books.  I think it’s a little absurd.  

 

Our first stop is District Eleven, and I know that’s going to be especially hard.

 

We arrive there the same day we leave Twelve, but our presentation to the district isn’t scheduled until the following morning.  Peeta, Prim, and I, along with Effie and Haymitch, suffer through a stilted and uncomfortable dinner with the Mayor of District Eleven, their Head Peacekeeper, and their Capitol Liaison.

 

The conversation naturally turns to the Games, despite Peeta’s and Effie’s efforts to find other subjects.  

 

The Head Peacekeeper, a grizzled man going gray at the temples, growls, “I lost a lot of money on you two.  I knew the McIntosh boy.  That kid was real strong, a fighter.  Coulda won it all.”

 

I blink, unsure of how we’re supposed to respond to that.  Does he want Prim and Peeta to apologize for being alive?  Does he want them to acknowledge that Thresh was a contender?  Just what is he trying to do?

 

Peeta seems to take it better than I am, because he says, “I’ve seen the tapes, and it was just bad luck what happened to Thresh.  If I couldn’t bring Prim and myself home, I wouldn’t have minded knowing that Thresh and Rue would win.”

 

The Peacekeeper grunts, dissatisfied, but I sense approval coming from the Mayor.  I hazard a glance towards Haymitch and see him shaking his head, motioning for the waiting servant to pour him another drink.

 

That night, Peeta’s nightmares are bad.

 

But they’re nothing compared to Prim’s.  

 

My sister stumbles into our bedroom, pale as a sheet, tears streaming from her eyes.  I don’t say anything, I just hold up the covers, indicating that she can come join us.  

 

Prim doesn’t hesitate.  She climbs into the bed, wrapping her thin arms around me, burying her head against my chest.  Her body shakes and I start humming underneath my breath, trying to soothe her.

 

“Why, Katniss?  Why’d they have to die?”

 

“Shhhh.”  I don’t have a good answer for her, so I settle for stroking her hair and continuing my song.  Before the Games, this would’ve been enough, but now I sense my attempt isn’t working.

 

Peeta rolls over and says, “Come here, Prim.”

 

My sister scuttles across my body, nestling herself between Peeta and me.  “Why, Peeta?” she wails.  “Rue was sweet and good!  She didn’t deserve to die!  None of them did!”

 

“Shh, Prim.  I know.  I feel the same way,” my husband soothes.  “It’s not fair,” he says, “but I know Rue wouldn’t want you to beat yourself up like this.  She’d want you to be happy.  She’d want you to live, for her.  I promised Rani I’d do that, and you’ve gotta do the same.”

 

“I wish I’d died in the Arena.”

 

“Don’t say that,” I murmur against my sister’s neck, pulling her closer to me.  She’s said variations of this ever since we got back.  All of us have done our best to comfort her, and I try yet again, “I don’t think I would’ve survived if you’d died, Prim.  I would’ve become like Mom after Dad died.  And… I was already in bad shape.  Probably would’ve lost the baby and myself.”  I realize as I’m saying them the words are true.  I probably would’ve turned into my mother and ended up losing the baby.  So as much as I hate what the Capitol’s done, I’m still happy that my sister... and Peeta... came home.

 

“Can I sleep with you guys for the rest of the night?”

 

“Of course you can.  For as long as I’m able to, I’ll always protect you,” Peeta says.

 

“Both of us.”  I echo the sentiment.  “Always.”

 

oOo

 

Prim sleeps with Peeta and me for the next few stops along the Victory Tour.  Ten is especially hard for her, because of Clint.  Seeing his family glaring at her throughout her speech is almost her undoing.  

 

As complicated as the logistics may be, I’m glad the Capitol insisted on having Willow with us.  Seeing Willow alive and knowing that her sacrifice was worth it allows Prim to keep it together.

 

With Effie’s urging, Prim eventually heads back to her own compartment.  The former escort gives me a pointed look and says to Prim, “As much as I’m sure your sister and Peeta are happy to have you, they’re married now.  And married people tend to want to sleep alone.”  

 

It’s a reminder that Snow’s given Peeta and me an ultimatum.  We have to convince him, as well as all of Panem, that we’re desperately in love with each other, and that’s definitely not going to happen with Prim preventing intimacy.

 

That night, on the long train ride between Districts Eight and Seven, Peeta lies in my arms.  “We’re going to have to do it on the tour,” I tell him.

 

“I know.  Just… I don’t think I’m up for it tonight.”

 

I laugh.  “It’s okay, I’m not either.  Frankly, I’d rather hold off until Willow is a little older.  I’m not sure going through a pregnancy again so soon would be good for me.”  I’ve seen what happens to women who have too many pregnancies too close together.  They often die young in childbirth.

 

Peeta tightens his grip around me.  “As much as I hate what Snow’s done to us, I don’t want to lose you, Katniss.”

 

“You won’t lose me, Peeta,” I reassure him.  “I’d be happy to consider having another child, but not until I’m sure it’s safe.”     

 

Peeta gives me a pointed look.  It sounds like something he’d say, a bit of double-talk, and it is.  I’m talking about our current precarious situation, not dying in childbirth.  

 

Being around Effie has caused my Games persona to kick in.  It’s not the usual blunt me, and Peeta always seems disconcerted when she comes out.  I know it bothers him, a lot more than he’s willing to say, but it’s safer for all of us if I don’t accidentally say the wrong thing to the wrong person.  We’re already walking along the edge of a cliff; one wrong move could spell disaster.

 

Districts Seven and Six pass uneventfully.  The most exciting thing is when Peeta is introduced to Johanna Mason for the first time.  

 

The woman saunters up to us, dressed to the nines, and says, “Hey Brainless, how’s it hanging?”  She regards Peeta with a gleam in her eye.  “So this is your pretty boy.  Not bad, not bad.  I could definitely go for those hot buns of yours.”

 

I don’t bother trying to hide my grin.  “Nice to see you too.  I’ve missed you.”

 

“Same.  Phones suck.  You never know who’s gonna be listening in.  I should take Haymitch’s advice and just rip my phone off the wall, but then again, if I did that, who would I have to talk to?” she asks what I think is rhetorically.  “Let me tell you, trees are not the best conversationalists.  I should know.”

 

“No, but they can be soothing at times,” I say with a laugh.

 

“That they can.” She turns to Peeta. “So, Hot Buns, how’s married life treating ya?  Is Brainless here wetting your whistle?”

 

The blood drains from Peeta’s face at Johanna’s teasing.

 

I step forward to whisper in Johanna’s ear.  “Not a good subject.”

 

The cocky Victor falls away, replaced with the real Johanna.  “Aw, shit, I just stepped in it, didn’t I?”

 

“Uh-huh.  Big time.”

 

“Snow?”  It’s not really a question.  

 

I nod my head again.

 

“Fuck,” she says.  “He give orders?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Fuck,” she swears again.  “I’m sorry, Peeta.  I didn’t mean anything by it.”

 

The fact that Johanna’s dropped the insulting nicknames tells me more than anything that she truly is sorry.  I hope Peeta picks up on it, because I genuinely like the abrasive woman from Seven.

 

Peeta sizes her up, taking in her contrite expression and lowered voice.  “It’s alright,” he says after a while.  “It’s not you I’m mad at.”

 

Johanna’s eyes widen.  “Damn, Loverboy.  I like you!”  She slings an arm around his shoulders.  “You’re gonna make him pay.”

 

oOo

 

District Five is an odd district.  Unlike the other districts we’ve been to, District Five doesn’t have a fence or walls around its main town.

 

It doesn’t need to.

 

The desert is enough of a deterrent to keep the population from defecting.

 

The only signs of lushness and greenery are around a huge, man-made lake formed by the largest dam I’ve ever seen.  The technology is definitely pre-Cataclysm, but, surprisingly, it’s still working.

 

Off in the distance, I can see the twinkling of something, while on the tops of several nearby mesas sit what I can only describe as huge farms of windmills.  District Five is known for providing power to Panem, and now I’m starting to see just how they do it.

 

District Five’s people are clearly divided into two classes.  One class is red-haired and pale, while the other has straight dark hair and an almost golden skin coloring.  I wonder which one of these is the more elite.  Redheads are uncommon, and to see so many tells me, more than anything, that they’re likely all descended from the same small group of people.

 

The Peacekeepers are out in force in District Five.  More than I’ve ever seen before in my life.  I wonder why.

 

I get my answer a little later when the Head Peacekeeper, Romulus Thread, greets us.  “President Snow’s concerned about your safety,” he explains.  “There’s been several terrorists taking out strategic locations.  We caught one of them trying to blow up one of the solar farms not too long ago.” There’s an underlying menace in his tone, like it’s not the terrorists he mentioned that we should be worried about.  

 

“Oh dear!” Effie twitters.  “I’m ever so grateful that Snow has you here to see to our well-being!”

 

Thread gives her a dismissive look.  “That’s what I’m here for.  My job is to protect the interests of the Capitol.”

 

“I’m certain we’re in good hands.”

 

Peeta and I share a look at Effie’s obvious lie.  

 

From the first moment, this man strikes me as cruel, an impression solidified as we pass the Justice Building.  Out in the town square stands a long line of gallows decorated with the bodies of several corpses in various states of decay.  The ground around the whipping post is stained red with blood, indicating it’s been used recently and regularly.  I think back to District Twelve, and note that our own whipping post hasn’t been used in years.  Cray never bothered and, through Gale and Mayor Undersee’s work, Captain Miner hasn’t needed to throw her weight around.

 

I’m suddenly grateful Captain Miner is as honorable as she is, seeing what’s happening here in Five.

 

We wait inside the Justice Building, watching as the square fills.  Peeta takes my hand while Effie talks quietly to Prim.  This is going to be a hard stop.

 

I take Peeta’s cue cards from his hands and glance through them.  I’m grateful I don’t have to say anything during these visits.  My job is to stand there looking lovingly at Prim and Peeta, holding Willow up where all of Panem can see.  I don’t know what I would do if I were expected to speak.  I probably would’ve screwed everything up back in District Eleven.

 

I glance over at Quark, the lone living Victor of District Five.  The poor kid’s shaking.  He doesn’t have to do much, but he still has his part to play.

 

Peeta glances over at me.  “I don’t know if I can do this, Katniss.  They want me to ignore everything Rani did, make it seem like I was using her and manipulating her.”  His voice shakes in anger.  “And I wasn’t!  I liked her, she was my friend.  How do they expect me to lie like this?”

 

“You’ve just got to,” I tell him, glancing over at Prim.  “If it were just you or me, I’d say say what you need to, but it’s not.”

 

Peeta nods his head and takes the cards back from me, reading through them once more.  Thread gives us the signal and we march out to take our places on the stage.

 

Right away, I notice there’s a problem.  In all of the other districts, the families of the dead tributes have been standing on these raised platforms out in the audience.  And while that’s true for District Five’s male tribute, whose name I’ve forgotten, it’s not true for the female.   Rani, who officially has no family, is represented by the entire Community Home.  Kids of all ages stand huddled on the large platform, flanked on either side by a pair of Peacekeepers holding weapons.

 

Peeta stiffens beside me, and I rearrange Willow in my arms so I can reach down to take his hand.  He needs me right now, and this is something I can do.

 

Oddly enough, Prim isn’t as shocked by Snow’s display.  But then again, I can’t remember if she knows Rani’s full story.

 

Prim goes first.  Her speech is simple, recognizing Coil’s existence and praising Rani’s ingenuity and loyalty.  She doesn’t make mention of her sacrifice or any of her rebellious words.

 

And then it’s Peeta’s turn.  My husband squeezes my hand before handing me his cue cards.  

 

Oh no.

 

I want to say something to him, but I know I can’t.  It’ll be heard, broadcast around the square and across Panem.  All I can do is stare at Peeta helplessly and pray.

 

“People of District Five, I stand in front of you a debtor,” he begins, his voice filled with conviction.  “If it weren’t for one of your own, Uranium Chee, neither Prim nor I would be here.  Without her contribution and selfless sacrifice, I never would’ve been able to make it home.  I would have never been able to become a husband or father.”  He glances over at me.  “And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the woman I love, it’s that you pay your debts.  

 

“So I’m here to settle my debt to Uranium Chee.  While she has no family for me to acknowledge, there are people who were important to her.  I’m speaking, of course, of the people who were closest to her in life, the matrons and residents of the District Five Community Home.  In recognition for everything that Rani sacrificed, I pledge a portion of my Victor’s ration every month to the Community Home.”

 

An excited murmur goes through the square.

 

“I hope this one small contribution is enough to settle my debt, and I wish to ask you to join me in a salute of honor to her memory.”  Peeta brings three of his fingers to his lips, then raises them up in the air in the old salute of District Twelve.

 

One by one, the citizens of Five follow suit.  

 

I meet Haymitch and Effie’s eyes and I see panic and concern in them.  I was supposed to keep Peeta from saying or doing anything revolutionary.

 

I’ve failed.

