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It’s always snowing when I fuck up.

 

I already disliked winter before the string of fuck-ups began. Everything frozen and dead in the world, but business is almost always better during the winter for some reason. Maybe it’s the need for companionship in the cold and the dark. Or I guess a lot of guys in my town get their jollies off on having sex while freezing their balls off. My ass would beg to differ on the merits of this idea. So would my smarting skin.

 

“Take it, cunt. Fuck, you’re a tight bitch.”

 

Don’t mind that asshole. He’s just my next meal ticket. I grip the target in front of me and keep my head down so the security cameras won’t catch my face. He doesn’t seem to care, though, standing upright, fingers digging into my ass as he drills into me. I check my watch and wince a little as he slaps my cheek, the noise echoing in the otherwise silent shooting range. I really hope he finishes soon. I should charge him extra since I had to basically give him half a hand job just to get him erect. But charging extra after the transaction has begun is always a dicey situation.

 

“Oh fuck, I’m close. You close, too?”

 

I roll my eyes, as if any of my clients could ever get me close. But they always seem to think they can. They are paying for a service, though, and most of them want to think they’re good enough at fucking to make even a whore come. So I arch my back and moan a little.

 

“That’s it, you fucking slut. Take my cock. Take it!” he shouts the last as he slams into me, nearly pushing me and the target over with the force of it. I grab onto the metal struts, disgruntled as he whines pathetically. When he finally pulls out of me, I stand, careful to keep my back to the cameras, and yank my skirt down, straighten my coat and turn to him expectantly.

 

“What’s the matter, Princess? Can’t handle round two?”

 

“You gonna pay for my time to wait around for it?” I ask and he scoffs at me. “Didn’t think so.”

 

As he hauls his pants back into place, his softening penis still sheathed in the condom, I hold my hand out for my paycheck. One handed, he pulls out a stack of cash from his back pocket and smacks it into my palm.

 

“Next time ya want me for free, right?” he asks arrogantly and I snort.

 

“I don’t do anyone for free,” I tell him and walk away while he’s still trying to deal with the condom and his pants. Hurrying around the police station, I pause only long enough to dig out my wipes and clean between my legs, discarding them in a trash can along the edge of the park.

 

The town is silent, only certain people venture out this late. I could probably get a few more customers tonight. Last week I had a lonely widower, figured he’d be gentle for a change, and it was nice to actually work in the warmth of a home. He might’ve usually been gentle, but I can’t know for sure. Guess it’d been awhile for him. He came after four thrusts. At least he paid good. I actually managed to cover the electric bill in full for the month. Maybe he wants another go. I wander back towards his section of town instead of home.

 

The lights are on in his house and he’s sitting on the couch, reading a book. I knock and watch through the window as he looks up, confused and probably not expecting visitors tonight. I twirl my hair around my finger and paste my sweetest smile on my face.

 

“Hey there,” I purr when he opens the door. “Miss me?”

 

“Come inside,” he motions, eyes darting up and down the street. As soon as I’m in, he yanks the curtains closed. His hands tear at his belt, and I drop to my knees.

 

“This is fifty,” I tell him as I pull a condom out of my bag and rip it open. He nods frantically and shoves his pants and underwear down to the floor. He pumps himself until he’s hard, holds himself still as I roll the condom over his length, and moans loudly when I cover him with my mouth.

 

“Fuck I haven’t gotten head in years,” he whines, hips thrusting slightly, and I can tell he’s not gonna last long with this either. I suck harder, hoping to speed things up a little more. Humming does the trick and he curses again while I stroke him to make sure he’s completely satisfied.

 

Men are such strange creatures. So easily able to take pleasure and yet not able to savor it. Even when they try to take it slow, they end up in a jack-rabbit race to the end. Take this one, for example. His face twists like he’s in agony when he comes, and after, he looks almost as like he’s pouting. As though he wants so badly to prolong it but just can’t.

 

I head into his kitchen and pour myself a glass of water while he straightens himself a little. His place is nice, not like mine. I wonder if he’s got enough money to afford me for a whole night. It’d be good for the stack of bills awaiting me, but I still don’t know anything about him, and the words of Ripper, my mentor in this area, ring in my head.

 

“Hey, uh, here’s the fifty,” he says as he walks in, his wallet opened and a few crisp bills in his hand. “And um, how much for you to stay a little longer?”

 

“How much longer?” I ask.

 

“I wanna fuck you from behind,” he expels a heavy breath and I give him my most winning smile.

 

“Well that’ll be another two hundred, but I’ll give you a twenty dollar discount if you let me use your shower first. Alone,” I emphasize the last word, but he nods eagerly.

 

“Yeah, sure,” he says, counting out an additional hundred and eighty and handing it to me.

 

“Thanks,” I say and shimmy my way towards the direction he points out as where the bathroom is located.

 

I take full advantage of the clear, steamy water and luscious soap in his shower, even if it means I smell like him after. But my luxury is short lived since I’ve barely got the condom on him and smeared some lube on myself before her bends me over the arm of his couch and slides into me with a feral yell. He yanks my hair and his hand rubs a spot too far to the left of my clit to do any good. He comes almost as quick as last time, but at least he doesn’t yell obscenities at me.

 

Gathering my money, I leave while he’s in the shower. It’s been a good night, and as I walk home, my pockets heavy with my earnings, I veer off course and eye several of the window displays in town.

 

There’s the usual displays of meat cuts and shoes, toys that I’ve no need for, and also the icy lavender bra and panty set I’ve been eyeing, thinking maybe I could up my price if I started wearing fancy lingerie. The shop is long since closed, though, so I continue walking, past the pet store with its menagerie of colorful birds all sleeping for the night, and halting in front of the bakery. The scent of yeast and sugar hangs heavy in the air. In a few hours, the lights will flicker on in the back room, spilling under the cracks of the door that separates kitchens from display areas. But what catches my eye are the intricately frosted cakes on display. Waves of honeyd yellow and spun sugar blossoms. Fondant birds in half flight.

 

They’re so beautiful and pure. They make me sick. I spin on my heel and march home, away from the memories.

 

Everything is exactly how I left it. My mother slumped on the couch, a needle in her limp hand and the TV screeching soap opera reruns. I crank down the volume so we don’t get a complaint from the neighbors and head into the bathroom. First things first, I add the money to the stash in my right boot. Everywhere else I’ve hidden it, my mother manages to find it and blow it on her drug habit. I’m not sure how she’s paying for it anymore and I really don’t care to know.

 

I shower again, scrubbing men from my skin and trying not to think about how nice the widower’s shower is. I should pay him another visit next week. He had a stack of money and was obviously happy to see me again. I can deal with knocking twenty off for him in exchange for a really nice shower once in awhile. Maybe I’ll even start carrying travel bottles of my soap and shampoo in my bag just for when I visit him.

 

When I’m clean and in my sweats for bed, I check once more on my mother. No change. I turn off the TV and the lights, not wanting to waste the electricity. Sometimes I hate her. Most of the time I hate her. I should’ve run when I was sixteen and never looked back. Then I wouldn’t be living this amazingly wonderful life of mine.

 

I climb into bed and am asleep within moments. It doesn’t last. The icy roadways and towering trees, flashing lights and bitter cold visit me, the way they always do at night. When I wake, I’m in a cold sweat. I grumble and head to the bathroom, cleaning myself with a washcloth since I can’t afford another full shower. Not here where I have to pay for the water. Dressing in my jeans, boots -- yes the ones with my money in them -- and a warm sweater, I head out the door without a second glance at my mother and walk to school. I need to finish my homework anyways.

 

I’m not alone in the early arrivals congregating in the cafeteria. I rarely am. Too many kids in this town work late into the night and return home to parents who are drunk or drugged or fucking away their problems. Not that I can judge there, but shouldn’t a parent be more responsible?

