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One Year and One Day

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Chapter one

The spring day when Katniss found the haggard, unconscious boy in her meadow, she thought it was another booze-hound who had been successful in breaking into her storehouse. Stealing and emptying a jar of mead was popular between the younglings in Capitol. They often underestimated the potent stuff she brew for her mother’s apothecary and fell asleep drunk and befouled.

Bending forward to look if it was one she knew, one she had already woken up before with a pitcher of water into his face and a swift kick to his ribs, Katniss didn’t recognized this one. His curly hair was matted to his forehead and it was so dirtied with grime and soot that she she would have been surprised if he was a townie. Capitol’s citizens kept themselves clean and tidy. There was a lot of caked mud on his face too. But not enough to conceal the bloodied bruises on his cheeks or his chin. His unbelievable long lashes fluttered when she turned him around. Showing her that he was not so unconscious anymore but half awake. Now laying on his back she could see the poor clothes he wore and the prominent collarbones between his torn tunic and his stubby chin. His shoulders wide and his bony hands larger than hers. So not a boy but at least a young man.

Without thinking twice about it Katniss decided to take care of him. Not in the embarrassing way she had done with the last one she had found near her bee houses, stealing and consuming mead. Although thinking about Cato, the butcher’s braggart son, sprinkled liberally with the stolen mead and adorned with soft feathers from her sister Prim’s hens, brought a smile to her face. She was sure that he wouldn’t set foot onto her property again after he had to stumble across town half-naked, honeyed and feathered to reach his father’s workshop. Looking like a man-sized brown hen.

But this unlucky fellow in front of her needed her help. That she was sure about. And he would get it. Like her father had long ago. Long before she or Prim had been born. When her mother had set foot into Capitol for the first time and met her future husband. This man looked a little bit like Prim or her mother. A kind of coloring under the bruises not usual in Capitol. So Katniss helped herself to a bucket full of water and a clean cloth she always kept in her storage and went on the task of caring for this man.

She cleaned his face first, very carefully, and got rid of the caked mud on his head that conceal his hair. The same color than Prim’s or her mothers. A honeyed blonde. Like the clover honey some of her beehives produced. So, too,  must be from out of town, Katniss mused. Maybe my mother will recognize his features from  a family she once knew.

Katniss herself, her late father and all the other townies had darker hair. Dark brown or black and a few even had  darker skin. Katniss herself, whose mother and sister had skin as pale as the milk of their goat Lady, had a darker coloring day in day out. Even during the winter, Katniss skin never became pale like Prim’s.

Shaking herself out of her thoughts, Katniss continued with her task. She had to change the water twice until she was satisfied with her work. At last, she carried a pitcher full of fresh water and a wooden beaker to the place where her unpredictable guest rested and waited. Like it was her habit while working, Katniss began to sing. The soothing sounds had a calming effect on her bees. Usually they would let her harvest the honey when Katniss sang. A gift she had inherited from her father who had done this job until last year.

The man looks almost clean now and his hair started to get dry and lighter in color too. Katniss noticed that he stirred into a lighter form of sleep. Maybe it was the notes of her song that finally made their ways through his foggy mind into his perception Katniss mused. Eventually he opened his eyes and Katniss moved a little bit so that her shade fell on his face, shading him from the morning sun. When he was finally awake Katniss offered him the beaker filled to the brim with water sweetened with a dollop of clove honey. She could now clearly see that his eyes were the color of a clear blue summer sky. Another feature that reminded her of her sister, who right now would be safe and sound in her family’s barn,taking care of her goat. This thought alone made her smile. Katniss couldn’t bring herself to be anything but helpful and kind to this one who obviously had seen hard times recently. The bruises and the skinny body spoke for itself.

The man returned the smile shyly and drank greedily from the beaker. When his thirst was satisfied, he cleared his throat. “ Why are you so nice to me? Am I in heaven?”

Katniss shook her head. “No you are not. You’ve made it to the Capitol. You are safe now.”

“To the Capitol.” He shake his head in disbelief. “You’re sure?”

“I’m sure. This is Capitol and you’re in my meadow on my property. So you’re in safety.” Katniss raised herself proudly and added. “You want to stay here ‘for one year and one day’ so that you will become a rightful citizen?”

“I want to. Hardly made it here with all the mutts in the wood. But at least I made it. I’m Peeta by the way. Peeta Mellark at your service.” Peeta struggled a little bit to put himself upright and offered his hand. “Do you know where I can find work?”

Katniss took his offered hand and laced her fingers through his like it was custom in Capitol. When she spoke her voice held an authority fitting for her next words. “I’m Katniss. Katniss Everdeen. I am the designated beekeeper and mead brewer of Capitol. Do you want to work for me? One year and one day so you can become a free citizen of Capitol?”

Chapter Text

~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was only a short walk from the meadow to Katniss’ home in the outskirts of the Capitol. She was irritated to notice the open gate to their enclose. A white goat was actually trying to leave.

“Hello, Lady. You won't want to leave. Prim would be so sorry.” Katniss ushered the goat back into the garden, petting her back and motioned to Peeta to follow her and close the wooden gate behind him.

“We must have a visitor. Prim or my mother wouldn't let her run away. We'll bring her to the goat man this afternoon. He has the best goats to get to breed.”

Katniss lead the animal to a patch of lush grass sprinkled with dandelions. The goat started immediately to chew on the leaves.

Loud voices could be heard from inside the cottage.

“So you see. It would be very imprudent from you to decline my honorable offer.” A man's voice argued from inside the cottage. “A marriage between our families would be good for you and your family as well.”

“I can't see how I or my family would gain an advantage from a bond of matrimony. And I definitely don't see you as my future husband. How you see this proposal as an honorable one is beyond me.” The female voice sounded more annoyed than embattled.

“That is Prim. My sister.” Katniss whispered proudly as she tried to find a place closer to the open door while Peeta tried to edge closer to the house wall in hope that the people in the house wouldn't see him.

“Every woman would gain in marriage  to me. Think about the fortune we could make with your skills and my connections, as well as the increase in status of your own”

While the man boasted, Katniss whispered to Peeta “And that moron is Cato. He tried this proposal thing with me. Without success. And he’s been proposing to Prim for the last several weeks.”

Katniss fell quiet when Cato continued. “Have you ever considered what could happen to you or your family if you continue to be so stubborn? You could fall in disgrace with the other merchants. Maybe loose some business. Or your mother could have an unfortunate accident when she walks through town. In the evening. In the dark. All alone. While she is on her way to a client. How unfortunate.

Prim's voice grew louder.

“Are you kidding me? Are you delusional? You want to force me into an agreement by threaten me and my family? How dumb are you. You talk about connections. Let me tell you something. Connections – I have them. You don't. Do you know to whom the townies go when they are sick? Me. Who cures the pain in your father’s hands when he is barely able to hold a knife? Me. Who brews the remedy for Haymitch's stomach aches? Who helps the women in this town when they are pregnant? Who helps the townies when they have an accident? Who cures the cough almost everyone gets during the winter months? Who is main contact to the master of the town guard? Take a guess. One word of advice. Don't threaten me or my folks. You don't want to live with the consequences. And now – you know how to  find your way out. We have a door. Use it.”

Katniss stepped aside so that the red-faced Cato could leave the house. But the goat who had spent the last few minutes making her way over to the open door, trying to reach her mistress, didn't clear the path but blocked it.

When Cato found himself in front of a white goat with a red bow around its neck, luxuriously chewing on some blades of dandelion. He was so angry that he tried to kick the animal. But Prim, who was close on his heels, wouldn't have any of that. “Don't you dare kick Lady or I will show you how good I'm with a knife. I have helped your father neuter piglets more than once. Not much different from a man’s private parts.”

Cato jumped to the side, opening the gate with abrupt force and ran out of the enclosure. Peeta left his place near the wall, stepped forward, closing the gate again.

Katniss pulled Prim into a hug. “That was perfect. You’re so fucking hot when you’re mad!”

Prim laughed. “He had it coming. Proposing because his father wouldn't support his gaudy lifestyle anymore and Haymitch declined to give him drinks on the nod. All he thinks about is which other family he can exploit for  a free run on your mead. I hope he will never bother us again or I'll show him my scalpel.” She turned her attention to Peeta and smiled sweetly. “But who's this fellow you brought home? He looks a little ragged but has a nice and honest face.”

Katniss pulled her new worker to her sister. “This is Peeta Mellark. He will be working for us. And this, Peeta is my sister, Primrose Everdeen the towns healer and midwife.”

Peeta offered his hand. “Peeta Mellark at your service. It's nice to meet you mam.”

Prim took the offered hand and pulled him into the house. “We are not so formal here in the Everdeen's household. I'm Prim.” She looked at him closely. “Can I offer you a bite to eat and a drink? We had broken our fast very early and I feel a little bit peckish around mid morning. ” She led him into the house and Katniss follow smiling. Leave it to Prim to make him feel welcomed.

Chapter Text

Alyson Everdeen stepped out of the poorly lit house of the glassblower’s widow and saw a commotion in front of the town hall. A long line of men and woman, a few of them with babies in their arms, waited patiently in line. She hadn't seen so many foreign merchants, minstrel, and bandsmen since the closing of the borders to the adjacent countries. She stilled in her motion when her memories went back in time even though she didn't want them to.

With illusions of grandeur, the former mayor, Coriolanus Snow had commanded the closing of the borders and the banishment of all foreign people as he prepared for war. That has been a little over a year ago. There had been a draft and every man older than 17 had been called to arms.

Major Snow had decided to demonstrate the newest and finest cannonry of Panem's Navy during a large parade they held along the Gulf of Panem. A lot happened after the momentous day when Snow and the whole town council died. More than a hundred citizens who had been on the ships died when the flagship exploded first and every other ship nearby after a rain of fire fell over them. Only a dozen citizens survived by swimming to the coast after the blast when the explosions flung them into the turbulent ocean.

Almost every guild lost their master. Almost every family lost a husband, son or both. Alyson and her daughters lost a husband and a father. It had taken the remaining Capitol's citizens, most of them are women or children, months to move on with life and build a new government.

Alyson had to shake herself out of the memories. She didn't want to think about that day and the following months again. She didn't want to go back to the bad place where she had been for weeks after the fiasco. Never. It had taken all the help of her daughters and her friends to help her out of her depression. She wanted to think about the future. Hers, her family’s and that of the Capitol. She wanted to think about the good things.

The return of the merchants and minstrel was a good thing, wasn't it? She tried to make out the familiar faces among the crowd and was successful. Among the minstrels and bandsmen was a young woman with vermilion hair. Alyson waited till she turned toward her and waved. The woman, Annie Cresta, waved enthusiastically in return didn't step out of line. With such a large crown around her and everyone wanted to register the uncertainty to get her place in front of the town hall back once she left it was too big.

This was good news. So good that Alyson had to tell her daughters as soon as possible. She hurried through the alleys until she reached the Everdeen's property.

Eager to share her news, she swept into the cottage and started to speak without noticing that Katniss and Prim had company.

“You won't believe it but the first caravan with merchants and minstrels has arrived. I've seen them entering through the southern town gate.”

A moment later she noticed that one of the chairs was occupied by a young, haggard looking man.

“Mom, this is Peeta.” Katniss saw her mother's surprise as the young man, who had stopped shoveling porridge into his mouth and was now hastily swallowing it. He stood and offered his hand and a shy smile. “Peeta Mellark, at your service, ma’am.”

Katniss and Prim shared a look and a smile. Peeta really was very polite.

Alyson took his proffered hand and shook it. “I'm Alyson Everdeen. Nice to meet you, Peeta Mellark. Are you by any means related to a Gus Mellark from the Seam?”

Peeta looked surprised. “I am. Gus Mellark is my father.”

Alyson arched a eyebrow and decided to speak with him later about that.

Katniss hurried to explain. “I found him this morning near my beehives. He is looking for a job offer, so I offered him a position in our household.”

Alyson looked at him curiously. “Well, we have a lot of work. Where have you been before?”

At the same time Katniss exclaimed “In the woods, attacked by mutts”, Prim answered “Nowhere” and Peeta whispered “In the Seam, but please don't make me go back.” He looked uncertain and Alyson noticed that his hands trembled.

She rounded the table and sat down on the fourth chair. She motioned for the others to sit down too. “That is something I wouldn't do. Never. But after you finish your meal, I would like to talk to you. Also, if you want to work for us, I must examine you. I want know if you are healthy or if you are injured.”

At the same time Katniss nodded enthusiastically and assured “That's okay. It won't be a problem. Will it Peeta?”

Peeta looked crestfallen “I'm not sick. I'll can work hard. I can start right away.”

Katniss mother petted his hand. “Let me look after you. No harm will be done. You need a bath and a change of clean clothes anyway. And those two have to go town hall. Katniss, you will retrieve the form we need to fill out for Peeta. And then you will look for the caravan. It was a large one. And I'm sure I saw a person you would love to see again Annie Cresta?”

“Annie is back?” Katniss looked torn between staying and arguing with her mother on Peeta's behalf or running out the door to look for the friend who she hadn't seen in almost two years.

Alyson helped herself to a cup of tea. “Annie is back. Some of the people from the caravan looked like they could use medical attention. Prim, take your bag and some remedies and see if you can be of service.”

Prim gulped down the last of her tea and left the room to fetch her healers bag.

Katniss bent toward her new charge. “Peeta, are you okay with me leaving you?”

With a glance to her mother she added “My mother will help you.”

Peeta nodded and Katniss left too.

~~~

“First of all I like you to take a bath. What do you think, wouldn't it been nice to get clean again?” Peeta nodded and Alyson continued, “Then I would like to tend to your injuries and when we both are finished with that task, we'll look for clean and decent clothes for you to wear.”

She lead Peeta to a room in the back of the cottage. There were several shelves filled with jars and cases. At one wall was wooden tub, large enough to sit in, next to a large barrel with water.

“If this is okay with you Peeta, I would like for you to help me with some things.” Alyson said while she observed him under her lashes. She wanted to see if he had trouble with moving around or carrying something. He had been way too eager to clarify that he wasn’t sick, maybe he was injured.

“The tub needs to be filled with water. Could you bring the first kettle full of water from our hearth while I look for some soap chips?”

He nodded, appearing little less anxious, and left the room. He clearly favored his left leg. She added this to her list of injuries she had already noticed.

When he came back with the first kettle, they emptied it into the tub and he went to fetch the second one. She noticed that he had problems using his left arm too. She sighed and put a ladle full of a yellow cream from one jar and a bucket full of fresh water from the barrel into the tub. “Would you like me leave the room while you strip down and sit in the tub? I could fill the kettles for more hot water. It’s a good thing that there is always more than one large kettle for hot water in a healer's house. We will need a lot of it to get you clean.”

Peeta looked mortified but nodded. “Yes please.!” he stammered. “I can't strip down with you here.”

Alyson took the empty kettle and patted his arm softly. “That is OK, my dear. I'm used to being with my daughters and patients. There is little to no privacy in a cottage. But I can understand your modesty. I'm sorry but we don't have a screen or a sheet we can use. But I'll have to look at your injuries later anyway.”

She started to leave the room and turned around once more when she heard him whisper. “I hope she won't tell Katniss?”

She saw how he slowly removed his tunic and stopped herself from asking 'Tell her what exactly?' She swallowed the words before they could leave her mouth because she saw his back. What once must have been the muscular and beautiful back of a young man now showed signs of every abuse possible. A crisscross of welts, some of them infected and slightly bleeding. Other marks that looked like burn wounds. He was so thin, she could see every protruding bone. His prominent shoulder blades were shocking and his large hands shook.

Alyson decided to give a little time to himself to calm down. There was nothing she could do right now and he had every right a little bit of dignity. No one wanted to be fussed over when he cried or was deeply ashamed. She used the time while he cleaned himself to make a bed in the empty room for him . She looked in a trunk for some of her late husband’s clothes, preferably soft ones that would not irritate his wounds.

Alyson came back with another kettle full of hot water after, what she hoped, he had had enough time to find his composure again. “Look at you, dear. Almost finished. But I'm afraid you have to cut your hair a little bit. It is so matted. What do you say?”

When Peeta nodded, she brought him her a pair of scissors which he used to cut his hair. After he was done, he washed his short hair again, rinsed it out with clean water and stepped out of the tub. She could see that he was exhausted.

Alyson offered him a soft cloth to dry himself and ushered him into the room that would be his to sleep in. It wasn't much, just a small place to call his own: a bed, a table, a chair and a couple of hooks on the wall to hang his clothes on. That is, when he had more clothes. The ones he had on his body when he arrived couldn't been used anymore.

She put some of the contents from her healers bag on the table and began with her work when Peeta was ready. Using different kinds of remedies on this wounds depended on which part of his body was bruised, infected or showed signs of a recent dislocation or break. Every detail she’d observed earlier was put to good use. When she was done with her work, she motioned for him to lay down and tucked him in. “You will sleep now. I don't think that you need a sleep remedy right now. I'll look after you later.” Out of an impulse she bent down a kissed his forehead before she left and closed the door.

~~~

A little bit later someone knocked rather loudly at the cottage door.

Alyson found herself face to face with a young recruit of the town guard when she opened the door.

“I has come to my attention that there is an unknown male person in your house who hasn't been at the town hall to ask for a permit. There is the possibility that he is one of the outlaws from the woods,” he declared ostentatiously while he tried to look bigger than his 5.4 feet. His helmet was a little to large for his head and slipped over his forehead, almost covering his eyes. He had to push it back while he spoke.

Alyson measured him up. The sleeves of the uniform had been rolled up at least twice and the legs of his trousers too. All in all, he looked like a laddie playing town guard in his father’s uniform.

“And you are, munchkin?” She blocked the door while the young wannabe guard tried to find a way into the cottage.

He cleared his throat. “I'm Marvel Schaffler, son of Samuel Schaffler, the coppersmith. You will have to let me into your house so I can escort the foreign man to the town hall.”

Alyson leaned her back against the door jamb. “Look Marvel. My daughter Katniss has already left for the town hall to fetch the registration form. There is no need for you to enter my house and disturb our new worker.”

“I was told to do a quick search, Mrs. Everdeen. And I will do so.”

Again he tried to enter. Again he was blocked by Alyson. “Told by whom, I would like to know?” Alyson inquired. “Surely not by Paylor, our Mayor, or by Johanna, the town guards leader. I know from both of them that they have better things to do than to play such a foolish power game. Who gave you the information about our new worker, I would like to know?”

Marvel didn't look so confident anymore. “I was told by Cato, the butcher's son.”

“Since when does Cato the authority to order a town guard around, I would like to know? Are you even a town guard or have you pilfered the clothes from a clothesline and are now playing a game? You'll leave my property. And you won't come back.”

For a last time the young man tried to act with an authority he didn't really have. “Make me,” he challenged the confident woman.

“With pleasure!” Alyson answered, grabbing his left ear and twisting it a little, but painfully, around. She pulled the now protesting and red-faced man through the gate, onto the path and released him. “I'll have a word with Johanna and Paylor. I’m sure they'll be interested to learn that some rascals stole uniforms and pretended to be a guard.” She turned around, entered the cottage and closed the door.

A short time later, the door was pushed open so hard it banged against the wall. “Where is he? Where is Peeta?” Katniss had arrived and was furious.

To be continued ...

Chapter Text

“Where is he? Where is Peeta?” Katniss was furious. She’d run all the way from town hall where she had collected the form to register Peeta as the Everdeen’s official employee. It had been pure coincidence when she overheard how the coppersmiths widow told the widow of the weaver that her son wanted to get into the town guard by arresting an outlaw who had been seen by Cato this morning entering the healer’s house. Katniss knew immediately what was going on. So when Marvel's mother boasted about her son leaving to do the job, Katniss didn't linger to tell them off. She ran.

She would have stormed into her house and searched everywhere had her mother not stopped her in the kitchen.

“He’s asleep.” her mother clarified. “And if you too want to disturb him, and I don't believe for one second that you really do , I’ll stop you the same way I stopped that idiot of Marvel.”

Katniss bent forward to catch her breath and then took one of the chairs to sit down. “Please,  tell me what happened. Because I only have the gossip of two women who are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. And tell me about Peeta. How is he?

Katniss’s mother went to the cupboard and carried two mugs and a plate with oatcakes to the table, grabbed the jar of cold peppermint tea and poured them both something to drink. “Well I start with the last question first. Peeta is injured and the wounds are not those you get  in the woods or by mutts. He’s been beaten badly. And someone burned him badly too.” Katniss inhaled sharply, her mother take her hand and continued.  “He is emaciated because he hasn't eaten enough healthy food for some time. You don't get so sick that fast. And he is anxious because he has lived with violence.”

Katniss shook her head. “And you learned all of this in such a short time. He must trust you a lot to tell you so much.”

Alyson shook her head. “He didn't tell me anything. I've seen these wounds and behavior before. Back in the days when we often had people from the Seam come to the Capitol to seek shelter, I was the first one to examine them. I'd often had to make up my own opinion based on what I saw and not based upon of what I was told. But when Snow took over, fewer  people came. I've always suspected that there had been some kind of agreement between Snow and the government of the Seam.”

Katniss nodded while she listened to her mother. It made sense when you thought about it. “ Did you give him something to sleep?” She wouldn't like it if her mother had given him sleep syrup but wouldn't object to it. She trusted her mother. Her mother may have had a couple of difficult month after Katniss father had died, but Katniss, her sister and her mother had all overcome this time together. It had fused their relationship . Before, Katniss had been closer to her father and Prim had been closer to her mother. Now they both had a close relationship to her mother.

“I didn't need to.” Her mother took one of the cakes, broke off a piece and dunked it in her tea. “He was half asleep when I finished with bandaging. But he could wake up soon. Will you bring him out into the garden so he can sit in the sun?”

Katniss nooded. “Maybe I should make him a lavender tea. It always helped when you had a hard time.”

“How thoughtful of you, my heart. That is a good idea. Can I leave you to alone? I would like to visit Paylor and Johanna to bring a problem to their attention?”

“The Marvel problem?” Katniss looked at her mother. “Please tell me before you go.”

“Well, to make a short story shorter, Marvel came and tried to tell me he was ordered, by Cato, of all people,to bring Peeta to the town hall . He wore a uniform to large for him  and tried to act like he was a guard. After he wouldn't take no for an answer I twisted his ear like used to when he  ten and trying to steal honey out of your father’s beehives and pushed him onto the path.

Katniss bent forward and kissed her mother's cheek. “Today we have a house full of brave and strong women. This evening let Prim tell you how she threw Cato out too this morning.”

“I would love to hear that story at dinner for sure. But now let me make my rounds and you go and take care of the newest member of the household. Lavender is in the topmost shelf in the cupboard of my apothecary.”

~~~~

Katniss pulled a comfy armchair into the room Peeta was sleeping in. First she placed it near the small window so that she could read while she waited for him to wake up but after a while she put her scroll aside, draw the chair beside the bed and studied his face. He looked less and less relaxed with every minute passing. Then he began to whimper and shake in his sleep. Out of instinct, Katniss caressed  his head and face like he was a child. Then she had an idea. When she became  restless and  troubled, her father had sung to her.

Katniss cleared her throat. She hadn't sung this lullaby for a very long time. Than she began softly with the song

You are a sailboat
Upon the ocean
You are a sailboat
And I will steer you

She took one of his hands to hold and to tell him through the touch that he is safe.


Across the sea to dreamland
To where there's white sand...
Across the sea in dreamland
To where a soft breeze

His breath became deeper, more relaxed. And his face became less troubled too under Katniss song.

Blows in a deep blue sky
And moves the palm trees...
And you will lie there
And hear the birds sing
And they will bring you presents
Of a hundred gold rings
And if you count them slowly
They'll change to wishes

Peeta slowly opened his eyes, but Katniss continued with the lullaby.

So sleep my little sailboat
With stores of milk and honey
And sixpences for money
And safe beneath a great moon
I'll sing this rockabye tune,
So shut your pretty eyes
And I'll steer you to the white sand
For we're on our way to dreamland
Until the morning..

.

Katniss smiled when she saw Peeta's face full of adoration. “Hello Peeta, how are you?”

Katniss noticed that he had trouble speaking and offered him a cup  of lavender tea to wet his mouth a sooth his parched throat.

He smiled when he smelled the tea and swallowed  a healthy mouthful. “Right now I’m good. Thank you.” He emptied the cup. “This is the second time that I wake up and you are there. Looking like an angel. And sounding like one, too.”

All Katniss could do was return his beautiful smile.

to be continued ...

Chapter Text

It was the same nightmare again.

Darkness shrouded the cold narrow room. He lay with his face in the mud. Pain across his back. Blows that took his breath away. Burning heat and the smell of his own scorched skin. Harsh words that told him how useless he is, how worthless. Gruesome hands clawing at him, tearing at him …

But than the bad feelings drifted away like mist swept away by a breeze and the sun begins to shine.

He now smelled honey and felt something soft touch his face.

He now heard a soothing voice, quietly singing about a sailboat and an ocean.

He now felt safe and calm.

So he opened his eyes.

Peeta was greeted by the same sweet face as the last time he had woken up. Hadn't it been this morning? Sweet, serene and beautiful features. Grey eyes shining like the mirror image of the full moon on a lake. Dark, wavy hair that was partly braided. An oval face with full rose-colored lips and a slight blush to her cheekbones. Her skin a shade or two darker than his. Maybe she spent a lot of time outside - she was a beekeeper after all. And she was his savior, his angel.

She asked him how he was and Peeta tried to speak but his tongue was to dry. Immediately he was offered a mug of sweet smelling lavender tea. This must be heaven.

When speaking was possible he answered “Right now, I am good. Thank you.” He emptied the cup . “This is the second time that I wake up and you are there. Looking like an angel. And sounding like one, too.”

And then she smiled at him and he was a goner.

~~~

Peeta couldn't believe his good fortune. He sat outside in the sun, on a wooden bench beside this beautiful girl, with a fresh mug of honeyed lavender tea in his hand, and a plate of oatcakes on the table in front of him. He smiled at Katniss while she filled in the form from the town hall. That was something that could be finished quickly. All they had to do was write down the names of the Everdeen's and his own and the date the contract began. He now was officially a member of the Everdeen family.

Later Peeta asked Katniss about her sister and her mother. After he had more information about the Everdeen family, he wanted to know about his chores. Which ones he could start with the same day and about his work generally. But he noticed that Katniss tried to delay the beginning of his work.

He wanted to tell her something about himself because he feared that his injuries could put her off. He didn't want her to think that he had always been like he was now - a sick burden.

“I can work hard, you know. I can carry heavy things. There are surely heavy things you would like me to move. And I can read and write. My father taught me and I practiced.”

Once he started to tell her about his strength and capabilities he could hardly be interrupted. So great was his desire to prove his usefulness. If Katniss hadn't stopped him from showing her his strength by asking him to show his penmanship and reading skills, he would have started to prong the vegetable garden. Okay, truth be told the garden needed to be pronged. But not yet and not by an injured man.

Katniss asked him to work with her on her order books and the journal. The next hour they both sat eagerly in the afternoon sun and Peeta learned that Katniss wrote almost everything in her large journal. Every little thing she bought, everything she sold. He could see that she had notated how many days after the spring melt the dandelions began to bloom. And which flowers, herbs or trees followed with the blooming period. Peeta learned that they had to be prepared for everything, like for the farmer's requests to bring the beehives into their fruit gardens so that the bees could pollinate the apple, pear, cherry or plum blossoms. Peeta learned that Katniss notated how much mead she could produce from one jar of honey and which honey would be better, clove honey or dandelion honey. He was in awe of her work and he told her so. He laughed when she described how she fended of the attempts of the town’s youth to steal mead. And he made Katniss happy when he told her about his wish to learn everything. He showed so much genuine interest in her work because he just knew that he would love working with her.

From reading the journal and order books they moved on to taking a tour of the cottage with Mrs. Everdeen's apothecary, the gardens, herbs, flowers and vegetable gardens. They toured Lady’s barn and the chicken pen. Finally, they decided that right now would be a good time to bring Lady to the goat man. Breeding the goat was very important in the Everdeen household. When they left their enclose, Lady safely secured with a hemp rope, they left not as two people who had met this morning for the first time. They left as friends.

To be continued ...