 

oOo

Chapter Text

 

Previously on Participant:

 

I meet Haymitch and Effie’s eyes and I see panic and concern in them.  I was supposed to keep Peeta from saying or doing anything revolutionary.

 

I’ve failed.


oOo

 

Chapter Four

 

oOo

 

After Peeta’s proclamation, we’re hurriedly ushered back to the train station.  I’m livid, but more than that, I’m scared.


As we flee, I can hear the sounds of District Five revolting back in the square.  I don’t know what disturbs me more, the screams from the crowd or gunfire from the Peacekeeper Corps.  When we reach the train, I storm onboard into the dining car where Lavinia’s waiting.  

 

Handing off my daughter to the Avox woman, I whirl on my husband.  “What was that out there?” I demand.  “Are you trying to get us all killed?  Because congratulations, you’ve succeeded.”

 

“What did you want me to do, Katniss?” Peeta counters.  “Rani was my friend.  My partner!  I just can’t forget about her!”

 

A stab of some emotion I can’t identify jolts through me.  “What about us, Peeta?  I thought we were a team.  You and me.”  I can hear the hurt in my tone.  

 

“We are a team.”  His eyes plead with me to believe him.  

 

“Then why are you trying to get us all killed?”  I can barely speak. I want to scream. Throw something against the wall.  I’m so upset my hands are shaking.  I see Prim listening to us, her eyes wide with shock, but I can’t focus on my sister right now.

 

Haymitch takes a sip from his ever-present flask, an expression of bemusement on his lips.  “Well, kid, if you wanted to start a revolution, congratulations.  You’ve succeeded.” He raises his flask in salute.  “If that wasn’t your aim, well, too fucking bad.  I don’t think good old Coriolanus is gonna be quite so understanding.” He lifts the flask to his lips, skewering Peeta with his eyes.  “Not to mention, what you tried to do out there, with the Community Home?  You can’t.”

 

Peeta stares at him in growing horror.  

 

Haymitch just looks at him like he’s an idiot.  “What?  You think other Victors haven’t tried to spread their money around, be charitable?  There’s restrictions, limits, on what you’re allowed to do.  Your money can only be used for you and your family’s health and well-being.  So you can hire a housekeeper, but you can’t give money to a family in need.”

 

“Why didn’t anybody tell me this?” Peeta cries.  

 

“They did,” Haymitch tells him, exasperation evident in his voice.  “It was in all them papers you signed back when you became a Victor.”

 

I remember the thick sheaf of documents, almost the same size as my hand, Prim and Peeta both had to read through and sign.  I didn’t understand half of the words in the thing, so I’m not surprised there are stipulations hidden within the pages.  I don’t think Peeta or Prim’s even read through it all.  I know I haven’t, although it sounds like Haymitch has.

 

“What else is in there?” Peeta asks.

 

“Pretty much about anything the Capitol thinks you need to know about being a Victor,” Haymitch answers in his characteristic unhelpful way.  “The problem with you, boy, is you seem to think once you make it through this Victory Tour, you’ll be done.  That Panem will forget you and everything will go back to normal.” He takes a hit from his flask.  “I’m here to tell you that this here train never stops.  You’ll be riding it for the rest of your life.  You, the girl, and sweetheart here ain’t never gonna escape, and the sooner you realize it, the better we’ll all be.”

 

Peeta looks around at us, his eyes wide, but it’s Prim who speaks, her voice small.  “What’s gonna happen to us, Haymitch?”

 

“Well, for you, squirt, after we finish this here Victory Tour, you’ll be livin’ in the Capitol, in President Snow’s palace, along with the rest of his kin.  Old codger likes to keep his friends close and his enemies closer, and there ain’t nobody itchin’ to take the reins more than his own son, Demetrius.”

 

“Is that Lyta’s father?” I ask.  

 

Haymitch shakes his head.  “No, Snow managed to spawn several offspring.  I’ve lost count of how many.  Only two are legitimate, Demetrius and Lyta’s mother, Titania.  But he’s got a whole host of bastards just itchin’ to take daddy’s throne.”

 

Prim looks at him in confusion.  “I thought Snow was elected.”

 

“Oh, he is.  But some dynasties are ‘elected,’” Haymitch makes little quotes around the word, “while others are hereditary.  Don’t know why Snow doesn’t just resurrect the good old days where the eldest child inherits the whole shebang.”  Haymitch takes another sip.  “Although that could be because Demetrius is even more of an incompetent than your typical Capitolite and his only child, Cordelia, wants nothing to do with the family business.  Girl’s more interested in healin’ the sick than rulin’ the nation.”

 

This is more information than I’ve ever heard about President Snow.  None of it fits with what the Capitol-approved history books say.  I wonder who’s Haymitch’s source.   I suspect Effie, although I don’t honestly know.

 

Peeta looks at Haymitch.  “Why are you telling us all this?”

 

“Because you need to understand the world you two,” he indicates Peeta and Prim, “have bungled your way into.  Sweetheart here,” Haymitch jabs a finger in my direction, “has already been thrown to the wolves, thanks to you, and as incompetent as she is, at least she’s got a better idea of the actual stakes.  You two need to get onboard, ‘cause we didn’t go to all the trouble to make sure you two both came home to have you end up in a pine box ‘cause you were too stupid to listen to someone smarter than you who has more of an idea of just what’s what you two are up against.  So you better get your act together, boy, else Katniss here will be a widow.  And that’s assuming Snow doesn’t decide to wipe you all out.”

 

Haymitch staggers off, leaving Peeta, Prim, and me staring after him in shock.

 

oOo

 

Peeta and I don’t talk that night, and for the first time since we’ve been married, we don’t sleep in the same bed.  Instead, I spent the night curled up in Prim’s room, wishing I could just go back in time and change everything, prevent Prim from taking out tesserae, never have gotten pregnant, anything and everything.  I know it’s my fault we’re in this mess and there seems to be nothing I can do to get us out.

 

I’m relieved when we get to Four to find Finnick, Annie, Tristan, and Mags waiting for us.  There are other Victors from Four, but those four are the ones I’ve had the most interaction with.  None of them are the stereotypical Careers, and all four of them helped me in some way when I was in the Capitol.

 

Annie runs forward, wrapping me in a hug, before turning to fuss at Willow.  “Oh my!  She is so darling!  Look, Finnick, isn’t she perfect?’

 

Finnick comes over, a genuine smile on his face, and dutifully coos at my child.  “I gotta say it.  This little lady’s almost as pretty as me.”

 

“Finnick!”  Annie smacks him on the chest.  “Be nice!  Besides, I think she’s much cuter than you.”

 

“It’s the cheeks, isn’t it?” he asks me sotto voce.  “Girls can’t resist those chubby baby cheeks.  And alas, I don’t have an ounce of fat on me.”  He runs his hands over his flat stomach to punctuate his words.  

 

“I see your ego’s as fat as ever,” I comment back.

 

“You wound me, dear lady.  I demand a forfeit.  How about a hug?”

 

I smile and oblige.  I’ve always liked Finnick.  I didn’t expect it, but he’s been a good friend and has been there when I needed him.

 

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta watching us, an expression I can’t decipher on his face.  

 

I pull away.

 

Finnick glances over at Peeta then back to me saying, “So, I need to talk with you two lovebirds alone.  I think Annie’s trying to kidnap your daughter anyway, so she’ll be in good hands.”

 

I’m guessing Haymitch or Effie has talked with Finnick about our faux pas in Five, and the handsome man has been tapped to give Peeta and me some much needed advice.

 

He leads us out to the seashore and allows us a few moments to boggle at the immensity of the ocean.  I’ve never seen anything so massive in my life.  The lake my father took me to seems like a puddle in comparison.  It also smells weird.  Not bad, just weird.  Peeta and I stare at the pounding surf while Finnick just watches an indulgent expression on his face.  

 

Once we have that out of our systems, Finnick begins.  “So, I heard you fucked up in District Five.  Congratulations.  Welcome to the club,” he says cheerfully.  “Don’t beat yourself up too much over it, Peeta.  All new Victors do something stupid their first year.  Part of the reason why Haymitch is so mad is because it’s his job as your mentor to keep you in line.”

 

“Then why didn’t he say that?”

 

“Who knows why Haymitch does anything?” Finnick replies with a shrug. “The guy’s got more secrets than Snow, and that’s saying something.  Why, I don’t think he confides in anyone, and that includes Effie.”

 

I wonder why Effie would be an exception, I guess because she’s the district escort.  But I can understand Haymitch’s reluctance; she’s Capitol.  She doesn’t understand what we in the districts go through.  

 

And she never will.

 

“So, anyway,” Finnick continues, “allow me to give you some unsolicited advice from one Victor to another.  Listen to your mentors.  Haymitch may be a drunk, but he’s been playing the game a long time.  His job is to keep you alive.  Let him do it.  You’ve got a good partner in your wife, so you two need to work together as a team.”

 

“I’m not good at teams,” Peeta says bitterly.  “Rani was on my team.  Rue and Thresh were on my team.  You see where it got them.”  I can tell this has been eating at him for a while and I wonder if my insistence that he and I are a team is making thing worse.  

 

“Those were the Hunger Games.  They knew the odds, just like you,” Finnick counters.  “Only one of you was supposed to walk out of that Arena alive.  Don’t forget that, for the first time ever, two of you did.  Just because your old team isn’t around anymore doesn’t mean that you don’t have a team.  You’ve got Prim, Effie, Haymitch, to name a few.  And if you play your cards right, you might have a bigger team than you first thought.”

 

“What are you trying to say?” Peeta asks, his voice wary.

 

The handsome Victor from Four waves one hand airly.  “I don’t know.  I just like to hear myself talk sometimes.  Anyway, I got a gift for you.  It’s been very useful, let me say.”  He pulls out a thin box and hands it to Peeta.

 

Peeta takes it, looking it over in confusion.  “What does ribbed for her pleasure mean?”

 

“Oh kid,” Finnick says with a laugh, “It sounds like you and me are having another talk.”

 

oOo

 

Seeing Finnick is the highlight of what’s otherwise a dismal stop on our visit.  District Four was never going to be easy, and after seeing Prim’s reaction in Ten, I suspect that things will only continue to get worse.  

 

The girl from Four, Coral, was Peeta’s first kill.

 

Peeta is able to make it through his speech without breaking down.  But that night in our quarters, Peeta loses it.  

 

I gather him into my arms, holding him close with his head resting against my chest.  I’ve learned, after a lot of trial and error, that it seems to be the most soothing.

 

But right now, it’s not having much effect.  “I never wanted to kill anyone, Katniss,” he whispers to me brokenly.  “That’s not me.  It’s not who I am.  They turned me into a killer and I can’t forgive them for that.  I’d have been okay with dying in there, so long as I didn’t let them change me.” He shudders.  “But they did.  I’m a horrible person.  I don’t know how you can stand to look at me.”

 

I stroke his hair.  “You’re not a horrible person, Peeta.”

 

“Yes, I am.  It’s why you don’t love me.  How can you love someone who’s got blood on their hands?”  His voice is filled with self-loathing.  

 

“I love Prim,” I try to reason.

 

“I still don’t think she actually killed that boy,” Peeta says.  “I bet the Capitol made that up just to break her.”

 

I don’t know what to say.  I saw the fight as it happened, and I still don’t know who actually struck the killing blow.  Peeta could be right, the Capitol could be right, or they both could.  I just don’t know.  

 

Instead, I say, “Peeta, you did what you had to do to survive.  I’m not going to blame you for that.  In fact, I’m grateful you didn’t die.”  I run my fingers through his curls.  “It means I get to make it up to you, for everything that you’ve done for me.”

 

“You don’t owe me anything, Katniss.”

 

“Just because you say I don’t owe you doesn’t make it any less true.”

 

He looks up at me, tears in his eyes.  “I don’t want your gratitude, Katniss.”

 

I sigh.  I know he doesn’t.  And I know what he wants as well.  But I just don’t know if that’s what I feel for him.  I like him.  He’s a good friend.  He’s a good husband.  He’s a good father.  But is what I feel for him love?

 

I don’t know.

 

And until I do, I can’t say the three words he desperately wants to hear.

 

oOo

 

District Three is easy, relatively, but I’m not looking forward to District Two.  Not because of Cato, but because of Clove.  I’m worried about both Prim and Peeta.  Not only did Peeta kill Clove, but she’s the tribute who did the most damage to Prim.  I’m reminded yet again just how much I owe Peeta.  

 

I owe him my sister’s life.

 

I recognize several of the faces standing in the place of honor reserved for the tributes’ families, although I don’t see Clove’s mother.  Honestly, I’m not surprised.  Clove’s mother is our Head Peacekeeper.  I guess the Capitol couldn’t have her take time off for this momentous occasion.

 

In a way, I’m glad.  Not just because it spares Peeta and Prim, but because it means that, if only for a few weeks, Captain Miner gets to have a bit of a reprieve from seeing her daughter’s killer walking around alive.  I don’t know the woman all that well, but she works closely with Gale and I’d like to try to stay on her good side for as long as we can.  After Five, I’ve seen what can happen when the Head Peacekeeper decides to work against, rather than with, their district.   

