Actions

Work Header

Let Me Fly

Chapter Text

 

Let Me Fly Banner

 

oOo

 

Chapter One:  I Had A Little Bird

 

oOo

 

 "Katniss, I made you some tea."

 

I blink my eyes and open my mouth but am prevented from acknowledging my sister Prim's words because I'm overcome with another coughing fit.  It's the third one in the last ten minutes.  I know it won't be the last.

 

Prim sets the mug of tea on the table next to the bed and lifts me up into a sitting position.  The coughing eases slightly, letting me breathe, and I smile gratefully at her.  Five days.  It's been five days since I felt the first headache signaling that I’d contracted the disease that’s been plaguing Twelve for the last three weeks.  The symptoms got worse from there until the only thing I could do was lay in my bed with Prim at my side and hope that I wouldn’t die.  Death is still a distinct possibility.   Many people have already died and even more have gotten sick.  My mother has been working almost non-stop since the disease began but there isn't a lot she can do.  The disease is resistant to most of her herbs and the most she can do is make people comfortable.  

 

"You need to drink this," Prim insists once my coughing has gotten under control,  "It'll make you feel better."

 

I nod my head and take the proffered mug into my hands, letting the warmth of the cup seep into my fingers.  I sip the hot liquid and wrinkle my nose at the taste.  It's bitter and grassy and not even the mint Prim put in it can cover up the flavor of the medicinal herbs.  I force myself to drink it anyway.

 

When the mug is empty, I hand it back to Prim with a raspy, "Thanks."

 

She takes it and puts it on the table and says, "The Hawthornes have the flu now.  Posy, Rory and Vick.  Mrs. Hawthorne told Mom when she stopped by this morning.  Mom gave her some medicine but we're almost out of everything useful and I know Mom is keeping the rest for us just to be on the safe side."

 

I digest what she tells me, trying to think of something to say.  There isn’t anything so instead I ask,  "Soup?"  Prim scurries off to get me something to eat and I settle back onto the bed to think about everything that's happened.  It's surprising the Hawthornes have made it this long without someone from their family going down with the flu. I guess their luck just ran out.

 

It started innocently enough, mimicking the typical springtime creepy crud that happens every year.  Then Darius, the redheaded flirtatious Peacekeeper, died less than a day after he fell sick.  He was the first of many.  Unlike the seasonal flu which mostly strikes the young, elderly and infirm, this disease seemed to ravage everyone.  Young and old, healthy and sick, the flu hit them all.  Darius' death shocked the district, since as a Peacekeeper he had access to Capitol-made drugs and treatments.  Almost overnight, more and more people fell ill and started dying.  There weren't enough graves for all of the dead and the ground was too hard and frozen to dig more.  Panic started to set in.

 

Then word came from the Capitol: the dead were to be burned, martial law was going into place, and all non-essential gatherings were cancelled.  They set up the funeral pyre near the Tribute Graveyard and it’s been burning ever since.  They closed the school a week ago.  The mines remain open, even though their work force has been decimated.  

 

They’re not the only ones - this disease has hit merchants and Seam alike.

 

Prim returns with a bowl of soup.  I take it gratefully and lift the spoon to my lips when she says, “I signed up for tesserae.”

 

My spoon hovers halfway up to my mouth and I ask, “Why?”

 

“You’ve been sick and people haven’t been paying Mom because no one wants to pay a physician whose patients die.  We needed food.  It was the only way.”

 

I make a face but I know she’s right. I haven’t been able to hunt or gather since I got sick and it’s late enough in the winter that most of our food reserves are gone.  And without Mom’s income, there really isn’t anything we can do.

 

“It’s not that bad, Katniss.  There was a line going out the Justice Building, kids and families signing up for tesserae.  I even saw Delly Cartwright there, and she’s a merchant.  She wasn’t the only one either.”

 

I sip my soup and think.  My sister is trying to reassure me that she’s not actually in danger, and it does help, but I’m still not happy that she had to take out tesserae at all.

 

I change the subject.  “Where’s Mom?”

 

“She’s at the Mayor’s house.  His wife and daughter are sick.”

 

“I thought they could afford Capitol drugs?”

 

Prim shrugs.  “The Mayor asked her to come.  Hopefully she’ll get paid.”

 

I finish my soup in silence and Prim wanders off to do something, I don’t know what.  I lie down again and let sleep overtake me.

 

oOo

 

I wake up and it’s dark out.  I can feel a cool hand stroking my hair and I open my eyes to see that it’s my mother and not Prim.  “When did you get home?”

 

“Just a little bit ago.”

 

“How are Mrs. Undersee and Madge doing?”

 

Her face falls. “Mrs. Undersee died this afternoon.  Madge seems to be stable but I don’t know for sure.  This flu is just too unpredictable.”

 

“Did you get paid?”  I ask, thinking back to my sister’s words earlier.

 

“A little.  I’ve got to go back tomorrow and check on Madge again.”

 

“Prim took out tesserae,” I say accusingly.

 

My mother sighs.  “She told me she was going to.”

 

“And you didn’t stop her?”  I’m angry and it comes out in my tone.

 

“I didn’t stop you,” she points out.

 

It’s not good enough.  “Well maybe if you hadn’t gone away I wouldn’t have had to.”

 

“You’re never going to forgive me for that, are you?” she asks with a sigh.  

 

I haven’t forgiven her.  I don’t know if I ever will be able to.  I’m not sure if I can forgive her for letting Prim sign up for tesserae either.  I roll over until I’m facing the wall.  My mother sighs again.  Eventually she gets up and leaves the room.  I’m glad to hear her go.

 

I stew in silence until I’m distracted from my thoughts when another coughing fit overtakes me.   When it’s finally over, I force myself to fall back asleep, hoping that things will be better in the morning.

 

oOo

 

I wake up shivering and drenched in sweat.  I throw the wet covers off, struggling to find some warmth.  Prim is instantly by my side.  She reaches out and places a hand on my forehead.  “I think your fever’s broken.”

 

I smile; it’s the first good news I’ve had in a long time.  From what my mother and Prim have told me, if the fever breaks, you’re very likely to make it.  Prim gets me some fresh bedding and I wrap the blankets around me and settle down into a deep, healing sleep.

 

Over the next couple of days, my condition slowly improves.  My appetite gets stronger and my symptoms start to recede.   I notice both Prim and my mother seem very relieved to see me doing better.  I’m relieved myself.   

 

Three days after my fever breaks, I wake up and get dressed for hunting. My mother spends most of her time at the Undersees nursing Madge so only Prim is home to protest my going out.

 

Which she does.  “Are you sure you’re well enough to go out?” Prim asks.

 

“I’ve already been sick, I won’t get sick again, and we need food.”

 

“We’re still okay,” she insists.  “You don’t need to push yourself.”

 

“I can’t stay cooped up in here any longer,” I tell her.  “I’m about to fly out of my skin and I need to do something.”

 

“Fine,” she says, relenting.  “If you trade at the Hob, we could use more white liquor.  Mom’s been making it into a cough syrup and we’re almost out.”

 

I nod and pick up my hunting bag.  “I’ll try,” I tell her as I walk out the door.  

 

Outside, I take several deep breaths and note that the air smells of death and smoke under the usual coal dust.  I debate stopping by the Hawthornes’ to see if Gale wants to join me but I decide against it.  He’s probably too busy taking care of his siblings.  If I get extra food I may stop by later, but not now.

 

Even though there’s no school, I only spend a few hours hunting because it’s so cold out.  I set a few snares, collect some pine needles, some willow bark, and what herbs I can find for my mother.  I manage to find a few rose hips and walnuts that made it through the winter and hungry animals.  I’m still not feeling a hundred percent and when I try to hunt, it’s one of the few times I miss my targets.  I only hit one of the three squirrels I shoot at.  It’s embarrassing and I’m glad Gale’s not here to see me off of my game.  The snares do a bit better, netting me two rabbits.  I finally decide to call it a day when the wind starts to pick up.  I don’t want to catch a chill when I’ve barely recovered from the flu so I carry my catches back underneath the fence and head into town.

 

My first stop is the bakery, since the baker likes squirrels and he’s usually willing to trade.

 

Unfortunately, he’s not there.  His wife opens the door, says “Oh, it’s you,” and slams the door in my face.

 

I stand there blinking at the painted wood in shock.  That’s never happened before.  Normally Mrs. Mellark works the front counter and either Mr. Mellark or one of their sons answers the door. Something is wrong.

 

Shaking my head, I make my way to the Hob.  Hopefully things will be better there and if worse comes to worst, Greasy Sae will buy anything.

 

But when I get there, I immediately notice that her booth and four others are empty.  My stomach sinks.  I walk through the Hob, noticing that the secondhand dealers have heaping piles in their booths.  That’s not normal.  I see Ripper in her usual spot and walk over to her.  “Where’s Sae?” I ask.

 

“Haven’t you heard, dearie?  She and that granddaughter of hers died three days ago.”

 

I blink.  “How much have I missed?”

 

“Plenty.  District’s fallin’ apart.” Ripper motions at the nearest secondhand dealer.  “People have been bringing in their dead folks’ belongings all desperate like and them’s been happy to take advantage.  It’s enough to make a person sick.”  She fixes me with a look.  “I wouldn’t trade with them unless you’re looking to buy, then you might get a good deal.  Otherwise...”  She trails off to let me draw my own conclusions.  

 

 “Thanks, “ I tell her and mean it.  It’s always good to get the lay of the land.  

 

“No problem.”  She eyes my bag with interest.  “You looking to trade, girl?”

 

I nod and pull out the squirrel.  “I’ll trade you this for two bottles of your white liquor.”

 

“Done,” she says quickly, not even bothering to haggle.  

 

I realize I could have gotten more for the squirrel but make the trade anyway, tucking the bottles carefully into my bag.

 

Since Sae is gone, I decide I should trade the spare rabbit to the butcher, Rooba.  As I’m walking out of the Hob, one of the secondhand dealers, Jacob, waves at me to get my attention.  “You got fresh meat?” he shouts across the Hob.

 

I pause.  “Maybe,” I say warily.

 

He motions for me to come over and when I do he whispers, “I’ll give you coin for what you’ve got.  Butcher’s shipment hasn’t come in yet and my little ones could really do with a spot of fresh meat.”

 

I consider it.  It’s not worth the walk back into town if he’s willing to trade coin and he’s given me valuable information.  I pull out the smaller of the two rabbits and place it on the counter.

 

He looks at it.  “Three coin?” he asks.

 

It’s the start of a spirited bargaining session with me ending up with eight coin and a new winter coat for Prim.  It’s more than I could have gotten before the flu.  

 

My trading done, I head for home with the last rabbit, the herbs, the white liquor, the coat, and the money.

 

When I get there, my mother takes the rabbit and white liquor from me gratefully, her eyes widening when she sees the coat.  “You must’ve had a good day.”

 

“Not really.  Everyone’s so desperate for fresh meat.”  I pause.  “Except for the bakery for some reason.”

 

My mother’s eyes narrow but she doesn’t say anything about the bakery.  Instead she says, “I think Madge is going to recover.”

 

I allow the change of subject and say, “That’s good.  I’m surprised the Mayor didn’t get Capitol medicine for her.”

 

“There’s no medicine to get,” my mother says absently.  “The Capitol and other districts have been hit too so there’s nothing coming out to Twelve.”

 

“Where’d you hear that?”

 

“I overheard the Mayor and Cray talking.  It sounds like there’s an epidemic going on.”

 

That’s bad, I think to myself, but I refrain from saying anything because Prim comes in, babbling about a mouse Buttercup caught.  She’s even more attached to that blasted cat now that Lady is dead.  Right around the same time the flu started Lady got sick and she died a few days later.  My mother refused to let us butcher her for meat, saying that we didn’t know what killed her.  I kind of miss the scarred goat.  

 

I stop Prim.  “I’ve got something for you,” I say and hand over the coat.

 

Her eyes widen.  “Thank you.”  She shrugs off my old winter coat that’s threadbare at the elbows and slips the new one on.  It’s too big for her, but that gives her room to grow.

 

I slip the coins and herbs to my mother and take the rabbit over to the counter to start butchering it for a stew.

 

oOo

 

The next two days I spend more and more time out in the woods hunting and gathering what I can.  The pickings are still sparse but everyone in Twelve is so starved for fresh meat that I get good prices for everything I catch.

 

The good deals from my trade are offset by the news that I hear from town.  More and more people are dying, including Delly Cartwright, who was quite possibly the nicest person ever to exist.  I hear rumblings that there’s no way that the mines will be able to make their quota and that the Capitol is unwilling to accept the Mayor’s excuses for the shortage.  Things are getting even more dire.

 

One bright point occurs when Madge comes by and gives my mother a gold pin in the shape of a mockingjay as a thank you for saving her life.  My mother gives it to me, saying that every woman should have some jewelry and she already has some, motioning to her locket and wedding ring.  It feels weird to take the brooch and I consider selling it, but I decide that I don’t want to upset Madge.  Besides, the second-hand traders aren’t paying much for jewelry at this point.

 

The first day of spring, I’m butchering a turkey when I hear a knock at the door.  My mother answers it to reveal Gale on the other side.  He looks haggard, with dark circles and bloodshot red eyes, like he hasn’t slept in days.

 

“Gale, what’s wrong?” My mother asks.

 

He leans heavily against the door frame.  “Posy.  My mom.”  He draws a ragged breath. “They’re dead.”

 

oOo

 

Chapter Text

oOo

Last Time in Let Me Fly:

 

“Gale, what’s wrong?” My mother asks.

 

He leans heavily against the doorframe. “Posy. My mom.” He draws a ragged breath. “They’re dead.”

 

oOo

 

Placing my knife on the counter carefully, I wipe my hands on a towel. Then, I walk over to Gale and put my arms around him. His body gives a little lurch and he clings to me, shaking in grief.

 

I suppress my own grief at Hazelle and Posy’s deaths to focus on my best friend. “I’m so sorry,” I say. What else am I supposed to say? I know what it’s like to lose a parent but I can’t imagine what Gale’s feeling at this moment. I replay his words in my mind and notice two notable absences.   “What about Rory and Vick?” I ask against his chest.

 

“Sick,” he answers, then shudders. “Why, Katniss? Why? Posy didn’t do anything wrong. She never did anything wrong. What did she do to deserve this? What did I do?” He draws a shaky breath. “I tried everything. Hot compresses. Teas. Everything! Nothing worked! I couldn’t do anything to save her. She just died in my arms.” He breaks down into huge, wracking sobs, unable to speak any further.

 

This is the most emotional I’ve ever seen Gale and I’m embarrassed on his behalf. Unsure what I’m supposed to do, I awkwardly pat his back.

 

Thankfully, my mother steps in and takes charge. “Katniss, you stay here with Gale. I’ll head over to the Hawthornes’. Prim, finish cooking the turkey, then join me.”

 

Gale looks up, his face red with tears. “Please. Don’t tell anyone my mom’s dead. We can’t go to the community home. We can’t!”

 

My mother looks torn. It’s against the law to hide a dead body, but she understands why Gale’s asking this of her. Gale is already eighteen and if they go to the community home, the kids don’t really stand a chance. All community home kids are required to take out tesserae and even during a good year several die from starvation or disease. I can’t imagine how bad the conditions are now that there’s a plague going on.   “Alright,” she finally says.

 

My mother leaves and I lead Gale into the bedroom to give us some privacy.

 

“I’m so sorry,” I say. “I - I don’t know what to say, I’m just so sorry.”

 

“It’s not your fault,” he says automatically. “You were sick too. You couldn’t have known. I just - I did everything I could, and they just died.” He starts to sob again, this time it’s quieter, less broken. I awkwardly pat his back and he throws his arms around me and holds me like I’m a lifeline.

 

I let him. Thankful that, for now, my own family is safe.

 

oOo

 

Misfortune strikes Gale again two days later when his youngest brother, Vick, dies. The boy never stood a chance. Like so many of the flu’s victims, he had a seizure and died only minutes later.   As with Hazelle and Posy, we don’t report his death. Instead, we place his body into the empty root cellar of one of the abandoned houses in the Seam alongside his mother and sister. We don’t want to keep the bodies at the Hawthornes’ in case someone stops by, and there are several empty houses in Twelve because whole families have died in this outbreak.

 

On a more positive note, Rory’s fever breaks and he starts asking for food, signaling that he’s starting to get better. It’s a small but welcome victory.

 

The day after Vick’s death, I’m sitting with Gale in his house. The place feels so empty and sad now that three of its inhabitants have died.

 

Gale must feel it too because he says, “I can’t stay here, Catnip.”

 

I nod. “Do you want to move in with us? There’s not really room, but we can figure out a way to make it work.”

 

He smiles at me weakly. “That’s not what I meant, but thank you.”

 

My eyes narrow. “So what did you mean?”

 

“I meant I can’t stay here. In District Twelve. Not anymore. If Mom and Posy were here, maybe. But I’ve got forty-two slips in the bowl and Rory took out tesserae right before he got sick. With so many people dying like flies, I’m sure to get called. What’ll happen to Rory then? I can’t let him be taken to the community home, I can’t. Kids die there all the time and it’s worse now that everyone’s sick.”

 

I agree with him. It’s why I hid my mother’s condition after my father died. “So what do you plan on doing?” I ask.

 

“When Rory’s regained his strength, we’re going to leave. Under the fence, into the wild.”

 

“Where will you go?”

 

“Somewhere. Anywhere. Just not here.”

 

“Why are you telling me this?” I’m confused. If I were planning on leaving, I wouldn’t tell anyone. It wouldn’t be safe.

 

Gale reaches over and grasps my hand. “Because I want you to come with me.”

 

I gasp.

 

“Think about it, Catnip. We could do it. We’re both strong hunters and trappers and we know these woods. We could find a home and make it out there,” he tells me in a rush.

 

I make a face but hold up one hand for him to stop. I do think about his offer. Gale’s made a good point. With so many teens dying, the chances of being Reaped have increased. Even with so many people taking out tesserae, it’s not going to matter. I have twenty slips in that bowl, Gale’s got forty-two, and what would happen to our families if we died?

 

That brings up another point. “What about my mother and Prim? I can’t just leave them here.”

 

“So bring them with you. I’m bringing Rory. Between the two of us, we can feed five people.”

 

He’s right, we can. We have been for several years. Still, I’m not ready to commit to something so life shaking. “I need to think about it,” I tell him.

 

He lets out a relieved breath, I can tell he was expecting me to say no. “That’s fair,” he says. “Just don’t take too long. I’m not planning on being here when Reaping Day comes around.”

 

oOo

 

I spend the next day thinking about it, avoiding Gale and spending as much time as I can out in the woods.

 

Gale’s right, I think again as I shoot another squirrel through the eye, we probably could feed both of our families. It’s what we’ve been doing for the last few years and without the distractions of school or other things we could devote ourselves to hunting and gathering. But where would we go? That’s the big question. The Capitol keeps us in the dark about the locations of the other districts. All I know is that the former District Thirteen is up north someplace. That might be a place to start.

 

I think about the two people we saw captured in the woods last year. They were heading someplace north but they still managed to get caught. We’re going to have to be careful wherever we go to not attract the Capitol’s attention.

 

And that’s when I realize it. I’ve made up my mind. Even though it’s dangerous and unknown, staying here in Twelve isn’t an option any more. Prim’s had to take out tesserae and people are still dying from the flu.

 

It’s time to leave. The question is how and where.

 

I gather my kills and head back into town and to Gale’s house.

 

When he opens the door a few seconds after I knock, he says, “Well?”

 

“I’m in,” I say in a low tone so that I won’t be overheard.

 

“Good.” He motions for me to come inside.

 

I do. “So now what?”

 

“Now we get ready.”

 

“I need to talk to my mom about this.”

 

He makes a face but nods. “What about Prim?” he asks. “Are you going to tell her?”

 

I shake my head. “No. She’ll want to say goodbye to her friends and we can’t risk that.”

 

“Same thing for Rory.”

 

I fix him with a half smile. “You realize we’re going to have to take the damned cat with us.”

 

“I know,” Gale answers with a sigh. “Don’t remind me.”

 

oOo

 

Gale and I head back to my house to find Prim and my mother cooking dinner.

 

Prim brings two bowls over for Gale to take back home, but he stops her. “I think Rory would appreciate seeing someone other than me. You think you can bring dinner over and sit with him for a few hours?”

 

Prim brightens. “Of course!” She quickly packs up the food, puts on her coat and heads out.

 

As soon as Prim leaves, my mother turns to us with a small smile on her face and says, “That was a neat job of getting her out of the house. Is there something you want to tell me?”

 

“Actually, yes,” I tell her.

 

“I see.” She removes the pot from the stove. “Should I be seated for this?”

 

“That’d probably be for the best.”

 

She sits nervously at the table and Gale and I sit across from her. “Okay, I’m sitting. What’s this all about?”

 

“Mom,” I pause and look at Gale. “Gale and I have been talking, and...we’re leaving.”

 

“What?”

 

“We’re leaving Twelve. It’s not safe here.” He proceeds to outline everything we’d discussed, from our increased risk of being Reaped to our ability to survive in the woods. As Gale talks, I see my mother’s face go from concerned to thoughtful. Good, she’s actually listening.

 

When Gale’s finished, my mother says, “That wasn’t what I was expecting. And now I wish that you’d told me something less shocking, like you were pregnant and Gale’s the father.”

 

I blink and shake my head. “I’m not sure if I should apologize or not.”

 

“Don’t. Have you really thought this through?” She fixes Gale and me with a stern look.

 

“I think so. What do you mean?”

 

“Where are we going to go?” Gale and I start to outline our plan but she stops us. “How will we avoid being found? We’re going to need fire. The hovercraft that patrol the area will see the smoke.”

 

Gale and I share a glance. “Um, I’m not sure? It’s something we hadn’t really thought of.”

 

“I thought so.” My mother gets up and says, “Think about it for a moment. I’ll get dinner. We’re not done.”

 

As we eat dinner, my mother brings up several points we hadn’t considered. I’m a little impressed that she’s put this much thought into leaving District Twelve and she says, “Solomon and I discussed it when we first got married, but before we could actually go, I discovered I was pregnant with you.” She motions to me with her spoon. “ Making the trip wasn’t something we could do with either a pregnancy or a young child. We planned on leaving when you girls got old enough, but then that mine accident happened and your father died and that was that.”

 

“So...where were you planning on going to?” Gale asks, his eyes intent.

 

“Solomon heard from his father that the reason we have to dig so deep is because there are several seams of coal on fire up north and there’s nothing the Capitol can do to put them out. He figured, if we were near enough to one of these mine fires, our fire wouldn’t be noticed.”

 

“But what about the fumes?” Gale wants to know.

 

My mother smiles. “There are coal seams are all over these mountains and lots of them are on fire from even before the Cataclysm. There’s no telling where one seam ends and the next begins. Our fire could be just another bit of smoke coming to the surface finally. We just need to keep it burning.”

 

“So,” Gale asks, “are you in?”

 

“I am. I’ve been in since before you were born.” My mother turns to look at me. “We were planning on leaving a few days after your twelfth birthday the second time.”

 

“Why then?” I wonder.

 

“Because we wanted to get the tesserae portions to make traveling food.”

 

“Oh.”

 

She smiles sadly and turns back to Gale. “So when were you thinking of leaving?”

 

“Well, we planned on going as soon as possible,” he tells her.

 

My mother shakes her head. “I suggest we wait until Katniss and Prim get their tesserae portions. Why don’t we plan on leaving on April 15th?”

 

That’ll give us twenty days to prepare and get the stuff we need without arousing suspicion. And having more food for the trip is not a bad plan. Gale and I both nod.

 

“You know,” my mother says, “Prim is not going to leave without her cat.”

 

Gale and I both sigh. “We know.”

 

oOo

 

We spend the next several days planning and gathering supplies. My mother makes the suggestion that we replace most of our clothing with garments that are in better condition and oversized so that Rory and Prim have something to grow into.

 

My mother agrees with our decision to keep the news of our imminent departure from Rory and Prim. They wouldn’t be able to keep their mouths shut and both would want to say goodbye to their friends, which would give us away. This causes some problems because we have to keep our preparations even more of a secret.

 

Each of us has our role to play. My mother automatically takes responsibility for acquiring medical and gardening supplies as our head healer but surprisingly takes an interest in logistics as well, even raiding the school library for some romance novel anthology that she’d read as a teenager which took place during prehistoric times. I’m not sure how useful it will be, but if nothing else we can use the pages for kindling. Gale is relegated to getting some of our more difficult tool needs. As an eighteen year old, it’s understood that, if he survives his last Reaping, he’ll be moving into a house of his own and might have need of construction supplies. And it’s known he has five family members to take care of including women, so he can get items for both sexes where it’d be odd if I did so.   As for me, my job is to get enough food and money from trade so that we can get the supplies we need.

 

At my mother’s suggestion, we also increase how much we eat each day so that we can put on a little weight and build up our strength. There’s no need to try to stretch food out because whatever we can’t carry, we have to leave behind, which is something I’m unwilling to do. These extra rations almost tip our hand because while Rory will happily eat whatever’s put in front of him, Prim is used to not having enough so she notices the surplus and comments on it. Gale and I have to spin some story about bagging a deer and selling it to the butcher whole for a hefty sum. It works, but mostly because my sister is trusting rather than because the story is believable.

 

Because of Prim and Rory, Gale and I start to store what non-perishable supplies we can out in the woods. Things like tools and packs and other travelling supplies all go into the same hollow log where I store my bows and arrows and under the overhang by the blackberry bushes.

 

On one trip back from the woods after we’ve dropped off several cooking utensils, we spot someone on the inside of the fence moving around. Gale and I immediately drop to the ground and hide under several low bushes.

 

We can hear the person moving and talking to themselves and the voice is vaguely familiar. I hazard another glance and see a head topped with wavy blonde hair. I duck down again before the person can turn around. But I know him. I know who it is. It’s Peeta Mellark. I sat behind him in several classes when school was still in session. No one else has hair like that. I wonder what he’s doing so far out of town.

 

Gale and I are forced to stay hidden for almost an hour. So long that the cold starts to seep into our muscles, making it hard to move when the coast is finally clear. We stand up and stretch our stiff limbs.

 

As we do so, Gale asks, “What’s Mellark doing out here?”

 

I’m surprised Gale recognized him. He must have gotten a clearer glimpse of Peeta than I did. “I don’t know,” I answer. “You’d have to ask him.”

 

Gale snorts and I shrug. It’s none of my business.

 

oOo

 

“I think we need more white liquor,” my mother says three days before our scheduled departure.

 

“So soon?” Prim asks, looking up from where she’s playing with Buttercup.

 

“I’ve been going through a lot with this flu. That cough syrup is the only thing that seems to be working.” She glances at me meaningfully, this isn’t for future flu victims, it’s a supply that she thinks we’re going to need when we leave.

 

“I’ll pick some up when I trade at the Hob today,” I say.

 

My mother nods her thanks. I put on my jacket and head out to meet Gale, who’s waiting for me by the hollow log. We’ve started storing what clothes we have out in the woods as well, expanding into another hollow tree near the overhang. Gale has canteens and miner lunch pails with him, he must have picked them up this morning. Those will be useful.

 

The weather’s getting nicer even though it’s still cold and the animals are starting to come out a bit more, so we end up doing pretty well. At the end of the day, we have two squirrels, two rabbits, and a goose that I am not planning on trading. Gale takes the goose and one of the rabbits to my mother while I take the squirrels and the other rabbit to the Hob.

 

Remembering my mother’s request, I head straight for Ripper’s booth, and as I walk up I notice Haymitch Abernathy, our only living Victor, is there ahead of me.

 

Ripper spots me coming and smiles widely. “What’ve you got for me today, dearie?”

 

I take the larger squirrel out of my bag and set it on the counter.

 

She looks at it smiling even wider. “Same deal as last time?”

 

I shake my head. “Three.”

 

The smile fades slightly but she still says, “Done!” without even attempting to haggle.

 

I should’ve asked for more.

 

Haymitch looks at me, his eyes taking in my appearance. They linger on the mockingjay brooch pinned to my shirt that’s now exposed by the strap of my hunting bag.   “Willing to share some of that bounty?” He waves his hand at me.

 

I’ve never traded with the former Victor before so I don’t know where to start. “What are you willing to give me?”

 

“What do you need?” he counters.

 

I think through all of the things we’ve gathered. We’ve been having difficulty finding a hatchet, but I don’t know if Haymitch will have one - but he might have something that’s valuable enough to trade for one. “I gotta see what you got before I trade you any of my liquor,” I say.

 

He shrugs. “Come with me, sweetheart.”

 

He leads me through town to Victors’ Village and we go inside the messiest house I have ever seen. He drops his satchel and I hear a clink as it hits the ground. I look around, taking in the empty liquor bottles, soiled clothes and spoiled food, and notice, half-buried under a pile of rubbish, the familiar shape of an axe. I point to it. “I’ll take that.”

 

He follows my finger and makes a face when he realizes what I’m asking for. “That’s worth a bit more than a bottle of liquor.”

 

I reach into my bag and pull out the other squirrel. “You can trade this for more.”

 

His eyes light up. “You got yourself a deal, sweetheart.” He motions for me to get the axe. “Take good care of that thing. Got it from a friend of mine in District Seven. She ain’t gonna take kindly to knowing I traded it away.”

 

I shrug. “Like I would tell.”

 

“Makes me curious, though. What a girl like you plans to do with a weapon like that.”

 

A little dart of fear zings through me. “My father’s broke and I need it to chop wood.”

 

He narrows his eyes at me and walks me to the door. “You need to work on your lying, sweetheart. If anyone asks, say you swindled it out of an old drunk. Ain’t far from the truth.”

 

I nod my head and make my escape, the axe clutched tightly in my hands.

 

oOo

 

We spend the next couple of days making hardtack and other travel foods while Prim and Rory are banished to the Meadow to gather what fresh edible greens are around.

 

After lunch on the day before we plan to leave, my mother stops Prim and Rory from going out again. The two share a glance and sit back down nervously. “What’s wrong, Mom?” Prim asks.

 

I take a deep breath. “Prim. Rory. There’s something we need to tell you.”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Let Me Fly:

 

After lunch on the day before we plan to leave, my mother stops Prim and Rory from going out again. The two share a glance and sit back down nervously. “What’s wrong, Mom?” Prim asks.

 

I take a deep breath. “Prim. Rory. There’s something we need to tell you.”

 

oOo

 

Prim looks between our mother and me in confusion and growing concern. I immediately feel bad for keeping her in the dark like we have.

 

Before my sister can speak, Rory asks a question. “Gale? What’s going on?” I flinch internally, I’ve been so focused on Prim that I forgot that Rory has had even more cause for concern.

 

Gale opens his mouth to answer Rory’s question when Prim can’t hold it in any longer. “Are you two getting married? Are you pregnant? Oh no, that’s it! You’re pregnant. I knew it! You’ve been so tired and not wanting to eat and in the mornings you’ve been nauseous. And I can’t remember the last time you had your period.” The words spill out of her mouth like a waterfall. She’s talking so fast that no one can get a word in edgewise and she seems to take our silence as confirmation. “That’s it, I’m right. You’re pregnant!”

 

“No! Why is that the first thing everyone asks?” I glare at Gale. “This is your fault.”

 

He holds up his hands. “Don’t blame me. I’m not the one jumping to conclusions,” Gale says, pointing at my mother and Prim. “They’re the ones who seem to think you’re knocked up!”

 

“You’re not helping,” I growl then take a deep breath. “No, Gale and I are not getting married and I am not, under any circumstances, in any situation, in any way, shape, or form, pregnant! Got it?”

 

Rory and Prim nod their heads solemnly. Rory looks confused and asks, “So what’s going on?”

 

“Somebody else take this,” I say. “I’m done.”

 

My mother steps up and takes over, explaining that, tomorrow morning, we’re leaving District Twelve. It goes over about as well as I expected.

 

“I’m not leaving without my cat!” Prim interjects partway through the explanation.

 

“We know,” my mother, Gale, and I chorus.

 

“We think we’ve figured out a method to carry him with us. We’ll need to pacify him a bit with some catnip. It’s going to be your responsibility to see that he stays fed and doesn’t run away. If he runs, we’re not going after him,” I warn.

 

Prim looks petulant but nods her head, understanding that I’m not being unreasonable. “Can I at least say goodbye to my friends?”

 

“No,” my mother says. “We can’t let anyone know we’re leaving. You understand why.”

 

“No, I don’t understand! My friends aren’t gonna tell! They’re my friends! They wouldn’t do that! And I won’t ever get to see them again! Not ever! Even the tributes get a chance to say goodbye!” She’s working herself up into a fit.

 

I crouch down in front of her and take her hands. “You’re not a tribute, and with luck, you never will be,” I say. “If we get caught trying to leave, we will get killed. All of us. The Capitol doesn’t care how old you are. I can’t have you go into the Games. I just can’t.”

 

Prim squeezes my hands but doesn’t say anything, I can tell she understands now why we’ve had to keep quiet but that she still doesn’t like it. She doesn’t have to like it. She just has to live with it. I don’t want to leave Twelve either but I can’t take the chance that Prim or I will get reaped. And now she understands too.

 

“Why are we leaving now?” Rory asks.

 

“We want to leave while everyone’s still dealing with the flu, while there’s all this confusion going on,” my mother answers, seeing that I’m still dealing with Prim. “We’re less likely to be missed.”

 

“No, that’s not what I meant,” he says with a shake of his head. “Why are we leaving now? Why didn’t we leave before, when Mom and Vick and Posy were still alive?”

 

“The chances were better then and Posy and Vick were too young to travel. Now, with everybody being so sick and dying, the chances of you or me being Reaped have gone up,” Gale says. “Same’s true for Katniss and Prim. I can’t lose you too. And what would happen to you if I got Reaped?”

 

We don’t need to keep explaining. Both kids know our chances, how many slips we have in the bowl. They understand that circumstances have changed. We could talk about it for hours but it wouldn’t change the outcome. We need to leave, the sooner the better.

 

“Do you have any more questions?” Mom asks. Both kids shake their heads. “Good. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

 

oOo

 

Later that afternoon, Gale returns from the bakery, where he was buying a bunch of bread for the trip. We’d decided that we wanted to spend all of the coin we’d had saved since there will be no use for it out in the wild.   My mother, Gale and I are each going to hit a different shop while the other two stay back to make hardtack and meat pies for travel food.   Also, none of us wants to leave Prim or Rory alone. We don’t quite trust them not to go tell their friends that we’re leaving. And additionally, if one person went to every store, it might be suspicious. By splitting up, it looks more like normal shopping.

 

Gale sets the bread down on the counter with a thud. “There’s something weird going on at the bakery,” he says in greeting.

 

“Oh?” my mother asks, looking up from where she’s folding the dough around the cooked goose and root vegetables.

 

Gale snags a carrot and pops it into his mouth. “They’re really pushing these new herb biscuits, claiming they’ll help protect you from the flu.”

 

My mother frowns. “That doesn’t sound like Matz.”

 

“His wife was the one at the counter,” he says with a shrug, reaching over to grab a turnip slice. “She was in even more of a mood than normal. Even tried to sell me one.”

 

“That’s all really interesting, but if there’s nothing else, I’ll head out now,” I say. “Try not to eat all of our travelling food while I’m gone.”

 

I put on my jacket and head out. I’ve got two stops to make: the butcher and the apothecary.

 

I stop by the apothecary first to get a few essential oils and other things that don’t grow near Twelve. My mother also asked me to see if I can get morphling or any other Capitol drugs that might be available. I’m not sure if I’ll be successful. Capitol drugs are expensive and in short supply even during the best of times. I’m sure they’re going to be out of stock or unreasonably priced but I’ve agreed to check anyway.

 

When I get there, I see Madge Undersee, the mayor’s daughter, at the counter. She’s got a box in her hands and she’s arguing with the apothecary.

 

“No refunds,” the man says, crossing his arms over his chest. “I don’t take used medicine.”

 

“But my mom didn’t use it,” Madge protests.

 

He shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter. Once it leaves the store, it’s used. Them’s the rules that the Capitol made and I’ve got to follow the rules.”

 

Madge sighs and gives up, pulling the box back. She turns around to leave and sees me. Her eyes brighten. “Katniss! It’s so good to see you! I’m glad to hear that you’re better!”

 

“Thanks. I’m glad you’re better too,” I reply. “Sorry about your mom.”

 

“Me too.” She pauses, looking down at her hands and the box. A weird expression crosses her face and she seems excited. “Hey, wait a minute. Your mom’s a healer, right? Do you think she could use this morphling? He’s not gonna take it. Says that it’s against the law or something.” She gestures at the apothecary who just shrugs.

 

I’m a little surprised at her abrupt offer but I’m not about to turn it down. “I’m sure my mom could use the morphling. What do you want for it?”

 

She shoves the box at me. “Oh no, you can just have it.”

 

I shake my head and push the drugs back at her. “I can’t do that. I can’t take charity.”

 

“It’s not charity if it helps people.” She pushes the box forward again.

 

We have a weird little tug of war with each of us trying to push the box of morphling at the other. Finally I get tired of the game and take a step back, holding up my hand to stop Madge from following. “Enough. Look, I can give you this,” I say, revealing the pin. “It was yours, right? I’m sure it’s got meaning for you.”

 

“It does, but I gave it to your mom and I’m glad to see you wearing it. It should be worn. And I can’t.” She doesn’t explain why.

 

I make a face. The pin’s not useful and I’d hoped she would have accepted my offer. Now I have to come up with something else. I pull out two coin. “Well, it’s not much, but I can give you this.”

 

“Alright,” she says, taking the coins, although I can tell she’s not happy. She hands me the box.

 

I take it and put it in my bag. Part of me wants to say something to Madge, to say goodbye, but I fight down the urge. She may be my closest friend other than Gale, but even she can’t know we’re leaving.

 

“Have a good day,” Madge says.

 

“You too,” I respond.

 

She leaves the store and I turn back to the apothecary. “What do you want?” he asks, obviously amused at the bartering going on in his store.

 

There isn’t much of a selection, but I still manage to find a few useful things, I get a good deal and what he calls ‘the family discount.’ I know he’s my mother’s little brother so he’s technically my uncle, but other than trading, we don’t interact at all. I see an old woman glaring at me from the back room and can guess why.

 

I finish my business then head over to the butcher. There, I spend the last of my share of the coin on food that can travel easily: dried sausages and dried smoked meat.

 

When that’s done, I head back home. My mother takes the last of our combined coin and heads for the general store.

 

I turn to Gale, Rory, and Prim. “So what else needs to be done?”

 

oOo

 

With the last of our chores and shopping done, Gale heads out into the woods to drop off what things we can leave out there overnight and to stop at his house on the way back to make sure he hasn’t forgotten anything, since this is the last time he’s going to be there.

 

He comes back with a few miscellaneous items and Posy’s doll. “I know it’s not necessary, but I just couldn’t leave it behind.” His voice is full of emotion. He hands the doll to Rory who retreats into the bedroom with it. None of us say anything to condemn either Hawthorne.

 

We understand.

 

By mutual agreement, we all sleep at our house. Gale and Rory share one bed while my mother, Prim, and I share the other. I’m not used to Gale and Rory’s snores and Gale isn’t used to my sister’s cat making a nest on him in the middle of the night. None of us sleep very well but I don’t know if that’s because of nerves or the night noises or both.

 

We wake up before the sun rises and get dressed. Prim puts Buttercup into the cat-carrying case that my mother made from my old school bag. He goes into it willingly for her, but she gives him some catnip to keep him docile anyway.

 

The rest of us pack up all of the food we’re going to take with us. I scour the house, making certain we haven’t left anything edible behind, even pulling out an old packet of dried meat that I stashed under my bed just in case something happened, as well as an old dented can from underneath the sink that holds who knows what. My mother raises an eyebrow at the stashes and I shrug. I don’t bother to explain. My mother should understand why I hoard food.

 

By the time we finish, the sun has risen and the first shift at the mines has started. This is good. We don’t want to run into anyone.

 

The morning is cold but clear. I’m grateful that it’s not raining or snowing. April’s weather is really unpredictable and it’s the one thing that could have prevented our leaving.

 

We get to the Meadow, thankful that we haven’t run into anyone who might ask us about the packs on our backs or all the clothes we’re wearing. We head towards the hole in the fence, not bothering to keep quiet. All of us feel a bit of exhilaration and anticipation. It’s a beautiful day. The birds are singing. The wind is gentle. Nothing could go wrong.

 

Which of course means it does.

 

As we pass a large bush, I hear someone say “Katniss?”

 

I whirl around to see who’s spoken and start when I see it’s the baker’s youngest son, Peeta Mellark.

 

I’m not the only one surprised to see him. “What in the hell are you doing out here, Mellark?” Gale asks. His hand is inching towards his knife.

 

“Gathering herbs. What are you doing out here?” His eyes flick to each of us, taking in our packs and clothing.

 

This is bad.

 

My eyes catch Gale’s. I can see he’s made up his mind: Peeta Mellark must die. I can’t allow that.