Chapter Text

The bond


~~~

prompt #50: “Oh god, I need a drink” from @thelettersfromnoone

The first evening of Peeta's stay in the Capitol started like any other day. No dawdlers swept onto the property, eager to get married to one of the Everdeen women, and race round, grazing Lady in the process.

No teenagers tripped over their rolled-up pant legs while trying to act grown up and authoritarian. Only Katniss and Peeta waited for Prim and Mrs. Everdeen. It was close to idyllic.

“Do you want to rest till the others come and we make dinner?” Katniss remembered for the first time that Peeta was injured and she hoped that some of his wound hadn't opened again.

Peeta looked at her in awe. “You are so nice to me. I should work to help you. Maybe I can start dinner. Please tell me what your former servants did and I’ll do it.”

Katniss shook her head in bewilderment. “I don't understand. Former servants. We didn't employ servants.”

Peeta looked impressed. “So you did all the work by yourselves and I'm the first servant you hired?”

“You are not a servant to us! One year and one day – to my father that meant to offer someone in need shelter, work anda place in our family. Peeta, when we clasped hands this morning, I welcomed you in our family. You're not a servant, you're family. That is a lot more. We protect each other. We are loyal to each other. We work together. Isn't this what you wanted?”

“You mean I become a part of your family? You will allow” Peeta sounded doubtfully.

“I allow it.” Katniss took his shaking hand. “Why do you you have faith in us?”

“Because where I come from I had no faith. It is something I couldn't allow myself. And neither did I had a real family before. Not the way you described it.” Peeta's hand stopped trembling under Katniss hold. “I'll need time to believe that this is for real. That I’m not dreaming. Need time to understand why you are so nice to me?”

“It is real. You will see. When I saw you in the meadow - you looked so much like Prim or my mom. In our family it is tradition to help people who need shelter and work. My mother is from Seam too. When she came to the Capitol, my father met her for the first time standing in the town square, asking for work and shelter too. One year and one day – to my, it father means work, shelter and protection. Who else offers this than a family? My father was used to trust in his gut instinct and taught me the same. And his gut instinct told him to offer her what she needed. And so he did. They fell in love later. My mother told me that one day, after a couple of months, she heard him singing in our garden while he waddled the beehives. At that moment she was a goner. All the birds fell silent when he sang because of his beautiful voice. You won't believe it but she had to court him because he wouldn't believe that this beautiful woman had fallen in love with him.” Katniss smiled remembering the tale.

“And then they married?” Peeta inquired.

“And then they married. It was a small wedding because of the age gap. My father was 15 years older and he was afraid that people would make fun of them. Haymitch was the witness for my father and Hazelle, you haven’t met her, was the witness for my mother.” Katniss sighed. “But I don’t want to speak about my father now. The anguish is still too great. Let us speak about something that lifts our spirit.”

Peeta nodded, “As you wish. I don't want to speak about my life neither. Not now. What do you want to talk about?”

Katniss pulled him to the storeroom. “Let us speak about food. I'm hungry. Let us start dinner?”

Peeta laughed. “Of course. How about I bake some bread?”

“You can bake? That is so wonderful. I love baked goods. Can you make flat bread for dinner?” Katniss pulled Peeta with her and looked for the ingredients she knew would be needed.

“If I have the right ingredients I can bake thing. What do you have?” Peeta pulled a bag of flour forward and carried it into the kitchen while Katniss looked amazed. The bag weighed at least half a hundredweight. Usually, the Everdeen's poured the flour they needed into a bowl because the bag was so heavy. But Peeta carried it like it weighed only a few pounds.

She hurried after him “Please be careful you don't hurt yourself.”

Peeta laughed happily, “Don't be afraid. I won’t. I'm used to it. It will be so more fun to bake for you and your family than to bake for the masters of the Seam.”

“For us, Peeta, you will bake for our family. You, my mother, Prim and I. So what kind of baked goods can we make together. I want to help too.” Katniss eagerly grabbed two aprons and handed Peeta one.

~~~

When Prim came home with news about the caravan generally and about Annie and the other minstrels in particular, she was surprised to see Katniss and Peeta making a modest dinner for the family. Prim shared the news about Annie with Katniss and Peeta. “Annie is so happy that they made it, you know. She brought other minstrels and bandsmen with her. They travel together. She found a partner while she was in District Four, a minstrel like her. His name is Finnick and he looks at her like she is the moon and the sun.” Prim sighed and, to Prim’s surprise, Katniss did, too. “She asked how you were and if you were in a relationship now. I told her you weren’t.”

Katniss, who cut the vegetable and greens on a chopping board and put them in a bowl together with herbs, oil, salt and vinegar, sighed again. “Prim, you shouldn't speak to others about my non-existent love live. Not even to Annie. It makes me feel odd.”

Prim poured the stirred eggs with the sizzling bacon in the copper pan and made a large omelet for them all. “You don't need to feel odd because you don't want to trifle with boys you don't particularly like ,” Prim said playfully. “That you don't find the one until now doesn’t mean you have to spend your life as a spinster.” Katniss choose this moment to throw a piece of chopped carrot at Prim, who laughing, caught it and put it into her mouth.

~~~

Peeta paused in the process of baking the flat bread on a special flat stone on the hearth just as he’d done his whole life. He listened closely, memorizing this particular piece of information about Katniss for future use. He resumed baking and put the finished bread on a special plate.

When everything was ready, the door opened and Mrs. Everdeen came home. She was excited after an afternoon with Paylor, where she surprisingly became part of a group who searched for rooms or houses where the traveling salesmen could live during their stay.

Blushing and heated from a fast walk through the town she announced that the early evening was far too beautiful to dine in the kitchen. She put the plates, mugs and the jar of water on a tray and brought everything outside to the table where Katniss and Peeta had spent a good part of the afternoon. Her daughters and Peeta followed with the bowls and pan.

The Everdeen woman were amazed how good the flat bread tasted and they all decided that from now on they wanted to bake more. Peeta spend a good amount of time making suggestions that made the women hungry just from listening to his offers.

After they satisfied their hunger, Prim told them about her visit at the caravans camp outside of the town wall. “There are so many merchants who haven't been in the Capitol before. They heard about Snow’s death and decided to come and offer their wares. But before reaching the Capitol, they became the victims of bandits. Some had to fight for their life, without really knowing how to. It was pure luck, that many of the minstrels and bandmen were with the caravan. They knew how to fight and helped the merchants. But you should see the wagons and tents. They can't stay in them. Some were burned. Some wagons are damaged so badly they need time to repair them and in the meantime they need houses or rooms to store there wares and to sleep.”

Katniss stopped nibbling at a crust of the bread. “And Annie fought among the minstrel?”

Prim laughed, “You can bet she did. Want to continue your lessons in hand to hand combat with her or did you already find another teacher to wrestle with?” Prim teased, but when she saw Katniss blushing, she felt merciful. “Sorry, sister. Yes, Annie fought among the travelers. Annie told us how she had been the one who warned everyone the night of the attack because she had left the wagon and seen the attackers. Because of her, nobody died. She asked us to meet at Haymitch's this evening. She too, has no idea where to stay since a lot changed during the last year. The large building where she used to live , you know the one near the harbor, is now used for storage.”

“That won't be a problem for too long.” Alyson interjected with a smile. She felt better now, refreshed and sated. “Paylor and I decided to offer the minstrel and bandsmen the house where Claudius Templesmith once ran a bordello. You know, the red one near the bathhouse.”

Peeta looked dumbstruck. Katniss coughed uncontrollably and Prim sniggered into her hand.

Alyson looked around. “Please, you don't really believe that I didn't know what kind of occupation these ladies had? I’m the one who treated them! And Claudius, I beg your pardon. Have you ever seen someone who looked more like a 'madam of a bordello'? The stories he told me about some of his customers were unbelievable. There was one about this guy with the funny beard, who had a thing for being nursed. So they had to buy a goat, mik it, pour the milk in some kind of waistcoat with a pair of 'you know'.” Alyson motioned to her bosom. “And then, one of Claudius ladies had to wear the waistcoat while beard guy nursed.”

Alyson turned to Peeta, who looked thunderstruck, “That is mad, isn’t it Peeta?” Peeta nodded tentatively and lowered his crimson face towards his bowl.

Katniss, who was blushing too, looked bewildered and reached for the jar of water, emptied the contents into her mug, drank and declared “Oh god, I need a drink! Some things I don't need to know.”

Alyson laughed, “Me too, my dear, me too. Not the knowing part, but the drink.” She looked at Prim and Peeta. “What about you two? Shall we clear the table and celebrate Peeta's debut and the return of good friends? I asked Haymitch to save a table. It will be crowded this evening with all the thirsty travelers in town. Haymitch owns me for the liver remedy I mixed him yesterday. So we will have the best seats – together with Annie of course.”

Peeta shook his head like he couldn't believe what he heard. “I don't know what to say. You want me to accompany you? To celebrate with you?”

Katniss became serious. “Of course, we can't celebrate your debut in our family without you. Where would the fun be in that? I need to introduce you to Annie and to Haymitch and to everyone else. And I'm telling you, if you found my singing voice beautiful this afternoon – and thank you for the compliment – you should hear Annie. Maybe this evening, Annie will sing for us.”

Peeta beamed. “You want me to meet your friends? And will you sing too?”

Katniss smiled. “Maybe. That depends ...”

Prim looked curious. “Depends on what exactly?”

“It depends on who asks and on the drink I have before my stage-fright can take over.” Katniss laughed.

“Why do you need a drink? You have such a beautiful voice!” Peeta looked at her disbelievingly. He remembered her lullaby and couldn’t understand that Katniss was too nervous to sing in public.

Katniss smiled. “Thank you. It’s different if I sing at home, at work or in public. I don’t want to be laughed at.”

“I can understand. It hurts when people are mean.” Peeta sighed and look at his hands folded in his lap.

Katniss gazed at him. It seemed like he knew very well this feeling he spoke of. “I’ll never let someone be mean to you. Let’s make a bond to take care of each other.” She offered him her hand.

Peeta lifted his eyes and took her small hand in his much larger one. Her hand may be small and soft on the backside, but was strong nonetheless. “I’m in”

To be continued …

Chapter Text

~~~

The Everdeen's needed a little more than an hour before they set out for Haymitch's Tavern because Alyson had to search in her late husband’s trunk for more suitable clothes and boots for Peeta. Something soft and comfortable but respectable. Katniss asked to be involved in this task, which was completely uncharacteristically for her.

“Mom, what do you know about Peeta's family?” Katniss inquired while they made two piles of clothes, one pile of clothes Peeta could wear now with his wounded back and one pile with the clothes he could wear later after his wounds had healed.

Alyson showed Katniss a undershirt made from the softest muslin and Katniss nodded. “Well,” Alyson sighed, “I knew Peeta's father when I was a child. We played together when we finished our daily chores. We thought that when he and I grew up, we would marry.”

Katniss made an disbelieving sound and Alyson shook her head and continued. “But later, after my father died and I was forced to work in the household of Cray, Gus married another girl, one his mother had picked out for him. Gus has been a good boy and I believe that he has grown into a good man. I can't believe that he had anything to do with the things that were done to Peeta. Katniss I want you and Prim to understand that even when I wouldn’t be part of our family tradition to take refugees from the Seam in - I would do it in remembrance to a boy I once liked very much.”

“Mom, what do you think happened to him? Do you think it is the same that happened to you?” Katniss gathered the selected clothes and folded them carefully on her lap, even though Peeta would put them on in a couple of minutes. Allyson had hand-sewn the clothes herself for Katniss’s father.

Alyson took a seat beside her daughter and put her arm around Katniss shoulders. “Katniss, it is not my story to tell. But believe me, what ever happened to him, we have to take care that it doesn’t happen again. Never. This is something your father told me after he found me. Alone, with torn clothes and bruises on the marketplace. He promised to me – Never again. I believed him and started to live for real. His gentle nature and wonderful character helped me to become the woman I am now. He helped me to find my own way.”

Katniss sighed, nodded to her mother words and returned the hug. “That is Papa like I remember him. I'll miss him every day. You are right about Peeta - I'll wait. Maybe one day he'll tell me. Till then, I'll protect him. Like papa protected you.”

Alyson kissed her daughter's forehead. “That you will. And we, Prim and I will help. But know we go and see how handsome Peeta will look when he wears nice clothes.”

~~~

They both gently shoved Peeta back into his room to get dressed while Katniss rushed into the room she shared with Prim to change into something fitting. “I can't look like a vagabond when Peeta has his first appearance in our community.” Katniss explained over her shoulder.

Prim shrugged and followed her sister. “I'm helping you. After all, I want a drink too. Preferably soon. And anyway,you have no idea how to dress stylishly. You’ve never done it before.”

~~~

Alyson was the first to be ready and waiting for her family. She wore an long overdress out of amber velvet over a shift made from cream colored muslin. Her hair was braided to a chaplet. She wore a belt low on her hips with a small bag of coins and held three similar bags in her hands.

The dark blue velvet tunic Prim wore almost reached her knees. She chose to wear a light blue muslin tunic and dark blue stockings underneath. Peeta’s tunic was amber and shorter and he didn’t wear it over a muslin tunic but a dark-brown undershirt and stockings of the same color. Both wore soft suede boots laced up to her calves. Prim’s hair was braided in a crown around her head while Peeta wore an amber velvet beret.

When Katniss emerged from her room, Peeta's mouth fell open and he inhaled sharply. Katniss wore an outfit similar to Prim's, but her tunic was dark green, embroidered with little amber bees. Her muslin tunic and stockings were cream colored. The wide, dark green boots with folded cuffs made of the finest suede reached her calves and accentuated her shapely legs. She wore her hair again in a side-braid and a dark green velvet beret like Peeta.

Peeta had trouble speaking and this reaction caused caused Alyson to smile mischievously. “Well, one thing is for sure. I will have to chase away the suitors for you three, both men and women alike.”

All three of them had low riding belts around their hips and Alyson gave each one a small bag and explained to Peeta. “Fasten it securely so no pickpocket can steal it. This is not for the drinks or the food, because I'll pay for that. The coins are to tip the singers or artists. They only get a small fee from Haymitch. But everyone in the audience gives them exactly one coin if they enjoy themselves. On good nights, an artist can earn more money than he can make in one week in the salt garden on the coast.”

She laced her arm through Prim's, opening the door and left with Katniss and Peeta following behind.

“You don't need to be nervous.” Katniss nudged Peeta's arm softly. “I'm with you – remember our vow. If you feel overwhelmed, feel free to take my hand anytime you like.”

She felt his large hand slip into her smaller one and added. “I won't let you down. We want to show everyone that you are a part of our family now.”

Katniss felt a protectiveness well up in her that she only knew from people she had know all her life. How was it possible that she felt it fro Peeta, a boy she barely knew? She gazed at Peeta and saw his face. Gaunt and bruised, but hopefully looking at her while he blushed and nodded. He seemed so eager to show her that the trust she put in him was justified. So she decided to lighten the mood and joked, “Believe me, the food and the artists are worth it.”

Peeta nodded, “I just a little bit nervous. I’ve never been in a tavern before. Never wore such fine clothes.” He pointed to his tunic and boots.

Katniss laughed. “I have to admit, your look handsome. The color of your clothes suits you.”

“And you look stunning.” Peeta blushed. “Are those bees embroidered on your tunic?”

Katniss looked down and smiled. “Yes, they are. My mother made my clothes herself. I got them as a present to my 15th birthday.”

“You’re mother embroidered all these little bees into the tunic? She must love you and your sister so much.” Peeta looked closer at Katniss clothes. “Your clothes look as if you haven’t worn them often. When was your 15th birthday?”

Katniss laughed, “It was the year before last on May the 8th. That is my birthday.”

Prim turned around “Peeta, you can feel honored. The last boy who asked her about her birthday was Darius from the towns guard and she told him that this question was to personal.”

Katniss explained with a small smile on her face, “He was noisy. If I had answered his question he had asked more and more. In the end he could have asked what my favorite color is. And that definitely too personal.”

Peeta smiled too, “And what color is it?”

Katniss looked down at her clothes and blushed. “Green, like the woods. And yours?”

Peeta pointed to the setting sun. “Orange, like the sunset. But I love the green of your tunic too. And the amber of the bees and of my clothes.”

They both didn’t notice that they still walked hand in hand while they continued to talk.

~~~

When they arrived at the tavern, they were a sight to behold. A couple of citizens who waited outside turned their heads and nodded approvingly. Alyson opened the door and stepped into a large room. Most of the tables were taken. The left wall held a large, open fireplace with a curious framework build in and a large cauldron fastened inside the structure. Beside the fireplace was a table with bowls, cutlery, and an armchair occupied by small, older women who knitted.

Peeta looked around the crowded room and waited a second to take it all in while Katniss waited patiently. “I didn’t know a tavern is so,“ he searched for the right word. “Large?” Katniss suggested. “Dark, smelly,crowded?”

He smiled, “I think all four word fit perfectly, thank you. And you come here regularly?”

Now it was on Katniss to grin. “I only come for the refreshments and the music. I haven't been here in the last month. Without music, where is the fun in it?”

Diagonally the fireplace-wall was a wall with a counter build in. An assortment of kegs, crock pots and goblets littered it. In front of the counter stood Haymitch, who waved them over.

“Took you long enough. I don't know how much longer I would have been able to keep the town 'VIPs' away.” Haymitch air-quoted. “Two of them took a seat and insisted that these places were for Paylor and them.”

Alyson laughed, “Well that is good to know. Lead the way, because this is the table I will sit at with my family.” She motioned for her company to follow.

Katniss noticed Peeta's grip, which he hadn't loosened once, got clammy. “You don't need to be afraid” she smiled to him. “Mom knows exactly what she is doing. You’re safe. Come with me and enjoy the evening.”

“But Katniss I’m not ‘VIP’ whatever that is. I’m just Peeta from the Seam. What if someone comes, sees me and decides that I’m not allowed to visit the tavern. What if you and your family get into trouble because of me?” Peeta was hesitant to sit in a place that wasn’t for him. What would happen when someone came and pulled him away from Katniss? When they ripped the new clothes?

“VIP means very important person. And neither I am a VIP nor are these women who sit there. They may believe it, but this times are over.” Katniss pulled him forward. “All the real ‘VIP’ we had died some time ago. The times have changed. There are not ‘VIP’ anymore and the earlier some people learn this, the better for us all. You will see the friends we meet are nice.”

They seated themselves at the table to the flabbergasted looks from no less than Venia, the copper-smith's widow and Marvel’s mother. She was accompanied by a young women who introduced herself as Glimmer and claimed to be a jeweler’s widow from District One. This woman wore very expensive looking clothes, had her golden hair braided like a crown and wore several rings and a necklace.

Alyson introduced her family and Venia looked crestfallen when Alyson mentioned that Paylor wanted to meet the newest member of their household, Peeta this evening to welcome him into town. Then she engaged Glimmer in a chat. Glimmer was more than willing to tell everyone about herself. Prim listened closely too. She made 'ohs' and 'ahs' at all the right passages of the tale, but winked conspiratorially at Katniss and Peeta. Katniss had to stifle a laugh.

Katniss turned her head to Peeta . “This will go on and on till my mother knows everything about Glitter or Glimmer and her life. She might be able to get important information out of gossip and self-importance – I'm not. I bore easily. But there is one thing you should know. Venia is Marvel’s mother. That is the boy who tried to act as a town guard this afternoon. And my mother is not the women to forget when someone does something like that.” Katniss explained quietly to Peeta. “What do you say, shall we go and get us drinks and look into Greasy Sae's cauldron?”

When Peeta nodded Katniss pulled him up and lead him to Haymitch to fetch something to drink. “So what do you want. He has ale, cider, a selection of different kinds of wine and strong stuff like white liquor or rum.”

“I'm not sure. I have never drank anything else but water or today tea.” Peeta watched when Haymitch filled a goblet with a sweet-smelling golden liquid that looked almost like honey. “What is this?”

Katniss laughed, “This is mead blended with spring water. Haymitch coaxed me to sell him some jars and especially the women like it very much. It is not so strong like the pure mead. Do you want to share a goblet with me?”

Peeta nodded and they took their goblet and made their way over to Greasy Sae.

“Why do you call her Greasy Sae?” Peeta inquired as they dodged the other patrons who arrived and walked around, looking for a free seat on one of the benches.

“Before Snow and most of Capitol’s adult men died at sea, this tavern was visited mostly by men. They didn't want to eat stew or soup, they wanted to eat roasted meat every evening. Where now there is a cauldron, Greasy Sae had to roast a pig or a calf, goose or chickens. Everything was greasy and the sizzling meat made Sae greasy too. Later the patrons changed. Now a lot of women come and have a drink and something to eat. They don't want to eat so much roasted meat. Greasy Sae is happy. Her job is a lot cleaner, the food varies and she can spend the evening ladling out her stew or soup and knit. But the name stayed.”

They reached the fireplace and Peeta offered the old woman his hand and a charming smile. “Good evening Mrs. Sae, I'm Peeta Mellark, at your service.”

Greasy Sae looked first bewildered but then took his hand, shook it and smiled a toothless smile. “Are you my dear? That is good to know. So you are the one who will stay at least one year and one day in the Everdeen household. Let me have a look at you.”

She motioned for Peeta to bent forward so that she didn't have to look up. “You have an honest face, if I'm allowed to point this out. Nice features, too. Let me see your hands.”

She turned Peeta's right hand and looked at his palm and fingers. “Strong, capable hand too. I think it will be good for our town when you stay. And for Katniss, you will be a blessing.”

Greasy Sae looked at the blushing women beside Peeta. “Keep him and treat him right, will you? This one is a good man.” Sae shook Peeta's hand again, encasing his with both of hers and motioned for them to make place for the next costumer. “Come on, come on. The stew is ready. Today its lamb-stew with plums. You'll fill your bowl alone, will you? Let an old woman have some rest.” Sae winked at Katniss who grinned into the goblet. “And you my dears, go on and fill a bowl for you two to share. I know that you love my lamb-stew, darling.”

Katniss did as she was told and showed the bowl to Peeta. “I think you just have made a very good friend. Sae is not used to being treated with respect. And you did.”

Peeta shrugged. “She looks like someone I can relate to. And if I’m right, she’s someone I would like to know better. The stew smell amazing. And if it’s your favorite, maybe I could learn how to cook it for you and your family.”

“That would be wonderful. Prim and my mother are the ones who cook in our family and they often are called away to work as healer. Nobody likes to eat my bowl of greens every day.”

When they returned to their table with the drink and the stew, they saw that other seats were indeed taken by a dark-skinned woman named Mayor Paylor Next to her was the master of the town guard, Johanna, a redheaded woman who introduced herself to Peeta as Annie and her partner, Finnick, the handsomest man she’d ever seen. .

Katniss and Peeta took two empty seats, placed their drink and food on the table Katniss introduced Peeta to everyone, who responded with his impeccable manners.

Mayor Paylor looked interested at Peeta. “So, you are the young man Alyson spoke about this afternoon. I would like to meet you again, later this week maybe. Let's say Saturday morning in my house, shall we? I have never been in the Seam. Maybe you can tell me something I want to know.” She looked at the clasped hands of Katniss and Peeta and at Peeta's pale face. “And maybe can Katniss accompany you. I assure you, I just want to get to know you. After all, you are the first one who has come to our town from the Seam for a long time.”

Peeta looked at Katniss for confirmation before agreeing. When everyone turned their attention to Annie and Finnick, Peeta took a deep breath and glanced at Katniss. She pushed the goblet towards him, which he took a healthy swallow from.

Katniss laughed “It will take some time for you to get used to us but I'm at your side, step by step, I won't leave you. Now you'll have to taste Sae's famous lamb-stew and tell me what you think.”

While Peeta took the offered bowl and spoon and devoured the dish, Haymitch came to Annie and whispered in her ear. Annie laughed and offered the others an explanation “Haymitch wants me start this evening with earning my money. You are lucky that I said yes, because I really have to share a song with you all and brought not only my own guitar-player with me but a couple of other minstrels too.”

She motioned to Finnick, who went to a wall where his instrument, encased in a leather sheath, awaited. Annie waved to a another table where there sat a tall woman with wavy blond hair and a man with his light brown hair braided at the nape of his neck. Both went with Annie to a square platform that served as a stage near where Haymitch watched over his goods.

Finnick sat on a high stool and strummed his guitar. The other two minstrel took their places on either side of Finnick while Annie stood in front of them.

Haymitch made an attempt to get the patrons to become quite, but Annie's presence alone did the job. The crowd fell silent, looking to the small woman as if she had all the answers to their questions – and maybe she did.

“Hello, Citizens of Capitol, I can't tell you how happy we are to be here with you. And are you happy to have us back too?” Annie smiled when the audience exploded in clapping.

“I so want to introduce my companions. On the guitar is Finnick.” Annie waited while Finnick played a short melody.

“Madge iis able to handle the flute and the fiddle, which itself is amazing. Truth be told, she can learn a new instrument in a fortnight. She did it while we were travelling . She is a natural.”

Madge laughed and blushed at once. She set the fiddle under her chin and began to play a fast little melody so catching that many in the audience clapped and stamped their feet. Madge finished and waved to them with her fiddle-stick.

Annie laughed too. “And last but not least, I’d like to introduce Pollux. He is our percussion wonder and plays a lot of other instruments too. Pollux, dear, show us what rhythm is.”

Pollux took a tambourine in his left hand and started a fast cadence, prompting everyone to to pound on the tabletops. Pollux finished with shaking the cymbals over his head. Then he bowed, with his right hand on his heart.

Annie nodded to her bandsmen, who played a fast and catching tune and Annie left her place and waved her way through the audience while she sang with a sweet voice.

While in the streets of all our fears
They reign supreme as orders go
They are the last to have their say
And last to know it doesn't matter how you try
It doesn't matter what you say
They always watch with hollow eyes
To put you down they always find a way to criticize

The vultures fly high
They circle over us all
The vultures fly high
I'll take your hand if you fall

She emphasized her words with gestures and movements of her body. Everyone was enthralled.

All those who sheltered in their smile
Are scattered here from yesterday
And if the weak are left behind
They have to pay, and though you haven't much to give
You know they take it - yours and mine
Sometimes it looks as though we lose
But then in time the finger points at them
The next in line

The patrons listened and nodded in approval. This was not a love song but something they could identify with, having lived for a long time under Snow’s regime. And even today, more than a year after his defeat, some old-timers tried to bring those old times back to life again.

The vultures fly high
They circle over us all
The lonely sigh
I'll take your hand if you fall
The vultures fly high
They circle over us all
The lonely sigh
I'll take your hand if you fall
The vultures fly high
They circle over us all
The lonely sigh
I'll take your hand if you fall

After the last cords died away, the audience clapped enthusiastically. Some stood up from their warm benches and called 'da capo' but Haymitch intervened.

“Good people, let them rest. They have been on the road to Capitol for weeks. They’ve graciously agreed to sing one song today.” He motioned to a exotic looking woman on one of the benches in front. “And no, Tigris, they won’t take bribes, even if they are your wares. They will come back the day after tomorrow. In the meantime show your respect by filling their berets with coin.”

Haymitch motioned for the four minstrel to move between the crowds with their caps in hand. Every patron added a coin, taking the opportunity to tell them how much they enjoyed the music.

When Annie and Finnick came back, followed by Madge and Pollux, they showed their overflowing berets. There were now two empty seats at the table because Venia and Glimmer had left during the song in a huff. When Annie heard that she laughed “Did it have anything to do with my choice of song? I'm sure Venia couldn't be happy about it – that old gossip. I can't remember how many women had to suffer under the bad things she told about them.”

Johanna, who had been silent and relaxed during the evening, leaned back and looked pensive. “Maybe or maybe not. The song was the eye opener a lot of these old gossips needed. But I just had a short heart to heart with Marvel's mom and told her what I thought about the stunt he pulled today. I shared with her my belief that there is nothing better than a couple of weeks out in the wilderness with one of my patrols. The nights spent with three farting trackers in a tent are all that are needed to show him how important he really is. I offered to help with his education if she wasn't woman enough to do the job. I think she found the part when I described the fun of pulling a tracker jacker stinger out of your infected neck to be not so funny.”

Katniss looked aghast. “You didn't?”

Johanna bent forward. “Of course I did. Do you have any idea what can happen when every fool pilfers an uniform, puts them on and acts like they are guard?”

“But he is a boy. And a rather daft one too.” Katniss' anger had vaporized during the afternoon.

Johanna shook her head. “I know. But consider these, someone in our town sees a guard in times of dire need, believes they will render help and instead meets a dumbass who don't know a thing about being a town guard. It would be worse than not having a guard at all. Imagine an attack, a fire, an accident? When you see sworn town guards, you trust in their authority and code of conduct. Marvel has no proper training, he can't use a sword. He is not an archer nor a sentinel. He obviously knows nothing about proper behavior. And his mother is dumb as dirt, too. When I spoke with her this afternoon, she thought I should offer him a position in the guard without training because, I quote 'He knows how to follow orders.'”

Johanna shook her head again and took a healthy swig from her own crock. “I asked, orders from whom? And this idiot of a woman answered and I quote again 'From a trustworthy source.' 'A trustworthy source', goodness gracious, I asked her if she meant Cato and she said yes. I tell you, she is dumb as dirt. So I told her if she is so eager to see her son in the town guard, I can sent for him tomorrow. He will spent the next fortnight in a training course and learn how to become a guard. This afternoon she acted like I finally would do the right thing. All high and mighty.”

Johanna pulled her crock of ale to her and took another deep gulp. “So I decided this evening, I would tell her a little bit about the recruiting camp her son will have his training in. He will start tomorrow at sunup.”

Katniss looked at Peeta who had listened eagerly. He looked less nervous now. “Are you interested to visit Johanna and see the towns guard in training? I’ll go there every now and then because I train there sometimes with Annie or Johanna.”

Peeta nodded, “I would love to see your training. Maybe later, when I’m healed and allowed too I could learn some of those wrestle moves Prim spoke about. Then I could learn to protect myself and our family.”

“Our family, that sounds good when you say it. Do you noticed that you mentioned us four as a family for the first time?” Katniss beamed at him.

“Really?” Peeta smiled, “That is good, isn’t it? And I don’t feel so nervous anymore. Maybe because this evening, nothing bad has happened. All people were nice like you said. But I really want to go home soon. And tomorrow I can start to work for real.”

Katniss looked at her mother and Prim and noticed that they too looked like they had enough. “Shall we go home?” When both nodded they said their goodbyes to their friends and left the tavern.

‘Home’, Peeta thought for the first time in his life, ‘such a wonderful word.’

To be continued

Chapter Text

~~~

When Peeta went to bed, his brain tried to process everything that happened yesterday. It had been so much. So many images came back. Katniss sitting beside him in the meadow, offering him her help. A man running out of the garden with Prim on his heels. He smiled at this two images. These were strong and friendly women. Even after Prim told Cato off she was not cruel, just annoyed. And how quickly her mood changed from a welcoming one against him.