 

Peeta’s speech, as drafted by Effie, has a strong emphasis on the words honor and respect, and I see them actually having an effect on the crowd.  Unlike most districts, which have looked on Peeta and Prim with hatred and resentment, District Two seems surprisingly okay with the outcome of the Games.  

 

I don’t find out why until later, when we have dinner with the Mayor and the tributes’ families.

 

“It’s because you fought with honor,” Clove’s father tells Peeta.  “My daughter died well, and she represented her district ably, despite not being the district’s chosen representative.” His voice becomes hard for a moment before returning to its pleasant tone.  “It is a testament to her training and her resilience that she made it to the final fight.  And there, well…”  He shrugs.  “Strength prevailed.”

 

“I’m sorry, sir.”

 

“Don’t be.”  He clasps Peeta’s shoulder warmly.  “You brought honor to your district.  To your family.  All I ask is that you live a life such that you’ve earned your Victory.”

 

I see the words have an effect on Peeta, and he straightens.

 

“Thank you, sir.  I’ll do my best.”

 

“Do that.”  He turns to me, seeing Willow.  “There is no greater honor than being the father of fine, strong, children, like this one is.”  He wiggles his fingers at her, cooing slightly.  

 

He looks up at the two of us.  “If not for the eyes, she could be the spitting image of my Clove.  She’s lovely.  Thank you,” he murmurs, before turning away.

 

Peeta and I share a look.  This is the oddest family encounter we’ve had yet.  Even Rue’s mother enfolding Peeta and Prim in a huge hug can’t top this.

 

“I didn’t expect that,” Peeta says.

 

“Me either.”

 

“Two’s weird.”

 

I nod my head emphatically.  I can’t agree more.

 

oOo

 

District One is our final stop before the Capitol.  I don’t foresee any problems there, because Peeta and Prim had nothing to do with Marvel or Glimmer’s deaths, and after our experience with the other Career Districts of Four and Two, I suspect they won’t bear us any lingering animosity.

 

I’m pleased to be proven correct and our time in One is as pleasant as I could hope for, given the situation.  

 

Effie disappears partway through the festivities, reappearing a couple hours later looking pale and distressed.  I see her talking in hushed tones with Haymitch before the gruff mentor does something completely unexpected.  He slips an arm around the Capitol woman and she buries her face in his shoulder.

 

“What’s up with them?” I ask, nudging Peeta.

 

My husband follows my glance.  “I don’t know,” he whispers.  “You think maybe Effie got some bad news from home?”

 

I look at the Capitol woman.  “Maybe,” I say.  “I kind of knew she and Haymitch were close, but I didn’t think they were that close.”

 

“Maybe they’re lovers,” Peeta says, his voice teasing.

 

“Please.  Haymitch?  And Effie?” I say incredulously.  “That’s like saying Gale and Madge will end up together!  They’re like oil and water.  They don’t mix.”

 

“Not like us, huh?”

 

“No, not like us,” I say, taking his hand in mine and leaning up to give him a kiss on the cheek.  “No.  You and me, we’re good together.”

 

“I love you, Katniss.”

 

“I know.”

 

oOo

 

The Capitol is as loud and as large as I remember.  As our train pulls into the station, I see crowds of people gathering to cheer our arrival.  Both Peeta and Prim seem to understand that they need to make a good impression, so they’re standing at the window of our train, waving at the crowds.

 

I join them, with Willow, waving the infant’s pudgy arm at the window.  I feel a little silly but I know I’ve done the right thing when, out of the corner of my eye, I see Haymitch and Effie share an approving look.  We might not be in the Arena right now, but that doesn’t mean the Games are over.  

 

The Games will never be over.

 

As soon as we disembark, Willow and I are swept away for a doctor’s appointment. Once there, my daughter is subjected to several needles full of I don’t know what.  When I ask the doctor what’s going on, she tells me that they’re giving her vaccines.  I have no idea what that means, but so long as it doesn’t hurt my daughter, I’ll go along with it.  I can ask Effie later what it means.  

 

Willow’s not the only one who has a doctor’s appointment.  I’m also forced to submit to Snow’s doctors’ prodding and poking.  I don’t know what they’re looking for, but from the expressions on their faces, they don’t find it.  

 

While Peeta and I have been sexually active, it’s still only been a handful of times since Snow gave us his ultimatum.  I wonder if they’re checking to see if I’m pregnant, which I could’ve told them I’m not.  My menses haven’t resumed since giving birth. Even if we weren’t using Haymitch, Effie, and Finnick’s gifts, I still probably wouldn’t be able to conceive.

 

After our appointments, we rejoin Peeta and Prim in the Tribute Center.  While I’m getting ready, I check with Effie about the vaccines and she tells me that they’re drugs used to prevent certain illnesses.  Learning that Willow will never get sick with things like measles, whooping cough, or tuberculosis fills me with a wave of relief.  Still, it’s just one more difference between the Capitol and the districts, and a part of me feels nauseous knowing Willow gets this protection, but no other child in Twelve or any other district is considered important enough to deserve it.   

 

We’re not there for long, just long enough to get changed, before we’re spirited away to the first of many parties held in our honor.  Everyone is cooing over Willow, and I have to keep reminding myself to call her Pulcheria.

 

At one of the parties, Seneca Crane comes up to us with his wife and infant son.  “So how are the new parents?”  he asks us, smiling warmly.

 

The smile is disconcerting.  “Um, we’re good, sir.”

 

“And your daughter?  What do you call her?” His eyes twinkle up at me.  “I have to admit that Pulcheria is a bit of a mouthful for such a little lady.”

 

“We’ve been calling her Willow,” Peeta answers.

 

The bearded man nods at my husband with approval.  “A far more fitting name.  I was afraid you’d call her Pulchie, or something equally… unusual.” He motions someone over.  “Allow me to introduce my wife, Paulina, and my son, Lucan.”

 

A pretty Capitolite woman with a silver wig steps forward.  In her arms is a little boy about the same age as my daughter, wearing an outfit with a silver clock superimposed over a mockingjay on the front.  

 

“I see you’re checking out Lucan’s onesie,” she says after we’ve made all of the usual pleasantries.  “Mockingjays are all the rage, you know.  You can’t go five feet without bumping into somebody wearing a mockingjay pin, necklace, wig…  We wanted to do something special to celebrate our dual Victors from District Twelve.”

 

I blink at the woman.  “Um, thank you?”

 

“Oh no, thank you!  If you’re interested, we can send home a matching one for your little Willow here in gold,” she twitters.  “That way, they can be a matched set, just like you two!”

 

“Now, now, Paulina, don’t go pairing off the two children yet,” Seneca says with a chuckle.  “It’s far too soon.”

 

I realize in horror that they’re talking about marrying my daughter to their son.  And I don’t really know what to say to that.

 

Peeta steps in.  “I agree with you, Mr. Crane.  Let them grow up a bit first.”  He quickly brings the subject back to its original topic.  “Although, I have to admit, it’s a little disconcerting to see so many mockingjays all over.”  He motions to the rest of the room, where I see that he’s not wrong.  Every other person seems to be sporting some form of mockingjay motif, whether it’s in the fabric that they’re wearing or their jewelry.  One woman even has a giant mockingjay perched on top of her wig.  It seems to be the look of the season.

 

I wonder what they’d think if they knew the mockingjay was looked on as a symbol of rebellion out in the districts.  

 

“So, Peeta, are you looking forward to your first year of being a mentor?” Seneca asks, changing the subject.  

 

My husband tilts his head, a disarming smile on his lips. “Would I get into trouble if I said no?”

 

“Not at all, Peeta.  It’s a lot of responsibility.”  Seneca clasps Peeta’s shoulder.  “I’m glad to see you taking it seriously.”

 

Peeta looks at the hand with a flicker of disgust that he manages to quickly conceal before saying, “I always take matters of life and death seriously.”

 

“Capital, my dear boy.  Capital.”  Seneca removes his hand and beams at the two of us.  “I think this Quell is going to be one to remember.  I’m very excited about my part in it.” He turns to me.  “You’ve got a part in it too, Mrs. Mellark.”

 

“What?” I blurt out.

 

“Why, we’ve taken some of your ideas that you suggested during dinner.  I hope you don’t mind the spoilers, but we’ve incorporated some of your suggestions into the Arena,” he tells me.  “I’m sorry it’ll ruin the surprise, but I thought you’d like to know just how influential you really were, and that we really took what you said to heart.”

 

I struggle to think back on what I suggested.  It was so long ago.  “Um, thank you?”

 

“Oh no, no, thank you!  I think they’ll add an interesting dynamic to this year’s Games.  It’s not like I’m giving you an unfair advantage in the Arena, what with you being ineligible and all.”

 

“I’m ineligible?”

 

“Of course!  Once somebody volunteers for you, your name is removed from the Reaping bowl for eternity, barring other exceptions...” he explains enthusiastically before rambling off into the technicalities of the Reaping.

 

I tune him out, my heart filled with relief.  

 

Peeta’s eyes meet mine and I can tell he’s relieved too.  I didn’t know about this exception.  I wonder if more people would be willing to volunteer if they knew about it.  That may be why the Capitol doesn’t publicize it.

 

And all of a sudden, it makes everything the Career districts do make a lot more sense.

 

I smile at Seneca, who’s just finishing up.  “I’m glad I’m not getting an unfair advantage.  It wouldn’t be good for the Games.”

 

“No, it wouldn’t.  I’m glad you understand.”  His eyes glitter with an emotion I can’t identify.  “I like you kids.  I see a bright future ahead of you.  Oh, I have something for you, Peeta.”  He pats his pocket before pulling out a silver and gold pocket watch with a mockingjay emblazoned on it.  “This is for you.  I admit, as a Gamemaker I’m unable to bet on the Games, but you and Prim were my favorites, and I’m just so glad you won.” He holds it out to my husband.  “Please, take this, from me, as a gift.”

 

Peeta accepts it, flipping it open to look at the face.  

 

“As you can see, it starts at midnight.”

 

Peeta gives him a weird look.  “I thought all clocks did.”

 

“Well, this one’s special.  Now, I’m sorry, we’ve eaten up too much of your time.  Go.” He makes a shooing motion.  “Mingle.  Enjoy your party.  I’ve got a meeting to attend in an hour anyway.”

 

Peeta and I share a look moving toward the buffet table.  As we walk, he reaches out to take Willow from me.  “Is it just me, or was he trying to tell us something?” he asks, bouncing the infant.

 

“Um, I don’t know.  Maybe?”

 

“You know him better than I do, Katniss.  This is the first time I’ve really talked to the guy.  Is he always like this?” he presses.  

 

“Kinda?  If by ‘like this’ you mean confusing, then yeah.  He’s… really enthusiastic about the Games.”

 

“I don’t know.  There’s just something about him.”  He pauses for a second, thinking.  “But he’s not wrong about one thing.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“We probably should mingle more.”

 

“Where’s Prim?” I ask, looking around.

 

Peeta shakes his head.  “I don’t know.  I haven’t seen her since we got here.  Effie spirited her away in one direction while Haymitch shoved us in another.”

 

“We should probably go look for her,” I say.  “Make sure she’s okay.”

 

“Sounds good,” Peeta agrees.

 

We start weaving our way through the crowd, stopping here and there to greet our adoring public.  We don’t get very far before a fanfare rings out and all eyes turn to the raised dais.  President Snow is making his entrance.

 

Out of nowhere, Effie appears.  “Come, you two.  We need to get you up to the front!  Chins up!  Smiles on!  After all, this is your big big big day!”  She sounds nervous. Tense. I wonder what’s happened to put her in such a state.

 

When we reach the front, we see Prim leaning up against Haymitch, clutching at the old drunk’s hand.

 

Snow sees us and smiles before launching into his speech.  “Citizens of Panem, it is my greatest honor to have you join us here tonight, where we can celebrate the fruit of the most beloved of institutions, the Hunger Games.  This year has been one for the ages.  Not only did we have the unprecedented two Victors, but we’ve also gotten to be a part of one of the most inspiring love stories.  It is with great pleasure that I introduce our Victors of the Seventy-Fourth Annual Hunger Games, Primrose Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, along with his lovely wife and daughter, Katniss and Pulcheria Mellark.”

 

We walk up onstage to thunderous applause and I meet Snow’s eyes.  The man gives me a tight smile, raising his glass in salute.

 

What does that mean?

 

Am I safe?  Are we safe?

 

Or is a nightmare about to begin?


oOo

Chapter Text

Previously on Participant:  

 

We walk up onstage to thunderous applause and I meet Snow’s eyes.  The man gives me a tight smile, raising his glass in salute.

 

What does that mean?

 

Am I safe?  Are we safe?

 

Or is a nightmare about to begin?

 

oOo

 

Chapter Five

 

oOo

 

The following morning, I say goodbye to my sister.

 

I’ve been dreading this day ever since I first found out about it all those months ago. Now that it’s here, the dread is replaced by despair.  There’s nothing I can do to stop this.  Nothing at all.  And it hurts.  