 

I take a step forward, placing myself between Gale and Peeta. “We’re just heading out into the woods to gather a few things.”

 

Peeta stands up slowly and regards me seriously. “You’re really not a good liar, are you?”

 

I shake my head, noticing out of the corner of my eye that Gale is moving around the bush to flank Peeta so he doesn’t try to run away while we’re still figuring this out. “No, I’m really not.”

 

A smile ghosts across his lips. “It shows. So what are you doing out here, really?”

 

“What are you? I’ve never seen you gathering herbs before.” I deflect the attention back onto him so he doesn’t notice Gale.

 

“I haven’t. Not until recently. My mother had this idea that we could sell herb biscuits to take advantage of the hysteria surrounding this whole flu thing. They seem to be selling well, especially to the Peacekeepers, so we run out of ingredients a lot.”

 

“But why you? Couldn’t one of your brothers gather the herbs?”

 

He shrugs. “I volunteered. Gets me out of the house.”

 

I don’t blame him. Mrs. Mellark is a really difficult woman to put it nicely.

 

I can see Gale is almost in position so I ask another question. “What kind of herbs are you gathering?”

 

Peeta pulls a root out of his bag. “I think this is ginger. It kind of smells like it, and it tastes good in cookies. But my mom says it’s not ‘medicinal’ enough...” He trails off, his eyes widening. “You’re trying to distract me, aren’t you?”

 

I flinch guiltily.

 

“And it worked, too,” Gale says from behind Peeta, his hunting knife held menacingly in his hand.

 

“Katniss...what’s going on?”

 

Gale doesn’t let me speak. “It’s none of your business, Mellark.”

 

Peeta shifts slightly to keep a better eye on Gale and the rest of us. “Since you’re holding a knife on me, Hawthorne, I think it really is kind of my business.”

 

Right then, Buttercup lets out a drugged meow from inside the bag that Prim’s carrying and Peeta’s eyes zoom right to it.

 

Everybody winces. I am going to kill that blasted cat.

 

“Was that a cat?” he asks, almost as if he doesn’t believe it.

 

“No,” I say.

 

He ignores my protestation and starts to speak as if he’s talking to himself. “Why would you be carrying a cat? Who in the hell carries a cat into the woods?” He looks more closely at our bags and our clothing and he gasps. “Oh my God. Oh my God! You’re running away!”

 

I open my mouth to protest but I know, no matter what I say, it’ll sound like the lie that it is. Slowly, I nod my head.

 

“Observant of you, Mellark,” Gale says, his voice hard.

 

Peeta looks between Gale and me. “Why - no, it’s none of my business. Just go. I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”

 

“That’s right, you won’t.” Gale takes another menacing step forward.

 

“Gale, you can’t kill him. It’ll draw too much attention.” I don’t even know why the thought of Peeta Mellark dying bothers me so much, but I just know that I can’t let him die. He saved my life when I was eleven years old. I can’t take his.

 

“Katniss, you can trust me. I’ll keep your secret,” he pleads. “I won’t tell a soul, I give you my word. Just let me go.”

 

We can’t do that either. I look at Gale. He looks at me.

 

“Your word’s not good enough, Mellark.”

 

 “What can I do to make you trust me? I won’t tell, I promise. I swear on everything I love, everyone I love.” He looks at me oddly before continuing, “I won’t betray you. I’ll swear on whatever you want. Just let me go.”

 

“No can do, Mellark, we can’t take that chance. You’re coming with us.”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Let Me Fly:

 

“What can I do to make you trust me? I won’t tell, I promise. I swear on everything I love, everyone I love.” He looks at me oddly before continuing, “I won’t betray you. I’ll swear on whatever you want. Just let me go.”

 

“No can do, Mellark, we can’t take that chance. You’re coming with us.”

 

oOo

 

Gale motions for me to slip under the fence while keeping his knife trained on Peeta. Once I’ve gotten to the other side, he tells my mother, Rory, and Prim to join me. When they’re clear, he says, “Now it’s your turn, Mellark.”

 

Peeta doesn’t move. “Come on, Hawthorne, you don’t need an extra mouth coming along with you.”

 

“You’re right, I don’t,” Gale growls, running his fingers along his hunting knife. “But Katniss doesn’t want you dead for some reason, and I’m gonna respect that. But if you’re gonna live, you’re going to do so on my terms. Got it?” He jabs the blade in Peeta’s direction to emphasize his point.

 

Peeta just nods and shrugs. I notice he didn’t actually agree to Gale’s terms, he’s just refusing to argue right now. Probably smart of him.

 

It’s best solution I can see. We can’t leave Peeta alive in Twelve. I know he says he won’t tell on us and part of me wants to believe him. But I can’t. We can’t. There’s going to be a manhunt and rewards posted when it’s discovered that we’re gone. It’s happened before. Someone tried to run about two years ago, the Peacekeepers tortured their friends and family and offered a pretty sizable reward for information. Someone came forward and the man was caught and hung. It’s what happened to our first Victor as well.

 

I wish I could be sure of Peeta but I can’t. But I can’t let Gale kill him either. I owe him my life. I can’t take his. Only if I didn’t have another choice, like in the Games, would I even consider it. Even there, I’d try to find a third option.  

 

I’m jerked out of my thoughts when first Peeta, then Gale, wriggle under the fence.

 

“So now where are we going to?” Peeta asks.

 

“Rory’s with Katniss, the rest of you are with me,” Gale states then turns to me. “We’ll meet up at our place, Catnip.”

 

I nod.

 

Rory and I quickly make our way through the woods to collect my bows, arrows, and the other supplies we’ve stored there. Once we have everything, we head to the blackberry bramble.

 

When we get there, Prim is helping my mother sort the supplies into piles while Gale guards Peeta, whose hands are now tied in front of him.

 

It seems to be a recent development because he asks, “Are you planning on keeping me bound the whole way?”

 

Gale shrugs. “I’m thinking about it.”

 

“Well that’s just stupid. Look, I can carry some of this for you. I’m strong. And you’ve got a lot of stuff here.” He’s looking at our piles of supplies. He’s not wrong. It’s also clear he’s trying to convince Gale and the rest of us to keep him alive and unbound.

 

My mother looks up. “He’s got a point,” she says to Gale. “I’m carrying the next heaviest pack after you, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle it.” She holds up the small hatchet from the Hawthornes and the head of a shovel. “And unless we lighten our load somehow we’re going to have to leave stuff behind.”

 

Gale makes a face. He looks at me. “What do you think?”

 

I consider it. We deliberately planned to be overburdened for the first few days, knowing that a lot of the weight is food and we’d be eating it along the way. I don’t want to leave anything behind and knowing my mother, she’d insist we leave food behind, which I can’t do. I look at the various piles, taking inventory. The axe I got from Haymitch is leaning on Gale’s pile along with the majority of our carpentry and gardening tools. My mother has most of our other raw materials. We might be able to leave some of our extra clothes behind, but I’m reluctant to do so. We don’t know how to tan leather and it’s likely to take us a while to learn. We do have an extra bag and I’ve seen Peeta carry hundred pound bags of flour with ease. If Gale or I could have a significantly lighter load, it would free us up to use our bows, either for hunting or protection, which is what I tell Gale.

 

Gale grimaces again. “Fine. But I’ll be keeping my eye on you, Mellark.”

 

“I wouldn’t expect anything else, Hawthorne. But I think you’re going to have bigger worries than me,” Peeta shoots back.

 

My mother and I supervise the redistribution of the packs. We give Peeta the heaviest load, but we make sure that none of our essentials or any weapons are in his pack. Gale would have a fit if we gave Peeta something he could use against us.

 

My mother comes up to Peeta. “Is it okay if I go through this?” she asks, holding up his bag.

 

“Do I have a choice?” He sounds resigned.

 

She shrugs and looks over at Gale.

 

“No, you don’t,” Gale says, motioning for her to go through it.

 

“Of course not,” Peeta snaps. “I’m just your prisoner, aren’t I?”

 

I sigh. I hate having to be the diplomat. I’m no good at it. Still, I try. “I’m sorry about that, really I am. You have to understand we just can’t take the chance that you might slip - I know you wouldn’t say anything on purpose, but something might come out.”

 

“I’d never betray you, Katniss. Never!”

 

His vehemence shocks me a bit and I distract myself by looking at what Peeta had with him. There’s not a lot in Peeta’s bag. He has a few herbs he must’ve gathered before we stumbled across him, a notebook, pencil, eraser, small knife, and gardening trowel. In addition, he has a paper bag full of stale bread and rolls and a smaller one with several broken and burnt cookies.

 

My mother frowns at the cookies. “Matz hasn’t burned anything since we were teenagers,” she says.

 

Peeta looks over at her. “That’s because he didn’t bake them. My brother, Rye, did.”

 

“That doesn’t sound like Matz. His father didn’t let Matz bake cookies until he’d mastered the ovens with less costly pastries,” my mother presses. “I can’t see Matz allowing you boys to bake the cookies until you got all of the burning out of you.”

 

“You think we wanted to burn the cookies? You think we didn’t know we weren’t ready? My father didn’t let my brother do anything! My father is dead.”

 

We all stop what we’re doing and look at him. His grief is visible on his face.

 

“I’m sorry,” my mother says. “I didn’t know.”

 

My sister moves to comfort him and I struggle to figure out what to say. ‘I’m sorry’ just doesn’t seem good enough. I liked the baker. He was a kind man who always gave me a little extra when I traded with him.

 

I reach out to pat Peeta awkwardly on his shoulder when his voice stops me. “Just - just leave me alone. I’ll be fine. I don’t need any false pity.” He stops and scrubs at his face with his bound hands.

 

“Well, you’re in good company,” Gale says. “I’m sorry about your dad. But we still can’t let you go.”

 

“Yeah, I know that.” He sighs. “Fine, I’m in. At least on the bright side I don’t have to go home to my mother’s horrible cooking.”

 

oOo

 

With our packs redistributed, Gale unties Peeta and shoves the pack at him. Peeta grunts a bit at the force of the pack hitting his stomach, but shoulders the heavy bag easily. That settled, we head off toward the northwest so we can skirt the edge of District Twelve. Eventually we’ll want to turn more north and east but only once we’ve gotten clear of the area.

 

I’m in the lead followed by Rory and Prim. My mother and Peeta come next with Gale heading up the rear. We’re lucky it’s a sunny, if cold, day. Not only can we navigate with ease, but Gale can also see what tracks we’re making and do his best to camouflage them. The ground is soft from the recent snow melt and spring rains so his job is harder. What we really need is a good hard rain to wash our boot tracks away, but not right now. Not while we’re so close to Twelve.

 

I don’t need my bow but I keep it out anyway. Nothing crosses our path. We are making way too much noise. After Gale, my mother is the most adept at moving through the woods, which surprises me a little. I wonder if my father taught her. But Rory, Prim and Peeta make up for it, stepping on what I swear is every dry leaf and twig. If I were out hunting, I’d be about ready to shoot them all, but for travelling it doesn’t matter.

 

We set a fairly grueling pace. We need to get as far away from Twelve as possible. We make decent time, stopping only long enough to relieve ourselves or refill our canteens at fast moving streams.

 

I call a halt around midday. We all sink to the ground, shrugging off our packs gratefully. None of us is used to carrying that much or walking that much. My mother makes us take off our boots and socks to check for blisters.

 

Everyone is fine, other than Rory. The poor boy is wearing new boots that are too big and apparently didn’t pad them properly.

 

My mother sighs and rummages around in her pack for some witch hazel and instructs me to dig up a few dandelions. She needs the fresh sap to apply to the skin.

 

I move off from the group and Gale joins me. I’d been hoping to avoid talking with him about Peeta until later. It looks like I’m not so lucky.

 

We find a small clearing and I start to gather what herbs and greens are available. I try to ignore Gale. But that doesn’t work.

 

“What was that, Catnip?”

 

“What was what?” I counter, gathering a few wild carrots.

 

“Back there in the Meadow. Why wouldn’t you let me kill him?” he presses.

 

I bend down to uproot a solomon’s seal plant while I think of what to say. “Prim.”

 

“What about Prim?” he asks, the confusion evident in his tone.

 

“I didn’t want to have her see you kill someone. How would you feel having Rory see you slitting Peeta’s throat?” I counter, digging up another plant.

 

He makes a face, thinking about what I said. I use the time to move away from him and further into the clearing.

 

There are several things here I can gather in addition to dandelions like burdock, wild onions, and daylilies. I want to wait to gather the dandelions last so that their sap is still fresh when we get back to where the others are but I’d be an idiot not to take what chance I have to augment our limited food supplies. We’d initially planned on having about two and half weeks of food with us, but with the addition of Peeta to our group we now have less than that. I wonder if we’ll be able to find a place to settle before our food runs out.    

 

Gale rejoins me. “You make a good point. I wouldn’t want Rory or Prim to see that, but we could have sent them on ahead with your mom and taken care of Mellark then,” he argues.

 

I frown. I was hoping he’d accept my admittedly weak explanation. “Yeah but then we wouldn’t have anyone to spread out the supplies to. I don’t know about you, but even with my lighter load I’m still feeling worn out. I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if he wasn’t carrying as much as he is.” It’s a flimsy argument and I know it.

 

Gale knows it too. “That’s not a good reason. I admit he’s a good packhorse, but we could’ve made it without him. And adding him means that we’re gonna run out of food quicker. Give me another reason.”

 

I struggle to keep the wince off of my face. I was hoping he’d let the subject drop. I don’t like explaining myself but Gale isn’t going to let it go. I try a different tack, “There would be nowhere to hide a body without it being found. Leaving it inside the fence would just be stupid, and outside the fence they’d notice the scavengers.”

 

“And that would be a good thing!” Gale shouts. “They’d notice scavengers, find his body, and assume he left Twelve on his own. They wouldn’t be looking for us, Catnip! Now they will! He’s putting us all in danger. I know you know that. Enough of these bullshit stories. Give me the real reason!”

 

I can’t tell him the real reason. The real reason is too personal and I’m not even really sure how to put it into words. But I do have one last trump card. I don’t want to use it. But I have to.

 

“Gale,” I say slowly, “how sure are you that you’d beat Peeta in a fight?”

 

He gives me a look. “I had a hunting knife,” he states flatly.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” I say, shaking my head. “He came in second in the school wrestling competition last year.   He could turn that knife against you or take it away from you or something. I know I couldn’t win in a hand-to-hand fight with him. Are you sure you could?”

 

“I’m bigger than him.”

 

“Bigger doesn’t always mean stronger. I’ve seen him carry hundred pound bags of flour with ease,” I pause and then bring up my final point. “Even if you did win, it’s likely you’d have been injured or worse and then where would we be?”

 

I don’t wait for his response. Instead I go over to the dandelions and start gathering them.

 

“You’re right, Catnip,” he finally admits several minutes later. “There’s no guarantee he wouldn’t mess me up a bit before I took him down. I guess I should say thank you.”

 

I let out an internal sigh of relief. “You’re welcome. Come on. We need to get back. Mom wanted these for Rory’s blister.”

 

oOo

 

We set off again after Gale cuts each of us a walking staff. We move slower than we did in the morning to try to save our strength, but it’s still tough going. None of us is used to this much physical effort and I find myself calling a halt every hour or so just so that we can rest for a bit before pushing on.

 

A few hours before sunset, we reach a swiftly moving, shallow stream. I pause, refilling my canteen and purifying the water with iodine I procured from the apothecary. I eye it thoughtfully and when the rest of the group joins me I turn to Gale and ask, “What do you think about walking through the stream for a bit to throw off any trackers?”

 

He considers it, pursing his mouth while he thinks. “It’s an idea.” He crouches down and feels the water’s temperature. “It’s going to be cold, though.”

 

“We should do this sooner rather than later,” I say. “It’s not going to get any warmer.”

 

“I agree,” he says with a nod. “How do you want to do this?”

 

“I think we should take off our shoes and walk upstream for as long as we can stand it,” I tell him. “If you can, I’d like you to lay a false trail so that it looks like we just crossed the stream and kept going.”

 

“I can do that,” he says. “I don’t think that Prim and Rory will be able to handle it for long.”

 

“I can do it!” Prim says, her hands on her hips. “I’m not as weak as everyone thinks I am!”

 

“Me either!” Rory adds, mimicking Prim’s stance.

 

My mother just rolls her eyes and starts to unlace her boots. Peeta follows her example, rolling up his pants legs when he’s done.  

 

I just sigh. “Fine. But no pushing yourself past your limits. If it starts to be too much, you tell me! Got it?”

 

Both of them nod.

 

Gale jumps over the stream and starts laying down a false trail. The rest of us step into the cold stream.

 

“Fuck that’s cold!” Rory exclaims loudly as he enters the water.

 

“Language!” Prim scolds.

 

We start moving upstream. “Sorry! It just slipped out,” Rory apologizes.

 

But Prim isn’t letting it go. “That’s no excuse! There are ladies present!”

 

I turn around to glare at them and notice a smirk hovering on my mother’s lips.

 

The two continue, oblivious to the world. “You sound like Effie Trinket!” Rory says petulantly.

 

“You take that back!” Prim gasps in outrage. With that tone, she does sound like our District escort, but I’d never tell her that.

 

Rory has no such compunctions. “No way! It’s true! You sound Effie Trinket! You sound like Effie Trinket!”

 

“You take that back, Rory Hawthorne! You take that back right now!”

 

“No!”

 

“Yes!”

 

“No!”

 

“Yes!”

 

“Would you like to tone it down a little, you two?” I snap at them. “I don’t think they heard you in District Twelve yet.”

 

Both twelve-year-olds look guilty and fall silent.

 

Peeta laughs and comes up alongside me. “I thought it was cute.”

 

“It’s also really dangerous,” I grumble. “Sound carries in the woods and someone’s going to come looking for you.”

 

“Only if my mother notices I’m gone,” he says with a shrug. “She’s not going to expect me back until dinner at the earliest and…” he trails off.

 

“And what?”

 

“It wouldn’t be the first time I didn’t come home overnight,” he admits sheepishly.

 

That’s news to me. “Where did you stay?”

 

“With friends, sometimes,” he replies. “The Cartwrights would let me stay with them, but that ended when Delly died. Lately, I’ve been sleeping in abandoned houses in the Seam.”

 

“Why?” I can’t keep the question from slipping out of my mouth.

 

He gives me a look I can’t decipher.

 

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” I say contritely.

 

Peeta shakes his head. “No, it’s alright. I don’t mind telling you.” There’s a slight emphasis on the word ‘you’ that confuses me. He takes a deep breath and says, “My father was one of the first to die of the flu back in February. Things weren’t great with my mother before. After he died, she got so much worse. It was almost like she was angry that my father had the temerity to die and leave her in charge of the bakery. Nothing Farl, Rye or I did was good enough for her. Then she started coming up with all of these money making schemes and when they inevitably failed she’d take out her anger on us. I mean, who wants to eat moldy bread even if it’s supposed to cure the flu? Things got pretty bad.”

 

I want to apologize, but I know that the words would just be empty platitudes. So instead, I nod my head, encouraging him to continue.

 

“It was Farl’s idea for us to take turns staying someplace else for a few days to get away from Mother. He’d stay with his fiancee and her family. Rye was like me, most of his friends were either sick or dead and so he was the one who suggested sleeping in some of the abandoned buildings. It was a little morbid, a lot of the houses had dead people in them. I tried to avoid sleeping in those but sometimes I didn’t have a choice.”

 

My stomach churns, thinking that Peeta might have been sleeping in the same house as the one we’d hidden the Hawthornes in. “Didn’t that bother you?”

 

“Yeah, it really did. I learned to check out the house I planned on staying in pretty thoroughly before sleeping there. I felt bad that the people had died, but there wasn’t anything I could do and it was the only safe place I could stay.”

 

“Your mom didn’t notice you were missing?”

 

“Not unless she wanted one of us for something specific. We learned we could stay away for about two to three days without her figuring out we were gone if we were careful about it.”

 

“Careful how?”

 

“The other two would distract her and we made sure that we didn’t take too much food.” He snorts. “How messed up is it that my mother would register that a loaf of bread was missing before discovering that one of her sons was gone? Still, just getting a few nights away was worth the beating she’d give us when we came back if she even had noticed we were gone.”

 

“What’s going to happen when she does notice you’re missing?” my mother asks. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop.”

 

Peeta glances back over his shoulder. “It’s okay and I have no idea. I’m worried about what’s going to happen to Farl and Rye when I don’t show.”

 

“Do you think they’re going to report you missing?” I ask.

 

Peeta shakes his head. “No. They wouldn’t want to get me in trouble. They’ll just assume I need the break. It wouldn’t be far from the truth.”

 

We don’t talk any longer because Gale rejoins us. It’s a painful, difficult trek and I’m starting to shiver a little from the cold, but we push on even though I’m starting to lose feeling in my feet. Twenty minutes later, my mother tells us we need to get out of the water.

 

Gale tries to protest.

 

But she shakes her head saying, “No arguing. Prim and Katniss are shivering and I’m starting to feel the preliminary effects of hypothermia. In fact, we’re going to need to stop and make a fire so that there aren’t any permanent effects from walking in water this cold.”

 

“It’s not safe to make a fire,” I say through chattering teeth.

 

“We have to get warm. The temperature is already starting to drop and it’s going to be close to freezing tonight. We don’t have a choice,” my mother insists.

 

“Fine, we can stop,” Gale reluctantly agrees. “But we can’t risking having a fire once it gets dark. It’s too visible and we’re too close to Twelve.”

 

“How far have we traveled today?” Rory asks.

 

“About fifteen miles,” Gale answers.

 

“It seems longer,” Prim says.

 

I shake my head. “No, Gale’s right. We’ve maybe walked that far.”

 

We get out of the stream. I’m grateful; I’ve lost feeling in my feet. My mother builds a fire and instructs Rory to fill the large bucket and one of the pots that we brought with us. When he returns, she immediately starts boiling the water.

 

“Why are you making so much boiled water?” I ask.

 

“We’ve been hovering on the edge of hypothermia and the temperature maybe hit forty five degrees today. While we were moving, we were able to keep our body temperature up. But since we’ve walked in the stream and it’s going to turn to night and we’ve stopped moving, there’s a serious risk of hypothermia.”

 

I nod, accepting my mother’s explanation. I’m too cold and tired to even consider hunting or gathering any food today.

 

We take out our meat pies and start eating, extending our feet toward the flames. Prim offers Peeta one of hers and he gives her a few of his cookie pieces in exchange.

 

She smiles at him but sets the cookies aside to go take care of Buttercup. When she opens the bag, the stench of feces and urine wafts across the campsite.

 

“Ewwwwwwwwwwwww! Gross!” Prim exclaims.

 

My mother looks up from where she’s using the smaller pot to make tea with the ginger roots Peeta had collected. “What did you expect him to do? Just cross his legs and hold it?”

 

“I don’t know! I’ve never had to think about it before!”

 

“Go clean him and the bag up and we’ll try to figure something out,” Gale tells her. “Maybe a lead of some sort.”

 

Prim puts on her socks and boots and takes Buttercup and the bag and heads downstream to wash them both off. We hear the cat yowl a few times. He really doesn’t like getting wet.

 

I shake my head. “That damn cat.”

 

My mother hands me a cup of ginger tea. “There was no way we could leave him behind. She loves that cat.”

 

“It’s really inconvenient.” I take a sip of the tea, savoring the warmth.

 

Gale rummages through his pack and pulls out some string. He starts to braid it into some kind of lead for the cat. He shrugs and looks over at me. “We’ll see if it works.”

 

About a half hour before dusk, we put the fire out. My mother makes sure each of us has a canteen full of hot water and there’s still hot water in the bucket and ginger tea in the pot. We run into a snag when we realize that we only have five blankets, and with the addition of Peeta we now have six people. My mother hands Peeta her blanket and says, “Prim and I can share.”

 

He tries to refuse. “No, don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

 

My mother shakes her head. “Just take it.” My mother is on first watch, so she starts pacing around the campsite to keep herself warm and awake while the rest of us burrow into our blankets and try to sleep. None of us have slept outside before, so we don’t really know what to expect. It’s almost impossible. The ground leaches the warmth from our bodies and the rocks and twigs jab into our sides painfully.

 

Eventually I manage to drift off. Gale shakes me awake what feels like only minutes later. “It’s your watch, Catnip.”

 

The water is now cold but I take a drink anyway. I get my bow and quiver and peer out into the darkness. It’s still several hours from dawn and without a fire, the forest is dark and forbidding.

 

A little bit after false dawn, I hear it. Several somethings crackling through the underbrush. I nudge Gale. “There’s something out there. Wake the others.”

 

Gale flings the blanket back and shakes Peeta awake. Good. We’re going to need all the help we can get. There’s more than one of them out there.

 

I nock an arrow and try to make out any movement in the pre-dawn light.

 

I don’t have long to wait. I hear the unmistakable howl of a wild dog calling the pack.

 

And then they’re upon us.

 

There are four of them. Medium sized but still menacing. And they charge at me, growling and snarling.

 

I loose one arrow and one of the animals lets out an anguished yelp. It’s not a kill shot, but the animal is out of commission for now.

 

I nock another arrow and fire. This time my aim is better and another dog drops.

 

There’s still two left.

 

I sense Peeta moving to cover my left flank. While someone else is on my right. I don’t have time to see who it is when another of the dogs charges.

 

Peeta intercepts it with his walking stick. He’s limited with how hard he can swing but he still manages a solid hit. I loose an arrow at point blank range into the dog.

 

It falls.

 

The remaining uninjured animal disengages and retreats into the woods. The person on my right, Rory I see, walks forward toward the dog I’d injured.

 

It’s lying on the ground, whining in pain.  

 

The twelve year old pulls out his knife and plunges it into the wounded animal’s side.

 

It falls silent.

 

The attack is over.

 

We won.

 

So why do I feel so much dread?

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

Last Time in Let Me Fly:

 

The attack is over.

 

We won.

 

So why do I feel so much dread?

 

oOo

 

We’re not able to sleep after the attack, so instead we pack up our camp, doing our best to try to make it seem like we never stayed there. While Gale attempts to remove any evidence of our fire, my mother distributes the day’s food. Early on, we made the decision to limit how much food each person gets every day so that we don’t accidentally go through it too fast. It’s enough that we won’t starve, but I still like to supplement what I can by hunting and gathering.

 

The day starts off cloudy and quickly turns into a light drizzle. It’s not so bad under the trees, but we keep running into these long straight fields with no trees. It’s weird. And we can’t help getting wet.

 

I’m glad I had the presence of mind to note which direction the sun rose from because otherwise we’d be walking in circles. When we reach another one of these long thin clearings that’s heading in a general northeasterly direction, we decide to follow it, keeping slightly under the trees to avoid the rain. Our ears are peeled for the sound of pursuit.

 

There isn’t any.

 

We call it a day early. Deciding it’s safe enough, Gale and I make a small shelter for us against the edge of a fallen tree using hemlock and pine boughs for our walls and roof. Rory and Prim spread a thick pile of soft fir boughs on the ground.

 

“That’s better but it’s still not enough,” my mother says, surveying our work. “Do you think we can set a fire?”

 

Gale shakes his head. “No. We’re still too close to Twelve and we don’t know if they’re looking for us yet.”

 

My mother sighs. “We’ve got to do something to keep warm. We’ve been walking in the wet all day and it’s just going to get colder at night. I’m going to suggest something, and I know you’re going to hate it, but it’s either this or a fire.” She looks at me pointedly.

 

There’s a growing pit of dread in my stomach. I can guess what she’s about to suggest.

 

“We need to share body heat,” she states. “I think Prim and I were probably the warmest ones last night, and we were still miserable. So I think we’re going to need to pair up and each pair sleep under two blankets.”

 

“How’s that gonna work?” Gale asks. “We only have five blankets and there’s six of us.”

 

“I think it’d be smart if we had two people on watch,” my mother reasons. “The two on watch can share one blanket while the remaining four of us can each have two.”

 

“Fine. I’ll take Mellark.” He glares at Peeta who’s trying his best to remain unthreatening.

 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Gale,” my mother objects.

 

Gale turns his glare to my mother. “Why the hell not?”

 

“You’d be distracted,” she answers.

 

“Distracted by what?”

 

I think I can guess where my mother’s coming from. “I think you’d spend the entire time watching Peeta instead of our surroundings,” I say. “I’ll take Peeta.”

 

“Oh hell no!” Gale explodes. “There is no way I’m trusting Mellark on a watch with any of you!”

 

I’m taken aback by the force of Gale’s objection. I’ve never seen him react this way before. “Gale,” I say, “Peeta’s not going anywhere. Where would he go? How would he get back to Twelve? He’s not used to the woods like we are and at this point I’m not sure any of us could find Twelve easily! He has no idea how to navigate and no weapons. Just what do you think he’s going to do?”

 

Gale clenches his fists. “He could kill you, Katniss! He’s got no stake in this. No reason to stay. I don’t trust him not to hurt you and run off.”

 

“I would never hurt Katniss!” Peeta exclaims.

 

“I don’t trust you!”

 

“Do you trust me to be able to defend myself? I’m the best shot out of the two of us and I know how to use a knife. Peeta’s unarmed. I can handle him,” I interject, trying and failing to keep the annoyance out of my voice.

 

“That’s not what you said yesterday!”

 

“I’m not arguing with you anymore, Gale! Peeta and I will take the last watch. I’ll need to take a bearing anyways when the sun rises.”

 

“Prim and I will take the middle watch,” my mother says hastily to prevent Gale from protesting further. “We got the most sleep last night.”

 

“That leaves you and Rory on first watch. If it makes you feel better, Hawthorne, you can glare at me all night,” Peeta finishes. I can tell he’s both amused and frustrated with Gale’s insistence that he’s a threat.

 

Gale glowers at all of us. “Fine! I can see I’m outnumbered.” He stomps away then pauses at the edge of our campsite. “If you lay one hand on her, Mellark, I will kill you.”

 

That’s when it hits me: sharing a watch with Peeta means I’m going to be sleeping with Peeta. Just what have I volunteered myself for?

 

After a quick rest, I go out to try my luck at getting something for dinner. We’ve eaten the last of our meat pies and I don’t want to break into our hardtack and dried food just yet. I manage to shoot a small squirrel but I don’t see much out. I take the squirrel back to camp. “I think we can chance a small fire to cook this,” I announce, tossing the animal at Gale.

 

He catches it and looks at me questioningly.

 

“You work on that. I’m going to try to gather some vegetables to go with the squirrel.”

 

Peeta perks up. “Do you mind if I join you?”

 

I shrug. “Sure. No problem.”

 

I try not to notice how upset Gale looks as we walk away.

 

We head toward where I saw a small stream paralleling one of the long thin clearings. I make a beeline towards it. When we get there, I uproot several cattails and Peeta copies me.

 

“Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

 

“Okay with what?”

 

“Sharing blankets.”

 

I shrug. “It’s not my preferred solution, but what other choice do we have? My mother’s right, we were too cold last night.”

 

“I’m sure we could figure something else out. Maybe I can borrow some more clothes from Gale, and you can take the blankets.”

 

“I don’t think that’s gonna work.”

 

“I just don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

 

“Too late.” The words come out harsher than I intended.

 

Peeta whirls, his blue eyes snapping. “Do you think I wanted to be kidnapped? That it was my goal to make you uncomfortable? To make Hawthorne’s life hell?” He’s gesticulating wildly, working himself up with every word. “Well fuck that! I was just trying to get away from my mom for a few days. Forget for just a little while that my dad’s dead and my mom hates me and my brothers so fucking much that she’d rather hit us than hug us. I didn’t mean to get in your way. And I sure as hell didn’t mean to get dragged along with you. So I’m sorry if that makes you feel uncomfortable, but you’re the ones that got me into this.”

 

I’m stunned. “Peeta…” I try.

 

He cuts me off. “No! I’ve got the right to say this. I’m the one who’s been torn away from my family! You still have yours.”

 

“We didn’t want this to happen!”

 

“That makes two of us.”

 

“I’m sorry. I just couldn’t let Gale kill you.” I don’t know what else to say. I retreat, moving off to pull some more cattails.

 

I hear Peeta behind me several minutes later. “What’d you mean by that?” His voice is very quiet, but intense.

 

My eyes meet his. “I owed you.”

 

He blinks. “For the bread? It was just a couple of loaves!”

 

“They saved my life.” I pause. “You saved my life. And my mother’s, and my sister’s. I couldn’t let Gale take yours.”

 

“I’m not sure if I should be upset or glad at your sense of debt.”

 

“Do you wish we’d killed you?” I hope he doesn’t say yes. I don’t know if I could bear to kill him.

 

“No, no. Never, Katniss.” He shakes his head. “I just...I just miss my brothers.”

 

“Do you want us to let you go?”

 

“Now?” He asks incredulously. “You were right, I have no way of finding my way back. And even if I could, my mom’s sure to have missed me by now. I’d be lucky to only be whipped. I don’t have a choice.” He looks over at me and smiles wanly. “I guess you’re stuck with me.”

 

“You’re not the worst person I could be stuck with.”

 

“Thanks,” he says dryly.

 

“I guess I should say thank you. For the bread.”

 

“You’re welcome. I wish you could’ve said it without having to kidnap me.”

 

“Me too.”

 

He shakes his head. “I’m sorry. This isn’t how I wanted this to go.” He walks off before I even have the chance to say anything.

 

I stare after him. I’m confused. What does he mean by that? I’m not sure I want to know.

 

Moving on, I find several bunches of watercress just starting to come out. That should taste good with the squirrel. We also find a whole field of dandelions. I smile as I start to gather them.

 

“You look happy,” Peeta says. “I would never have thought that a simple weed would make you smile like that.”

 

I frown, embarrassed to be caught with my guard down like that. “It’s not a weed, it’s food. And it saved my family.”

 

“Oh. I didn’t know. So...what can you eat on a dandelion?”

 

“Pretty much everything,” I say. “The leaves make a good salad or boiled green, the flowers can be eaten pickled or deep fried, the roots can be made into tea, and as you saw yesterday they can be used as medicine. It’s a really useful plant.” I pick a flower bud and I toss it in my mouth.

 

“Huh,” he says with a shake of his head. “I wanted to talk to you for such a long time. It - it feels weird to finally be able to do so.” He picks one of the bright yellow flowers and studies it bemusedly. “It’s funny. I almost worked up the courage one time but you got distracted by one of these flowers and I never got the chance.” He twirls it between his fingers. “It’s kind of ironic that a dandelion would let me talk to you again.”

 

I freeze. It can’t be. He was trying to talk to me the only day I ever wanted to talk to him? The day I realized that I could feed my family?

 

I look around, searching for a distraction. I don’t find one, so in desperation I say, “Can you help me gather a whole bunch of the leaves? The young leaves taste the best. We should probably get back soon.”

 

Peeta looks disappointed but nods anyway. I’m grateful he doesn’t push.

 

When we’ve gathered as many dandelions as we can carry, we return to camp to find that they were unable to set a fire.

 

“Why didn’t you use the book?” I ask. “That romance novel. It can’t be that useful. We need the meat!”

 

“We are not sacrificing the book,” my mother says. “Look, it’s getting late. The squirrel wouldn’t be finished by the time it’s dark. Just give half of it to Buttercup today and the rest tomorrow and call it good.”

 

I grumble a bit, but give in. At least this way we won’t waste our stores on feeding that damn cat.

 

oOo

 

The next day is sunny and warmer and we’re able to make decent time, despite Peeta and I not sleeping very well last night. He tried to avoid touching me underneath the covers, but when we woke up, he was curled around me. It felt protective.

 

 

And I wriggled out of his grasp as quickly as possible. Thankfully, he didn’t comment and I’m glad Gale wasn’t awake to see. But I can’t stop thinking about that drowsy moment when I woke up in his arms and felt safe.

 

I range ahead, avoiding everyone under the pretense of scouting the terrain. Still, we have to stop when we reach a steep cliff. From that vantage point, we see a large river and decide to follow it. We end up losing a few hours trying to find a way down before eventually finding one.

 

By the time we reach the bottom, it’s late afternoon and we’re worn out. My mother suggests we call it a day and follow the river in the morning.  

 

Because there’s not a lot of cover overhead, we decide it’s not safe for a fire. And after the debacle the day before, I choose not to hunt. I still want to gather what I can to supplement our food. I have no idea how long it’s going to take to find a new home.

 

I take Rory with me this time under the guise of wanting to teach everyone what to look for. In reality, I’m avoiding both Gale and Peeta.   It’s almost not worth bringing the boy. There isn’t a lot to find this early in the season other than watercress along the swiftly moving river.

 

We still gather as much as we can, but there isn’t that much.

 

Still, the trip isn’t entirely worthless. Rory spots an overhang that will make a good shelter for tonight.

 

We get the others and settle in.

 

oOo

 

The following morning, we’re all puttering around camp eating breakfast and taking care of our bodily needs when the birds fall silent.

 

Gale and I sit up straight. We know what that means.  

 

“Everyone! Under the overhang! Now!” Gale yells, grabbing what packs are outside of it, hurling them out of sight.

 

We all huddle under the overhang, pressing our bodies against the rock wall. Then we hear it.   A hovercraft. A Capitol hovercraft. It sounds like it’s heading towards Twelve from the northwest. We’re lucky it didn’t spot us out in the open.

 

We stay pressed up against the wall until the birds start singing again and we’re sure it’s gone.

 

“Looks like Mother’s finally noticed I’m missing,” Peeta says wryly. “Only took three days this time.”

 

“We need to move,” Gale says. “Now.”

 

We grab our packs and follow the river east away from the direction the hovercraft came from.

 

We travel for maybe a mile when what we thought was a hawk circling overhead screams and dives straight for us.

 

I draw my bow and shoot it, but it still falls to the ground near us.

 

When it lands, we examine it and realize it’s a mutt. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a mutt like this outside of the Games and my heart starts to pound. What is it doing here?

 

We don’t take time to investigate. Tossing it into the river, we hurry on.

 

We trek maybe another mile when a loud roar pierces the air.

 

Gale swears and shrugs his pack off, nocking an arrow. I do the same and my mother and Peeta shove the kids behind them and brandish their walking sticks.

 

We’re just in time.

 

A large unnaturally brown and red bear charges out of a cave near the edge of the cliff right at us.

 

I shoot an arrow into it but it does nothing.

 

Another arrow joins it.

 

The beast keeps coming.

 

There isn’t a lot of distance between the charging mutt and me so this arrow has to count.

 

I draw my bow and take a deep breath. I see another arrow lodge in its side from Gale’s bow and the beast lets out an awful roar.

 

It’s what I’ve been waiting for. I loose my arrow right into the muttation’s mouth, piercing the skull.

 

The roar changes to a gurgle and the animal falls to the ground, skidding to a halt less than ten feet from us.

 

“We need to get out of here!” Gale shouts.

 

“Where to?” I yell back. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re stuck between the cliff and the river!”

 

“There!” Peeta points. “I think there’s something stretched across the river!” I follow his finger to see what looks to be a large log stretched across the swiftly moving water.

 

It’s less than a quarter of a mile away so we attempt to make a run for it. It’s hard with the weight of the packs and we’re all stumbling over the rough ground.

 

We get to the log and lean against it, struggling for breath.

 

“So now what?” Rory asks in between gasps.

 

Gale pushes it with his foot experimentally. “I’m not sure it can hold all of us.”

 

“So who goes first?” Prim asks.

 

“I’ll do it,” Peeta says.

 

“No way, Mellark. You’re carrying the heaviest pack and I still don’t trust you.”

 

While this is going on, I take time to examine our surroundings, looking for traps. Something bright white captures my attention.

 

It looks like a Peacekeeper’s helmet. But it can’t be. What would a Peacekeeper be doing out here? I take a few steps closer to get a better look. Behind me I can hear Rory start to cross the log and Prim encouraging him.

 

A flicker of gold catches my eye on the stark whiteness of what I can now confirm is a Peacekeeper’s helmet. A tracker jacker!

 

It’s a trap!

 

“Run!”

 

“Why?” Gale yells.

 

“Tracker jackers! It’s a booby trap! We need to go!”

 

My mother helps Prim up, following Rory across.

 

Gale’s brother reaches the other side and shouts, “I can hear more mutts!” He pulls out his slingshot and takes a defensive stance.

 

“Go!” Peeta yells. “Your brother needs you!”

 

Gale looks between Peeta and his brother, looking torn.

 

“Dammit, Hawthorne! You can either help him or watch me! Not both! Go! I’ll be right behind you! Just go!”

Gale doesn’t argue. Clambering onto the log with Peeta right on his heels, Gale tries to get his bow and arrow ready as he moves.

 

It’s a mistake.

 

He hits a slippery patch of moss and loses his balance, teetering over the rushing water.

 

Just as fast, Peeta reaches out and catches the other man before he can topple into the river.

 

I don’t notice what Gale’s reaction is because I’m distracted by the painful sting of a tracker jacker on the back of my neck.

 

I can’t let it stop me. I have to keep moving. If I don’t, I’m dead.