 

Of course, we aren’t the only kids here early. As I pass by the gymnasium, there’s the squeal of sneakers on the polished wood floor and shouts interspersed with loud whistles. I walk past with my head high, ignoring the inevitable cat call that comes through the open door. They all know what I do, even though I refuse to fuck a student. Yeah, I know that I’m one too, but students don’t have money unless their Mommy and Daddy are rich, and those kids spit cruelty and drink entitlement for breakfast. The last thing I need is a fat lip from the starting quarterback because he decides I wasn’t worth the money.

 

“Work it, baby. You free tonight?”

 

I resist the urge to flip him off and keep walking, ignoring the epithet that follows me. They think they're creative. Or maybe that I’m easy. Pathetic.

 

In the cafeteria, I drop my bag on a table and slide into my solitary seat before pulling out my books. Scratching away with my pencil and ignoring the handful of speculative looks sent my way. I am old news in this town and yet they still stare. The painfully true rumor spread like wildfire, stunning given the fact that the incident happened on a day when school was cancelled due to snow. By the time I walked into the classroom again, they all knew.

 

Katniss went to see Cray.

 

That was all it took for everyone to know how low we’d sunk. Never mind the fact that my mother had long since lost her job or that my father and my sister were fucking dead. Never mind the fact that until I went to Cray, the bills kept piling higher and we hadn’t eaten in days. My after school job at the local deli just wasn’t cutting it, even when I begged Rooba for more hours. She’d shaken her head and apologized. There just weren’t any extra hours to be had. We’d already been evicted from our house and moved into a shitty trailer.

 

I could’ve dropped out of school and worked full time in the mines or picked up a second and a third job, but my father’s insistence that I finish high school and not become another statistic haunted me from his grave. Of course, he’d probably be beyond thrilled to learn that his daughter ended up as a prostitute, but that’s beside the point.

 

The mere memory of my night with Cray makes me shudder. Since I’d gotten to his door early, just in case he had any others come knocking, I had to wait in the shadows. It was bitterly cold that night, the world smothered in snow, and when the lights finally flipped on in his house, I shouted with relief and knocked before I could second guess myself. He’d answered almost immediately and leered at me.

 

“I wondered when you’d be knocking,” he’d growled before inviting me in.

 

It’s not unusual in District Twelve, although it is technically illegal. Most people look the other way. No one wants to face the ugly truths of our city, but all the girls know that if the money from the mines runs out or their daddies get injured enough that they can’t work anymore, their next stop is to Cray. He might be the chief of police, but he has a thirst for girls. Preferably ones who are pure. As long as you go to him first, to “launch your career,” so to speak, and return to his door every now and then, and don’t do anything stupid like fuck the cops on his desk, he looks the other way. I was probably pushing it letting that one cop nail me on their practice range.

 

That first night though, Cray overlooked my hollow cheeks and rumbling belly. Even went so far as to grunt what I guess he thought were words of wisdom and guidance as he held me down and pounded into me. He ignored the tears leaking from my eyes, or maybe he didn’t even notice. And when he was done, after he’d handed me my money and watched as I put my dress back on, he gave me one last piece of advice.

 

“Keep those boots on, girl. Makes it easier to run if the wife or the boss comes home early. Catch my drift?”

 

After that, I went home and showered twice and cried myself to sleep, curled up underneath my Garfield and Friends comforter I’d had since I was nine. The thing is threadbare and barely holds in any heat anymore, but it was a gift from my father, just like the boots I had worn that night. The ones I’m still wearing today. The ones Cray suggested I wear while I was working.

 

They’re the only shoes I can remember owning.

 

Unfortunately, that was probably the best piece of advice Cray gave to me.

 

When the school bell finally rings, I gather my things and ignore the blatant brushes of hands on my ass or the childish sniggers behind me as I walk, pretending that every last one of them is beneath me. Especially the girls who look down their noses at me. It’s just another day at D12 High. But here’s the thing...they’re no different than me, only they don’t get paid when a boy takes them to the slag heap. What do they get out of it? A clumsy grope and a fumbling fuck? Either way, in the morning, the boy still looks at us both like we’re things to be played with and cast aside when they’re done with us. Something to be ashamed of and yet somehow bragged about amongst themselves. Another notch in the belt.

 

Reaching the relative safety of first period language arts, I sit heavily in my chair and concentrate on being invisible. The others file in around me, talking about the upcoming Winter Ball. I try not to roll my eyes and fail, nearly giving myself a headache in the process.

 

“Hey, Kat,” one of them elbows me lightly and I turn to face the hesitant male voice. He must take my frosty stare for an invitation to continue. That or he’s stupid. “So, uh, you wanna be my date to the Winter Ball?”

 

I blink at the vaguely familiar pale green eyes and freckle dotted nose and try to place how I know this kid. Oh right. Swivel hips who really likes to squeeze tits. I fucked his dad in a Buick last month. Got paid with a brand new leather jacket from his store that I hawked for close to five hundred bucks. Wouldn’t that make for an especially touching moment? It’s almost worth it to say ‘ yes’ just to see how his daddy responds when the whore he fucked in his car shows up on his son’s arm for pictures before the ball. Although I seriously doubt this boy would introduce me to his parents.

 

“Sorry, sweetie,” I say coldly. “I’ve got plans for that night.”

 

“Oh. Like what?” His cheeks are turning red at my rejection and one of his friends behind him is coughing into his hand.

 

“Washing my hair,” I tell him. Or screwing your dad for another prime leather jacket. Can’t decide which. I feel sorry for the kid’s mother.

 

“Good morning, class,” I relax marginally as Mr. Lemmings enters, basically saving me from an awkward situation. I’ll have to book it out of class to avoid the backlash of the bruised male ego. When I manage a quick look at Freckles, though, he doesn’t seem too choked up about it. He probably only asked because he figured I’d be an easy fuck on the big night.

 

I wonder what it’d be like to fuck in one of those poofy dresses the girls all wear to the balls. Probably a logistical nightmare.

 

“Miss Everdeen,” Mr. Lemmings calls out as the bell rings to dismiss class at the end of the hour. “About your term paper…”

 

I walk up to the front as the others file out, but Mr. Lemmings waves me back towards his office while he answers a few quick questions from other students. When the classroom is empty, he shuts the door and then walks sedately into his office, shutting that door behind us. I discard my bag on the floor as he sits in the chair and undoes his pants. I know the drill by now. We don’t even need to talk. He’s already hard as I kneel between his outstretched legs. Must’ve been a rough class today.

 

A condom. A quick shift in positions, and his head falls back in relief. He never looks at me while I do this.

 

“Fuck. Suck my cock, Calla. Suck it hard.”

 

Because in his head, it’s never me sucking him off, always one of The Angels. The girls who signed abstinence vows at the beginning of the school year and dress in virginal white, soft creamy pinks, gold crosses nestled in their barely visible cleavage. Today, apparently, it’s the ring leader, Calla. She sits two rows back from me in his class. Whatever, I’m the one who gets paid.

 

“Mr. Lemmings?” the question accompanies a knock on the classroom door. Lemmings swears and rolls his chair, pushing me under the desk, on my knees with his penis still in my mouth.

 

“In my office,” he responds and I hear papers shuffling above me. The door opens, and I am grateful the desk has a front partition shielding me from view. Lemmings’ stomach is flush with the desk, keeping me completely under its cover. “How can I help you, Peeta? Shouldn’t you be headed to class?”

 

The last question comes out strained as my teeth scrape over his skin in my attempt to not gag on his dick.

 

“I know, I was just wondering if you’d had a chance yet to look at my application essay?”