And Mrs. Everdeen, who had acted more than a mother than everyone else he had ever known. He felt instantly drawn to her motherliness, probably because his own mother had never had a good word or a gentle hand for him.

Peeta decided that he didn't want to think about his life today and let the image of Katniss and her books come to the fore. How she looked in the sun. How she smelled of honey and honeysuckle. He remembered the touch of her hand, so small, yet so strong, soft on the back of her hand but with callouses in all they right places of her palm. Hands that knew hard word and gentle touches. He remembered the way she had lead him into town to the tavern. The way she showed no signs of discomfort to be seen with him by her friends or the other citizens. He bathed in the memory of feeling part of the Everdeen family and with this emotion he was able to fall into a deep undisturbed sleep.

~~~

The next morning Peeta woke up refreshed. He couldn't remember the last time he had slept so good. It was still early - but would the sun would rise soon. He dressed in the clothes Mrs. Everdeen gave him yesterday after his bath and left his room for a stroll to the outhouse and to have a wash.

After he had taken care of his business, he went back into the house to help with the morning chores. He had no idea what his duties in the household were, because no one had told him yet. But he couldn’t go wrong making a fire to make tea and porridge. When he entered the kitchen he was greeted not only by one but all Everdeen women.

They moved around each other effortlessly while preparing breakfast and after he asked what he could do, they integrated him into the tasks.

A short while later they all took their seats around the table, pouring tea into mugs, ladling porridge into bowls, added piece of apples or dried fruit, a spoonful of honey. All in all, they had a wonderful breakfast.

Peeta again thought he must have gone to heaven. When he thought about his 'breakfast' the years before. Pieces of stale bread, found on the stone floor of the common room of Cray's residence after the master and his allegiance had finished their meal and left for their dark doings. Peeta shuddered and reached out for his mug. He didn't want his memory to take over, so he looked at Mrs. Everdeen. “I really want to start with my work today. I can understand if you thought yesterday that I'm not ready. But I'm strong and can do a lot. So please, Mrs. Everdeen, tell me what I should do. I can make a list so I don't forget anything.” He pulled a sheet of paper and a little piece of charcoal out of his blouse and put it on the table beside his bowl, ready to make notes.

Alyson gave him a motherly smile and put her hand on his “First of all, Peeta, we start with you calling me Alyson. We will work together a lot. I will really need your assistance often. And I'm really happy that you are now a part of our family. So I feel odd, when you call me by my surname. Can you do this for me?”

Peeta blushed. “Of course, if you feel more comfortable when I call you Alyson, than I will.” He took a deep breath, wet his lips and continued. “So Alyson, what shall I do?”

“Well,” Alyson smiled at him and then gazed at Katniss, “Katniss, Prim and I decided that you will start with Katniss showing you her beekeeping today. ”

“That means,” Katniss took over, “that we will take our lunch with us and then go to the meadow. But first we have to look in our trunks for more clothes. You need something to change into when we work because the clothes can get real filthy.”

“Already done,” Prim piped up over a spoonful of porridge, “I put a stack of the clothes you sorted out yesterday, on the clothesline. They smell fresh now. And a pair of peasant's boots are outside too. If the boots last night fitted, these will fit too.”

Peeta looked surprised - more clothes? He had thought that the ones he got had been loaned to him. But now it seems as if he would get more, and boots too. He couldn’t be more happy and smiled shyly at Prim. “If you sure. The boots and the clothes yesterday are wonderful, thank you. I take good care of them.”

~~~

After Peeta brought all the clothes and boots back into his room and hung them on the hooks, he was amazed about the sheer amount of them. He had more clothes now than he had ever seen and they were all of good quality. He looked for something to work in and put it on. Then he went outside to meet Katniss. She, too, had changed into clothes similar to his. She stood beside a handcart with a wicker basket covered with cloth.

She smiled at him “Shall we go? The day is young and the bees are surely already active. Time for us to join the fun.” They made their way out of the garden gate, closing it behind them to make sure that the grazing goat wouldn't run away, and walked down the path to the meadow. “What do you know about bees? Or, wait, what did you remember from yesterday?” Katniss asked Peeta while they made their way down the path to the meadow.

“I remember everything. Bees make honey and it’s not easy to harvest it because bees can sting.” Peeta thought about yesterday afternoon and Katniss’ books. “They are responsible for apple-trees getting apples even though I don't understand how exactly this works.”

Katniss piped up “I'll show you later because you must know it.”

“And you told me yesterday that they make different kinds of honey depends on the flowers or blossoms. You can make mead out of honey and sell some of it to the taverns owner, Haymitch, but give most of it to your mother.” Peeta smiled proudly that her remembered all these things. But there was something he didn’t understand. “By the way why don't you make more and sell more to Haymitch. The drink yesterday was delicious and a lot of patrons bought it.” Peeta looked inquiringly.

“If I sell him more at once, Haymitch would start to sell it pure. I know him. He is a nice man, but has a problem with alcohol. My mead is potent stuff. All the youngsters who succeed in stealing a jar get very drunk. When you water the mead down like we consumed it yesterday, it’s still tasty but you don't get drunk so easily. So I sell him only a couple of jars in the month for a nice sum, he waters it down because he wants it to last and it earns him some coin.” Katniss shrugged. “Everyone things, that I can only make this amount and I don't tell them otherwise because I think that the honey my bees produce is more worth than getting people into a stupor.”

Peeta laughed, “So he tries to make the mead last by watering it down, because otherwise, he’d have to wait for the next month and won’t have any mead left to sell.”

“Sums it up nicely. But it works. The other stuff he offers doesn’t sell as good as the mead-drink and his wine is stretched with water, too. I don't know if anybody knows. But I do. If he sold the wine pure, my mom and Prim would have a lot to more drunken citizens and the outcome of their behavior to deal with.”

Peeta nodded, “You don't need to tell me. I learned that the hard way.”

Katniss looked at him inquiringly. “Do you have problems with drinks too?”

“God no, no” Peeta eagerly denied. “I’ve had problems with drunkards more than once.”

Katniss looked at his unhappy face and chose to change the topic. “So, back to our bees, what is it you want to learn today?”

Peeta beamed at her. “Everything you didn't tell me yesterday.”

Katniss laughed at his eagerness.

~~~

After Katniss showed him the sheds and the beehives, she asked him to put on a special hat. It was wide with muslin hanging down to his waist like a sheer curtain. She dressed similarly but put on a long-coat of thick canvas and gloves from the same material.

“In spring,” Katniss explained, “my bees are very active. Most of the winter, they lived off the honey and I try to take care that they have enough. When spring comes, they are like young foal. They rush out in the quest to gather as much nectar and pollen as possible. They have special bees who fly out, look for blossoms and fly back and 'tell' the other bees what they found. They are very eager and I don't want to get stung because they don't recognize me or feel threatened by me. Bees are highly protective of their colony. If they think that I am a danger they will swarm out and sting me, losing their stingers and dying in the process. Our skin is so thick that when they pull the sting out, they wound themselves severely.”

Peeta listened in awe. “Is that the reason you sing to them. So that they can recognize you and know it’s you and not a stranger?”

Katniss nodded. “It is. By the way, no one else but my father and I are able to do that. I've heard that other beekeepers use smoke to make the bees drowsy, but I prefer to hum. It's not really singing but humming does the trick. But enough talk. Let’s look at my little amber friends and colleagues. Once a week, I open the beehives and check on them. Not daily – they would feel disturbed.”

They spent the next hour watching bees. Peeta was mesmerized with everything Katniss taught him. But more than that, he was mesmerized by Katniss herself. The way she moved, almost without a making a noise, except for the humming. The way she handled the bees with so much love and respect. And the way she smiled.

The bees collect nectar and pollen but he collected Katniss smiles and filed them in his memory.

The funny ones when a bee landed on her hand and search, puzzled, for the blossom.

The happy ones when he asks a good question based on her information.

The proud ones when he has done something good, like letting the bees explore him and not getting uneasy when they crawl over his hands.

But most of all, he loved the loving smile on Katniss face when she showed and explained to him the inner life of the beehive, hey art of the bees building their combs and how they feed their offspring. This kind of smile he wanted to see on her face often. Preferably for him.

~~~

Around noon, Katniss declared that now would be a good time to eat their lunch. They stored the protective clothing in the shack, picked up the wicker basket and made their way to a brook that crossed the meadow. Around them, Peeta could hear the constant humming of the bees but Katniss showed him a square of short cut grass without blossoms. “I scythe this every other week to have a place to sit and relax without being in the bee’s way.” Katniss explained while she took the cloth from the basket, shook it and spread it on the ground.

Peeta took the previously covered food and placed it on the cloth. Katniss motioned for him to continue while she stripped of her boots and rolled up her pant-legs and the sleeves of her tunic while he opened each parcel of oilcloth.

He didn't know at what time she prepared their lunch, because she couldn't have done this in the short time he had spent in his room, getting ready.

In front of them was an assortment of cheese, boiled eggs, two small sausages, flat bread from yesterday's dinner, two apples, dried plums and a jug with a lid. He lifted the lid and was greeted with the familiar smell of peppermint.

In the meantime Katniss walked barefoot in the brook and washed her hands and face. “You should come too. The water is wonderful.” When Peeta didn't answer she turned around and saw him looking at the assortment of lunch items. “I know it isn’t much” she started to explain but was cut off by Peeta.

“It's wonderful. And everything smells and looks so good.”

Katniss sighed. “I hope you like the food. Working in nature always makes me so hungry. So what about we wash our hands and faces before lunch? And I want to show you something in the brook too.”

Peeta reluctantly slipped out of his boots and rolled up his pant-legs like Katniss before him. Than he cautiously walked into the water till he reached her.

Katniss pointed to a place a little upstream. “Can you see the shadow under the little willow? Let us move to the place very slowly. Do as I do, don't lift your feet.”

They waded to the place she pointed out, carefully to not disturb the stream-bed. Slowly they reached their destination.

“Now look down.” They reached the willow and Katniss pointed out a couple of trouts floating in the stream, perhaps waiting for a fly. “There are more in this brook. The water is so clear and good – I drink from it when I'm really thirsty during midsummer. And there are other places upstream where I can go in up to my waist, to swim. It's wonderful. There are so many places I want to show you. But you must think that I'm silly. You came here to work and not to look at trouts or swim.”

Katniss looked down at their feet, suddenly overcome by shyness. She had such a wonderful morning. The first one since she had to work here alone. This was the place where her father and her had worked together. Like Prim had worked with her mom. She had never before shared this place with someone else but her father. She worried that maybe he might think she was going over-boarding with her love of nature. She did not have much experience with boys. But from what she had heard, they often said that she was odd because she preferred to be in nature. “Do you think I'm odd?” she blurted out.

Peeta took her hand, which caused her to look into his smiling face as he said . “I don't think that you are silly or odd. To me you are perfect.”

Katniss smiled relieved. She couldn't even say why it was so important to her that he liked her. Only that it was. “Do you like to swim. I love it. My father taught me.”

Peeta laughed. “I would love to come back to swim. Later, when my wounds have healed completely. And maybe we could fish one day. We could fry trout for dinner. ”

Katniss beamed. “Oh, my father and I did this often. My mom loves trout. We could fish today if you want. ”

Peeta nodded. “I would love to. But you should show me how you do it. I can only do it with my hands and that takes a lot of time.”

~~~

They went back to their waiting lunch in comfortable silence. Each of them thought about the respective other. How much they had been in tune, even when they met only yesterday.

The bond they formed the evening before got stronger due to their shared love for the nature.

Katniss took care that Peeta eat his fill and some more and Peeta pointed out to Katniss that she had to eat a little bit of everything to know if it tasted good. They threw the apple-cores toward a small anthill on Katniss advice. “They love apple-cores,” she declared and Peeta laughed. First Katniss smiled but then joined him in his laughter later. “You’re right. That sounded silly even to me.”

Peeta shook his head while he pulled on his boots. “Not silly, but lovely. You think of everyone and everything. You are so full of love for nature. I wouldn't be surprised when you tell me that you hand-feed the offspring in the beehives.”

“Oh, I do. Weekly.” Katniss declared with a grave voice while she tried to suppress her smile.

“You do?” Peeta said, flabbergasted.

“No,” Katniss started to laugh. “I was just kidding with you.” She went to him at put her hand on his hand on his shoulder. “I love laughing with you. I think we'll become a good team.”

Peeta smiled back. “The best one.”

to be continued ...

Chapter Text

~~~

“I'm pretty sure I put it in here after I used it last year.” Katniss was on her hands and knees and looked under a table in the utility shed while Peeta had trouble looking at anything but her rear end.

“Ha, found it.” She wiggled her way backwards until she wasn't under the table anymore. After she stood in front of him again and offered him one of the two fishing poles, Peeta felt ashamed that he had ogled her behind while she was so being nice and searching for the item they needed for fishing.

“Well, that's good.” He cleared his throat. “Can't fish without them.”

Katniss already had her mind on the task ahead and went to the open shed door, sure that Peeta would follow her, which he did. He tried to think about anything else but Katniss’s nice, rounded bottom. “Do you have a special place where we will go to?”

Katniss looked back over her shoulder. “Yes, there’s a section upstream with more than two dozens trouts, some really big. A couple of years back, I wouldn't go there because I was sure I would meet a bear fishing for himself. But I haven't seen a bear for years. I'm afraid that all the mutts in the woods drove them away,hich is kind of sad. I had so much fun watching them from the distance when they run around with their cubs. The mother-bear taught them how to fish or dig for roots and maggots.”

Suddenly she stopped. “I forgot something. Just a second.” Katniss pushed her fishing-pole into his hands and ran back to the shed. When she came back to him a minute later, she held a basket and a bow in her hands and a quiver full of arrows slung over her shoulder.

“I thought we would fish? Why do we need a bow?” Peeta looked at the bow closely. “Can you shoot?. Because I can't.”

“I can and I will if something dangerous comes out of the woods. My father always carried a bow when we went in the woods.” Katniss took her fishing-pole back from Peeta and motioned for him to follow her. “Better safe, than sorry.”

They made their way to the brook and followed it upstream. Each a fishing pole and Peeta the basket too. “To be honest,” Peeta broke the silence “I'm relieved that you brought the bow and you can shoot. I've had enough encounters with mutts while I was on my way to the Capitol. I don't want another one.”

Katniss looked at him curiously. “Will you tell me? I've always gone into the woods with my papa and we always got as far as the old water-mill. We never met mutts, but a friend of mine told me about some. They are frightening.”

“Why did you go at all? I didn’t have a choice while I ran away from Seam, I would have chosen the roads. But I couldn't.” Peeta hung his head. “When I escaped the Seam, I made my way directly into the woods. I thought it would only be a matter of miles until I hit the road.”

“And it wasn't?” Katniss prompted Peeta to continue but he shook his head.

“No, it wasn't. The first night I couldn't sleep. I heard all kinds of noises. Some sounded like people screaming and crying. So I didn't stay but ran farther and farther away from the sounds . I thought it could be Cray, torturing someone and that he would caught me again.”

“What do mean by saying 'again'?” Katniss stopped and put her hand on Peeta's arm. “Did you tried to run away before?”

“Yes. Everyone of us tried at least once or twice. Depending on the punishment. If you got beaten so badly that you barely survived – well maybe you didn't try it again. Or maybe that is the reason why you do it again.” Peeta shrugged uncomfortably.

“And you did?” Katniss sighed. “Look, if this is a bad time to tell me, you don't have to say anything at all. I don't want to disturb our day with my curiosity.” Katniss motioned for Peeta to move on.

“Thank you. I know I owe you my story and it’s better you hear it from me than from anyone else. But I don't want to talk about it right now. I'll tell you one day. Is that OK?” He looked deeply into her eyes and she answered him with a smile and a nod.

“Come on, we’re almost there. Let us see if we can bring some trout back for dinner.”

~~~

A while later, they chose comfortable places at the brook, fishing-poles in hand, and watched the stream. “The best way to catch a trout,” Katniss informed Peeta, “is to let the bait drift into their territory.” She demonstrated it with her own gear. “Than you let the wiggle the bait up the water like an insect would do while trying not to go under.” Suddenly Katniss, made a jerking motion with the pole and pulled on the line. “The trout thinks the bait is an easy catch and bites, but you catch it with a quick motion and pull it in.” Just a second later, she pulled a nice trout out of the brook and Katniss pushed it into the basket. “Voila!”

Peeta smiled at her adoringly and nodded. Then he put his own bait on the hook, followed Katniss advice, letting his bait drift close to a large trout.

“You need patience with this one. He is old and has a lot of experience. But I hope you catch him. He is so big that he would easily be enough for our dinner.” Katniss put another bait on her hook and started the wiggling the bait on the water again.

Peeta looked at her. “You mentioned yesterday evening that you would sing when the right person asked for it. Would you sing for me?”

Katniss needed a moment to think about it. “Yes, but you have to promise that you won't laugh.”

“I would never do that. Remember, I heard you before and it was wonderful.” Peeta encouraged. “What do you want to sing? Another lullaby?”

Katniss shrugged. “No something fitting for this moment.” She cleared her throat and began with a velvety alto.

Help me out said the minnow to the trout
I was lost and found myself swimming in your mouth
Help me chief
I've got to plans for you and me
I swear upon this riverbed
I'll help you feel young again

Not your every day circumstance
Hummingbird taking coffee with the ants

Please, I know that we're different
We were one cell in the sea in the beginning
And what we're made of was all the same once
We're not that different after all

Help me out said the eagle to the dove
I've fallen from my nest so high above
Help me fly
I am too afraid try
Now saddled with a fear of heights
I'm praying you can set me right

Not your everyday circumstance
Elephant sharing peanuts with the rats
And I said

Please, I know that we're different
We were one cell in the sea in the beginning
And what we're made of was all the same once
We're not that different after all

We are tied in history
Connected like a family

Please, I know that we're different
We were one cell in the sea in the beginning
And what we're made of was all the same once
All the same
We're not that different after all

Peeta was so enraptured that he almost missed his large trout biting after the end of the song.

He jerk his pole up and pulled the trout onto the land. “Looks like not only the bees love your beautiful voice, but the fish come willingly, too, when you sing.”

Katniss laughed. “You are such a sweet-talker, aren't you?” She measured the weight of the trout with her hands. “And a wonderful fisherman too. This one must be at least 4 pounds.”

Peeta beamed and pushed the large fish in the basket too. “Shall we wait for another trout or do we have enough?”

“One more,” Katniss suggested “Prim will want to make a fish-soup from the heads and fish-bones. And my mom knows a recipe for smoked fish. We haven’t had smoked fish in a long time.

Suddenly there was a strange noise coming from the woods. Katniss pushed the fishing-pole into Peeta’s hand, grabbed her bow and had an arrow out of the quiver and aimed for the woods in a matter of seconds.

To be continued ...

Chapter Text

~~~

Katniss stood in an archer’s stance. Her bow-arm was straight while her string-hand had drawn the string, an arrow affixed. The arrow was aimed at the opening in the woods where the strange sound came from.

Peeta forgot the fishing-pole in his hands. He admired the archer’s stance Katniss assumed, where only seconds before a girl sprawled out on the grass. He felt a tug on the pole and made to jerk. Peeta reeled in the trout without looking. His full attention was on the spot Katniss was aiming at.

Again, a sound like a whimper came closer but neither Katniss or Peeta could saw who was making it. They both looked up. When Katniss dropped her gaze she saw a small pup crawling out of the bushes .

“It is a puppy, Peeta.” Katniss lowered her bow.

Peeta, who had pushed the latest trout into the basket, stood up and studied the animal. “A dog?.”

Katniss lowered her bow completely. “No, an amber-wolf. I haven't seen one since forever.”

“A wolf? A wolf-pup? Do you think this is some kind of trap? When we go and look at why he is whimpering they will attack?” Peeta looked torn between going immediately to the pup and fearing the animal.

“Amber-wolves don't attack, Peeta. They are too small to be a danger for us.” Katniss placed the bow carefully near the basket.

That was all the information Peeta needed. In an instant, he was next to the pup. Katniss too was at his side immediately and kneed down.

The small animal had dark lush fur and i eyes half-closed in pain. An angry looking gash ran down its hind-leg. It was oozing pus and it was obvious why the pup was in pain. He wasn't skinny but his belly wasn’t full either.

“He hasn’t been fed recently.” Katniss mused.

“Maybe the mother took care of him but then the pack had to leave and she couldn't take him with her.” Peeta said. “We need to take him home!” Peeta looked up at Katniss and added as an afterthought. “If you allow it.”

“Of course. But let us look into his muzzle to see if he needs to be nursed or if he can eat meat.” She bent forward and gently pushed a finger in the pups mouth. The little one half chewed, half sucked on her finger and Katniss smiled lovingly. “He has some little teeth but he still likes to suck. Looks like we can feed him with both fluids and small pieces of food.”

Peeta beamed. “So we can take him with us. We won’t leave him behind?” He gently ran his fingers over the fur from head to tail. “But we need to do something about this wound.”

Katniss nodded. “You are right. We can ask Prim to clean and treat his wounds.”

Peeta carefully lifted the wolf-pup into his arms. “Why do you call him an amber-wolf? His fur is so dark.”

Katniss laughed. “The same question I asked my father when I saw a pack once. They grow darker the older they get. When they become adults, their fur turns amber.” She took the fishing-poles, the bow and the basket and motioned for Peeta to walk back.

“What do you know about them? What do they eat. Why are they not a danger to us?” Peeta cradled the pup in his arms, careful not to touch the gash.

“A lot of questions. Lets see, they eat mice and small carcasses, if they can find them. Mostly dead rabbits or squirrels. But they eat almost everything they can get. So if you don't grow yourself whiskers and shrink to the size of a mouse – you are safe.” Katniss repressed a giggle as the image of Peeta with whiskers and mice-ears came to her mind.

Suddenly Peeta halted in his gait. “Will your mother allow it,.”

Katniss looked bewildered. “What? For you to become a mouse?”

Peeta laughed. “No, for us to keep him.” He looked at the sleeping animal that snuggled to his belly. “At least till he is old enough to catch his own mice and find a pack to stay with.”

They reached the shed and Katniss put their things away.. “She will be happy. We once had a cat, Buttercup, who was really ugly, but a wonderful mouse-catcher. We never had mice on our property. I even saw him catch a rat once who was stupid enough to enter our ground. But one day he was gone. We never knew what happened to him. Prim was heartbroken for a couple of months.” Katniss cleared her throat. “I ran around town and asked the townies but no one took notice of a mangy, orange cat.”

Peeta sighed while he petted the little pup’s head. “Once I had a cat too. Nobody knew. At least that was what I thought. Every day after work I crawled into the corner where I had my pad and my blanket and it would be waiting there. But one day it wasn't. I looked for it for days. One day I saw Cray carrying a small pelt. He told the seamstress that she should make him mittens against the pain in his hand.”

Katniss stopped in her task. “He didn't? Why?”

Peeta nodded. “He did, because he could. So, how do we manage this. Shall I put him in the cart too?”

Katniss looked at the small bundle of fur. “If you don't mind, I would suggest that you carry him in your shirt and we put the belt around your waist so he won’t all out. Than you can help me pull the cart. I promised my mother a couple jars of honey and it would be uncomfortably for the pup if we push him between jars and baskets.”

Peeta nodded and Katniss took the small pup while Peeta tightened the belt and opened his shirt.

She hadn't seen his naked torso before but now gazed at skin marred with healing wounds. Some of them looked like knife wounds, others were round and the size of a cherry. There were at least a dozen of them. Peeta looked up when he noticed that Katniss didn't shove the pup into his open blouse. He paled. “You don't need to look at them. I know they are ugly.”

“Katniss came out of her shock. “Ugly? Peeta who did this? What happened to you?” She carefully bedded the pup into the pouch between Peeta's belly and the blouse. While Peeta pushed his left hand under the wolf, Katniss closed the gap in the fabric. “Sorry, maybe you don't want to tell me. I have to respect that. But I need to tell you that this will never happen again. I would put an arrow into everyone who tries to hurt you.”

When she looked up she was greeted with Peeta's thoughtful smile. “I would do it for you, too. Maybe not an arrow, because I have never shot one. But I would protect you against anyone who tries to hurt you.” Peeta looked determined. “What do you think, shall we pull this cart full of fish and honey home?”

Katniss put her hand on his, “I believe that you will. And I can’t tell you how happy I’m to have you at my side. It will make me feel a lot better, safer even happier to have you here with me.”

Katniss took the right cart-handle while Peeta grabbed the left one. “Yes, let’s go home. They will be surprised when they see our little wolf.”

To be continued ...

Chapter Text

Usually Katniss' walk home would be a ten minute affair, but today she stopped two or three times, let go of the cart handle and went over to Peeta's side of the cart, who opened his shirt a little and let her look at the little wolf. The little pup was snoring inside this cocoon.

“I think he is OK now, but we should feed him as soon as possible. ” Katniss mused. She inhaled deeply. There was a smell around Peeta she couldn't identify but found wonderful. Standing so close to him while having a look at the pup, the aroma surrounded her. It was like fresh air, but at once warm, with a note of cinnamon. It made her want to linger.. But she couldn't. They had to make their way home and feed this little wolf, care for his wound and bring their haul of fish as soon as possible. Katniss knew that she was the one stalling, but to be honest, as soon as they were home, what reason did she have to be this close to Peeta and his wonderful scent again? And his warmth! Do not forget his warmth, she reminded herself. Standing this close to him, she could feel his body heat radiating off his belly. No wonder the wolf felt good there. She would too. Katniss blushed and reluctantly stepped away. Where had this thought come from? She’d never before thought about someone else in that way.

Peeta looked up when he noticed that she was no longer next to him. “Maybe it would be good if I let him sleep in my bed until he’s old enough to sleep alone. He doesn't have his litter around him, and he might get cold.” Peeta suggested while he closed his shirt again with clumsy fingers. He found it difficult to concentrate on holding the pup securely in his shirt, covering himself when Katniss got close to him. She had been so near that he could see the soft hairs on her neck that had escaped her braid, the perspiration on her forehead and her face. Could see especially a drop of sweat that ran down the side of her slender throat and made its way to the opening of her shirt. And he had smelled her scent, slightly sweet like honeysuckle, but at the same time fresh and clean. Why was it so disconcerting to be this close to her? They had spend yesterday together and today too. But something had change during the day. He was mesmerized by her grey eyes. . The sinking sun was reflected back at him the silver sprinkled with dots of burned orange. He couldn't bring himself to look at something different. He was caught like the trout –. and was more than happy to be so.

Katniss found herself captivated by Peeta's eyes too. He had impossibly long lashes. When he blinked, she was surprised that they didn’t get tangled up. And there were freckles on the bridge of his nose. Why was everything suddenly so different to this afternoon?

They were both interrupted by Prim’s voice calling Katniss’s name. They noticed that their last stop had been only a couple of steps away from the gate into the garden.

“Are you going to come and show me what you're both looking at, or is it a surprise?” Prim waved them over, and after they had entered the garden Katniss lifted the pup out of Peeta's shirt. “Prim, could you have a look at the pup's hind-leg while I look for something for him to eat? .”

“Oh my, it's a amber-wolf isn't it? I haven't seen one in years.” Prim bent over the wolf and called over her shoulder “Mom, you should come and see what these two both brought home.”

When Alyson had inspected the wolf, she advised Prim and Peeta to go and take care of the wolf’s wounds. “It is a good omen that the wolves are back again, but sad that he’s been hurt and somehow lost his pack. We will take care of him and see if another pack comes to the meadow maybe he will join them when he is mature.” Alyson look inside the basket. “So what did you two bring home? Something for dinner I hope, because I don't really want to eat eggs and greens again.”

Katniss laughed and opened the lid. “Mom, we caught trout and this is the honey you wanted. Do you remember the recipe you used for the smoked fish?”

Alyson laughed too “As if I would ever forget. There are so many, we could easily prepare some of it for tomorrow or the day after that. Want to help me?” She smiled wistfully “Maybe Peeta likes smoked trout, too.”

Katniss shock her head. “I want to help. There is something I need to ask you anyway.” She carried the basket with the fish to the kitchen while her mom took the basket of honey and brought it into her storage room.

~~~

Meanwhile, Prim and Peeta brought the wolf into Peeta's room. Peeta put him down on the bed . “He will make it won't he? Katniss says he isn't a danger to us. Maybe he can catch mice when he is bigger.”

Prim petted the pup’s fur. “You don't need to butter me up. I love animals. Katniss knows it. And my mom, too. I’ll grab my medicine bag and see what I can do for him.”

When Prim returned, she was all business. She cleaned the fur around the gash, cleaned the wound, which wasn't as deep as they had assumed and put a salve on it. Then she put a bandage around the limp and fixed it.

Peeta looked interested. “Is that the same remedy your mother used on my back?”

Prim smiled. “Yes, when you use it on wounds they heal nicely. But it doesn’t smell good.”

“What is in it?” Peeta sniffed at the small jar and wrinkled his nose. “Puh!”

“Onions, garlic, wine and ox gall, mixed and boiled in a brass cauldron. It stinks but it does the job.” Prim grinned at Peeta's bewildered face. “By the way. We can stop speaking about a “him” when we talk about the pup. It's a “her.” So you better start looking for girl names.” She turned the soft body of the pup a little around and showed Peeta the space between belly and tail. Peeta blushed, to Prim's amusement.