 

I scramble onto the fallen tree and start across. I feel the tracker jacker venom beginning to take effect. The wood underneath my feet feels unsteady like I’m trying to stand up in a mine cart while it’s moving.

 

I have to fight it.

 

I push forward, each step feeling like I’m about to tumble into the water below.

 

I hear shouts and snarls from the other side of the river but I can’t let myself look up to determine what’s going on. I have to concentrate on reaching the far bank.

 

One step. Then another. And another. I’m getting closer but the venom’s effect is getting stronger.

 

I’m not sure if I’m going to make it.

 

The water beneath me turns to blood. In the froth, the skeletons of all those who have died in the flu bob obscenely. I stifle back a scream.

 

“Katniss!” I hear someone shout.

 

I look up from Posy’s bloodless face to see an even worse nightmare! It’s worse than the most hideous muttation in the Games with pulsating green skin oozing bright pink slime. Its face, if you can call it that, is dominated by a pair of bright yellow eyes with dark slits for pupils.

 

It’s a monster!

 

A monster with Rory’s voice.   “Katniss! Give me your hand!” the thing cries.

 

I shake my head.   It can’t be Rory. It’s got to be another trap. I take a step backward.

 

“She’s gonna fall!” I hear my sister shout but I can’t see her. In her place is another slime monster.

 

I want to fall. Darkness is closing in all around me. I want to escape from these muttations with my loved ones’ voices.

 

A clawed hand reaches out and seizes my wrist. I scream.

 

“Don’t let go, Rory!” the Prim-monster calls out frantically.

 

The claw tightens and I paw at the limb weakly, trying to get away. “She’s slipping! I’m not sure I can hold her!”

 

“Hang on! I’ll be there in a second!” the orange blob with Peeta’s voice calls out. It rushes onto the log and captures the hand trying to fend off the Rory-monster.

 

“Let me go!”

 

“Never!” it says, pulling me into its flesh.

 

It’s too much for me. I surrender to the darkness.

 

I hear voices calling my name. Peeta. Prim. Gale.

 

They’re pleading with me to come back. To hold on.  

 

I can’t.

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Let Me Fly:

 

I hear voices calling my name. Peeta. Prim. Gale.

 

They’re pleading with me to come back. To hold on.  

 

I can’t.

 

oOo

 

I slowly drag myself back to consciousness. My head feels muffled and heavy, like it’s been wrapped in wool. There’s something warm vibrating on my chest. It’s comforting. Someone’s holding my right hand, running calloused fingers over mine.

 

I try to say something, but all that comes out is a rusty groan. I try again and get the same result. Frustrated my attempt to vocalize failed, I struggle to open my eyes. It’s not easy. Every little bit of light is like a knife to my skull, forcing me to shut them again. I begin anew, this time more slowly. Eventually I’m able to work my way through the pain and finally force them open.

 

Two yellow eyes stare back at me.

 

I let out a frightened yelp, jerking away from them.

 

The warm, vibrating thing turns into a hissing, clawy thing. Buttercup. Of course that damned cat would be the first thing I see.

 

Buttercup’s departure gets the attention of the person holding my hand.

 

“Katniss?” Gale asks. “Are you awake?”

 

I’m not sure I can answer but I try anyway. “Mmmph…”

 

Gale takes my unintelligible moan for a yes. “I was worried about you, Catnip. You were screaming and crying for hours.” He squeezes my hand tightly. “Your ma said we had to just let the poison run through your system.”

 

I nod my head slowly. That explains why it’s so hard to speak and why my eyes hurt so much.

 

He reaches up and runs his fingers through my hair. “I thought I was going to lose you, Catnip. Don’t you ever scare me like that again. I’ve lost so many people. I couldn’t bear to lose you too. I need you so much. You just don’t know how much you mean to me.” He strokes my hair tenderly, his voice rough with emotion.

 

I want to get away. I’m uncomfortable with the depth of Gale’s feelings. I can sense that he’s one step away from declaring he’s in love with me and I’m not sure if I can deal with that right now, if ever.

 

Gale seems to realize how unnerved I am because he changes the subject. “Do you want to sit up?”

 

I nod my head again. Laying around like an invalid doesn’t appeal to me. Even if that is exactly what I am at the moment.

 

He leans down and pulls me into a seated position. He hands me a canteen. I bring it to my lips, my hands shaking slightly. I gulp the water eagerly, some of it dribbling down my chin.

 

I don’t care.

 

The cool liquid soothes my throat and I’m able to rasp out, “Is everyone okay?”

 

Gale nods. “You were the only casualty, although Peeta’s shoulder is a little sore.” I immediately notice the change in name.

 

I raise an eyebrow. “When did he become Peeta?”

 

“When he saved my life,” he says with a sigh. He looks at me intently. “And yours.”

 

“Oh.” I’m glad that they’re not fighting anymore. A small smile crosses my lips. “So when are you guys gonna start braiding each other’s hair?”

 

He smiles warmly at me, stroking my hair again. “I don’t think you have to worry about that, Katniss. You’ve got much better hair than he does.”

 

I not sure I like this new touchy-feely Gale. His touch is distracting and makes me feel things in my stomach. I don’t like it. I decide to change the subject. “So... what was on the other side of the river?”

 

Gale gives me a look, but answers, “A pack of wolf-like mutts. Rory and I took care of them.”

 

I nod. “Sorry I couldn’t help.”

 

He shrugs. “Don’t worry about it. That’s what friends are for.”

 

I lean back against the tree, taking in my surroundings. I can see Buttercup tied to a tree nearby and Rory turning a large bird on a spit. Prim, Peeta, and my mother are nowhere to be seen. I ask Gale, “Where is everyone?”

 

“Gathering. Your mom saw a bunch of wild leeks and other things on our way here and wanted to snag them.”

 

I realize suddenly I can’t hear the river. “Here? Where’s here?” I look around more in growing panic. “Where are we?”

 

“About a half mile north of the river. We had to get away from the river but there was no way we could carry you and everything else very far.” He lets out a short laugh. “It was a bit of a clusterfuck for part of it. Trying to figure out how to get you and our stuff away from the Capitol’s traps. It’d be funny if it weren’t happening to us.”

 

“Wait - what - traps?”

 

“Yeah, your ma’s the one who figured it out. Those mutts were a bit too regular.” He pauses. “And we also found some other proof.”

 

“Other proof?”

 

“Looks like we’re not the first ones to try to run away from Twelve,” he says solemnly. “There’s some bones and packs a few feet up the hill from the log.” He takes a breath, gathering his thoughts. “It looks like they got ambushed by the wolf mutts or some other animal. I think it might’ve been Liddy Fairburn and her family. The timing’s right and the clothes look familiar.”

 

“Why do you think it’s them?” I vaguely recognize the name. Liddy Fairburn wasn’t somebody I interacted with, but I kind of remember people talking about her disappearance.

 

“It makes sense. They went missing right before the 71st Games. Her sister, Neesa, was always talking revolution. Trying to organize the miners. Trying to make the Capitol lower their quotas.” His voice is admiring, then he shakes his head. “She pissed off a lot of the higher ups but the workers loved her. Then suddenly she was gone. Word was she and the whole family were disappeared. Taken by the Capitol for Neesa’s agitating. Based on what we found, I guess they disappeared another way.”

 

“Did you know them?” I ask softly.

 

“Kinda? Liddy was the same age as me even though we didn’t talk much. I suppose you could say we grew up together but we weren’t close. Liddy’s ma was on the same crew as my dad. Her ma made it out. My dad didn’t. After that, we didn’t bother trying to keep in touch.”

 

I nod my head and change the subject. “Did they have anything useful on them?” I know it’s a bit morbid to ask if they searched the bodies, but the Fairburns are dead and we’re not. No matter how gruesome it might be, we should take anything that could help us survive out here in the wild.

 

Gale understands. “There’s a few things. Peeta’s got a lunch pail now. There’s also a bit of clothing and a bar of soap. But the best thing we found was a saw and a bow wrapped in oilcloth in Mr. Fairburn’s pack. I don’t know why he didn’t have the bow out. I guess he didn’t think he’d need it or something.”

 

I perk up at the mention of the bow. “What about the arrows?”

 

“I checked, but they were a bust. All broken and chipped. Totally useless.”

 

It would’ve been nice to have more arrows or even arrowheads, but this is an extremely lucky find.

 

“How long was I out?” I ask next.

 

“Not quite a day. Rory’s making breakfast.”

 

A day? I can’t believe I was out for so long. “What did you do for watches?”

 

“It took a bit of doing. Your mom was too focused on you, so Prim and Rory took the first watch. Peeta took the second. I took the third.”

 

I raise my eyebrows at the information. “You really trust him now, don’t you?”

 

Gale has the decency to look embarrassed. “Yeah. He’s proved himself. You were right about him.”

 

We don’t get a chance to talk anymore because my mother, Prim, and Peeta come back with a sack full of wild onions, wild leeks, wintergreen, pine tips, solomon’s seal, and partridge berry.

 

My mother, seeing I’m sitting up, comes over to check on me. “How many fingers am I holding up?” She holds two digits in front of my face.

 

“Two! Knock it off.” I feebly try to push my mother’s hand down. “I’m fine. See?” I struggle to get up. I fail.

 

“You’re not fine,” my mother counters. “In fact, I think we need to stay here for the rest of the day while you heal up. We can continue north tomorrow.”

 

I shake my head. “We can’t stay here. What about that hovercraft?”

 

“We haven’t heard it since yesterday,” Gale says.

 

“But that means they’ll probably be looking this way pretty soon.” I nod at the fire. “We can’t have that burning. They’ll be looking for smoke.”

 

“I only set it this morning,” Peeta says. “And only because Gale got the chicken and we don’t want that much meat going to waste. We made Rory give the squirrel he got yesterday to Buttercup just to be on the safe side.”

 

“It was my first kill too! And it went to the stupid cat!” I’m a little surprised Rory managed to kill something with that silly slingshot he’s been playing with since we left Twelve, but good for him.

 

Unsurprisingly, my sister objects, “Hey! My cat’s not stupid!”

 

“Yeah he is! Look at him! He’s walking around on a leash like a dog!”

 

“That just means he’s smart and he’s not gonna run away!”

 

“He should run away! He’s eating all of our food!”

 

“No he’s not!”

 

“He ate my squirrel! It was my first kill! I should have been the one to eat it!” Rory looks like he’s about to start crying.

 

“Can you guys tone it down a little?” my mother interrupts them. “I’m sure Katniss doesn’t appreciate all of this loud bickering. She needs real sleep, not just hallucination sleep, to recover from the effects of the tracker jacker venom.”

 

The two pre-teens glare at each other before pointedly ignoring the other.

 

My mother sits down next to me, pulling out the library book to read aloud. I fall asleep to the soft tones of her reading.

 

oOo

 

I’m awakened several hours later when a heavy weight settles over my body and a large hand covers my mouth. I struggle, snapping my eyes open. It’s Peeta. He makes a shushing motion and points up.

 

I stop trying to get away and follow his finger.

 

The sound hits me. The roar of a hovercraft.

 

We wait in silence, hoping it will go away soon. It doesn’t. Peeta whispers in my ear, “It must be searching for me.”

 

“Or all of us. Is the fire out?” I hiss back.

 

“Hours ago.”

 

I nod my head. “How long?” I point up.

 

“Just a few minutes. Your mom’s covering Prim and Gale’s covering Rory. We’re all back underneath the trees so hopefully they won’t see anything.”

 

We listen in silence and my eyes keep darting upwards, looking for any sign of the aircraft overhead. I see the bright light of a searchlight filter down through the canopy overhead and I hold my breath.

 

The light moves on and eventually the hovercraft does as well. We stay motionless on the ground until the birds start chirping again. Even then, when we do move, it’s slowly, making sure we stay hidden under the protective cover of the trees.

 

“I think it’s time to get out of here,” I whisper.

 

My mother nods her head. “Agreed. Tomorrow at first light.”

 

Gale starts redistributing the packs a bit to even out the weight. He reaches into his pack and hands Peeta a knife. It’s a visible gesture of trust.

 

My mother comes over with a cold chicken leg. “Here. We saved this for you.”

 

“It’s too much,” I say.

 

“You need it. You haven’t eaten in over twenty-four hours.” She also gives me some of the partridge berries and a piece of hardtack. The berries and the hardtack are tasteless, but the flavor of the chicken makes up for it.

 

After I eat, my mother helps me change out of my soiled clothing. “I’ll wash these in a nearby creek,” she says, taking the small cake of soap from the Fairburns with her.

 

I’m embarrassed by my nudity, but luckily no one is looking right at me. Rory, Peeta and Gale are deliberately keeping their backs to me to give me some level of privacy.

 

Prim brings me new clothing and then heads off to change clothes herself. Apparently it’s laundry day. Gale gives Peeta some of his spare clothing, which Peeta takes gratefully, before he and Rory change into fresh garments themselves. Prim carries all of our dirty clothing to my mother.

 

When they come back, arms full of wet laundry, they hang the clothes over low lying branches to dry. I can’t stop myself from smiling when I notice there’s a whole army of socks placed on twigs sticking out of the ground. My mother makes us change socks every night and we’ve been going through them. It’ll be nice to have clean ones again.

 

I speak up. “I’m feeling a bit better. Do you want me to take the first watch?”

 

“No,” my mother says firmly. “You’re still recovering.”

 

I make a face but don’t argue. I could use more sleep.

 

oOo

 

The next morning, I wake up to an already cloudy day and Peeta curled up against me. I wriggle out from under the covers, careful not to wake him. I stand up, stretching my muscles. It feels good to finally move around again.

 

I see Gale sitting on a fallen log on the other side of the camp. He must have had the last watch. He smiles at me and motions for me to come over and sit next to him.

 

“Did you manage to note which direction the sun came up from?” I lower myself onto the log.

 

He points to a mark on the ground. “Yes.”

 

“Good.”

 

There’s not a whole lot more to say because the others are stirring.

 

We pack up and set out, heading northeast away from the river. I take point. It’s a little more difficult to navigate with such heavily overcast skies. Every so often, I mark a tree with our direction as an extra precaution. We don’t want to wander around in circles.

 

About an hour or so after we set off, Gale calls us to a halt. “I think I just heard thunder.”

 

I grimace. “Are you sure?”

 

He doesn’t need to answer because there’s another rumble. We haven’t seen lightning yet, but it’s not far behind. We need to find shelter and get out from underneath these trees. Trees attract lightning and you don’t want to be under one if it’s struck.

 

“Everybody fan out and look out for a pile of rocks or an overhang or something,” I say. “Keep within shouting distance and hurry.”

 

Gale and I each take the flank, branching out to find someplace, anyplace, to wait out the coming storm.

 

Surprisingly, it’s Prim who finds a small cave. It’s not even big enough for me to stand up in and it’s clearly been inhabited at some point, probably by a hibernating bear. But it’ll keep us dry and hopefully out of danger.

 

The rest of the group congregates around us and I yell, “Get some wood!”

 

We barely manage to gather a few dry sticks before a huge gust of wind roars through the forest. The trees creak and shake dangerously over our heads.

 

“Get to shelter!” Gale yells and we run for it.

 

Rory’s the last to join us when the skies open up, drenching the pre-teen.

 

We pile what little wood we’ve found into the center of the cave.

 

“That won’t even last an hour,” Peeta says, surveying the pile critically.

 

“How do you know?” I ask.

 

Peeta smiles. “I got really familiar with fires, working in the bakery. It was my job to set the fire every morning with my father.” He looks sad. “It’s one of the things I miss most. That quiet bit of ritual before the rush of the day.”

 

“Oh,” I say lamely.  

 

My mother sits down, her back against the wall. “I suggest we save the wood until we really need it.”

 

He nods, letting the subject drop.

 

We huddle in the cave and my mother digs the romance novel out of her pack and starts to read it aloud to the group. Rory rummages through his pack and emerges triumphantly with a deck of cards.

 

I roll my eyes.

 

Prim takes Buttercup out of his bag. The cat’s in a mood, apparently. He claws my sister’s hand and she yelps in pain, dropping the stupid beast.

 

Buttercup hisses at us and makes a break for the cave entrance.

 

“Grab him!” Prim yells, cradling her injured hand.

 

I attempt to snag the infernal cat but he darts around me.

 

He reaches the opening of the cave and skids to a halt at the wet beyond. It’s only a short pause, but it’s enough to give us an opening.

 

Peeta takes it.

 

Moving faster than I expect him to be able to, he seizes Buttercup by the scruff of the neck and then gently picks him up. “You don’t want to go out there, little boy,” he murmurs. “It’s wet and cold and there’ll be nothing to eat. Why you go back to your mistress and she’ll feed you some nice, yummy fish. Doesn’t that sound better?”

 

The cat, for some weird reason only felines can know, seems to understand what Peeta is saying. He calms down and buries his face in the crook of Peeta’s elbow.

 

A loud boom of thunder tears through the woods causing all of us to jump.

 

“I bet you’re just scared of thunderstorms aren’t you?” Peeta guesses, talking to the animal in his arms. “You just wanted to go home and hide under the bed until it was over. I can understand that. I don’t like thunderstorms either.”

 

Buttercup doesn’t respond. He’s cat. But he does try to burrow deeper into Peeta’s arms.

 

With the excitement of Buttercup’s escape attempt over, we all settle in for the duration. My mother resumes reading the book aloud. Peeta is on cat duty. Prim, seeing nothing else to do, joins Rory playing cards. They bicker for a bit before settling on a game. Gale shakes his head at his little brother and pulls out a whetstone to start sharpening all of our knives.

 

I’m not sure what I should do. Part of me wants to sleep, but the responsible part of me forces me to check on the rest of our weapons. I pull out Gale’s and my bows along with the one we found on the Fairburns. It’s in surprisingly good shape, considering that it’s been out in the elements for three years. All it needs is a new coat of oil and it’ll be ready for use.

 

We should really think about teaching someone else how to shoot, we now have four bows. Maybe when we’re settled. I’m not sure if there’s going to be time when we’re travelling.

 

I also check on our arrows. We’ve used a lot over the last few days and we don’t want to run out. We’re still in good shape even with the ones we lost to the mutts. I’ll need to make more eventually, but we should have enough so long as we retrieve the ones we shoot.

 

Peeta looks up from where he’s playing with Buttercup. “You know, this rain is actually a good thing.”

 

“Why do you say that?” Rory asks.

 

“Well, it will wash away any sign of our tracks and help throw off any pursuers.”

 

“And I bet the hovercraft is having trouble in this weather too,” Prim says.

 

“Maybe. It can’t hurt.”

 

Outside, lightning flashes and even though it’s put a halt to our travels, I’m grateful for the storm.

 

oOo

 

The thunderstorm passes a little before sunset, too late to try to move on or accomplish anything else for the day. The forced rest over the last few days, while frustrating, was also much needed.

 

We sleep well that night and, for the first time since we left District Twelve, all of us wake up refreshed.

 

The rain’s stopped and the sun’s out, warming us all. It’s still cold, but the sun feels nice.

 

Sometime around mid morning, we hit a wide long clearing heading north and east. A herd of deer startles and scatters on the far side of the clearing as we enter it. I swear internally. If I’d been on my own, I would’ve gotten one.

 

It looks like they were licking the ground there. “Do you think there’s salt there?” my mother asks.

 

“Maybe,” I answer. “We don’t need that much, we have some already.”

 

My mother shakes her head. “Not enough. Salt’s important. We’ve been exerting ourselves a lot and our blood needs salt. And while we brought some with us, we’re going to need a lot more for preserving and I think we have space in our packs now if we find some.”

 

We move over to investigate, but there’s no sign of any. With no salt and no deer, we decide to follow the clearing, making good time.

 

We’re moving too fast and too loudly for me to hunt effectively, but I keep my bow out anyway.

 

We call a halt about three hours before sunset. “Do you think we can set a fire tonight?” my mother asks.

 

Gale considers it. “We haven’t heard the hovercraft in two days, we’re probably far enough away from Twelve. I think we can chance it. Just keep it small and under the trees.”

 

“I’ll get firewood,” Peeta volunteers.

 

“We’ll work on the shelter,” my mother says, gesturing to herself, Prim, and Rory.

 

Gale grabs his bow and looks at me expectantly. “Let’s go.”

 

We walk far enough away that the noise of the rest of the group shouldn’t scare away any game.

 

We startle a rabbit and I’m able to take it down. There’s a few other animals, but they’re either out of range or in a bad position for a shot.

 

Entering a mossy clearing, we see a bunch of rabbits nibbling on the plant life there. I’m able to get one, but Gale’s arrow goes wide and the rest startle, darting off into the brush.

 

“Damn!” Gale swears loudly.

 

I laugh. “Well, I think we’re done for the evening. You probably scared all the rest of the game away.”

 

Gale runs his fingers through his hair. “I know. It’s just frustrating when you don’t get anything. I kind of feel...useless.”

 

“It’s not a competition. Each of us is pulling our own weight. And you got the chicken while I was recovering.”

 

“I guess.” He sighs. “Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision.”

 

“Leaving Twelve?”

 

“No, not that.” He takes a deep breath before continuing. “Katniss, I promised myself I’d wait until you survived your last Reaping before doing this, but we’re free of that now.”

 

“Doing what? Gale...what are you talking about?” I eye him warily.

 

“Have you ever thought about the future, you know, about...after? About you and me?”

 

The question throws me and I’m not sure I know what he’s talking about. I do my best to answer. “Prim would still be eligible for the Games. I would have to make sure she never had to take out tesserae.”

 

“But after that,” he presses. “What about your future?”

 

“What about it?”

 

He runs his fingers through his hair again. “Have you ever thought about, I don’t know, what it’d be like to kiss someone?”

 

I shrug. “Not really. I mean, maybe? It’s not exactly been at the top of my list of things to do.”

 

He lets out a short bark of laughter. “It’s been at the top of mine.”

 

“What?” No. I’m not ready for this. He can’t be saying what I think he’s saying.

 

But he is. “Katniss, you have to know how I feel about you.”

 

“What?! Why are you telling me this? Now, of all times? Why now?”

 

“I just realized that, with you lying there, I might lose you. And then I realized I might never get the chance to tell you how I feel. I might never get the chance to find out if you feel the same.”

 

“I’m confused. We’re friends. Of course we feel the same.” I’m refusing to acknowledge what I really think he means.

 

He steps closer and reaches up to touch my face. “Katniss, I’ve cared about you for so long. So very, very long. I just couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t do this at least once.”

 

“Do what?”

 

He runs his thumb over my lips. “Can I kiss you?”

 

My knee-jerk reaction is to say no. But he’s regarding me so earnestly, so hopefully I don’t. Instead, I blink up at him.

 

His fingertips caress my cheek while he waits for my decision. His touch feels good. Right, even. Will his lips be the same?

 

There’s only one way to find out.

 

I nod my head.

 

He smiles at me reverently and leans down to gently cover my lips with his own. The kiss is warm and dry and our lips are chapped. But it’s nice.

 

Really nice.

 

Gale must think so too because after it ends he asks, “Can I do that again?”

 

I nod my head a second time.

 

This kiss is less tentative. More forceful. More sure. Gale ghosts his tongue over my lips and I feel them tingle.

 

My arms slip around his waist almost without any direction.

 

He takes that as a signal to deepen the kiss, pulling me closer.

 

I feel a little flicker of desire deep in my belly.

 

It frightens me.

 

I take an involuntary step back, stumbling over something. I tear my lips away and look down at my feet. “What was that?”

 

Gale blinks. “What was what?”

 

“I just stepped on something.” I’m grateful for the distraction and kneel down to get a closer look. I can see a dull cream color where my foot scraped away some of the moss. “What’s that?” I remove a little more moss and recoil in horror at what I find.

 

It’s a skull.

 

A human skull.

 

I look around the clearing, seeing it with new eyes. The swells and bumps of moss take on a more sinister meaning. “It’s people,” I breathe. “The whole clearing is people.”

 

“What happened here?” Gale asks, looking around, his eye wide.

 

I shake my head. “I don’t know. But I think we should leave.”

 

“Yeah, good idea.”

 

And we do. All thoughts of the kiss we shared are pushed from my head by our gruesome discovery.

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Let Me Fly:

 

It’s a skull.

 

A human skull.

 

I look around the clearing, seeing it with new eyes. The swells and bumps of moss take on a more sinister meaning. “It’s people,” I breathe. “The whole clearing is people.”

 

“What happened here?” Gale asks, looking around, his eye wide.

 

I shake my head. “I don’t know. But I think we should leave.”

 

“Yeah, good idea.”

 

And we do. All thoughts of the kiss we shared are pushed from my head by our gruesome discovery.

 

oOo

 

Gale and I don’t talk much on our way back to camp. We’re both still shaken by the discovery of the field of bones.

 

When we get back to camp, we tell everyone what we found.

 

“Ewwww, gross!” Prim says, wrinkling her nose.

 

I agree with her. Dead animals are one thing. Dead humans are another.

 

“Who do you do think they were?” Gale muses aloud.

 

I shrug. “The bones looked pretty old. I’m more concerned about why there were so many of them. I mean, all those people in one place. What could do something like that?”

 

“They could be from the Cataclysm or even the Dark Days for that matter,” my mother offers. “There’s really no way of us knowing.”

 

“And do we really want to find out?” Peeta asks. “Does it really matter?”

 

We share a look. Implied is the fact that there isn’t anything we can do about avoiding something that deadly.

 

“It’s still really creepy.” Prim cuddles Buttercup closer to her.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Rory tells her. “The dead can’t hurt you. Worry about the living.”

 

“And on that morbid note, I think we should get started on supper,” Peeta says, bending down to start the fire.    

 

oOo

 

The temperature falls overnight and Peeta and I have to huddle together under our blanket during watch. It’s the coldest it’s been since we started out and I’m actually grateful my mother suggested we do watches in pairs. I’d have likely frozen otherwise.

 

“It doesn’t feel like spring,” Peeta observes, wrapping his arms around me tighter. He’s seated with his back against a tree with me nestled in between his legs, leaning back against his chest. It’s comforting even though I tell myself I don’t like it.  

 

“We’re in the mountains,” I say. “The weather’s unpredictable up here.”

 

He chuckles and I can feel it vibrate through my back. “I know. I grew up in Twelve too.”

 

I lean my head back against his shoulder. “What was it like growing up in town?”

 

He tilts his head to look at me. “Boring. It’s not like baking bread is all that exciting. Not like hunting or going out into the woods.”

 

“I never really thought of it as exciting,” I tell him. “It was necessary for my family’s survival. I would have loved to have grown up in town, never having to worry about where my next meal came from, if it was going to come at all. Never having to worry about if I was going to get enough to keep away starvation for one more day.”

 

“I suppose that’s true. I didn’t have to worry about that. I never went hungry, but you get sick of stale bread after a while.” I feel him shrug.

 

I never really thought about it before. My family always had a variety of food to eat, even if we didn’t always have enough. “I always thought you ate cookies and cakes. Like those ones in the window.”

 

“Can I tell you a secret?”

 

I nod.

 

“The ones in the window were just for show. They were just cardboard with frosting on them. The real cookies were for customers. All we ever got was what wouldn’t sell, mostly stale bread and burnt biscuits.”

 

I glance up at the overcast sky and change the subject, “I bet we get snow before the day’s out.”

 

“You’re probably right.” Peeta gets up and starts packing the lunch pails. I miss his warmth and pull the blanket tighter around me.   “We should get started as soon as it’s light.”

 

We head out soon after. The walk is easy and we’re heading northeast along the clearing. The only annoyance is that we have to stop frequently to deal with my mother’s monthly visitor.

 

She pulled me aside this morning to tell me so that I could make the proper accommodations. I’m embarrassed; I hope the boys don’t find out.

 

In order to keep them from discovering the real reason for our frequent stops, I make us gather everything we find. We forage a lot this way and on one of our stops I snag a squirrel.

 

Gale keeps glancing over at me hopefully, but I avoid him. I don’t regret kissing him, but I’m just not sure if I’m able to give him everything he wants, and I certainly am not ready to have that conversation. The kiss was nice and I’d probably be willing to kiss him again. Just later. And I don’t want him to get the wrong idea. I’m not ready for a relationship yet, even if I wouldn’t mind making out with Gale again.

 

We reach a larger clearing with several ruined buildings. There are the remains of large vehicles all around the clearing although most of what’s left is broken glass and rust. We’d seen several places with broken glass along the way, and now seeing these larger vehicles we can guess that the glass was from smaller ones that have long since rusted away. I’m guessing they’re from whatever civilization was in this area before the Cataclysm.

 

The long clearing that we’ve been following veers sharply to the southeast. Gale and I share a look. We don’t want to go that way. It’s time to find a new path. We head north, looking for a stream, river, or even one of those odd clearings that’s heading in a northern direction. It takes us a little bit but in the late afternoon, we finally do.

 

By then, it’s time to stop for the day. Each of us takes on a different task. Peeta gathers cattails while Rory and my mother set up a camp and Gale and I go our separate ways to hunt.

 

I don’t have very much luck and I spend most of my time following the stream we found listlessly, thinking back to my kiss with Gale. It was nice. Really nice. And it seriously confused me. I’ve never really considered dating somebody, it’s never even entered my mind. A relationship is a luxury. A luxury I couldn’t afford. I had my family to feed, and the Games were an ever-present worry hanging over my head.

 

Now, despite the worry of having to find a place to live, I feel like a huge burden has been lifted off of me. I don’t have to deal with life in Twelve, or the Games. I don’t have to go to school. There’s no more worry of dying in the mines like my father did. It’s freeing. Like a huge weight I never knew I was carrying has suddenly disappeared and things I’ve never had time or inclination to think about are now very real possibilities.

 

I reach up and I touch my lips, remembering Gale’s kiss. Would it be just as nice if he kissed me again? Unbidden, a thought flits through my head: I wonder how Peeta kisses. Gale’s stubble was surprisingly soft; will Peeta’s be the same? Will his lips be chapped like Gale’s? What does he taste like?

 

What in the hell am I thinking? This isn’t like me!

 

I shake my head to try to refocus on hunting, but I can’t keep the traitorous thoughts out of my mind. It’s distracting and dangerous.

 

I don’t realize how dangerous until a few moments later.

 

Off to my left, I hear a large animal approaching through the undergrowth. I draw my bow and point it in the direction of the noise, my heart racing. It doesn’t sound like a deer or any of the other game I’m used to hunting.

 

A few seconds later a full-sized boar bursts into the clearing sniffing the ground intently.

 

Reflexively, I fire my arrow at the beast.

 

It isn’t a perfect shot. The arrow sticks in the animal’s ribs, but not deeply. I’m in trouble.

 

The pig squeals in pain and anger, swiveling its head, searching for what injured it.

 

It finds me.

 

Lowering its snout, the boar charges.

 

I take a step back, firing another arrow. This time it skewers the eye, slamming into the skull.

 

It’s a good hit.

 

The animal skids to a halt and falls onto its side, dead.

 

My heart is racing. I’m lucky to be alive! I can’t afford to be distracted by Peeta or Gale. I could have died!

 

I stare at the pig and another thought hits me. How am I going to get this much meat back to camp? What are we going to do with it all? There is no way I’m letting this much pork go to waste. We’re going to have to figure out some way to preserve and take it with us. But first, I’ve got to get it back to camp.

 

I field dress the pig, draining its blood and removing the undesirable organs like the stomach and intestines. When that’s done, I grab the boar by its legs and take a few experimental tugs. It doesn’t move. It’s still too heavy for me to get back to camp.

 

I sit down next to my kill to think.

 

I don’t dare leave the pig here unattended while I go back to camp to get help. The scavengers would be sure to find it. I need to get Gale and the others to come to me. But how? What can I do to get someone’s attention?

 

The black and white wing of a mockingjay catches my attention. The birds. I can use the birds.

 

I start to sing the Valley Song. It seems appropriate, considering we’re in a mountain valley. And it’s one of the simplest songs that I know. My father used to get the mockingjays around Twelve to echo it back to him. I hope the ones out here will do the same. The only way to find out is to try. I sing the first verse and wait. A few seconds later the birds pick it up. I smile. This might work.

 

I repeat the song every five minutes to keep the birds singing.

 

It takes almost a half hour, but I can hear Peeta and Rory crashing through the woods calling my name. I sigh. I’m going to have to teach them how to walk silently in the woods soon.

 

Once they’re close enough, I shout back, “Here! I’m over here!”

 

The break through the underbrush and run towards me. “Katniss! What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” Peeta asks, taking in the blood on my clothes.

 

I shake my head. “It’s not mine.” I motion to the boar. “It’s this ugly thing’s.”

 

“Whoa,” Rory breathes. “That’s a lot of meat!”

 

Peeta suddenly seems to notice the pig and his eyes widen.

 

“Rory, run back to camp and get some rope,” I tell the pre-teen. “And a hatchet.”

 

He nods and sprints away.

 

“How can I help?” Peeta asks, bending down next to me.

 

“Can you cut down one of those saplings?” I ask, pointing to a stand of birch trees.

 

He pulls out his knife and looks at it. It’s a small knife, not really suited for much other than cutting vegetables or fruit. He shakes his head. “I’d rather wait for the hatchet. I’m not sure this would work.” He looks at me, his eyes lingering on the blood on my clothes. “Why don’t you go get cleaned up? I’ll watch the pig.”

 

It’s a good idea and I take it.

 

Rory comes back a bit later with the rope and the hatchet. I’m starting to get a little worried because it’s getting closer to night and the crows have already found the pig’s entrails. I’m worried about other scavengers.

 

We tie the pig to the sapling Peeta fells and the two boys carry it back to camp.

 

When we get there, Gale’s already returned with several smaller pieces of game including a duck. It’s the best single day haul we’ve had in over a year.

 

“What are we going to do with all this meat?” my mother asks.

 

I shrug. “Eat it?”

 

“How? It’s not going to stay good for that long!”

 

“I don’t-”

 

The howl of a wild dog interrupts me. A few heartbeats later a second howl joins it.

 

Gale leaps to his feet, bow in hand. “Fuck! This is bad!”

 

I whirl, scanning for the oncoming attack.

 

“Get ready!” I yell as another howl pierces the air.

 

We don’t have long to wait.

 

Two large dogs burst into the campsite, beelining toward the pig. They must have followed us back from the stream.

 

Gale and I fire our arrows simultaneously.

 

They hit.

 

Unfortunately, we’re aiming at the same dog. I groan internally. We need to work on our coordination. Later, once the danger passes.

 

The doubly killed dog falls.

 

The other dog skids to a halt at its packmate’s demise. It’s a lucky break, giving us time to reload.

 

The other dog is dead a second later.

 

We listen for the sound of any additional attackers, but there aren’t any. The skirmish is over and thankfully no one is hurt.

 

Gale retrieves our arrows while I cover him. Peeta and Rory drag the dogs as far away from camp as they can. Hoping that any additional scavengers will go after the dogs rather than us.

 

I sit down on the ground, glaring at the pig. It’s all the boar’s fault. If it hadn’t startled me, the attack, the continuing danger from predators and conundrum of what to do with the meat would have never happened. Part of me is regretting killing it, but a louder, more reasonable part reminds me that we need the meat. Stupid pig.

 

“So...I guess we can dry it over some smoke?” my mother suggests, as if the attack didn’t happen.

 

I stare at her blankly before breaking into peals of uncontrolled laughter.

 

oOo

 

My prediction that morning that we’re going to get snow comes true. Sometime after sundown, large fluffy flakes start falling, sticking to the ground and trees. I’m grateful we stopped earlier and took the time to make a shelter and set several fires for smoking the meat. The snow’s not falling fast enough for it to endanger the multiple fires we have going but it is still problematic in another way.

 

“Snow?!” Prim exclaims. “This late in the year?”

 

“It can happen. You know that,” I tell her.

 

“But it’s so cold!” She burrows into her coat until only her eyes are visible under the wool cap she’s wearing.

 

“That’s not the biggest problem,” Gale says, wrapping his scarf around his neck.

 

“So what is?” Prim asks, her voice muffled by her clothing.

 

“Duh. We’re going to leave tracks,” Rory tells her.

 

Gale shoots his brother a look. “Tracks are pretty much the least of our concern. We’re sending up a giant smoke signal right now. I’m actually pretty grateful that it’s snowing since it’s hard to see anything in snow. The cold’s a problem. But with these fires and our shelter we can deal with it. The worst part is that it’s covering all of our food.”

 

“That’s not really a problem,” Rory counters, motioning to all of the thin slices of pork drying over the fires.

 

“We can’t live on just meat alone,” my mother says. “We’ll get sick.”

 

“And predators are going to get desperate,” Gale adds. “We’re pretty vulnerable out here and we’ve got this pig to guard. We’re going to have to be extra careful while it’s drying.”

 

“How long is that going to take?” Peeta asks.

 

“At least a full day to get the meat completely dried,” my mother tells him. “It’d be better if we had two and I’d really like more salt to preserve the meat with. We’re all out.”

 

“We can look for some,” I tell her.   “Tomorrow. We’re not going to be doing all that much anyway.”

 

“Do we have enough wood?” Rory asks, looking at the large piles placed next to the fires.

 

“I cut down a maple tree,” Gale says flatly. “I think we have enough.”

 

“If you’re really looking for something to do,” my mother says crisply, “you can start stripping bark from the wood. We can eat the inner layer and it should be pretty sweet this time of year and it’s better than worrying about something we have no control over.”

 

Rory makes a face. “Fine.”

 

Prim emerges from her cocoon long enough to stick her tongue out at Rory.

 

“I saw that, Primrose. You can help Rory as well.”

 

I struggle to hide my smile. It’s the most normal life has been for a very long time.

 

Peeta meets my eyes and nods slightly. I guess he feels the same way too.

 

oOo

 

The night passes uneventfully and we sleep deeply, despite the cold, our bellies full for the first time since we left Twelve.   I curl up against Peeta, reveling in his warmth. It’s a little surprising how quickly I’ve gotten used to sharing blankets with him. I wonder if I’d be as comfortable with him if we hadn’t run away. Probably not. I probably would have gone for years without speaking to him. But he makes a good blanket, I’ll give him that.

 

Morning comes, signaling the end of the snowstorm. Peeta and I are on the last watch again. It seems to be our assigned watch even when we’re not traveling. I’m glad we’re not going anywhere today because there’s probably five or six inches of snow on the ground. Foraging isn’t going be easy with this much snow. It’s warmer than yesterday so I’m hoping the snow won’t stick around for long.

 

I heat some water for tea and Peeta starts making breakfast. There’s no point in waking the others yet.

 

“So what do you want to do today?” he asks, frying up a few boiled cattails and wild onion in a pan with some pig fat and liver.

 

“I told my mom we’d look for salt.” I add some wintergreen to the hot water and watch it steep.

 

Peeta looks up from his work. “How are you going to do that?”

 

“Look for deer,” I reply absently.

 

“What?”

 

“Deer like salt. Really like it. They like to lick it and they’ll gather where the ground is salty. A lot of the time you’ll find whole chunks of rock salt if you dig around a little,” I explain. “Back in Twelve, I used to take out a few chunks to bait deer with in the fall.”

 

“Huh. Weird. You think deer will be out in this weather?”

 

I shrug. “They’ve got to eat. They’ll be out.” My eyes are trained on the surrounding forest. After the attack yesterday, I’m nervous about more predators finding our camp.

 

The smell of cooking rouses Rory and he comes over, his bowl at the ready. He’s soon joined by the others.

 

“Why don’t we settle down here?” Rory asks through a mouthful of food.

 

“Yeah!” Prim agrees. “There’s all sorts of stuff to gather and animals to hunt. It seems like the perfect place.”

 

Gale shakes his head. “We’re too close to Twelve still.”

 

“We’ve been walking forever!” Rory protests. “We still can’t be that close to Twelve!”

 

I calculate it out in my head. Gale’s right. We’re maybe about forty miles from Twelve as the crow flies. We haven’t been traveling in a straight line and we’ve had to navigate around a lot of objects so it just seems like we’ve gone further.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” my mother says. “This place isn’t safe. There’s no coal seam fires nearby to hide the smoke from ours. We’d be caught eventually.”

 

“Don’t worry about it, Rory,” Gale tries to soothe. “Once we get a bit further north, we can see about building a house.”

 

“Are you insane, Hawthorne?” Peeta exclaims, slipping back into calling him by his last name. “Look around you! How many new houses with smoking chimneys do you see?” he asks rhetorically. “None! It won’t matter if our house is right on top of a burning coal seam, it’ll still stick out like a sore thumb to any passing hovercraft.”

 

Gale glares at the other man, all of the earlier camaraderie gone. “So what’s your suggestion, Mellark?”

 

Peeta falters. “I don’t know. Just not a house.”

 

“Why can’t we live in one of the ruins?” Prim asks.

 

Peeta shakes his head. “It’s still too obvious. Ruined houses burn down, they don’t have controlled fires going day and night.”

 

“We could live in a cave,” my mother suggests, looking up from her food.

 

Both Peeta and Gale gape at her. She smiles at them and returns to her breakfast.