 

“Ah, not yet,” he says, his voice further strained as I hollow my cheeks and suck like he’s a fucking straw. I can’t believe he did this. Shoved me under the desk like the naughty secret I am so he could have a normal, friendly conversation with Peeta Mellark, as though he’s not getting blown by a student. “I will in a moment. Free period.”

 

“Okay, thank you, sir,” Peeta calls, his voice retreating as he leaves the office, the warning bell ringing in his wake and the doors left open.

 

“Fuck,” Lemmings mutters as I bob my head as much as I can in the constricted space. He twitches in my mouth, and I realize he liked the teeth scrape. I do it again and paper crumples loudly on top of the desk. In seconds, he’s spurting into the condom and wheezing. When he’s done, he shoves his chair back and stands, leaning over his desk to slam the office door shut. He peels off the condom and wraps it in a tissue before discarding it into the trash can. “I should pay you less for that.”

 

“You should pay me more,” I retort. “Since you forgot to lock the doors. I’m also going to need an excuse slip for my next class.”

 

He yanks some cash from his wallet and shoves it in my jeans pocket while I smirk at him. Then I grab my bag and sling it over my shoulder. He scribbles out the note and hands it to me. Just before I leave, though, he grabs my wrist and whirls me back around to face him again.

 

“Do that again next time,” he says in a low voice, “and I’ll report you to Principal Abernathy.”

 

“Oh honey,” I coo with a courage I don’t feel. “You forget that if you do that, you’re reporting on yourself, too. Besides, you liked it.”

 

He lets me go and doesn’t deny my claim. They can’t lie to me about when they like it. I can tell. And Mr. Lemmings liked getting head under his desk with lots of teeth involved while the golden boy of the school spoke to him about college applications.

 

I feel filthy.

 

After a stop in the girls’ room to brush the taste of latex from my mouth, I head into my next class and hand my note to Mr. Latier, my science teacher. I like him. He’s never leered at me or given any hint that he knows what I do to pay the bills.

 

“Mr. Lemmings keeping you late again? Perhaps you should consider an English tutor, Katniss. I’ve no complaints about your work in my class, but if your grades are suffering in other areas it could jeopardize your graduation,” he says, pushing his glasses up his nose.

 

“I’ll think about it,” I mumble and take my seat. My neighbor shifts and I look over at him.

 

Shit .

 

I sit next to Peeta Mellark in this class, and there is no way he didn’t hear my exchange with Mr. Latier. We sit in the front row and the entire class is already engrossed with a worksheet. I toss my bag on the ground and focus on my work, but it feels like he’s still watching me. Every time I glance over, though, his eyes are fixated on his desk or on a point near my feet.

 

As the class winds down, I realize that it’s not my feet that have snared his interest, it’s my bag. Olive green and frayed along the straps with a stupid stuffed cat keychain my sister got me for my last birthday before she died. The bag I left propped against the office wall, completely visible while I fellatioed Mr. Lemmings under his desk. My cheeks burn and I feel sick to my stomach.

 

When the bell rings, I scramble to get out of there, but my pencil files off my desk in my haste and skids across the tile, right under Peeta’s feet. He bends over to retrieve it and holds it up for me.

 

“Here,” he says. It may be the first word he’s ever uttered to me.

 

“Thanks,” I say and snatch it out of his hand, bolting from the room and as far down the hallway as I can get.

 

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My week doesn’t improve much. A rowdy single guy who makes a face when I tell him the charge for anal and he thankfully settles for vaginal from behind, but who keeps his hand wrapped around my neck the whole time and squeals like a rutting pig. I make another trip to Cray because it’s been a few months. Manage to pick up a guy in his late forties who’s passing through on business and actually get to fuck him in a real bed in his hotel room. That one pays extra for me to bite his nipples until he bleeds and call him “Edward.” But who am I to kink shame?

 

Okay, that one was fucking weird.

 

Even then, I’m still short on rent and am actually considering the implicit offer from Coach Atalanta in P.E. class when I catch her looking up my shorts. I’ve never done a woman before, so I chicken out at the last second and wind up behind the deli with Rooba’s grown son. He’s rough, though, and I can’t work the next day, which isn’t helping my situation.

 

On Thursday night, it starts snowing again. That should’ve been my hint that everything was about to go sour.

 

When I get home from school, my mother is up and tearing through the kitchen, muttering to herself. Her hair’s a wreck and her eyes sunken and glassy.

 

“Mom?” I ask and have to shout it again before she hears me. “What are you doing?”

 

“Cash, I need cash,” she insists and yanks my bookbag off my shoulder before rifling through it. “Do you have any?”

 

I push her away and stalk to my room to work on some homework before I have to get dressed for work. Glass shatters and my mom screeches in agony or terror. I sigh and head back out to the kitchen. She’s standing on a chair, the cabinets open and shards of glass scattered over the kitchen floor as she pulls at her hair.

 

“I need money, Katniss,” she pleads. “The crows, they won’t go away.”

 

I have no idea what she’s talking about and at this moment, I hate her more than anything, but I return to my room and retrieve some cash from my boot, shoving the damp hundred dollar bills into her hand. Now I’m really short on rent. But if I don’t give her the money, she’ll tear the place apart looking and possibly do something dumb enough to land herself in jail -- like stealing. Maybe my landlord is lonely and willing to trade for what I’m missing on the rent.

 

As she scrambles off the chair and out the door without a coat on, I clench my fists. Once the glass is cleaned up, I’m a little behind and hurry through my routine. Shave. Eyeliner. Mascara. Dress. Boots. I zip up my coat and head into the cold January night.

 

I should visit them. In the cemetery. Maybe that’s why my mother went bezerk tonight. It’s been two years to the day since they died. But I haven’t been since they were buried. I don’t even have flowers to put on their graves. And they’d be disgusted with what I’ve become anyways. A shadow of a girl who fucks for money and hates her mother.

 

Sniffling against the cold, I chastise myself for nearly ruining my mascara. The eggs ran out three days ago, the milk two days ago. We haven’t had real meat in over a week, and the rent is due tomorrow. But instead of heading towards my usual grounds out near The Hob Fairgrounds, I walk towards the woods, towards the edge of the city. I should be looking for business. Hell, I should be knocking on doors and advertising.

 

Snow drifts in hazy clouds beneath the beams of the streetlights, sparkles on the ground. My boots aren’t waterproof, and it isn’t long before my socks begin to dampen. I keep walking.

In her more lucid states, my mother would scream at me that I was impetuous, stubborn. That’s better than most things that are usually screamed at me, and she’d be right. But it doesn’t alter my course. There’s still a part of me that longs for her to snap out of her drug induced stupor. To see me as I have become. When I first started this gig, I’d console myself at night, imagining her sobbing and pleading for me to come back. Folding me in her arms and soothing it all away. Actually being a mother. Forgetting that I’m the daughter who should’ve died.

 

But those are pipe dreams that never amount to anything more than a sinking disappointment when I wake to an empty trailer or my mother slumped on the couch with the light still on and a cigarette burning in the ashtray and the residue of heroine on the table. No sister and no father.

 

When I finally reach my lake, I brush snow off one of the fallen logs and sit, hands shoved in my coat pockets, mind blank. Sometimes that’s the best way to deal with it. Blank keeps out the memories of two coffins, one large and one small, being lowered into the ground. Or the crushing guilt that follows the knowledge that one of those coffins at least, should have been mine.

 

A snap of twigs startles me, and I whip my head around to find the intruder. I keep my face blank of emotion as he halts, his own hands shoved deep into the warm wells of pockets in his letterman’s jacket, a red plaid blanket tucked under one arm. His red rimmed eyes widen at the sight of me. Has he been crying? I stand, intending to silently walk past him back towards town. He’s disturbed the sanctuary of my lake. The only place left my mother hasn’t soiled with her drugs or me with my job.