~~~

In the kitchen Alyson and Katniss cleaned the fish, fillet the large trout, cured the filet with sea-salt mixed with herbs and put them away for the next day. The slightly smaller trout were stuffed with fresh herbs and Alyson breaded and fried them. All the while, Katniss rotated between stirring a pot with barely in a broth and a small pot of goat-milk mixed with oats and the pieces of trout to get some kind of pulp.

“Mom, when you knew that dad was the one for you, were the two of you already living and working together for some time. How did you suddenly know that you liked him that way?” Katniss tried to act a little nonchalant about her question but Alyson understand immediately what her daughter wanted to ask.

“It was when your father sang. I started to notice a lot of things, even when I knew they had been there all the time. I changed my perspective of him.” Alyson washed her hands and dried herself with a towel before sitting down at the table. “Before that day, if someone had asked about your father;s features I could have answered, but from then on, I knew which shade of gray his eyes were , that his dark her had two whorls at the back of his head and that the hair would curl when the weather was damp. He had a little belly.” Alyson laughed at Katniss scowl. “Yes, he did, but not a big one. And he used to put a dandelion behind my ear when he saw me first in the morning. That never changed until he died.” Alyson looked sad for a moment. “You know you have a lot of your father features. When you were born, I was so proud that I could give him such a precious gift. But back to your question. I just knew. It was as if a puzzle had been switched around in my mind and suddenly it found its place and the puzzle was complete . So, my dear girl, tell me, have the puzzle pieces started to move around since Peeta arrived ?”

Katniss smiled softly, “Maybe. Since yesterday I feel the way I have never felt before. I love you. And I adore Prim. But I for him , I feel something that is in both similar and different too. Am I'm talking nonsense or do you understand what I mean?” She was slightly annoyed with her own inability to find the right words.

Alyson stood up and hugged her tenderly. “I understand. Do you want to hear what I think?”

Katniss returned the hug. “Yes, please!”

“You are on the best way to falling in love. Maybe for the first time, I don’t know. I have never seen you look at Gale, the way you look at Peeta. I think Gale would have loved for you to admire him. But I assume that you have never fallen in love with Gale.”

Katniss groaned “Please don't mention Gale. I love him as a brother. And I tried to tell him every time he come up with another way to win me over.”

“Maybe you won’t be very happy when I tell you that I met him this afternoon.” Alyson remembered suddenly. “He mentioned that he saw us last night .”

Katniss looked up. “Why didn't he come over then say hello? I haven't seen him since he started his new job in the town guard. I'm not sorry about that. But after all this nonsense about us well becoming a couple, he didn’t show up again. . I thought he had forgotten about us with all the 'very important things' he has to do nowadays.” Katniss air-quoted. “I don't know if I'm ready to see him now. He will notice that something has change during his absence. And I hope he will not try to make it difficult for Peeta. You know he could. And maybe he would out of jealousy.”

Katniss finished cooking the barley and the food for the pub and put it aside to cool. She made a bedding out of an old basket, using hay and an old shirt nobody wore anymore.

Alyson laughed. “I don't think he has forgotten. Maybe his new life is so exciting that the memory of his childhood friend has faded a little. However, he asked about you. You must have made quite an impression, decked out in the velvet tunic, the stockings and the beret.” Alyson turned around when Katniss snorted. “You looked so lovely. And I'm sure a lot of townies were surprised at what a beautiful woman you’d grown into. Gale said he couldn't believe his eyes when he saw you. He asked if you have a suitor now.”

Katniss started to interrupt but Alyson stopped. “I told him that this is not my business and he should ask you himself. Which he will do sooner or later, believe me. Dinner is ready. Go and tell Prim and Peeta. They should bring the pup with them so that we can feed him too.”

From the door Prim's voice piped in. “Feed her. It is a woman, too. Peeta, it looks like you’’ll be the only man in this house.”

Peeta followed carrying the pup. “We should really start to look for a name. We can't call her she or her all the time.”

Peeta took his seat. Katniss set a wooden stool between her place and Peeta's and put the makeshift bed for the pup on it. She pushed the small dish of pulp she made earlier toward Peeta while she seated herself.

“How shall I feed it to 'her'?” Peeta looked to Prim for advice but Alyson answered.

“You put a little of the pulp on a finger and push it into her mouth. Once she swallows, you wait a little and then feed her again. Later, you try to give her a little water the same way, or see if she wants to drink it by herself.”

They started to eat their meal while Katniss and Peeta take turns with feeding the pup.

It was a delicious meal and everyone praised the quality of the trout and the flavor of the barley, to which Katniss rolled her eyes and said that it wasn't a miracle to put barley, water, herbs, salt and oil together and cook it. To which everyone objected that there are a lots of way to cook barley so that it tasted bad and it was in fact a miracle to make it taste this good.

Peeta looked around the table, listening to this friendly banter and felt so good that he added his own piece or two to the conversation.

When all food has been eaten and the wolf, she was still without name, started to get restless, Peeta took her outside and put her down on the grass. He would have sworn that the wolf looked relieved after she relieved herself.

Katniss followed him, carrying the basket. Peeta placed the little wolf in the basket, tucked her in with the cloth and set in on the table. They sat side by side,looking into the basket like proud parents.

“So, do you have any idea what we should call her?” Peeta asked while he admired the slow movement of the pups chest as she curled up and fell to sleep. Up and down, up and down. Steady and strong with the promise that the little one was alright. That they had been on time.

“You want me to name her?” Katniss asked..

“Yes.” Peeta nodded.

“It should be something that fits. And a name she would love to have once she is an adult wolf. I mean, you can’t call an adult wolf snuggle or Bunny. That would be embarrassing. Wouldn’t it?” Katniss asked, smiling to herself.

“Of course, it would be embarrassing.” Peeta grinned also.

“My father once told me in the old times, our river was named after the wolves. River of Wolves, because they lived there. But this name was so long. So they called it Lupe - which means the same. So I think since, we found her at the Lupe, why not called her that. Lupe.” Katniss mused.

“Yes, why not. It fits and it is an honorable name. So sleep well little Lupe, tomorrow you will wake up and we will be here and take care of you. You are not longer alone and you are loved.” Peeta bent forward and pushed the cloth a little higher over the wolf’s form.

“You are loved.” Katniss repeated the age-old phrase from baptism in Panem.

After a while, when the wolf had fallen asleep they lifted their gaze to look at each other . Silently. Happily. Neither Katniss or Peeta noticed that not far away, on the path leading to the towns gate, stood a captain of the town guard decked out in his finest dress uniform.

To be continued ...

Chapter Text

~~~

While Katniss and Peeta made their way home safely, another citizen of The Capitol was on his way to the Everdeen residence - almost.

Gale Hawthorne turned from left to right and back again while he gazed into the modest looking glass that adorned the place over his wash-bowl.

To bad that it was so small, he couldn't see himself completely to check if his uniform fit perfectly.

The laced-up, cream-colored, padded shirt was visible under the dark-brown leather jerkin with brass buckles down to his tights. It buttoned half-way up and he had hidden a pouch of coins in the opening like he had seen it older captains do.

He wore both over a pair of velvet, loose fitting pants which he wore stuffed inside of dark-brown leather boots with the folded cuffs.

He had girded himself with the sword-belt, pushed the sword and long knife into the scabbards and put the wide-brimmed leather hat with the downy feathers on his head.

Did it sit at the right angle, looking a little bit brash – but not overly? Like it was put on in some kind of haste – not artfully arranged on his head?

He had spent the last half-hour arranging his outfit to look good. After all, he had gotten his promotion to captain only a fortnight ago and this was the first time he could wear his brand new dress uniform.

He wanted to look good when he visited the family he’d spent so much time with when he was a kid. He smiled, remembering all the times he and Katniss had played guard in the garden behind Katniss cottage. She had always been better at archery but he was able to wield a heavy wooden sword very early. They had tracked animals in the woods behind the meadow until it had become too dangerous and Mr. Everdeen made them stop.

At that time, the mutts had moved into the woods and drove all the natural all the animals, such as the fox, bear, wolf or wildcat out, up into the mountains.

Gale remembered when Katniss was 6 or 7 years old, they had planned to marry each other when they grew older. They talked about living in a house in the woods. They would each have their own room, and when they wanted to play together, they would meet in the stables where their ponies waited for them.

Their parents were allowed to come and visit if they brought sweets. Well, they’d only been kids.

Later, when they were 15, and he hinted at Katniss that they could start with this plan of marriage by becoming a couple, Katniss let him down very carefully by telling him that she loved him like a brother and that would hardly change. But she couldn't imagine, by the love of god, living with him as husband and wife. That she could only marry out of love – like her mother.

It wasn't easy for Gale to accept this in the beginning, but he didn't have a choice. When Katniss put her mind to something, there was no arguing or begging. So he didn't try again because he knew she would be upset if he did. He thought time might change her attitude – she was still a little girl and so pure. He had met many other women who didn’t share Katniss opinions or attitude.

But yesterday, he had seen Katniss for the very first time since he’d left for the training camp. He was delighted with the visible changes Katniss had gone through during the last year. He had never seen her wearing form-fitting clothes like yesterday evening. They showed off her female curves just fine. She had look better than ever. Gone was the scrawny girl with large gray eyes.

The last time he had seen her before he became a member of the town guard, she was climbing a tree to rescue her sister's cat, of all things. Like that damn mongrel wasn't able to climb down on it's own. He wanted to say his farewell and maybe get a response, showing him that she was sorry to see him leave. Something that was not brother-like. Maybe she would realized how long he would be abroad and feel sorry about her loss. Even hug him or ask him to come back healthy and soon – to her.

But with her in the apple-tree, the orange hellion hissing in her arms, and him on the ground, the farewell wasn't at all what he had hoped for. He remembered his words, well chosen to make Katniss see the severity of his departure but Katniss smiled down and offered him another kind of farewell. “Don't forget to take care of your bow. You know I'm not there to remind you that you have to oil the wood and replace the string every now and then.” Than she asked him to take the cat till she climbed down and this creature from hell scratched his hands and Katniss laughed and told him that it would heal fast, he shouldn't be such a sissy.

Remembering this, Gale sobered and sat down on his bed, letting his hands dangle between his knees. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea at all to visit her. She had been nothing but friendly to him even when he tried again and again to move their friendship to a new level ever since their father’s death. Maybe his wish to try again to win her over was nothing but a wish. That even, when she had aged into a woman, his past as a womanizer, could stand between them.

Gale grabbed the hat and kneaded it in his large hands. If he was honest to himself, she had made it clear, every single time, that she did not understand the way he comforted some of Capitol's merry widows.

That Katniss thought he would diminish his own worth and these women would sent him away faster than Katniss could knock an arrow during archery practice. He had laughed and told her if she was jealous, all she had to do was say the word and he would stop and be all hers. But she didn't. If he remember correctly, she had smiled sadly and told him that she would never see him that way. That he was like a brother to her.

He had been angry at that time. The distance had grown between them a little more each day. But he started to look at his women friends in a different way. Saw how they behaved as if he was a plaything, like he no feelings at all. Finally, Johanna's offer to become a recruit in the guard first and later a tracker and maybe even training supervisor for tracking had been a blessing in disguise. When he came back to the Capitol after his first months out of town in the recruiting camp, he found that all of his former paramours had found other young lads to warm their beds. He had been easily replaced. He felt ashamed that Katniss’s prediction had been to the point.

Johanna had been the one who told him what Katniss shyly hinted at. That in this town, there was a shortage of men and these widows used him to have some fun after having no fun at all with their former husbands. To them, he was a body, but nobody special. One evening, while he shared a bottle of wine with Johanna in the guard's quarters, she pointed out that it was all good and fine for herself to change her partners every now and then but she was pretty sure this was not something Katniss would understand. And that even if he had had a chance with Katniss to begin with, he might have destroyed this chance with his behavior.

Gale looked down at his hat. He worked it back into its former shape . He had seen Katniss yesterday evening in a light he hadn't before. Lovely and comfortable. Some of it might have to do with the man whose hand she was holding. He had never held Katniss’s hand like that, and neither had she. They held on as if they hadn’t wanted to misplace each other. She had smiled at this man and shared a goblet of drink with him. Even offered him her bowl of food. That has to mean something to Katniss. She had never been with him like she had been with this man.

So why would he go and try to rekindle a fire that was never there on Katniss side – it could destroy a friendship he would really like to have forever. He had missed her, to be honest. Had missed her earthiness. Her loyalty and ability to see things for what they really are. She had been one of Paylor's and Johanna's earliest supporters even when many citizens told her to hold her tongue. She had taken over the beekeeping without complaints when her father had died and had helped Gale with his family until Hazelle had found a good job in the town’s administration.

Gale shook his head. He would go to the Everdeens, introduce himself to this man everyone in the Capitol was talking about since last night and see what would happen next. He would be welcoming to the new guy and a good friend to Katniss.

With new impetus, he left his room and the new house near the guard;s quarter he shared with his mother and Posy. The distance to the Everdeen's cottage wasn't a long one and when he reached the junction where his alley ended and the lane towards Katniss’s cottage began, he saw her sitting at the table outside of the house with the man from the night before. The sunset was reflected on her glossy hair and she leaned over a basket on the table. Then she looked up and into the mans face and smiled in a way Gale had never seen before.

He sighed. He stood still and waited. He didn't want to disturb this moment. He could wait a little longer.

To be continued ...

Chapter Text

~~~

Madge Undersee decided that she had enough of cleaning her room, located in the former brothel of Claudius old-what-was-his-face, and needed some fresh air. She had enough too of pushing out young men who thought that the former inhabitants came back and wanted to push some coin into the hand of a desperate woman. Desperate enough to lay down for an unknown man. And when she looked around, it became clear that the coin had wandered directly into the hands of someone else – Claudius, brothel-owner.

He must be the one with such a chintzy taste when it came to tapestries or furniture. The beds had posts of copulating fauna and the tapestries showed stories of the same.

She may have to use the bed because she had enough of sleeping on a pad on the earth, but she pushed the mattress out and pulled the tapestries down, invoking a storm of dust whirling through the room. She pushed the disgusting stuff outside for Finnick to get rid of it.

Finished with her task, she cleaned herself, using the spacious washbowl and a large jar of water. After that, she pulled on a pair of suede pants, a cream-colored muslin shirt and a sky-blue suede vest. She grabbed her matching short-cape, then she left the large house to have her first real stroll through the town since she arrived the day before to look for the guards quarters.

The sun was setting and the busy life in the streets started to quiet down. Mostly female merchants carried the baskets of ware into their stores, closed the wooden doors either from inside when they lived over the stores or from outside when they lived in another house. Some of them had a spring in their gait as if they were still full of energy and couldn't wait for the evening to start. Maybe they earned good money today and wanted to spend the evening with their loved ones.

Others looked rather forlorn, searched in their purses for some coins, and entered the next tavern. Madge sighed. She heard that the population of Capitol had a noticeable change towards a majority of adult women to the few adult men. The reason was the explosion of the ships. This town had a lot of widows.

Some said it was an accident, what happened in the gulf of Panem. Others said, behind their hands of course, that it was a blessing in disguise. Mayor Snow wanted a war, for sure, and did everything to start one. A war against the other districts. Everything he said, like 'Capitol first' and everything he did, like stop the import from other districts, was obvious.

After he ordered the minstrel and traveling merchants to leave District 12 and the Capitol, everyone knew to be more on alert than before. Madge's father in District 1 ordered her to travel towards District 4 to learn and pass information. And that she did. She met Annie on the road. They decided that two minstrel, especially if they were women, were better off than one and traveled together. One could get lonesome on a travel.

Annie told her a lot about the Capitol on their travels through Panem. Annie had been there before and told her about the bad things, but about the good things too, like the friends she found here who are the opposite of Mayor Snow or Seam's leaders. She talked about the courageous women and girls who would become independent and strong women with a spirit of rebellion that was strong in them as they waited for the chance to break free.

What if Annie and she had more than bonded on the road? What if they decided to become lovers? Would Annie have fallen in love with Finnick nevertheless? The answer was yes, and Madge’s heart would have broken for real, much worse than the minor injury it had suffered.

When Madge thought of Annie, it was no longer with a small pain in her heart. The span of time when it was only the both of them who traveled from District 1 to District 4 may have been long enough to get seriously attached to this independent spirit, but not so long or intense that her heart broke when Annie fell in love with Finnick shortly after they met in District 4. I was more a feeling of – what could have been.

Madge shook her head slightly. It would do her no good to dwell on memories right now. Madge pulled herself out of her thoughts of what ifs and maybes. Her job as a minstrel was to be alert, to learn, to memorize and to pass information.

She looked around and memorized her surroundings. Every occupied shop and every empty one. The latter were the majority. She should think ahead like she had been taught in District 1. And this meant that she had to ask someone about the way to Johanna's office. She met the other woman briefly yesterday and needed to share some of the news she learned during the last days of her travel. Some of it could be important, like the information that this woman who told everyone she was a traveler from District 1, trained in the art of jewelry, was definitely not someone who came with the minstrel caravan. Nor was she from District 1. The way she spoke, only the few sentences – No one raised in District 1 would have that drawl. Madge hadn't seen the woman before. She wasn't a traveler. And the jewels were fake too. If someone was able to see it so easily, it was her, Madge Undersee, the daughter of District Ones famous jeweler and mayor. The district with the most jewelers in Panem.

The Capitol was still wealthy. The citizens yesterday evening were generous with their coins. No wonder, because almost every shop where one could buy costly things was empty. On the other side, she noticed stores that could be of interest to the other districts. District 12 and especially the Capitol had a repute when it came to herbs, remedies, spices, vinegar and oil. And of course salt. She shouldn't forget the white gold. The only District with the know-how and the coastline to harvest salt from the sea.

She moved forward again when she noticed that she stopped in front of an empty bakery storefront. The next stores were a butcher, a store to buy milk and cheese and one that specializes in salt, spices, oils and vinegar. Interesting – if this town organization was similar to others this size, she was in the merchants part now where produce was sold. She went into the next lane to the left and found herself right in front of the inner town wall. There was a manned wall gate which she passed through – maybe out of curiosity. The lane led to an area with one-story cottages surrounded by gardens. They were still near enough to be protected by archers from the town wall, but not so near that they could be used by invaders. If they would be set on fire it could be extinguished easily without the town wall catching fire too.

~~~

In front of her, a couple of steps ahead, stood a guard in his dress uniform. A guard was just what she needed so she took another step towards him. He seemed lost in his thoughts because he didn't move when she came nearer. Madge wholeheartedly admitted that she was able to move as silent as a mouse if need be, but he should have felt a presence near him, shouldn't he? Curiosity was not only her main characteristic, but part of her minstrels training too, so she looked in the direction he looked.

There was a lovely garden surrounding a cottage, one of the finest she had ever seen. And she was quite familiar with District 1’s rose gardens or District 4’s water gardens. This one was a garden full of life. Chickens pawed between different vegetable patches. Some apple-trees were full in bloom and a goat was grazing in a patch of grass and herbs. She could make out the golden blossoms of dandelions and became curious which other herbs she would find. There were all kind of early-blooming flowers too. The warm breeze carried the sweet fragrance – lovely.

On the south side of the cottage was a nice place to sit, a table and some wooden benches where two people sat. Both bent over a basket in front of them and were so engaged with this and each other that they didn't notice that they were the center of one guard’s attention.

The man in front of Madge sighed, shook his head and turned around. He came almost nose to nose with Madge and he look surprised to see that he was not alone.

The look on his face was one Madge knew very well. She saw it in the mirror during her first weeks in District 4 after she’d seen Annie and Finnick together. It was the look of that kind of defeat when you learned that you lost something that didn't belong to you to begin with. In an instant she felt sorry for his loss and felt the need to change his sour mood.

Madge smiled at him, changed her stance a little so that the deep standing sun shone on her honey colored hair and offered him a greeting. “Captain, so good to see you. Would you, by any chance, escort me to the guards master, Johanna Mason? I have to admit that I'm a little bit lost. I must have taken the wrong turn when I left the minstrel’s quarters. I have information for Johanna that may be very important.”

The handsome captain in front of her smiled back, even when he still looked a little sad around the eyes. “Gale Hawthorne, at your service Madam …?” He looked at her with a lifted eyebrow.

Madge offered him her hand for a kiss, which he obeyed immediately. “Madge Undersee from District 1, one of Panem's minstrels.”

~~~

The way to the guards quarters wasn't long, but Madge tried to fill it with conversation nonetheless. Not because she found it irritating to walk in silence. She always wanted to learn as much as possible about the people she met, and a conversation was a good chance to get information, either with the things people spoke about or the things they tried to conceal. “Captain Hawthorne, did I meet you before? Maybe you have been in District 1 on a mission?”

Gale felt a little bit flattered that this beautiful woman, a minstrel even, thought he was important enough to be send to other districts. He was tempted to swagger about his role in the guard, but decided against it. His need to swagger resulted in trouble before and he felt it was better to stay close to the truth. “Lady Undersee, I'm sorry but that is impossible. I joined the guards last year. The old rule, that only the offspring of merchants would be allowed to join the guards, had been nullified by the new government. The same day that happened I stood in front of Johanna Mason. She is the one who gave me the chance to prove my worth, and my rank as a captain – well I got it last week.

“I have to admit, Captain Hawthorne, that I assumed something like that.” Madge admitted and put her hand on Gales forearm. “I wanted to hear your answer to see if you are an honorable man. I think you are. It would have been easy to lie, but you decided to tell the truth. That is something I treasure.”

“May I ask, what gave me away?” Gale smiled. This minstrel, Madge, had a confidence that he found fascinating.

“Of course! Your dress uniform shows no signs of real usage. So I assumed it hasn't been long in your possession. No stains that a servant would have tried to brush out. Your hat has plumage, but not from a white little egret, but from a common heron. The plumage looks a lot alike but not entirely. Your sword-sheath and your leather-belt are new too. And your sword itself has been forged out of mild steel not pattern welded steel. It is a weapon given to one by his masters not a family heirloom given from a parent to the offspring. So I assumed that you are a new captain and are not the offspring of an old-established dynasty of merchants.”

Gale found himself speechless for the first time. Who was this woman? How was she able to get so much information out of so few clues? And, most important of all, would he be able to learn something like that too?

They had reached the main watchtower where the guards quarters and Johanna’s rooms were situated. Gale knocked and when they heard a bellowed permission, opened the heavy wooden door and entered the office.

~~~

Johanna sat behind a large wooden desk. It was littered with all kind of papers and open books. Next to the desk was a trolley with an assortment of bottles, a flagon, several beaker and a wooden tray with flat bread, cheese and sausages. The food looked like it had been there the whole day – dried.

In front of the desk were four miss-matching chairs and stools. The main light came from the large window behind the desk, which showed the training-square. Gale could see the second recruit squad on the training parkour trying their hands on archery. Trying was the word of choice. If Katniss could see their poor attempts at shooting arrows into the round targets, she would bend over in laughter.

Gale smiled and shook his head. “Johanna, this is Lady Undersee. She has important information.”

“I have maybe important information.” Madge clarified. “And it is Madge to you too, Captain Hawthorne.”

Gale bowed and nodded with his most charming smile. “Then, please do me the honor of calling me Gale.”

Madge arched an eyebrow, “That can be arranged.”

Johanna added impishly, “Isn't it sweet! Oh, Gale and Madge, please feel free to call me Master and Colonel of the guard.”

Gale looked taken aback. “For real?”

Johanna scowled. “Of course not. I was kidding. As if I would need such braggy titles, but can we now start with talking shop? Madge, what kind of news from the other districts do you have for me and my town? And since this is the first time we met official, because believe me even in the new Capitol, having a drink in a tavern doesn’t count, would you do me the honor and convince me that you are the real Madge Undersee?”

Gale cleared his throat. “Well, maybe you two have forgotten that I'm still here. So before you both share important secrets that makes it inevitable for you to kill me as a witness, Johanna. Do you want me to leave?”

Johanna scowled. “Don't be stupid. First, if I would kick you out now, you would find ways to find out everything that we'll speaking about, and second, it is necessary that you get the information too. I didn't offered you a position in the guard because of your social skills or good looks. Gale is a formidable tracker and trapper. So, please Madge, go on. I don't want to spent the whole night here.”

Madge grinned and pulled a sheet of paper over and drew a part of a sign on the topmost edge.” Then, to Gale's surprise she turned around, lifted her vest and shirt, and presented a tattoo on her lower back. “Gale, could you please hold the drawing against one side of my tattoo? I can't even tell you which side. But it should fit.”

Gale fetched the paper and did as he was asked. When he found the matching side Johanna and he himself could see that the tattoo, a part of an arrow, a part of a circle and the head of a bird, flowed over into the drawing, which showed the tail-feathers of a bird and another part of a circle.

Johanna inhaled deeply. Madge turned around and she and Johanna both lifted their left hands to their mouths, pressed the three middle fingers against their lips and then held them out to each other in a silent salute.

Gale watched in astonishment, put the paper back onto the desk, and sat down. If someone told him this morning, when he went to the town guard outfitter to get his new clothes, that in the evening he would participate at a secret meeting with some kind of secret handshake or something like that, well, he would have asked that someone to stop with the rum-drinking. He grabbed for Johanna's forgotten goblet, took a healthy gulp of wine and inquired “Would someone be so kind to tell me what's going on?”

Johanna motioned to Madge to sit down again. “Please let me tell. Would you?” When Madge waved her hand Johanna continued, “Gale, when I said that you are needed because you are a formidable tracker and trapper, I wasn't kidding. Madge is not only a minstrel of Panem, but she is a member of a growing group who have sworn to unite the districts again, and to prevent war between the districts and to solve the problems every district has with banditry and slavery. There are other things we like to prevent or solve too, but let us speak about those three subjects – banditry, slavery and war.

Madge here is an expert in a couple of things and I don't mean music, but she is not an expert when it comes to tracking and trapping. No minstrel is, to be honest. They have other abilities. Madge can tell you later. Right now we need to find out how it is possible that every caravan, short of the last one with Annie and Madge, could have been ambushed so easily? Where the bandits have their headquarters? Who informed them and why? How they were able to weasel into this town and out of it without using the gates? We are controlling the ins and outs, but we see the results of their deeds.” Johanna ticked the points off on her fingers.

“There is one piece of information I wanted to bring to your attention right now.” Madge interrupted and offered Johanna her goblet. While Johanna drank a mouthful, Madge continued. “Yesterday evening we met a woman, Glimmer, who told everyone that she is from District 1, which she isn't. She said she was trained in the art of jewelry, but hers are fakes. She acted like she was a traveler from our caravan, which is a lie too. All in all I find her very fishy.”

“You think this woman is a spy or something?” Gale looked wonderingly. “I've seen her from afar. She was very familiar with Venia, Marvel's mother.”

Johanna groaned, “Not again, Venia and her offspring!” She shook her head. “I see we need more information. We have to look at everything that has to do with the caravan.”

“Wouldn't it be wise to invite Annie, Finnick and Pollux over for a more comprehensive meeting, let's say, tomorrow in the morning?” Madge interrupted. She didn't know Johanna, but she had a feeling she was able to go on an on. “They can add their knowledge to mine.”

Johanna looked outside. It was long past sundown. The night sky was black and blue and the stars and the moon were shining brightly – not a good night for smugglers or bandits, but maybe a good one for lovers. Boggs lived only a stone’s throw away. Suddenly she felt a lot younger, more like a teenager. She would fetch a bottle of red wine and go for a walk across the training-square into the building on the other side.

“You're right.” Johanna announced, “Let us meet again tomorrow mid-morning. Madge, would you be so kind to invite the other minstrel? And you Gale, please accompany Madge to her lodging.”

“On your order, Johanna.” Gale was on his feet in an instant. “I'll do everything possible to make sure that Madge will not be harmed.”

Johanna had to stifle a laugh while Madge did her best to look innocent. “Gale, I was not asking for you to protect her, but for her to teach you a trick or two about hand-to-hand-combat in case you got attacked.”

With that Johanna pushed a wine-skin into Gale’s hands “for later.” She grabbed a bottle of wine for herself and escorted them to the door.

to be continued ...

Chapter Text

~~~~

Gale found himself outside the guards quarters beside the beautiful woman, with a wineskin in his hands and no idea what to do now. Johanna had advised him to escort Madge to her quarters. Better said than done. The tall woman beside him took something out of her vest and stuffed it into her open shirt-sleeve. Then she tied a leather-band around her right wrist and pushed the sleeve down over her hand. All that in a few fluid movements. “What are you doing?”

Madge rolled her eyes. “Arranging my sleeves. Can you give me the wine-skin. I'll carry it, so you will have your hands free when we get ambushed.”

He handed her the wineskin, which she slung over her right shoulder so that it rested on her back. “Thank you. I'm ready to go. Maybe you would like to loosen your sword and long-knife a little. So that you can pull them faster, if needed.”

Gale took this as a sign that she would accept his role as the protector and felt a rush of warmth and pride in his chest. Even though Johanna made it sound as if he was the one who needed a guardian, at least Madge trusted his ability to protect her properly. “Of course, you are right,” he admitted in good humor. “The sheaths are still a little stiff. I'll have to oil them tomorrow.” He loosened the sword and long-knife, even though he was sure that he wouldn't need them.

Gale wanted to make this noble woman feel safe while they walked to the minstrel's quarters. Maybe she would invite him inside and tell him a little more about herself. She was exciting and mysterious, with her minstrel training and all the things she must have seen when she traveled from district to district. The wineskin held a good red wine to drink too, he suddenly realized. “Madge, do you know why Johanna was so generous with the wine?”