 

It’s not a bad suggestion and it’s the obvious one. We’ve just been so hung up on building a house that we’ve not thought of anything else. We really should have.

 

Rory opens his mouth to ask another question when we’re distracted by the sound of something large lumbering towards our camp.

 

Grabbing our weapons, we leap to our feet, all discussion of where to live forgotten.

 

I can make out the approach of something big and black. I narrow my eyes. It can’t be...

 

“I think it’s a bear,” Gale mutters half to me and half to himself.

 

He’s right. I really wish he wasn’t. The animal is sniffing the ground following the path Peeta and Rory made with the wild dogs yesterday evening.

 

The beast spots us. It freezes.

 

So do we.

 

For several long moments we’re at a standoff. There’s too many obstacles in my way. I can’t get a clear shot.

 

Gale fires anyway. The arrow grazes the bear’s shoulder before skittering off into the undergrowth.

 

The bear lets out a mighty roar and charges

 

Gale swears, but nocks another arrow.

 

I swear too. If Gale had just waited, we could have gotten a better shot or maybe the animal would have gone away. Instead, we now have an enraged bear barreling down at us and I’m not sure if arrows are going to be enough to stop it.

 

I get a shot and take it.

 

My arrow pierces the bear’s chest. It’s a solid hit.

 

The bear barely notices. It keeps coming.

 

Gale fires his second arrow, sticking the animal in its left foreleg.

 

It keeps coming.

 

Peeta and Rory step forward, brandishing their walking staffs in order to protect Gale and myself.   We have the best weapons. If we go down, we’re all in trouble. We really need to figure out a better plan for defending ourselves. Sticks just aren’t enough.  

 

Later. We have to survive the next few minutes first.

 

I fire again, hitting the bear’s right eye. It’s normally a kill shot but the bear’s skull is too thick.

 

Partially blinded and in pain, the beast rears up swiping its claws wildly at us.  

 

It connects.

 

One massive paw slams into Rory, knocking him to the ground. The boy lets out a groan and clutches at his chest. I can’t see any blood but that doesn’t mean he’s okay.  

 

“Rory!” Gale screams, dashing forward to drag his brother to safety.

 

Peeta moves in front of me, attacking the bear with his staff. It doesn’t do much but it allows Gale to get Rory clear.

 

It also gives me a few precious seconds to line up my shot.

 

With the animal on its hind legs, I have an opening. Drawing my bow, I shout, “Duck!” to Peeta.

 

He falls to the ground and I release my missile. Time seems to slow and I notice every detail. The bowstring twangs as the arrow snaps forward.

 

The bear takes a swipe at Peeta, missing him by inches.

 

Behind me, Prim yells something that sounds like a name.

 

I can’t hear it over the rushing of my blood.

 

I reach for another arrow, my eyes never leaving the one hurtling toward the raging bear.

 

It sails true, impaling the heart.

 

The beast crumples to the ground with a pathetic moan. Another arrow fired at short range into the skull finishes the job.

 

Peeta gets to his feet. “I can’t believe it didn’t kill me.”

 

“I can’t believe it either,” I say, then gasp, “Rory!” I turn to see how the boy is doing.

 

“I’m fine,” he wheezes, sitting up with Gale’s help. “Just a bit bruised. The claws didn’t get me.” He fingers the thick leather and wool of his jacket. “My coat on the other hand…”

 

“So you say. You’re still not getting out of an exam, young man,” my mother says sternly. “Now strip.”

 

“Here?” he exclaims, eyes darting to Prim.

 

“Yes, here. You can either do it voluntarily, or I’ll do it for you.” There’s no room for argument in my mother’s tone and Rory reluctantly complies.

 

I don’t need to watch the boy be humiliated. I turn my back and start to examine the fallen bear. It’s big, but compared to the mutt we killed a few days ago it looks tiny.

 

“I bet it weighs a good two hundred pounds or more,” Peeta says coming up beside me.

 

“Don’t you want to watch the show?” I ask, referring to Rory’s exam.

 

Peeta snickers. “I feel sorry for the kid and want to give him a break. Gale’s hovering and your sister is in full healer mode like your mom.”

 

I nod, tugging a broken arrow out of the bear. I might be able to salvage the tip but the shaft is useless.

 

“Can I help?” Peeta asks.

 

I nod. “Can you see if you can find the arrow Gale grazed the bear with? It’s not here.”

 

He nods his head before hurrying off into the woods.

 

I continue with my task. Although I don’t have much success. None of the arrows lodged in the bear are whole, but I’m able to recover three of the arrowheads.  

 

Peeta comes back, Gale’s arrow in hand. “So what are we going to do with the bear?” he asks.

 

I look at the bear and then back to him. “Eat it.”

 

oOo

 

The next day we stay in the same place, now smoking the bear meat as well as the pig. My mother makes yet another request for salt, so Peeta and I go out looking.

 

We range around, searching for deer tracks. We find some heading towards the ruins near where we left the long meadow and follow them.

 

The tracks lead to one of the ruined buildings and we find several deer licking the ground around the outside of the structure. I reflexively reach for my bow.

 

Peeta stops me. “We don’t need more meat right now.”

 

I make a face but reluctantly lower my bow, a voice inside me screaming that I’m letting food go.

 

Peeta raises his voice. “Hey, get out of here!” he yells at the herd, waving his hands wildly.

 

The deer scatter before I can change my mind.

 

Peeta walks over to where they were just moments before. He bends down and touches his fingers to the ground then brings them to his mouth. “Definitely salt. I wonder where it came from.”

 

“There, I guess.” I point toward a large round structure with four foot high brick walls and a steeply sloped roof that has long since collapsed in on itself. “There’s no other place it could have come from.”

 

We circle the building trying to figure out how to get inside. We don’t find a door. Finally we clamber up onto the ruin and move a few pieces of roofing.

 

I have no idea why anyone would have kept salt inside a building but the proof is in front of us. It looks like the salt has melted into the floor. Underneath the ruined roof is a huge slab of pure rock salt. We hack away at the brownish white mineral with our knives until my hunting bag is full of several large chunks. “We can always come back for more,” I say. “But this should make my mother happy.”

 

“I wonder why they kept salt in a building. It seems a little weird.”

 

“Who knows,” I tell him. “But we should keep an eye out for ruins like this. They could hold more.”

 

We head back to camp, talking about inconsequential things, and when we get there I find my mother building something with Gale. He looks confused, but he’s following her instructions.

 

“What are you doing?” I ask.

 

“Building a travois,” my mother says.

 

“A what?” The word is unfamiliar.

 

“A travois. There’s no way we’re going to be able to transport this much meat in our bags.” She motions to the many tripods of meat drying over smoky fires.

 

I come over and inspect the thing. It looks like a stretcher with one end slightly wider than the other. “And how’s this gonna help?”

 

“We attach this to somebody’s hips and they can drag it along. That way we can actually carry all of this without overloading our bags. And even better, we can keep our hands free.” She gives me an amused look. “I’m sure you approve of us saving all the meat.”

 

I nod my head. “How’d you come up with this?”

 

Gale answers. “Would you believe, of all things, the instructions came out of that book your mom’s been reading?”

 

I blink in disbelief. “The romance novel?”

 

“Yup.”

 

I shake my head. I guess it is worth more than just kindling.

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Let Me Fly:

 

“Would you believe, of all things, the instructions came out of that book your mom’s been reading?”

 

I blink in disbelief. “The romance novel?”

 

“Yup.”

 

I shake my head. I guess it is worth more than just kindling.

 

oOo

 

We get a late start the following morning. While having the meat is a nice safety blanket and it means that we don’t have to worry about running out of food, unfortunately, it also means that we have to travel slower. The travois snags on bushes and fallen trees and it takes time for my mother and Peeta to get used to dragging it behind them. Even with the travois, the packs all of us carrying are still heavy.

 

Right before we call a halt for the day, Peeta spots a cave. We drop our stuff under a copse of trees and Gale, Peeta, and I head off to investigate.

 

As we approach the cave we immediately smell the stench of bat guano. We glance into the cave and the smell is even worse. We don’t even bother with a light. It’s not going to work.

 

We head back to camp. “That cave is shit,” Gale says, stating the obvious.

 

“Well duh. What kind of cave did you want?” Peeta asks.

 

Gale glances over at Peeta. “Definitely nothing with bats.”

 

“Or bears,” I add. “Or snakes. And no mutts either.”

 

“So pretty much nothing living in the cave?” Peeta says with a smile.

 

I smile back. “Sounds about right.”

 

“So what else?”

 

Gale shrugs. “I don’t know. Dry would be good.”

 

“Dry would be good what?” my mother asks.

 

“How was the cave?” Prim pipes up.

 

I sink to the ground next to my pack. “Full of bats.”

 

“Ewwwwww!”

 

Gale sits down next to me. “That’s what we thought.”

 

“So what was this about dry being good?” my mother asks. “Was the cave wet too?”

 

“We didn’t get close enough to find out,” Gale answers. “We were just talking about what we want in a cave.”

 

She nods. “And what did you come up with so far?”

 

“Nothing living in it. No snakes, no bears, no bats, no rats, no mutts.” Peeta ticks off each item with his fingers.

 

Prim wrinkles her nose at the list. “No arguments there.”

 

He holds up another finger. “And dry. That’s as far as we’d gotten.”

 

“Would the whole cave have to be dry? What if there’s a spring inside? What if there’s a hole in the roof, like a smoke hole?” my mother asks.

 

“A smoke hole would be nice,” Gale says.

 

“It would also make it look more like a mine fire,” Peeta points out, crouching down to start making the fire.

 

“A spring wouldn’t be bad,” I say, “so long as it’s not all over. And if we don’t have one, that’s okay too. We just need to be near water.”

 

“What about space?” Gale tosses out. “How big a cave do we want?”

 

“I think we’d want one that isn’t too big, but also not too small,” my mother chimes in, thinking about it. “I’d like to have more than one chamber. You know, so we could have some privacy. And I know a bedroom would be nice.”

 

“And storage that’s not in the main room,” Peeta adds.

 

“Only one entrance could be good,” Gale interjects. “It would be easier to defend.”

 

“Defend from what?” Rory asks.

 

“Bears, wolves, whatever else is out there,” I answer.

 

“It shouldn’t be too visible from the air,” Peeta points out. “We don’t want the Capitol to spot us.”

 

“I’d like someplace where we could actually do some farming,” my mother says. “I brought along some seeds, and as long as we get them into the ground in the next few weeks, we should be able to have a decent crop.”

 

“You’re gonna have to be careful about that,” Gale cautions. “We don’t want it to look like a garden.”

 

“Yes, I know,” my mother replies.

 

“We’ll need good hunting, fishing, gathering,” I say. “There’s no way we’ll be able to farm everything. We need lots of game. Good fishing would be nice too. Not totally necessary, but it’s easy.”

 

“And I know how to make nets!” Prim offers.

 

“So it sounds like we really want to be near water,” Peeta says, looking up from the small fire he’s nursing.

 

“Near a river or a lake, but high enough up that the cave won’t flood,” I say.

 

“There is no way we’re going to find a cave with all of this,” Rory says.

 

Prim shrugs. “Who knows? We might. We’ll never know if we don’t look.”

 

“I’d like it if the cave faced south,” my mother interjects before Rory and Prim can get into another argument. “It’ll get the best light.”

 

“How do you know that?” Peeta wants to know.

 

She holds up the romance novel.

 

I shake my head. “I can’t believe the Capitol would let us have a book like that.”

 

“To be fair, there’s a lot of sex, especially later on. And there’s a lot of other fantastical elements. I don’t think they really realized just how much research the author did and just how accurate it is. They also probably didn’t see it as a threat. Who wants to go beyond the fence?”

 

I look around at our small group. “We did.”

 

“Only after it became too dangerous to stay.”

 

She has a point.

 

oOo

 

For the rest of that day and the next day, we soldier on. We don’t see much that looks promising and because of all the noise, I don’t succeed in getting anything with my bow.

 

We find another cave but the entrance is too near the stream we’ve been following and it looks like it’ll flood in even a light rainstorm. It’s discouraging.

 

The day after we find the second unusable cave is sunny and warm. I take the opportunity to scale a large tree to get a better lay of the land.

 

I’m glad I do. “Smoke!” I yell down to the rest of the group. “I think I see smoke in the distance!”

 

“How far away?” Rory asks, his desire to stop traveling evident in his tone.

 

I motion with one hand. “I think it’s in the mountains to the northwest. It’s pretty far away so I can’t be sure, but I think it’s smoke.”

 

My mother smiles. “So Solomon was right.”

 

“It’s no guarantee that it’s actually a mine fire. It could be something else,” Gale says.

 

“True. I guess we’ll have to get a little closer.”

 

I climb down. “It’s pretty clear this stream we’ve been following runs along a mountain valley. There’s a bunch of hills in the area, there might be caves in them. If there aren’t, we can start looking in the mountains themselves.”

 

“Do we want to go closer to where you saw the smoke?” Peeta asks.

 

“No,” Gale says, “that would be a bad idea. Don’t you remember what they talked about in school? Going too near a mine fire is a stupid idea. There’s sinkholes. There’s toxic fumes. The ground becomes unstable.” He punctuates each item by smacking his fingers into the palm of his hand. “The last thing we want to do is live in a cave on top of one those.”

 

Peeta opens his mouth to say something, but my mother jumps in, heading off another argument, “I say we keep going north until we find a suitable place to live.”

 

I’m hoping it will be soon. I’m getting sick of traveling and it’s starting to affect me. I haven’t gotten any game in days and I know it isn’t because there isn’t any game to be had, because Gale’s been coming back to camp with everything from a pheasant to large rabbits.

 

I’m starting to feel a little useless.

 

I try to hide what I’m feeling from the others. But I don’t succeed.

 

When we stop for the night on the day we spot smoke, Peeta asks if he can join me in my foraging and hunting attempt.

 

I agree, although I regret it minutes later. He’s loud and completely incapable of quieting his steps. I do my best to show him how to avoid stepping on twigs and leaves, but he doesn’t get it. Finally, unable to deal with yet another day of failure, I snap. “You’re useless! This is never going to work! I don’t know why I brought you along!”

 

Peeta freezes, going pale. His eyes reflect his hurt. “Katniss…”

 

I stop, open-mouthed, realizing what I just said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that we shouldn’t have brought you along completely.” I sit down hard on the ground. “That didn’t come out right either. I know you didn’t have a choice to come with us or not. I’m sorry we took you away from your family. But I’m not sorry you’re with us.” I stare down at my hands. “This isn’t coming out right.”

 

Peeta sits down next to me. “It’s coming out fine. I know it was either this or you and Gale kill me, and frankly I’d rather be alive with you than alive without you.”

 

I look at him and say eloquently, “Huh?”

 

“I know, it’s weird, right?” He leans back, staring at the passing clouds. “Naturally I miss my brothers, but out here...I have an opportunity to do something I never did living back in Twelve.”

 

I raise an eyebrow in confusion.

 

He continues, tilting his head to look at me. “Out here, I get to be with you. I get to talk with you.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

Peeta rubs the back of his neck. “I’m trying to figure out how to say this without it coming out wrong.”

 

“Just say it.”

 

“I’ve been dreaming about this for years. I’ve made up whole scenarios about how we’d finally meet and get to know each other.” He snorts. “Heck, one of them was we’d both been selected as tributes for the Games and then you couldn’t ignore me. Stupid, right?”

 

I shake my head at the image. “A little. But why? I’m a nobody.”

 

“Not to me. Never to me!” he says vehemently. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve been in love with you since we were five years old.”

 

“What? How?”

 

“You remember the first day of school?” he asks, leaning toward me. “You were wearing that red checked dress and your hair was in two braids. The teacher asked if anyone knew the Valley Song and you did, so you stood up and sang it.”

 

I frown. “Vaguely?”

 

His voice takes on a faraway tone. “I’d never heard anyone sing like that before. Even the mockingjays outside stopped singing to listen to you. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. I didn’t stand a chance and from that moment on, I was gone.”

 

I’m a bit overwhelmed. I know Gale cares about me. But it’s a more recent thing built out of friendship. Peeta’s declaration is completely unexpected and I don’t know what to think. “Why didn’t you ever talk to me?”

 

“I was scared. Here you were, this amazing independent beautiful person, and then there’s me.” He motions to himself. “I’m not much of anything. Certainly not good enough for someone perfect like you.”

 

“I’m not perfect.”

 

“I know that now.” He shrugs. “It’s just no time ever seemed right, you know? You were always with Gale or Madge or Prim or off by yourself. And what could I talk to you about? ‘I’m sorry your dad died, here have some bread.’ or ‘How about those Hunger Games, nice to see one of our tributes make it past the bloodbath for once.’ No, better to keep my distance. At least then you wouldn’t reject me.”

 

“I guess. But what changed? I could just as easily reject you now.”

 

“Yeah, you could. And I wouldn’t blame you if you did. You don’t know me.” He pauses, looking around the woods. “But being out here, I finally get it. I get why you like it. It’s freeing.” He takes a deep breath then turns to regard me seriously. “Even if you do reject me, at least now I can say that I’ve talked to you. That I’ve told you how I feel. Everything now is up to you.”

 

“But-”

 

He holds up a hand to stop me. “I don’t expect you to become my girlfriend now. Or ever. You get to decide what you do with the information. It’s not up to me anymore.” He reaches out to take my hand, then stops himself midway. It’s like he doesn’t feel he has the right to touch me until I give him permission. Instead, he puts the offending hand in his lap and says, “Whatever you decide isn’t going to stop how I feel about you. You’re still the amazingly wonderful girl you were back in Twelve. You’re still the girl who’s done everything to save her family. So you’re having a couple of bad days - that’s all it is. A couple of bad days. Just look at everything you’ve done in the last week. You got the pig. You and Gale took down that bear mutt and then you killed the other bear. You’ve been feeding us along the way with both your hunting and your gathering. You’re not a failure.”

 

I can barely process everything he just told me. Instead, I fixate on his last sentence. “How did you know that’s what I was thinking?”

 

“I’ve spent a long time watching you, Katniss,” Peeta says with a light blush. “I’ve become pretty familiar with figuring out what you’re thinking. I’m still not totally perfect, but maybe with time I’ll get there.” He looks down at his hands. “I’m not saying this to put pressure on you. That’s the last thing I want to do. I just want you to know I understand. And I’m here for you. However you need me. All I really want is just to be with you, in whatever way you’re comfortable with. If that’s just as a friend, I’m okay with that. If it’s something more, I’m okay with that too.”

 

I’m not sure what to do with his confession. “So you’re okay with us kidnapping you?”

 

Peeta smiles. “I’m getting there. Give me time.”

 

“Does that mean you’ll forgive us?”

 

“I forgive you.” There’s an emphasis on the last word. “We’re friends now. Friends forgive each other. Do you forgive me for making you uncomfortable right now?”

 

I smile back at him. “Yeah. I do. That’s what friends do.”

 

“So as a friend, can I ask you a question?”

 

“I guess?” I’m a little nervous about what he’s going to ask.

 

“What’s your favorite color?”

 

“I don’t know. That’s going a bit far.”

 

He laughs. “No really. What is it?”

 

“Green. You?”

 

“Orange.”

 

“Like a sunset?”

 

A smile lights up his face. “Exactly.”

 

oOo

 

I give up trying to hunt the rest of the day, but Peeta and I spend a lot of our time gathering plants and talking about our childhoods. I’m a little surprised at how comfortable I am, despite his confession. He’s not pushing at all.

 

We return to camp with a bunch of stuff we’ve foraged. Some of the plants are things that we haven’t seen before along the trip but that I recognize from the book from my father. Peeta goes over to help my mother with dinner and Gale pulls me aside.

 

“What’s up with you and Mellark?” He asks without any preamble.

 

“Nothing,” I say, pulling my arm out of Gale’s hand. “He’s a friend.”

 

“Since when did Mellark become your friend?”

 

“Since he noticed I was feeling down and tried to cheer me up.”

 

“Down about what?” His voice is confused and there’s a hint of hurt running through it. “Are you regretting kissing me? You’ve been avoiding me ever since then.”

 

I wince. He’s not wrong. “I’m sorry? I needed to figure things out for myself.”

 

“Figure what out?”

 

“Just things. I never had time to think about having a relationship before, Gale. And now I’m getting bombarded on two sides.”

 

“Two sides? Wait…what...” Realization dawns in his eyes. “Mellark’s in love with you too!”

 

I flinch guiltily. I didn’t mean for that to come out. “Yes? He just told me.”

 

“And now you’re friends?”

 

“I guess.”

 

“So what’d you say when he told you? Did he ask you out?” He demands without giving me time to respond. “Did you say yes? Do you want to date Mellark?” He’s pacing, running his hands through his hair.

 

“No. Yes. I don’t know!” I’m frustrated. This isn’t something I wanted to talk to Gale about. Not now. Not ever.

 

He stops his pacing to face me. His shoulders are slumped and there’s pain in his eyes. “What about me?” His voice pleads with me to give him some hope. “I thought you and I were good, Katniss. I thought we had something.”

 

“We do have something!” I say, taking a step closer to him. “You’re my best friend. Pretty much my only friend until now. I liked kissing you. I liked it a lot. But, I don’t know how I feel about it. I’m confused. I’m frightened. And I don’t know if I want to date anyone right now!”

 

Gale throws up his hands in frustration. “Let me know when you’ve made up your mind. I love you, Katniss. That’s never going to stop.” He comes over and takes my hands in his. “Just give me a chance. I’ll wait for you as long as you need me to. But, please, just think about it.”

 

“I will.”

 

He nods once and drops my hands. “I’ll see you back at camp.”

 

I watch him go, wondering just what I did to get two guys to declare their love for me. It’s overwhelming. I sit down heavily on the ground and stare at the canopy of trees overhead. Just what am I going to do about Gale? About Peeta? Nothing has prepared me for this.  

 

I feel like a heroine in a Capitol soap opera.

 

oOo

 

The next day is uncomfortable. Gale and I aren’t really speaking and he keeps glaring at Peeta. Peeta ignores him.

 

My mother looks at me sympathetically and I flush. I’m embarrassed that my love life is public knowledge.

 

To avoid everyone, I range further ahead than I normally do and I manage to get a small squirrel. I bring it back to the group and Peeta shoots me an encouraging smile. “I knew you could do it.”

 

I smile at him in thanks.

 

Gale just glares.

 

We follow the stream until it joins a large river. By then, it’s late enough that we decide to set up camp.

 

While everyone else does so, I take the opportunity to kill a duck and a goose that were foraging in the marshy areas along the river. When I get back to camp, there’s a palpable sense of excitement.

 

“Katniss! Katniss! Rory found a cave! We were gathering firewood and he saw an opening up there on that hill!” Prim points south toward a large hill.

 

“And?”

 

“I wouldn’t let them go look. We were waiting for you in case there was anything inside,” my mother says.

 

I nod.

 

“Come on, let’s go look!” Prim grabs my hand and starts tugging me toward the hill.

 

I want to go. But someone should stay here with our things. I’d rather leave Prim and Rory, but from the looks on their faces I can see that they’d refuse.

 

Peeta must see the same thing because he says, “I’ll stay here at the camp and start making dinner. You can tell me how it goes when you get back.” He takes out his knife and starts disemboweling the waterfowl, feeding Buttercup the entrails.

 

I smile at him gratefully.

 

Gale pauses for a moment. “Sounds good.”

 

I suddenly realize that we’re leaving Peeta alone with all of our supplies and Prim’s cat. As good of a hunter as Buttercup is, he’s still no match for Peeta. Gale must have thought the same thing but decided to trust the merchant. It’s a huge sign of trust on Gale’s part.

 

We fish out the flashlights we brought with us from our packs and head for the cave. We’ve been saving them for emergencies, because once the batteries run out we have no way of replacing them.

 

When we reach the cave, I take a deep breath. I really want this one to be good. I am really sick of traveling. I let it out and force my mind to become detached, analytical.

 

The entrance is about five feet across, big enough to fit things through but small enough to be able to defend easily. That’s a good sign.   The opening appears to have formed when a chunk of the hill broke off. I can see several large boulders at the base of the hill along with the remains of several trees that the rocks took with them. There’s about a three foot rock ledge jutting from the base of the opening, but it appears stable enough. To the left of the entrance the hill slopes down gently, while the right is steeper. I wouldn’t want to climb that unless I didn’t have a choice.

 

I take point, my mother right beside me, shining the light into the cave so we all can see. I don’t see any glittering of eyes or water.   It’s time to go inside.

 

We step into the gloom and pause to let our eyes adjust. Even with the flashlight, it’s still hard to see.  

 

I take several deep breaths through my nose while we wait. I don’t smell anything. That’s promising.

 

I strain my ears, listening for the sounds of movement inside the cave. There’s a slight sound of dripping. Gale and I share a look. He hears it too. We don’t know if that’s good or bad.

 

I look around trying to pinpoint the source of the sound, taking in my surroundings. The main room is probably about the same size as our house was in Twelve. There’s four dark openings spread around the outside of the room. The walls slope steeply toward the floor in the back, but near the front of the cave, they’re almost vertical. The ceiling is about seven feet high.

 

Gale is able to reach up and touch it with his hands. “I don’t see any sign of bats,” he says, looking at his fingers.

 

I motion over to the left. “The dripping sound is coming from over there. We should check that out first.”

 

So we do.

 

My mother shines her flashlight through the small opening. It’s not entirely flush with the floor of the main room and we have to step up and over a lip of rock to enter this new space. The room is much smaller than the one we just left and more circular. Most of the space is taken up by a large fissure in the ground. Inside of the fissure, there’s water. A pool. The surface of the water is maybe about six inches lower than the floor. My mother shines her flashlight down into the pool and... nothing. We can’t see the bottom. Rory points the other flashlight up. The ceiling is higher than in the main room and we see one large stalactite dripping water into the pool.

 

We look around, taking in the space. My mother says, “Is that a bucket?” She shines her flashlight on it.

 

I head over to investigate. Next to the pool, there’s a large wooden bucket that holds maybe about five gallons of water. Beside it, there’s a rotting bit of rope attached to the handle.

 

“Someone’s been here before,” Gale says unnecessarily.

 

“Not recently,” I say, examining the frayed bit of rope.

 

“Well, with that here, I’m guessing that the water is drinkable.” My mother leans down and dips her finger into the pool and sniffs it. “It smells fine.” She tastes the tip of her finger. “It’s fresh. A little minerally, but otherwise it seems good.”

 

“Anything living in there?” Gale asks.

 

My mother shines her flashlight into the pool again. “I don’t see anything. I’m guessing this is rainwater that has seeped through the earth.”

 

There isn’t really space in this room for anything but the pool. And there’s no other openings. We head back into the main room.

 

“So far so good,” I say. “Let’s check out the rest of the cave.”

 

We continue along clockwise to the next room. It’s brighter than the pool room but not much brighter. It’s also larger with sloping walls and a high ceiling. There’s a little bit of light filtering down from directly overhead. We look up to see a small hole.

 

“Well that’s useful,” my mother says. “We could set a fire in here and it’d look like the hill’s smoking.”

 

“Looks like someone else had the same idea.” Gale gestures to the remains of a fire slightly to the side of the hole. Other than that and a small pile of what looks to be trash, the room is empty.

 

We move back out into the entry room and go to the next opening. It’s a large empty space with several niches along the walls. There’s some rubble on the floor underneath some of the niches. I bend down to investigate and find a few broken nuts and rocks. It looks like maybe an animal hibernated here several years ago. I examine the dirt floor more closely. There’s no other tracks, which is good, but that doesn’t mean we’re home free. There’s another dark opening in this room and we need to investigate it.

 

When we do, we discover a long narrow room. Just like in the previous room, there are several niches of various sizes and shapes pockmarking the walls. The ceiling slopes down sharply to the left of where we entered and to our right we can see daylight.

 

“That must lead back to the entry room,” my mother says.

 

Rory scampers off to investigate. “Yup!” he chirps when he returns. “It does!”

 

The cave’s pretty much perfect. Other than the entryway facing north, it hits almost everything we were looking for. It’s large enough to hold all of us as well as store supplies for the winter. There’s even a water source and a smoke hole inside.

 

More importantly it’s far enough away from Twelve. We’ve got to be at least eighty miles away. That should be far enough that a random hovercraft won’t be able to spot us.

 

I think we should stay. If we’re going to make it through the winter, we need to settle down.

 

I look around at the rest of the group. They’re all smiling; they’ve come to the same conclusion I have. We need to tell Peeta.

 

We head back down to camp, a spring in our step.

 

Peeta looks up from where he’s roasting the duck over the fire. “So, how’d it go?”

 

“I think we’ve found home.”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Bambi. I’ll notify the correct authorities.”

 

I peek my head over the edge of the railing to see who’s at the door. It’s Mrs. Mellark. She seems upset, angry, rather than sad. But when isn’t she angry? Still, I wonder what she needed to talk to my father about.

 

My father shuts the door and turns toward the stairs. That’s my cue to hide. I duck into my mother’s bedroom - he never looks in here, not since she died anyway - and listen for the sound of my father’s footfalls.

 

He’s heading towards his office.

 

I hear the door shut and I creep out of the room, careful to avoid the squeaky floorboard at the top of the stairs. I press my back against the wall next to the door to his office and listen.

 

“I need to order a hovercraft,” my father says. There’s a small pause. He must be on the phone, probably to the Capitol. “One of our kids has gone missing.”

 

Kids? That must be why Mrs. Mellark was here. One of her sons must have gone missing. I wonder which one.

 

“No. I don’t think he’s a rebel.” Pause. “No, he’s only sixteen.”

 

Peeta!

 

“Yes, I’ll coordinate with the local Peacekeeper Head. Please be advised, we are experiencing heavy losses of life due to the flu. It’s recommended that whatever team you send be aware of this.”

 

It sounds like he’s reaching the end of the conversation. I need to get away before I’m spotted.

 

I slip into my room and onto my bed, picking up a novel I’ve been reading. It’s about a woman who has a child out of wedlock and refuses to name the father and thus is ritually shunned. The Capitol sees it as ‘charmingly quaint’ but I like Hester’s spirit and her refusal to let her public shame beat her down. There’s a lot of books like that which have slipped through the Capitol’s censors, I plan on trying to track down each and every one.

 

My father knocks on the door. “Madge? Do you have a moment?”

 

“Yes, Daddy.”

 

He opens the door and comes in. “Have you seen Peeta Mellark lately?”

 

“Not since before school closed,” I answer, slipping my finger between the pages to hold my place.

 

“That’s too bad. It sounds like he’s gone missing.”

 

“Oh no! Do you think he’s okay?” I clutch the book to my chest. “I hope he’s not dead! I’ve lost so many friends already. Delly, Maisie, Flora. I’d hate to lose another.”

 

My father hastens to comfort me. “I’m sure he’s fine. Probably just a misunderstanding. You stay here. I’ve got a few errands to run. I’ll be back by dinner time.”

 

“I should go too,” I say, forcing regret into my tone. I slip a bookmark between the pages of my book and place it on my nightstand. “I need to run over to the butcher. I want to try to pick up something for dinner.” Ever since our maid, Rachel, died, I’ve been taking care of the house and doing the cooking. We need to hire another maid. I wonder if Katniss’s friend’s mother, the one who does the washing, would be interested. Maybe I’ll bring it up with my father later.

 

My father nods his head. “Just don’t go wandering off.”

 

“I shan’t.”

 

I slip on my coat and head out. My first stop is the butcher’s. It wasn’t a complete fiction to get out of the house, we really do need something for dinner, but it’s also one of the best places to get town gossip. Everyone from town shops there and the butcher’s friendly demeanor encourages them to stay and chat a while unlike at the Mellark Bakery. I know that I just need to make a small purchase and the butcher will tell me pretty much the whole day’s gossip.

 

“So have you heard about that missing Mellark kid?” Rooba asks, wrapping a few sausages for me.

 

Smiling internally, I shake my head. “No. What happened?”

 

“I heard it from my girl that he’s been missing for three days now.” She leans forward, lowering her voice. “That bitch of a mother of his didn’t even notice he was gone until today.”

 

“No! Really?!”

 

“I heard it from the horse’s mouth.” She leans closer. “Farl tells me that they’ve been playing this game on her for months. They each take turns hiding out, getting a bit of a relief from Bambi and that temper of hers.”

 

“Poor Peeta. I hope he’s okay.” I mean it. I really do hope he isn’t in trouble or worse.

 

“You and me both.” Rooba glances around to make sure no one is listening. “Between you and me, I think that kid’s better off running. If I were him, I would’ve left home years ago.”

 

I would have too and that reminds me that there are other Mellark brothers who are anxious to get away from their mother. “So when are Reenie and Farl getting married?” I ask. Peeta’s oldest brother has been dating Rooba’s daughter for years and they’ve been talking about getting married for a while now. With Peeta’s father dead, I’m guessing that timetable has been moved up some.

 

“As soon as they can manage it,” Rooba replies, confirming my suspicions. “Reenie’s still got to make it through her last Reaping, but they’re planning on early July.”

 

“Are they going to live with you?”

 

The butcher snorts. “Course they are! Like I’d let my girl go to a hellhole like that! ‘Sides I could use a good strong man to help me out around these parts, and Farl and I have been talking about doing some meat pies, getting some business away from the bakery. Won’t that piss Bambi off?” She smiles smugly at me.

 

I laugh. “Ouch! Hitting her where it hurts: in the pocketbook.”

 

Rooba spreads her hands wide. “A woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do.”

 

“Let me know how that goes.”

 

“Will do.”

 

I take my leave and make a beeline towards the Seam and Katniss’s house. I know Peeta’s had a crush on Katniss for years, and I think Katniss likes him too but is afraid to admit it. I wonder if she’s heard anything. Knowing her she probably hasn’t, but she’s got connections at the Hob and because of who I am no one there will even talk to me.

 

When I get there, I notice that there are no lights on inside, which is a little strange but not totally unheard of, so I don’t think too much of it. I knock on the door and wait.

 

I try knocking again.

 

I peer into one of the side windows. I don’t see any movement. Maybe Katniss is napping? Or out. I slip around to the back door and try knocking there.

 

The door creaks open.

 

“Katniss?”

 

No answer.

 

“Mrs. Everdeen? Prim? Anyone?”

 

They must be out.

 

Maybe they’re at the Hawthornes’. If I go over there, I can talk to Hazelle about becoming our maid. My father put me in charge of taking care of the household. If he doesn’t like Hazelle, he can find someone else himself.

 

The Hawthornes’ house is just as dark as the Everdeens’.

 

I try knocking.

 

Just like at the Everdeens’, there’s no answer.

 

I peek into the windows and see several things strewn about the floor. I frown. That’s not right.

 

I try the door but it’s locked. My frown deepens. Someone should be home, especially the youngest. This isn’t right. This really is not right.

 

I walk around the exterior of the house, peeking into the windows, noticing that each room is in a bit of a state of disarray and that there’s no one to be found. I worry at my lower lip with my teeth, I hope they’re alright. I find the back door also locked, but its hinges are loose and I’m able to jimmy my way inside.

 

The house smells musty, like it’s been empty for days. A feeling of dread settles in my stomach.

 

This is too coincidental. The Everdeens, the Hawthornes, and Peeta Mellark are all missing? That’s too big for just happenstance.

 

I explore the house, picking it up as I go. One thing I notice almost immediately is that there’s no food and nothing of personal importance anywhere. What few pictures they have are gone. There’s an empty picture frame laying on one of the tables and another beside the bed. That, more than anything, spells out the truth: The Hawthornes are gone.

 

I return to the Everdeens’ house and look at it with new eyes. It’s not as messy as the Hawthornes’, but clearly it hasn’t been lived in in days and several personal effects are missing. It looks like they’ve made a run for it.

 

Good for them!

 

oOo

 

The search starts immediately. The Peacekeepers move house to house, searching for Peeta.

 

I’m grateful that I had the foresight to clean up after the Hawthornes, and that everything is so discombobulated from both the illness and the Seam’s general unruliness that no one notices that Katniss and Gale’s families are both gone.

 

The Peacekeepers find several dead bodies in various states of decay in houses all over District Twelve. None of them are Peeta’s and none of them look to have died by foul play. They’re likely more victims of the flu. But it’s still gruesome and the search crews have been consuming a lot of Ripper’s white liquor to get the smell and the sight of the bloated bodies out of their heads. I only heard about it when one of the men came to give my father a report and I had nightmares afterwards. I don’t blame the search crews for emulating Haymitch Abernathy, I likely would do the same if I were in their shoes.

 

I’m in the sitting room, trying to distract myself from the most recent news, the body of a woman with two children which was found in one of the Seam houses, when my father ushers Cray in. “Have you heard anything about those bodies they found?” he asks the Peacekeeper.

 

“We’ve sent the samples to the Capitol for testing but they’re backed up and the faces were too decomposed to make a visual identification. We likely won’t get the results for a few months. Not like it matters much anyway, if they’d had any family left they’d have reported them dead already.” Cray shrugs. “Still we gotta try to keep the records in order, but with a plague like this it’s damned near impossible. In any case, we were given the okay to dispose of them to prevent any additional spread. They’ll be burned tomorrow.”

 

“Good. We don’t need this to get worse.”

 

Cray takes a seat across from me. My father sits down on the other side of the room. I know what this is. Anytime somebody disappears, their friends and family are interrogated, many times forcibly. I’m lucky my father is who he is, but I’ve still got to be careful, otherwise I could have a date with a torture chamber.

 

“So, how well do you know Peeta Mellark?” Cray starts, pulling out a notepad and pen.

 

He’s going with the standard interrogation technique which is good for me. I know what to say and how to say it in order to keep myself safe, but not be caught in a lie. I shrug my shoulders. “We went to school together and we used to play together growing up, but I haven’t seen him in a couple of months, not since this whole flu started. I heard his father died. I wish I’d been feeling better to see him since then, but I couldn’t. I was sick you know.”

 

“So your father tells me.” Cray nods his head, like I’ve confirmed what he already knew. “I’m glad to see you’ve recovered. Sorry about your mother though. She was a lovely woman.”

 

I nod solemnly, waiting for him to get to the point.

 

“Do you have any idea where Peeta Mellark might have gone?”

 

“Well no. Not really.”

 

“No idea at all?” he presses, narrowing his eyes.

 

I need to be careful. I can’t tell him anything that might imply I think Peeta is with the Hawthornes and Everdeens but I can’t pretend I’m not friends with him either. I decide to go with what the whole town knows and build from there. I hope it’s enough. “I’ve heard he’s had some trouble at home. His mom beats on him, you know.” Cray may or may not know, but it’s an open secret in town and others can confirm my words. “After his dad died, I’m sure it’s gotten worse. He used to come to school with bruises all the time. He always said he fell down the stairs or walked into a door, but no one ever believed him.”

 

He makes a few notes. “So things are pretty bad?”

 

I nod. “Oh yeah.”

 

“Do you think he’d run away?”

 

“Peeta? Maybe? I don’t think so. I mean, he loved his brothers, and I’m sure he wouldn’t leave without them.” I’m implying that Mrs. Mellark might have done something to him and I deliberately use the past tense to do it.

 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that Cray gets that nuance because he follows up with, “Well, if he were to go someplace, do you have any idea where he might want to go?”

 

“Maybe someplace where it’s warm and sunny? He loved sunsets. And he always hated winter.” Actually, I have no idea where Peeta would go, but I’m assuming he’s with Katniss and Gale, and they’d likely head north.

 

“So you think he might have gone south.”

 

I shrug. “Probably? It makes as much sense as anything. I just can’t see why he’d run!”

 

“Well you did say his home life was pretty bad.”

 

“Yeah, but...it’s been bad for years! Why now? And why didn’t his mother notice he was missing? Why the town gossip is that he’s been missing for three whole days! What kind of parent doesn’t notice when their child doesn’t come home for dinner?”

 

Cray shakes his head. “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask his mother that.” He flips his notepad closed and stands up. “Thank you for your help, Miss Undersee. You let me know if you think of anything else.”

 

“Absolutely! It was my pleasure. I hope you find him and that he’s okay! You’ll let me know if you find out anything?”

 

“Oh I’m sure we will,” Cray says, taking his leave.

 

After he’s gone, my father shoots me a look. “That was quite the performance you put on there, little girl. Anything you want to tell me?”

 

“Not really.”

 

My father narrows his eyes and waits expectantly for me to elaborate.

 

I sigh. He’s not going to let this go. “I didn’t lie, if that’s what you’re asking. I just find Cray to be such an idiot!”

 

“It could be so much worse. I’ll take this over some of previous Heads I’ve worked with.”

 

I’m not sure I want to know what my father means.

 

oOo

 

I finish my book that afternoon. I’m looking for more books that have rebellion in them, but my father’s library is sadly lacking. After reading Hester’s tale, I’m hungry for more. It’s really boring without school and I spend most of my time either watching old Capitol movies or raiding the school library for something interesting to read.

 

The sci-fi section yields some promising results. I’m especially hopeful about the one that takes place on the desert planet.