 

“Hey,” he says before I can take two steps. I stare at him and he shuffles his feet nervously. Good. I want him to feel nervous. “You, um, don’t have to go. I won’t bother you.”

 

This makes me scowl at him, more so than the expensive shoes keeping his feet warm. Like so many times before, he drops his gaze from mine. The slight tilt of his head reveals a red welt on his cheek. I inhale sharply and this brings his blue eyes back to mine. I know where he got that mark, and he must see the truth of it in my eyes because sudden anger burns in his.

 

“I wasn’t staying anyways,” I snap and my shoulder brushes his as I pass.

 

“Wait,” Peeta calls out, spinning to follow me, but he keeps his hands tucked in his pockets. “You aren’t, um I mean, you aren’t working tonight, are you?”

 

Bile churns in my throat at his question. Because of all the boys in our school who’ve taunted and grabbed and made lewd remarks at me, Peeta Mellark was never one of them, and he is the last one I expected to come crawling to me. He stares and I stare back, but neither of us budges.

 

Besides, he’s popular and loved, always surrounded by large groups of jocks and cheerleaders, tugging their skirts up just high enough for their bloomers to peek out, and while many a girl has tried to get her name connected with his, I’ve never seen him with a girl on his arm. Never heard rumors of him down at the slag heap. Instead, they whisper and giggle that he’s pure. Untouched. Maybe that reputation has become too much for him to bear and the school whore is as good as any place to start.

 

“I don’t service students,” I tell him. His blue eyes round out again and he runs a hand through his hair, all agitation and nerves. A perverse thrill runs through me. Peeta Mellark, captain of the debate team and the wrestling team, legendary provider of pep talks, is tongue-tied in my presence.

 

“That’s not what I meant,” he stumbles all over his words and I step towards him, reckless and hungry.

 

“Then what did you mean?” I whisper, brushing my lips over the red welt on his cheek that his mother gave to him. My fists clench in my pockets, nails cutting into my palms.

 

“Don’t go, Katniss,” he whispers, following me as I pull away, one hand reaching out towards me. Pain, so foreign in his usually sedate blue eyes beckons to me. And pisses me off. Then he retreats as he blinks and anger sets back into his gaze. I cross my arms and wait for the jock-typical accusations of leading him on and owing him.

 

“You shouldn’t have to go,” he says instead, and now I’m the one blinking in the moonlight filtered through clouds, with white flakes swirling around us in a terrible storm.

 

They catch on his eyelashes and melt in his hair, ashy blonde and falling in disarray over his forehead. He’d probably want to face me while he fucks me and have me run my fingers through it. He probably doesn’t even know how to fuck.

 

“Fine. I’ll stay.” I whirl away from him. I’ve never fucked anyone my own age, and I have no idea how to handle this. Or how to face him in school tomorrow. So I decide that I don’t care what he wants, I won’t look at him as he fucks me.

 

“Have you, um--”

 

“What?”

 

“There’s a cabin through those trees,” he nods towards a nearby copse, and I shake my head. The whole thing sounds like a perfect setup to something awful Ripper warned me never to walk into. Her advice has kept me alive and relatively unscratched this long, but as Peeta takes in my confused expression and laughs, I’m not sure why I shouldn’t go with him.

 

“Come on, Katniss,” he says. “I just want someone to talk to, alright?”

 

“Just talk?” I ask skeptically.

 

“Yeah,” he says and moves to stand next to me. “I’ve had a shitty night and it looks like maybe you have too, and I don’t know about you, but I could use a friend right now.”

 

“You have plenty of friends.”

 

“I have people I know,” he corrects, and there is something so sad in this single sentence. All those adoring fans and fawning followers aren’t really his friends at all. “They don’t understand…”

 

He lifts a hand, vaguely waving it over the red welt on his face and inconvenient compassion makes my breath sharpen. And I cave.

 

I trudge after him through the trees. It’s only a short distance to the abandoned cottage he mentioned. His eyes light as we step over the threshold and he smiles. It’s so boyish and innocent that I want to wipe it off his face, but I don’t. Not just yet. I stand aside and watch, rapt, as he sweeps debris and detritus out of the fireplace, carefully arranging the pile of wood left next to the hearth.

 

“Do you have a lighter? I forgot to grab one before I left.” He stuffs pine straw between the logs, and I toss mine to him. “Thanks.”

 

Within minutes, he’s got a cheery fire going. It’s cozy and almost romantic, but completely contrary to what I’m used to. I sit in front of the fire and tug at my skirt. Peeta hands me the blanket he had tucked under his arm, a soft smile on his face. I don’t want his pity, but I snatch the blanket and wrap myself into it as he settles next to me.

 

“So what did you want to talk about?” I break the quiet as the fire grows in the hearth.

 

“Anything really,” he says, picking at his shoe laces. When he looks up at me, though, his eyes dance in the light. “I mean, we’ve gone to the same school since we were five but I hardly know anything about you.”

 

“You know plenty,” I say, thinking of that day earlier in the week when he almost caught me with Mr. Lemmings. Peeta didn’t breathe a word about it, though. For certain, the sordid rumor of Katniss blowing a teacher between classes would have definitely made its rounds through the school if Peeta had told anyone. But it hasn’t.

 

“I don’t know the deep stuff.” I roll my eyes at this and Peeta smiles, so shy and sweet that unexpected warmth that has nothing to do with the fire spreads through me.

 

“What’s the deep stuff?” I ask despite my better judgement.

 

“Like...what’s your favorite color?”

 

“Oh I’m sorry,” I can’t help but snark. “You’ve crossed the line now.”

 

His smile widens as he ducks his head, an adorable blush spreading over his cheeks.

 

“It’s green,” I whisper, tucking the blanket closer to my knees. “What’s yours?”

 

“Orange,” he answers and expands when I look doubtful. “A muted orange. Like a sunset.”

 

My head is immediately filled with the gorgeous spread of the sky with streamers of vibrant colors streaking together, unable to tell where one begins and the other ends, only aware of the presence of each as you step back, tilt your head to the warmth of the sun dipping below the sky. The flare of the soft orange he described. My heart aches with the beauty of the the image and I have to look away from Peeta’s eager blue eyes, almost the deep indigo that follows the sunset in that flash of time before dark.

 

“So now what?” I ask when we fall silent for awhile. He wanted to talk, and his gaze on me is stirring something in my belly that I don’t care for. I’m hoping that words will distract me.

 

“Um, how do you take your tea? Or do you prefer coffee?”

 

“I don’t really know. I had this peppermint tea one time around Christmas. I really liked that.” I don’t know why I’m telling him these things, but I keep answering his questions as the night wears on. Learning about him too as we go.

 

“Tell me something you’d never admit to anyone at school,” he says as I try to stop laughing at his rendition of how he wound up on the wrestling team after losing a dare to one of his brothers.

 

“I hate cats.”

 

“So I should never call you ‘Kat,’” Peeta says with an earnest look and a lift of one eyebrow. “Didn't you used to have a pet cat?”

 

“Buttercup,” I tell him. “Actually that was Prim’s cat, but I’m the one he followed home. You know what, I think Buttercup’s the only cat I really hate. Garfield, on the other hand, he and I connect on a spiritual level.”

 

“How so?”

 

“We’re cranky and have an obsession with food.” Peeta laughs at this and now I’m the one blushing. “I actually have a Garfield comforter on my bed. But you can’t tell anyone that!”

 

“I swear, I wouldn’t dare,” he says with hands raised in surrender. “I think that might be my favorite new thing about you.”

 

It feels so luxurious, laughing and just talking to Peeta. Every now and then, he’ll get up to stoke the fire or add a log. I notice a bucket filled with water set next to the hearth and it occurs to me that Peeta might come out here fairly regularly. Maybe this place is his solace from the world.