“A distraction” Madge smiled at him while she pushed her left hand through his arm and directed him to the lane in front of the watchtower. Every once in a while she wobbled a little. “Everyone who sees us will assume that you are bringing a tipsy minstrel to her quarters to have your wicked ways with her. That was Johanna’s good idea. Could you maybe walk a little closer?”

Gale shook his head in bewilderment. Like anyone would attack them. But he stepped closer so that his right hip brush against her left one, nonetheless. She smelled nice, he had to admit. And the warmth radiating from her body was nice to.

Madge beamed at him and let her head fall backwards as if she really had too much to drink and wanted to admire the starry night. “See it is much nicer when we walk like this. Would you please put your right hand on the hilt of your long-knife? And if you wouldn't mind you could whisper something in my ear every now and then. Let us behave like lovers to the passersby.”

Gale did as he was told, even though he found it a little peculiar how much Madge acted as if an ambush was something that would happen. But then he noticed that he could hear another set of footfalls besides Madge’s and his own. They both wore suede-boots with soft leather soles, but he could hear the sound of nailed soles.

Madge turned her head slightly and whispered in his ear, “I can hear at least hear two behind us. One on your left side and one on my right side. When you feel me loosen my hold on your arm you'll take the one at your side and I'll take care of the other. Don't try to interfere, and please, catch him alive, if possible.”

She winked and loosened her hold on his arm, and before he could think twice, his training kicked in. He turned in a flash and hit the head of the assailant's long-knife with the guard of his own knife. With a quick flick of his wrist he disarmed his attacker while unsheathing his sword with his left hand. Now armed with both weapons, he was able to repel the man against the next building and use his surprise to beat the pommel of his sword against the side of the man’s head. The man staggered, and Gale pushed him to the ground and restrained him with a leather hair band. When he was sure that this man was in no position to escape he turned around.

Madge was standing beside another restrained man. Her long honey colored locks fell down her back and over her shoulders like a waterfall of gold while she held the wineskin above her head and let the ruby red wine flow into her mouth. When she was finished, she sighed and pushed the wine towards Gale. “Ah, Johanna knows how to pick a good vintage.” She winked and he caught the double meaning behind her words.

“You know we have to take those two back to the next tower before we have time for a drink.” Gale pushed the stopper back into the wine-skin and slung in over his shoulder – just to be sure, he told himself. “And when we finished this annoying task we hopefully have a nice long conversation. Because I just decided that getting to know you real good is in my best interest. Are you up to tell me more about the tricks you have up your sleeve?”

Madge laughed out loud. “That can be arranged; that can definitively be arranged. But first let us have a nice little stroll with our captives to the next tower. Then we will have time to talk some more during our patrol. In my humble opinion, we will find another pair of trespasser easily.”

They encouraged the two men to stand up. The one that Madge knocked out began to argue that he’d done nothing wrong. He had a bloody nose and a missing front tooth. He looked flabbergasted. Madge held no weapon in her hands that explained this kind of injury. He began to argue that he got attacked without reason. That he was a harmless fellow on an evening stroll. Madge found this very amusing and showed him the knife he used during the attack and asked if he wanted a demonstration for everyone how she disarmed him. He swallowed his next words and grumbled into his beard. Obviously he was not interested in a demonstration.

Gale looked at Madge in admiration when he heard her plan. “How do you know that there are more?”

Madge petted his shoulder and then she grabbed her 'captive', bound his hands behind his back with a leather-band she wore around her wrist and motioned for Gale to do the same. “They are usually like Tracker Jackers – they come in hives. There are more, dear Captain, and you and I are the lucky ones to get them.”

to be continued ….

Chapter Text

~~~~

Something wasn't right. Peeta woke up because Lupe was not behaving like Peeta was used to from the little cat he once had, back in Seam. The little pup wasn't sleeping anymore, but she moved around and whimpered.

Earlier Peeta had wished Katniss, Prim and Alyson a good night, and took the pup to his room and placed her in his own bed. He shed his pants and over-shirt and slipped in beside her and warmed her with his body. But Lupe didn't stay asleep for long. She whimpered and moved around, pawed at the cloth of his undershirt and looked all around as if she was searching for something. He only hoped that nobody else heard Lupe and thought that he wasn't able to care for her properly.

“We have to be silent, little one. Let the others sleep,” he whispered to Lupe. “Are you hungry again. Or do you need to go outside to pass water?” He cradled her in his arms and tried to decide which one it could be.

“Whatever, I'll pull on my pants again and then we see if your bladder is full, or your tummy is empty.” He dressed again while Lupe rummaged on his bed, then he cradled her in his arms and left his room. In the kitchen glowed a small tallow candle beside a cauldron filled with wool and cloth. Alyson left it, because nestled in the cauldron, to keep it warm, was a jar with warm goat-milk. He remembered that she had told him it was for Lupe if she got hungry again. But first he wanted to see if the little wolf needed to use the garden. “Is there a phrase for using the outhouse when it comes to wolves?” He asked Lupe, but she didn't answer. She only chewed on his fingers.

Outside he put her down and instantly the wolf squad down. Peeta had the impression that Lupe's face showed some relief. Before he could pick her up again the door opened and Prim, followed by a sleepy-looking Katniss, came outside.

“I thought I heard something. Must have been you and Lupe.” Prim looked at ease and lifted the wolf into her arms. “I've heard rumors that in other cottages, just outside the town wall like ours, things have been stolen overnight. A pair of chickens or a piglet. I was afraid someone would try to steal Lady.”

Right after she finished the last words they could hear a door being opened from the barn. The three shared a look, then Peeta advised, “Go in, Prim and call Alyson and tell her that someone is in Lady’s barn. Katniss do you have a bow in the cottage?” Katniss, who now looked wide awake, nodded and rushed inside like a silent stormwind. Peeta whispered to Prim, “I'll go and have a look. If there really are burglars they will run away when they see that we are a couple of people. And please put Lupe back in the basket in my room and close the door. I don't want her to get underfoot or hurt.” He looked around and saw a thick broomstick without bristles someone must have left next to the door for repair. He took it while Prim rushed into the cottage on silent feet to do as she was asked.

Peeta sneaked equally silent to the barn and heard someone rummaging in it. He heard the clucking of Prim's hens and then Lady bleated. He waited until the intruder came into sight, clearly visible in the light of the full moon, before he left his place beside the barn and block the barn-door. He recognized the man immediately as one of Romulus Thread's footmen. Thread was second in command to Cray. This face he would never forget and he was sure Lucius remembered him as well. Peeta focused on the other man's eyes, lifted the broomstick with both hands, and with one powerful movement he broke it in two halves. “You won't leave the barn with the chickens and the goat, Lucius. I won't let you pass. I have to admit I'm surprised to see you here, near the Capitol and stealing livestock.”

~~~

In the meantime Katniss and Prim had rushed outside again, followed by Alyson who had the largest knife in her hands she could grab in her hurry. Both Katniss and Prim were aiming her choice of weapon at the man who stood in the barn door. Katniss had her bow and arrow and Prim had a slingshot. But neither Peeta nor the man noticed them. They were too busy in their face-off. Alyson recognized the man too and the grip on her knife got firmer.

The man called Lucius laughed maliciously. “You won't let me pass? You and which warriors. The last I saw you Peeta Mellark, you were bound to the post in Cray’s smithy and I was busy poking you with a poker. Tell me, do you still have my marks?”

Peeta shrugged his shoulders. “The last time I saw you, Lucius was when you had to leave Cray's common room. Kicked out like the mutt that you are. I was looking through a window and I assume he was not pleased with you after he found out that I was gone.” He looked into the face of the man who had an ugly scar that went from the corner of his mouth to his ear.” Peeta pointed to the red zigzag. “That hadn't been there before. I see he used his favorite knife on you this time. I can't say that I'm sorry. I can still feel that special knife in my skin when I close my eyes. To know that you got cut by him too is good news. It has been often enough that the reason why I got hurt was because of you. Please do tell, was the knife dirty? Got the cut infected? Did it hurt like hell?” Peeta knew he played on time with his speech. Any time Katniss, Alyson and Prim would be here with him. And hopefully Katniss would have her bow with her.

~~~

Katniss looked at Alyson who had put her hand on her daughters shoulder. Her mother motioned to wait and let Peeta have this face-off. Katniss trusted her mother's advice. Maybe this was exactly what Peeta needed. The chance to best one of his former torturers. If it was necessary, she would shoot and hit the man faster than a bolt. And she never failed. She glanced quickly over to her sister. She too had a look of determination in her eyes and a round polished stone, the size of a walnut, in her slingshot. Prim was exceptionally good with a slingshot. The chance that this man, Lucius would be able to hurt Peeta was under 1 percent.

~~~

Lucius dropped the hemp-sack with the clucking chickens and let the rope, attached to Lady's collar, go. “So what, you think you can stop me? Like you could ever stop me before. I remember how often I pushed your face into the dirt when you couldn't hold your mouth and needed a pounding. Are you still such a smart-arse. Haven't you learned your lesson after I punished your little friend, what was his name, for your misbehavior?”

With every word he stepped closer to Peeta, who held the broomsticks so tightly in his hands that his knuckles turned white.

Lucius boasted, “I will never forget your face when you were bound to the post and I used your little friend like a whore. And you couldn't do anything to stop me. So, don't try to stop me now.” With his last words he had reached Peeta, holding up his chin and smirking in a boastful way Peeta knew too well.

Suddenly Peeta dropped the broomstick from his right hand and balled it into a powerful fist. He flew forward with a quick straight punch, effectively crashing into Lucius upturned jaw. A move so powerful that Lucius flew backward against the barn, slid down and lay there motionless.

Peeta shook his hand from the sting of the punch and checked if Lucius was still alive – he was, but unconscious. Peeta led Lady back into the barn. He emptied the sack and saw the chickens wobble away. With the rope he bound Lucius’ hands behind his back, then he tied the rope to his feet, bending his lower legs back. When he was finished, the man, who had been such an enemy in his former life was now bound and unable to move. That was the moment when he noticed the three woman suddenly standing beside him.

Katniss had lowered the bow and Prim the slingshot. Alyson put a hand on his shoulder and mouthed a 'thank you' and a 'me too'. Peeta nodded in silent understanding. Then he was engulfed in a group hug. Alyson gently caressed his head and told him that he had done well and that she was proud of him. Prim declared that he had saved not only their life, but that of Lady and the brown chickens too and that he was a hero. Peeta laughed – good to know Prim had her priorities right.

He turned to Katniss and swallowed. “How much did you hear?”

Katniss shook her head instead of an answering, and pushed the stray curls from his forehead. She let her hands slide to his shoulders and lifted herself up on tiptoe and kissed him square on the mouth. “Enough to hate him. Let us talk later.”

Alyson cleared her throat. “I think it would be a good idea to bring Lucius to the next tower and tell them what happend. I know, there are a lot of worse crimes he has done before he tried to steal Lady and our chickens.”

Peeta still looked befuddled and touched his lips. Katniss had kissed him. In front of her mother. He shook his head like he had to come out of a dream. “Huh?”

Prim laughed. “Peeta, come back to earth. You and Katniss have to take him away. I don't want this villain near Lady and my poor chickens. He pushed them in a sack of all things. I'll have to see if they are hurt.” With that she rushed to the barn, making soothing noises along the way.

Katniss laughed. “Looks like it is you and me - 'hero'. Let us lift him on the cart and take him to the tower mom spoke about. I too don't want to see him again.” She took Peeta's hand and together they went to pull the hand cart to the barn.

~~~

Meanwhile, Alyson made her way over to the bound man. He stirred and opened his eyes. She bent forward. “I hoped I would never see you again, Lucius. Not after I was able to cut my ropes and run away. But now I'm happy to see you, trussed up like a turkey on the harvest feast. It was a pleasure to see you going down with one jab to your jaw.” Lucius tried to speak although his face was red and swollen. The lower jaw looked dislocated, but Alyson grabbed a handful of straw and stuffed it into his open mouth nonetheless. “I don't want to hear one single sound out of you again. Not even a painful moan. Never again. You have done so many things in your life that are worth going to prison for. And not only to Peeta and other kid as I heard, but to me too. You know what Lucius, when I look at you, with the scar in your face, the dirty, torn clothes and bound with a rope for trying to steal our livestock – well I can promise you, while Katniss and Peeta take you away I will go into our wonderful cottage, fill a goblet with our finest honey-wine and enjoy it. And when the both of them come back I will offer them a goblet too. And we will live happily and go into our beds while you can rot in a cell for all you have done.” Alyson turned around and left the bound man.

~~~

It wasn't an easy task to lift the trussed up man on the cart. But after they had finished it, Katniss and Peeta pulled him out of the garden and onto the lane leading to the town gate.

“So, how much of our 'conversation' did you hear?” Peeta air-quoted and turned towards Katniss while their captive stirred on the rumbling cart.

“Enough to know that he is a criminal,” Katniss pointed to the man on the cart, “and we all can be happy that you knocked him out. My mom asked me to wait for you to finish him of. That says a lot about her trust in you. And mine and Prim's. Everything else can wait till you choose when it’s time to speak about it. It's up to you.” With that said she lowered the carts handle because they had reached the tower.

~~~

Katniss knocked at the heavy wooden door. A small hatch opened and a sappy, half deaf gate guard asked a couple of times for her request. Finally she bellowed truthfully that she was Katniss Everdeen, the beekeeper and Peeta Mellark was beside her. That they had captured a criminal who had tried to steal their livestock. And that they wanted to deliver him to the prison. The door opened immediately and Katniss was surprised to see that behind the gate guard was a rather large entrance room with a couple of tables and benches. In the walls were hooks. Dangling from it were coats and hats. A couple of wings branched off from this room. In the wings sat captives on the floor with their hands bound in the back, similar to Lucius. From one of the wings a female voice hollered, “Bring the new captive right in. The more the merrier. I now grow accustomed to getting a hourly delivery of criminals.”

Katniss snorted and turned to the next guard. “Who is she? I think I like her.”

From the back came a beautiful, tall woman who looked familiar. She turned to Lucius who still lay on the cart and then to Katniss. “Well this is a compact parcel. Good evening, did you catch him and cord him so nicely?”

Katniss laughed and shook her head, “No, I had the job of standing in the back, aimed an arrow on him and let Peeta do the job. Do you remember us? We met yesterday. I'm one of Annie's friends. I'm Katniss.”

“Of course, Katniss. I'm just a little surprised that our next get-together would be in the middle of the night in a cell block.” The woman turned around and noticed Peeta who stood in the background near the door. “Good evening to you too, Peeta, I assume. I'm Madge, by the way.” Madge laughed and offered Katniss a wineskin. “Here Katniss. This is such a coincidence, we stumbled over a couple of invaders tonight. And now you bring one too. This is exactly what I told Captain Hawthorne earlier. They come in hives, like tracker jackers.”

Katniss took a careful sip, delighted at the taste, and pushed the wineskin to Peeta. “That is interesting. Captain Hawthorne, you said. I know a Gale Hawthorne. Has he been promoted to Captain?”

Peeta took a tentative sip too and gave the skin back to Madge who pushed the stopper into the opening and threw it onto the next desk. “Yes, I met him this evening and since Johanna asked him so nicely to escort me back to my quarters, he did. We had such a busy time, finding invaders in almost every lane we crossed, we never reached my quarters. Actually, he has gone back to inform Johanna that we need reinforcements. I don't think that she will be happy about being interrupted. But what can we do?”

Peeta cleared his throat, “Maybe I can tell you something about the one we captured.”

Madge's eyes narrowed while she turned her attention onto the captive in front of them. “You knew him? That could be valuable information you have. But tell me, why does he have in his mouth?”

“He is a scumbag,” both Katniss and Peeta replied at once, then turned to each other and looked meaningful. “My mother put the straw into his mouth,” Katniss added rolling her eyes.

“Okay.” Madge shrugged her shoulders and focused on Peeta. “What can you tell me about him that could be of interest?”

“He has been one of Romulus Thread’s footmen. Thread is second in command in Cray’s household. Lucius, that is his name, loved to punish the kids in Seam. He prefers his victims young and helpless. He knows that he has no chance against a grown up, but would never admit it.” Peeta took a deep breath and continued, “He raped, tortured and murdered at least two young ones that I know about. But he has fallen in disgrace with Romulus. Presumably the day I fled. This scar on his face is a new one. Romulus loves to hurt with his knives and this kind of scar is his mark you could say.” Peeta exhaled. “Lucius wouldn't have worn such torn and filthy clothes before. He used to wear the good ones he stole from the travelers they ambushed and murdered.” Peeta's eyes traveled to Lucius boots. “And neither would he wear such scruffy boots without need. He once asked Thread about the date of the next raid because he needed new boots.”

Madge put her hand on Peeta's shoulder. “You have a fine eye for such things. Are you by any means a 'reader'?”

Katniss lifted one of her eyebrows and looked impressed, while Peeta looked befuddled. “I don't know what you mean. I can read. I can write too. Ask Katniss.”

Madge lifted her hands, “Sorry my fault. A 'reader' is someone who instantly knows a lot about people just by looking at them. He reads them like a book, you could say.”

Peeta laughed. “I don't know. I can tell you something about Lucius and if I can help you with the other captives, I will. Maybe I recognize another one from the Seam.”

Madge led him to a wing of cells and stopped at the first one. “These two idiots are the ones that ambushed Gale and me first.”

Peeta looked at the men who sat on the cold stone floor. They were no longer bound, but someone had taken away their boots and belts. He turned to Madge while Katniss stood near the door. “They are not from the Seam. At least they didn't live there when I did. I left a fortnight ago. Madge, can you tell them to lift their tunics, so that I can see their backs?”

Madge stepped to the cell. “Hey, turn around and show us your backs. You heard him, lift up your tunics.”

To Peeta's and Katniss' surprise they both did as Madge told them. Their backs were muscular, fleshy, milky white and unblemished. Peeta waved to Madge that he had seen enough and that they could leave the wing.

Outside in the entrance room they met a handsome and surprised looking captain in a dress uniform that must have once been immaculate. Now it was tainted with blood and what could be puke, and sat askew. But the captain grinned broadly like he had never felt better. “Hello, do we have guests, Madge? If had known I would have fetched more wine and something to eat.”

Madge shrugged. “These are surprise guests, but they brought a present. Gale I suppose you know Katniss. And this is Peeta, who knocked the villain out who is currently chewing straw over there. He was trying to steal their livestock.”

“Hello, what a surprise. Livestock, you mean Lady? He tried to steal Lady? I wonder that he is still alive. Like I know Prim ...,” Gale shook his head and turned to Madge. “That is Katniss sister. You will love her when you meet her. Well, Prim would have shot him with her slingshot and Katniss is a master when it comes to archery.” He turned to Katniss. “Does the captive have any holes? I would like to know.”

Katniss shook her head, amused and looked at Gale who continued to chat. “Sorry I forgot to introduce myself, but I'm usually not welcomed back with presents like this one. Good evening Ca..Katniss.” He turned to Peeta, “And good evening to you too, Peeta. We didn't meet before, I'm sorry to admit. But better late than never. I'm Gale. Captain Gale Hawthorne, at your service.” Gale reached out his right hand and Peeta took it and gave him a firm handshake. “Peeta Mellark, and I'm at yours.”

Gale nodded. “Good to know. With what did you beat him? A shovel?” He bend down and pulled the bloodied straw out of Lucius mouth. Lucius tried to speak, but couldn't move his jaw, swollen as it was. Instead he pushed out the last pieces of straw with his tongue, followed by one of his front teeth.

Peeta's gaze followed the movements of Lucius mouth. “No, I hit him one time with my fist. A straight jab, if you want to know. I think Lucius here has a glass jaw.” Peeta looked bewildered, but then he turned around and motioned for the others to join him in another part of the tower, one without so many listening ears. Once there, he informed the others about the two captives they had visited. “The both of them have never been ordinary people in the Seam. Their backs are without scars, so they have never been whipped by Thread or his footmen. And really, everyone in the Seam has been whipped one or more times. They have never worked on a farm either and I think, maybe they have hardly left the woods before. Under the filthy over-shirt and pants, the underthings are almost white. So I assume that they have a place where clothes can get cleaned. Good that you took away their boots. Have you seen their feet? Without calluses. And their legs. They have bow legs. They are not used to walk a lot – at least not without boots. I could bet that they have nailed boots. And they know how to obey when they get commands. Madge didn't have to tell them twice to turn around. They are able to recognize true authority and acted out of instinct to Madge. They are horsemen, from nearby.” Peeta turned to Madge. “That is all I can tell you yet.”

The other three nodded at Peeta approvingly. “That is quite a gift you have there, Peeta,” Gale exclaimed. “Have you ever thought about joining the town guard. We could use someone with your skills.”

Peeta turned to Katniss and grabbed her hand. “No, I want to work with Katniss and her family. I can help out if you need me, but otherwise I want to life in peace. That is all I ever wanted. I've had enough of fighting and trying to stay alive, enough to last a lifetime. So if you need me, just tell me. Otherwise, I would love to go back with Katniss to the cottage. I have a bed that is calling my name. The first bed I ever had in my life. And a little wolf pup we just adopted. You are welcome to visit her, if you want. Her name is Lupe.” Peeta looked at Katniss as if to ask for her consent and was greeted with her throwing her arms around his neck and giving him the second kiss in his life.

To be continued ….

Chapter Text

~~~~

He had kissed her.

Laying in her bed, wide awake, Katniss couldn't stop smiling when she remembered every single moment. Every touch, every smell, taste and noise. Inside her seemed to be a gush spring full of happiness, waiting to break out. Wasn't it even possible to feel so alert, so euphoric?

She could climb a tree or a mountain. Build a house or a ship, but she had to be silent and calm. Breath in and out even when she felt like jubilation. But she didn't want to wake up Prim, so she bit on her fist to stop her traitorous mouth from cheering her joy out loud. Prim was a light sleeper and after yesterday she surely would be on alert. Katniss would tell Prim the following morning, of course. She had never been able to keep secrets from her beloved sister, her confidante and best friend.

But tonight she wanted it all for herself, the memories, the joy. His scent, the softness of his skin and the taste of his lips.

He had kissed her.

True she kissed him first but she just couldn't help herself. The first time, after he knocked that villain out cold. Prim and her mom hugged him and he stood there, not proud like any other man would be after he defeated an intruder – but nervous about the things she could have heard, had heard de facto. She couldn't think of anything to make it more clear that she was on his side, always – no questions asked. So she kissed him on the spur-of-the-moment.

And yes, she kissed him the next time. In the tower. In front of Madge and Gale.

Because she felt so full of joy about his statement. It would have been so easy for him to say yes, to Gale's spontaneous offer to become a guard, too. Almost every boy in Capitol dreamed of becoming a guard. But not Peeta, obviously. He declined, just so, without asking for time to think about it thoroughly. Peeta said no, for the right reasons, if you asked her, to have a normal peaceful life, with her and Lupe.

They walked back home. Katniss didn't know what to say. She wasn't good with words, but suddenly it wasn't important. Peeta didn't say much either. They entered the cottage, the kitchen was empty. Her mother and Prim must have gone to bed. Only the tallow candle in the kitchen illuminated the space. Neither of them made a move to leave to their respective bedrooms. Peeta closed the door and effectively shut the night out, then he turned to her. She stepped closer to him on her own accord and before she could offer him a good night, he gently cupped her cheek in the palm of his hand. It was callused, but to her it felt like silk and heaven. Her eyes found his or vice versa, she couldn't tell. All she could see was a sea of blue, looking for answers to questions never voiced.

She didn't know how much time they spend in the half-light of the kitchen, gazing into each other eyes. But each one must have found something in the others eyes, because when Peeta leaned in she met him halfway. Her eyes fluttered shut at the same time his lips touched hers. Warmth spread through her. Warmth that came from her tingling lips, the shared breath, his palm on her cheek and her hand on the silky skin at the nape of his neck, which she touched without remembering that she had reached out for him. After awhile they separated their lips, but their foreheads almost touched each other. She looked into his eyes that showed her every emotion she found in her own heart. When they finally went to their own rooms she knew where they stood with each other – no words were needed.

He had kissed her and she lay in her bed, reminiscing every single moment of it. She remembered his warmth, his soft lips, his smell with a hint of cinnamon, the soft hairs at the nape of his neck, the stubble on his chin, and he had to bent a little to be at the perfect height for kissing.

Katniss shook her head. How was she supposed to fall asleep after that kiss, her first kiss? Everything in her was singing a song. She was in love. How was she supposed to stay in her room, in her bed and not walk through the kitchen - to him, to kiss Peeta again and again? She opened her eyes and could see the night was still young, the moon full and high. Even when her mind told her otherwise, she still had enough time before morning twilight, time to sleep. A part of her knew that she had to rest.

<

But sleep didn't come. She had to will herself to sleep, like Annie had once taught her. So Katniss didn't try to shut the thoughts out that went through her mind, but channeled them to a nice place. Her bee-garden.

In her mind she left the cottage and went to the gate, opened it, walked through and closed it behind her. She imagined Lady bleating when she noticed that she wasn't allowed to leave the garden.

Katniss imagined walking the path leading to her beehive. From a distance she could see that there was someone in the meadow, interacting with someone much smaller. She recognized the clothes. It had been some time since she dreamed of her papa and Prim as a toddler, playing in the meadow.

When she came nearer the man straighten himself up and turned to her. It wasn't her papa, it was Peeta. Peeta beaming at her and holding out his hand. She ran to him and gladly laced her fingers through his when she reached him.

And the someone he had spoken to, was Lupe. Lupe who jumped up and down, back and forth, as if to engage the two humans in a game of catch.

Peeta smiled at her, pulled her closer and whispered, “Hi, is this your dream with me in it, or the other way round?”

In her sleep Katniss sighed with a happy smile on her face, turned around and unconsciously reached out to someone, someone who wasn't there.

~~~

Sleep eluded him.

But honestly - how could he sleep. His heart was racing a mile a minute. So much has happened today, but the most important thing was the time he shared with Katniss just before they went to bed.

Peeta turned around and was greeted with a soft whimper from Lupe who slept beside him. He spooned her little warm body and she fell silent again.

Katniss had kissed him twice today.

The second time in the tower in the presence of Madge and Gale. It was like a dream come true. A dream he never dared to have. He never had a girlfriend before. He was always so careful to not show an interest in someone, who's hurt or death could be used to torture him when he was back in the Seam. He had always been careful with showing any emotions. If you don't like or love someone, there wasn't a reason for his mother or Cray to take them away.

But now everything has changed. He could show his emotions and nothing bad would happen. He noticed it this afternoon with Lupe. Everyone was helpful. Everyone thought of things that would heal the small wolf, to integrate her in this amazing family. He was not only allowed to keep the wolf, they welcomed her as an addition. And Katniss, Katniss even more than the others showed love. He remembered the time they sat outside with the little wolf in front of them, remembered Katniss face, so full of joy. And it felt so peaceful too.

It was the perfect evening after a wonderful day. Katniss had told him a little about her childhood friend Gale. About his former aspirations to be more than a friend, and that she thought about Gale like an older brother. Katniss reassured him that no matter what happens with Gale, Peeta would have his place in the Everdeen family. Later, when he met Gale in the tower, his behavior had been a nice surprise – he offered Peeta a good night and a handshake. Peeta would have thought Gale would be difficult and he assumed that he could thank Madge for the friendly behavior.

That was something he could wholeheartedly do. He too liked the minstrel, outspoken, funny and strong. Maybe just someone that a man like Gale needed. So they had parted on good terms and all agreed to meet the next morning. The streets were populated with guards, like Gale promised, when they left the tower.

When they walked home, he was at loss for words. Katniss had kissed him. The first time after he had defeated Lucius, but he didn't want to think about him now. He wanted to think about Katniss’ kiss. He told himself first that she felt sorry for him, but her behavior told him otherwise.

Later, when she kissed him again, he understood. It was her way to show him how she felt. And he, he felt the same. How couldn't he? She had found her way into his heart with a song and a gentle touch. Katniss was so strong and yet so gentle. She burst with life and love and curiosity. She opened her heart for him and welcomed him to find a place to live in. Yes, she was pretty, but she was so much more beautiful inside, and outside when you added her character to her good looks.

Peeta realized for the first time in his life that he could love, give his love freely. No one could take it away from him.

He only needed one little assurance to be sure, so he kissed her.

In the middle of the Everdeen's kitchen. Right on her beautiful, soft, warm mouth.

If heaven has a taste, it tastes like those lips.

If heaven would have a scent, it would be the scent of her olive skin - like honey and honey suckle.

He looked into those beautiful silvery eyes and found everything he felt in his heart mirrored in them.

When he left the kitchen after the kiss, he turned around and saw Katniss in front of her room, looking at him too. Softly smiling and touching her lips. So, Peeta touched his lips too. A silent gesture in remembrance of a shared moment, and a promise too. This kiss wouldn't be the last one.

Peeta was still wide awake. He knew that he should sleep, but really, how could he? Katniss’ face roamed through every part of his mind. He snuggled closer to the pup and willed himself to think about a place that offered peace to calm his nerves.

He was in the bee-garden, the meadow and Lupe was in front of him. She had brought him a twig he had thrown for her earlier, in some kind of play. She smiled at him in her wolfish way, her tongue lolling out of her muzzle.

Suddenly her ears perked up when she looked behind him. She had trouble sitting still and not jumping away.

Curiously Peeta straighten himself up and turned around. There she was, Katniss, coming to him in her loose fitting pants and a short-sleeved over-shirt, bare-feet, like she had been in the brook, her hair in a loose side-braid.

Her eyes widened in recognition when she saw him. A radiant smile beamed on her face when he offered her his hand. With a few quick steps she was near him, beside him and holding his hand in her much smaller one.

He smelled her scent and immediately felt warm, welcomed, and home.

Bending towards her ear he teased, “Hi, is this your dream with me in it, or the other way round?”

Peeta sighed and smiled in his dream. And Lupe, who had managed to move even closer to the warm tummy of the human beside her, had a wolfish smile on her face too. Her paws stirred a few times but then she fell into a deep sleep once again.

To be continued ….

Chapter Text

~~~~

The paws of the little wolf moved tirelessly in her sleep.