 

The next day, I’m not really up to reading, so I decide to sit down and watch TV. I’ve got a pad of paper in my hand. I’m always doodling or writing silly poems. My teachers hated the fact that my homework always had little hearts and stars and flowers and animals doodled in the margins. Peeta seemed to find it funny, but his homework was nearly as bad although most of his doodles were either of Katniss or sunsets.

 

I flip channels idly, looking for something interesting that isn’t reruns of the Hunger Games or stupid Capitol soap operas. I don’t have much luck. I finally settle on the Finnick Odair Film Festival.

 

They’re just wrapping up the last movie of the Twilight series. Finnick is shirtless in a field of flowers, his arms wrapped around the Capitol starlet. She’s staring soulfully into his eyes and I’m pretty sure she’s not acting. I haven’t read those books, but my mother did, and she told me all about them.

 

“Next up: Finnick Odair in Les Miz,” Claudius Templesmith says. “And later, an interview with Finnick Odair, conducted by our very own Caesar Flickerman, to discuss the making of Les Miz.”

 

I wish Peeta were here. He used to like to sit down with me and watch these Capitol movies with the Victors in them. One of the most painfully amusing was Star Wars starring Gloss and Cashmere Gaultier as Luke and Leia. The couple of scenes where they kissed were especially awkward and neither sibling could keep their revulsion totally off of their face.

 

The casting of Les Miz is a little hilarious. It’s clearly a vanity project for the man playing Jean Valjean and his current lover is playing the role of Fantine. The woman can’t sing, but she’s still belting out the songs at the top of her lungs. I’m halfheartedly doodling a few birds and other things while I try to ignore the rail thin woman with the squeaky voice. I keep coming back to my Aunt Maysilee’s pin and I sketch several variations of how the pin could be reimagined.

 

I look up and notice that Finnick Odair is now on screen, waving a large red flag, shirtless, with skintight pants and a tricolor belt around his waist. He’s clearly been slathered in oil and he’s yelling something about ‘For France!’

 

It doesn’t take long for his character to die. He’s lying on the barricade, still shirtless. The camera lingers on his perfectly bloodless abs.

 

I look down at what I’m drawing and I look back up at the screen.

 

A little niggling of an idea starts to form in my head.

 

The next movie inspires me even more. It’s Finnick Odair in Pleasantville. He’s playing a Victor who finds love in the arms of a Capitol woman who teaches a naive boy all about sex. The sex scene is often cited as one of the hottest in movie history, but I’m more intrigued by what comes next. The scene that sticks with me the most is the one where the boy from the Capitol paints several inspiring scenes on the side of a building in a form of protest. I’m a little surprised that this passed the Capitol censors. I guess they were too busy being distracted by Finnick Odair’s bare butt in the previous scene. I wonder if their screener tape broke from being rewound so much.

 

I glance down at my notepad, then back up at the screen, and then down to my notepad again.   An idea, a horrible wonderful idea, comes to me.

 

I smile.

 

oOo

 

The Everdeens’ house is still abandoned. Light streams through the windows and I can see the dust sparkling inside. This is perfect for what I want to do.

 

I find the wall exactly opposite the front door.

 

It’s time to get to work.

 

I pull out a can of red paint and brushes and start my masterpiece.

 

I lean back an hour or so later to survey my work. It’s definitely a mockingjay and it’s slightly different than my family’s pin. It’s about three feet in diameter. I check to make sure there aren’t any fingerprints or any other way to identify me and smile.

 

It’s perfect.

 

And even better, no one will suspect it’s me.

 

My next stop is the Hawthornes’. I paint a slightly different mockingjay for this one. It takes a couple of hours. That’s a lot of time.

 

That’s dangerous. I want to paint this outside, specifically on the Mellark Bakery, and I won’t be able to do that unless I can find a way to paint faster. I’m sure to be caught if I’m there for more than a few minutes.

 

I clean up after myself thoroughly and head home. Looks like it’s time for me to make a stencil. It won’t be as intricate as the mockingjays I painted at the Everdeens’ and Hawthornes’ but it will be a lot faster and hopefully safer.

 

I make a few stencils of various sizes and carefully secrete them in the Everdeens’ house along with the rest of my painting supplies. I can’t be caught with these on me, but I can’t seem to resist participating in my own little rebellion.

 

I think about the places that I want to hit. The school would be good. And of course the Mellark Bakery, but I’ll have to watch my steps there. I would love to get the Justice Building, but that’s way too dangerous. Where else can I paint these symbols? And is there anything else I can do?

 

I hit the school next. Soon each classroom has its own Madge Undersee original adorning its walls.

 

Late one night, approximately two weeks after Peeta was reported missing, I hit the Mellark Bakery.

 

I look at my work, satisfied. That’s a mistake.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

I look over, stunned, to see Rye Mellark staring at me. “Um...uh...what does it look like I’m doing?”

 

“It looks like you’re painting the side of my house with a rebellion symbol.” He tilts his head to one side. “But surely the Mayor’s daughter wouldn’t do that.”

 

“Um...no?”

 

He crosses his arms and stares at me.

 

“Please don’t tell anyone?”

 

“What’s in it for me?”

 

“Um...I’ll let you stay at my house? I’ll give you some place to get away from your mom? We could use someone to help around the house. I’m sure my dad would be fine and I know your mom wouldn’t mind!” The words tumble out of my mouth in a rush.

 

He regards me thoughtfully. “You can get me out of here?”

 

I nod. “I’d have to ask my dad, but I don’t think it would be a problem.”

 

“I’m not sure my mom will be okay with that.”

 

“Your brother’s not moving out until July, right?”

 

His eyes narrow. “How do you know that?”

 

“I talked with Rooba. Your mom doesn’t have to know you’ve moved out. It’s not like she can force you to come back once you’ve gone.”

 

Rye thinks this over. “It might be better if she does know. If I move out now, it won’t arouse as much suspicion. She’ll think she still has Farl. She doesn’t know he’s planning on moving in with Reenie.”

 

“I know. Rooba told me.”

 

His eyes narrow. “What else did Rooba tell you?”

 

“Not much, really.”

 

“I’m gonna hold you to this, Undersee. You get me outta here and you get my silence.”

 

oOo

 

Two days later, Rye moves in.

 

My father welcomes him and shows him to Rachel’s old room. “And your mother is okay with this?” he asks.

 

“So long as she gets paid, she doesn’t care what I do.”

 

“Well, it’s money well spent. I’m happy to have you here, son. You stay as long as you need. I just don’t want to catch you up in Madge’s room.”

 

“Daddy!”

 

“What? I was his age once. I know what it’s like to be around a pretty girl.”

 

“I promise you won’t catch me in her room, sir.”

 

My father raises his eyebrows at Rye’s wording. “I’d better not.” He leaves.

 

“I’ve never seen my dad like this. He’s usually so much more laid back!”

 

“It’s all good,” Rye says. “I kind of miss the fatherly lectures.”

 

oOo

 

For three days, I refrain from sneaking out. Even though Rye’s promised not to tell, I’m still nervous.

 

But the urge to indulge my own little rebellion is too strong to resist. Three days after Rye moves in, I can’t help myself. They’ve been airing the Brutus MacArthur Memorial Marathon on TV. Apparently he was one of the flu’s victims. The latest showing is Brutus MacArthur in Terminator. The line 'no fate but the one you make' rings in my ears.

 

I can’t sit at home anymore.

 

I tiptoe towards the back door, trying to avoid notice. Unfortunately, Rye is in the kitchen, putting away some groceries.

 

“Where are you going?”

 

“Out?” I say eloquently.

 

“You wanna try that again? Five words or less.”

 

“Out. For. A. Walk. Asshole.”

 

“Such language.” He puts the milk in the fridge. “What would your father say if he knew you were sneaking out?”

 

“I don’t know because you’re not gonna tell him. Remember our deal? Because I sure do. I’ve held up my end of the bargain, you need to hold up yours.”

 

“If you think I’m gonna let you walk around out there and get caught, you’ve got another think coming.”

 

“You’ll just be in my way!”

 

“And you’re not going to go anywhere without me. Deal with it.”

 

I give up arguing. I don’t have a lot of time and the longer we fight the less time I have to do my art. “Fine. Come on.”

 

We walk to the Everdeens’ house in strained silence. Once we’re there, I get out my supplies.

 

“Whose house is this?” he asks.

 

“It’s the Everdeens’.”

 

Rye’s eyes widen. “They’re dead, aren’t they? That’s why this house is empty. Peeta would be devastated if he knew.”

 

That’s when I make up my mind. “I don’t think they’re dead. If they were dead, there’d still be food and personal items here.”

 

“So? The house could’ve been looted. It’s not like law and order’s terribly on the ball around here.”

 

I shake my head. “But Katniss was sick and got better already. You can’t get the flu twice.”

 

“So what do you think happened to them?”

 

“I think she and Gale Hawthorne ran away.”

 

“You mean like lovers?”

 

“No, with their families. I discovered they were missing the day your mother reported Peeta was gone. When I came to tell them, their houses were abandoned and looked like they hadn’t been lived in in days.”

 

“So how long do you think they’d been gone?”

 

“Since about mid-April. I saw Katniss on the 14th and four days later, she was gone. They had to leave between the 14th and the 19th.”

 

“That’s when Peeta went missing.”

 

I nod.

 

“Do you think he saw them leaving and they killed him?”

 

“No. The searchers would have found a body by now. I heard they even looked outside of the fence and didn’t find anything. I think they took him with them.”

 

“I was wondering why he hadn’t asked me to go with him. Farl might not’ve, not with Reenie, but I would’ve gone.”

 

“I don’t think he planned on leaving,” I say. “I think it was a spur of the moment thing.”

 

“So why didn’t you say anything?”

 

I tilt my chin up, defiantly. “I hope they get away with it. And do you remember the Monroes?”

 

“Vaguely. They had a daughter my age. Cora, I think. She was Reaped two years ago, right?”

 

“They tried to run before the Reaping but someone saw them and turned them in. The parents were Disappeared and Cora was selected as tribute that year. Katniss and Peeta are both my friends. I can’t do that to them.”

 

He holds my stencils up. “So what’s with these mockingjays?”

 

“I don’t know. I just wanted to do something. Have my own bit of rebellion.”

 

“You need any help?”

 

“Are you offering?”

 

“Yeah. I’m in.”

 

I hold out my hand. “Welcome to the rebellion, Rye.”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Let Me Fly:

 

Peeta looks up from where he’s roasting the duck over the fire. “So, how’d it go?”

 

“I think we’ve found home.”

 

oOo

 

We’ve found a cave.

 

A place to call home.  

 

Together with Gale, Rory, my mother, Prim and Peeta we’ve discovered a place that is large enough to house us comfortably with a little work. Make that a lot of work. And not that much time to do it.

 

We start settling in the morning after we find the cave. It’s a bit of a change from all the traveling and making a home from nothing is harder than I expected it to be. A lot harder. Things I’ve never had to think about before are suddenly of the utmost importance.

 

Like going to the bathroom.

 

Along the way it wasn’t a big deal, but now we want to make sure our waste doesn’t contaminate any of our food or water. We’ve all seen the Games and know what happens when that occurs. Getting sick is just the tip of the iceberg. Not to mention it’s gross. So, the very first thing we have to do is dig a latrine. But in order to even do that, we have to make handles for our tools.

 

Gale and I made the decision before we left Twelve that we would only bring the heads of the tools we wanted, other than the axes, in order to save weight and space. Specifically, the shovel, pick, and hoe. Making handles takes a couple of hours, during which I set up several snares around the cave. My mother joins me, pointing out the area of the floodplain she wants to use as a garden.

 

“Won’t that be visible?” I ask, bending down to set a cloverleaf snare.

 

“Not if we’re careful,” she tells me. “We’ll intermix the vegetables we’re planting with the local plants and we won’t keep the crops in straight rows. It’ll be a little bit of a pain, but it’s better than the alternative.”

 

I look up at her. “Is it even worth the effort?”

 

“Yes, it is. I know it’s hard to believe but we need more than just meat, Katniss. There’s no guarantee this’ll work, but it’s worth a shot. Even if only half the plants make it, it’s better than none, and there’s no telling if we’d be able to gather enough vegetation to prevent malnutrition.”

 

I shrug my shoulders. My mother’s the gardener in the family but it’s hard not to laugh. Malnutrition is something I’ve had to deal with my whole life along with starvation. Given the choice between the two, I’d rather be malnourished than dead. Still, a garden opens up other avenues to get food. It’ll attract birds and rabbits so Gale and I should set several snares around that area. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that rabbits and other animals like to eat food from gardens and I like to eat them.

 

When I get back, I notice that Peeta and Prim are gone and so is the bearskin we brought along.

 

Gale looks up from where he’s whittling a straight sapling into a handle. “He’s down at the river with your sister.”

 

“Why?”

 

“His grandparents are the furriers in town. Said he’s got some idea how to tan that bear hide.”

 

I’m glad someone does. It’s a skill I’ve never needed. I’ve always sold the skins I’ve gotten and let someone else deal with the work.

 

Prim returns without Peeta, carrying a whole armful of cattails. “I figured what we don’t eat, we can dry for bedding,” she tells us, dropping them to the ground by the fire.

 

“But before we do that,” my mother says, “we need to clean out the cave and do laundry. And we all could use a bath.”

 

Gale looks up. “Before we do that, Rory and me should take care of the outhouse.”

 

“You mean shithole,” Rory pipes up.

 

“Rory Hawthorne! That is no language to use in front of a lady!”

 

“What ladies? I don’t see any!”

 

“Excuse me! What about me or my mom or my sister? Are you saying that we’re not ladies?” Prim leans forward, placing her hands on her hips.

 

He crosses his arms. “I meant what I said and I said what I meant.”

 

“You take that back, Rory Hawthorne! You take that back!”

 

“No way! You’re just proving my point!”

 

“You, Rory Hawthorne, are no gentleman!”

 

“Good! Wouldn’t wanna be!”

 

“You two sound like an old married couple,” Peeta says, walking back to camp, soaking wet and carrying the bearskin. “Maybe you should just kiss and get it over with.”

 

Both preteens gape at him.

 

“Ewwww no! Gross!”

 

“What she said!”

 

Prim flounces up the hill toward the cave.

 

My mother sighs. “I’ll go with Prim. Katniss, can you help carry the rest of the packs up to the cave?   We might as well start getting unpacked.”

 

Gale stands up with the reassembled shovel. “Rory, you’re with me.” He drags his brother away.

 

Peeta looks up. “I’ll stake this out and then I’ll start getting some firewood.”

 

“Don’t cut down too many trees,” I warn.

 

Peeta smiles. “Wasn’t planning on it. There’s plenty of dead wood around here. I’m not the ignorant merchant that I was two weeks ago.”

 

I’m not sure what I can say to that.

 

oOo

 

We have dinner inside the cave. The snares were really fruitful today and that eases some of my worries. This place has good hunting. We’ve just got to get enough stored before winter comes.

 

My mind keeps repeating that over and over while Peeta serves up a meal of the goose I shot yesterday with cattails and other greens.

 

My mother helps herself to some of the meat and says, “So I found something interesting while I was cleaning out the cave today.”

 

“Oh?” Gale asks.

 

“In the remnants of the fire I found an empty glass jar and what was left of some old ID papers.”

 

My mother is dragging this out. “Get to the point,” I say.

 

“I’m getting there.”

 

“Get there faster.”

 

“I will if you stop interrupting me.”

 

I growl at her.

 

She smirks back. “Anyway, I was able to make out the last name on one of the papers. And to my surprise, it read Donner.”

 

“Why does that name sound familiar?” Peeta asks.

 

My mother turns toward him. “That’s because it was Mrs. Undersee’s maiden name.”

 

Peeta blinks. “The Mayor’s wife? Why would there be an ID from her family out here?”

 

My mother takes a sip of her tea. “Maysilee, Mrs. Undersee’s sister, and I were really close friends when we were kids. She got Reaped in the Fiftieth Games and, well, you all know what happened there.”

 

We do. Those were the Games Haymitch Abernathy won.

 

“She mentioned that her dad used to have a brother but she never knew what happened to him. He disappeared along with his girlfriend back before the First Games. Maysilee told me that her uncle fought for the rebellion during the Dark Days and that everyone thought the Capitol had taken them both because of that.” My mother motions to the mockingjay pin that I’m wearing. “That pin there was Maysilee’s. Her father gave it to her when she was Reaped. Said it was a family heirloom and that it should bring her luck.”

 

“How do you know that?” Prim wants to know.

 

My mother smiles sadly. “I was there in the room saying goodbye. She was my best friend and I never saw her alive again.” My mother takes another sip of her tea and sighs deeply. “I wish Maysilee were still alive so I could tell her her uncle made it this far. She’d’ve been proud. She never liked living under the yoke of the Capitol, always was thinking about running away or rebelling. I guess it runs in the family.”

 

I wonder what Madge would think if she found out. She’s the Mayor’s daughter. I can’t see her being related to rebels or being a rebel herself, she’s just too shy and timid.

 

Gale reaches into his pack and gets out a dark wood pin. It’s shaped like a mockingjay in flight. “My dad gave this to my mom when they were courting. It’d been in the family a long time. I wonder if it means anything.”

 

“Well, Maysilee always said that the mockingjays were a sign of rebellion, showing that the Capitol couldn’t control everything,” my mother answers, examining the wooden brooch. “Maybe your family was part of the rebellion during the Dark Days.”

 

Gale smiles and puts the pin on proudly. “Good for them.”

 

oOo

 

The next day, Peeta and Gale join forces to start building a smoker. I wave goodbye and head off to see what I can hunt. I don’t get very far, just the base of the hill, when I spot a deer.

 

My arrow is out and nocked and before I can even think, I fire. The deer drops and that’s when my mind catches up. What are we going to do with an animal this large? I can’t carry it on my own and we may want to keep the skin and other organs. I need help.

 

My mother are Prim are useless, they’ve gone off to start gathering and gardening and Rory is who knows where. He announced this morning that he was going to start exploring the area and no one’s seen him since. I need Peeta. Only he’s strong enough to carry this thing up to the cave.

 

I trudge back up the hill to where Peeta and Gale are working. “Peeta, I need you,” I say without any preamble.

 

“For what?” Gale asks.

 

“I got a deer and I need help hauling it back home.”

 

“I can help you with that.” He stands up and starts dusting off his hands.

 

I wave him away. “No, you should stay here and keep working. Peeta can lift it.”

 

Gale’s eyes narrow. “How do you know Mellark can carry a deer on his own?” My heart sinks at the name change. I’ve somehow managed to screw things up between them and I don’t know how.

 

“I’ve seen him do it back in Twelve. I mean, not deer, but bags of flour, and it’s pretty much the same thing.” I’m over-explaining, trying to figure out what I did wrong, and I keep coming up blank.

 

“Have you been watching him that much?” And that’s when it hits me, Gale’s jealous. How am I supposed to deal with that?

 

I shrug. “Not really. I just happened to notice. Why is this such a big deal?”

 

Gale opens his mouth. “It--”

 

“I’d be happy to help,” Peeta interjects. “I could use another skin to practice on. I’m not sure that bearskin’s gonna make it.” He brushes off his hands. “Lead the way.”

 

Peeta and I dress the deer, removing the blood and digestive organs. We haven’t seen nightlock since we left Twelve, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plants this far north. We can’t take the chance of a perforated bowel tainting the meat.

 

We haul the dressed carcass back to the cave. “This should keep for a couple of days,” Peeta says. “At least until we finish building the smoker. I haven’t seen any insects out and it’s cool in here.” He stands up and stretches, cracking his back. “We should probably go get cleaned up.”

 

We wash our hands and arms in the river and Peeta motions toward my face. “You got a little on your cheek, there.”

 

I scrub at where he points.

 

He shakes his head. “You’re missing it. Here, let me.” He reaches out with one wet hand and wipes away the blood. His fingers linger, tracing light patterns on my cheek.

 

I feel a little frisson of something deep in my belly. “Peeta...what are you doing?”

 

His blue eyes darken with some emotion I can’t identify. “I never thought I’d ever be able to touch you like this.”

 

“Like what?”

 

He pulls his hand back and smiles at me, leaving me more confused than ever.

 

I avert my eyes uncomfortably and spot Gale walking away. From the set of his shoulders, he’s angry. I flinch guiltily. He must’ve seen Peeta and me. This is definitely not going to help with the whole jealousy thing.

 

Part of me wants to run after him and explain that nothing happened. But I don’t. It’s none of Gale’s business what I do with Peeta.

 

Peeta follows my gaze. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t pressure you like this.”

 

I stand up and walk away. “You aren’t.”

 

oOo

 

The air in the cave is decidedly chilly over the next couple of days - and not from the weather. All of Gale’s earlier acceptance of Peeta has completely disappeared and he’s now actively antagonizing the merchant boy again. Peeta, for his part, isn’t doing anything to make it better. He isn’t outwardly going out of his way to bait Gale but he refuses to back down when Gale baits him and I think, but I’m not sure, he’s not doing anything to avoid trying to push Gale’s buttons. Nothing overt, but I can’t shake the feeling that Peeta is manipulating Gale.    

 

And what’s worse is that I’ve realized that they are fighting over me. And I have no clue how to get them to stop.

 

No, that’s not quite true. I do know what would stop the competition. I’m just not willing to pick a side. Both of them want a relationship with me. Both of them have stated that they are in love with me. Both of them have made it clear that it’s my decision who I end up with and both of them are determined that it be them. This has led to an unspoken competition of sorts. If Peeta is able to carry more rocks, Gale has to chop down a bigger tree. If Gale manages to hunt some game, Peeta counters by teaching himself how to fish and landing a huge trout.

 

It never ends.

 

Rory, my mother, and Prim are doing their best to stay out of the competition and keep looking at me to resolve it.

 

I can’t.

 

I won’t.

 

And that just means the competition continues.

 

I distract myself by spending all of my time hunting and gathering and exploring the region. There’s several pre-Cataclysm houses in the area and we’re able to find a few useful items amongst the ruins. Most of it’s small things made out of glass or plastic - a jar here, a glass there. Rory seems to have the best luck, discovering an active beehive, a bottle of wine that has turned to vinegar, and even a porcelain kitchen sink, which Peeta and Gale use in constructing the smoker.

 

Every time I search through one of these ruins, I wonder what caused the Cataclysm so many years ago. But I’m grateful now that some parts of that civilization have still managed to survive. Most of it’s trash and unusable, but every so often we find something made of plastic, glass, or ceramic that’s survived. There’s even the odd bit of metal or fabric that’s been kept in a plastic container that’s made it through. Still, everything we find that might be of some use we bring back to the cave, nothing is going to waste.

 

The area we’ve chosen is even better than I’d hoped. There’s several herds of deer and elk, I’ve seen glimpses of goats and cows, and I’ve found the tracks of pigs and bears. My mother has us start drying much of the meat that we get, putting Prim in charge of watching to make sure scavengers don’t make off with it.

 

My sister has taken this whole “getting a new start” seriously, taking it upon herself to provide mats and baskets and furniture made out of vines and grasses. She doesn’t have much success, but she’s getting better. She’s made several mats that we can use for drying plants and berries, and she thinks she’s figured out a way to make a drying rack for herbs. Anything at this point will be useful, we don’t have any furniture and will have to make everything.

 

Things come to a head when Rory discovers a fully intact granite bench at one of the ruined houses. It’s a welcome find. But it’s going to need four people to carry it up, including both Gale and Peeta.

 

The moment we get to the ruined house, Gale and Peeta break into an argument over who’s going to do what. Gale thinks he should carry the back end because he’s more agile and can prevent it from falling, while Peeta argues that he’s stronger and Gale’s more used to moving through the woods and thus would be able to walk backwards easier. They continue like this for several minutes.

 

Rory offers to take the front and is immediately shut down by both his brother and Peeta. I sigh. The only way to stop this bickering is for me to step in.

 

“Both of you, knock it off! You’re acting like two dogs fighting over a bone! I’m sick of it.” I point at Peeta. “You take the back.” I turn my finger to Gale. “You take the front. Rory and I have the sides. Let’s go.” My tone leaves no room for argument.

 

Both Gale and Peeta have the decency to look ashamed and the trek back to the cave is blissfully silent.

 

As soon as we’re back, I immediately take off to blow off steam in the woods. I can’t be near any of them right now. How dare they act like I’m some kind of prize to be won? Both of them promised that this would be my choice! Both of them promised that they wouldn’t put pressure on me to make a decision! What in the hell do they think they’re doing? I’m so angry. I’m stomping through the woods, not finding anything. I’ve got to get this out of my system.

 

I take several deep breaths and head towards one of the small streams in the area to wash my face. I crouch down at the stream and cup the cool water in my hands. I hate feeling like this. I hate being confused. But most of all, I hate feeling so out of control. I feel the tears pricking behind my eyes and I splash the cool water against my face. What am I going to do? I don’t know.

 

I sit down against the bank to think. How do I choose between them? Why do I have to choose? I hate this stupid soap opera drama that I’m in and I want to be out. I want this to be over.

 

The sound of a twig snapping jerks me out of my reverie. Something’s coming.

 

I slowly get to my feet, my bow at the ready. I hope it’s not another bear. I’m so far away from the cave and I’m not sure I could kill one by myself.

 

A magnificent elk steps into my sight. It’s huge, with a large rack of antlers. That much meat would feed our group for a long time and we could use the antlers to make tools and other things. The animal leans down to take a drink and I line up my shot. I need to get it right through the eye. I’m not sure I’ll be able to kill it otherwise.

 

Another crack startles the elk and it looks right at me. Its dark liquid eyes meet mine and I can see the animal poised to run.

 

I’m out of time.

 

I fire.

 

My arrow flies true, slamming through the large dark eye into the elk’s brain. The animal drops. I feel a rush of triumph followed immediately by dread. I’m going to need the boys to carry my kill back to camp.

 

And worse, I’m too far away from the cave. I don’t think I should leave the elk here. But I’m not sure I have a choice. I haven’t seen very many mockingjays and I’m not sure if anyone will find me before dark. I have to chance it.

 

I run back to camp, heedless of the noise I’m making. As I get closer I start to yell. “Peeta! Gale! Anyone!”

 

“What is it?” Gale yells back.

 

“Come quickly!”

 

“Are you hurt?” Peeta shouts.

 

“No! I need you! I need both of you!” The boys meet me at the base of the hill and I motion. “Come on! Follow me!” I scurry back to where I left the elk, trusting that Gale and Peeta are following.

 

We’re lucky. A few crows have pecked out the eyes, but otherwise the animal’s mostly intact.

 

“That elk is huge,” Gale says.

 

“I don’t know how we’re gonna get this back to camp,” Peeta answers.

 

“What about the travois?” Gale suggests.

 

“We’ll probably need more than one,” Peeta says, eyeing the elk.

 

“They’re not that hard to make,” Gale replies with a shrug. “I’ll go back and get the travois and the hatchet. You and Katniss start field dressing the thing.”

 

Gale hurries off, leaving me and Peeta alone.

 

I blink at Gale’s departing form for a moment. I’m surprised they managed to work that out without sniping at each other and it’s clear to me that they make a good team, but I know if I were to point that out that any teamwork they’ve been displaying would fly out the window. I just wish they would realize that they’re a good team and leave me out of it.

 

I sigh. Time to get to work. I strip out of my hunting jacket. It’s warm enough out and I don’t want to get blood on it.

 

Peeta pulls out his knife and slits the elk’s throat to start draining its blood. We work together, removing the stomach, intestines, and other undesirable organs.

 

“Do you want to keep the head?” Peeta asks.

 

I nod. “Antlers are useful. They’re good for making tools, and if nothing else, we can use them as drying racks.”

 

He lifts the head. “They must weigh a good forty to fifty pounds. I’ll carry them.”

 

We continue working.

 

“Katniss?”

 

I look up from where I’m working to find him staring intently at me. I raise an eyebrow and make an interrogative noise.

 

“I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry. You’re right. I shouldn’t let Gale bait me. It’s not fair to you and I’m sure it’s not helping my cause any.”

 

“You’re right. It’s not.” I turn back to my task.

 

“What can I do to make it up to you?”

 

“You could start by not fighting with Gale anymore.”

 

“I’ll try,” Peeta says, making a face. “He just...he knows how to push my buttons. I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s fine.” It’s not, but what else am I supposed to say? I don’t want to talk about it further.

 

Peeta doesn’t seem to get that hint because he continues, “It’s just...Katniss? I care for you so much, I’m just - I’m not willing to give you up without a fight. You’re too important to me.”

 

I sigh, sitting back on my heels. “I like you, Peeta. I just like Gale too.”

 

“I know. And I’ll respect whatever decision you make. But until then, I’m going to fight.” He pauses and takes a breath. “Have you kissed him?”

 

I can’t stop myself from blurting out, “Who? Gale?”

 

“No, Finnick Odair. Of course Gale.”

 

I hesitate. I don’t want to tell him that I have. I’m not sure if telling the truth will make things worse.

 

Peeta sighs. “From your silence, I take it that that means yes.”

 

I nod my head, staying silent to stop myself from apologizing. I’m not sorry. I don’t know why I feel like I should be.

 

Peeta takes a deep breath. “Can I kiss you?”

 

“Are you doing this so that you’re even with Gale?” I ask bluntly.

 

“Kind of? But mostly I’ve just wanted to kiss you for so long. I’ll admit I’m jealous that Gale got your first kiss. I’d be lying if I said I weren’t,” he answers with a shrug. “So can I? Can I kiss you, Katniss?”

 

I don’t give him an answer right away. Instead, I stand up and wash my hands in the swiftly flowing creek. If we’re going to do this, I don’t want to do it with blood on my hands.

 

Peeta sees what I’m doing and mirrors my actions hopefully.

 

I look at him. He looks at me.

 

I’m nervous. I’ve thought about kissing Peeta several times, but now that I’m about to, I can’t seem to move my feet.

 

Peeta tilts his head and looks at me. “Katniss?” It’s a question. The question.

 

I nod my head.

 

He steps forward and pulls me into his arms. I tilt my head up and his lips crash down on mine. The kiss is awkward -- an uncomfortable fusion of tongues, lips, and teeth. I pull away.

 

“I’m sorry,” Peeta blurts out. “That was - that was bad. I was bad. Too hasty. Too eager. I’m sorry. Please? Let me try again?”

 

“Let me,” I say, leaning up to pull his head down to mine.

 

This kiss is better, softer. His whiskers tickle against my lips.

 

Peeta slides his hands up my sides until he reaches my face, cupping my chin in his hands delicately.

 

I lean forward, drawing on my memories of kissing Gale to deepen my kiss with Peeta. This feels good. Right. My arms slip around Peeta’s neck almost involuntarily. This is nice. I could get used to this.

 

But I don’t dare.

 

I step back.

 

“Whoa,” Peeta says. “That was better than any of my dreams. Just...whoa. Thank you, Katniss.”

 

I smile. “I liked it too.”

 

If anything his face becomes even more radiant. “So you think maybe we could do it again?”

 

“Maybe. But first, we’ve got an elk to deal with.”

 

oOo

 

A couple days before my sixteenth birthday Rory comes running up to camp very excited. Gale got another elk yesterday, so we’ve decided to spend today doing things other than hunting.

 

“Guys, guys! You won’t believe what I just found!”

 

“Probably not,” Prim says, looking up from the lopsided basket she’s working on.

 

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

 

“Good, cause I don’t wanna talk to you either!”

 

“Before you two start with your lovers’ quarrel, do you want to tell us what you found, Rory?” Peeta asks.

 

My sister and Rory both glare at him. Peeta just shrugs and goes back to working on constructing some kind of cooking mechanism.

 

“Guys, I found a bathroom!”

 

We all sort of stare at him.

 

“No, really! I found a whole bathroom! Bathtub, toilet, and everything!”

 

“Okay…” I’m not really sure why he’s telling us this.

 

“No, no! The bathtub’s good! We just have to get it out of the house! And there’s a sink, and a mirror, and some other stuff too!”

 

I raise an eyebrow, most of the houses we’ve found have been ruins with barely a wall standing. “So the house didn’t collapse?”

 

“Well no, not completely. It looks like it was made out of brick. And, you know, the roof’s gone, but most of the walls are still there.”

 

“And just what do you want us to do with the bathroom?” Gale asks.

 

“I thought we could bring it up here! Well, not the toilet, it wouldn’t work, but the tub! We could have a bathtub!”

 

“Are you telling me that you’re getting sick of bathing in the stream?”

 

“Well it is cold. But it would be awesome, it would feel more like home!”

 

“Bathing in front of everybody else?” Gale quips.

 

Rory glares at him.

 

“And just how would we get the tub up here?” my mother asks.

 

“Carry it?” Rory suggests. “Use that, um, travel thing!”

 

“Travois?”

 

“Yes, that!”

 

We all look at each other.

 

“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to check it out. It would be nice to have a tub come wintertime,” my mother says.

 

“And I might be able to use it for tanning hides,” Peeta adds. “That bearskin is in pretty bad shape, but I think the deerskin will turn out okay. It’d be better if I could heat the water before washing the skins.”

 

Prim volunteers to watch the cave. It’s probably for the best; she and Rory would most likely snipe at each other the entire time and we’ll get enough of that with Gale and Peeta if they decide to go after each other. The rest of us go with Rory.

 

He leads us to a single story red brick house with one collapsed wall, revealing several ruined rooms within, including the bathroom that he is so excited about. The place is a study in mildewed white tile and the tub is full of fallen debris. Parts of it are chipped, but it looks to be in fairly decent shape.

 

“How are we going to get this back? It’s got to weigh at least a ton,” Gale asks, eyeing the white porcelain.

 

“Well, first we need to empty it out,” my mother says.

 

Most of what’s in the tub is broken or so old we can’t tell what it once was. The sink looks impossible to remove so we decide to leave it, and there’s no point in bringing a flush toilet. Something shiny catches my eye and I brush away dust and other accumulated things to reveal an oddly shaped mirror that looks to be made up of multiple rectangles. It reminds me of some of the decorations I’ve seen in Capitol TV shows and I wonder why anyone owned it. It doesn’t seem practical. Still, it’s usable. I quickly pack it up.

 

We clear out the bathtub and take whatever we might be able to use. We discover it’s still attached to the floor with some ruined pipes, but a couple of good hits with a brick dislodges it.

 

We start to drag the tub out of the house and discover that it’s much lighter than we first thought.

 

“What’s this made out of?” Rory asks. “It looks like ceramic but it’s not!”

 

“I have no idea,” my mother says. “It’s not mentioned in any of the books I’ve read. It kind of looks like plastic, but kind of not.”

 

“Maybe this will work on a travois,” Gale says.

 

“We didn’t bring it with us,” I point out.

 

“So we’ll make one.”

 

“With what? The hatchet and the axe are back in the cave.”

 

“I don’t think it’s that heavy,” Peeta says. “Gale, you and I can just carry it, I think.”

 

Gale looks at it. “Maybe.”

 

We carry it back to the cave and set it up in the room with the smoke hole.

 

“You know, we should check out some of the other houses to see if they have tubs like this. If they’re going to be this light, I’m sure we could find good uses for them,” my mother suggests, looking around the cave.

 

I shrug. “Later. For now I’m going to go get clean.”

 

I head down to the river to wash up.

 

The water is cool and it feels good to get the dirt and other detritus off of me. I scoop up a handful of water and lift it over my head. Maybe I should strip down and wash my hair. I start to take off my shirt but stop when a shadow falls over me. I look up to see Gale.

 

“Do you mind?” I ask, standing up. “I was looking for some privacy.”

 

He runs his hands through his hair. “You always have some reason not to talk to me. You’re avoiding me again, aren’t you?”

 

“I’m not avoiding you!” And I’m not. Not really.

 

“Then why aren’t you doing stuff with me? We used to hunt together all the time and now you’re always off by yourself! Or with Mellark!”

 

“That’s all in your head and you know it.”

 

“Is it? You’re still sleeping with him!”

 

“Because we’re still sharing a watch and it gets cold at night! We’ve only got five blankets! What do you want us to do? Freeze?”

 

“Of course I don’t! But why do you have to sleep with Mellark?”

 

“Why is it such a big deal? It’s not like we’re doing anything. We’re sleeping. That’s it. What is with you and Peeta?”

 

Gale runs his fingers through his hair again. “I don’t know why he gets to me so much. He’s not a bad guy and I’m kind of glad we brought him along-”

 

“Kidnapped him, you mean.” I’m not going to let him delude himself as to what we did.

 

Gale makes a face. “Yeah. But he’s been pretty useful, you know? I like him. And at the same time I hate his guts! Except for he’s really hard to hate. I keep forgetting I’m supposed to be hating him and not trusting him and find myself caring about him. It’s just confusing!”

 

“Tell me about it.” I wipe my hands on my pants. “So what are you going to do about it?”

 

“I don’t know. I didn’t come down here to talk about Mellark. I came down here to talk about us.”

 

“What’s there to talk about? There is no us.”

 

“I want there to be.” His voice is soft, wistful.

 

I refuse to let it get to me. “You’re going to keep pushing, huh?”

 

“I don’t mean to. I mean, if you want me to stop, just tell me, I’ll stop. But I don’t want to give you up, Catnip. Not when I might finally have a chance to have you without the specter of the Games hanging over our heads.”

 

The confusion wells up in me again. Part of me wants Gale. Another equal part of me wants Peeta. But the largest part doesn’t want to want anyone. I can not, I will not become my mother. I don’t want to break like she did when my father died. Loving one person that intensely just leads to heartache and pain. Leaving Twelve hasn’t changed that. No matter who I choose, they’re going to die someday, leaving me alone. I’ve seen what that can do to someone, what it does to me. I never want to feel like that again. At the same time, I don’t want to give up entirely.

 

I sit down against a tree and stare at the slowly moving river, trying to figure out what I want to say. What I can say.

 

Gale sits down next to me, idly throwing pebbles into the water. It’s the most companionable we’ve been in a long time, and I realize I’ve missed it.

 

I come to a decision, but I’m not ready to voice it. Not even to myself. Instead I say, “Gale, I need time. Please. I need time to get used to the idea that it’s safe. That we’re safe. We’ve been gone for less than a month. It hasn’t really sunk in yet. And winter is coming.”

 

“It’s May!”

 

“And we have a lot to do between now and when the snow comes! We can’t take out tesserae to augment our stores of food. We can’t just walk into town and buy things. Everything that we eat needs to come from us. We need to provide it. We aren’t going to have the coal that we had in Twelve. We don’t have a stove or running water or any of that. We’re starting over from scratch and I can’t even begin to think about a relationship until I’m sure we aren’t all going to die.”

 

“So what do you want me to do?”

 

This I can answer. “I need a friend, Gale. I need a hunting partner. I’ve missed going out with you.”

 

He leans closer to me, letting our shoulders touch. “I’ve missed it too. I’ve missed you, Catnip. So it’s settled? We’ll start hunting together in the morning.”

 

I nod my head. “Just one thing.”

 

“What?”

 

“I need you to stop pressuring me. I need you to be my friend. But I can’t handle your jealousy and insecurity about me and Peeta.”

 

He frowns.

 

I turn to face him. “We took him away from his home. From his family. From everyone and everything he knows. We threatened to kill him.”

 

“You mean I threatened to kill him.”

 

“But I didn’t stop you. And that’s on both of our heads.”

 

“So what are you trying to say?”

 

“I don’t know. Maybe cut him a little slack? Stop this stupid competition you have going on with him. We need him and he needs us.”

 

“I’ll try,” Gale says. “It’s just he seems to know instinctively how to push my buttons.”

 

“He said the same thing about you.”

 

“Did he? What else did he say?”

 

I’m not going to tell Gale everything. I can’t tell him everything. “He said that he’d try to stop provoking you. But you need to do the same.”

 

“It bothers you that much, huh?”

 

“Yeah, it really does.”

 

“Fine. I’ll try. For you, Catnip. I’d try to destroy the Capitol if I thought it meant we could be together.”

 

“Thankfully, I’m not asking you to. Just give Peeta a break and try to befriend him.” I lean against him. “Who knows, you might even like it.”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Brand New Breeze:

 

“Fine. I’ll try. For you, Catnip. I’d try to destroy the Capitol if I thought it meant we could be together.”

 

“Thankfully, I’m not asking you to. Just give Peeta a break and try to befriend him.” I lean against him. “Who knows, you might even like it.”

 

oOo

 

The atmosphere is strained for the next couple of days. It’s clear that Gale and Peeta are trying to respect my wishes and work together, but it’s obviously not easy for them.

 

The morning of my birthday starts promisingly. Peeta heads off toward the end of our watch, ostensibly to use the latrine, but when he returns he hands me a bouquet of dandelions. “Happy birthday, Katniss.”

 

“You didn’t get these by the latrine, did you?” I eye them warily.

 

He laughs. “No. I got them from over by the creek. They’re clean, I promise.”

 

I take the bouquet from his hands, picking one of the flowers out and popping it into my mouth. “Thank you.”

 

Peeta smiles.

 

At breakfast my mother wishes me a happy birthday, which causes another ruckus.