 

I wish I could hate him. Wish I could claim he’s just another rich kid with a shining future, but even I know that the gleaming gold of his life hides something tarnished. That red welt on his cheek is a screaming reminder that Peeta’s life isn’t perfect.

 

Right after my father and sister died, my mother fell into despair. Losing her husband and her youngest daughter broke her in a way that I didn’t know before then that people could be broken. She turned first to alcohol. Then to prescription meds and cigarettes she brought home illegally from the pharmacy to numb the pain. It cost her her job and that led to heroine on the streets. At least the pharmacist didn’t press charges.

 

But the rent went over due and the pantry thinned out. I did the best I could with my hourly wages from Rooba’s deli, but it was never enough. We were reaching a pinnacle and about to plummet either into a second eviction and homelessness or government intervention on my behalf. I felt so alone and scared, abandoned by the mother who was supposed to take care of me but couldn’t get past her own grief enough to see that I was hurting too.

 

I wasn’t completely alone, I think as I steal a glance at Peeta, barely hearing his story about his brothers. There’s a sad wistful edge to whatever he’s saying and I wonder if their mother hit his brothers too. Or if it’s just Peeta who bears her wrath.

 

After my father and sister died, no one helped us. I pawned whatever I could to help make ends meet. It was a cold day in March. We’d had a few days of warm weather, promising the arrival of spring. Yellow dandelions had begun to crop up around the district. But a cold front had swept through and dropped a frigid rain on the city, reversing the thaw. I had gone to the pawn store to sell several of Prim’s trinkets, but the store owner wouldn’t buy. He’d said they were worthless.

 

As I stumbled home through the rain, nauseous and dizzy with hunger, I collapsed behind a row of shops. I was considering dumpster diving, but before I could even get the lid off, someone started screeching. At first, I thought they were yelling at me, and ducked behind the dumpster. While I hid in the shadows, the back door to the bakery flew open, emitting a steaming cloud of light and heat. The scent of fresh bread rolled over me and my mouth watered.

 

Peeta’s mother shoved him out the back door, a couple of half-scorched loaves of bread in his hands. As he turned back to face her, she’d struck him across the face, sending him reeling. He stumbled off the back porch and nearly fell in the mud as the rain soaked his clothes through in an instant.

 

“Stupid, worthless boy! Throw it away. No one’s buying burned bread!”

 

She didn’t bother making sure he did as he was told, but retreated back into the dry warmth of the bakery. His feet squelched in the mud as he walked towards me. The rain plastering his hair to his forehead. A red mark, not unlike the one he has tonight, spread angry and fresh over his jaw.  At the time, it only vaguely occurred to me that she’d hit him, I was so dizzy with hunger and grief. It wasn’t until I started paying attention to the marks that Peeta Mellark wore to school that I was able to piece it together. As much as I despise my mother, at least she’s never once hit me.

 

He stopped in front of the dumpster and I tucked my legs in closer, but it was no use. He’d already seen me squatting there in the rain like a piece of garbage. We stared at one another, rain sluicing over his cheeks in cool rivulets. He opened his mouth to say something, but a noise from the bakery startled him. He dropped the two loaves by my feet and hurried back into the building, slamming the door shut behind him.

 

I wish I could say those two loaves of bread changed everything. And I guess, in a way, they did. The loneliness didn’t feel quite as crushing after that. Not with Peeta’s blue eyes frequently seeking me out at school. A quick inspection that I always thought was meant to make sure I wasn’t starving again rather than to ogle my body. His gaze never felt malicious but reminded me that there were still ways to help. Ways to survive.

 

The bread, a hearty raisin nut concoction, filled me and my mother that night, but the cold morning light brought reality crashing back in. The bread was only a temporary reprieve. Eventually, we found ourselves back in the same place, and I found myself waiting in the snow for Cray.

 

“Hey. Where’d you go?” Peeta asks softly, cutting through my memories and bringing me back to the cabin. “Wherever it was looked sad.”

 

“Memories,” I say with a shrug and he nods. His hand curls over mine on the floor and I let him hold my hand. Gentle swipes of his thumb over my skin send tremors of delight and comfort up through my arm. For once, it’s nice to have someone’s hands on me -- in real friendship and not because of what they can get out of me.

 

The thought startles me. Is Peeta Mellark my friend now? I don’t really know what to do with a friend anymore. I haven’t had one since I went to Cray, when I was sixteen years old. After that, being my friend in school was social poison. Which explains why Peeta and I never spoke until a few days ago. Not even about the bread he gave me.

 

“Has anyone asked you to the Winter Ball?” he mumbles the question. Betrayal strikes swift in my heart. I should have known we’d work our way back here.

 

“No one worth mentioning,” I say, wary of the direction we’re taking with this conversation.

 

“I don’t really want to go,” he says this like it’s some terrible confession. “I’m not very good at dancing.”

 

I laugh at this and Peeta’s cheeks turn pink. His hand leaves mine and I reach out to clasp it once more. I’m just so relieved that he’s not asking what I thought he was.

 

“You’re laughing at me,” he accuses.

 

“No,” I insist, twining our fingers together although it takes some doing. Peeta’s not buying my words. “I’m laughing because I wasn’t expecting you to say that.”

 

“Oh. What were you expecting me to say?” He relaxes and the warmth between us that is rapidly growing familiar and comfortable returns.

 

“It’s not important. Do you want to learn how to dance?”

 

“Could you teach me that?” He makes me think of an eager puppy, ready to learn and be rewarded with a treat.

 

“Sure,” I tell him and stand, setting the blanket aside while he prods the fire again. The cabin’s insulation isn’t worth shit, and although the fire creates a small pocket of warmth, neither one of us has shed our coats yet.

 

I position his arms on me and step into his embrace. Murmur quiet instructions and tell him to follow my lead first until he’s got the steps down. He’s clumsy and off tempo, stepping on my toes and apologizing profusely. I don’t tell him that my toes are so numb from the cold that I barely feel it. Nor do I tell him that this awkward dance is a thousand times more enjoyable than what I ought to be doing right now.

 

“Okay, I think you’ve got the steps,” I finally tell him. “Now you lead.”

 

“Okay.”

 

We begin and he shuffles and misses a few steps, his hand gripping mine as he corrects. I start humming to keep time in my head now that he’s leading, and oddly enough, Peeta’s steps become more smooth. I keep humming and Peeta’s smile returns, brighter than ever as he starts to get the hang of it.

 

“Where’d you learn to do this?”

 

“My parents,” I tell him and my step is the one that falters this time.

 

“I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through that, Katniss,” he murmurs.

 

Tears prick my eyes and I swallow. I try not to lean into him, but he’s so warm and welcoming with his broad shoulders and wide chest, bulked up from years of working in his family’s bakery and wrestling. I hide my face in his chest, the rough wool of his coat scratching my cheek, but at least he won’t see me cry. We keep dancing, and he leans down, wrapping me in a blanket of comfort. His lips just touch my neck and a burst of heat flowers across my skin from that point. And it feels so good, so impossibly good. I can’t remember the last time someone just held me and offered comfort or compassion. I think it was probably my father.

 

“You’re so strong, and I’m not sure you even realize it,” he murmurs. “You’re a survivor. A fighter.”

 

I crack in his arms as a flood of regrets fills me to the brim. And I can’t let him do this. I can’t let him do this to me, reveal my weaknesses and remind me of them. So when he finally lifts his head and looks down at me, his shimmering eyes deep with something terrifying, I don’t move. I should run, but I am frozen in place as his hand releases mine to cup my cheek. We’ve stopped dancing and all I know for certain is that I need to gain control of whatever this is before I end up exposed to him, or worse, owing him more than I already do for those two loaves of bread.