Lupe has been running around the meadow and playing catch with her humans. In her dreams there was no cut on her leg. In her dreams there was no remembrance of someone hurting her. In her dreams there was only joy and fun and humans who fed her and cuddled her. She was happy. When she was too tired to run and chase and jump anymore, she let the humans cradle her between their bodies and fell asleep.

~~~

Katniss turned around in her bed and her whole face reflected that her dream was an enjoyable one.

She couldn't believe how happy she felt. In her dream, she was lying in the meadow with Peeta beside her and Lupe cradled between them.

“Do you think when we wake up we will have a day like this?”

She turned her head and found herself almost nose to nose with Peeta. “I hope we will. I want such days at least three or four times a week.”

Peeta pushed a lock of her hair out of her face. “I will wake up really early in the morning and bake bread. When you wake up we will pack a basket with the bread and some cheese and take it with us to the meadow.” He gave her such a sweet smile,she felt her heart flutter.

“What kind of bread,” she asked breathlessly.

“What do you like most? Tell me, and I will make it for you.” He caressed her brow and she closed her eyes in delight.

“I think I like everything you bake, but I just love the cheese Prim makes and I can't get enough from the herbs we have in our garden. The ones I put in the greens on your first evening here.” Katniss opened her eyes again and let her fingers comb the short hairs on his head.

“You got it. Tomorrow morning, first thing, I will make us bread with cheese and herbs. I promise.” Peeta almost moaned when she caressed him.

“And I will thank you with a secret sign. One only you and I know.” Katniss laughed softly.

“A sign only for us. I like that. How about you touch my hand like this?” Peeta let his hand slowly pet here skin from her wrist to her fingers and then grasped her fingers briefly.

“I like that. This will be our sign to say thank you.” Katniss took his hand and let her fingers slide from his wrist to the tips of his fingers and grasped them. “Thank you for sharing my dream. Or for letting me sharing yours. What do you think? When Lupe is healthy again and we go to the meadow, will Lupe run around us and chase butterflies?” Katniss nuzzled her face into the palm of Peeta's hand.

“She will be so tired when we return home that she will sleep near the shed while we tend to the bees and she won’t wake up until we have time to play with her again.” Peeta let his hand slide over the shell of Katniss ear.

“Maybe she’ll  fish with us when she is older. I saw amber wolves fish for trout. She’ll jump into the brook and bite into the water.” Katniss inhaled deeply when Peeta's hand traveled to her neck.

“Katniss, is this real?” Peeta looked at her with awe in his eyes. “Are  we really speaking with each other in our dreams, thinking about a mutual future? Or will I wake up in the morning and find it was nothing more than a beautiful dream?”

“I don't know for sure, but I don't want this to be a dream that neither you nor I remember tomorrow. I want this to be real. You know, I'm going to sing you a song and tomorrow I'll see if you remember it. So we both can the sure that this is real.”

Katniss slowly sat up so as not to disturb the pup. “You can tell me first thing tomorrow if you know this song.” Katniss closed her eyes as she began to sing.

Deep in the meadow, under the willow
A bed of grass, a soft green pillow
Lay down your head, and close your sleepy eyes
And when again they open, the sun will rise.

Here it's safe, here it's warm
Here the daisies guard you from every harm
Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true
Here is the place where I love you.

Deep in the meadow, hidden far away
A cloak of leaves, a moonbeam ray
Forget your woes and let your troubles lay
And when again it's morning, they'll wash away.

Here it's safe, here it's warm
Here the daisies guard you from every harm
Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true
Here is the place where I love you.

Here is the place where I love you.

Deep in the meadow, hidden far away
A cloak of leaves, a moonbeam ray
Forget your woes and let your troubles lay
And when again it's morning, they'll wash away.

Here it's safe, here it's warm
Here the daisies guard you from every harm
Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true
Here is the place where I love you.

When she opened her eyes again, Peeta and Lupe were gone. Only the crushed grass beside her showed that she had not been alone in the meadow.

~~~

Katniss woke with a start. She hadn’t realized that she had fallen back to sleep. The sun wasn't even up yet, but she could hear a melee and agitated voices outside.

“Be careful when you bring him inside.” Alyson's stern voice commanded respect. “He was caught in the burning shed and hit by a falling beam.”

Katniss was out of her bed and in her clothes in a matter of seconds, then rushed into the kitchen. The others must have moved into her mother’s healers room because only Peeta with Lupe squirming in his arms, remained. She rushed to him and without thinking twice, embraced him. “Oh my god Peeta. I thought it was you my mom spoke about. You’re OK, aren't you?”

Peeta shifted Lupe to one arm and returned her hug with the other and nodded. “I'm OK. Don't worry. Alyson has a patient who is injured. Maybe you know him, rather large, dark skinned. A young woman, around Prim's age was with him. Gale and another guy brought him to us.”

The door to Alyson's room opened and the two men and the young woman Peeta mentioned before came out – it was Rue.

Gale looked at Katniss and Peeta. “Thresh was caught in his burning shed. Your mother and Prim are taking care of him. Rory was nearby and heard Rue crying for help. He was able to pull him out of the shed.” He tousled his brother’s hair in affection. “If Rory hadn't sneaked out in the middle of the night and went by Thresh's farm, Thresh could have been burned alive. I have never been happier to see my brother not listen to my advice.”

“Me neither,” Rory shook his head. “I don't know what could have caused the shed to burn. Rue said that there were only a couple of crates of apples in it.”

Peeta leaned forward and offered the squirming and face-kissing pup to Katniss. “The shed was almost empty?” He let his fingers stay a moment longer on Katniss hand before he motioned to the others to take a seat at the table. Katniss cradled the pup in her arms and smiled when Peeta carried cups to the table and poured cold tea in them. He gave her a wink and offered her a cup and his opinion. “It makes absolutely no sense for someone to set fire to an empty shed. Maybe there was natural reason?”

“We'll have to ask Thresh when we can speak with him.” Katniss tried to save her shirt sleeve from a chewing Lupe.

“Is that a wolf pup?” Rory just noticed the small animal for the first time. “I haven't seen one in years.”

“Yes, she’s an amber wolf. We found her yesterday.” Katniss petted Lupe's head and gave up on saving the sleeve. The shirt was for for working in the meadow anyway. “But back to the shed. What could have happened?”

“I would like to be able to rule out arson. But first I need to know if there's anyone who didn’t like you and your brother, Rue?” Peeta addressed the young woman who alternated between fiddling with the hem of her shirt and looking over her shoulder to the door of Mrs. Everdeen’s workroom.

Rue shook her head and sipped at her cup of tea. “I can't think of anyone who dislikes us that much. But I'll ask Thresh when he is awake again.” She turned to Katniss, “He will be awake soon. Right, Katniss?”

Katniss grabbed Rue’s free hand. “I'm sure my mom and Prim will do their best. Shall I go in and have a look? I could tell you what they say,” Katniss offered.

At this moment the door opened and Prim came out, which caused Rue to stand up so quickly that her stool tipped over and Lupe gave a surprised whimper. Everyone turned to Prim, who smiled and nodded in relief. “He woke up for a short time, Rue. Everything will be OK.”

Rue rushed forward and into Prim's embrace. “ I was so afraid. Do you think that I can see him?”

Prim shook her head and pushed Rue's dark curls out of her face. “Not now. It looked a lot worse than it was in reality. But he might have a concussion.  Thresh has lost all his hair. Partly to the fire, partly to mom's razor.” She took Rue's still trembling hands in hers and led her back to the table. “But he didn't inhale much smoke; that is good. And the head-wound bled like hell, but was not really deep. Mom will give him some sleep syrup, because he wanted to run out and save the crops. He will be sleeping soon.”

Gale looked a little taken aback when Rue sat down so close to Prim that you couldn't push a sheet of paper between them, and Prim wrapped her arm around Rue's shoulder.

He looked as if he had to rethink something, but then he focused on Rory. “Maybe it would be good to see if there are any signs of how the fire started. We had enough trouble in the last hours. If someone deliberately set fire to the shed, I want to know it.” Gale stood up and motioned for Rory to follow his lead.

“That makes a lot more sense than to wait here till he wakes up.” Prim looked at her bloody clothes and shrugged. “I'll sent for you when that is the case. Excuse me, but it’s time to do my usual chores. Lady is waiting and the chickens too. Rue, do you want to join me?”

Before the others could say something, both young women left the kitchen hand in hand. “I thought that maybe you and Rue ...“ Gale started to say to Rory, looking at the door. “Or maybe you and Prim ...” he added, confused.

“Nah,” Rory laughed. “Everybody, but you and Thresh knows that Prim and Rue are an item since winter-dance last year.” He pulled his woolen hood over his head. “You will find out soon enough who I do want to date, brother dearest. Until then, you have to wait like everybody else.” He grabbed his belt and the attached pouch and fastened them to his waist. He turned to Peeta. “So do you want to have a look too, Peeta? I heard from Gale that you are very observant.”

Peeta looked at Katniss, who encouraged him with a smile and a small motion of her head. Has it only been a couple of day since she met him? After the two days they spend together and their shared dream from last night, if it really was a shared dream and not just her imagination, it was as if they had known each other for a long time. “Their farm isn't that far away. You will be back in no time. And I can take care of Lupe. She would be a distraction while you try to investigate the fire.” She finger combed the pup's coat and bent forward. “We will have a little bit of girl talk, won't we, honey?” She murmured to the pup who slobbered over her face. “But first, let me give a woolen hood to our Peeta too. I have one in my room.” Katniss stood up, motioned for Peeta to follow her. “We’ll back in a minute, Gale.”

Once they were inside her room, Katniss placed Lupe on her bed. The pup started immediately to snuffle in her sheets. “The hood is in my trunk. Let me get it for you so you’ll be warm.” Katniss tried to move to the trunk, but Peeta placed a hand on her shoulder to stop her.

“I wanted to tell you something, Katniss. I don't know if it makes sense to you or not, but if I don't say it yet, I may lose my courage and not say it at all.”

Katniss stood still, she looked into his blue eyes and waited.

Peeta inhaled deeply. “I didn't know the song, but I love it. You have such a sweet voice and I wanted to stay, but Lupe woke me up. I remember a few words 'Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true, Here is the place where I love you.' Please tell me that this makes sense to you too.”

In an instant Katniss pushed her arms around his middle and pulled him closer. “It was real. You remembered it. The song was a lullaby my mom sang for us when Prim and I were little.”

“Does it mean that we can visit each other in our dream?” Peeta pressed a soft kiss to the crown of her head.

Katniss looked up at him and smiled. “I think that is exactly what it means.”

~~~

Later in the kitchen, Peeta went to the cupboard, put some pieces of bread into his pouch and carried a heaping plate full of freshly baked bread topped with warm cheese and herbs to Katniss. “Try these in the meantime and tell me later if you like them. I’ll be back soon.”

Katniss looked at the plate and let her fingers slide over his hand and grasped his fingers. “Like you promised. I'm sure the bread will be delicious. Now go with Gale and Rory and be back soon. I will stay with Lupe until you are back.”

Peeta pulled the woolen hood over his head and shoulders and left together with Gale and Rory.

Katniss lowered her nose to the pups coat and inhaled deeply. Lupe smelled a little bit like Peeta. “So, Lupe, tell me,” she whispered. “Is Peeta a good companion to cuddle with at night?”

~~~

Prim sat beside her goat and carefully milked the animal while Rue fed the chickens. It was a little less milk in the pail than the day before and Prim noticed that the goat’s udders were more sensitive – a good sign that Lady was pregnant. She hoped it would be another female goat, but she had to wait; that was the hardest part. Right now, with her growing family, they could use the extra milk to make more cheese. Maybe they should buy another one from the goat man soon. The little wolf needed milk too. And Peeta, well he was all skin and bones. He needed milk and eggs to heal properly. She finished her work, smeared a blob of grease on Lady's udders and went to Rue. “What do you think, should I buy another goat? It looks like Lady is with kids.” Prim showed the pail to her girlfriend.

“If you have the money, you should. Now with all the new people in town, some citizens may try to buy a goat themselves and offer the milk to the travelers. Thresh said that Haymitch told him about citizens who offer bed and breakfast for tremendous sums. If you want a goat, buy it now before they are all sold to become someone’s dinner.” Rue had emptied the last contents of her bucket with chicken feed, showed the empty bucket to the chickens who didn't understand that the feeding stopped. The little brown feather-balls clucked and left the barn. “I think, I have an idea about what happened with our shed.” Rue took Prim's free hand and together they walk back to the cottage. “I think Thresh talked with Haymitch and the both of them thought that it would be a good idea to make schnapps from the apple cider in our shed.”

“But do you have the still at home? I never saw one when I came over.” Prim opened the door and they entered the kitchen.

“Never saw what?” Katniss, who cuddled with Lupe, asked from her place at the table. She had a bowl with pup fodder in front of her and Lupe alternated between licking at Katniss’ food covered fingers and at the bowl itself.

“A still for making schnapps from cider,” Rue informed her. “Yesterday when Thresh came home from town he brought something into the shed. I heard the rumbling of a hand cart. I thought nothing about it, till this morning when Peeta asked about arson. I think the reason could be something else. But first I have to ask Thresh.”

“If Thresh really want to distill his own schnapps, he could have asked my mother for help. She may not be happy with it, but she would help him nonetheless. Better than him making bad schnapps and the people not only get sick but blind too.” Katniss saw that Lupe was no longer interested in the fodder and brought the pup outside to let her empty her bladder.

“Katniss is right.” Prim nodded and poured the milk through a cloth-covered strainer into a pot. “My mom would help you and your brother. I see how you try to make things work since your father died. A little more money from selling schnapps would go a long way.”

Rue brought the utensil and ingredients Prim needed for cheese-making from the cupboard to the table. “I will speak with your mom first thing when I see her again. When Thresh really wants to make and sell spirits, I'm going to help him to make sure that we are not going to make someone sick.”

~~~

“So, Rory, I have to admit I'm confused.” Gale walked briskly towards the farm. “A lot has happened since I left for the trackers’ camp. Anything else I should know? Because right now, I feel a little left out.”

Peeta and Rory shared an amused side glance. Gale walked through the field in his new boots and finest captain's clothes, but didn't care about it. With every resolute step, the mud splashed around his legs, up to his thighs. It was clear that Gale didn't want an answer to his questions. So they both decided to let him rant. Peeta rummaged in his pouch and pulled out a piece of flatbread, broke it in two halves and offered one to Rory, who eagerly accepted. He then went to Gale and offered him a piece too. He was sure that the captain must have been on his legs the whole night through.

Gale took a bite and moaned. “Man, who made this? This is downright delicious.”

Peeta laughed. “It was me. In the Seam I worked a lot in the kitchen. But to bake and cook for the Everdeen's is a real treat. Katniss loves to eat.”

“You are right. She can eat like there is no tomorrow. However, she is running around the whole day, always busy. I never saw her loitering around the fountain, like other girls do, and showing off her new clothes.” Gale smiled to himself. “She’s always been an outdoor kind of girl. So if you two like to be in the meadow or in the woods, you will be a good team.” He put the last bite of bread in his mouth and clapped Peeta's shoulder.

When they reached the farm, Gale started to walk around the burned-down shed while Peeta and Rory looked around for something someone could have used for arson, but they found nothing. Some time later they met in front of the farm again.

“I don't think that someone came to the farm from the town or from the woods. There are only the footprints from you two, Thresh and Rue,” Peeta said.

“That is my opinion too.” Gale nodded and gladly took the last piece of flatbread Peeta offered him. “In the early morning hours we had a little bit of rain. You can clearly see, that no one else came after the rain started.” He pointed to the dirt in front of them. “Look at this – Rue ran from the farmhouse to the shed. These are Rory's footprints when he followed her to the shed. He came from the path in the woods,” Gale pointed out.

“I wanted to set some traps. Mum wanted to make rabbit-stew.” Rory informed his brother who nodded in understanding.

“And this here,” Peeta had walked a couple of steps and looked at his feet, “is the indentation of a cart-wheel. The cart must have been heavy. But it was pulled to the shed before the rain came. There is water in the indention. Maybe Thresh pulled it last evening.”

Gale finished the bread and licked his fingers. “I can't see any signs of arson, but there are pieces of glass in the shed, and I know for sure that the cider is usually in wooden barrels. In the middle of the shed is a circle with burned dirt. Maybe that was the center of the fire.” Gale looked at his dirtied boots and clothes and sighed. “To me, it looks like Thresh wanted to make schnapps and something went wrong. Too bad, schnapps from cider is tasty and Katniss is always so stingy with her honey-wine and her mead.”

Peeta laughed. “Only because she doesn’t want to have a cluster of drunkards roaming the town.” He motioned with his head to the shed. “So who will help Thresh to build it up again? It will go a lot easier with help from some friends.”

“I'm in,” Rory offered first.

“I'm helping too.” Gale looked around. “If Thresh would have been successful, everybody would have congratulated him on his brilliant idea and bought the schnapps. We will have to look who has lumber we could use for the shed. And I’ll speak with Johanna. Maybe she can ask Mayor Paylor for help too. I don't think that Thresh has the money to buy lumber now. When he can sell not only his apples and crops, but some schnapps too, he'll be able to pay everything back to Mayor Paylor and earn a pretty coin too.”

“So, we will help him and Rue too. That is good, isn't it? We’ll all work together.” Peeta looked relieved. If Rue and Thresh were friends of the Everdeens he wanted them to do well too.

“Yes, we’ll help them.” Gale nodded to the path. “Let us go back. We still have a little time to tidy up before we have to be at Johanna's office. And I don't want to be there in yesterday’s clothes, stinking and full of mud.”

to be continued …

Chapter Text

~~~

Katniss rummaged in her trunk for something to wear to the meeting at Johanna's place. She still carried the little wolf in her arms with Lupe's front-paws on her left shoulder. It didn't make searching in her trunk easier. She turned to the open door and saw her sister in the kitchen snuggled into Rue's side. “Prim, would you look after Lupe while we’re gone?”

Prim kissed Rue’s cheek, left her standing at the doorway and joined Katniss. “I'd love to, if you could hand her over to me, finally. You've been holding her the whole time.” Prim gently petted the pup before she removed her from Katniss’ embrace. “Look, now you have two hands to search for your clothes. And Lupe and I can have a little time for ourselves. “She seated herself on her bed and put Lupe on her lap. The pup sucked on her fingers. “If I may add my advice, take the buckskin breeches and the matching vest. If you want to look like a formidable archer, you shouldn't go there wearing your sleeping pants and undershirt.”

Katniss laughed and kissed the top of her sisters head. “I think you have more fashion sense in your little finger than I have in all my body.” Katniss pulled the suggested clothes out of the trunk and shook them out.

Prim pointed to a cream-colored shirt and Katniss added it to the pile. “So Katniss, while we are here without our mother, tell me what happened yesterday after you and Peeta left with this villain?”

Katniss pretended to misunderstand Prim question. “We brought him to the next tower, of course, where we met Madge and Gale.” She undressed with trembling fingers.

“Please, you know exactly what I mean. Do not try to avoid my question. You kissed him and then? It's not like you need to watch out for innocent ears.” Prim winked at Rue who stood still at the doorway, and blushed prettily.

Katniss smiled and sat down beside her sister, motioning for Rue to join them and told them everything. It was much easier this way. Prim was too experienced at getting every single piece of information out of her.

~~~

“Well Thresh, I think that your head is just too hard to get badly hurt.” Alyson gently put more of her healing salve on his bald-head, but otherwise left it uncovered. She sat beside him on the simple bed and put her hand on his shoulder. “Will you tell me what really happened last night? I mean, Gale, Rory and Peeta are outside looking for signs to see if there has been someone else who burned your shed. It was a busy night for the town guard. I heard of arrests. So tell me, do we have to fear that there are arsonists too?”

Thresh shook his head. He looked at his bare feet and then out of the window. Anything to avoid the gaze of the woman who was the closest thing to an aunt he had. He swallowed. “No, it’s entirely my own fault. We are low on coin since Pa died last summer. The harvest was not as good as we hoped it would be. You remember the thunderstorms which destroyed the crop on the wheat field? The apple tree did not bring in as much as either. So when I was offered a still yesterday in the evening, I thought this is my chance. I bought it and brought it home. I must have done something wrong, because something exploded in front of me. Then the clear liquid splashed into the fire and up it went. You know the rest of the story, maybe better than I do, because the next thing I remember is Rory and Rue carrying me out of the shed. I know that you don’t think too fondly about brewers, but I know from Haymitch that he would buy it if I sell it to him. And I really need the money.” He inhaled deeply and after he said his piece, he gave in to tears.

Alyson had been silent during his confession. She petted his big calloused hands, which worried the dirty and burned shirt. “I do understand. Sometimes, we have a tendency to make rash decisions in times of need. Let me make you an offer. I’ll teach you how to distill with my still here.” She pointed to a shiny copper gadget on a table in one corner of the room. There are many dandelions in bloom in your garden and the meadow. We could make dandelion wine and then distill it to dandelion moonshine. When you learned the process of winemaking and distilling once, you can make every kind of schnapps you want.”

Thresh lifted his gaze from his shirt. “For real?” He cleared his throat. “I mean, that would be great, Mrs. Everdeen.” He straightened his shoulders, stood up from his seat and went to the still. “It doesn’t look like the one I bought.”

Alyson joined him in front of the machine. “Tell me where you see the difference.” She pointed to each part of the still and named it. “This is a copper boil pot, a still.” She pointed to a spiral tube. “And this is a chiller. The liquid drops out of the chiller into another tube. I usually put a jar under the opening to catch the schnapps.”

Thresh bent forward. “The still I used didn’t have such a long chiller. It was more like a short tube than such a long spiral. What is it for?”

Alyson looked at him. “It cools the hot steam from the boil pot. If we are careful and the temperature is not too hot, and not too cold, we get schnapps. Tell me, Thresh, where did you buy the still, because I know Haymitch’s still it is the same one as mine here.”

Thresh looked at her in bewilderment. “Not from Haymitch. I bought it from the copper smith’s widow, Venia. She heard me talking to Haymitch and followed me outside the tavern.”

Alyson looked at him and frowned. “From Venia. Well, if she had sold a piece out of her workshop, she was supposed to give you some kind of marker with a number on it. The same number should be engraved on the still. You should also have signed some contract to show that you bought the machine. She is allowed to sell only certified machines from an apprentice that’s been certified. Only those that have been tested in the workshop are safe and can be used.”

Thresh looked at her in bewilderment. “I don’t have a marker or a number or whatever. She asked if I want to buy a still. I said yes. She brought me to the back door of her workshop and sold one to me.”

“How much did you pay for the still?” Alyson began to understand what had happened.

Thresh looked thoughtful. “Ten coins now and I have to give her another thirty coins next month. I’d hoped to earn the coins with the schnapps. Now I have to take it from Rue’s dowry. How do I tell Rue? Who will marry her without a large dowry?” He sat down on the divan bed and sighed hopelessly.

Alyson joined him again and put an arm around his shoulders. “Well, there will be no payment next month and Venia has to give you back the ten coins. Maybe even more, for your burned shed and your wounds. The still must have been the work of an apprentice and shouldn’t have been sold to you this way. Maybe the apprentice wanted to fuse it and try again. Venia must have sold you a faulty machine.

I’ll send Prim and Rue to your shed and let them bring all the parts of the still they can. We will look at it closely, and if I'm right, we both will take it to Major Paylor.

About Rue, well I know it is not my place to tell you, but if Rue wants to join my family, and it looks like that is the case since last winter dance, I don’t want to talk about a dowry. She and Prim are such a cute couple. Rue is more worth than coins or land.

I'll be back in a couple of minutes and then we talk more. There is more to know about distilling. You will have to learn a lot.” With these words, she stood up and left the room. Thresh looked at the closing door in bewilderment. Rue a part of the Everdeen family? Winter dance? In his mind, he saw two girls giggling and holding hands. Suddenly, the puzzle pieces fell into the right space. Prim so often joining Rue at her work and Rue going to Prim almost every evening after work. So, Rue and Prim are a couple? Well, they both could do a lot worse.

Another image came to mind. A young woman, wearing the sturdy clothes of a shepherdess at the winter dance. Her blond curls, first captured under her wide-brimmed hat, bounced later when she moved with an agility, not unusual in someone used to working in nature. Her soft female curves were hidden under a sturdy leather coat that hung down to her ankles. Before she joined the dancers, she had shed the hat and the coat.

Thresh had been mesmerized by her natural beauty when she threw her head back and laughed. As she danced around him, her golden curls dance around her shoulders. The fabric of her woolen shirt moved over her strong shoulders, and her breeches fit snugly over her taut legs. Delly had blushed when he told her later, standing beside her under the full moon, that she looked like a goddess. “If you still think so next spring, I'll come to your farm and let my sheep graze under your apple trees. We will see then if we are as good a pair then as we are now.” With that said, she had thrown her arms around his neck and pulled him close.

Thresh smiled to himself. She had been true to her word. She had come with her herd and stayed a whole week before she wandered to the next meadow. It had been a wonderful time, working and spending the evenings together. Maybe when Rue and Prim really became a couple, he would be able to offer Delly more than a place in the orchard. Maybe she and her sheep could live with him. There was more than enough space on the farmland for her sheep. And more than enough space in the house. He didn’t feel so hopeless anymore.

~~~

When Alyson found her daughters with Rue in the girl’s bedroom, she heard the last part from Katniss narration. “He kissed me back. Can you believe it? Me. And his lips are so soft.” Alyson heard the three girls sigh in awe. Young love. She will have to speak with both Katniss and Peeta. Neither of them should think that there is something inappropriate about their feelings though they live under the same roof.

She knew that Capitols citizens have a tendency to preach chastity and act completely contrary, especially the widows of the former magistrate. Alyson remembered the time before Katniss was born. She and her late husband never had to search for a undisturbed place to be together. They always had the security of their own home. She made a mental note to order a larger bed for Peeta's room. But not right now. She would let them come to her with this request.

“Prim, Rue, I'll need your help.” Alyson stepped into the room. “Rue, would you two please go to your farm and search the burned-down shed for everything that belongs on a still? Maybe the thing that Thresh bought yesterday was a faulty one. We will have to investigate if this is the case. Take the handcart with you. And bring clean clothes for Thresh. The ones he is wearing are only good for rags now.”

Alyson turned to Katniss. “You look very lovely, my dear. And such a formidable heir of the Everdeens too. You and Peeta should go to Johanna and tell her everything about the attack and the fire. But don't mention the still before I find evidence.” She lifted the little wolf from Prim's lap. “I'll take Lupe for now. She will accompany Thresh and me. Gives me a chance to look after her leg again.” Alyson was about to leave the room when she stopped and turned towards Katniss. “Katniss, take your father’s elm-bow. You are definitely skilled enough to use it. He would be so proud to see you with it when you go to your first council with the town guard master.”

~~~

Prim and Rue met the three men halfway on their way to the farm. While Gale and Rory rushed back into town to the council, the young women followed Alyson's order. Peeta couldn't get back to the cottage fast enough. There hadn't really been time to speak to Katniss before, and when he understood Prim right Katniss was already waiting for him.

~~~

Thresh, Alyson and Lupe spend their time in Alyson's workroom until Prim and Rue joined them. They brought pieces of copper and glass from the farm and put them on the worktable. Thresh dressed in the clean clothes they gave him and joined the three women. The little wolf had fallen asleep in her basket after she had been fed again and Alyson had tended her wound. Everyone puzzled together what was left of the still. After a while, something was obvious. “There is no engraving on it. No sign that this is certified to be sold. Not even one from an apprentice.” Alyson straightened herself and rubbed her lower back. “I think it is time that we inform Paylor. I don't want to wait any longer and give Venia more time to spend your coins.”

She grabbed her cape. “Come on, Thresh. It is time we go and bring justice to this fraud. Prim and Rue, would you please look after Lupe while we’re gone?”

Paylor's office was on the second floor of the town hall. The building itself was made out of stone and woodwork. A mural showed scenes of the Capitol's economy: Merchant ships and riverboats with billowing sails entered the harbor, sandy beaches and salt garden to the left and right of the mighty harbor, and orchards full of trees and grapevines. There were also fields with golden wheat and oats, meadows with sheep and goats and green forests that enclosed the Capitol and the vicinity.

Under the scenery were guild signs for each of the merchant’s crafts. There were several signs, all clustered into groups. Merchants who sold food or goods, such as a baker, butcher, dairy farmer, cobbler and cloth maker, were in one group. Crafts which worked with wood, stone, clay, leather, cloth or metal were in another group. The plate of the coppersmith was one among those.

“Come on, Thresh, we don't have much time.” Alyson hurried the young man beside her when he stopped in front of the mural in awe. They entered the town hall and went to the Mayor's office. Paylor and Hazelle were about to open the office and looked surprised to see the pair rush into the building. “Paylor, Hazelle, I’m sorry we have to bring something to your attention that is of outstanding importance. May we have a word in private, please?”