 

Prim’s trying to keep a brave face, but I can tell she’s close to tears.  She’s barely holding herself together.  I sense Haymitch and Effie’s hand in my sister’s demeanor.  It wouldn’t do to seem ungrateful to the Capitol, and Lyta’s here with us, watching Prim’s every move.  I wish she weren’t here so we could say our farewells in private.  Even tributes in the Games are afforded that courtesy, but not us.  Not Prim.  

 

The girl seems harmless... innocent.  

 

But her grandfather isn’t.    

 

“I promise we’ll have lots and lots and lots of fun!” Lyta vows, her voice filled with excitement and nervousness.  “We’ll go to museums and shows and movies, and I bet I can even get us into the premieres!  They’re always sending Grandpa invitations.”  

 

Her eagerness is telling.  She doesn’t have any real friends and desperately wants Prim to like her.  She’s just not sure how.   I don’t know what I can say to her.  So I say nothing.

 

Thankfully, Effie is there to smooth things over.  “That sounds lovely, Lyta dear,” she says with a bright smile.  “I’m sure your new friend will love it!”

 

It’s the right response, because Lyta perks up.  “I just can’t wait to introduce you to everyone, Prim.  They’re gonna love you!”

 

“That’s right, Little Duck,” I tell her, smoothing a few wisps of her hair off of her face.  “They will.”

 

“But I wanna go home,” she whispers so only I can hear.

 

I struggle to keep my emotions from showing.  It wouldn’t do to break down crying, not now, not in front of all of these people.  “I know.  And I want that too.  But… smile.  This is good.  This is good,” I repeat, more to convince myself.

 

Peeta steps forward, wrapping his arms around the two of us, shielding us from Lyta’s gaze.  “I’m gonna miss you, Prim.  But we’ve got a phone, you can call us anytime, day or night.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yup.  And your mom’s got a phone too,” he says in a voice loud enough to carry.  “I’m sure Lyta will be happy to let you talk to us as much as you want.”  He looks over at Snow’s granddaughter pointedly.

 

“Of course!  I mean, I’m sure you’re sad ‘cause you’re gonna miss your family and all, but I promise you’re gonna have the best time here!  Cross my heart and hope to die!”  She makes an ‘X’ across her chest to punctuate her words.

 

All of us from District Twelve stare at her in shock.  No one would say such a thing out loud.  We’d be too afraid someone would overhear and take us up on it.  

 

Like the girl’s grandfather.

 

The silence becomes awkward and Lyta’s eyes dart back and forth between us nervously.

 

“And I’ll be here, Primrose, dear,” Effie soothes, covering for our lapse.  “If you ever need anything, just give me a ring.  And I’ve got lots of people who are just dying to meet you!  People like Beetee Lee or Finnick Odair.  They’re often here in the Capitol, you know.  And they’d be good friends to have.  After all, next year, you’re going to be a mentor.”

 

“Oh!  Can I come with you to meet Finnick?” Lyta’s eyes light up, all earlier uncertainty gone.  “I love Finnick Odair!  He’s so dreamy…”

 

Effie smiles down at the girl.  “Sounds like someone’s got a crush.”

 

Lyta blushes.  “Maybe a little.  But he’s not as cool as you, Prim!  You’re the best!”

 

Prim looks up at me, her eyes asking ‘what do I even say to this?’  

 

“That’s kind of you to say so, Lyta,” I answer for her.  “I agree with you.  Other than Peeta here, Prim is definitely the best.”

 

Lyta beams at me.

 

“Now, my dears, since this is my final duty as your escort, I wanted to do something to commemorate our bond.”  Effie rummages around in her large handbag and pulls out five small boxes.  Carefully, she checks each label, before handing them to each of us, giving me one extra.  “For Willow.  She’s part of this team too.”

 

“What is it?” Prim asks, turning the box around in her hands.

 

“Open it, open it!”

 

We do.  Inside each box is a small bracelet made of sturdy gold links.  Unlike most Capitol jewelry, these pieces look like they won’t break if someone sneezes.

 

“It’s lovely, Effie,” I say, glancing over at Haymitch.  “But I’m not sure Haymitch is the jewelry type.”  Or me or Peeta, I add silently.  

 

“Oh but we must!  Why I have one!”  She holds up her wrist, shaking it to reveal her own bracelet.  “And I picked out each charm special!  Haymitch has a fifty to commemorate his winning of the Fiftieth Hunger Games, while we all have a seventy-four, since it was the defining moment in all of our lives.  Darling Willow here has a pacifier, while you, Mom and Dad, each have a pair of baby shoes.”  

 

I study my bracelet and see she’s telling the truth.  

 

“The bracelet tells a story,” she continues.  “Our story.  And it shows that we’re a team that worked together to achieve great things.  And I’m going to miss you all!”  She dabs at her eyes with a lacy handkerchief.  “I’m going to miss you all so, so, so much!”

 

“You don’t have to leave, Miss Trinket, if you don’t want to,” Lyta says, her voice uncertain.  “I’m sure my grandfather could say something on your behalf.”

 

“Oh no, my darling girl, you mustn’t.”  There’s a hint of panic in her tone that I hope Lyta doesn’t pick up on.  “I’m ecstatic about my new role!  I just wish that there were two of me so I could do both!  I’m sure you understand.”

 

Lyta nods her head.  

 

It’s a brilliant deflection, and Effie follows it up with another.  Glancing down at her wristwatch, she says, “I’m sorry, dears, but I’m going to have to cut this short.  Schedule to keep and all.”  I can tell from her tone Effie is truly sorry.

 

I give Prim one more big hug.

 

Prim runs over to Lavinia, who’s holding a sleeping Willow, and takes the infant in her arms.  “You be good, little one,” she says to our daughter.  “Auntie Prim loves you.  I’m gonna miss you so much.”

 

“Oh, that’s right!”  Lyta turns to one of her waiting attendants.  “Give me the thing I brought!”  Her whole demeanor changes.  I’m reminded once again of just who she is and the power she wields.

 

The woman holds out a slender box to Snow’s granddaughter.  

 

The girl takes it before bouncing over to Peeta and presenting it with a little flourish, all trace of her imperiousness gone.  “For you, good sir!” she says, curtseying.

 

“Um, thanks?” He takes it, confusion etched on his features.  “What is it?”

 

“It’s the next generation JobsPad.  Beetee invented it,” she explains.  “It’s got a camera and a video recorder and virtual mail and access to the Capitol libraries and it all’s wireless and best of all, it’s solar powered.  All you need to do is stick this little thing,” she digs around in the box and pulls out a card-sized plastic thing, “on one of your windows and plug it in here,” she points to the wire that’s hanging down from the side of it, “and it’ll never run out of power!  I’ve got one for Prim back at my house.  That way you can send her pictures and videos and stuff.  It’s even better than a phone!”

 

Effie shakes her head.  “They don’t have wireless in Twelve, Lyta.”

 

“Oh, I had Grandpa take care of that!” the little girl says with a dismissive wave of her hand.  “I mean, he said you’re gonna have to go to the Justice Building to send things to Prim, but he made sure that there was wireless installed in Twelve.  I think the Mayor’s house has it too,” Lyta tells us.  “Oh, I can’t wait to see all the cute baby pictures!”

 

I see Peeta make a face and I struggle not to do the same.  Great.  I’m sure this is a plan of Snow’s to see if Peeta and I are following his instructions.  I’ll have to check with Madge to see if her father’s house has this wireless thing Lyta’s talking about, because there’s no way I’m going to the Justice Building if I can avoid it.  The place is full of bad memories.  My father’s death… the Reaping… that horrible clerk...

 

“Thank you, Miss Snow,” Peeta says with no trace of the annoyance and trepidation I’m sure he’s feeling.  “I’m gonna have to figure out how to use this, but we’ll do our best to send as many pictures as we can.  But that just means that Prim will have to take lots of pictures of all of the fun you have here.”

 

“Oh, of course!”

 

Prim cuddles Willow one last time before handing her back to Lavinia.   Throwing herself into Peeta’s arms, she says, “I’m gonna miss you.”

 

“I’m just a phone call away.”

 

“It’s not the same.”

 

“It’s for the best,” he says.

 

Prim nods her head and moves to say goodbye to me.  “I’m not sorry I volunteered for you, Katniss.”

 

“I’m not sorry you came home,” I tell her.  “I hope you’ll be happy here.”  

 

I hold my sister close, trying to memorize everything about this moment.  I have this horrible feeling I’ll never see Prim again.

 

I hope I’m wrong.

 

oOo

 

The train ride back is somber.  Without Effie or Prim there to add a spot of brightness, Haymitch spends all of his time trying to drink his fill of the Capitol liquor.  Peeta and I spend our time playing with Willow and watching the countryside roll by.  There’s not much of interest, just fields upon fields of grain.  

 

Eventually even Peeta has seen enough and says, “I’ll be glad to be home.”

 

“Me too.”

 

“I’ll bet,” he says.  “It’ll be nice to sleep in our own bed.  I’ve missed having the window open.”

 

“I haven’t.  It’s freezing outside!”

 

Peeta smiles at me.  “I’ll keep you warm.”

 

“I think you sometimes do that on purpose,” I tease.

 

Peeta’s smile fades, and I realize I’ve made a mistake.  He’s always been worried about pressuring me, knowing I never wanted to get married.  He’s tried hard to be a good husband even though I know it breaks his heart at times that I can’t return his feelings.  

 

I place a hand on his arm.  “I was just teasing, not--”

 

“I can stop if you want,” he says, glancing down at our daughter.

 

“I was just teasing, Peeta,” I tell him.  “It’s fine.  I’ve gotten used to sleeping with you.”

 

Peeta grunts.

 

I realize I’m continuing to say the wrong thing.  “Peeta, it’s okay.  I like sleeping with you.”

 

“Mmm.”  He doesn’t sound convinced.

 

“No really.  I do.  I’d probably have a hard time sleeping without you,” I admit.

 

“You don’t have to lie to me, Katniss, just to make me feel better.”

 

“I’m not lying.”

 

“It’s nice of you to say so,” he looks over at me, his eyes shining with unshed tears, “but we both know that’s not true.”  He stares down at Willow again.

 

I don’t know what I can say to make him understand, so I don’t say anything.  Instead, I take his face between my hands, tilting it up to look at me.  Then, very deliberately, I kiss him on the mouth.  This is for us.  For me.  It’s the only way I can think to comfort my husband right now.  “Come on,” I say.  “It’s getting late.  Willow’s already asleep, and we should be too.”

 

Thankfully, Peeta doesn’t argue with me.

 

He follows me, carrying Willow, and places her in her crib.

 

“I don’t think I’m up for anything tonight,” he says, mostly for the bugs.

 

“It's okay.  I’m not either.  We can just sleep.”

 

It turns out I’m being far too optimistic saying that.  It’s a bad night.  Peeta’s nightmares are worse than they’ve been in a long while.  He keeps calling out for Prim, and despite all my efforts, nothing I do seems to be able to shake him out of it.

 

He’s shivering, crying, and my heart breaks.  This poor, gentle man has been destroyed by the Capitol.  

 

I hope Prim’s having a better night, but somehow I suspect my sister’s being wracked with nightmares too.  I wonder how she’ll handle it with us not being there.  If she’ll climb into Lyta’s bed, looking for any form of comfort.  I worry about her as I sit in the darkness, staring at the red numbers on the bedside clock.

 

Around midnight, Peeta wakes up.  “Katniss?” he says, his voice hoarse from his crying.

 

“I’m here,” I soothe him.

 

He clings to me.  “I’m glad.  I dreamed they took you away from me.”

 

“We’re a team, you and me.  Only death can separate us now,” I say, trying to cheer him up.

 

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

 

oOo

 

I hope life will calm down for Peeta and me once the Victory Tour is over, but fate, as usual, has other plans.

 

Peeta’s brother Bing decides this January is the perfect time to get married to his fiancee, Iris.  Since they’re both merchants, the celebration is elaborate by Twelve’s standards.  Peeta’s mother goes all out for her eldest child, even commissioning a new suit for the groom.  Most of the time, we just wear whatever we can find, but Mrs. Mellark seems to be on a rampage, constantly muttering about how she was deprived of attending her baby boy’s wedding.  She won’t be slighted like that again.

 

I feel sorry for Bing and Iris, but part of me can’t help thinking better them than me.  I barely can stand to have the woman as a mother-in-law, and she feels the same.  She’s never even been in Peeta’s and my house.  Only his brothers and father have made the trip out to Victor’s Village.

 

Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Mellark quickly gets into an argument with Iris’s mother.  Peeta’s mother feels that Iris’s parents should buy a new wedding dress rather than renting one.  But no one buys wedding dresses in Twelve.  The tailor makes most of his money by renting outfits as opposed to selling them.  Besides, renting the outfits has become a tradition in Twelve, one little girls and boys indulge in by staring at the windows of the tailor’s shop.

 

Thus begins the battle of the parents.