 

So as I lift on my toes and kiss his jaw in the spot where his mother once left a mark on his skin, I tell myself that I am settling a debt. Evening a score. My hands squeeze between us and pry open the snaps on his coat. I watch what I’m doing and not his face, but I can hear his breathing pick up as I back him into a wall and run my hands up over the cotton of the shirt he’s wearing. Then under the fabric up over his chest.

 

“Katniss,” he murmurs softly, his hands toying with my loose hair behind my back. I push down on his forearms to move his touch lower. When his palms skim over my bare thighs, he gets the idea and clenches his hands on my skin.

 

“I’ve seen you staring at me,” I purr. He tears his eyes to the side, but I can see the effort it takes him to swallow in the way he licks his lips and his adam’s apple visibly bobs. He can’t seem to talk, though. So I guide his hands up under my dress so he can squeeze my ass. He releases a pained moan and his hips thrust slightly towards me. “Are you a virgin, Peeta?”

 

He squeezes his eyes shut and turns his head away from me completely.

 

“You’ll laugh at me again,” he whispers, and I do, but it’s more in wonder that I’m right about him. By whatever miracle, Peeta Mellark is still untouched by the understood dictates of this town that suggest a boy shouldn’t pass his sixteenth birthday without at least one trip to the slag heap.

 

“But you’ve kissed a girl,” I prompt. He squeezes his eyes shut tighter, looking almost in pain as he shakes his head in a negative. I tell myself that’s why I do it. Because he is something good and pure and beautiful and I want to smash him. To break him the way I was broken and prove that he’s no better than the rest of us.

 

I cup him over his jeans and he hisses, the sound irrevocably loud in the small space, drowning out the soothing crackle of the fire. His fingers dig into my ass and don’t move from there. Slowly, I massage him, and although he doesn’t look at me, he also doesn’t pull away. His breathing turns harsh as he hardens beneath my palm.

 

Maybe he’s lying about being a virgin.

 

“Unzip your jeans,” I tell him. His hands collide with my belly in his haste to obey, but he groans as I shift my hand to slide inside his open jeans.

 

“Katniss,” he murmurs, and the sound of my name startles me. They usually call me Princess or Honey or Sugar. I squeeze him and it pulls a strangled sound from his throat. His head tips back, thudding on the wall. A pink flush has sprouted on his cheeks, traveling down his neck.

 

I rub with more vigor and his mouth drops open on quiet moans as his hips rock into my touch.

 

“Uh-uh, feels so good,” he stutters around his catching breath. His hands cup gently around my arms, as though he’s afraid I’ll stop, that this will have all been a tease. I should stop. But I don’t.

 

Shifting my stance, I grip his cock and pump, the fabric of his shorts stimulating him as his cheeks redden and he bites his lip, his moan of pure pleasure escaping around his teeth. I watch his face as I finish him, making sure his underwear will be filthy with his cum.

 

His eyes crack open, glazed with wonder as he pants, his lower lip lush and indented with his own bite marks. My middle flutters as he looks at me with that wondrous gaze, and for just a second, I feel as pure as him.

 

Yanking my hand back, I try to remove myself from his grasp, but now that he’s come, he won’t let me go.

 

“Wait,” he pleads again. “Let me...” He trails off at my incredulous burst of laughter.

 

“Let you what?” I ask with derision. “Grope me? Fumble around under my skirt? Fuck me? You sure you want your first fuck to be with a whore in an abandoned cabin by the lake?”

 

“No!” he nearly shouts and then immediately looks contrite. He’s staring at the floor again, jaw clenching as he orders his words before speaking again. “Let me make you feel good, too.”

 

“You wouldn’t know how,” I sneer, and his eyes harden. Determination this time, not anger.

 

“Then show me,” he says. We stare at one another and I am stunned with myself when I am the one who breaks, shrugging and nonchalant to hide the fact that the idea of Peeta Mellark’s hands on me excites me a little.

 

He spins us so that my back is against the wall, his eyes roaming all over my face as he tries to decide where to begin. Finally, he leans towards me, and I reluctantly place a hand over his mouth. His lips are chapped but warm. His startled breath puffs and collects on my palm, sending a shiver down my spine that only reaffirms that this is the right thing to do.

 

“Not yet,” I tell him, referencing one of my firm rules. No kissing on the mouth. They never want to kiss me after anyways so as long as I can dissuade them at the start, I don’t have to worry. I only plan on giving him ten minutes of groping before I end this anyways.

 

He nods in acquiescence as I drop my hand, and I think he’s going to be an asshole as he leans towards me again, but this time, he tilts his head, nuzzling his nose in my neck as he braces his hands on the wall behind me. He inhales and then releases a shaky exhale. His lips skate over my skin as my body heats, melting with this simple, careful caress. I bite my cheek and try to think of something cold or repugnant as his hand lowers to my hip, his arms shaking and uncertain as he plants one...two...three kisses on my neck.

 

“You're so beautiful, Katniss,” he whispers before sucking gently on my earlobe, and I think about making up a no talking rule on the spot as my knees shake. He’s lying for sure this time, but the way his fingers tremble as they skim lower, to the hem of my skirt and then swirl as he lifts it, a tangled vine traced over my thigh, I don’t stop him. His lies are beautiful.

 

He kneads my ass and makes me pliant with his words. Paints them over both sides of my neck and my collar bone. I am aching and stunned, warmed by the firelight and his touches. No one’s ever been this gentle with me, and the very idea that Peeta Mellark could have this effect on me and the dangers of it threatens to shatter the illusions he’s built around us.

 

“Do you wanna grab my tits?” I ask to dispel some of the magic and Peeta freezes.

 

“Yes,” he whispers, but keeps his hands where they are as I unbutton my coat and my dress and unceremoniously pull my breasts from my bra. They’re not that impressive, but Peeta groans in agony as he lowers his head to them and sucks one nipple into his mouth.

 

“Oh!” I cry out as he laves it with his tongue and teeth. It’s probably been ten minutes by now, but Peeta’s mouth is making me wet. I can feel it, the natural lubrication of desire, slicking over my skin and dripping down my thighs. Perhaps it’s the purity of his exploration as his hands join in, caressing my ribs, cupping my breasts so he can feast on them at a more comfortable angle, or the relish he seems to take in trying to make me feel good. I don’t know, I don’t know, all I know is that he has awakened something powerful and terrifying in me all at once. I spear my hands in his hair and writhe against the wall as he moans deep in his throat.

 

“God, you taste and smell like a dream. Can I...can I touch you now?” he asks timidly, and I nod to keep from squealing or screaming that he has to touch me this instant .

 

He rests his forehead on mine as his hand drops from my breast, skimming over my navel and pausing to stroke there for a moment before lowering to the apex of my thighs. I spread my feet a little to give him better access. His hands are clumsy and a little rough as he curses under his breath.

 

“Fuck, you’re wet,” he pants, his eyes holding mine entranced as he pets me. “I don’t -- what should I -- Katniss, help me.”

 

I roll my hips beneath his hand and he gradually gets the idea, fingers gently exploring which spots to press and which to rub, and there is something so erotic about the inexperienced and hesitant way he touches me. I let him keep going, intending to remain silent but unable to as he picks up on some kind of hidden cue each time he finds a spot on me that sends a shard of need through me and focuses there.

 

Unable to handle or face the force of the wave building inside me, I turn my head so that I don’t have to look at him. I cling to him and bite down on the striped collar of his letterman’s jacket as he murmurs to me about how incredible I feel on his fingers and how much he wants me to come. His finger slips inside me and I jerk my hips.

 

“Katniss?” he asks and pauses, but I whimper and claw at his shoulders and he slowly pumps me. “Like this?”

 

“More,” I say, strangling my voice and hoping he doesn’t hear the need or the relief in it when he slides a second, thick finger inside me. I ride his hand, unashamedly thinking of how thick his dick was in my hand and how it might feel inside me.