Paylor nodded and motioned for them to enter the office. Hazelle closed the door behind them.

~~~

Paylor's office was sparsely furnished. There was a large desk with two neat stacks of papers and large leather-bound books. Behind the desk was a simple wooden armchair. In one corner stood a table and a couple of other wooden, high back chairs. Three of the walls had well-stocked bookcases and a cabinet with brazen locks. When she had taken over after Snow’s death, Paylor had ordered all of the elegant furniture, carpets and curtains to be taken to the deserted castle. She didn't want to be surrounded by the luxurious taste of the former Mayor.

“So Alyson, what brings you here this early and who is your young companion?” Paylor motioned for them to sit around the table in the corner. Alyson sat down and Thresh moved his chair closer to hers before he took his seat too. Hazelle went over to the large desk, fetched some sheets of paper and a pencil and sat down next to Paylor.

“This fine young man is Thresh. He is my neighbor. He and his sister Rue live alone on the Coster farm after their father’s death last summer. His mother, Candice, was Hazelle's and my best friend.” Hazelle confirmed this with a nod and Alyson continued. “She died during the measles epidemic five years ago. Their children live there all by themselves and try to manage the farm, not very successfully I must add. After all, the last year wasn't a good one, for any farmer.” Alyson put her hand on Thresh's arm when she noticed him wince and hang his head.

“I'll come back to him and to his case later. There have been a lot of citizens lately, who have experienced accidents in their kitchen, including burn wounds and such. Not young maidservants, like we are used too, but women like the glassblower’s widow, or the widows of the tanner, the rope-maker, the carpenter and the potter. Perhaps there have been more. I don't know. I've been called to the ones who could afford my services. These are, all women used to working in a kitchen. Women who don't have much coin since they are widowed.” Alyson asked for a cup of water and Paylor went to her desk and brought a cup for each one of them and a jar with water.

“Thank you so much.” Alyson took a sip and motioned for Thresh to follow her example. “Hazelle, jot down, that some rather poor women suddenly have trouble with cooking in their kitchen and had burn wounds that needed my treatment. Now, on to Thresh here. This morning, he was brought to our cottage by Gale and Rory. They found him in his burning shed after Rory heard Rue calling for help. It was pure luck that the both of them were nearby. And before you ask, Hazelle, they are both whole and healthy and happy to have been of service.”

While Alyson drank another gulp of water, Paylor bent forward. “Do we have a case of arson here? Has someone set fire to the widow's kitchens and Thresh's shed?”

“No, but I do think we have a serious case of fraud. Yesterday evening, Thresh was sold a still after he spoke with Haymitch in his tavern earlier about making moonshine and selling it to Haymitch. The offer came from Venia, the copper-smith’s widow herself. She sold the still to Thresh at her backdoor, can you believe it?” Alyson nudged Thresh with her elbow.

Thresh inhaled deeply. “She came after me, when I left the taverne. I thought that she heard us speaking and wanted to help me. So I went with Venia and gave her all my money. She told me to come back next month with more money.” He looked at Alyson for help.

“After Thresh told me how he came to be the owner of a still, I offered to teach him how to distill schnapps. We looked at my still and Thresh told me how different it looks from the one he bought. There are some parts of a still that can't be very different. And the late copper-smith was a very unimaginative man. The stills he made all look alike. You can see the one Haymitch owns. It looks just like mine. So I asked Rue and Prim to bring the broken still from the farm to my workroom. We examined it, which you can do too any time. There is no engraving that it is certified. Thresh told me that he hadn't signed a contract. He doesn’t have a marker with the same number like the engraving. There isn't even an apprentice engraving on the copper boiling pot. And the chiller is not long enough. The whole still is a fraud.”

“We will see. At least it is against the town law to sell a still this way. But you mentioned the widows earlier. What have they to do with all this?” Hazelle added, looking up from her notes.

“I asked myself - what if the glassblower- tanner, rope-maker- and potter-widows bought their copper pots and pans at Venia's backdoor too. I bet the glassblower’s widow has the pot that burned her so badly. I suggest that you investigate the still in my workroom and interview the widows.”

Paylor turned to Thresh. “How much did you pay for the still?”

He swallowed. “Ten coins yesterday and I owe thirty coins next month.”

Paylor looked surprised. “That is a nice sum. A little bit much, what do you think, Hazelle?”

Hazelle shook her head. “Forty coins for a still. Good graciously, boy. I will teach you personally about trade once this is all over. You could buy two stills for that price.”

“I don’t have much experience with buying household items, but I trust in yours, Hazelle. So if this all can be proven, we’ll have not only a serious case of fraud, but of usury too.” Paylor said. “Let me call Beetee. I'll put him on this case. It will be best when he take two guards with him. If your case is a serious one, I want Venia here for a thorough interrogation. Her name came up in the last few days, in context to a nuisance; a little to often for my liking.”

Hazelle looked up from her notes. “This does not sounds like something I would call a nuisance, Paylor. We may have a case of bodily injury and property damage caused by negligence, too. After all, they are all victims of fire. Kitchens and a shed have been destroyed and people were overcharged for equipment.”

Paylor went to the door, opened it and called for an errand boy. She spoke to him quietly before he took off. “Beetee will be on his way in a couple of minutes. I saw him in his office before I came here.”

Alyson emptied her cup, stood up and motioned for Thresh to follow her to the door. “Let me go with Beetee. I know the fire victims. Thresh can come with me. It is about time he sees for himself how officials serve up justice since Snow's regime is over.” Alyson put her cape over her shoulders.

“Wait a moment.” Hazelle quickly finished her notes. “Take this with you. It will give Beetee the authority to act on the magistrates behalf.” She rolled the paper and tied a black ribbon around it. Than she offered it to Thresh. “I'm sorry that this happened to you and your sister. My offer is a real one. When you have a little spare time, I'll teach you how to trade. When you sell the schnapps you made with Alyson's help, I’ll teach you how to make a good trade. It's the least I can do for Candice’s children.” She gave the large boy a one-armed hug.

~~~

Three hours later Thresh and Beetee stood beside Alyson in Venia's parlor. The copper-smith’s widow sat on the divan dumbfounded when Beetee confronted her with the magnitude of the damage that she and her reckless behavior had caused.

“Beetee, you say that I'm not allowed to sell the products that have been produced in my own workshop?” She wrung her hands with an air of innocence.

Maybe others might have believed her display of innocence, but not Alyson. She knew Venia since she was a young woman. Venia was an open book to her. “What Beetee told you during the last half an hour, you dimwitted fool, is that you are not allowed to sell defective products. You have to test them, put an engraving on them, fill out a contract and give the new owner a marker that shows that the pot, pan or still is approved for sale. Dear Venia, this is something you knew all the time, so don't play dumb. Put on some cape or shawl, Venia. We'll go. I have other things to do than spend my time in a madhouse.” Alyson motioned for the two town guards they had brought with them and left the parlor. Over her shoulder she called to the reluctantly following woman. “This time you will pay for the damage you have done. There are victims you will compensate.”

A young blonde woman, half hidden behind the crowd that surrounded Venia’s richly decorated house, viewed the spectacle when Alyson, Thresh, Beetee, and the two guards left the house with the red-faced Venia between them. The woman, clad in luxuriously looking clothes stepped away from the event. It wouldn’t been good if that healer woman saw her. The questions she asked in the tavern sounded like she didn’t believe in her story about District One. Glimmer would have to look for a new place to stay during her mission, here in Capitol. That was annoying. Venia was someone she could deal with. She would come back later when the officials were gone and fetch her things, and the clothes and jewels from Venia too. After all, she owed her nothing.

To be continued ...

Chapter Text

~~~~~~~~~~~

First thing Peeta noticed when he rushed into the kitchen was his Katniss. He blushed when he instantly thought about her as 'his'. He looked into her beautiful face when she jumped from her place, rushed to him and enveloped him in a hug.

“I missed you,” they both said at the same time before smiling sheepishly.

“You first,” Peeta encouraged. He grabbed her hand and stepped back a little to admire her . “My God, you look breathtaking.”

Peeta had thought of her as beautiful many times during the last days. Whether she wore her working clothes or the finest tunic for the visit to the tavern was irrelevant. Right now she looked radiant and powerful. Brown, buckskin breeches and vest over a cream-colored shirt. Matching hooded short-cape fastened to her left shoulder, while a quiver was slung over her right one. A square leather pouch with a flap hung on her belt with an engraving on the flap he couldn't see clearly, but would ask Katniss about later. A long knife in a sheath was strapped to her calf in such a way that only the handle peeked out of her wide, suede boots. A wide-brimmed hat and an elm bow lay on a table behind her.

Katniss looked into his smiling face. “I was waiting for you. And the longer I waited, the more I got nervous.” Katniss smiled with her blushing cheeks. One hand fiddled with the ribbons of the pouch.

“You don't need to be nervous, Katniss,” Peeta told her and took her into his arms again. “We are together.”

“Together.” Katniss looked at him with hope in her eyes before she stepped back a little and motioned to her clothes. “So, my outfit, is it too much? What do you think? I've never dressed for a council before, but when my Pa was called to one, he always wore clothes like these.”

“Perfect. You are perfect.” He smiled sweetly and brushed a tendril of her hair out of her face. “Do we really need to go? I could stand here for the rest of the day – looking at you. You look wonderful, like the goddess Diana.” Peeta smiled and let his hand run over her shoulder, touching the buckskin of her cape. “Buckskin - I suppose your father hunted the deer himself.”

Katniss nodded and leaned her face into his caressing palm. “Yes, in those years, the woods teemed with wildlife. I remember how he often came home with enough meat for us and the neighbors. Sometimes I helped him pull the hand-cart, to deliver venison for Haymitch’s tavern.

She smiled wistfully, recalling the memory. “My father tanned the buckskin himself and my mother made it into clothes for him, and to my utter joy, for me too. They gave me one piece of clothing at New Year’s. Most of them were too big for me to wear, except the hat. This is the first time I’m wearing everything. Prim told me to.”

“Your sister is a wise one. This outfit suits you. You should been seen wearing it.” He kissed her tenderly on the cheek. “I'll go and put on good clothes. Can't have you be seen with a scoundrel. People may think that you arrested me. I'll be back in a minute.” Peeta paused. “Where is Lupe, by the way?”

Katniss had to think for a second. This morning turned out to be a little bit much, even for her. “She is with my mum. Cuddled, fed and tended to.” She shrugged. “I wish I was her.”

Peeta laughed. “We’ll come to that later. I'll take personal care of your wishes.” He winked at her and went whistling into his room, not noticing how Katniss blushed even more. Her eyes beamed with happiness.

~~~

The town was buzzing with life. Towns people Katniss barely knew stopped her and Peeta on their way to the town guards headquarters to ask if they would join the guard now to fight against the intruders, or to tell them about several cases of burglary that happened last night. It took them some time to even reach the part of the town where the headquarters were situated. Everybody wanted to talk with Katniss or clapped Peeta on his shoulder – congratulating him personally.

Gossipers must have told the story about Peeta and the man he captured in Everdeen's barn and how the man was brought to the tower. Before long, they spoke not of one man but from several, and the attackers got more and more as people retold the story. They wouldn't even stop when Katniss and Peeta corrected them – so after a time the both of them stopped trying, and waved them off with the excuse that they had to rush to the guard headquarters.

When they passed Haymitch’s tavern, the gate to the backyard was slightly open. In the archway leaned Greasy Sae and she looked like she was enjoying the early morning sun. Sae motioned for them to step inside. If anybody else had asked, Katniss would have kindly declined; they were already late, but Sae had never been anything but kind to Katniss and her family. She remembered how nice Sae welcomed Peeta on his first evening in the Capitol. It made Katniss’ heart swell with happiness, so they slipped into the archway.

Katniss took off her hat out of respect for the older woman. “Sae, how are you? We heard from others about the burglary. Is everything OK with you?”

Sae shook both their hands. “I'm alright, don't worry about me. If someone stepped into my home to harm me, I would know how to defend myself. I'm not one of the fine misses who are afraid of their own shadows and call for the guards all the time. I have an old, heavy copper-pan and a thick broomstick and I know how to use them.”

Peeta laughed, delighted by Sae's assertiveness. “I'm sure you don't need a guard to help you catch an intruder. ”

The elder woman straighten herself up. “You’re such a charmer, Peeta. There’s a reason why I asked for a moment of your time. I have to speak with you two. Not very long, but it is important. Your are both on your way to the council, aren't you?

They both nodded and smiled when they noticed how they mirrored each other.

Sae continued, “Everybody knows why you are called Katniss, my dear. You are the best archer we have in town. A formidable heir of your father, and the Capitol’s best beekeeper. We both know what that means, even when the townies think it only means a never ending supply of honey and mead.” Sae smiled mischievously and winked at Katniss. “It means so much more.”

Sae took a deep breath, “It is time for you to tell the council what you could and what you wouldn't do for them, for the town.” Sae touched Katniss hand. “I spent a lot of time with your father. In the tavern, when nobody wanted to talk to a greasy woman who just sold soup, your father went out of his way to be friendly and respectful to me. He invited me to have a drink with him every once in a while, long before he met your mother. Or, if you ask me, before she found and rescued him from his loneliness.” Sae smiled softly, remembering the father of Katniss.

She inhaled deeply, “He told me about the gift he had, a burden he call it. Something you inherited. You know what I speak about. Katniss. Use it wisely. During the last war we had, long before Snow usurped the Presidency, your father was in a similar situation, more a child than a young man. He was called to a council. I spoke with him after he came back. They wanted him to call the bees and the wild things to fight for the people , instead of them, to be honest. It was very brave of him to say no to the adults.”

Katniss’ small form froze. She looked at Sae and Peeta before she whispered, “This gift is a secret,. Who else knows about it?”

“I hope only a few. Some of them I would trust with my own life, your mother and Haymitch, but it is part of Capitol’s history that the town’s beekeeper is gifted with calling the bees and wild things. It is possible that Paylor read it in her leather journals and told Johanna about it. So, when you go to the council, expect that they might know it. Maybe they will ask you if you would do it.”

“Do what exactly?” Peeta looked confused. “Do what Katniss? Please tell me. Are you, your family or your bees in danger?”

Katniss turned in his embrace and cupped his jaw with her palm. “They may want me to tell my bees to fly into a battle. To sting the intruders or someone who tries to overrun the walls, but I wouldn't do that. I'm not going to tell any creature from the around it to storm into certain death.”

Peeta was stunned. “You are able to do that? Tell animals to fight a battle that is not theirs.”

“Yes,” Katniss admitted sheepishly, “but I would never do that.”

Peeta pulled her in closer and kissed the top of her head when she buried her face in his shoulder. “I would have never assumed that. Not after what you taught me about your bees. They are practically family. I’ll help you to care for them.”

Sae put her hand on Katniss’ arm. “This is the answer I hoped for. The same answer your father gave me a long time ago. Maybe I'm overreacting. I don't know. I'm an old woman, after all.”

Katniss looked relieved at Sae. “No, not that old.” She brushed her hand over Sae’s wrinkled cheek. “My father gave you the same answer?”

Sae smiled gently. “He did, ages ago, but it is time to speak about it again.” The signs are there. Sae counted it on her old and wrinkled fingers.

“The first caravan since Snow's embargo. The return of the wolves – even when it is a small one. And the attacks last night.”

Sae then took Peeta's hand and put it into Katniss. “That Peeta is here with us is a sign too. He is the first one who has been able to escape the leadership in the Seam for a long time. The first one who was able to flee through the mutt-infested forest. Peeta, I want to give you something that belongs to you, a family heirloom.”

Sae rummaged in the space between her shawl and her bodice and pulled out a tightly-wrapped bundle. . She opened it and showed them a grayish stone, no larger than a chestnut. It was plain and circular, smooth on one side and engraved on the other side with a silvery, wiggly line dividing the stone in two halves. It looked very old.

Sae pushed the gray stone, warm from her body heat into Peeta's hand. “To everyone else, Peeta is only known as a former slave of the Seam who got away with wounds to emphasize his tale, but not to me. I was once born in the Seam too, as Saestra Mellark, Gus Mellark's aunt. I ran away from the Seam when I grew up to be a woman. The reasons I left , may have been the same Katniss’s mother had for fleeing, or yours, Peeta. Now is not the time to speak about it.”

Peeta looked very uncomfortable at this admission.

Sae conceded. “We can speak about it another time if you want. I can tell you about your family and what I know about the stone and what I assume are its powers. Today I only want you to know that you have family here. And I wanted to give you this heirloom. This is the Stone of Clarity. The name may speak for itself. The owner of it must have a natural ability to be perceptive It gives the owner clarity when making decisions.”

Peeta looked at the stone. “Is it dangerous to others?”

“No, it isn’t. Not directly at least, but when the person who owns it thinks it works for him, he might get the illusion that his perceptions are right, tmake the wrong decisions. I didn't want the Stone of Clarity to find its way into the wrong hands. I want this token in the hands of the real heir. It will show the others at the council that you are more than meets the eyes.”

Sae took his free hand carefully. “You have a special talent too, so I've heard. This token will help you to master your talent, and to gain the trust of Captain Boggs and Johanna. Show it to them and tell them Sae gave it to her descendant, and then put it back into your pouch again. Keep it with you all the time or give it to Katniss for safekeeping when necessary. Don't let it be seen by everyone. It is only safe when it is with either of you. Can you promise me that, Peeta Mellark, son of Gus Mellark from the Seam?”

Peeta looked into the grey-blue eyes of Sae and grasped her wrinkled old hands. “I promise it to you, Saestra Mellark.”

The stone was still warm to the touch when Peeta offered it Katniss.

Katniss glanced at Sae as if to ask for permission and when Sae nodded, Katniss touched the stone and let her finger follow the engraving. “It is so smooth,” she told him “almost like silk.”

Peeta touched the stone at the same time and they both felt a buzz coming from their fingertips.

Katniss withdrew her hand “What was that?” But the older woman was staring outside the archway through the small gap in the gate.

When Sae didn't answer Katniss touched the stone again directly opposite the line where Peetas forefinger rested.

Suddenly they both felt a warmth flow out from the stone and radiate through their bodies like warm honey-wine. They could feel a sweetness and a gently buzz. They looked at Sae in surprise.

Sae shrugged. “I don't know what you mean, but we have to separate now.” Sae stood on her tiptoes when she kissed Peeta's cheek, then grabbed Katniss hand. She turned around and went towards the backyard. “Hurry now. The council may have already begun.” She called over her shoulder as she disappeared.

Peeta pushed the stone into his pouch and looked helplessly at Katniss when the bell announced mid-morning. They would be late. He pushed against the gate and they both slipped out into the lane. When they walked in the direction of the headquarters, they saw a woman, richly clothed and with a crown of golden hair walking in front of them in a hurry. She must have passed the archway seconds before they left their hiding place.

“Isn't that Glimmer?” Katniss hastened. “I hope she didn't lurk behind the gate when Sae gave you the stone.”

“I hope so too. I don't want anyone to know about it before I’ve really have a chance to talk to Sae some more.” Peeta rushed forward too. “And I hope she didn't hear the things Sae said before.”

In front of them, Glimmer suddenly pushed her way into a house. When Katniss and Peeta arrived the door was closed again.

“Who lives here?” Peeta look up at the richly decorated house-front. There was a mural of a dressmaker. A dark-skinned man surrounded with bales of colorful fabrics.

“That is strange. This was once the house of Cinna. A really nice guy who had to leave the town when Snow became more and more weird. I knew Cinna. He came often to speak with mom, but nobody has lived in this house since he's been gone.” Katniss tried to open the door, but it was secured from the inside. They couldn't enter.

“Maybe if I tried to break the lock, but what if we’re mistaken and it wasn't Glimmer. Or if it was her and she had permission to go into Cinna's house?” Peeta looked crestfallen.

Katniss sighed. “It doesn't matter. We have to move on or we’ll be so late that the council will be over .” She slipped her hand into Peeta's larger and warmer one and together the hurried to the headquarters.

~~~

A young, dark-haired sentinel blocked the entrance to the town guards’ gates. She wore the black armor of the guard, with a strap with knives crossed diagonally over her breastplate. The halberd she had been holding upright before was now pointed Katniss. The look on her face was a smug one. “You can not pass, Everdeen. Admittance only for authorized persons, so leave, or I’ll make you.”

Katniss sighed. “Good morning to you too, Clove. The council is expecting us. Would you please lower your weapon and let us pass?”

“I don't think so, civilian. And it’s Officer Kentwell to you, Everdeen. I have my orders to guard the headquarters, and when I think about someone who shouldn't been allowed to enter, your name comes first to my mind.” Clove smirked and pushed herself on her tiptoes to gain height.

“Preventing our passage is not a smart idea.” Katniss pointed out. “Johanna is waiting for our arrival. She will get angry when she hears of this.”

“What Johanna doesn’t know can't make her angry, and when I prevent you from entering, you won’t be able to tell her.” Clove challenged. “But maybe 'loverboy' here can help me with something. I've heard that he has a nice package of muscle under that shirt. Friends told me he knocked a man out with one punch.” She leered at Peeta. “What do you think, 'loverboy'? Are you up for a quick roll in the hay with a real woman and not with the virginal bee-queen here?”

Peeta looked Clove up and down while she pushed out her breasts a little bit more, which looked almost comical with all the knives attached. “Well, Officer, Katniss is right, Johanna’s waiting for us. I don't know Johanna really well, but I assume she won’t think highly of your guard duties when she hears that you offered to leave your post for a 'quick roll in the hay'. Maybe she’ll think you need behavior modification. And perhaps she knows exactly the captain to induce it.”

While Peeta spoke to her Clove's stance slowly changed. “I don't know what you’re speaking about. What the hell is a be-ha-vi-or mo-di-fi-ca-tion?”

“Hi, Captain Boggs.” Katniss announced, looking over Clove's shoulder.

“What is it with Captain Boggs?” Clove hissed at Katniss. “I want to know what loverboy said? Can't he speak like everyone else? Is he dumb or what?”

Peeta shook his head. This woman was dumb as dirt. “There’s a large captain behind you who doesn’t look very happy. Maybe it has something to do with you holding up the council,” Peeta explained.

When Clove lowered her halberd and turned around, she was nose to breastbone with her commanding Captain. “Captain Boggs, I can explain…”

With one fluid motion of his hand he commanded silence. He turned to the two who still waited for the permission to enter the headquarter. “Katniss, we’re waiting for you and your companion.” He shoved the much shorter and lighter officer bodily out of the way. After Katniss and Peeta passed, he gave Clove a pointed look. “I'll send Bristel to the gate for guard duty. When she arrives you can go and change into working clothes. The hen house behind the kitchen needs a thorough cleaning.”

to be continued ...

Chapter Text

~~~~~~~~~~~

Katniss felt annoyed and uncomfortable after the confrontation with Clove, even with the steady way Peeta held her hand showed her that he was on her side. Captain Boggs walked behind them and Katniss didn't know how much of Clove’s vitriol had found its way to his ears. She had never talked with him before, only saw him from afar when he inspected the recruits training with their bows.

He seldom left the headquarters, and when he did he was riding his large black horse on his way to or from the town-gates. She often felt in awe of him when she was younger. To her, Boggs was someone you shouldn't underestimate. She hoped he would be welcoming towards Peeta and her at the council. She hoped that he didn't get the wrong impression from the way Clove spoke to Peeta.

Peeta was not a woman's plaything. He was a wonderful man and she wouldn't tolerate anyone speaking to him in such a derogatory way. Katniss rued that she hadn't pushed Clove out of the way, or better yet, drawn her bow. Katniss grinned sheepishly – the idea was tempting, but not realistic. Even though Clove was a pain in the ass, she was still part of the town guard and couldn't be treated like an bandit.

Clove was an annoying brat and had never been her friend. She bothered Katniss since childhood, when she played with other kids in the meadow near the river where the women did the washing. Katniss mother would look after her while she cleaned the clothes. She could see where her daughter was, but not hear the way Clove pestered her, constantly nagging about her clothes, the archery or her bees. After a while, Katniss asked her mother if she could go with her father to the meadow instead. The peace and quiet there, the gentle work with the bees, that was what she needed. Years later she told her mother what happened and her mother told her she didn't know about the bullying. She was sad to see Katniss go in the morning and return in the afternoon, but thought it was the special bond between father and daughter that brought about the change. If her mother had known that it was Clove's behavior, she would have had words with the girl and her mother, not lose Katniss’ companionship because of one laundry day the week.

When Peeta felt Katniss squeeze his hand he answered with gentle stroking of his thumb over her knuckles. He felt her unease in every fiber of his body and knew instinctively why she felt this way. He pondered what he could say to comfort her. So he responded first with what came naturally to him – sending out his thoughts of peace and happiness. Images of them in the meadow, working, fishing, and eating near the brook. He felt how she relaxed a little. Images of yesterday evening came to his mind. First of them sitting side by side caressing the pup. Later, the both of them kissing in the kitchen. He could feel her smiling and blushing without having to look into her beautiful face. The feeling found its way into his body and mind like a river of emotions, like the feelings of sweetness traveled earlier, touching the Stone of Clarity.

They shared a bond. There was no other explanation. So Peeta sent all of his feelings to Katniss like a river of emotions and bent towards her. “I don't think that the woman really wanted to hit on me. She was annoying, yes, but she said it all to badger you. I don't understand why, but maybe you can tell me later. I don't want something like that happening to you ever again.” He kissed the side of her head and Katniss leaned into his touch.

They crossed a second gate, one without a guard and found themselves in a small passage that was build inside a thick wall. On the other side of the passage Peeta saw a glaring white building behind an area planted with white rose-bushes, oleander, and fruit-trees. Peeta noticed a group of people standing there, looking and pointing at the white building.

Gale was the first who noticed them and waved them over. “We wanted to show Madge, Finnick, and Pollux the castle. Come on Peeta. Look at this thing and tell me what you think about it.”

Katniss, Boggs, and Peeta joined the group inside the garden. Now, out of the passage, Peeta was able to see the white building, almost 60 yards away, the whole garden, and the open, blue-green sea behind the building, completely. There was no wall between the castle and the sea, only a cliff. The castle was kind of impressive. Build out of the white stone, Peeta immediately recognized as Seam marble. It was a two-story, square structure roundabout 55 yards wide with square towers on each corner. There were no windows, only arrow loops on the top story of the building, and in the towers. Peeta looked up and where he would have assumed to see a roof, was another garden. He could see the same plants, rose-bushes, oleander, and trees, full of yellow and orange fruits. He could hear the others speaking about the architecture of the castle. Finnick mocked that it was meaningful that the building had arrow loops towards the town, but not even a small wall on the seaside.

“Snow must have feared the citizens more than the brigands from the southern sea, I assume.” Finnick mocked. “Shows that he was not informed what was going on in the other districts.”

Annie stepped beside her partner. “How could he. He ostracized everyone who spoke of things he didn’t want to hear. Banned all minstrel from the Capitol and didn't allow one word of wisdom.” She turned to Johanna. “But times are changing. We are here again and have a council with the town guard master and her second in command. I hope the words of advice we bring will, along with the information about the other districts, find welcoming ears.”

Johanna nodded and replied, “This is something you can be assured. We don't want to make the same mistakes we couldn't prevent before.” She walked closer to Peeta who still looked at the building with a stone face. “So what do you say about Snow’s castle. Any idea what we should do with this 'monstrosity'? We actually use it to store valuable things, like Snow's impressing collection of marble statues of himself, along with tapestries, canvas, jewels, and such things.”

Peeta shook his head in bewilderment, opening and closing his fists to relieve the stress he felt. “I have no idea. But I know where this marble came from, the Seam's quarry. Do you know about the living conditions of the workers, or to be precise, slaves of the Seam. They worked hard in the quarry to wrench this marble out of earth. Moving every single pound has to be earned by muscle effort. It often lead to the death of the slaves. I can tell you a lot about it, if you want to know how much this castle is worth.” Peeta took a deep shaking breath. “Marble has been the foundation of Cray's wealth – but only for a couple of decades. For the other families, the quarry has been the place where they did slave work. Where they lived and where they died. These days one can hardly find good marble in the quarry anymore. So Cray doesn’t trade with marble anymore, but with slaves. That and the one or other raid of a caravan or some travelers.” Peeta turned around, no longer wanting to look at this pristine symbol of the slavery his folk had to endure.

He sadly looked at Johanna while Katniss took his slightly trembling hand into both of her much smaller ones and stepped closer to him. “Johanna, I can't answer your question right now. I have to admit, I feel overwhelmed. When I have a good suggestion, I’ll tell you. This marble has cost too many lives to be used for a storage place.”

The others had form a half circle around Peeta and Katniss and listened closely to him. One could see on their faces that none had looked at Snow's pristine white castle in this way. Annie was the first to break the uncomfortable silence. “I hope you will tell us more about the Seam and your folk another time. I'm really interested about your folk. We all have close to no information. But, let us go into Johanna's office before we talk more. We have a lot to discuss and there are things that need to be said, but not heard by everybody.” She motioned with her head to the passage where a dozen of recruits appeared and marched to the training-square.

Johanna nodded and she and Boggs lead the way to her office. Once they closed the door, Johanna motioned for her visitors to take a seat on one of the chairs and added stools while Boggs moved to a table and filled nine beakers with water from a clay jar. He added a slice of lemon to each one and Johanna took them from him and offered the drinks to the others. She sat down behind the desk while Boggs leaned against the wall behind her. “Before we start, Finnick and Pollux, I have to ask you for your identification.