 

Rory starts and looks at me in terror. “Aw, shit! It’s your birthday?”

 

“Rory Hawthorne! You watch that language!”

 

“Primrose Everdeen you are not my mother!” He sticks his tongue out at her.

 

“Children. Not before I’ve had my coffee,” my mother says.

 

“But we don’t have any coffee,” Rory points out.

 

My mother looks up toward the ceiling. “I know.”

 

The two look at her confused but stop fighting, which I assume is what my mother wanted anyway.

 

Rory wolfs his food down then excuses himself, stating that he’s going exploring.

 

Gale looks over at me. “So? Shall we?”

 

“Where are you going?” Peeta asks, his voice is carefully neutral which I’ve started to learn indicates he’s trying to hide his real emotions.

 

“Hunting,” Gale says, struggling not to smirk. “We’ll be back later.”

 

“Do you want anything special for your birthday, Katniss?” my mother asks.

 

I wrack my brain, trying to come up with something. I fail. In desperation, I say, “Um, food? Food’s good.”

 

“Booooooooooooooooooring!” Prim says.

 

I can’t stop the smile that spreads across my lips. My sister hasn’t acted her age for months, not since before I got sick. Even before then, there was the looming specter of starvation and the Games, which gave her a sense of gravity. The fact that she can be so carefree and childlike makes me even more glad that we left. Despite whatever hardships we might face, at least for now my sister can be a child.

 

“Surprise me,” I say.

 

I flash my sister one last smile, then Gale and I head towards the river to hunt.

 

“Happy birthday, Catnip.” He picks a flower and hands it to me.

 

I eye it warily. “You know this is water hemlock.”

 

“So don’t eat it.” He takes it and weaves the flower into my braid. “There. Beautiful.”

 

“Me or the flower?”

 

He regards me intently. “You have to ask?”

 

“Whatever,” I mumble. I can feel my face flush and I turn away to hide it.

 

We find a good spot to start hunting but Gale keeps distracting me by picking various flowers and weaving them into my braid until I think my braid is more flowers than hair. I’m flattered and annoyed at the same time. Flattered by all of the attention. Annoyed because I don’t get anything.

 

Gale, on the other hand, is extremely lucky. The birds are just dropping into his lap and by mid-morning he has two ducks, a turkey, and two chickens. After his fifth bird, I call it a morning. Even if I were to kill something right now, we don’t have enough hands to carry it all back.

 

Gale seem both pleased and disappointed. Good. He can join me in confusing emotions land.  

 

We take his kills back home and turn them over to my mother. Several hastily covered lumps sit next to Prim who smiles pseudo-innocently at me.

 

I eye the lumps. “Did we come at a bad time?”

 

“Yes,” Prim says, not bothering to be coy. “Now go away so I can finish your present!”

 

“Fine!” I turn to look at Gale. “You coming?”

 

“Oh sure,” Gale starts to say. Then his face falls. “No, wait. I should probably stay here.”

 

My mother smiles at him knowingly.

 

I grab an empty bag and head out to try gathering.

 

I bypass my namesake and Prim’s and instead gather the roots of the solomon’s seal, one tuber for each of us. My mother’s namesake, the violet, is in season, so I gather a lot of the leaves, making sure not to strip the plants too much, so that they’ll come back next year. We can dry them, both for tea in the winter and as a thickener for soups. Meat is good, but we’re going to need more than just that if we’re going to make it through the long winter.

 

For the most part, I pick whatever I can find, making sure to leave part of the plant alive so that we can use it again next year. I check on my mother and Prim’s garden on the floodplain near where the creek meets the river. When I get there, I notice a deer is nibbling at some of the tender shoots.

 

My first instinct is to chase the deer away. We need that garden! But then it hits me. Why let such good meat go to waste?

 

I draw my bow and take aim.

 

A few seconds later the deer drops, an arrow through its eye.

 

“You need help with that?” Peeta asks, walking up from the stream bank, a small fish in one hand.

 

I smile at him gratefully. “Please.”

 

“No problem!” He holds up his fish. “You can help me with my catch and I’ll help you with yours. That way we can call it even.”

 

I laugh, taking the fish. “It’s pretty small.”

 

“Hey! It’s not the size that counts! It’s what you can do with it!”

 

I raise an eyebrow. “I think you can do a little bit more with a deer than a bass.”

 

“Sure, be all correct and stuff,” Peeta says with a smile. “You certainly deflated my ego.”

 

I laugh again. I’ve been doing that a lot lately. It’s a little strange. I guess leaving Twelve has affected me more than I thought.

 

“I thought we told you to go away!” Prim exclaims, hurriedly shoving something behind her back as we approach the cave carrying the deer.

 

“But deer!” I say, nodding my head at the animal in my hands.

 

She makes a shooing motion with her hands. “Leave it there, I’ll have Gale take care of it later! You scoot!”

 

“What about me?” Peeta asks.

 

“You scoot too!”

 

Peeta looks over at me. “So do you want to gather more?”

 

I look down at my full bag of food. “Not really.”

 

“Give me that and go!” Prim says.

 

I set the bag down next to the deer. “So now what?” I ask Peeta.

 

“We could go down to the river?”

 

I shrug. “Yeah, sure.” We could go exploring or chop wood, but it’s my birthday and apparently I’m not allowed in the cave.

 

We head back down to the river and wade in the shallow lengths. I notice a few dark shapes darting around. “So is this where you’ve been fishing?”

 

“Trying to,” he corrects me. “I’m not really all that successful.”

 

“I wish we had some nets,” I say, looking at the fish. “I think some of these might be trout.”

 

“Is that good?”

 

I nod. “They’re pretty tasty. And they preserve well.”

 

“Then I wish we had some nets too.”

 

We walk along the edge of the river, picking up a few flat rocks and skipping them. I look at Peeta. “You want to go swimming?”

 

“Sure, but I can’t swim.”

 

I hold out my hand. “I’ll teach you.”

 

He takes it, running his thumb over my wrist. “Sounds like fun.”

 

oOo

 

Prim comes down to get us several hours later. “Okay you can come up now!”

 

Peeta and I are laying out on the bank watching clouds and drying off in the early May sun. Peeta’s swimming lesson wasn’t a total disaster and now he can move himself through the water. He’s not graceful or quick, but at least now if he falls in he won’t immediately drown.  

 

I open one eye and squint at my sister. “Are you sure? You’re not going to just chase me away again?”

 

“Well, I could. Mom’s roasted a turkey in some kind of pit oven and it smells delicious. I’m sure Rory and I could eat your share.”

 

Peeta sits up. “Now that’s a threat. I don’t think we can take that lying down, can we, Katniss?”

 

“I guess not.” I sit up, feeling my muscles protest.

 

Prim crosses her arms and glares at us. “Come on! Everyone’s waiting on you two lazy bones!”

 

“And whose fault is that? I seem to recall some bossy blonde shooing me and Peeta away.”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Prim replies airly, sticking her nose in the air.

 

Peeta extends his hand to me. “Come on. We should go.”

 

“Fine. I suppose I won’t skip my own party,” I say, taking Peeta’s hand.

 

All three of us return to the cave. I can smell the roast turkey partway down the hill. My mouth waters. Prim’s right, it does smell delicious.

 

When we enter, Gale eyes Peeta’s and my joined hands but doesn’t say anything, but I can tell from the set of his shoulders that he’s not pleased.

 

Peeta also notices Gale’s reaction and glances at me questioningly.

 

I shrug. I’m not embarrassed. I refuse to be. I tighten my grasp on his hand.

 

“Happy birthday, Katniss,” my mother says. “Take a seat and we can eat.”

 

“But what about presents?” Rory asks. I’m a little curious what Rory might have gotten me, considering he didn’t even know it was my birthday until breakfast.

 

“After supper,” my mother says firmly.

 

Rory doesn’t argue.

 

“Why don’t you sit here, Katniss?” Gale pats the mat next to him.

 

I shrug, dropping Peeta’s hand, and sit down.

 

Peeta sits down on my other side.

 

I really hope they don’t spend my birthday dinner arguing, but they both seem to be at least trying to not fight even if they aren’t completely getting along.

 

“Dig in, Katniss,” Gale says. “You get first dibs.”

 

I tear off the leg and take the thigh, passing the drumstick to Prim. It’s always been my favorite piece of meat. I take a bite and revel in the fatty richness of the turkey. My mother has seasoned the bird with a mixture of wild onion, rosemary and tansy with a little salt. She stuffed the body cavity with a mixture of greens and cattail roots then finished the stuffing in a pan so that it’s crispy and soft at the same time.

 

The conversation over dinner is light and comfortable. We don’t talk about anything serious, just fun things and what we plan on doing. Prim talks about her basket weaving attempts. She’s finally made a rudimentary basket. It can hold things, but it’s not pretty and it’s definitely not watertight.

 

Rory brings up that he’d like to start learning how to shoot a bow. He’s been having a lot of luck with his slingshot lately, apparently he felled a chicken today, but he’d like to move on to being able to use a bow. Since we have four, it’s not a bad idea to have another marksman and I tell him I’ll think about it. The boy smiles hopefully. Rory also mentions that there’s lots of ruined houses in the immediate area and that we should really go check them out. He’s been finding all sorts of really useful stuff, and there’s no reason to make something we can just scavenge.

 

My mother talks about her garden. She thinks it’s going well. She wishes she could put up a scarecrow but she knows that’s not possible, but she thinks she might be able to put up some flappy things to chase away the birds, or maybe nets might help. Gale offers to set more snares around the location and Peeta says he’ll chase anything away when he’s in the area fishing.  

 

Gale mentions that he’d like to build a wall outside the cave along the ledge to serve as a windbreak and a defense. He looks over at me. “I think I’d also like to try my hand at making some furniture. We could really use a bed or two, maybe some shelves, and a table and chairs would be nice. Not that there’s anything wrong with your mats, Prim. I just think we’d all like to not have to sit down on the floor.”

 

Prim pretends to glare at Gale. “I’ll get you for that, Gale Hawthorne.”

 

“Not if I get you first.” He reaches over and tickles her.

 

She squeals and smacks his hand away. “Stop it!”

 

I look over at Peeta. “So what are you thinking about?”

 

“Well clearly I am not the fisherman of the season. I would have a horrible life in Four.”

 

“So it’s a good thing we’re not in Four,” Gale teases.

 

“I think I’m going to want to try tanning all the furs that we get, not just the big ones. The little ones too. If nothing else, we can always use them as rags or for other things. Maybe make braided leather rugs out of them, like rag rugs. I’d also like to try to make an oven. Maybe see about finding a way to make flour or something like that. I don’t know about you, but I find myself really missing bread. Even the stale stuff.”

 

“I do too,” my mother says. “I think we can make flour out of a few different things. I’ll have to check Solomon’s book. And I wouldn’t be upset about having a real stove to cook on. But how would you even go about making it?”

 

“Maybe some bricks from that house we found? If I can get clay, that would probably be better, but just bricks might work.” He turns to me. “What would you like to do, Katniss? What would you like to see around here?”

 

I shrug. “I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve always just been so worried about food and thinking about more food.”

 

“Don’t think about that,” Gale says. “Think about what you really want.”

 

I suddenly realize something. I already have what I really want. It’s not a thing at all. It’s a feeling. My sister is happy and able to be a child. My mother seems reinvigorated like I haven’t seen her since before my father died and is actually starting to act more like a mother. And I’ve got friends in Gale and Peeta and maybe more. So long as we’ve already got food and shelter and a way to make it through the winter, I don’t need anything else.

 

I shrug again. “I’d like to take a bath. A real hot bath. And sleep in a warm soft bed.”

 

“We can try to make that happen,” Gale says softly.

 

This feels right. Sitting between Gale and Peeta, talking with my family about what we want to do and what we plan on doing, this is something that I could only dream about. I can’t think of a better gift.

 

“Since it looks like everyone’s done eating, you know what that means!” Prim chirps. “Presents!”

 

“Me first!” Rory says.

 

“I’m gonna save mine for last,” Prim says. “It’s the best.”

 

Rory goes into one of the other rooms and comes back with a cut glass bowl full of flowers. “Here. I got this for you.”

 

“I bet you just found that today,” Prim accuses.

 

“So what? It’s the thought that counts!”

 

I take the bowl, eyeing the flowers warily. I don’t see anything poisonous and most of them appear to be a mix of dandelions and violets. “Thank you, Rory. I’m sure these will be delicious.”

 

“Well, mine’s not as useful as Rory’s, but I hope you like it,” Peeta says, pulling something out of his pocket. “Here.”

 

It’s a simple freshwater pearl. I’m not sure what to do with it, but it’s pretty. “Thank you,” I say. Maybe we can drill a hole in it and make a necklace out of it or something.

 

“I just thought it was rare and unusual and it made me think of you.”

 

Not to be outdone, Gale pulls out his gift. “Happy birthday, Catnip.”

 

He hands me a leather thong with a small carved wooden mockingjay hanging from it.

 

He moves his shirt to show off his pin. “I used the one my father gave to my mother as inspiration.”

 

“Thank you,” I say.

 

“Here, let me help you put it on.” He leans over and slips it over my head so that the mockingjay rests in the hollow of my throat.

 

“I guess that leaves me,” my mother says. “Since Prim is insisting on going last.”

 

Prim sticks out her tongue.

 

My mother gets something from another room and hands it to me. It’s a soft down-filled pillow made of some of the fabric my mother brought with her from Twelve. “I’ve been saving the down from all of the birds you’ve been getting to make this. I figure I can make more and maybe even a quilt with any other birds you get.”

 

“Thank you,” I say. We’ve been sleeping on our packs and this pillow is much softer. It’s the first step to that warm soft bed I requested earlier.

 

“My turn!” Prim skips off and returns a minute later with something lumpy stuffed in a bag.

 

I open it to find two large nets carefully rolled up so they don’t get tangled.

 

“You were just talking about that today,” Peeta says. “Now we can get those trout we saw.”

 

I nod my head. “Thank you, Prim. This is perfect.”

 

“You’re welcome! Just make sure to bring back lots of fish for Buttercup. He helped too.”

 

I smile. “I’m sure he did.” I look around at the rest of the group. “Thank you, everyone. This was the best birthday ever.”

 

oOo

 

I wake up to the sound of raised voices.

 

“Nice gift, Mellark. What kind of gift was that? The half-assed kind?”

 

“I would have done something better if I actually had the tools to do so.”

 

Gale snorts. “Like what? You’d have baked her a loaf of bread?”

 

“If that’s what she would’ve wanted, yeah, sure, I would’ve baked her a loaf of bread. You heard her last night! All she wants is a soft bed and a hot bath. Does that sound like somebody who wants a complicated gift?” Peeta counters. “At least I didn’t spend hours wasting my time on something that she can’t use.”

 

“So what? She liked it.”

 

“She liked mine too! Mine’s special. You don’t find pearls every day.”

 

“And I suppose you were looking for one.”

 

“I was looking for something.”

 

“You obviously didn’t find it. It was a half-assed gift. Even Rory’s was better than yours.”

 

“Yeah, and Violet’s gift was better than yours!”

 

“It’s not a competition. Leave them out of it,” Gale growls.

 

“So why are we making it into one?”

 

I get up and stalk into the entry room. “Have you been going at this all night?”

 

I see Prim nodding her head.

 

Both boys flinch guiltily.

 

“You promised me this would stop. You promised! I am not a prize to be won and the more you guys keep acting like it, the less I want anything to do with you! In fact, here! This is what I think of both of your gifts!”

 

I rip the necklace off and hurl it at the ground. I fish the pearl out of my pocket and drop it on top of the necklace.

 

“There! Now neither of you won!”

 

“Katniss!”

 

I whirl around. “I don’t want to hear it! I’ve had enough of your fake apologies and false promises!” I turn to look at Rory. “Are you still interested in learning how to shoot?”

 

He’s put on the spot. “Um, yes?”

 

“Good. Get your stuff. We leave in half an hour.”

 

“And where are you going?” my mother asks.

 

“Out. Away from them.” I point at Gale and Peeta accusingly.

 

My mother nods. “And when will you be back?”

 

“Once I no longer want to kill them. So who knows, probably not anytime soon.”

 

She seems to understand because she says, “Okay. Take care.”

 

I head toward the supply room to grab packs and food. I pause in the doorway and look at my two stunned suitors. “Oh and by the way, Prim’s gift was the best.”

 

oOo

 

Rory has enough sense not to talk to me immediately, allowing me to cool down enough to initiate a conversation. When I finally do, it’s mostly instructions on how to walk silently so as not to scare game. It’s clear Gale never trained Rory on how to move in the woods but he’s eager to learn and at least he’s better at it than Peeta.

 

We scavenge several houses along the way, finding some useful items and other things that I have no idea what we’d ever do with them. We see several scraps of fabric but none of them are worth bringing along with us. And I’m not ready to go back to the cave with any hauls.

 

I don’t let Rory handle a bow until he can prove to me that he can actually walk silently. By the end of the day he’s made a lot of improvement and I kill a goose for our supper.

 

The next day we explore a place that seems less like a house, maybe more like a business. The building is collapsed, but we’re able to find a few items wrapped in thin plastic that have made it through. We also stop at what looks to be a very old logging camp. There are several rotted stumps and, unlike some of the other areas we’ve been in, it’s not as heavily forested. Again, we find several usable items.

 

The third day after we leave the cave, I finally give Rory the chance to use the bow. I don’t give him any arrows, just let him draw and sight against some stationary targets, giving him the chance to get used to the feel of it. It’s the same way my father taught me how to use a bow. But like any child, Rory is impatient to get to the fun stuff.

 

“When will I get to actually fire against something real?” He turns toward me, his eyes pleading.

 

I’m not moved. “When I say you’re ready.”

 

“And when will that be?”

 

“When I think you’re ready.”

 

“And when will that be?”

 

I glare at him. “Never if you keep asking me. Sometimes you remind me of your brother.”

 

“Why are you so mad at him anyways?” Rory asks, picking up the bow and drawing it again. I see his back muscles bunch and the boy winces a little. “I mean, Gale loves you, you know.”

 

“I know.” I motion for him to stop practicing.

 

Rory sits down against a tree gratefully, rubbing at his shoulders. “So...what’s wrong? What’s the big deal? Do you not like him? I mean, it sounds like you don’t like him?”

 

“It’s complicated,” I say, inspecting the bow for any signs of stress and unstringing it once I’m done.

 

“Why is it complicated? Is that Peeta guy in the way?”

 

“Shut up, Rory. It’s none of your business.”

 

“But Gale’s my brother! Of course it’s my business. We’re brothers, we look out for each other.”

 

I look up from my task to glower at the pre-teen. “Look, do you want to learn to fire a bow or not?”

 

“...Yes.”

 

“Then shut up.”

 

That day, I’m so angry I don’t even let Rory consider hunting. This turns out to be a good thing because we find so much stuff. It looks like we’re heading into a more built up area, and there’s lots of open meadows surrounding these ruins. Using the saw we found at the logging camp, we use a couple of saplings and some of the things we found to make a travois. One of the items, a cast-iron stove that Rory found wrapped in layers and layers of still more plastic, is too heavy for Rory and me to handle even with the travois. We note where it is and move on.

 

The next day we stumble onto a surprise. There’s a large clearing with piles of dark black stone with nothing growing in it. Both of us recognize what the stone is immediately. It’s coal. We’ve found an ancient coal depot.

 

“Do you think we should go back?” Rory asks.

 

“And do what?”

 

“I don’t know. Tell them about all these things we found. I mean, you can’t still be mad at those two.”

 

“Yes, I can.”

 

“Are you going to be mad forever?”

 

I give the pre-teen a look. “I don’t know. It depends on what your brother and Peeta do. If they continue acting like the idiots they are, then yes.”

 

“So tell them not to act like idiots.”

 

“I have. Several times. It’s up to them now.”

 

“So what do they need to do?”

 

“None of your business, Rory.”

 

We go on to the next house.

 

“So...have you thought about dating my brother?”

 

I glare at Rory but don’t say anything.

 

“You know, cause I think you’d make a great couple. You remind me of my mom. You’d make a good mom.”

 

“Just...keep searching, Rory.” I want him to drop this line of conversation.

 

Of course, he doesn’t. “Do you like Peeta instead? I mean, I suppose he’s cute and all, you know, if I were a girl. Do you want to date him instead? Is it because of his hair? I like his hair.”

 

“Knock it off.”

 

“I bet you do. That’s why you won’t talk with me.”

 

I stand up, dusting my hands off. “Look, it’s complicated, and it’s none of your business, so just...let it go.” I need to distract him from this incessant pestering. “You want to try hunting? Let’s try hunting.”

 

“Alright, that’s awesome!” Rory exclaims, bouncing around like a ball. “Can I use the bow?”

 

“Not yet,” I tell him. “But if you can kill something with that slingshot of yours and manage not to scare any game off, I’ll consider it.”

 

“Yes!”

 

The day after that we explore a couple of houses but the real find is a patch of strawberries and several mulberry trees with ripe berries. So we decide to forgo exploring and hunting and pick as many berries as we can, filling all the containers that we brought with us or found.

 

When we finish harvesting everything that we can, I look over at our pile of finds and sigh. “We’re going to have to head back.”

 

“Have you made a decision?” Rory asks hopefully.

 

I shake my head. “No. We’ve just got too much stuff to keep looking.”

 

“So does that mean you’re gonna let me actually shoot the bow eventually?”

 

“If you promise to stop pestering me about your brother and Peeta, I’ll consider it.”

 

He pumps his fist in the air. “Woohoo! I promise! These lips are buttoned. No more pestering.”

 

I can’t help but smile, he’s just so enthusiastic. “Come on, Rory.”

 

When we return to the cave, my mother and Prim greet us happily.

 

“Oh you’re back! Does that mean you’re not upset anymore?”

 

“No.”

 

My mother examines our makeshift travois. The base is a dark green plastic container about three and a half feet tall with a black plastic lid. The lid is cracked, but it’s still usable. We’ve tied it to the wooden poles using a long bright orange cord with some weird thing on the end. “So did you find anything interesting?”

 

“A bunch of stuff.” We start piling everything out in the center of the main room. In addition to the travois itself, there’s a glass bottle full of maple syrup. It’s mostly crystallized, but it still looks usable. There’s what looks to be honey in an odd bear shaped container. There’s a whole bag of little tiny round candles. It looks like there’s more than a hundred of them. There’s several bottles of what looks to be alcohol. I can’t fully make out the labels. I think one reads ‘Jack’ something and the other has ‘clear’ on the title.

 

I pull out a strange plastic package from one of the houses. “These look to be a set of knives, but they’re not like any knives I’ve seen.” They’re bright blue and they’re completely encased in this weird clear plastic that conforms to the shape and appears to be airtight. While out with Rory, I couldn’t figure out a way to get into the container and I didn’t know if the knife I brought with me would penetrate it.

 

Peeta enters the cave and his face lights up when he sees me. “You’re alive!”

 

“Yes,” I say giving him a look. Of course I’m alive. I’m a little offended he’d think I wouldn’t be.

 

“We were worried about you,” Prim says. “We didn’t know where you were or if you were okay.”

 

“Don’t worry about us, Little Duck. We’re fine.”

 

“Are you here to stay?” she asks eagerly.

 

“Not for long. We just came to drop off a few things and we’re going to head back out.”

 

Peeta speaks up. “Gale and I want to talk with you.”

 

“I’m not ready to talk to you,” I tell him bluntly. “Look, there’s a cast-iron stove about a couple miles away from here, pretty much due west. We left it out. It’s wrapped up in plastic. You and Gale could probably get it back pretty easily but you’ll have to work together.” The suggestion is pointed.

 

He seems to get it. “So when will you be back?”

 

I shrug. “I don’t know. Whenever I’ve made up my mind what to do with you two.” I turn to Rory. “Get your pack. Let’s go.”

 

“Aren’t you going to wait and say goodbye to Gale?” Prim asks.

 

“No.” That’d just lead to another awkward conversation I’m not ready to have.

 

We get clear of the cave and start heading back west in the direction that we came from.

 

“So where do you want to go now?” Rory asks.

 

“Let’s see how quietly you can move.”

 

We walk for several hours, Rory demonstrating the skills he’s learned. He’s getting better. Dried grass is his enemy, but so long as he doesn’t encounter too much of that, he does pretty well.

 

We make camp alongside the river that night and I treat us to a roast duck and watercress salad.

 

The following morning, as a reward for good behavior, I let Rory fire arrows at a rotten stump. We spend several hours practicing until his back and shoulders hurt too much to keep going. He didn’t hit the stump as often as he’d like, but the few successes drove him on.

 

We take it easy the rest of the day, only exploring a few places, but not finding much.

 

The next day goes better. We start the day by exploring another partially collapsed house.

 

Rory holds up a little glass figurine. “Hey, do you think Prim would like this?”

 

I look at it and shrug. “It’s a cat. Probably.”

 

He slips it into his pocket. “I think I’ll take it back for her.”

 

Well, it can’t be any more trouble than Buttercup and it’ll certainly eat less.

 

That evening, I take Rory hunting for an animal for the very first time. I teach him about how to find a spot and just sit still and wait for the animals to come to you - and it works.

 

He has a couple of false starts and near misses, but he’s finally able to bring down a rabbit. It’s not a clean shot through the eye and he has to finish it off with his knife, but it’s his first kill with a bow and he should be proud.

 

“Did you see, did you see? Katniss I got it! Whoosh!” He mimes firing the bow. “Pow! That rabbit was dead!”

 

“You still need to work on your aim.”

 

“I know! But did you see? I did it! I’m awesome!”

 

I remember the excitement of my first kill. I was alone at the time and I wish that I’d had someone to share it with, but I also remember just how proud I was of my achievement and what it meant for my family. “Congratulations. That means you get to skin it and clean it and cook it.”

 

Rory freezes, looking over at me with puppy dog eyes. “Do I hafta?”

 

“Yes,” my tone brooks no argument.

 

“Aw, man!”

 

The next morning, after a breakfast of cold rabbit, we head further into what looks to be the ruins of an old town. Several of the former houses have been flooded by the nearby river and we don’t even bother to look through those, while others appear to have burned down quite some time ago. There’s even a few signs of several violent explosions. I’m not sure how they happened or why they happened, and I’m not sure I want to know.

 

We walk through the town and keep going. We get to a point, just past another bend in the river, where we startle a large herd of deer and a few things that look like they might be a cross between a sheep and goat.

 

I bend down to investigate. Underneath a thin layer of grass, I find several clear cubic crystals. It’s salt.

 

“Is that what I think it is?” Rory asks.

 

I take a little taste up to my lips. “Yes.”

 

“Your mom’s going to be so happy!”

 

“Yeah. Let’s take as much back as we can get.”

 

“Back? Does that mean we’re going home?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“So...does that mean you’re not mad anymore?”

 

I pause and take a deep breath. “It depends on what your brother and Peeta have to say.”

 

“I hope they’re not idiots.”

 

“I hope so too.”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Brand New Breeze:

 

“So...does that mean you’re not mad anymore?”

 

I pause and take a deep breath. “It depends on what your brother and Peeta have to say.”

 

“I hope they’re not idiots.”

 

“I hope so too.”

 

oOo

 

Early the following afternoon, Rory and I trudge up the path leading to the cave. No one is there when we arrive so we drop our packs by the entrance and head for the room we’ve designated as the bedroom. We’re both tired and because we’ve been sleeping out in the open, haven’t slept well in over a week. A nap is definitely required.

 

I’m not sure how long we were asleep because what seems like a few minutes later my sister lets out a loud cry of, “They’re back! Rory and Katniss are back!”

 

“How do you know?” I hear my mother ask. Her voice sounds far away, like she’s not in the cave.

 

“Their packs are here, so they’ve gotta be back!”

 

“Have you seen them?”

 

“Well, no!”

 

“Why don’t you go look?”

 

“Okay!” my sister calls down. Then she yells, “Katniss! Rory! Are you here?”

 

“Yes, we’re here, you yowling cat!” Rory shouts back before I can answer. “We were trying to get some sleep!”

 

“But it’s not even suppertime! Get up lazy bones and show me what you’ve brought back!”

 

“I don’ wanna! And since you called me a name, I ain’t gonna give you what I brought back for ya!”

 

“But Rory!”

 

“No buts! You called me a name. Maybe if you were nicer to me…”

 

My sister walks into the room. “Pretty please, Rory? Can I have my present?”

 

“After I finish my nap,” Rory answers, rolling over to face the wall.

 

Prim opens her mouth to protest then shuts it with an audible click and leaves the room.

 

I smile. Peeta’s right, they do sound like an old married couple. It’s cute. I kick the covers off and move out to the main room.

 

When I enter the room I gape at what I see. I hadn’t noticed before, but there have been some major changes in the time Rory and I have been gone. There’s an actually dug-out and brick-lined fireplace in the center of the main room. Running along the length of the back wall I can see a foot-high pile of wood. There’s a partially-completed wall of wicker and wood shelves between the entrances to the cooking room and the water room. There’s a few mats around the fireplace and there’s a pile of reeds alongside.

 

My sister’s sitting by the fire, working on a basket, a pile of fresh cattails next to her. She looks up. “Hey Katniss! I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

 

“It’s okay,” I say with a yawn. “So what are you working on?”

 

“I’m trying to make a basket that’ll keep animals out.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Peeta says they sometimes have problems at the bakery with mice and rats getting into their flour. I told him that Buttercup would take care of that for us, but he said it was better if they didn’t get in at all. And then he pointed out that if we try to store fish, Buttercup himself might get in. He’s caught a bunch of trout with the nets I made you for your birthday and Buttercup’s been hanging around by the smoker very interestedly. So even if I can’t make something rodent-proof, I think I can make something Buttercup-proof.”

 

I survey the room again. “You guys got a lot done while Rory and I were gone.”

 

“Well, Peeta and Gale started working together.” She pauses, reconsidering her words. “After the first couple days, anyway. They were really able to take care of a lot of chores. Like the wood.”

 

“I’m surprised they were able to get that much.” And I am. They’re a good team but after the argument on my birthday, I would have guessed that they’d never willingly work together without coming to blows.

 

Prim misunderstands my words and instead answers a different question, “They grabbed a lot of the downed trees in the area, you know there’s a lot of them along the edge of the river and they’re just in the way. So, they’d haul them up and together they’d work on sawing and chopping them into chunks. You should see the kitchen.”

 

I go look and I’m even more surprised. There’s another taller pile of wood along one of the walls and next to the cast iron stove that Rory and I found, there’s what looks to be a brick oven.

 

“How did they manage that?”

 

“Apparently you yelling at them seemed to wake them up a little and they started working together. Well… not immediately. I’m pretty sure they had a fight that first day. Mom had to patch up Peeta’s knuckles and Gale was sporting a split lip for a while. But when I asked them what was wrong, they just said they ‘talked things out.’ I’m not sure how much talking they really did, but after that, they seemed to be friends or something.”

 

I’m not happy about the fight, but if it knocked some sense into them I’ll let it slide. “So they’ve stopped being idiots?”

 

“It’s kinda hard to tell,” Prim says with a shrug. “But they’re at least working together, so that’s something, right?”

 

I’m not as optimistic as my sister. I’ll believe that they’ve worked things out when I see it, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

 

“So where’s everyone else?” I ask.

 

“Mom’s working on the garden. She wants to try to keep at least some of the weeds away from the seeds she’s planted.”

 

“And the boys?”

 

“Peeta and Gale went out this morning to chop down a few pine trees. They were talking about trying to build a bed.”

 

“How?” That sounds like a pretty major project and while we have to make and repair most of our furniture in the Seam, we still have planks and boards from the sawmills in Seven.

 

Prim shrugs again. “I don’t know. But they seemed to have some sort of idea.”

 

I sit down next to the fire in the main room. “Is there anything to eat?”

 

“Like I said before, Peeta’s been doing really well with the nets I made you so there’s a lot of fish. We’re starting to get salmon, and Mom says that salmon like to run. I’m not really sure what that means, since fish swim, but we’re getting a bunch of them and we’re getting more and more of them every day. I made a few more nets, but Mom wants me to try to make a really big one for the river. I’m not sure how good it’s gonna be. But I can try.”

 

“I’m sure you’ll do fine, Little Duck.”

 

“Thanks, Katniss. It’s nice to have you home again.”

 

I give her a hug. “It’s nice to be home.”

 

oOo

 

An hour or so later, Gale and Peeta come back, a large deer slung between them on a pole. Both boys are shirtless and I can see the faint sheen of sweat shining on their chests. I turn away to hide the blush I feel rising on my cheeks.

 

“Wow!” Prim says. “That’s a big deer!”

 

“There’s another one just as big back where we left the wood,” Gale says. “Me and Peet decided to get one back as fast as possible and then go back for the other.” He pauses, noticing me for the first time. “Hey, Katniss.”

 

“Hey,” I say, shoving my hands into my pockets.

 

Peeta looks around from behind the deer. “Hey.”

 

Prim stares at both of the boys. “Katniss finally gets back and all you can think to say is ‘hey’?”

 

Rory appears from the bedroom. “Not everybody needs to run their mouths off like you, Prim.”

 

“Please no fighting,” Gale says. “I think Katniss has had enough of that lately.”

 

He’s not wrong.

 

Gale looks at Rory. “You think you and Katniss can finish dressing the deer?”

 

“Why are you asking me?” Rory looks confused.

 

“I’m not sure if Katniss is willing to talk to me right now.” I can tell he’s itching to run his fingers through his hair but can’t because of the load he’s carrying.

 

“Yeah, Rory and I can take care of it,” I say. “You go get the other one before a scavenger runs off with it.”

 

The boys set the large animal down on the ledge outside of the cave. “You gonna be here when we get back?” Gale asks when they’ve finished.

 

I shift uncomfortably under Gale and Peeta’s combined gazes. “Yeah.”

 

“Good,” Peeta says. “Gale and I need to talk to you.”

 

I feel my stomach drop. I’m not sure I’m ready to talk to them. To have this talk with them.

 

“Katniss? Are you okay?” Prim asks.

 

“Yeah. Fine.” I’m not. But I’m not telling Prim that. I’m nervous about what this talk is going to entail and all I want to do is run away.

 

My sister looks unconvinced. “Do you want any help?”

 

“No,” I say shaking my head. “Rory and I have this. Why don’t you try making that net Mom wanted you to?”

 

“If you’re sure…”

 

“I am, Little Duck.”

 

But it’s a lie. I’m not sure about anything at all.

 

oOo

 

When Gale and Peeta get back with the second deer, it’s coming on evening. I’m able to avoid talking with them until after dinner because my mother returns with a huge bag full of blackberries and mulberries that we need to set out to dry.

 

Her eyes light on the two deer. “I thought you boys were planning on trying to get wood for my bed.”

 

“Sorry about that, Violet,” Peeta apologizes. “Gale here couldn’t seem to stop himself from shooting two deer that just came popping through while we were stripping the branches from the trees.”

 

“So I guess tomorrow is smoking and drying?” she asks, clearly unhappy.

 

“Well, maybe with Rory and Katniss here, they can take care of that, so we can finish hauling the wood and other materials back to try to make your bed.”

 

My mother looks over at me expectantly. “The boys promised me that I get the first bed. I’m old and sleeping on the ground is not something I plan on doing for much longer.”

 

“And Mom says I get to share!” Prim chimes in.

 

“Aren’t you lucky?” I ask, deadpan. I’m a little upset that after everything that happened the day after my birthday the boys aren’t making a bed for me first. Then I quash the feeling, Prim needs the bed more than I do. But the sudden rush of jealousy is new for me. I’m not sure what to do about it.

 

Gale seems to understand what I’m feeling because he says, “Don’t worry, we’ve got plans to make beds for everyone. She’ll probably get the worst one, since we’re not really sure what we’re doing.”

 

“Gale’s got some idea,” Peeta says. “He had to repair his mom’s bed back in Twelve and saw how it was put together and his dad showed him how to make a few other kinds of simple furniture, stools and tables and the like, so we hope it won’t be a total disaster. If nothing else, we can always burn the thing.”

 

I shrug. That’s true. We can always burn wood.

 

“I asked the boys to strip the wood here in the cave and try to save the inner bark. It’s not terribly tasty, but the inner bark’s very nutritious and it’s a good last line of survival food.”

 

I nod my head. I’m pleased that my mother understands that we need to try to stockpile as much food as possible. Then I escape to the relative safety of the kitchen to get supper. I’ve fried up the liver of the first deer with a few greens that Prim went out and found. It’s a simple meal but it should be filling. We sit down around the fire of the main room. Over dinner, Rory and I talk about everything we did and all the stuff we found, including the salt.

 

Rory pulls out the glass cat and, with great ceremony, places it in front of Prim. “Primrose Everdeen, I found this little trinket and thought, with some fondness, of you and your feline companion, the peerless Lord Buttercup. Please accept this most heartfelt gift from me to you and if you can, think of me with affection when you do, I beg of you.”

 

“Laying it on a little thick are we?” Gale asks, his voice full of amusement.

 

“Someone’s been watching too many Capitol dramas,” Peeta adds, a smile on his lips.

 

“I just thought she’d like it!” Rory exclaims, lapsing back into his normal speech.

 

“I do! Ignore those meanies. Thank you very much. I love it.” She cradles it next to her.

 

Rory beams.

 

I take time eating, drawing it out. I’m not ready for this. But I can’t put it off forever. I finish my last bite and Peeta looks over at me.

 

“You ready, Katniss?”

 

I nod my head, uncertain of my voice.

 

“Go on,” my mother says, a knowing look on her face. “We’ll take care of everything here.”

 

“Thanks,” Gale says. “We’ll be outside.”

 

They lead me to the top of the hill, far enough away from the smoke hole that our voices won’t carry. Gale finds a large maple tree and Peeta motions for me to sit.

 

“I’d rather stand.” I cross my arms.

 

Peeta looks at me pleadingly. “Please? We don’t want you - I’m not - we’re afraid that-”

 

Gale steps in. “What he’s trying to say is that we don’t want you to run off like you did earlier. We know you get uncomfortable talking about personal shit, Catnip.”

 

“Sorry,” Peeta says.

 

I glare at them but I sit down. “Fine. Happy now?”

 

Peeta sighs. “That depends on you.”

 

“So what’d you want to talk about?” I just want to get this done so I can go hide under a rock until the world makes sense.

 

“We owe you an apology, Katniss,” Peeta says.

 

“Yeah. What he said.”

 

“Gale.” Peeta looks over at the other boy with a mixture of exasperation and resignation.

 

“Fine,” Gale grumbles, giving in to Peeta’s puppy dog eyes. “I’m sorry, Catnip.” He makes a motion between him and Peeta. “We’re sorry. I know we fucked up. We had no right - I had no right - to force you to do anything you didn’t want to do. Peeta kind of maybe explained just how wrong I’ve been. About a lot of things. And he’s got a way of getting his point across.” Gale rubs his jaw.

 

Peeta shrugs. “What can I say? I’ve got a way with words sometimes.”

 

“And fists. Don’t forget those.” It’s meant to be teasing.

 

“No,” Peeta says quietly, his eyes growing distant. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, if words don’t work, fists have a way of getting someone’s attention.”

 

I wince, thinking of the time when Peeta gave me the bread and the welt across his cheek.

 

Gale must remember how Peeta’s mother got her point across because he says, “I’m sorry. That was out of line.”

 

Peeta nods, accepting the apology.

 

I’m a little shocked at just how freely Gale offered it and how easily Peeta accepted it. It’s a big change.

 

“Is that all?” I start to stand back up.

 

“No,” Peeta says, shaking his head and motioning for me to sit back down. “We want you to know that we both are still in love with you. Have been in love with you. And this isn’t going to change that. In my case, I’m not sure anything could change that. Heck, I can’t even hate you for kidnapping me. And what’s even more screwed up is that part of me’s grateful.” He pauses, rubbing the back of his neck. “I wish I’d been asked, but I can understand why you didn’t. You didn’t know me. You didn’t trust me. And you had no reason to trust me. I hope that’s changed now.”

 

I nod my head.

 

He smiles. “Good. That’s something, at least. But I guess what I’m trying to say, what we’re trying to say, is that we’re not going to fight over you. That’s not fair. You have the right to choose who you want to love, and if that’s me, great. If that’s Gale, that’s great too. And if it’s neither of us, if for some reason you find yourself really wanting Rory-”

 

“I’m not sure what you’d ever see in him,” Gale interrupts. “But, you know, if you can pry him away from your sister, we’re okay with that too.”

 

“And if I pick nobody?” The question is pointed.

 

“Then that’s your choice, that’s your call,” Gale says.

 

“And we’ll respect that,” Peeta finishes.

 

“Do I have to give you my decision now?” I’m definitely not ready to do that. Not yet.

 

Peeta waves his hands in front of him. “No, no, no! Whenever you’re ready. Whenever you’ve made it.”

 

“And until then?” I ask.

 

“We’d both like to court you,” Peeta finishes.

 

“And Rory?”

 

“Fuck Rory.” Gale pauses, realizing what he’s said. “Not literally.”

 

We laugh. The tension lightens.