 

We’re silent for a few minutes after that, him trying to push me over the precipice and me clinging to it, frightened by what I see below. I focus on the perspiration beading on his neck. His thumb catches on my clit and I buck violently against him.

 

“Shit! Did I hurt you?” he asks, and as he slowly tries to remove his hand from me, I panic.

 

“NO!” I shout and grip his wrist with one hand, unwilling to let go of his hair with the other.

 

“Oh,” he whispers as we stare at each other, wide eyed and gulping for air. “So I did something you liked.”

 

His lips curl in a confident smile, blues eyes refusing to let me look away again as his hand resumes moving and I keen into the night. My hips, his hand, and that steady, determined gaze of his, and oh god, when he curls his fingers inside me, it feels so impossibly good that I can’t hold on to sanity anymore, flying apart in rippling waves of golden light as Peeta watches with awe. I moan his name and then collapse in on myself, undone by a simple virgin.

 

“Wow, Katniss,” he whispers, his fingers still between my pussy lips. He lowers his mouth to mine and kisses me. I’m so relaxed and floating in a haze of bliss from my orgasm that I don’t even realize what he’s doing, in fact my lips move willingly with his in a gentle give and take until his tongue licks over the seam of my lips. I turn my head and gulp air. Peeta must think I’m as overcome by the kiss as he is. I am. Just not in the same way. It’s the first time I’ve kissed a boy. “Just...wow.”

 

I scowl at his dumbfounded response, anger coalescing in me at what we just did. At the thudding of my heart and the yearning in my gut to do it again. To go further. To give away the only thing I have that is worth anything in this world to this boy.

 

“Can you get off me?” I snarl, and Peeta jerks his hand back from my crotch. Steps away from me. I immediately want to call him back, but I can’t. Whatever this is between us is dangerous. I can’t be giving out hand jobs and quickies for free. As I button my dress and zip my coat back up, his eyes flicker between me and his glistening fingers.

 

“I don’t understand,” he says. “What just happened?”

 

“About a hundred dollars in services,” I tell him as I lift my chin and dare him to contradict me.

 

“Are you serious?” he asks as a myriad of emotions drift over his features. Fear, confusion, anger... and hurt? I numb myself to his feelings and stand my ground, half-expecting this night of firsts to also be the first time a customer faced with a bill hits me in anger.

 

“You didn’t think this was a freebie, did you?”

 

“No, I thought -- you know what? Forget what I thought,” he says, wiping my arousal off on his jeans. He reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a wallet. “Here. All I’ve got is a fifty, and it was meant to get gas in my car and pay for Winter Ball tickets.”

 

“Well that’s nice,” I say as I snag the cash from him. “You owe me another fifty.”

 

“Fine,” he mutters, combing his hand through his hair again. “Great, I owe you fifty and now you get to tell the whole school what a pathetic loser I am. Fuck, I can’t believe I let you touch me.”

 

“Let me touch you?” I rail as I am blinded with fury. “Let’s get something straight here, Mellark. You wanted me to touch you. You wanted to touch me . I’ve caught you staring at my ass and my tits in school.”

 

“Yeah, but those aren’t the only parts of you I was staring at!” He’s right, but I can’t allow him to work his way any further under my skin than he already has. Someone like him is a threat to me. So I push him so hard he won’t look back.

 

“Think of this as an investment,” I suggest, waving the money in front of his face. “Now you not only know how to dance but also how to finger fuck a girl and even get her off. I’m sure your date to the Winter Ball will be ecstatic about that. Maybe you’ll even get a blow job in return for it.”

 

His face turns purple and I brace for the hit, but he whirls on his feet and douses the fire with the bucket of water so fast, that steam fills the cabin, clouding my vision and filling my ears with a hiss.

 

“So all that was just an act? You were just using me?”

 

His words sting in the worst way possible. Is that what I did? I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past myself to sink that low, but I’m the prostitute in this situation. He used me. I hold tight to that conviction and keep my silence.

 

He doesn’t follow me when I leave. I try not to cry.

 

************************

 

I don’t tell my mother where I’m going. I never do. She catches me at the door and tries to ask, her eyes blurring as she examines my cat eye makeup and the short dress I’m wearing, which is far too impractical for the February chill outside. Tears leak from her eyes as she begs me to stay in tonight, although she can’t give me a good reason why. I want to remind her that no one you love ever comes back. That’s what happens when they die.

 

Wrenching my arm free of her grasp, I ignore her pleading and sobbing. She wouldn’t have heard me anyways, too busy injecting as many hits as she could into her veins in the ten seconds after I leave.

 

I walk the streets of town and it isn’t long before a man emerges from one of the shops, keys jingling in his hands. He whistles at me as I walk past and I give him a smile, make sure to swish my hips. He follows the swaying motion and falls into step beside me.

 

“So uh, whatcha doing tonight, baby?”

 

“Hopefully you,” I say and smile again. It feels like a grimace, the fakest and foulest of expressions I could be wearing right now. He rifles in his wallet and counts his money.

 

“I got three hundred. What’s that get me?”

 

“At the least, a really good fuck,” I tell him and he grins, following me the two blocks to The Hob. We make our way through the open air market, the sounds of his belt and zipper loud in the deserted space. I find us a stall and step into it as he pulls out his penis.

 

“I see you almost every night, baby. When I close up my shop. I jack off to the thought of you in just those boots.”

 

His words slip into then out of my ears. I don’t care about his fantasy. I don’t care about anything but the fines the pharmacist dropped on our doorstep earlier this week, claiming reparations for what my mother stole from his stock. I grip this man’s penis and roll the condom over him. Perfunctory, not gentle.

 

“Fuck baby, slow down,” he coos. His hands rest on my shoulders and he pushes me down to my knees. I go, only because the pile of money is already laying on the hay strewn floor. Three hundred dollars. I suck his penis as he holds his pants open on his hips. All that talking, I expected him to be loud, but he’s not. Even his breathing is quiet, the sounds of my mouth on him the only ones in the quiet space.

 

“Stop,” he orders and I look up at him as he pulls out of my mouth. I nip the tip and he shivers. “That enough to fuck you from behind and cum on your back?”

 

“That’ll cost the full three,” I tell him, making up the price as we go.

 

“On your feet.”

 

I stand and turn my back to him, grip the wooden boards as he enters me. He starts slow and builds his way up, I guess so he’s got enough control to know when he’s about to come. I’ve never let a guy jizz on my back before. I’m not exactly thrilled by the idea, but I brought wipes. I shut my eyes and moan every few thrusts, which he seems to like.

 

“Those boots are fucking hot,” he hisses as he picks up speed. I want to tell him to shut up. To never mention my boots again. To go back to silence. I should’ve made it another one of my rules. Blocking out his words, I focus on the quiet of the winter night. Until it’s shattered by a high female giggle.

 

My customer pauses as footsteps sound on the wooden boards of The Hob and a couple comes into view through the slats of the stall hiding us. Her pale lavender gown swirls out from beneath her short coat as she drags a boy into the shadows behind her. That’s right. Tonight is the Winter Ball.

 

“Well look at that,” my customer whispers and resumes thrusting. “We’re gonna get a show.”

 

“Come on, Peeta,” the girl whispers excitedly. “Isn’t this so much better than the slag heap? We’ve got the place to ourselves.”

 

She opens her arms and twirls as the floor crumbles beneath my feet. I can’t watch this, but my customer leans over, gripping the boards on either side of my hands as he ruts and I hold back tears. I am penned in and the only way to avoid the spectacle is to close my eyes and pretend it isn’t real.

 

He looks so handsome in his rented tux, pale flowers pinned to the lapel and his hair in carefree waves. We haven’t spoken since that night in the cabin over a month ago, although I did find a fifty dollar bill tucked into my locker one afternoon. No note.