 

According to their mothers, Iris and Bing have to have the best, most elaborate wedding cake, and of course Iris’s bouquet and flower crown would bankrupt even the most comfortable of merchants.

 

Peeta pulls his brother aside and asks, “Do you really want all this?”

 

Bing shakes his head.  “No.  If we’d had any sense, Iris and I would’ve just gone to the Justice Building and signed the papers and eloped.  I never thought Mom would do this.”

 

“So what are you looking forward to the most?”

 

Bing shakes his head.  “Honestly?  The wedding night.  Do you think you can convince Katniss to sing the wedding song?” Bing pleads, knowing I’m listening.

 

Peeta looks over at me.

 

“I’d be happy to,” I tell him.  It’s the least I can do to help make his wedding day special.

 

“Is Dad making you the toasting bread?”

 

Bing shakes his head.  “I think he’s forgotten.  Mom’s got him working on that cake.”

 

Peeta makes a face.  “I’d be happy to make your bread for you.”

 

“Thanks, Peet,” he says, an expression of relief on his face.  “You’re a lifesaver.”

 

A few days before Prim’s birthday, Iris and Bing get married.  The wedding goes off not quite without a hitch.  Mrs. Mellark sees to that.  Although she sneers at me when I sing Twelve’s wedding song, apparently my voice isn’t good enough for her, but at least Iris and Bing seem happy.  

 

It’s as much as you can ask for in Twelve.

 

oOo

 

Winter passes.

 

And it’s a harder winter than usual.  

 

Right after Iris and Bing’s wedding, our district is wracked by a blizzard which lasts for three days.  Unfortunately, the horrible weather means I miss Prim’s birthday phone call, because the phone lines are down.  We don’t get an actual chance to call her until almost a week later, when service is restored.  Even Lyta’s promised wireless in the Justice Building doesn’t work.

 

When we finally talk to her, she seems overly cheerful, like she’s trying too hard to put her best face forward.  I wonder if someone’s told her that the phone lines are bugged. There’s a guarded nature to her that I haven’t heard before.

 

A point which is driven home at the end of our conversation, when she says, “I hope everything’s going well for you guys in Twelve.  There haven’t been any problems with the shipments, have there?”

 

I assume she’s referring to the monthly Parcel Day shipments. “No, thank goodness.  I think if something had happened, a lot of people would be in trouble.”

 

“Oh that’s good.”  There’s relief in her voice.  “I accidentally mentioned my concerns to Lyta, who brought it to her grandfather’s attention.  President Snow promised he’d do his best to make sure that Twelve was taken care of.”

 

Those words sound vaguely ominous.

 

“Well, tell President Snow thank you from me, and on behalf of Twelve.”

 

“Oh I will!  I’m certain he’ll be happy to hear of your gratitude.  He wanted to know how you and Peeta were doing.”

 

“Peeta and I are fine.  I think we both have a case of cabin fever, but you know how it is in the winter.  At least we have each other,” I say for the benefit of whoever’s listening in.

 

“Yeah.  I do.  So I like my school,” she changes the subject abruptly.

 

I’m left wondering just how much she knows now.

 

We talk about inane things before Prim wraps it up.  “Thanks for calling, Katniss.  I appreciate it.  I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and I do mean everything.  You’ve always looked out for me.  I guess, I just didn’t realize how much.”

 

I make a face, wondering who talked to my sister and just what they told her.  “Hey, it’s no problem.  That’s what big sisters are for.”

 

“Sometime you’ll have to let me look out for you.”

 

“Never gonna happen,” I say.

 

“Never say never.”

 

oOo

 

Midway through February, winter lets up and there are several bright sunny days in a row, perfect weather for winter hunting.  My fingers long to draw my father’s bow and Peeta offers to watch Willow for the day so I can scratch my itch.

 

I kiss him on the mouth.  “Thank you.”

 

He stares up at me.  “If I’d known that would be my reward, I would’ve offered it sooner.”

 

“You’re just saying that so that I’ll kiss you again.”

 

“Maybe.”

 

“Peeta,” I say, taking his face between my hands, “you don’t have to wait for me to initiate things all the time.”

 

“I just don’t want to pressure you, Katniss,” he tells me.  “You’ve already given up so much.  I don’t want to take away any more.”

 

“You’re not taking anything from me, Peeta.”

 

He reaches up to my face and pulls me closer until our lips touch.  

 

The kiss he gives me is serious, nothing like the little pecks he gives me to say good morning or good night.  This is more like the makeout sessions we used to have before Snow gave us his ultimatum.

 

I’ve missed them.

 

I wrap my arms around him, pulling Peeta closer.  I feel the hunger inside me grow.  I want more.  All thoughts of going out into the woods are forgotten as I press myself against my husband, feeling his hard body under mine.

 

He feels so good.

 

I feel something I haven’t felt in a long time well up inside me.  Desire.  I deepen the kiss, my tongue flicking out to tease at his.   He tastes of freshly baked bread and cinnamon tea.  

 

His hands skim down my sides to play with the edge of my sweater.  I want nothing more than to pull it off so I can feel his hands on my flesh.

 

“Peeta…” I moan against his mouth.

 

“Tell me to stop, Katniss, and I will.”

 

“Don’t stop.” I grind myself against him, trying to satiate my hunger.  “Please, don’t stop.”

 

As if my words flip a switch inside him, his kisses become more animalistic, as if he’s lost all control.  That’s okay; so have I.

 

I pull my sweater off, tossing it behind me.   I shiver when the air brushes my skin, but it’s not from the cold, it’s from Peeta’s heated gaze.  

 

Our lips crash together once again.  His hands finally find the gap between my undershirt and pants, sliding upward to cup at my breasts.

 

I want this.  I want him.

 

The sound of someone pounding at our door intrudes into my consciousness.  

I want to ignore whoever it is but I can’t when they call out, “Damn it, Katniss!  I know you’re in there!  I can see you through the window!  Stop making out with your husband and open the fucking door!”

 

Gale.

 

I tear my lips from Peeta’s and blink at him, dazed.  This was more passionate than we’d ever been before.

 

“You should probably get the door,” Peeta says, regret evident in his tone.  He glances down at himself.  “I should probably go, uh, someplace else.  Let you and Gale talk in private.”

 

“No, Peeta.” I place a hand on his chest over his heart.  “Stay.  You’re my husband.  We shouldn’t have secrets from each other.”

 

He nods his head, awkwardly walking toward the sitting room.

 

I watch him go reluctantly, wishing I could just send my best friend away so we could pick up where we left off.  But I know Gale wouldn’t come out here unless it was important.  We’ve been careful not to publicize our former closeness.

 

For our daughter’s sake.

 

Gale’s smirking at me, his arms crossed, when I finally open the door.  “Took you long enough.”

 

“Shut up, Gale,” I snap, pulling on my recovered sweater.

 

The smirk broadens.  “What, aren’t you gonna invite me inside?”

 

I step to one side.  “I suppose.”

 

“Look, I don’t mean to be cockblocking you,” he says, holding up his hands.  “I thought I should visit you, as a friend.  Give you some friendly advice.”

 

“Why don’t you tell us this friendly advice where we both can hear it?”

 

Gale nods.  “Fair enough.”

 

We join Peeta in the sitting room, where he’s holding a pillow in his lap.  Gale raises an eyebrow.  “No need to stand up to say hello.  I’ve been there.”

 

My husband ignores my best friend’s words.  “So what brings you out to Victor’s Village, Deputy Assistant Mayor?”

 

“That is one hell of a mouthful, isn’t it?”

 

“I wouldn’t know, Deputy Assistant Mayor.”

 

“No, no, you’ve got a much more cumbersome title, Dual Co-Victor of the 74th Hunger Games and one half of the Star-Crossed Lovers of District Twelve,” Gale says, a little glint in his eyes.  “Makes mine look positively prosaic in comparison.”

 

“Are you two teasing each other or about to fight?”

 

“I got no problems with Mellark.”

 

“Same.  I’ve got no problems with Mellark either.”

 

“Smartass.”

 

Peeta grins.  “So you never answered my question.  Why are you here?”

 

“Because I know Katniss, and I know that today’d be the perfect day to spend outside,” Gale responds, sobering.

 

I cross my arms.  “Yeah, and?”

 

“Just saying that you might want to rethink that,” he says, his grey eyes serious.  “And if you do, I’d make sure that your pest control permit is up to date.”

 

I stare at him, trying to understand exactly what Gale’s telling me.  I fail.

 

Both of them must see it in my expression, because Peeta says, “Why don’t we take Willow to your mom’s and head into town to check on that?  Gale can walk with us.”

 

I nod my head.  This way Gale can come out and say what needs to be said without fear of being overheard.

 

We bundle Willow up for the cold and hand her over to Gale to carry.  Gale takes his daughter eagerly, nuzzling her little face and cooing at her.  She likes her father.  Well, actually, she likes both of her fathers.  She likes Gale’s voice, but she seems to prefer Peeta more.  Maybe it’s something in the way he smells.

 

I like Peeta’s smell, too.

 

My mother is happy to take Willow, leaving Gale, Peeta, and me free to talk.

 

“So what are you really trying to say, Gale?”  I ask as soon as I think it’s safe.  

 

“Miner’s got the patrol out in force,” he explains, keeping his voice low.  “She got word from the Capitol that terrorists have been infiltrating other districts from underneath the fence, and so she’s increased her patrols, but has left the fence uncharged in hopes of trapping dissidents.”

 

“Is there any truth to these rumors?”  Peeta wants to know.

 

Gale shifts uncomfortably.  “Kinda?  Madge and me met a family from Eight fleeing towards District Thirteen.”

 

“Wait, they’re going to Thirteen?” I stare at him.  “But wasn’t Thirteen destroyed?”

 

Gale shrugs.  “They seemed pretty convinced it was still there.  Frankly, I didn’t have any reason to doubt ‘em.  I mean, why would you take your kid with you if you didn’t think you’d end up someplace where it was safe?”

 

“So you think this is Snow trying to prevent anyone from fleeing?” I ask.

 

“Possibly.  It’s also possible that he’s trying to prevent people from entering.  It’s not public knowledge, but there’ve been riots in Districts Eight, Five, and I’m hearing word out of Four that there’s rebellion brewing out in the outlying fishing villages.”  Gale fixes me with a look.  “Fire is catching, Katniss.  We’ve just gotta be careful that we don’t end up getting burned in the process.”

 

I want to ask him more, but I can hear the sounds of clamor coming from town.  The three of us exchange a look before quickening our pace.

 

Something’s happening.

 

Something big.

 

We burst into the square to see several Peacekeepers erecting a whipping post in the middle.  I haven’t seen one of them in years, at least not here. Cray only used capital punishment when he had to, and Captain Miner hasn’t seen fit to erect one.

 

I guess something’s happened to make her change her mind.

 

I see her standing off to one side, speaking in low tones with several Peacekeepers.  Hovering in the background, Mayor Undersee shifts from foot to foot, glancing nervously at the Justice Building.

 

“What’s happening?” Peeta asks the nearest person.

 

“Someone got caught slipping under the fence,” the man whispers back.

 

My heart pounds in my chest.  That could’ve been me, and if it hadn’t been for Peeta’s distraction and Gale’s warning, it probably would’ve been.

 

When the post is secure, Captain Miner motions for Darius and Purnia to fetch the lawbreaker.

 

I’m unable to keep myself from gasping when finally I see who it is.

 

Beside me, Gale whispers, “Madge.  Damn it, Madge.  Just what were you doing out there?”


oOo

Chapter Text

Previously on Participant:  

 

“What’s happening?” Peeta asks the nearest person.

 

“Someone got caught slipping under the fence,” the man whispers back.

 

My heart pounds in my chest.  That could’ve been me, and if it hadn’t been for Peeta’s distraction and Gale’s warning, it probably would’ve been.

 

When the post is secure, Captain Miner motions for Darius and Purnia to fetch the lawbreaker.

 

I’m unable to keep myself from gasping when finally I see who it is.

 

Beside me, Gale whispers, “Madge.  Damn it, Madge.  Just what were you doing out there?”

 

oOo

 

Participant

By FanficAllergy

 

oOo

 

Chapter Six

 

oOo

 

I clutch at Peeta’s arm, my body trembling in shock and worry.  I can’t believe Madge, of all people, is about to be whipped.  

 

Even though I can tell she’s been crying, Madge stands in front of the whipping post, her head unbowed.  She shivers in her flannel shirt, her winter coat draped over the arm of another Peacekeeper. I wonder if I would have the same composure if I were standing in her place.   

 

Somehow I don’t think I would.  

 

Captain Miner flicks some kind of square box on her waist.  She clears her throat experimentally, her voice echoing through the town square.  “Citizens of District Twelve, you have experienced the Capitol’s generosity this year,” she begins, her tone as solemn as her words. “Now one of your own is about to experience the Capitol’s wrath.” She motions grandly to my friend.  “Madge Undersee, age seventeen, apprehended attempting to breach the defenses surrounding this district.  A most severe offense.  One I cannot ignore.”