 

“So, if you see me kissing Peeta, you’re not going to come in, fists blazing?”

 

Gale nods his head. “I promise.”

 

“And you, Peeta, you’re going to stop with all the mind games?”

 

“I’ll do my best.”

 

“Do better than that,” I tell him sternly. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed you manipulating Gale into being angry, making it so you come off looking like the good guy.”

 

Peeta blushes. “I didn’t realize I was doing that. It’s a defense mechanism. My mother…” he trails off.

 

“You don’t need to talk about your mother, Peet,” Gale says.

 

I start a little at the nickname. Gale only uses those for people he actually cares about. Most of the time he prefers to go by last names or full names.

 

“So what happened while I was gone?”

 

Gale crouches down. “Well...I hate to say it, but you were right when you said I really didn’t have much of a chance of beating Peeta. He’s got a mean right hook and a whole arsenal full of dirty tricks.”

 

“I have two older brothers.” Peeta shrugs. “I have a lifetime of practice. You’re the eldest by a lot.”

 

“And...I don’t think that’s it. You’re good. Really good.” Gale looks at me. “And I kind of realized that if Peeta had wanted to, he could have escaped at any time even with you and me, Catnip, being armed.”

 

Peeta shakes his head. “It wouldn’t have been much use. Not like I would have gotten very far. Katniss would fell me in an instant with her bow. And I have no clue how to survive out here in the wild or even to find Twelve again. Better to stick with you and try not to piss you off.”

 

“You kind of failed at that,” I point out.

 

“I didn’t say it was a good plan. Besides, it’s a little hard to think coherently when the woman of your dreams’ body is pressed up against you every night.”

 

Gale makes a face, like he’s struggling to contain himself.

 

I look at Peeta. “You’re doing it again,” I say, motioning to Gale.

 

“Sorry.” And he does sound genuinely sorry.

 

Gale looks over at me gratefully. “We missed you, Catnip, while you were gone. Both of us.”

 

“We also realized we were destroying our chances with this continual competition.”

 

“You really were,” I state flatly.

 

Gale sighs. “We know.”

 

“We’re willing to do whatever you want us to do. And whatever that means, we’ll do it.”

 

I blink. They can’t be implying what I think they’re implying.

 

Gale adds, “Just don’t shut us out. We’re sorry. You scared us…”

 

Peeta picks up where Gale leaves off. “You really scared us, Katniss. We didn’t know if you were hurt, or dead, or just avoiding us. I’m kind of glad it turned out to be the latter. It’s just… we don’t want you to have to avoid us. We need to be able to live together. All of us. And if that means having to think outside the box, Gale and I are willing to think outside the box.”

 

It’s more explicit this time, but I still can’t wrap my head around the implications. It’s what I want, but somehow I still can’t believe what I’m hearing. “Can I have some time to think about how I feel about this?”

 

Gale stands up. “Take as much time as you need. We’ll be here.”

 

oOo

 

The next day, rather than going out, I spend the day back at the cave, resting and replenishing my arrow supply. Rory tries to talk his way into going hunting, but I nix it. We need to spend the time preserving what we have before we get more. Instead, my mother has him go off and gather reeds and cattails and willow switches for Prim to use for baskets. He grumbles a bit but does it anyway.

 

The boys leave the cave early to get the wood to build my mother’s bed. Then, when they get back, they very studiously leave me be so I can think.

 

And I do.

 

I think really hard about what I want. Do I want either of them? Do I want neither? Do I want both? I keep coming back to that third option and I keep putting it out of my mind. That isn’t an option, so I shouldn’t even consider it.

 

I think about each boy. I’ve known Gale longer. He’s a good hunting partner, a good friend, and he knows me. Do I want him to be more than that? Good hunting partners are hard to find. I’m not sure I’m willing to risk losing that. But I’m afraid I’m going to lose it anyways. He wants this so badly that I’m afraid if I tell him no, he’s going to withdraw from me and I’ll lose what we’ve had. I’ll lose the person who knows me the best in this world.

 

Which brings me to Peeta. How do I feel about him? I feel comfortable with him. He’s easy to talk to and he feels safe. I missed sleeping with him while Rory and I were gone and Rory was not a good substitute. Peeta gave me my space last night and I’m not terribly sure I wanted him to, but sleeping with him for warmth and comfort isn’t the same as having a relationship.

 

I keep thinking in circles, weighing the pros and cons. And they all come to one inexorable conclusion. I need more information. And the only way I’m going to get more information is to try dating both of them. I can’t know which one I want, if I want either of them, unless I have all the facts. And I don’t.

 

I wait until the boys come out of the bedroom covered in pine needles. The look of hopeful joy on each of their faces fills me with the odd combination of delight and dread. I’m not sure which one I feel more.

 

There’s too much work to do to even consider stepping out with either of them today. But Gale and I make plans to go hunting together tomorrow morning, which in and of itself is not an unusual occurrence, but this feels more formal somehow.

 

I watch Peeta carefully while Gale and I make the plans. He very deliberately doesn’t react. Instead, once we’ve finished, he asks if I’d be interested in joining him in the kitchen later tomorrow afternoon. He thinks he’s figured out a way to make some kind of bread.

 

“I hope you two succeed,” Gale says. “I don’t know about you, but I never thought I’d miss tesserae bread.” He’s very obviously avoiding the subject of my date with Peeta.

 

“Or stale bread,” Peeta adds with a laugh.

 

I laugh with them. It’s true. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d miss the warm yeasty scent of fresh-baked bread until now.

 

“Thanks for giving us this chance, Katniss.”

 

“Yeah, Catnip. Thanks.”

 

I look back and forth between the two of them. “I just hope I don’t regret it.”

 

oOo

 

I’m really glad I spent the previous day making arrows because Gale and I are very successful. Almost from the moment we step out of the cave, the game seems to just fly or walk into our path. In less than an hour and a half, we have three birds, a goat, and a pig. We decide to take our earnings and head back.

 

“That really wasn’t much of a date,” I say.

 

Gale shrugs. “Productive though.”

 

“Yeah. But… I already know you’re a good hunter. I don’t know if you’re going to be a good boyfriend.”

 

“So… what are you looking for in a boyfriend?” he asks slowly, like he’s afraid he’s going to scare me away just by bringing the subject up. It’s a little scary how well he knows me.

 

I stifle my urge to change the subject and answer, “Is it okay if I say I don’t know? I mean, I know what I don’t want.”

 

“And what don’t you want?”

 

“I don’t want anyone too clingy. I need my space. I need to do me things and have me time. Someone who can cook would be nice. I just don’t want to have to put food on the table and cook it too. Someone who can help provide for the family. But who isn’t going to forbid me from hunting or gathering or going out on my own. I don’t want anyone too fussy. I don’t want anyone too good-looking. But I don’t want them to be butt ugly either.”

 

Gale laughs. “I hope I’m not that ugly.”

 

“You know you’re not.” I frown at him. He’s one of the most attractive boys in school. Half of my year has a crush on him and I’ve heard the rumors about the sheer number of girls that he’s taken to the slag heap.

 

He seems to know I’m upset with him because he asks, “Am I too good-looking?” in an earnest tone of voice.

 

I reach up and tug at his beard. “Not with all this scruff. You’re nothing like the boy all the girls back in Twelve used to sigh over.”

 

“Not you.”

 

“Well, I know you.”

 

“And I think that might be the problem. Peeta thinks you don’t view me romantically because you’re too familiar with me. All the shine’s worn off, so to speak.”

 

“So you’re trying to put the shine back on? I’m not sure the beard helps.”

 

“If you don’t like the beard, I can shave it off.” He says it quickly, like he’s eager to do something to try to win me over.

 

I think about it. Do I like the beard? During our previous kiss, he had stubble. Now it’s a full-grown beard, a little straggly and curly, and his hair could really use a trim. But is that really a problem? Am I as shallow as a Capitol woman? I come to a decision.

 

“Kiss me.”

 

“What?” Gale exclaims.

 

“You heard me. Kiss me.”

 

A smile dances across his lips. “If you insist.”

 

He bends down and presses his lips to mine. The beard feels weird. Part of the mustache comes down and curls over his top lip and it feels scratchy against mine. I don’t like it. I can feel the hairs of his beard under his lower lip. Those aren’t as bad. They’re smoother and they don’t prick at my skin. They’re soft. I feel a swelling of desire sweep over me. It scares me a little. I take a step back.

 

“So what’s the verdict?” he asks.

 

“I’m not sure I like the mustache coming down over your lip. The rest of it’s okay,” I tell him honestly.

 

“So you’d be willing to kiss me again?”

 

“You could talk me into it.”

 

He smiles. “Anytime you want. You just have to ask.”

 

“I’ll keep it in mind.”

 

oOo

 

I stare down at the odd assortment of ingredients in front of me, trying to make sense of them.

 

“So. Bread.”

 

“Bread!”

 

“How exactly are you planning on making bread?” My eyes flit over the bowls of powders and other things. Other than something that I think might be flour, none of it looks all that familiar.

 

“Well you know that can that you brought with you from your house? The one that your mom said you pulled out dented from under the sink?”

 

“Yeah…”

 

“Well, apparently it’s baking soda.”

 

“Baking soda?” I was hoping it would be something useful. What are we going to do with that much baking soda?

 

Peeta, ironically, echoes the thoughts in my head. “I don’t know what you were planning on doing with that much baking soda, but it’s a good thing we’ve got it. We can make bread with it.”

 

“You can?”

 

“I mean, it’s not as good as yeast-based bread, but you mix it with some salt and a few other things, and it acts as decent leavening.”

 

“I’m glad it’s useful?” I’m still not entirely convinced.

 

“Oh, it is.”

 

“So… flour?” I motion to the bowl that I think contains it. It’s not quite the same color I’m used to and has a yellowish tinge to it.

 

“Well I’ve been experimenting with a few things. I took some of the leftover hardtack and ground it up, since it’s pretty much just water and flour, and added some of the cattail pollen that your mother collected, as well as a few other things.”

 

The cattail pollen explains the yellowish tinge. “What other things?”

 

He waves the question away. “It’s not important. Anyway, I think I’ve come up with something that just might work.”

 

“Okay. So… what do you want me to do?”

 

He shrugs bashfully. “I don’t know? What do you want to do?”

 

I shrug. “I never was much for baking.”

 

“You can just watch if you want.”

 

I nod my head and pull up a cord of wood to sit on. “So what were you thinking of making?”

 

“What would you like?”

 

“Cheese buns?” I ask hopefully.

 

“Unless you happen to have some cheese you’ve been hoarding, I don’t think that’s possible right now. Or unless you’ve managed to find that goat Prim asked for this morning.”

 

I laugh. “Not yet.”

 

“Then I guess cheese buns are right out. Anything else?”

 

“Meat pie?”

 

“You mean like… in-a-pan pie? Or in-your-hand pie?”

 

Both sound good to me. “Either one.”

 

He thinks about it for a few moments. “I could probably do either and we wouldn’t need the baking soda for them. Any preference?”

 

“I don’t care. Whichever.”

 

“How are you at making stews?”

 

“Pretty good. Stew is a good way to make meat last.”

 

“You think you can make a really thick meat gravy?”

 

I shrug. “Probably.”

 

“See, you’re halfway there already!”

 

“Halfway’s not all the way.”

 

“No. But it’s a step.”

 

“A step to what?”

 

“What do you want it to be a step to?”

 

I suddenly realize that we’re not talking about baking anymore. “Peeta…”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Why’d you really ask me to bake with you?”

 

“I thought it was pretty obvious. I wanted to spend time with the woman I love in the place I love the most.”

 

I look around the cave at the stove and what’s been set up in this makeshift kitchen and say, “Really? You love this room the most?”

 

“Yeah, really. It’s where I feel the most… I don’t know. At home. I’m good in the kitchen. I can contribute. I’m not just some pack animal. I’ve got skills that are useful. And that makes me useful. Maybe if I have some kind of use, you’ll like me better.”

 

I squirm on my makeshift stool. “I like you fine. You don’t have to make me a meat pie to make me like you. I’m not that kind of girl.”

 

“But I want to make you stuff that you like,” he says earnestly. “It makes me happy seeing you happy.”

 

“I’m already happy.”

 

“Then I’m happy.”

 

“You’re weird.”

 

He shrugs. “I know. That’s okay, right?”

 

“Oh, Peeta.” I take his face between my hands. “I like you fine just the way you are.” And then I kiss him.

 

He starts slightly, then pulls me into his arms. Like Gale, his beard feels weird. Different. Unlike Gale, his is softer and less prickly when fully grown out. I don’t mind the mustache as much. Still, it’s a bit distracting, and I find myself thinking about the beard rather than the kiss.

 

I deepen the kiss to see if I can feel the little frisson of desire from before. I do. It’s the same that I felt with Gale earlier today.

 

As if sensing my indecision, Peeta steps back and whispers, “Whoa, Katniss. You’ve got a way of boosting a guy’s confidence.”

 

I smile at him. “You keep kissing like that and you should be confident.”

 

“I don’t know. I could use another boost.”

 

I shake my head, too many more kisses and we’ll never get anything done. “Not right now. We’ve got pies to make.”

 

oOo

 

I don’t get much time alone with the boys because the following day the stream is filled with salmon. Our nets can only hold so many and the smoker even less. Even with the second smoker that Peeta and Gale built while Rory and I were gone there’s not enough room, what with the pig and the goat that we got recently. So we can’t get as many salmon as I’d like. But we still manage to haul in several large fish.

 

My mother suggests stringing up the salmon whole, with their innards cleaned out, to dry. I’m guessing she got the idea from that book of hers but it seems to work.  

 

We haul in fish after fish, gorging ourselves on the salty bright red roe until we’re sick of it. Even Buttercup turns up his nose at entrails after a while. Back in Twelve, Gale and I never caught fish this big or this many. I realize after our tenth fish, that with all of the other game we’ve managed to preserve that we’re actually doing well. I’ve been so worried that without the addition of tesserae that we wouldn’t be able to survive, but I’m happy that my fears have been put to rest.

 

Peeta and Gale of course notice my change in demeanor, but it’s Peeta who guesses the reason why. “It’s nice to see that we’re not going to starve,” he says. “That this place can support all of us.”

 

“I wonder why that is,” Prim says, overhearing.

 

“There’s no humans around,” Gale answers. “And the animals aren’t scared of us. We don’t have any other competition.”

 

“I wouldn’t say that,” Peeta says, nodding towards the far side of the stream.

 

We look over and see a few bears along the edge of the river on the other side of the oxbow. Every so often some will plunge their heads into the water, pulling back with splashing fish in their mouths, while others swat the milling salmon onto the bank and pounce on them.

 

“Should we be worried about that?” Rory asks.

 

“Probably,” Gale answers. “You know, we probably should have someone stationed up at the cave just in case.”

 

“I’ll do it!” Rory volunteers. “I get to use a bow, right?”

 

Gale and I exchange a look and I shrug. “I suppose. But you’d better take good care of it and I’d better not find a tree littered with broken arrows when we get back.”

 

“I promise I’ll be good. You can count on me!”

 

I struggle not to roll my eyes. He’s so eager, he doesn’t realize that he’s signing up to be bored until this windfall is over.

 

My mother, Rory, and Prim go back up to the cave, my mother to bring back what we need to sleep outside. Rory and Prim don’t bother coming back down. There’s no point in keeping Prim out at night. She would just be in the way while the rest of us guard the catch.

 

While the three of them are gone, trouble strikes. The wind changes direction.

 

One of the bears on the other side of the stream perks up, sniffing the air. It smells our catch.

 

It starts crossing the river, splashing its way through the sea of fish.

 

“Gale, get your bow. We’ve got trouble.” My eyes never leave the approaching predator.

 

Peeta also reaches for a weapon, a long sharpened stick that my mother claims is a spear. I’m not sure if I would call it that, but right now we need all the help we can get.

 

I’m still hoping the bear isn’t coming for us.

 

But it is.

 

It beelines straight for the line of salmon hanging between two trees. I feel a surge of anger well up within me. There is no way I’m going to let this animal take my hard-earned catch away from me.

 

I nock an arrow to my string and out of the corner of my eye I see Gale doing the same.

 

“On three.”

 

We count.

 

“One.”

 

I draw my arrow to my cheek.

 

“Two.”

 

The bear advances on the fish.

 

“Three.”

 

The twang of the bowstrings echoes through the air. Gale’s arrow slams through the animal’s rib cage and into the chest while mine impales itself in the bear’s eye. It doesn’t even have time to roar before it’s dead.

 

Peeta looks over at us. “So... I guess we’re having bear for dinner?”

 

Gale and I laugh.

 

oOo

 

Peeta, Gale, and I don’t sleep well that night. Each of us takes a watch to guard our catch. Peeta has the idea to set up several fires around the edge of the area that we’re protecting, both as a deterrent to keep bears away and to help see.

 

We spot a few large shapes throughout the night but thankfully a few shouts and waved torches keep them away.

 

In the morning, my mother and Prim come down to help with the next day’s catch.

 

My sister calls out a greeting and I look up from where I’m seated next to the smoker. Behind her I see a large dark shape moving through the undergrowth.

 

“Prim!” I yell, jumping to my feet.

 

My sister looks at me in confusion then turns to look behind her. She freezes.

 

A huge bear emerges from the shadows.

 

Time seems to stop.

 

Beside me, I hear Gale swear and lunge for his bow. Peeta grabs a brand from the fire and runs toward the giant animal, yelling at the top of his lungs. My mother freezes, her mouth open in an ‘O’.

 

I note this absently, like it’s irrelevant. Because to me it is. All of my attention is focused on Prim. My baby sister who I’d sacrifice everything for is in danger, and I can’t even breathe.

 

“Prim, don’t move!” my mother calls.

 

But my sister is twelve. The bear grunts and that’s too much for her. She breaks, running towards the beach and the potential safety of the camp.

 

It’s the worst possible thing she could do.

 

The bear lets out a huge roar and starts to run after her.

 

Time speeds up.

 

I hear the twang of a bowstring as Gale looses an arrow into the side of the beast. That galvanizes me into action.

 

I raise my bow, nocking an arrow to the string, and fire. I’m not even bothering to aim. I need to distract the bear from pursuing my sister. It works, but only slightly.

 

The bear rears up and slashes out with its paws, catching my sister on the side, launching her into the air.

 

“Prim!” I scream.

 

She falls to the ground fifteen feet away, blood staining her clothes. She’s out of the bear’s path, but she’s not out of danger.

 

I nock another arrow and I see Gale doing the same. We fire as one, my arrow embedding itself into the bear’s throat while Gale’s lodges in its chest.

 

The bear lets out a roar of pain.

 

By then, Peeta’s in range. He hurls the flaming branch directly at the bear’s face, blinding it.

 

It’s the opening we need.

 

My mother breaks for my sister while Gale and I loose yet another set of arrows into the huge animal. My third arrow severs the bear’s jugular while Gale’s manages to slip through the huge beast’s ribs and into its chest. The bear lets out one final roar that trails off into a bloody gurgle before collapsing to the ground.

 

Peeta pulls a knife and moves forward to finish it off. I don’t wait to see if the animal’s dead. It doesn’t matter. I toss my bow to the side, running for my sister. “Prim!” I yell.

 

I skid to a halt, staring down. My mother’s hands are coated in my sister’s blood as she tries to apply pressure and staunch the bleeding.

 

“Give me your shirt,” my mother orders, not even bothering to turn around.

 

I don’t even think about it. I pull the thin cotton over my head and hand it to my mother, completely uncaring that I’m now nude from the waist up. She presses it against Prim’s back.

 

“Is she alive?” I ask.

 

“For now. I’ve got to stop the bleeding and get her back to the cave.”

 

Gale runs up. “I can carry her.”

 

“Or I can,” Peeta offers.

 

My mother looks over at them. “Gale, come on.”

 

Gale scoops Prim up and the three of them hurry up to the cave.

 

I stare after them. I want to go after them but I know I’d be in the way. I’m not like my mother or Prim. I’m not a healer. I’m a hunter and we’ve got several kills to take care of and a catch to guard.

 

Peeta looks at me and then resolutely turns his back, unbuttoning his shirt and handing it to me. “Here.”

 

I’m suddenly reminded that I’m standing there half naked. I feel the blush rise on my cheeks and I take the proffered garment gratefully. It’s much too big on me, but at least it gives me some modicum of modesty.

 

“Are you dressed?” Peeta asks, his back still to me.

 

I nod my head and then realize that he can’t see me. “Y-yes,” I stutter.

 

Peeta looks at me sharply. “Katniss?” he asks.

 

I can’t answer. I’m shaking too much. My sister, the person who is most important to me in this world, is lying at death’s door, and I was too slow, too shocked, to prevent her from getting hurt. “This is all my fault,” I whisper.

 

“You can’t think that, Katniss.”

 

I shake my head. “It’s all my fault.”

 

He slips his arm around me, leading me back towards the camp. “You killed the bear.”

 

“I let Prim get hurt!” I scream.

 

“There wasn’t anything you could’ve done to stop it.”

 

I keep replaying the attack in my mind. Each time I see exactly where I messed up. “I could’ve killed the bear faster! Better! I could’ve done something! It’s my fault.”

 

He draws me against his chest, trying to comfort me. It’s...nice…but it isn’t enough. I still feel guilty.

 

“Prim wouldn’t blame you,” Peeta says. “And Prim wouldn’t want you to blame yourself.”

 

He’s right. I know he’s right, damn him. It doesn’t stop the guilt.

 

I lean against Peeta’s chest and start sobbing, letting all of my worries come out in huge gasping sobs. Time loses all meaning, I’m incoherent with grief. It doesn’t matter. Peeta just holds me, making shushing noises in his throat.

 

I feel another person’s arms go around both of us. I look up through tear-soaked eyes to see Gale. “Is she-”

 

Gale reaches up and starts stroking my hair. “Your mom’s working on her right now. She’s sent Rory out to look for some herbs but I thought I should come back to you.”

 

“I’m fine.” I sniff loudly.

 

Gale tightens his arms around us. “You’re not fine, Catnip, and that’s okay. You cry all you want. Get it out. Peet and me will watch over you while you do.”

 

I break down into a second set of tears, this one more cathartic. The two boys hold me for I don’t know how long. They keep murmuring little things under their breath and stroking my hair, back, and face. It’s comforting. Their combined efforts are starting to make me feel better. It’s what I need. I burrow deeper into their arms. This feels good. This feels right.

 

I surrender myself to the both of them, trusting both Peeta and Gale to protect me.

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Brand New Breeze:

 

Gale tightens his arms around us. “You’re not fine, Catnip, and that’s okay. You cry all you want. Get it out. Peet and me will watch over you while you do.”

 

I break down into a second set of tears, this one more cathartic. The two boys hold me for I don’t know how long. They keep murmuring little things under their breath and stroking my hair, back, and face. It’s comforting. Their combined efforts are starting to make me feel better. It’s what I need. I burrow deeper into their arms. This feels good. This feels right.

 

I surrender myself to the both of them, trusting both Peeta and Gale to protect me.

 

oOo

 

I’m not sure how I make it through the rest of the salmon run, but with Gale and Peeta’s support, I manage.

 

Prim survived the attack.

 

Barely.

 

My mother tells us that she’s got a few cracked ribs and several deep lacerations along her side and back from where the bear’s claws ripped through the fabric of her shirt and into her flesh. She stitched Prim up to the best of her ability and now it’s up to Prim to heal. My mother makes various poultices and mixtures for her to consume, but for the most part Prim sleeps, aided by a little bit of the morphling that I got from Madge and some sleep syrup we brought from home.

 

Surprisingly, considering how often they bicker, Rory seems to be almost as broken up as me by Prim’s injury. When he’s not helping us with the rest of the salmon run, he spends his time hovering over my sister, cuddling Buttercup, both of them watching Prim anxiously.

 

I’m not sure I understand it.

 

Gale, on the other hand, just smirks. He leans over to Peeta and mutters, “Looks like another Hawthorne boy is destined to fall in love with an Everdeen girl.”

 

Peeta murmurs back, “It could be worse. At least we know he’s not interested in Katniss.”

 

Gale snorts, clearly amused.

 

“I heard that,” I shoot back over my shoulder.

 

The two just shrug and I return to studying Rory’s vigil.

 

There’s a small pile of random things on the floor next to her sickbed. Rory found them when he went exploring before Prim got injured and he thinks Prim might like to have presents waiting for her when she wakes up. I’m not sure what Prim is going to do with the brown plastic thing with detachable body parts, but Rory seems to think that she’ll like it, so I don’t say anything.

 

The only time I see my mother leave the cave is when she goes out to gather a few medicinal herbs that are best used when fresh. With my mother so devoted to taking care of Prim, it falls to Gale, Peeta, and me to take over the household. I don’t want to spend time away from the cave, and it’s not like we need to go hunting or gathering much anyways. Just a little bit to break up the monotony of bear organ meat and salmon roe. Peeta takes over most of the household chores while Gale tends the garden and makes sure that the rest of us are well-protected.

 

This goes on for several days during which I realize that Peeta, Gale and myself are operating as one cohesive unit. It’s nice and it feels right and I don’t want this harmony to end.

 

But it will end as soon as I choose which boy I want to have a relationship with. Why do I have to choose? I don’t want to! I want them both. I need them both. They each fit into a piece of myself that I didn’t know was missing.

 

Gale knows me. Gets me. He’s my hunting partner and best friend. That hasn’t changed. He also pushes at me, keeping me active and not letting me slip into depression. Gale forces me to take chances I might not take and I need someone who will keep me from staying stagnant. He’s a spark. A catalyst. And I need that.

 

But I need Peeta too. He’s solid. He’s safe. Where Gale urges me to take chances, Peeta is there to help heal the wounds when things don’t go as planned. He’s less impulsive and more steady. He too won’t let me sink into depression, but rather than jerking me out of the water, he’s more of a lifeline who’ll hold on to me while I pull myself to shore.

 

With Prim’s injury, I’ve come to realize that I am more like my mother than I want to be. I know if both Peeta and Gale hadn’t been there for me immediately after Prim was injured, I would have gone away just like my mother did when my father died. I blamed myself, still blame myself, for Prim being near death’s door. And both Peeta and Gale are right there beside me, ready to step in when I start to fall back into that spiral of recrimination and guilt.   I need that safe haven to come home to but I also need a reason to go out the door in the first place.

 

Peeta and Gale together give me both.

 

I want them both.

 

I need them both.

 

How in the hell am I supposed to tell them that?

 

oOo

 

Prim wakes up several days later.   She’s been recuperating in the kitchen on a bed made by Gale for that express purpose. She sees the turkey we’d gotten in a snare that morning sitting out on the stone bench next to a basket of morel mushrooms.

 

“Did I miss the celebration?” Prim asks groggily.

 

My mother is instantly alert. “What celebration?”

 

She motions vaguely with one hand. “The turkey.   Reaping Day. We always try to get one for the feast after. Did I miss it?”

 

I start, glancing between the turkey and my sister. I’d been planning on stuffing the bird with some greens and a few mushrooms but didn’t give any thought to the fact that it’s one of our go to foods for celebrations. I do a little calculating in my head, counting off the days on my fingers, and realize it’s May 30th.

 

Reaping Day is in two days. And it will be the first one that none of us will have to participate in.  

 

“No you didn’t miss it, Little Duck,” I tell Prim.

 

“Oh good,” she says sleepily, “I always liked the feast after.”

 

“Then we’ll have a feast,” my mother says. “But that’s not for a couple of days yet. You need to go back to sleep and get better so that you can take part in all of the festivities.”

 

“Okay.” Prim yawns and clutches the pillow my mother made me to her chest and goes back to sleep.

 

My mother looks up at me and states matter-of-factly, “You know this now means we have to plan something.”

 

I nod.

 

We don’t have electricity and I wouldn’t want to watch the Reaping anyway.   We need to do something else. Something fun.

 

But what?

 

oOo

 

Two days later, I still have no idea what to do to celebrate escaping Reaping Day. The feast is a given and we’ve hunted and gathered a few things in preparation.

 

My mother and Peeta spend most of the morning preparing everything. There’s a goose stuffed with cattails and mulberries, a roasted duck smothered in an onion and morel sauce, and the squirrel Peeta requested in a stew with daylily bulbs, ramps, and wild carrots. There’s a few herb biscuits with a soft bear fat spread. For dessert, there’s strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries with a little bit of honey from that beehive Rory found to sweeten it all.

 

It’s more food than I’ve seen in a meal in my life. I’m not sure how we’re going to eat it all, but I’m looking forward to trying.

 

But other than gorging ourselves into a coma, what are we going to do?

 

My mother takes the decision out of my hands, shooing everyone but Prim out of the cave while the food is cooking. Ostensibly we’re supposed to go wash up, but really it’s an order to go play.

 

I go to grab my bow and arrows and Gale stops me. “I’ll take care of security today,” he says.

 

I try to protest but he shakes his head firmly.

 

“Don’t worry about it, Katniss,” Peeta says.

 

I frown at the both of them. “I’m the best shot. I should be the one with a bow.”

 

“And you haven’t taken a day off since you were eleven,” Gale points out. “You need to have fun sometime.”

 

“Hunting’s fun.”

 

“Not for you it isn’t.”

 

“So what am I supposed to do?”

 

“We could go swimming,” Peeta offers.

 

I glare at them until I realize that they aren’t going to change their minds. “Fine. Let me go get changed.”

 

A few minutes later, we all meet at the base of the hill and head towards a nearby pond that we found. It’s not as large as the lake back home, but it’s good for swimming and it’s nearby.

 

We splash around in our underthings and I show both Rory and Gale a few strokes, but mostly we just play, splashing each other with the cool water and reveling in the warm sun on our shoulders.

 

When we’re done, we flop onto the small beach to dry out, lying on our backs and watching the clouds.

 

“Can you sing something, Katniss?” Peeta asks.

 

I turn my head to look at him. He looks so hopeful that I don’t quite have the heart to tell him no. I think about the songs that I know and what would be appropriate. A passing cloud overhead gives the inspiration I need and I sing an old song about a dragon from a magical land and the boy he befriended. After the first verse, Rory joins me on the chorus and soon we’re all singing along.

 

I wince whenever anyone hits a sour note and Peeta seems to hit them the most. But I still have a good time. I finish the song and Peeta looks over at me expectantly.

 

I shake my head. “We should get back.”

 

“I’ll join you in a minute,” Rory says quickly. “I want to go grab a couple things first.”

 

“Getting more stuff for Prim?” Gale asks.

 

“Yeah, and I think I saw something that we all might like later.”

 

We exchange a look and shrug our shoulders. “We’ll see you back at the cave.”

 

oOo

 

Dinner tastes just as good as it smelled and we gorge ourselves until we can’t eat anymore. I don’t even feel guilty about eating this much because we have so much food saved up already and we have lots of time to get more, including the fall when all of the fruit and nut trees that we’ve found will be ready to harvest.

 

Even more heartening, Prim has a hearty appetite for the first time since she was injured.

 

Rory sucks the meat off a goose leg and lets out a large belch.

 

“Rory Hawthorne!” Prim glares at him.

 

“What? I liked the food! It’s a compliment!”

 

“Burping is never a compliment! What are you, a Capitolite?”

 

“No! I’m just full! Better out than in, I always say.”

 

“Ewwwww!”

 

Rory suddenly turns serious. “Does it really bother you that much, Prim?”

 

“Of course it does! It’s rude and it’s gross!”

 

Rory makes a face. “I’m sorry. I’ll try not to do it again. It just… slipped out.”

 

We all gape at Rory.

 

Rory blushes and crosses his arms defensively. “What? I said I was sorry!”

 

“We know.” Gale reaches out and puts a hand on Rory’s forehead. “Are you feeling okay? Do you have a fever?”

 

Rory bats Gale’s hand away. “Knock it off! I’m fine!”

 

“You sure? Maybe you’ve been infected with some kind of parasite.” Gale makes a show of checking Rory over for abnormal growths. “Maybe you’re a pod person.”

 

“Gale! You knock it off right now!”

 

“Hey! He’s finally being nice to me. You guys stop it!” Prim cries, leaping to Rory’s defense. “I don’t want Rory to go back to being rude!” She turns to Rory. “You just keep acting like a gentleman and I’ll keep acting like a lady.”

 

Peeta falls on the floor, laughing.

 

Prim glares at him. “Well, I’m glad that we’re providing someone some kind of amusement!”

 

“I’m sorry, Prim, I didn’t mean to make you upset,” Peeta says from the ground. “You guys are just so cute.”

 

“We are not!” Prim and Rory chorus.

 

Peeta breaks down into laughter again.

 

“Katniss! You make them stop!”

 

I hold my hands out in front of me. “Keep me out of it.”

 

“Fine. But you owe me a song.”

 

“Oh I do, do I, Little Duck?”

 

“Yes. You do. This is Reaping Day and you always sing me a song on Reaping Day.”

 

She’s right. I do. Most years I sing a comforting song, often the lullabies my father sang to me before he died. This year, though, I want to sing something new. We don’t need comforting. We’re safe, and not just for this year. We’re never going to get Reaped.

 

Ever.

 

What can I sing? A soothing lullaby doesn’t seem right, but I want to sing something with a little bit of hope.

 

I look outside and see the reflection of the setting sun, glistening off of the river. The almost full moon is dangling overhead in the pale pink and orange light. It’s lovely and it’s ours. I smile and start to sing.

 

“Moon river,
wider than a mile,
I’m crossing you in style
some day.”

 

Peeta leans back and a reverent expression comes across his face.

 

“Oh, dream maker,
you heartbreaker,
wherever you’re going,
I’m going your way.”

 

Gale looks around the cave, taking a drink from the bottle of alcohol we’ve been passing around.

 

“Two drifters,
off to see the world.
There’s such a lot of world to see.”

 

Rory reaches over and clasps Prim’s hand. She glances down and smiles at him. She doesn’t pull away.

 

“We’re after the same rainbow’s end,
waiting, round the bend,
my Huckleberry Friend, Moon River, and me.”

 

My mother has a tear in her eye and she reaches up to brush it away. I know why. This song, Moon River, is a song I know my father used to sing to her.

 

When I finish the song, she gets up and looks down at us. “I’ll keep watch all night. You kids should enjoy this.”

 

Prim lets out a yawn. Rory stands, holding out a hand to help her up. They stagger off together to the kitchen and Prim’s bed.

 

I hear them talking in low tones. I think he’s going to stay with my sister for the rest of the night.

 

The three of us migrate to the bedroom in order to give my mother a little privacy and to avoid keeping Prim up with our celebrating. Peeta brings the rest of the biscuits while Gale grabs the bottle of liquor Rory brought back right before dinner.

 

We take a seat on the edge of my mother’s bed and look at each other. “So now what?”

 

Gale shrugs and passes me the bottle.

 

I take a drink. It burns on the way down.   “Is this what Haymitch drinks all the time?” I ask, coughing, holding the bottle out away from me.

 

Peeta takes the bottle from me and takes a swig. “Probably.”

 

He passes the bottle back to me and I take another drink. It’s just as bad the second time. “Why are we drinking this?”

 

Gale snags the bottle from my hands. “Because we can.” He offers it to Peeta, who takes it.

 

“Because we’re free,” Peeta adds, taking another drink.

 

“I can drink to that!” I snatch the bottle out of Peeta’s hand and chug.

 

“Whoa, hold it!” Gale yanks it back. “We don’t want you to get sick!”

 

I feel the spirits’ warmth spreading through my body. “Fine. Then you guys drink it.”

 

“Not all at once, I hope,” Peeta says.

 

“No, not all at once,” Gale agrees.

 

“So…” I flop back onto the bed and stare up at the stalactites on the ceiling. “What do we want to do? We’ve got the whole night to ourselves.”

 

Peeta props himself up on his side next to me. “We could talk?” he suggests.

 

Gale sprawls out along my other side. “Yeah. Talking is good.”

 

I wrinkle my nose. “What about?”

 

“What was the best day of your life?” Peeta asks.

 

It’s not the question I was expecting and I have to think about it. “Probably my tenth birthday,” I say finally. “My father took me out into the woods for the very first time and he took me swimming in the lake near Twelve. The water was cold. Really cold. But he was so patient, teaching me how to float and swim and it was just the two of us. And I felt so loved and free. I had nothing to worry about. The Games were a distant possibility and it was just me and my father, the two of us, for the whole afternoon.” I curl up and look at Peeta. “What about you?”

 

“I think the day you kissed me,” he admits, his heart in his eyes. “I’d been dreaming of it my whole life, and it was even better than my dreams.”

 

I pull him to me and kiss him.

 

When we pull back, he smiles. “Although today might just be the best day too. I need more data.” He puckers his lips at me expectantly.

 

I laugh and roll over, scooching my back against Peeta. He slips an arm over my stomach and starts rubbing patterns on it. “So what about you? What’s your best day?” I ask Gale.

 

“You know, kissing Katniss is up there. Today’s up there.” He smiles at both of us. Then his expression becomes wistful. “But I think the best day was the day my sister was born. Your ma put Posy in my arms and she looked up at me with those dark baby eyes and I knew right then and there, even though she wasn’t my child, she was mine. Nothing else mattered.” His face spasms as he remembers that Posy is gone.

 

I reach up and touch his cheek. “Gale…”

 

He shakes his head. “Don’t say you’re sorry. I’m not. I got three and a half wonderful years with her. Can any man ever be so lucky? Yeah, I want more. But I got three and a half years.” He stares up at me with unshed tears in his eyes. “No one else got that.”

 

I don’t know what to say. What can I say? I draw him to me. He clutches at me, clinging to me like I’m a lifeline. Behind me, Peeta is supporting the both of us so I can support Gale. When I feel the crisis point has passed, I tilt his head up and kiss him gently on the lips.

 

He pulls away. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to act like that.”

 

Peeta reaches over me and squeezes Gale’s upper arm. “Don’t ever be ashamed for loving your kid. Posy was as much your daughter as she was your mother’s and she’s still in your heart.”

 

“So you get it?” Gale asks, almost plaintively.

 

Peeta squeezes Gale’s bicep again and I feel him nod behind me. I’m a bit confused at the exchange and I feel like there’s been some kind of communication between them that I just don’t get. I don’t like feeling left out so I take matters into my own hands.

 

I slide my hands up Gale’s body until one of them’s resting on top of Peeta’s. The other I have on the back of Gale’s neck and I draw him to me again. This kiss is less tender and more demanding. I want to wipe any feelings of sadness out of Gale’s mind and this is the best way I can think of to do it.

 

I feel Gale’s hands come up to cup my face. I moan against his lips and press myself firmly against Peeta. Peeta responds by sliding his hand down Gale’s arm and onto me. He runs the tips of his fingers along my side, slipping under the edge of my shirt to caress my stomach.

 

Suddenly, I want to kiss Peeta more than anything else in the world.

 

I disengage from Gale and sit up and the world shifts beneath me. My head spins and my body sways, trying to orient itself. I feel my face flush and I clutch at the blankets to keep from falling off the world.

 

“Katniss, are you okay?” Gale asks.

 

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I answer. “Just a little hot.” I slip my shirt off over my head, leaving me in just my undershirt, and lay back down, turning to face Peeta.

 

Gale’s hand slides up my leg before settling on my stomach. I moan slightly. I want more.

 

I grab Peeta’s shirt and pull him towards me. “I’m going to kiss you now.”

 

“Okay...”

 

And I do.

 

It feels just as good as kissing Gale. I feel something warm and liquid pooling in my belly. I can’t keep my hands from Peeta. I slide them up his sides and under his shirt, revelling in the feel of his taut stomach. Suddenly I want the shirt off him. I don’t want anything standing in the way between my hands and Peeta’s skin.

 

I pull back. “Shirt off,” I order.

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Peeta agrees. He quickly divests himself of his shirt, tossing it on the floor beside the bed. He leans back in for another kiss, his tongue demanding entrance into my mouth.

 

Gale’s hand slips under the hem of my undershirt and across my stomach. He doesn’t make any moves to go higher even though I want him to. I tear myself away from Peeta’s lips. “Gale, more,” I demand. I reach down and grab his hand, placing it on my breast.

 

I feel Gale freeze behind me.

 

“Katniss? Are you sure?” he breathes against my neck.

 

I roll over to look Gale in the eyes. I take his hand and rub it over my breast. “I want this. I want you. I want you both.”

 

Gale’s eyes widen and he looks over my shoulder at Peeta. I feel Peeta pull away and get up.

 

“What? What’d I do?” I roll over to my back. “Where are you going?”

 

“I’m going to bed, Katniss.” Peeta pulls his shirt over his head.

 

“But - but kisses!”

 

Gale sits up and looks down at me. “No. Not now. Not while you’re like this.”

 

“Like what?” I ask belligerently.

 

“You’re drunk,” he states flatly.

 

“No I’m not! I feel fine! I want this!” I don’t feel drunk. I’m not Haymitch! I just feel good. Loose. Needy. “I want you! Why don’t you guys want me? You’ve been chasing after me for months now and all of a sudden when I want you, you turn me away. You reject me.”