Finnick stood up and rolled up the sleeve of his right arm and showed them a small tattoo of a dolphin, jumping through a ring and shattering it with his tail fin. After Johanna nodded at him Pollux went to Johanna and did the same with his right sleeve and showed her a tattoo of a meerkat, that bit the tail of a scorpion off. Johanna laughed when she saw his tattoo. Both men lifted their left hands to their mouths, pressed the three middle fingers against their lips and then held them out to Johanna in a silent salute.

Katniss and Peeta followed the motions with interest from their seats near the desk. Neither one had an idea what this all meant. Katniss turned her head and whispered in Peeta's ear. “Do you think this would be a good moment to show them your Stone of Clarity?”

Peeta nodded and took the stone out of his pouch. He held it out in his hand as if to show it to Katniss and Katniss couldn't help but let her finger meander over the surface, following the winding line.

The stone began to glow from the silvery line. Emitting a beam of light in all colors of the rainbow.

The others stepped up to Katniss and Peeta. “What is that?” Johanna stepped around the desk to have a better look.

“It is the Stone of Clarity.” Peeta looked at Katniss, who nodded encouragingly. “My great-aunt Sae gave it to me, not an hour before. She told me to show it to you.”

Katniss heard Pollux inhaling sharply. “What is it, Pollux? Do you know this stone?”

The man who had been silent the whole time, nodded and grabbed Finnick's arm, who looked mesmerized at the stone. After Finnick turned to him, Pollux made a couple of quick movements with his hands.

Finnick nodded and translated the sign language. Pollux says: “This stone is from my folk in District Two. It had been found a couple of hundred years ago while my folk mined deeper and deeper into the Great Mountain during their search for valuable stones and minerals. The legend says it was found and brought to our king after it fell out of the hard stone of the mountain during their mining, like it was born that day. It looked exactly like now, a grayish stone, no larger than a chestnut, plain and circular, smooth on one side, and the silvery, wiggly line dividing the stone in two halves was there too. It couldn't be broken, or harmed by anything, not even the hardest tools.”

Pollux looked for a comfortable seat and motioned for Finnick to do the same. The others too, pulled chairs and stools closer to Katniss and Peeta who closed his fist around the stone.

Pollux resumed the signing with his elegant hands and Finnick continued to translate. “The workers brought it to our king, a kind and friendly sovereign, because he loved every kind of beauty, but most of all the beauty of nature itself, and they knew it. The king honored the workers, praised the gift and offered his miners a place at his table because it was his birthday. He filled their plates and goblets with food and wine all by himself and asked the minstrel to sing and play. When his wife came into the great hall, with more delicious dishes, he showed her the stone and praised the miners. His wife looked at the stone in his hand and touched the silvery line, like you, Katniss did just now. And like today the stone began to glow. The king looked at the miners and told them where to mine the next day. And about a tunnel they should close and never open again because it was dangerous.

The miners loved their king, so they didn't argue but choose to do as he advised, come the following day. They ate his food and drank to his health till the moon was high in the night-sky. They said their goodbye and went home to their families. The next day they mined at the place the king had advised them to and found a fortune in gold and gems. This striking success confirmed the wisdom of the king. So they followed the other advice too and closed the tunnel he had told them was too dangerous.”

Finnick took a drink from his beaker before he continued to translate Pollux tale.

“In the following years the king was able to give good advice and ruled wisely. With his queen at his side he became an even better sovereign than before he became the owner of the stone. But wherever there is great success, there is also jealousy in the hearts of those who are not so blessed.

One day a traveler came to District Two and heard the tale of the Stone of Clarity. Obviously the legend became greater and greater with every time it was retold. So the stranger heard of a Stone who makes the owner rich and powerful. He desired the stone for himself but had no idea how to get it. The king and the queen couldn't been deceived, they were strong in their beliefs when it comes to their ways of ruling.

But they had one secretary, an older man, who had already worked under the king’s father. He didn't think that the king was a wise one. He couldn't understand why the king listened to his wife and spent so much of the fortune for his folk, or why the king build houses for the sick and for those who couldn't help themselves anymore. He also couldn't stand the queen. The couple had no children and the secretary thought it was all the queen’s fault. The kingdom would go down because of the childless king and queen. So when the stranger, with his desire to become the owner of the stone, and the secretary, with his hate for the queen, met one evening in a tavern, the secretary found an empathetic listener to his complaining.”

Gale bent forward, enthralled by this story. “You can find idiots like that in every tavern. They are complaining and raving, even when they are not able to make it better. They are usually all bark and no bite, like old dogs.”

Katniss scowled about this. “You say this regularly, but in the end they find a way to make someone’s life hell. Believe me.”

Pollux nodded and gave Katniss a thumbs up sign. Then he continued and Finnick spoke for him again.

“Soon after the two men met regularly in the tavern. The secretary’s daughter became a confidant to the queen. She felt honored and was happy that her father had changed his mind about the queen, after being against her for so long. He even started to speak highly about the queen in his daughter’s presence and encouraged that she would help her queen with her desire to become a mother, by giving her a special herbal tea.”

It was now Annie who gasped and spoke up. “Please don't tell me that the queen drank it. Why didn't the king see that it must have been a scheme of the secretary. Nobody changes his colors so fast.”

Pollux signed. “The daughter didn't know that this was all a trick to make the queen ill. She loved the queen dearly and wished to help her. The king couldn't see anything bad in her behavior. She brewed a cup of this special tea daily, with her heart full of love for the queen, but after a couple of weeks the queen became sick. The king called for healers, but in the meantime his wife had fallen asleep and never woke up again.

After her death, the king mourned her and asked himself what he did oversee. When he tried to find an answer by touching his stone, the stone didn't glow anymore. In this moment the king knew that the glowing of the stone came from his late wife's beating heart, her love for him, and his country. Now, with her dead, the stone has lost his ability to help him to clarity, to help him to make wise decisions. Finally, the king lost his will to stay on this plane anymore. He grabbed the stone and jumped from the highest cliff over the sea.

The people he left behind didn't want to live in district two anymore after the secretary became the new ruler. They packed their satchels and left to find luck in other districts. Only the secretary and his daughter were left behind, and when his daughter found out about her role in the queen’s death, she left her father too. The stranger who wanted the stone all for himself – well, he tried to dive for it, but found his death on the bottom of the sea.”

Pollux finished his story with a deep bow in front of Katniss and Peeta, like it was minstrel tradition, and helped himself to a beaker of water.

Peeta had held the stone in his fist the whole time while Pollux told the legend. He opened his hand and looked at Katniss encouragingly.

Katniss slowly moved her hand to the stone and it began to glow. She pulled her hand back. “What does this mean to us?” She turned her head to Pollux.

Pollux sighted and signed again. “Isn't it obviously? Peeta can make wise decisions and use the Stone of Clarity, but only with you at his side. You are the heart of the stone.”

to be continued ...

Chapter Text

I want to thank two wonderful friends on tumblr and AO3 who edit my story @Norbertsmom and Titania522 aka @Titaniasfics.
Go and visit their blogs and accounts on AO3. They are awesome.
So, every mistake you'll find is mine.
Thank you to @marzgaperez for this awesome photo and to all my readers on tumblr and AO3, who left kudos, likes, comments, reblogs, bookmarked the story or subscribed.
Hugs and kisses for you. Your constant support means the world to me.

~~~~~~~~~~~

“You are the heart of the stone.” Finnick repeated the sentence after he translated the last signs Pollux made and looked at Annie. “Annie, do you know what this means? Such a gift. We finally have a powerful tool in our hands to fight against the brigands and the slave traders. All we had until now was sheer luck when it came to finding them and freeing the slaves. Now we have a real weapon for the first time.”

Annie looked at him sadly and shook her head.

Finnick looked irritated, but then hopefully at the others, but their faces didn't show the enthusiasm he felt either. “What,” he asked Johanna whose face looked more like that of someone who had heard bad news. “Please tell me, Johanna, that at least you can see that this means we finally get an advantage over the criminals who terrorize the people in Panem?” He huffed when Johanna made a sign with her hand over her throat for him to shut up. Finnick huffed and crossed his arms over his chest. “OK, I see, the women aren't on my side. Maybe right now they only see the tragic romance. But at least you, Pollux, Gale, or you Boggs, see it my way, don’t you?” Finnick was adamant in his effort to gain the others agreement. But neither Pollux nor Gale or Boggs said anything. They all just shook their heads.

Peeta slowly looked up from Katniss hand; she was still touching the stone. “Gift you say.” Peeta's voice was calm and had an authority that made Finnick look up and be quite. “I can't see how you come to this conclusion. You translated for us what Pollux signed and I'm grateful for that. Thank you for your help, but Finnick, didn't you listen. The queen was childless and so desperate to become pregnant that she drank the herbal tea. She got sick and died. The king mourned her and killed himself when he lost her. They were already good rulers of District two before they got the stone. I'm sorry to say, that I can't see the stone as a gift, by no means.”

Peeta inhaled and exhale deeply, removed the stone carefully from Katniss reach, pushed it back into the pouch, and took Katniss’ small hand into his much larger one. He looked calmly around and continued, “Powerful tool, you said. Let me tell you, I already have the ability to observe and to see if someone is telling the truth. I already have the ability to look through schemes and see when someone is trying to manipulate me or others. I don't need a Stone of Clarity to help me. All it took for me to gain this ability was a childhood spent with the folk of the Seam subjected to the cruelty of the leaders.

“I don't know how many years you trained and then worked as a minstrel to gain the abilities minstrel have, and to gain the trust of District Fours majors to act on their behalf. I had to excel in my abilities since I was a toddler just to stay alive. So if you need a powerful tool, well here I am.” Peeta let loose of Katniss hand and stood up, opening his arms in a kind of invitation. ”But I won't let you pull Katniss into this. It is her choice what to do and with whom she works. She is not a tool for the stone. And about 'Heart of the Stone”, Katniss has already my heart. I was a goner since the first minute I met her. I didn't need the Stone of Clarity to fall for her. All it took was watching her interactions with others, her family, friends, bees or our little Lupe, to know she is the one.”

Katniss looked at him in awe. She stood up too, lifted his hand, caressed it with her fingers and brought it to her mouth. She kissed his knuckles. “I too, am not in need of a stone to tell me what my heart already knows. You have my heart and my abilities too.”

Peeta smiled and reciprocated the gesture before he continued. “Real weapons against the brigands and slave trades, you said Finnick. I'll help against both groups with all I can do. I promise you all. But don't mistake me for a weapon. And don't think that you can handle me like one. Neither Katniss nor I are pieces in a game. When you want to best the brigands and slave drivers, don't act the same way they do. Don't use people,” He looked at Katniss who smiled brightly, “and don't even think about using the animals Katniss can communicate with. If you all want to hear my ideas how to best the criminals, well I'm more than able to help. I don't know about you, Finnick, how many years you lived in slavery.”

Finnick who had shamefully lowered his head, looked up, and cleared his throat. “None.”

Peeta nodded. “I can tell you that I was born a slave, lived my whole life as a slave and freed myself from slavery by running away after I was almost tortured to death and left to die. I ran into the woods, was attacked by mutts and almost died if I hadn't reached Katniss’ meadow. I know more about slave owners and slave trades than you can imagine. I know how they work. I know why the do what they do, and I know how to best them. But that is something that can't be done by one human being, and not from the outside alone. The only way to best the brigands, slave owners and slave traders is with a rebellion from the inside supported by freedom fighters from the outside. But right now I must ask you, will you help me to hide the stone of clarity before someone steals it and the history of the queen repeats itself? Because the bond between the stone and Katniss has already been formed. And there is no way that I will let Katniss been harmed. So I have to ask you. Are you at Katniss and my side? Can I be sure that none of you try to take advantage of our talents?”

It was Annie who reacted first. She stood up and with a few steps she was in front of Katniss and Peeta, and hugged the both of them. “I'm with you. You have my word as a minstrel of District four. All I can do to help you, I will do.”

Madge was the next. She hugged them too and offered with a smile, “You have my help. My abilities and my friendship are yours.” She turned around to Gale, but he had already left his seat and stood directly behind her.

“Katniss and Peeta, you have my bow and my loyalty. Katniss, if someone prophesied that I would oath allegiance to you two this fine morning after fighting criminals the whole night with this strong beauty beside me, I would have asked him to stop drinking schnapps. But I do. This is my oath. My abilities and my friendship are yours.” He bowed like a cavalier, but laughed when he got pulled into their arms.

When they turned to the others, they could see that Pollux signed animatedly to the crestfallen Finnick while Johanna and Boggs stood near the window, deep in a serious discussion. Boggs nodded to something Johanna said and after another few word he went to the door and left Johanna's office.

Johanna went to the group that formed a circle around Katniss. “Before you ask, Peeta, Boggs will look to see if there is a safe place in Snow’s Castle to hide the stone as you wish. It will be safer when we hide this Stone of Clarity right know before someone else hears about it. Boggs and I are at your side. You will have our abilities, as the strength of the town guard.”

Katniss, who had been silent for most of the time, looked nervously at Peeta “Glimmer! Glimmer had been on the other side of the gate when Sae gave you the stone. And she could have heard the name of this heirloom.” She turned to Johanna. “What if Glimmer heard it? And what if she wants to steal it?”

“Hold down your horses. What is with Glimmer? How did this 'sparkling epitome of shallowness' come into the picture?” Johanna turned to Madge. “Yesterday you mentioned her too. Assumed that she is a spy. But for whom? And what does she want to know?”

Before Madge could speak, Katniss offered her opinion “What if she is not only here to spy for someone else, the brigands, for example, but heard us when we spoke with Sae. She might have heard us talking by chance, but maybe she had heard the legend before and when Sae mentioned the name of the heirloom she put two and two together. My mother found her very suspicious and I have trust in my mother's intuition about people.”

“She is as fake as her stories about her being from District One.” Madge put in her two pence. “I mentioned her yesterday because there must be a reason to go to such lengths in weaving such a fake story. I thought, maybe she wants to steal jewelry by pretending to be a jeweler from District One. But maybe she has other intents too. Like to look for the long lost Mellark artifact and to gain ownership of it.” Madge looked around proudly and beamed when the others nodded at her and Gale looked at her in admiration.

They all turned to Finnick and Pollux when the two joined them. Pollux motioned for Finnick to speak.

“I want to say that I'm sorry. You two, Katniss and Peeta, are not a tool or a weapon.” Finnick turned to Pollux. “Pollux here made me see how wrong I have been to assume that my point of view was the only logical one. Thank you for that, dear friend.” He bowed before Pollux who laughed silently and grabbed his arm to straighten Finnick's posture and turned him back to the young couple. ”You are right, Peeta. We need more than brute force or sporadic attacks to win this war. We need wisdom and closeness. We need to show all those characteristics the brigands, slave owners and slave traders do not possess, but you two, Katniss and Peeta, do.” He bowed earnestly before them. “I'm at your service. I mean it. My abilities are yours to help with the rebellion and the war against our foes.”

“Thank you for that, Finnick. I have to admit with all of you on our side I feel a lot better about this.” Peeta turned to Pollux. “Maybe this evening you and the other minstrels would like to meet again. I have a lot of questions and I have the feeling that you are the one who could answer them. I would bet that the people around you have the tendency to speak freely because they assume that you can't tell what you hear.” Peeta offered Pollux his hand to shake.

Pollux nodded enthusiastically and took the offered hand, but instead of shaking it, he bowed and touched his forehead to the back of Peeta’s hand. He stepped back a step and offered Peeta the three-finger salute.

Peeta blushed. “You don't have to, Pollux. I don't know if I really earned your respect or your thanks. But thank you for both.”

Johanna cleared her throat. “Where did you learn the meaning of this sign, Peeta? It is rarely used by others besides our close group of fighters.”

“I really never seen it before today. But isn't that what this sign means?” Peeta looked around bewildered. “I don't know how I knew the meaning of the sign.”

It was Pollux who helped him out. He signed, “It has been a symbol in District Two for hundred of years. The folk who left the district after our queen’s and king’s deaths, used it to show respect, admiration for our queen and king and to say goodbye to them and to the district when they left. Maybe one day we can travel to District Two and you can see it for yourself why it was hard to leave their home. Big, snow-topped mountains, lush green valleys full of vegetables and ripe fruit, thunderous rivers and a sea, teaming with fish. The sky full of birds and bees. It was paradise.”

At that moment Boggs came back into the office. He joined the group. “Peeta, if you want, you could hide the stone inside Snow's Castle. There is a space in the basement where Snow used to hide his fortune. Well, as long as he had a fortune to hide. We can put the stone in there and you won't have it with you all the time.”

Peeta nodded, but Madge put a hand on his arm. “That is a good advice, but I have an idea too.”

Everyone looked at her and it was Katniss who encouraged her new friend to continue. “Tell us, Madge. What do you think he should do?”

Madge smiled at Katniss and impulsively gave her a one-arm hug. “What if we create a forgery of the stone. It shouldn't be to difficult. When it is not glowing it is quite bland. A round stone with a silvery, winding line on one side. Easy to forge, we have lots of stones at the coast and silver can be melted and put into an engraved line.” Madge shrugged her shoulders. “And then we let Glimmer 'steal' it. This way we can see if she really wants to steal the stone or if we are all being a little bit paranoid about her. Maybe, if she steals it, we can see what she wants to do with it. Bring it to a safe place? Bring it to someone else? Try to use it herself?” Madge smiled mischievously at faces of her comrades before she got pulled into Gale’s arms. He kissed her soundly on the forehead.

“This, dear Madge, is a genius idea,” Gale praised.

To be continued ...

Chapter Text

~~~~~~~~~~~

“This, dear Madge, is a genius idea,” Gale praised. He looked at her in open admiration while Annie laughed and hugged her best friend.

Madge smiled and blushed to everyone's amusement. “Let me look through my little personal arsenal. I think I have a stone similar to Peeta's, but without the silvery line.” Madge pulled the hemline of her shirt out of her pants and opened the lowermost buttons of her shirt without any care in the world.

Gale, who stood opposite from her gaped with open mouth when he got a glimpse of the cream-colored skin of her toned tummy, dusted with freckles. Right above her pants was a belt-like pouch with small ribbons. Suddenly he felt a small hand close his open jaw.

“Gale, you are drooling.” Katniss smirked while she motioned to his jaw.

He scowled at Katniss but his eyes went quickly back to Madge and his face softened when he saw how she pulled a couple of stones out of the belt-pouch. “That reminds me to ask, how you knocked the bandit out yesterday evening?”

Madge smiled and put one of the stones on her palm. “Wait and see. This one looks like so much like Peeta's stone. When we engrave a line and fill it with molten silver, only those who have seen the true stone of clarity up close before will know it is a forgery.” She turned to Gale. “About your question Gale, well I have loaded sleeves and a slingshot to fight against foes that I can't reach with my hands or feet. If you are still interested in seeing my weapons well, I'll show you mine, if you show me yours.” Madge winked at Gale and everyone laughed when Gales face turned crimson.

“So, what do you think Katniss, shall I counterfeit a stone of clarity? I'll only need a few things and some silver to create an artifact Glimmer will fall for. You can bet that she won’t understand why this stone doesn't work.” Madge grinned and let the stone roll around in her open palm. “Too bad that I won’t see her face when that happens.”

Katniss took the stone out of Madge's hand and looked at it from every angle. “Glimmer couldn't see the stone good enough from her place behind the gate. I assume she has only heard what Sae told us. And this stone looks so much alike Peeta’s. I'm sure with a silvery line on one side, even I would have trouble telling them apart.”

“Well then, I'm going to counterfeit it. I have to admit, as a daughter of a jeweler, this has always been a secret dream of mine – create a forgery.” Madge went to Johanna's desk and looked around the surface. After she had spotted something, she smiled and asked Johanna. “May I?” She motioned to Johanna's chair.

“Be my guest. What else do you need?” Johanna pushed some papers aside and motioned for Madge to sit down.

“A little bit of silver and something to melt it in.” Madge took a small knife from Johanna's table and started to carefully carve the beginning of a line.

“I know where I can find the things Madge needs.” Gale stepped towards Johanna. “With your permission I'll go and fetch them and be back in a couple of minutes.”

Johanna nodded and Gale left the office. She went to the others who looked up when she came nearer. “How do we manage for Glimmer to 'steal' the stone. We need a situation that makes it easy for her to steal it, but won't look staged.” Johanna motioned for Peeta's pouch. “You can't leave the pouch out on a desk and leave the room. And I can't see Glimmer breaking into Katniss’ cottage to steal the stone either. So all in all, we need a plan.”

“After the caravan arrived,” interjected Boggs’ warm baritone, “everybody expects that the wares are sold on the market place. People will expect a fair. They want minstrels singing and sitting in the sun, drinking honey-wine and eating food from vendors.”

“What, right now? After we had nightly attacks?” Johanna looked like she had heard a bad joke. “I assumed that people would like to stay inside their houses until we caught every single bandit.” She shook her head. “People will never cease to surprise me. I thought this is a town where people want safety first. After all, they never acted up when Snow was still alive. I thought they were like a flock of sheep.”

Boggs chuckled, “Well these 'sheep' want wares, drinks, food and dance.”

“And they can get it.” Annie smiled at Boggs. “Let them have what they want. You are right, this is the perfect stage for Glimmer to steal the stone. And when we stage it, we can make sure that she thinks she’s stealing the right stone, but gets the forgery.”

Everyone looked at the door when it opened again and Gale stepped into the office carrying a bundle in his arms.

Gale smiled and lifted the bundle up a bit. “I couldn't run around and be seen carrying these things. Everyone I meet would become suspicious.” He approached the desk and pulled item after item out of the bundle. “May I assist you, Madge? I have a little experience with casting arrowheads.”

Madge put the finishing touches on the groove in the stone and beamed at Gale. “Of course, if I can have a partner in crime with my forger career, I want it to be you.” She showed him the stone.

Gale whistled. “You have a fabulous memory, Madge. It looks exactly like the real stone, but without the silver. Every meander is at the right place.” He looked at her in admiration, “I bet you are able to create accurate strategic maps too.”

Madge nodded. “I've done it before and I'm more than willing to do it again for the sake of the revolution.” She motioned to the tools Gale had laid out on the table. “So, partner, could you melt me some silver for my artifact? The earlier we can cast the line, the earlier we can go the the training square. I haven’t forgotten that I promised you a demonstration with my loaded sleeves and my slingshot.” She looked from Gale to Katniss. “And I would love to see how Katniss bests us all in archery. I heard she is admirable.”

Gale put a small piece of silver into his smelter, and went to the fireplace. Even now, in late spring, a small fire still burned inside the fireplace. Gale pulled on a couple of thick gloves and lowered the smelter over the fire. “You can bring the stone any time you want, Madge. This little bit of silver will be melted soon.”

Madge and all the others came near and Madge put the round stone with the wiggling line upside on a flat stone in front of the fire. She took a few steps back to give Gale enough space.

Gale looked into the smelter and when he was satisfied with the result he poured the silver into the carved line of the stone. He put both the smelter and the gloves aside and turned to the others. “Well this was much easier than I would have thought. Give it a minute or two and it is finished.”

“So, what do we do now?” Peeta looked at Madge expectantly.

It was Katniss who answered him, still holding his hand as if to make sure that he doesn’t go anywhere that he can get harmed. “Now we have to make sure that the stone, I mean the real one is hidden in Snow's castle until the fair. When we are at the fair we have to brag about the stone, show everyone that you have it, and how it glows when I touch it. When we have Glimmer lured in – hook, line and sinker – we have to make a swap. The real stone goes back into the castle and the forgery can be stolen by Glimmer. And voila, mission accomplished.” Katniss looked proudly around and was greeted by the smiling faces of her friends.

Gale looked flabbergasted. “How do you know that this will work. I mean, I can't see Peeta running around and bragging about the stone. OK, I only know him since last night, but really. Bragging? Peeta? Nah!” He looked at Peeta and shrugged his shoulders.

Katniss huffed, and opened her mouth.

It was Annie who answered. “Katniss is right. People like Glimmer would fall into this trap. She was all about bragging herself when we met her in the tavern. If Glimmer was the rightful owner of the stone, she would show it around and brag. Believe me when I say that she would assume that Peeta would do it too. But how do we do the swap?”

Pollux motioned for Finnick to translate for him. “The best scenario I can think of is when Haymitch acts like he is drunk and bumps into Peeta. He could take the real stone and give him the forgery to put into the pouch. Haymitch is quick when he wants to be. I saw him catching a goblet in the tavern before it could hit the stone-floor. He could give the stone to Boggs in a similar way and Boggs can bring it into the castle. We could do the swap and bring the stone into safety in a couple of minutes.”

“Wouldn't it be good for Peeta to show the stone again after the swap?” Finnick looked around. “If Glimmer is an adept thief, she would try to steal the stone before someone else could do it. She would need a reassurance that the stone is still in Peeta's possession after Haymitch stumbled into him. And we need to get Katniss out of the way, so that Glimmer can steal it.”

Katniss nodded and stepped closer to Peeta. “I could grab Haymitch's arm and pretend he needs help. Maybe bring him to a place in the shadows.”

Boggs nodded. “Where he stumbles into me and gives me the stone. When Peeta uses the time between the swap and you going back to him to check that he still has the stone, nobody will find it odd that the stone doesn’t glow, because Katniss isn't near.”

“And I could say something like 'Oh, look it misses its heart' or something before I push it back into my pouch.” Peeta wrapped his arm around her waist. “Should I play a little bit drunk too?” He asked no one in particular.

“Could be a good idea.” Gale motioned to the pouch. “It would explain why you forget to close the pouch. We don't want it to be too difficult for Glimmer to steal the stone. About the stone, what to you think Madge, is it finished?”

Madge looked at the stone beside the fireplace. “I think it is cool enough to be put it into Peeta's pouch. We should swap it right now. I have a nervous feeling about the stone still in Katniss and Peeta's vicinity.”

Annie nodded at her friends words. “I think the legend is something we should think about, a lot if you ask me. When it comes to 'gifts' like this, I can only warn you. Everything has its price. Nothing comes without an attached downside. This stone is too close to Peeta's family jewels, if you get my meaning. Nobody knows for sure that it was the queen in the legend who was infertile.” Annie looked pointedly at the pouch that hung at Peeta's belt.

Peeta quickly pulled the stone out of the pouch, put it on the desk and stepped a couple of steps back. “I suddenly have the wish to scrub my hands or something,” he admitted to the others sheepishly, but nobody laughed.

“Put the fake stone into your pouch and let us bring this one into the castle.” Johanna opened a drawer of her desk and pulled out an bag made of raw leather. She pushed the real stone of clarity inside and pulled the strings attached to the bag to close it. Then she motioned for the door. “Let’s go. Let us carry all our bows and slingshots with us to the archery range. Hell, I’ll even take my ax with me to make it obvious what we want to do.” Johanna went to a wooden rack and removed an ax and fastened it on her belt. “Let us brag about our abilities to hit targets. And Peeta can start to show off his 'Stone of Clarity' when Katniss isn't near him. I don't know if there isn't someone inside these walls who tells Glimmer about us. So let us start with our mission right now. On the way, we make a beeline inside the castle, hide this stone and then we spent some time showing off. ”

Peeta bent down and fetched the forgery. It had cooled enough for him to hold and when he looked at it closely, he whistled. “I can't see a difference to the real one, Madge. You are a gifted woman, a courageous fighter, a true friend and a talented forger. I can call myself lucky to have friends like you all on our side.” He put the stone into his pouch and slung his arm again around Katniss’ waist.

Gale beamed when he heard Peeta’s words. He turned to Madge, “He is right. You are awesome, and an incredible fighter, a thoughtful observer, a gifted forger and a beautiful, strong woman. I can't imagine which talents you ….”

Madge closed the gap between them and shut him up by kissing him square on the mouth. When she slowly pulled away, Gale’s lips followed her own and his calloused fingers framed her face. They didn't notice when the others left the office on tiptoes.

~~~

“They will follow. Gale knows the path to the archery range. I waited long enough for him to find someone who is worth his time,” Johanna whispered once outside the door. She led them to a passage that did not lead them into the open, but deeper into the head quarter to a pair of stairs down into the basement. “This is our beeline into the castle. To everyone who sees us, it looks as if we are on our way to the wine cellar. On our way back, we take a couple of wine skins with us. Not many people know about this passage.”

They passed a wine cellar and Johanna grabbed a torch out of a rack beside the entrance. She lit it by holding it inside the flame of the wall torch and then motioned for the others to follow her. They stopped in front of a shelf filled to the brim with old wine bottles. Johanna pulled one of them out and reached inside the shelf. She must have pulled some kind of lever, because the old shelf swung open without a noise. “I oil the hinges every time I fetch a wine skin for myself.”

“That means daily,” Boggs grumbled.

“Be quiet. You like to drink the wine too. You never complained when I brought a bottle over when I came into your quarters.” Johanna grinned and winked at Boggs. She stepped into the open passage, but stopped when she saw that at the other end of the hallway was a lit torch on the wall. “Boggs, did you forget to put the torch out when you came here earlier?” She turned to him accusingly.

Boggs shook his head and passed her while he stepped inside the hallway. “No, I didn't light that torch. And when I left there was no open fire. That means someone else must have used the hallway after I left. But who?” He lit a torch for himself.

“And why?” Annie added. “I think, why, is also a good question.” She too, grabbed a torch, lit it and motioned for the hallway. “Only one way to find out. We have to go and look out for the intruder.”

to be continued ...