 

“Captain Miner, I’m certain there’s some reasonable explanation,” the Mayor tries.  His hands are shaking violently.  I doubt it’s from the cold.  I empathize with the man.  I’d want to do something, anything, to protect my child.  

 

“As I’m certain you are aware, Orville, actions, not words, carry more weight.”  

 

Gale stiffens next to me.  

 

I don’t have time to ponder why because Miner continues,  “I understand she is your daughter, and as a parent myself I admire your willingness to stand up for your misbehaving child.”  Her tone is mild but her eyes are hard.  “However, as Head Peacekeeper of this district, I cannot afford to make exceptions on the grounds of age or family status.  Madge Undersee will receive the standard punishment for a first transgression.”

 

Beside me, Gale draws in a deep breath.

 

“What is it?” I whisper.

 

He shakes his head.  “You’ll find out.”

 

The Head Peacekeeper turns to the Peacekeepers flanking Madge.  “Please secure the prisoner to the post.”

 

Darius takes hold of Madge’s upper arm, murmuring something into the blond girl’s ear.  

 

Madge nods, then takes one shaky step forward and then another until she’s standing in front of the whipping post.    

 

The red-haired Peacekeeper nods his head in approval.  He must have advised her not to struggle.  I’m glad Madge took his advice.  I don’t think being dragged kicking and screaming would make her punishment any easier.   And it might incur even more infractions, stupid things like resisting arrest or interfering with a Capitol representative which would add to her punishment.  

 

Once Madge is secure, Miner walks up and stands next to her, lowering her voice so only those closest can hear,  “Would you prefer to keep your shirt on or off?”

 

“Which - which is better?”  

 

“I’d recommend off.  You don’t want to get the fabric caught in the wounds,” Miner explains.  “It could lead to infection.”

 

Madge lets out a low moan.  

 

“Your decision?”  Miner’s voice is both soft and unyielding.  

 

Glancing around the square, Madge’s eyes find us.  They’re pleading and I get the impression that she’s trying to tell us something, but I have no idea what.  Finally, she licks her lips and says,  “Off.”

 

Darius steps forward, a pair of scissors in his hands.  He slits Madge’s blouse down the back, leaving it closed in front to provide her with some form of modesty and warmth in the chill winter air.  It’s a kindness I didn’t expect from the Peacekeepers.

 

“Commander Gneiss, are you ready?”

 

The woman nods, pulling out a plastic bag with a black leather whip sealed inside it.  Carefully, she unwraps and unfurls it.  The lash is about three feet long with several dangling braided cords with little knots on the ends.  Gneiss swings it experimentally, trying to get a feel for the instrument.  When she’s done, she nods her head.

 

Captain Miner turns back to the crowd.  “The punishment for a first attempt to bypass the district’s perimeters is twenty lashes.”  She regards the bound girl.  “Do you, Madge Undersee, understand your crime?”

 

“I- I- I do.”  I don’t know if Madge’s stutter is from the cold or from fear.    

 

“Do you have anything to say in your defense?” Miner presses.  “Any mitigating circumstances we should be aware of?  Pregnancy, illness, or other medical condition which might postpone or otherwise prevent your punishment?”

 

“...No.”

 

With a jerk of her head, Miner turns to Gneiss.  “Alright, Commander, you may proceed.”

 

The woman takes a deep breath and strikes.

 

The sound of leather meeting flesh is horrific.  

 

But not quite as horrific as the scream of pain Madge lets out.

 

Clinging to my husband, I wish I was somewhere else.  Anywhere else.  I scan my surroundings, trying to figure out how to get away.  

 

There!  There’s an opening in the crowd.

 

I reach down to take Peeta’s hand to lead us away.

 

Something stops me.  

 

Madge’s tear-filled blue eyes meet mine.  I see the pleading in their depths.  To do something.  Anything.  I shake my head, pushing back my own tears.  There’s nothing I can do to stop this torture.  But I can stay here for my friend.

 

With each stroke of the whip, Gale tenses beside me.  I can hear him keeping count under his breath, murmuring encouraging things to the girl on the post.  I concentrate on his litany.  He’s begging, pleading, for Madge to have strength.  For him to have strength.  For the whipping to be over soon.  

 

It almost sounds like a prayer.  Something just as illegal as poaching or theft.

 

I hope no one overhears my best friend.

 

On the seventh swing, the whip draws blood.

 

I can’t watch anymore.

 

I turn my head to see Peeta’s jaw clenched.  He’s angry, and I can tell from the set of his shoulders that he’s about to step in and do something.  Say something.  Make a speech.  Condemn the Capitol.

 

He can’t.

 

Snow will punish him.  

 

Will punish Prim or Willow.

 

I clutch his hand tighter, willing him to look at me.  He does.  When his eyes meet mine,  I shake my head slowly.  This isn’t that bad.  Even Cray was worse when forced to administer punishment.  I’m sure Snow’s just waiting for Peeta to make another mistake like he did in Five.  I can’t allow that.  Not when we both have so much to lose.

 

After the tenth stroke, Miner raises one hand.  Gneiss pauses, holding the whip so none of the tails touch the ground.   

 

Darius steps forward with a bottle of water.  “Take a few sips,” he encourages.  “The next ten are gonna be harder.”

 

I wonder how he knows.


Madge does what he says.  “Th-thank you.”

 

He doesn’t acknowledge her thanks.

 

I look around the crowd, noting that several people have slipped away.  “Someone should get my mom,” I murmur.

 

Gale’s eyes flick towards me.  “That’s a good idea, Catnip,” he says in a low tone.  “You should go.”

 

I shake my head, remembering Madge’s pleading eyes.  “I can’t.  Madge is my friend.”  My only friend here in Twelve other than Peeta and Gale.  

 

“I’ll go,” Peeta offers.  “Your mom’s gonna have her hands full and she doesn’t need Willow there distracting her.”  

 

He’s got a point.

 

Gale looks over my head to my husband.  “You should stop by the Mayor’s house on the way back.  Get morphling from Mrs. Undersee.  I don’t know if Mrs. Everdeen’s got any, but I’m pretty sure Madge is gonna need it more than her mother does.”

 

Peeta nods his head and hurries off.

 

“He’s a good man,” Gale tells me.  His eyes bore into me.  “Don’t think I didn’t notice what you’re trying to do.”

 

“What am I trying to do?”  I lift my chin, returning Gale’s gaze with a glare of my own.

 

“You’re trying to save his life.  You must really care for him.”

 

I can’t bear to hold his eyes any longer.  I turn away, focusing instead on the snowy ground at my feet.  “He’s a good man, Gale.”

 

“I think I just said that.”  There’s no hint of jealousy in his tone and again I’m reminded of how much Gale has changed these last few months.

 

We don’t talk any more because Gneiss steps forward to begin the second half of Madge’s punishment.

 

It’s worse now.  

 

Madge’s blood drips onto the compacted snow, staining it red.

 

My stomach churns.  I’ve never been good with blood.  Animals are just fine.  But this isn’t an animal; this is Madge.  This is someone I care about.

 

I glance down at my feet, noting that there’s small drips of blood in the snow near where Gale is standing.  My eyes fly to Gale’s hands and I’m able to make out small semi-circular wounds in his palms from where he dug his nails in to prevent himself from interfering.

 

I know he and Madge have grown close.  I didn’t realize they were this close.  I feel a trickle of  jealousy lance through me and it surprises me.  

 

Why am I jealous?

 

I analyze my feelings to distract myself from Madge’s whipping.  

 

I don’t want Gale.  Not in that way.  

 

Why do I care if he’s in love with Madge?

 

I don’t.

 

Madge and Gale aren’t the problem.  

 

He and I are.

 

Gale and I have grown apart.  I have a family and Peeta.  He’s got his new career.  Our responsibilities and worries have changed.  Neither of us are afraid of starvation now. Our fears are bigger, more life changing than where our next meal is going to come from.  He has all of Twelve to worry about.  While I’ve got all of Panem.  We used to have so much in common.  Now everything’s changed.  

 

Part of me wishes I could change it back.  But that’d mean losing my family.  Prim.  Willow.  Peeta…

 

The last brings me up short.

 

I don’t want to lose Peeta.  

 

I shove the thought away, turning back to the events unfolding in front of me.  I don’t have time to examine my feelings for my husband.  Madge needs me.  I repeat the last, ignoring the little voice in my head who sounds oddly like Haymitch telling me that I care about the boy.  I know I do.  He’s my friend.  And…

 

Finally, the twentieth stroke falls.  Gneiss takes a step back, shuddering in relief.  I hadn’t noticed it before, but there’s an expression of sadness and resignation on the woman’s face.  I wonder if the reason Miner asked her to administer the punishment was because she wouldn’t enjoy it.

 

Captain Miner gives a signal.  Darius quickly steps forward and removes the bindings from Madge’s wrists.  They’ve rubbed raw, forming angry circles on the girl’s arms. I can’t bring myself to look at Madge’s back.

 

Captain Miner makes an imperious motion and two more Peacekeepers step forward with a stretcher.  Carefully, they help Madge lay down face first on it, then stand up, waiting for their orders.

 

Before the Mayor can speak, Gale calls out,  “We’ll take her to the Everdeens’.”

 

“Are you certain that’s wise?” Captain Miner asks, making a face.  “Miss Undersee needs a physician.”

 

“Mrs. Everdeen’s a healer, about the best we’ve got here in Twelve,” Gale responds.  

 

He’s not wrong.  The merchant doctor doesn’t do anything other than prescribe the same ‘wonder drug morphling’ no matter the ailment, and morphling’s too expensive for most folk.  My mother’s merchant family does what they can, but they know more about treating illnesses than injuries.  My mother is the best we’ve got in Twelve.

 

Miner frowns at that bit of information.  I wonder if it has to do with my maiden name or Gale’s explanation.

 

I don’t have time to worry about that right now.  Right now, Gale and I need to make sure Madge gets to my mother.

 

Madge’s life might depend on it.

 

oOo

 

The trip from the square to my mother’s house is surreal.  Both Gale and the Mayor are hovering next to Madge as she’s carried between the two Peacekeepers.  Captain Miner accompanies us, which is even more bizarre.

 

When we reach my mother’s house, I can see someone’s cleared off the dining room table, placing a thin pillow on one end.  Next to the table sits a tea tray with a bowl full of snow, another of steaming water, and a third piled high with bandages.

 

My mother is in full healer mode, giving orders to the Peacekeepers.  She examines Madge’s wounds with a critical eye.  She looks up, her eyes finding Captain Miner.  “You removed her shirt?”

 

“I gave Miss Undersee the option, and she consented.”  Miner’s tone is brisk, business-like.

 

Still, my mother’s eyes widen at the words.  “Thank you.”

 

“If it’s of any importance,” the woman volunteers, “the whip had never been used before today.”

 

My mother nods, her eyes turning back to her patient.  “How many lashes?”

 

“Twenty.”

 

My mother makes another mental tick.  “Will there be any follow up punishment?”

 

“No.  So long as Miss Undersee understands and does not repeat her transgression, the Capitol considers this punishment enough.”  Miner shifts slightly.  “Is there anything else?”

 

My mother shakes her head. 

 

“Then we shall take our leave and allow you to work.”   Miner escorts her Peacekeepers out, leaving the rest of us alone.

 

I turn my head back and forth.  “Where’s Peeta and Willow?”

 

“Upstairs,” my mother answers.

 

“Did Mellark bring the morphling?”  Gale asks, glancing down at the tea tray.

 

My mother starts to clean Madge’s back with a cloth and the warm water.  “He did.”

 

“Then why aren’t you giving her any?”  Mayor Undersee demands.  

 

From her place on the table, Madge lets out a low moan.

 

“Because right now, I need her awake,” my mother answers, her voice curt.  “Her back isn’t the worst I’ve seen, and it’s better if she can take off her clothes on her own than have me cut her out of them.  And as I’m sure you’re aware, morphling is addictive.  The last thing you need, Orville, is two addicts living in your house.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a patient to attend to.”

 

The Mayor flushes.

 

I meet Gale’s eyes.  I didn’t know morphling was addictive.  The merchant doctor never said anything like that.  

 

“Do you need me to stay?”  I ask.

 

“No.  You’ll just be in the way,” my mother answers.  She’s not trying to be mean.  It’s the truth.  I’m not Prim.  Healing has never been my specialty.  

 

I flee the room, grateful to not be needed.  I head upstairs, looking for my husband and daughter.  I saw Peeta’s coat hanging in the foyer so I know he’s not gone home.  I move from room to room before finding them in Prim’s room.

 

“How’s Madge?” Peeta asks when I enter.  

 

Willow is sleeping on Prim’s bed, one small fist mashed against her mouth.

 

I sit down next to my family.  “My mother says it’s not bad, but it looks pretty bad to me.”

 

“This shouldn’t have happened.”  Peeta’s voice is hard.

 

“No.”  I reach out with one hand to run my fingers down Willow’s back.  I need to reassure myself there is good in this world.  “It shouldn’t have.”