 

I bite my lip as I watch her kiss him. No. I don't want this. I don’t want to see Peeta have sex for the first time while a stranger fucks me from behind. I don’t want to taint Peeta that way. So I turn my head and hide my face in my arm.

 

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Peeta says and I nearly shout with joy. Yes! Tell her you don’t want her! Or take her to a bed but don’t take her in front of me.

 

“Just a kiss, Peeta? A romantic kiss to end the perfect night?”

 

“What a fucking pussy,” my customer whispers. “That bitch is practically tearing at his pants and he won’t fuck her. Must be gay.”

 

I purposefully clamp my walls down on him. Over and over until he grunts, muffles the sound in my coat as his hips jerk, and I hold on while he finally comes to rest. By the time he gets off of me, Peeta and the girl are gone.

 

“Don’t move,” he says and as I stand there with my bare ass hanging in the air, he peels off the condom and grins. “Yeah, baby. You thought I came, didn’t you? We ain’t done yet.”

 

He strokes himself, one hand holding me in place and I silently wait for him to finish. He peaks with a guttural moan, his cum missing my back and spraying all over my boots. The boots my father got me for my sixteenth birthday.

 

I stare at the white mess as he tucks himself back into his pants and smacks my ass, finally drawing me out of my shock.

 

“You missed,” I drawl, trying to hide my annoyance. His gaze flicks to my soiled boots as I flip my skirt back down.

 

“Shit, Baby. I’ve already paid you a ton. Get yourself some new ones,” he mutters as he kicks the wad of cash and turns to leave. The faint light from outside glints on his gold wedding ring and I pocket the cash, unable to tell him that this will barely cover what I’m missing for my rent. But I refuse to beg for more. Instead I find a rag in another stall and scrub my precious boots clean. I don’t cry. I refuse to cry anymore. Not since that night with Peeta. Hardening my heart, I accept that my boots are just like me now. Soiled. No longer pure.

 

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My mother overdoses in April. I pay for the funeral with my body. It’s ironic if you think about it. Fucking in the place they send you after you die when you’re already dead inside. It’s the first time I feel truly scared with a client. He likes to bind my hands with leather and gets angry if I make a sound, as though one noise will wake the dead and bring judgement on his head. Turns out the pharmacist has a thing for pigtails and school uniforms. I pay my mother’s debts to him using that. And I pay for Cray’s silence so the government doesn’t step in at the eleventh hour to save the poor orphan Everdeen girl. Just three weeks until my eighteenth birthday. That’s all I have to manage.  

 

By the time her body is finally laid to rest next to my father, because it’s what he would want and not because I think she deserves it, I am exhausted and worn. Defeated. And alone.

 

The sky has already opened when I make it to the cemetery. The preacher, who hadn’t much cared about what happened to me after my father died, sweeps his eyes over me. Grey mirrors of pity that I can’t stand to have trained on me. I want to scream at him that instead of just looking and judging, maybe he should've helped at some point in the last two and a half years. But I accept the umbrella he offers because the last thing I need right now is to get sick.

 

My bags are already packed. My borrowed graduation gown returned to the school and my diploma in hand. My mother’s funeral the only thing keeping me in this town. As I stand in the rain and the preacher confers with the caretaker of the cemetery, I stare at my mother’s coffin, any words of kindness for her frozen in time.

 

And then he’s there. A shoulder brushing mine and a warm silence I didn’t realize I’d been missing. Slowly, I turn my head, just to be sure, although I already know it’s him. The comforting scent of cinnamon and soap with a faint bite of sweat and nerves that I will forever associate with laughter and life. And for the first time since he made me feel and I shoved him away for it, Peeta holds my gaze as I look at him.

 

I drink him in, starving for the details. His hair is shaved close to his scalp, blue eyes radiating kindness and understanding and I wonder how I ever let myself throw away the promise that I see in them. But he’s dressed in the black and gold of a naval dress uniform. A future and a scholarship to the Panem Naval Academy awaiting him. I am not surprised. I’ve kept track of him. Noted each visible bruise or cut. Every last victory and defeat during the state’s wrestling championship. The announcement when the Naval Academy accepted him and offered him a full scholarship.

 

He’s supposed to be leaving on the train later tonight.

 

His top coat is made to repel water, but it still gathers on his white hat and ears and I move closer so that we’re sharing the umbrella. His fingers find mine as the preacher begins. Not a word of the sermon reaches my ears. I hear only the drumming of the rain and the beating of my heart in my chest. I cling to his hand and stare into his eyes and wonder what would happen if I never let him go. And I hope.

 

I hope that he’s forgiven me. I hope that I didn’t break him too much. I hope that he made love to that girl in the lavender dress and maybe promised her a ring and a future to go with the shiny brass buttons of his uniform because he deserves that kind of happiness. I hope that he doesn’t forget me when he’s out on the seas.

 

“Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. May you rest in peace.”

 

Peeta blinks as the words hang in the air, then he turns and places a flower on my mother’s coffin. A single white lily. I didn’t even think to bring one.

 

The preacher asks if I need anything before he leaves us alone, still holding hands. We wait as I try to find some way to say farewell to my mother, but the words escape me. As I turn away from her, Peeta maneuvers so that he doesn’t let me go. It’s a slow walk back through town and it’s only when we’ve reached the trailer my mother and I lived in that I realize I still have the preacher’s umbrella. I’ll have to find time to return it to him before I leave.

 

Opening the door, I drag Peeta inside behind me. Wordlessly, he follows. I drop the umbrella and heedless of the mess in my place or the months of silence, I press him back into the door and plaster my mouth to his. One of us whimpers, and his hands rest on my waist.

 

Warmth sparks in my chest and spreads through me, thawing my carefully guarded detachment. Pain follows swiftly and I release a choked sob against his cool lips. When he tries to leave me, I shatter, clinging to his coat and desperately trying to keep our mouths joined.

 

“Katniss. Don’t,” he murmurs as he turns his head aside and my lips drag across his cheek. His voice is hollow, not angry, and it’s a million times more painful than I thought. I bawl into his neck and yank on his coat as his arms tighten around me, and despite his protest, he doesn’t go. I lose command of everything and cry until there’s snot running from my nose and I’m hiccoughing and unable to control the wails leaving my throat.

 

As the last of my tears drains from me, Peeta scoops me up into his arms and carries me through the trailer. He finds my room and lays me on the bed. As his hands recede, I frantically try to pull him down with me. I don’t want to be alone with myself.

 

“I’m not going anywhere,” he whispers. “Just taking off my coat.”

 

He shrugs out of it, draping it over my open door and placing his hat on my dresser. Then the black jacket, which he carefully places on a hanger in my closet before he helps me with mine and joins me on the bed. I sink into the warmth of his embrace and sniffle through a few more tears. Eventually, I fall asleep, waking when it’s nearly dark with my head resting on his chest, his heartbeat steady against my cheek. Reluctantly, I lift my head and observe him sleeping for a few minutes.

 

The rain has stopped.

 

I slink from the bed and rifle through my wallet, pulling out a hundred dollars, although I honestly can’t spare it, and tucking it into his coat pocket. I never really wanted his money anyways. And while he’s still snoring on top of my Garfield comforter, his uniform rumpled, I take last notes of what he looks like. Now that his hat is off, I can see that he’s left the hair on top of his head slightly longer. Just enough to form small waves. I think that might be my favorite new thing about him, that he left some of the wavy locks I fingered and gripped and caressed on a frigid January night. With that last image of him, peacefully sleeping, firm in my mind, I gather my packed bags and leave.

 

The walk to the bus station takes forever. I almost turn back twice, but I am not what Peeta Mellark needs. In a hundred lifetimes, I could never deserve him. So I buy my ticket for District Seven and climb aboard.

 

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