 

“No one gets whipped for going under the fence!”  Peeta insists.  “No one!  I mean, everyone does it.  It’s not like we’re running away or causing a rebellion.  What’s the big deal?”

 

“You’d have to ask the Capitol.”

 

“I feel horrible,” Peeta says.  “Not for the reason I should!  I mean, Madge is my friend.  She’s been my friend since I was a child.”  He turns to me, his eyes stricken.  “But the first thing I thought when Miner made her announcement was I was glad it wasn’t you!  It could’ve been,” he shudders.  “In fact, if it weren’t for Gale, it probably would’ve!  And then Snow’d get his wish, ‘cause I would have stepped in.  Made another mistake.  And then who knows what punishment he’d exact.”  Peeta shudders.  

 

I draw him close.  Not just to give him comfort, but to receive it as well.  

 

“But that didn’t happen,” I soothe.

 

“No.  But it could’ve.  Just one more debt I owe Hawthorne.”  Since we’ve been married, he’s learned about owing and what it means.  And I’m not the one who taught him, Prim did. My husband stares at me helplessly.  “I’ve got no idea how in the hell I’m gonna go about repaying it.”   

 

“We both owe Gale for today.”

 

“Did you see his face today?  At the whipping?”

 

I nod, relieved Peeta’s changed the subject.  

 

“He’s in love with that girl.”

 

I think so too, but I want to hear Peeta’s opinion.  “Why do you think that?”

 

Peeta looks over at me.  “I’ve seen Gale’s expression in the mirror many times.  I know what unrequited love looks like.”

 

I don’t know what I can say.  I suspect his love isn’t as unrequited as he thinks.  But I’m not sure.  And until I know for certain, I don’t want to say anything.  

 

oOo

 

Peeta and I are both up early the next morning.  Normally, I try to catch a nap after Willow’s first feeding, but I decide to forgo it today.

 

I’m worried about Madge.  

 

And my mother.  

 

With Prim gone, she won’t have anyone to help her care for her patient.  The problem is when my mother is in full healer mode, she tends to forget to take care of her basic needs, including eating.

 

While Peeta does his daily routine of making bread and rolls, I set out to make a simple casserole from the day old bread and some butcher meat.  I miss the taste of freshly caught meat.  The butcher’s stuff is bland and tasteless by comparison.  But after seeing what happened yesterday, I can stand for tasteless food.  Instead, I try to add a little excitement by seasoning it with several herbs and spices sent from the Capitol.  I think it’s pretty good, and I’m pretty sure my mother won’t care.

 

I grab a few cans of soup from the pantry to take with me.  I’m not sure if Madge is up for eating yet, but she’ll need something that’s easy on the stomach with all of the medication she’ll probably be taking.

 

The sun’s just starting to rise when I step outside.  Peeta declined to join me, instead offering to stay home with our daughter.  I think they have big plans for today, including their mid-morning nap and maybe some ball rolling time later.  If Willow’s feeling exceptionally tolerant, Peeta might actually attempt to read her a book.  Not that I think they’ll get any farther than that weird mutt-like cat in the hat showing up.

 

Still, Peeta seems to enjoy it, so I let him.  He gets too little happiness as it is.

 

I don’t bother knocking and just let myself into my mother’s house.  I can hear someone moving around in the kitchen and so I head in that direction first.

 

It’s my mother, standing at the stove, stirring something in a large pot.

 

“How is she?” I ask without any preamble.

 

“She’ll make it,” my mother answers, still concentrating on her task.  “She’s got a fever, but that’s not too surprising.”

 

“We made you some food.”

 

She glances over her shoulder at me.  “That’s nice of you.  I haven’t even thought about eating.  And I don’t think Gale’s eaten anything either.”


“Gale’s here?”  I didn’t think he’d be here this early.  

 

“He never left.”

 

I blink at that.

 

“Why don’t you take him a little bit of whatever you brought?  I’m sure he’s ravenous by now.”

 

I do as my mother asks, spooning some of the bread casserole into a dish, carrying it into the dining room.

 

Gale sits with his back to me, his head resting on the table, pillowed by one of his arms.  His other hand is wrapped around Madge’s smaller one.

 

It’s an oddly intimate scene and I feel like an intruder, witnessing it.

 

I clear my throat, announcing my presence.

 

Gale starts.  His head swivels, his grey eyes meeting mine.  They’re wide.  Panicked.

 

I hurriedly attempt to soothe him.  “It’s just me, Gale.”

 

He blinks at me.  

 

“I thought you might like some food.”

 

My friend finds his voice.  “Thanks, Catnip,” he says, accepting the plate.  He glances around the room, taking in the pale grey light.  “What time is it?”

 

“Early.  It’s just after dawn.”

 

“I should probably get home, get to work.”

 

“I’m pretty sure the Mayor will give you a pass, all things considered.”

 

Gale doesn’t say anything, taking a bite of my casserole.

 

“Are you in love with her?”  The words tumble out.

 

He drops the fork.  “What - why do you ask that?”

 

“I don’t know,” I reply, bending down to retrieve it.  “Peeta thinks you’re in love with her. All I know is you’re different now.  You’re not the same Gale I used to know.”

 

“You’re not the same Katniss either.”

 

He’s got a point.  But I’m not willing to let the subject drop.  “You haven’t answered my question.”

 

“Are you jealous?”

 

“No,” I say, shaking my head.  “Just curious.  So, are you?”

 

“I don’t know.  Maybe.” Gale reaches out and draws one hand down Madge’s cheek.  Pulling his hand back, he turns his eyes to me.   “What I feel for her isn’t what I feel for you.”

 

I shift my weight under the heat of Gale’s gaze.

 

Gale sighs.  “I guess my answer is maybe.  We’ve bonded a lot, these past few months.  And she’s been there for me when others haven’t.”

 

I feel a low flush rise up my neck.

 

“It’s not your fault, Catnip,” he’s quick to reassure me.  “Madge and I, we both know just how busy you’ve been and just how much you’ve had to deal with.  But I needed a friend.  And Madge has been there for me.  Kind of feel I should be there for her.”  He squeezes her hand gently.

 

I nod my head, uncertain of what to say.  “I didn’t realize you had that much in common with her.”  The words sound petty, even to my ears.

 

“I didn’t either, at first,” he admits.  “But we bonded over being in love with Mellarks that we can’t have.”

 

“Madge is in love with Peeta?”

 

Gale throws back his head and laughs.  “No, your husband’s safe.  She’s in love with his eldest brother, Bing.”

 

“Oh,” I say, thinking back to the conversation where Madge mentioned there was somebody she’d cared about for a long time, and all of a sudden it hits me.  “Oh!  So you like Bing’s wife?”

 

“That’s not the Mellark I was talking about.”

 

“So who?”

 

“You, Catnip.”

 

“But I’m not a Mellark,” I protest.

 

“Yes, Katniss, you are.  And it took me a long time to be okay with that.”

 

oOo

 

 

Chapter Text

Previously on Participant:  

 

“That’s not the Mellark I was talking about.”

 

“So who?”

 

“You, Catnip.”

 

“But I’m not a Mellark,” I protest.

 

“Yes, Katniss, you are.  And it took me a long time to be okay with that.”

 

 

oOo

 

Chapter Seven

 

oOo

 

Over the next few days, Madge recovers at my mother’s house.  

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gale stays with her the whole time, sleeping in a chair next to her, a small desk set up in one corner where he can work while she recovers.  He even brings her gifts to make her smile.  Nothing big, just a flower from Iris’s parents and a black stuffed bear from the furrier.  But it’s the intent that surprises me.  

 

When Madge sees the bear, she smiles.  “I hope you didn’t let him overcharge you,” she croaks out, her voice hoarse from screaming.

 

“Nah, I just reminded him of who I work for and the fact I know his store contains contraband.”  The grin he gives her is almost feral.  “He was positively eager to sell this to me at a fair price.”

 

“Good boy.”

 

“I’m not your pet.”  His tone at odds with his words.

 

Madge raises her eyebrows.  “Are you sure?”

 

Gale chuckles.  

 

It’s weird, seeing them banter like that.  Like how I used to with both Gale and Madge.  Like how I do now with Peeta.  I suppose I’m happy Gale’s moved on.  I’m just confused as to when and why it happened.

 

That’s not the only uncomfortable moment.  Because of Gale’s work obligations with Captain Miner, the woman often has to consult with him.  Which can lead to tense situations.  

 

The first time the Head Peacekeeper showed up, I wasn’t there but Peeta was.  He tells me about it later, so I almost feel like I was there myself.

 

Madge was understandably on edge, her face schooled to be neutral, but according to Peeta her eyes gave her away.  

 

The Captain was quick to reassure her.  “I hope you understand the consequences of your foolish actions, girl.”

 

“I don’t understand why what I did was so wrong,” the Mayor’s daughter said, her voice almost confrontational.  “It’s not like I was planning on running away.”  

 

I wince when Peeta repeats Madge’s words.  They’re rebellious and not in the least bit contrite.  

 

“I’m sure you weren’t,” Miner replied, refusing to rise to the bait.  “However, any breach in the district’s security fence can open up this district to the wild animals who roam just outside the fence.  My Peacekeepers recently put down a pack of wild dogs who’d managed to weasel their way in by the mine entrance.  I’m sure that the family of whatever child you got killed would be pleased to know you didn’t mean any harm.”

 

Madge flushed and refused to meet the Peacekeeper’s eyes.  

 

Peeta pauses to blow his nose.  While he does, I wonder if a child actually was killed.  I haven’t heard anything, but I suspect the Peacekeepers would cover it up, insist on a closed casket ceremony, with the official cause of death listed as illness or accident.  There’ve been several of those this winter.  One only a few days ago.  

 

When he finishes I ask, “Did Miner say someone actually got killed?”

 

Peeta shakes his head.  “No, she didn’t go into it more. She just kept talking about the fences.”

 

“What’d she say?”

 

“I know you’re young, and teenagers like to rebel.  But those fences don’t just exist to keep you in; they exist to keep dangerous creatures out.”  Miner paused, considering the girl.  “Did you know that there aren’t any fences around Districts Three and Five?”

 

Madge shook her head.  

 

“They aren’t necessary,” Miner continued.  “The Capitol doesn’t need to prevent their citizens from leaving.  They need to keep their citizens safe.”

 

I stare at Peeta in shock as he repeats the speech back to me while we’re on one of our walks and we can talk in private.  “Do you think that’s true?” I ask him.  I remember the lack of fences but I didn’t know the reason for them.  “That there aren’t dangerous animals down there they need to keep out?”

 

He shrugs.  “No, but Miner does.  They don’t need to put fences around Three and Five.  If someone runs, they’ll die before they get someplace safe.”

 

“You can’t say that,” I hiss, glancing around.  The words are dangerous.  

 

And Peeta knows it.  “I shouldn’t.  It’s too rebellious.”

 

I nod.  

 

“The thing is, Katniss,” he cups my face between his hands, “they might be able to stop me from saying these things aloud.  But they can’t stop me from thinking them.”

 

He touches his lips to mine and I surrender myself to his embrace.  But I can’t stop my mind from thinking: but they can stop him.  They can kill Peeta, and that’d stop him from thinking anything.

 

oOo

 

After Peeta’s statement, I make the decision to try to keep Peeta and Miner apart as much as possible.  So when Peeta offers to sit with Madge, I quickly turn him down, offering to go in his stead.  With Gale there, Miner’s more likely to come by, and it’s better if Peeta’s nowhere near the known rebel, Madge.  Snow wouldn’t be happy if he thought they were colluding.    

 

My husband gives me a confused look, but doesn’t argue, for which I’m extremely grateful.

 

When I walk into my mother’s house, Gale and Miner are sitting at a desk in the dining room, looking over large sheets of paper, discussing something in low tones.  My hunch about Miner being there was right.  I’m now doubly glad I made Peeta stay at home.  Unsure if I should interrupt, I knock on the doorjamb.  

 

Both sets of eyes turn to me.

 

“I’m just here to check on Madge.” I glance at where the Mayor’s daughter is sleeping on a small cot.  Beside her is a table with several vials of morphling and a syringe.  “I can leave if you guys are busy.”

 

“That might be for the best, Mrs. Mellark,” Miner says.  “Mr. Hawthorne and I are in the critical final stages of something that could bring life and prosperity back to this district.”

 

I tilt my head askance.  

 

Miner’s lips thin.  

 

“I don’t see the problem with telling her, Moira,” Gale speaks up.

 

I’m surprised he’s on a first name basis with the Head Peacekeeper.

 

The woman inclines her head, acknowledging Gale’s words.  “I suppose you have a point.  After all, she’ll find out about this soon enough.”

 

“Find out about what?” I ask, crossing my arms over my chest.  

 

Gale’s eyes crinkle at the corners at my gesture.  “We’re working on plans for a new medicine production and research facility.”

 

“Isn’t that all done in the Capitol?”   Medicine isn’t any of the listed District specialities.  Not like it matters much here in Twelve, most of our medicine comes from what we can forage.

 

“Most of it is,” Miner agrees.  “District Six is responsible for some morphling production, and District One manufactures designer prosthetics and implants.”

 

“So what would we be focusing on here?”  

 

“Cordelia Snow believes that District Twelve is the perfect environment for growing certain herbal supplements.  In addition, there is a need for low-dose non-addictive painkillers to remove Panem’s dependence on morphling.”

 

I start at the name and remember Haymitch mentioned her.  “That’s a really big deal,” I say, not sure how I’m supposed to react.  I have no idea what an herbal supplement is, and the only painkiller I can think of that’s made from plants is willowbark tea.  

 

“I’m glad you understand, Mrs. Mellark.  It is a big deal.  But Twelve has demonstrated it is a loyal district, albeit a small one, which is why it is so critical that we cannot allow teenage rebellion to jeopardize this project.”  Her eyes flick to Madge and she presses her lips together again.

 

Time to change the subject.  “How’d you get involved with this, Gale?”

 

Miner shifts her attention back to me.  “Mr. Hawthorne thought of it.”  She gives him a small smile.

 

I want to ask more, but I get the sense my questions wouldn’t be welcome.  There’s an air of camaraderie between Miner and my friend that makes me uncomfortable.  I’d never thought Gale would be friendly with a Peacekeeper.  Especially one so pro-Capitol like Miner.   I need to get out of here.

 

Thankfully, Miner’s earlier suggestion gives me an out.  “I suppose I should let you get back to work,” I say, falling back on my Effie-ingrained manners.  “I don’t want to keep you from something so important.”

 

There’s a flicker of something behind Gale’s eyes but he doesn’t comment on it.  Instead, he says, “It’s always good to see you, Katniss.  I’ll call you if there’s any change.”

 

There’s something in the way he says it that makes me think he’s not talking about Madge.

 

oOo

 

The phone rings a few hours later.   I’d rather let it ring, but both Willow and Peeta are asleep in the drawing room.  Our daughter’s face is smooshed against my husband’s chest with her legs pulled up under her.  I know if Effie were here, she’d be snapping picture after picture.  Instead, I sear the image into my memory.  They both need all the sleep they can get, I don’t want to wake them.  I glare at the offending object for a moment before answering it.

 

Just like I’d suspected, it’s Gale.  He doesn’t waste any time getting to the point.  “You think you and Peeta could pop over for a spell?”

 

Peeta cracks an eye open and stares at me.

 

I mouth ‘it’s Gale’ to him before answering, “Sure.”

 

“Have Peeta take the kid to Delly’s.  I’ll meet you outside.”  It’s a command.  

 

That’s odd.  Gale usually jumps at any chance to see his daughter.  The fact that he wants her out of the way makes my heart beat a little faster.  Something is wrong.  Really wrong.  He never calls Willow ‘the kid’.  It’s always ‘your daughter’ or ‘Willow.’  This is too impersonal.

 

With an ever growing knot in my stomach, I do as Gale asks.  Peeta doesn’t ask any questions, but he’s as concerned as I am.

 

A few minutes later, Gale and I meet on the back porch of my mother’s house.  “What’s wrong?”

 

“Come walk with me,” he says, placing a hand on my elbow, leading me away from the building and out into the open.

 

My trepidation grows.  “Gale… what’s this about?”

 

“I got some news today.”  His voice is low, almost inaudible.  “From Five.”

 

My heart sinks even more.

 

He glances around, trying to spot anyone listening in.  “I didn’t want Mellark to find out from me, but the Community Home there burned down.  They said it was a terrorist, that they targeted the Home because of Peeta’s connection to it.”

 

“But that doesn’t make any sense!” I explode.

 

Gale motions for me to keep my voice down.  “Of course it doesn’t.  But that’s the official word.”

 

“Snow did this.”  There isn’t any doubt in my mind.  

 

“That sentence is dangerous.”  He says it in the same tone as if he were talking about the weather.

 

I also notice he doesn’t try to correct me.  “He’s doing this to get back at Peeta.”  I know I’m pushing, but I can’t keep the thought from slipping out.

 

“That sentence is dangerous too.”  Gale drops his eyes to regard me.  There’s a hardness in them that I don’t expect.  “We all need to be very careful about what we say and to who.”

 

The words send a chill down my spine.  “So why are you telling me this?”

 

“So that you can figure out a way to tell that husband of yours.  It’d probably be for the best if it didn’t come out of the blue from the wrong person.”

 

Gale’s not referring to himself.  He’s referring to Snow.  The president would love to rub it in Peeta’s face just how powerless my husband is.  He’d love to watch Peeta struggle to maintain his composure.  Snow’s just waiting for my husband to step out of line so he can destroy him without igniting a rebellion.  

 

“I don’t think I’m the right person to tell him.”  I’ve already failed to keep Peeta in check.  It doesn’t matter that we were able to recover from his gaffe in Five.  The damage was done.  I always manage to say the exact wrong thing.  It’s a curse.

 

“Words aren’t your strength, Catnip,” Gale agrees.  “But I figured you’d know who the right person would be.”

 

I do.

 

It’s Haymitch.

 

oOo

 

The grizzled mentor joins us for dinner, bringing a bottle of white liquor with him.  

 

“What are we supposed to do with this?” I ask, eyeing it.  There’s a bow tied around it, like it’s a gift.  

 

“Well, sweetheart, most people drink it.”  He unscrews the top, flinging the ribbon onto the floor.  “I figured we all could use some after the news we got.”

 

Peeta looks up from where he’s cutting apples for a pie.  “What news?”

 

Haymitch looks back at me.  “You didn’t tell him?  I thought you were gonna tell him.”

 

“Of course I didn’t tell him!  That’s what you’re supposed to do!”  When I’d talked to the mentor this afternoon, he’d seemed to understand what he needed to do.  Yes, his hands were shaking, but he was coherent and alert.  

 

“I was?  Musta missed that.  Ain’t this a fine predicament.”  He takes a long pull from the bottle.  

 

“Tell me what?” Peeta presses.

 

Haymitch sighs, snagging a cup from the tree on the counter and pouring a generous portion into it.  “Sweetheart here heard from her old flame that Snow didn’t take too kindly to your generosity.”

 

“Are you sure we should be talking about this here?” I say, glancing around, remembering Gale’s warnings.  People are listening to everything that happens in the Victors’ houses.    

 

“Trust me, sweetheart, doesn’t matter.”  He takes a drink, wiping his mouth on his shirt.  “Snow already knows you know, and he’s gonna assume that you’re gonna tell loverboy here.”

 

“Tell me what?”  Peeta repeats, annoyed.

 

“The Community Home in Five burned down,” I blurt out.

 

The knife in Peeta’s hand clatters to the floor.  He stares at the two of us in shock.  “The kids?”

 

Haymitch shakes his head.

 

“How do you know?” I demand.  That was something Gale didn’t have the answer to.  

 

“I got my sources.  You don’t really expect me to tell you that?” Haymitch asks, refilling his cup of white liquor.

 

Peeta scrubs at his face with his hands.  “This is all my fault.”

 

“I’m sure that’s what he’d like you to think,” Haymitch agrees, referring to Snow.  

 

“Well he’s right.”

 

“No he isn’t!” I slam my hands down on the countertop, causing several vegetables to fall to the floor from my cutting board.  “None of this is your fault!  None of it!  And don’t go saying you should’ve died in the Arena!  I get enough of that from Prim.  I don’t need it from you.  I don’t need it from either of you!”  I cross my arms over my chest and glare at the two men.  I don’t want to do anything stupid, like cry.  I did enough of that while I was pregnant.  I’ll be damned if I’m gonna do it when I’m not.

 

Haymitch lets out a low chuckle and takes a drink.  “Well now.  Ain’t she a feisty one?  Forgot how much spirit ya had, sweetheart.  You been a scared little bird ever since our meetin’ with Snow.  Nice to see the real you again.”

 

“Go fuck yourself.”  I’m sick of people telling me how to act.  

 

If anything, my words make Haymitch laugh even more.  “Mmmm, I see Johanna’s been rubbin’ off on you.”  He sobers.  “Be careful.  You don’t wanna end up like us used up old Victors.”

 

I flush.  I know Johanna doesn’t have any family.  She’s mentioned it in passing a few times.  And I know the same’s true for Haymitch.  

 

It’s a warning.

 

“Sorry,” I mutter.

 

Peeta’s been watching us the whole time, a frown on his face.  “Why didn’t you say anything to me, Katniss?”

 

I freeze.  

 

I don’t want to admit I was scared of how Peeta would react.  I don’t want to admit I didn’t know how to say the words.  That would be almost like admitting I didn’t trust him, except now Haymitch has screwed things up and Peeta knows.  “I… I…”

 

“Sweetheart here expected me to tell you.”

 

“I got that.  The question is why.”

 

“You’d have to ask her.”

 

“I am.  Why, Katniss?” he pleads with me.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”  Every part of him exudes hurt.  I want to hold him and make it all better.  Except I’m the one who caused the hurt in the first place.

 

Deciding the truth is the best way to go, I take a deep breath.  “I was scared.”

 

“Of what?  Me?”

 

I flinch.  I’m not, but… the words stick in my throat.

 

“That’s just it!  You’re scared of me.  I’m a monster!  I’ve killed.  I’m maimed.”  He holds up his ruined hand.  “I’m like that beast in the fairytale, forcing you to stay with me against your will.”

 

“That’s not--”  I try to protest but Peeta cuts me off.

 

“You don’t need to say anything.  Your face says it all.  It’s true.  I know it’s true.”  Peeta glares over at Haymitch.  “Thanks for coming for dinner, but I’m not really hungry.”  He storms off, leaving Haymitch and me to stare after him.

 

“Well that didn’t go well,” Haymitch remarks.

 

No.  It didn’t.

 

oOo

 

I send Haymitch home with a sandwich and a bowl of soup.  It’s the least I can do.  As much as I want to blame the former Victor for this mess, I know I’m the one responsible.  And I’m the only one who can fix it.  

 

Trying to come up with a plan, I walk upstairs to the nursery where I’m sure Peeta is hiding.  He doesn’t have a lot of places where he feels safe.  I often find him holding our daughter when he needs moments of clarity.  Just like the woods are a sanctuary for me, the nursery is the same for Peeta.  

 

And my instincts are proven right now.

 

Our four and a half month old daughter is nestled in his arms.  She’s smiling her gummy smile up at him, her hands reaching out to try to grasp at his eyelashes.  Peeta’s got the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen.  It’s no wonder Willow is fascinated with them.

 

“I’m sorry.”  The words slip out before I can even think.  

 

“Yeah, well, you’re not the only one.”

 

I try to remember the carefully rehearsed speech I’d practiced into the mirror only a few minutes before.  I can’t.  My mind’s gone blank.  I stare at my feet, babbling like a child caught with their hand in the cookie jar.  “I didn’t know how to tell you.  I’m so bad with words.  I always say the wrong thing.  I was scared you’d…”

 

“I’d do what?” his voice cuts through my explanation.

 

I lift my eyes to meet his. “Blame yourself.”

 

“Of course I’m gonna blame myself!”  He gets to his feet and places Willow in her crib.  The little girl immediately starts wailing, her pudgy little arms reaching out to her father.   Peeta strokes one hand over her dark hair, before turning back to me.  “It’s my fault those kids are dead!  I’m the one who made that promise.  I’m the one who defied Snow.  I killed them, Katniss.”  He clenches his hands into fists.  “As sure as I slit their throats, I killed them!  Their deaths are on me.”

 

“No!  No!”  I take a step forward, my hands outstretched.  “That’s just what Snow wants you to think!  He’s doing this to break you!”

 

“It’s working.”

 

“You can’t let it!  I need you, Peeta.  We need you.”

 

His eyes flick over to Willow, then back to me.  “No one needs me, Katniss.”  He tries to push past me but I block his way.

 

I reach up, cupping my hands around his face.  “Don’t say that.  I need you.”  I place a gentle kiss on his mouth.  “We need you.”   I hope, if I repeat the words enough times, they’ll sink in.

 

When I pull back, tears glitter in his eyes.  “Thank you for saying that, but you don’t need to lie to me anymore.”

 

Before I can manage to say another word, he slips out the door and down the hall.

 

I stare at the door, wanting to chase after him, but my daughter’s wails become more insistent.  

 

Tonight.  

 

Tonight I’ll make him understand.

 

Once Willow’s asleep, I’ll make sure he knows just how much he’s needed.

 

oOo

 

Peeta doesn’t come to bed that night.  I wait for him for hours before slipping out from under the covers.  

 

Tying a robe over my thin nightgown, I begin my search.  He’s not in any of the extra bedrooms.  I move downstairs, my feet sliding over the cold floors.  I wish I’d remembered my slippers, but I don’t want to deviate from my quest.

 

Eventually, I find him passed out in the drawing room, Haymitch’s bottle of white liquor next to him on the couch.

 

I sigh, covering him with a blanket.

 

I’ll tell him tomorrow.

 

Tomorrow, everything will go back to normal.

 

I hope.


oOo