 

“Katniss, that’s not it at all,” Peeta says, sitting back down on the bed. “We both want you, but just not when you’re like this.”

 

“But why? Is it something I did? Is it something I said?”

 

Gale scrubs his hands through his hair. “Fuck, Katniss. No! We want you more than anything else in the world, but we want you to want us too.”

 

“But I do! I want you both! Can’t you see that I want you both?” I’m so confused. None of this is making any sense.

 

Gale shakes his head. “I’ll believe you if you tell us this in the morning. I don’t want any regrets, Catnip. If you still want this in the morning, when we’re all sober, then absolutely. But I don’t want you to regret this. I don’t want you to regret us. I’m sure Peeta feels the same.”

 

I look over at the blond boy. He nods. “I’m willing to wait until you’re sure and you can tell me that you’re sure without any liquid courage. I’ve waited for you for years. I can wait a bit longer.”

 

I was right. They don’t want me. Not really. “You know what? Fuck you! Fuck you both!” I stand up, still swaying, and stomp over to my sleeping space. I lie down, facing the wall. I’m unable to stop the tears from coming.

 

They’ve rejected me!

 

I wanted them both and they’ve rejected me. I shared the secret I’ve held hidden in my heart and they rejected it. I scrub my tears away. If they’re going to be like that... Fine. I don’t want them that much anyway!

 

Fuck them!

 

oOo

 

I wake up. There’s a stabbing pain behind my left eye. I swallow gingerly. My mouth is dry and I desperately want a glass of water. My stomach is roiling and I wish I had a piece of bread or something to calm it down. I roll over and see that I’m alone in the bedroom. Good. I didn’t want to talk to Peeta or Gale anyway.

 

I stumble out to the main room and find my mother is still awake. “I thought you would’ve gone to bed by now,” I say. I beeline to the pot of tea sitting next to her. I pour myself a cup, not even caring that it’s long cold, and chug it down.

 

“I will as soon as your two boys get back from their errand.” My mother’s watching me with amusement on her face.

 

I empty the rest of the pot into my cup. “They’re not my two boys,” I say sullenly, staring down at the floating leaves. “Weren’t you listening last night? They rejected me.”

 

My mother looks at me incredulously. “I’m sure that’s not what happened,” she says.

 

“It sure feels like what happened.” I swirl the cup in my hands.

 

“Have you talked to them about it?”

 

“No, and I don’t want to either.” I down my second cup of cold tea. “They can go to hell for all I care.” I slam the mug down as if to emphasize my point.

 

“I think before you consign them to eternal damnation that you might want to talk to them. And maybe get something to eat and drink first. There’s some more tea in the kitchen if you want it and I think there’s some leftovers as well.”

 

My stomach roils again at the thought of food but I should eat something. It might settle it down. I wonder if there’s any of those biscuits left.

 

I slip into the kitchen, careful not to awaken Rory and Prim. Prim is asleep on the sickbed and Rory is lying on the floor next to her. Prim’s arm is hanging off the bed and Rory is holding her hand while they sleep.

 

I smile. It’s sweet. But I’m also jealous. I want that for myself and I thought I had it.

 

Turns out I was wrong.

 

I grab a few leftovers and another cup of tea and head for the ledge of the cave.

 

I sit down, replaying the previous night’s events over in my head. I wanted them both so badly. Kissing just wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted more. And it hurt - hurts - knowing they turned me down. I thought they wanted this too. I thought they’d be open to a relationship between all three of us. They seemed comfortable together with me in the middle. None of the jealousy that had plagued our relationship earlier was there last night.

 

So why did they say no?

 

The thought repeats over and over in my head until I hear the sound of two people approaching.

 

I look up and see Gale and Peeta, their hair damp. But more surprisingly, their beards are gone. “You shaved!” I exclaim.

 

Peeta rubs the back of his neck. “Surprise? Gale thought you might like it.”

 

My eyes narrow. “Why do you care about what I like? You rejected me last night.”

 

“No. We didn’t reject you,” Gale says. “We just didn’t want you making any decisions while you might be impaired.”

 

“I wasn’t impaired. I’ve wanted the both of you for a long time.” The words slip out before I can stop them. I don’t really want to anyway.

 

“You have?” Gale asks intently.

 

I stare down at my hands, trying not to blush. I fail. “Well… yeah. I just didn’t think you’d be willing, you know, to share. That you’d be okay with us being a trio instead of a couple. I know it’s not fair to either of you. But, I don’t want to choose between you.” I turn to look at them. “I can’t. I need you both. Don’t you see I need you both?”

 

Peeta and Gale share a look.

 

“You know why we had to stop. You were drunk, Katniss,” Peeta says nervously. “And you’ve seen what Haymitch does when he’s drunk. We didn’t know if it was you or the booze talking and we couldn’t take the chance that it was the booze. We didn’t want to do anything that you, Katniss, sober Katniss, grumpy Katniss-” I glare at him. “-wouldn’t want to do.”

 

I realize now the real reason that they shaved, so that I can see their whole faces without being obscured by the whiskers. Peeta looks so earnest while Gale looks almost pleading, like he wants me to listen to Peeta. Like he wants me to believe Peeta.

 

“I’m sober now,” I mutter, staring down into my ginger tea.

 

“And?” Gale asks.

 

I look up to meet their eyes. “My mind hasn’t changed. I still want you. Both of you.”

 

“And we want you too.”

 

I smile. “So… how’s this gonna work?”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Brand New Breeze:

 

“I’m sober now,” I mutter, staring down into my ginger tea.

 

“And?” Gale asks.

 

I look up to meet their eyes. “My mind hasn’t changed. I still want you. Both of you.”

 

“And we want you too.”

 

I smile. “So… how’s this gonna work?”

 

oOo

 

Peeta exchanges a glance with Gale. “I think we need to talk about that. But not here.” He looks pointedly at the cave opening. “This is between us. I don’t think we want anybody else involved.”

 

“No, three’s enough,” Gale says dryly.

 

I nod my head emphatically. Then, because I can’t help myself, I tease, “It’s just too bad about Rory. But I suppose Prim can have him.”

 

“Oh good,” Gale murmurs.

 

Peeta adds tongue-in-cheek, “Yeah, that really makes us feel so much better. We were a little afraid you were hoping to collect your own harem.”

 

“That was always one of my big, big, big goals. I’ve always wanted my own beefcake harem,” I reply airily, imitating Effie Trinket’s intonations. Then I slip back into a more serious tone and say, “But in all seriousness, I’m still kind of up in the air about the whole relationship thing.”

 

“We know,” they both chorus.

 

“I think we should probably get away for a couple of days, sort of work everything out. This isn’t gonna be easy.” He and Gale share a look. “For any of us. But if it’s what you want, we’re willing to give it a try,” Peeta says. “We just don’t need the peanut gallery offering commentary on what’s really our decision.”

 

I nod my head. I agree with them, it’s a good idea. The last thing I want is other people listening in on our private conversation.

 

With that decided, we walk back into the cave. My mother is sitting crosslegged by the fire, her head propped up on one hand. It’s clear from her drooping eyelids and vacant expression that she’s struggling to stay awake long enough for one of us to take over. I feel a little smidgen of pity for her for what we’re about to do.

 

“Oh good,” my mother says, looking up at us with a yawn. “You’re back.”

 

The pity grows. “Not for long,” I say guiltily.

 

She blinks, sitting up straighter. “What?”

 

I flinch at her tone. “All three of us, Gale, Peeta and me, we’re gonna go out for a couple of days, exploring, hunting. You know, stuff.”

 

“Mm hm.” She does not sound pleased.

 

“We just thought we should let you know.”

 

“Yes, you should.” Her tone is flat.

 

“So we’ll just get our stuff and packs and head out.” I’m anxious to escape my mother’s hard stare.

 

She regards me sternly for several long moments before tearing her gaze from mine to look at Gale and Peeta. “Boys, do you think you could go set the nets down at the river before you go? I need to have a conversation with my daughter.” There isn’t any room for argument in her tone.

 

And the boys don’t give her one. “Absolutely, Violet, we’d be happy to,” Peeta says quickly. Gale nods in agreement.

 

The boys grab the nets and all but run out of the cave. I struggle not to shift nervously while my mother sizes me up.

 

“So,” my mother finally asks, “what’s really going on?”

 

“I don’t know?” It’s the truth but somehow it comes out sounding more like a question than like the statement I intended it to be.

 

My mother tilts her head. “Really? So you’re not dating Gale or Peeta?” She narrows her eyes. “Or should I say and?”

 

“Maybe? That’s what we’ve got to work out.” I’m struggling not to fidget. This is my mother. She’s never cared about my life before and I’m not sure I want her to start with my love life.

 

“I see.” I don’t really think she does. “Have you thought about protection?” she asks next.

 

“Well, Gale’s gonna have his bow and I’ll have my bow--”

 

“That’s not what I meant,” my mother cuts me off.

 

I bite my lower lip. I’m confused. Maybe she means protection for here at the cave. “Rory’s a good enough shot now, I’m sure he can guard--”

 

She cuts me off again. “That’s not what I meant either.”

 

“Then what did you mean?” I ask, exasperated.

 

My mother sighs. “I meant sex, Katniss.”

 

“Mom!” I’m shocked she’d even bring it up. I know how babies are made, it’s impossible not to growing up in a one bedroom house and being the eldest. But it’s not something I feel comfortable talking about with anyone, especially my mother.

 

“What?” she asks, blinking at me. “Do you want to risk getting pregnant? You’re sixteen. Do you really want a baby right now?”

 

“Well no! But I’m not having sex with Peeta and Gale!”

 

“Yet.”

 

“Mom!”

 

“I’m being realistic, Katniss,” she continues even though I’m sure she can tell I’m absolutely mortified. “I can’t expect you to stay a child all your life. And it’s not as though you have to worry about being Reaped. But a child needs to be something you want.”

 

She’s right. I don’t want a child but someday, probably not anytime soon, if Gale and Peeta and I keep going the way we are, we will have sex eventually. I guess I can understand why my mother would bring this up now even if I don’t want to talk about it. “So… what do you mean?”

 

“Well, when was the last time you had your period?” she asks bluntly.

 

I have to think. I’ve always been pretty regular but lately my period has been shifting, getting longer between cycles. “I should get it in a couple of days.”

 

She lets out a sigh. “That’s fine. If you want to have sex now, you shouldn’t get pregnant.”

 

“What?” I can’t believe she just said that. It sounds like she thinks I’m going to just walk out of the cave and start making love to Peeta and Gale in the next five minutes. I’m not sure if I’m going to be ready for sex in the next five years!

 

She continues, ignoring my outburst. “Just don’t have sex two weeks or so after you start your period. That’s when you’re fertile. It’s not foolproof, but it’s the best we can do out here to prevent you from getting pregnant.”

 

I shake my head. I can’t believe I’m discussing this with my mother. “I don’t think you need to worry about it. We’re not going to be having sex anytime soon. In fact, I’m not even sure that I’m going to be having a relationship with them.”

 

She gives me a look. “Why not? You like them both and it’s not like there’s anything stopping you out here.”

 

“Well, they may not want to.” Even to my ears it sounds pathetic.

 

My mother just continues to stare at me.

 

I cross my arms defensively. “Okay, fine, they might be willing to consider it. But I’m not sure I want a relationship! With anyone. Not just them.”

 

My mother shifts. “Why not?”

 

I look away. I’m not willing to admit the reason. How do you tell your mother that you don’t want to turn into her?

 

My mother sighs. “It’s because of me, isn’t it?”

 

Apparently I don’t need to tell her, she’s already guessed. I nod reluctantly.

 

I feel my mother come up beside me and she places a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t let fear of loss ruin your chances for happiness. If I knew what would happen to Solomon before we got married, I’d have still married him. The fifteen years we had together were the best years of my life. Even losing him the way I did, I still wouldn’t give up loving him.”

 

“I don’t want to become you.”

 

“Then don’t.”

 

I glare at her. “You say it like it’s so easy.”

 

“It’s not,” she says sadly. “But you can’t hide yourself away for the rest of your life just because you’re afraid of getting hurt. Because you’re afraid of loving somebody and then losing them. That’s not fair. It’s not fair to yourself and it’s not fair to the people who care about you.”

 

“You’re right, it’s not fair. It wasn’t fair what you did to me and Prim, going away like that!” I snarl. “I shouldn’t have had to take over providing for the family when I was eleven.”

 

“No, you shouldn’t have, and I’m sorry.” My mother sounds taken aback at my tone.   “But I can’t go back and change the past. Will you ever forgive me?”

 

“No.”

 

“Of course not. I don’t know why I even asked.” She sighs. “Will you at least accept that I’m sorry?”

 

I turn to look at my mother. I can see the tears in her eyes. I’ve hurt her. But I still can’t forgive her. If it hadn’t been for Peeta, Prim would’ve died. I can forgive her, maybe, for what she did to me, but not for what she did to Prim. Though I do believe that she’s sorry now. I still can’t forgive her. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

 

I sigh. “I believe you.”

 

Her shoulders slump in relief. “Thank you.”

 

“Look, I should really get my stuff. You don’t need to worry about me having sex with Peeta and Gale. It’s not gonna happen anytime soon.”

 

My mother smiles enigmatically. “If you say so, dear.”

 

oOo

 

We set off an hour later, my mother’s advice ringing in my ears.

 

When the boys return, she pulls all three of us aside and tells us, “There’s no point in you focusing on hunting. We’ve got more than enough meat. Unless you see something you think we can’t live without, I’d prefer you focus on other things.”

 

With a knowing look in his eyes, Peeta nods. “We’ll be back in a couple of days.”

 

My mother gives each of us a hug. “Stay safe out there and don’t do anything you’ll regret.”

 

I’m not really sure what exactly she means by that but I don’t want to ask. I just want to figure things out with Peeta and Gale so that things can get back to normal. I debate saying goodbye to Prim, but I know if I do I’ll have to explain why I’m leaving, and I’m not sure I’m ready to have that conversation with my baby sister. Instead, I ask my mother to kiss Prim goodbye for me.

 

“Yeah, tell Rory that I’m gone too and that he’s in charge of keeping you guys safe,” Gale adds.

 

“I will.” She yawns. “Probably as soon as you leave. I’m exhausted.”

 

We take our leave, heading off towards the northeast.

 

We follow the river as it meanders north through the valley until it moves away from the mountains to the east. Peeta calls a halt before we can get too much further, saying, “I think we’re far enough away from home now. It’s time to talk.”

 

I want to protest. But he’s got a point. We’re not doing this to explore; we’re out here to figure out just what kind of relationship we’re going to have and how it’s going to work.   We set up camp under the trees near the river. It’s nice enough out, we don’t need to worry about a shelter, and a fire should keep away any animals at night.

 

Gale and I gather wood and some nearby greens while Peeta takes care of the fire. I admit I’m dreading this conversation so I dawdle over my tasks. But even moving slowly, we’re able to set up quickly.

 

I take a deep breath. Time to get this over.

 

I turn to Peeta. “Alright, so we’ve stopped. Now what?”

 

“Now we talk.”

 

I frown. “I’m not good at talking.”

 

“We know, Catnip,” Gale says. “Trust us, we know.”

 

I glare at them. “We don’t have to talk. We can just…” I grope for the words, “keep going,” I finish lamely.

 

“To where? And to what?” he asks.

 

I shrug. “I don’t know? I like you both. I want you both. Isn’t that good enough?”

 

Gale shakes his head. “Not really.”

 

I open my mouth to protest.

 

Peeta holds up a hand. “Not in the way you think.”

 

My eyes narrow. “So what, then?”

 

The two boys exchange a glance and Gale motions for Peeta to talk.

 

So he does. “The best relationships are built on trust and you can’t have trust unless you communicate with each other. My mother and father never talked and, well, you saw how good of a relationship they really had. I don’t want that for us,” he explains. “Even if it were just the two of us, we’d still have to talk about things, Katniss, but we could put it off a little, you know, ease you into it slowly. But if it’s going to be all three of us, we all need to be on the same page.”

 

“And I suppose you agree with him?” I ask, turning to Gale.

 

Gale nods. “Peet mentioned it was an option back when we had things out. We didn’t really talk much other than you might pick both of us, but even that little bit made accepting your decision easier.”

 

I blink. “You guys thought I might pick you both?” I hadn’t really considered it an option as much as I wanted it. I just knew I couldn’t choose between the two of them. I need them. Both of them.

 

“Well, there were basically four options, if you take Rory out of the picture,” Peeta says, holding up four fingers and naming off each one. “You pick me, you pick Gale, you pick neither, you pick both. I figured it was best to prepare for all of the above.”

 

“And you were hoping I’d pick you.” It isn’t a question.

 

He shrugs. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t.”

 

“And you?” I turn to Gale.

 

“Same. But we just both knew that we didn’t want you to pick the neither option. After that, it made things easier.”

 

I cross my arms. “I’m glad it made things easier for you!”

 

Peeta sighs. “That’s why we need to talk about it, Katniss. We don’t - we want to know - we need to know what you expect from a relationship. As much as it would make things easier, we can’t read your mind.”

 

“So… talk.”

 

“You’re part of this too,” he says with a shake of his head. “I guess the first question is: do you want a relationship with the both of us?”

 

I tighten my arms across my chest. “I said I did.”

 

“I know you did. We’re just establishing that everybody's on the same page. We don’t need any miscommunication, not when there’s three of us,” he explains gently.

 

It makes sense, but talking is hard for me. I’m used to making decisions and acting on them. It’s what I’ve had to do in order to survive. I don’t know how else to be. But it sounds like in order for this to work, then that is what I’m going to have to do.

 

I very deliberately uncross my arms, biting my lips as I do.   I look at Peeta whose face is carefully blank and then at Gale who’s doing his best to emulate the blonde boy. I nod my head. “I want a relationship with the both of you.”

 

Peeta’s mask cracks and he smiles. “Okay, good. I want a relationship with you too.”

 

“Gale?” I ask.

 

He shrugs. “What Peet said.”

 

“What about you?”

 

“What about us?”

 

“Do you want a relationship with each other?” I ask. “You seem awfully close.”

 

Gale and Peeta exchange another glance then burst out laughing, shaking their heads emphatically. I stare at them and struggle not to just get up and leave. It’s a legitimate question. They didn’t have to laugh at me.

 

Peeta’s the first to recover. “No offense Gale, you’re a friend, but I don’t think of you in quite the same way I think of Katniss.”

 

“None taken,” Gale answers. “I don’t want to touch your penis either.”

 

“So we have our first boundary. Gale and I want to be with you and we like each other as friends, but not as boyfriends.” Peeta regards me seriously. “But, if Gale and I decide at some point in the future that we do want to be boyfriends, would you be okay with it, Katniss?”

 

I pause. I have to think about it. I look at Gale, hoping to get an answer from him, but his face is again carefully blank. I’m going to get no help from him. I scowl.

 

So how do I really feel about this? I suppose it wouldn’t be fair for me to have both of them and not allow them to have each other. Then I really would be having my own harem, and that’s just not right.

 

I look back at Peeta. “I suppose, if you want to be Gale’s boyfriend--”

 

“Man bride,” Gale mutters under his breath.

 

I glare at Gale. “Boyfriend. If you want to be Gale’s boyfriend, it would be okay. I just want to know about it first.”

 

Peeta nods. “I think that’s a reasonable request. That’s one boundary set. What about sex?”

 

I blink. “What about it?”

 

“Do you want it?” His tone is carefully neutral.

 

I squirm a little. I didn’t expect this to come up quite so soon. “I don’t know. Maybe. Not right now.”

 

“But in the future?”

 

“Maybe? It depends on my mood.” I decide to turn the tables on him. “Do you want sex?”

 

“Yes,” he answers quickly.

 

“Make that a hell yes,” Gale adds. “But whenever you’re ready. And sober.”

 

“Agreed,” Peeta nods. “That’s another boundary. No drunk sex.”

 

I want to argue but I can see that both of them have their minds made up. “Do I have to have sex with both of you at the same time?”

 

“Do you want to?” Peeta counters.

 

“Maybe? I liked having both of you there last night, but would that be okay with you?”

 

Peeta and Gale share a look. Peeta speaks. “We have to talk about it more. I’m okay with it…”

 

“But I’m on the fence,” Gale finishes.

 

“And there you have it. We don’t know. It’s a moot point right now, but it’s one we’ll have to come back to.” Peeta takes a deep breath. “I do have one request.”

 

“What?” I ask warily.

 

He blushes a little. “I’d like to be your first, if you don’t mind.”

 

I’m confused. “My first what?”

 

The blush increases. “Whenever you’re ready to have sex, I’d like to be your first partner.”

 

I’m still confused.

 

“What Peet’s trying to say is he’d like to take your virginity,” Gale states matter-of-factly, rolling his eyes at the other man.

 

I’m a little surprised Gale’s not objecting to Peeta’s request. I would’ve thought he’d want to be my first and I voice my thoughts.

 

Gale shrugs. “I get why he wants this. I’ve gotten all of your other firsts. He can have this one.”

 

Peeta blinks and says, “Thanks.”

 

“I do have a request of my own. I want to sleep with you.”

 

“I thought Peeta was going to be my first,” I object.

 

“No, not sex,” he clarifies, “although I want that too when you’re ready, but actually sleeping with you.”

 

“But Peeta and I sleep together.” I’m still not getting what he’s trying to say.

 

“I know. And it makes me feel left out. I’m not asking you to give sleeping with Peeta, Catnip, just can I sleep with you too?” I can hear the yearning in his voice.

 

“You mean like with both of us?”

 

Gale nods.

 

“I’m okay with it, if Peeta is,” I say slowly, beginning to understand why Peeta was so insistent that we talk. This isn’t something that we can just blunder around blindly and expect to work. We all have to be on the same page on even seemingly little things like sleeping arrangements.

 

All eyes turn to Peeta, who shrugs. “I’m not totally comfortable with it. But I get why you’re asking, Gale. Can I make a suggestion?”

 

Gale nods. “Nobody’s stopped you yet.”

 

Peeta continues as if Gale hadn’t spoken. “We try it out for a few nights and see how it goes. Katniss and I still have the last watch and you have the first with Rory, there could be conflicts if we don’t get enough sleep.”

 

“That’s a good point,” Gale concedes. “But I think we need to redo the watches anyway. Rory’s a decent shot now and Prim’s still down for the count.”

 

I make a face at the mention of my sister’s injury.

 

“I don’t think we need to talk about that right now,” Peeta objects. “Maybe once we get back and we’re all together.”

 

Gale’s still not willing to let go of his initial request. “But I still want to sleep with you. Both of you.”

 

“So forceful,” Peeta murmurs softly.

 

“Knock it off, Mellark.” There isn’t any real heat to it. More like two brothers teasing each other.

 

Peeta just grins. “So that’s settled. Gale’s going to try sleeping with us and when you’re ready to have sex, Katniss, it’ll be with me first. Are you okay with that?”

 

I nod my head. “It may not be for a while. The sex, I mean,” I warn.

 

“That’s fine.” He waves it off. “We’re not going to worry about it.”

 

“So… what else do we need to talk about?” I’m almost afraid to ask.

 

“How about jealousy?” Peeta suggests.

 

“I thought you guys worked that all out. You two haven’t been so possessive and stupid lately.”

 

Gale snorts. “Thanks, Catnip.”

 

I’m confused. “What? It’s true.”

 

Peeta laughs. “Yeah, it is, but I’ll admit, it’s still hard seeing you making out with Gale.”

 

I frown. “That’s not my problem.”

 

“No,” Peeta says, shaking his head. “It’s our problem.” He motions to all three of us. “Jealousy is never a good thing in a relationship like what we’re proposing. I watched it tear apart my parents’ relationship and I don’t want that to happen to us.”

 

“I’m not jealous of you guys.” I shrug. “If you guys want to spend time together, you can.”

 

“So you’d be okay if Gale and I went on dates?”

 

“I just said that.”

 

Gale runs his fingers through his hair. “I think what Peeta’s trying to say is that we need to work out a system so that neither of us gets jealous of the other.”

 

“So it’s just like before. You want me to date both of you.”

 

“Not exactly,” Gale says with a shake of his head. “I think it’s important that we spend time together, all three of us. If it’s just you and Peeta or you and me, the other’s gonna feel left out. I know I would.” Peeta nods, agreeing with him. “We don’t have to do everything together, just some things. Like I don’t really want to be there the first time you and Peeta have sex, but I will if you want me to be.”

 

“And I’d rather not be there the first time you and Gale have sex.” Peeta blushes again. “That’s private between the two of you.”

 

“Okay…” I’m still really confused. “I don’t see the problem.”

 

“I think the problem is a relationship is more than just sex or kissing or cuddling. That stuff’s important, but it’s not everything,” Peeta explains. “I think we should start slow. This whatever this is, it’s a good start. But we should make sure that we spend time together, just the three of us, pretty regularly.”

 

“Are you going to have trouble if I go hunting with just Gale?” I ask seriously. “Because, I’m going to be honest, you kind of suck at hunting. And good hunting partners are hard to find. I don’t want to lose that.”

 

Gale laughs. “Aww, thanks, Catnip. I don’t want to lose you as a hunting partner either.”

 

“I think I can handle that,” Peeta says with a smile. “But I would like to have something that’s just ours. Gale and I have the building things together and you two have hunting. I’d like something that’s just you and me.”

 

I think about it. “We could do gathering? Or maybe preserving. You like cooking, right?”

 

He nods. “That works for you and me. What about all three of us? We should have something that we do together.”

 

“I’m not gathering,” Gale states flatly. “And you don’t want me in the kitchen. My mom tried to teach me how to cook and it was a disaster. I burned water. Rory’s better in the kitchen than I am and he’s the kid that thought glue was a tasty treat.”

 

“I could use some help with tanning hides,” Peeta offers. “It’s heavy smelly work, but it’d go a lot faster if it weren’t just me, and it’s not that hard to learn.”

 

I exchange a glance with Gale and shrug.

 

“That could work,” Gale says. “One thing. Do I need to keep asking permission to kiss you, Katniss? Because I kind of want to kiss you. A lot. Can we just, you know, assume kisses and hugs and touches are okay unless otherwise stated?”

 

“That’s a good point,” Peeta says. “I give you permission, Katniss, to kiss me and hug me and touch me as much as you want.” He gives Gale a pointed look. “You have to ask permission.”

 

“Same,” Gale says, chuckling slightly.

 

Both boys look at me expectantly. I squirm a little but ultimately nod. “You have my permission. Both of you.”

 

“So,” Peeta says, “just to make sure we’re all on the same page, we’re in a relationship. Gale and I are not boyfriends. We’re not ready for sex yet, but it’s in the future. All three of are going to try sleeping together. When Katniss is ready for sex, she’ll let us know when she is sober and we will determine a good time and place where she and I will lose our virginity. We’ll do things both as couples and as a trio. Kissing, hugging, and touching are okay between Katniss and either of us, but Gale and I have to ask permission from the other before anything romantic. Am I forgetting anything?”

 

“Yeah. When’s lunch?” Gale asks.

 

“Whenever you kill something and bring it back,” Peeta responds quickly.

 

I laugh. “We’ll get right on that.”

 

oOo

 

After lunch, the three of us decide to take the rest of the day off and spend the time getting to know each other. Gale has to forcibly remove my bow from my hands, saying, “You know if you have it, you’re just going to go looking for game to kill.”

 

“I am not! Give that back!” He’s holding it over his head and I’d have to jump to even have a chance of reaching it, which I am not going to do because it’d make me look ridiculous.

 

Peeta shakes his head. “Gale’s right. You do get a little hunting obsessed. I seem to remember you trying to take down a deer while on the road.”

 

“Traitor.”

 

“We don’t need a lot of food right now, you heard your ma,” Gale says. “Let’s just enjoy ourselves.”

 

“Fine.” I sit down on the edge of the bank, crossing my arms across my chest. “I’m enjoying myself. Are you happy now?”

 

Peeta sits down next to me and plants a quick kiss on my cheek. “Ecstatic. You know what would make me even happier? If you stopped pouting.”

 

“I am not pouting!”

 

Gale sits down on my other side and mirrors Peeta’s kiss. “I love you Katniss, but you are.”

 

“I don’t need this!” I say, standing up and glaring down at them. “You two are just ganging up on me!”

 

“When it’s for your own good?” Gale asks, looking up at me. “Yeah. Absolutely.”

 

“Katniss, when was the last time you actually had fun?” Peeta asks intently. “I mean, before you left Twelve?”

 

I have to think about it. The last time was probably before my father died, or… no. That’s not quite right. Prim’s forced me to play games with her and it’s made me happy. It’s one of the reasons I love her so much. “I guess you’ve got a point.”

 

Peeta pats the ground between them. “Sit down. Talk with us.”

 

“Didn’t we just talk?”

 

“Not about anything serious. Just talk. You know, get to know each other. Like you do with your friends.”

 

“Fine. Have you asked Gale his favorite color yet?”

 

“What?” Gale asks.

 

I point at Peeta. “He asked mine.”

 

“And what’d you say?”

 

“Green.”

 

“And him?”

 

“Orange.”

 

Gale makes a face. “Orange?”

 

“Like the sunset,” Peeta supplies. “And you?”

 

“Blue. Like the color of the sky.”

 

“There. Now we all know each others' favorite color.”

 

“For whatever good that does us,” Gale mutters under his breath.

 

“Well, it makes birthdays and New Year’s presents easier,” Peeta supplies.

 

“Where are you going to find blue out here?” I ask.

 

“Well, uh,” he looks around helplessly before turning to Gale, “how do you feel about flowers?”

 

Gale laughs. “Not like orange is a whole lot easier. Do you like flowers, Peeta?”

 

“I find it funny, out of all of us, Katniss’s favorite color is the easiest to find.”

 

“Not in the winter,” I say, thinking back to when my father died.

 

Peeta smiles up at me earnestly. “Then I guess we’ll have to find something green for you for then.”

 

I smile and finally sit back down. “That’d be nice.”

 

They each take one of my hands and we lay back against the bank, staring up at the sky.

 

“So… how do we do this get to know you thing?” I ask. “Cause, I’ll be honest, I’m not really good with talking. Or friends.”

 

Peeta bumps his shoulder against mine. “You managed to befriend both of us, so clearly you’re doing something right.”

 

“But Gale was a good hunting partner and, well, you saved my life.”

 

Gale props himself up on one arm and looks over at Peeta and me. “He saved your life? When?”

 

“Um… well, when my father died.” I take a deep breath and tell Gale about almost starving a month after my father died and how Peeta gave me bread, taking a beating for it from his mother.

 

Gale whistles low. “I hate to say it, Peet, but your mom’s a bitch.”

 

“Tell me something I don’t know.” Peeta shrugs. “But she’s my mom.”

 

Gale turns and looks at me. “Is that why you wouldn’t let me kill him?”

 

I nod. “I owed him my life. And more importantly, I owed him Prim’s life. I just couldn’t take his.”

 

“I’m glad you didn’t let me kill him. I wasn’t too happy with you at the time, but…” Gale looks over me at Peeta. “I’m glad we brought him along.”

 

“You could’ve asked me, you know,” Peeta murmurs. “I would’ve come with you.”

 

“How was I supposed to know that?” Gale shakes his head. “It’s not like we had heart-to-hearts braiding each others' hair!”

 

I reach out to ruffle Peeta’s curls. “It’s nice hair.”

 

Peeta leans over to kiss me. When he pulls back he takes my braid in his hand. “Not as nice as yours.”

 

“Hold it, you two stay here,” Gale says, getting up. “I’ll be right back.”

 

“Where do you think he’s going?” Peeta asks me.

 

I shrug. “Maybe he has to pee?”

 

“I guess we should give him some privacy then,” Peeta says with a laugh.

 

Peeta rolls back down beside me and I snuggle up against him. It’s nice to be able to touch him however I want without feeling self-conscious or like I’m taking advantage of the situation.

 

Gale comes back a bit later, his arms full of flowers.

 

I blink up at him. He looks so pleased with himself. “What do you have there?”

 

“I have orange flowers for Peeta and I got white ones for you, I hope you don’t mind.”

 

“And what about those blue ones?” I ask, pointing out the collection of asters and morning glories in his hand.

 

He smiles enigmatically. “You’ll see.”

 

He sits down again and starts doing something fairly intricate with the flowers. He weaves what looks like wild carrot and daisies intermixed with daylilies and marigolds and the morning glories and asters until he has a wreath of some sort. “Mellark, put your head over here,” he says.

 

“Okay?” Peeta says.

 

Gale puts the wreath on Peeta’s head. He surveys his handiwork and nods, clearly happy with the result.   He points to his lap. “Katniss, lay down.”

 

“What? I’m already lying down.”

 

“Lay down here.” He points again. “With your head in my lap.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Please?”

 

“Alright.” I rest my head in his lap. Peeta sits next to Gale and pulls my legs into his, reaching up to start removing my boots and socks.

 

Gale undoes my braid and runs his fingers through my hair. It’s soothing and I hum contentedly under my breath.

 

“You keep moaning like that, I’m going to kiss you,” Gale warns.

 

I blink up at him and very deliberately moan.

 

Gale laughs. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He pulls me up to give me a kiss. “You did that on purpose,” he accuses.

 

“Maybe,” I admit.

 

“Now hold still.” He starts redoing my hair, braiding it into a crown on top of my head, weaving the flowers into it.

 

Peeta is now running his fingers up and down my legs lightly. He stops at my feet and starts rubbing them.

 

“What are you doing?” I ask.

 

“Foot massage,” he says. “Don’t you watch those Capitol dramas? It’s supposed to be really sensual. Romantic.”

 

I twitch slightly at his touch. “It kind of tickles.”

 

“You want me to stop?”

 

“No.” And I don’t. It feels good. Almost as good as what Gale’s doing with my hair. I lie there, enjoying what the two of them are doing to me, until I start to feel guilty. “I’m not doing anything for you guys,” I say eventually.

 

“You’re here,” Peeta responds. “But if you want to do something, you could sing.”

 

“A little obsessed with her voice, huh, Peet?”

 

“I don’t know why you aren’t. You’ve heard her sing.”

 

“Yes, but I love her for more than just her voice.”

 

“Guys,” I warn. The day is going so well, I don’t want to go back to the constant sniping and competition they were having before my birthday.

 

“Sorry, Catnip. We aren’t fighting, I promise. I was just teasing Peeta.”

 

“It’s okay, Gale,” Peeta adds. “No hard feelings.”

 

I try to think of something to lighten the mood. I’m not really good at this getting-to-know-people thing, but there is something I probably should know, if I’m going to be both Gale and Peeta’s girlfriend. “When are your birthdays?”

 

“You know when mine is,” Gale says.

 

“I don’t,” Peeta counters.

 

“July 18th.”

 

“So about a month and a half away.” Peeta seems to be filing the information away. “Gives us time to find a present for you. Anything you want?”

 

Gale shrugs. “I can’t think of anything.”

 

“Well if you do, let me know. So long as it’s not the box set of Finnick Odair’s Magical Movie Moments,” he teases. “I think we’ll have a little trouble getting that out here.”

 

All three of us laugh, imagining watching the Victor from Four shirtless in every single movie he’s ever been in.

 

“What about you?” Gale asks, nodding at Peeta.

 

“October 2nd.”

 

“That was my father’s birthday,” Gale states.

 

“Sorry? Not like I had a whole lot of say in the matter.”

 

Gale waves the apology off. “It’s okay, just makes it easier to remember.”

 

“So what you’re really saying is that you really have no excuse for forgetting my birthday,” Peeta says lightly. “And I want you to know that I want a signed and personalized photograph from Caesar Flickerman.”

 

“Really?” I ask.

 

Peeta laughs. “No, of course not. But, in all seriousness, just something from the heart would be nice.” He pauses, thinking for a moment. “We should probably do something for the rest of the group on their birthdays. When are they?”

 

“Well, you don’t have to worry about Prim for a while. She’s January 19th. But my mother’s coming up, she’s July 30th.”

 

“And Rory?”

 

Gale has to think about it for a moment. “November 11th. I think. It could be the 10th, or maybe the 12th. But I think it’s the 11th.”

 

“Did you remember any of your siblings’ birthdays?” Peeta teases.

 

“I remember Posy’s. She was July 31st. Best belated birthday present ever.”

 

Peeta looks stricken. “Sorry man.”

 

Gale shakes his head. “Nah, it’s okay. This year’s gonna be hard, though.”

 

We lapse into silence while Gale continues playing with my hair.

 

He finishes a bit later. I realize that he’s crowned us with all three of our favorite colors - orange for Peeta, blue for Gale, and delicate white with dark green stems for me.

 

“You’re not making one for yourself?” Peeta asks.

 

“I’m not the girl in this relationship.”

 

“What do you mean by that?” I ask.

 

“It’s just, my hair’s not as pretty as either of yours.”

 

“That doesn’t mean that you get out of wearing flowers too,” I say, picking up one of the unused daylilies and slipping it behind his ear. “There. Better.”

 

Peeta chuckles. “So, do either of you feel like a swim?”

 

“And ruin all my hard work? Oh hell no!”

 

“I guess that means we have to just lay here and talk.” Peeta looks at me as though I’m going to object to that.

 

But I don’t, this is nice. Whatever we’ve been doing doesn’t make me uncomfortable and I actually like it. I sigh dramatically. “That doesn’t sound completely horrible.”

 

We all laugh.

 

oOo

 

We try sleeping together that night.

 

It’s a little weird. Gale has a hard time finding a good place for his hands and there’s a lot of apologies as the boys accidentally touch each other.

 

Finally, Peeta just says, “Look, you have your permission to put your hands anywhere you want as long as it’s above clothes.” He pauses, replaying what he just said. “While we’re sleeping,” he clarifies a moment later.

 

Eventually we find a position that works, with me in the middle, my head on Gale’s chest, with Peeta spooning me with his hand on Gale’s arm and Gale’s hand resting on Peeta’s back. It works, but we’re going to have to do some more experimenting before we’ll be completely comfortable.

 

The following morning Gale and I head out to explore the mountains. Peeta stays behind at the camp, pointing out that there are several mulberry trees nearby. He knows we may end up hunting and that he’d just be in the way.

 

Gale clasps him on the shoulder in thanks then pulls his hand back. “Oh sorry. Didn’t ask permission first.”

 

Peeta shrugs. “Casual touching is fine. We can work out the nitty gritty later.”

 

Gale and I head towards the mountains, keeping our eyes open for what we want for dinner and to get a better view of the area.

 

It takes a few hours, but we reach the summit and finally get a good look around. Gale points off to the southeast. “I think there’s another mine fire that way. I see a couple columns of smoke.”

 

I point towards the west. “Looks like there’s another pre-Cataclysm something over there. I see a bunch of ruins.”

 

“Looks like the river winds through this mountain valley.” Gale motions with his hands. “We should follow it more sometime, see where it goes,” he pauses, “but not right now.”

 

I nod. “Hey, look over there,” I say pointing to the southwest and another column of smoke. “I think that’s our fire.”

 

Gale looks over. “You’re probably right.”

 

Something bleats behind us.

 

We freeze. “Did you just hear what I thought I heard?” I whisper.

 

It bleats again, this time followed by another, lower bleat.

 

“Is that a goat?” Gale asks.

 

“Could be, we should probably check it out. Prim did ask, if we found another goat, to try to see if we could bring one back to her.”

 

“Are we really going to do that?”

 

“I don’t know about you, but I kind of would like to have some milk or cheese.”   Specifically cheese for cheese buns. “Worst comes to worst, we can always eat it.”

 

“Fine, we can go check it out.”

 

We unsling our bows and start tiptoeing toward the sound, careful to keep the wind in our faces. We get to the other side of the ridgeline and see several large brownish shapes.

 

“Are those… sheep?” I whisper to Gale.

 

“They kind of look like it. I saw some old filmstrip on Ten, I think the unsheared sheep looked like that. It was hard to tell, the film was pretty old.”

 

I finger a worn spot in my pants. “We could use the wool.”

 

Gale nods in agreement.

 

We take careful aim. The herd isn’t that big and we don’t want to kill all of the animals. We have no way of carrying them back. But two shouldn’t be that big of a deal. I point to the animal that I’m going to shoot at and Gale nods, pointing to the animal that he’s going to try to kill. I refuse to miss my chance at getting two sheep.

 

“On three,” I whisper. “One. Two. Three.”

 

The bowstrings twang and two sheep drop.

 

The rest of the herd mills around in confusion for a bit until we stand up and start moving towards our kills. A couple of white fluffy dogs that look a little like sheep jump up and start barking, herding the sheep away from the fallen animals. One dog comes up and nudges the dead sheep before whining and moving away. Gale and I watch in awe.

 

“Are those dogs?” Gale asks.

 

“Why aren’t they attacking the sheep?”

 

“I have no idea, but we should probably get our kills and get the hell out of here.”

 

I nod. “Agreed.”

 

We field dress the sheep faster than we’ve ever done, not even bothering with the livers or the hearts. It’s extra weight and we have to move. Those dogs could come back at any moment.

 

“Are those sheep?” Peeta asks when we finally reach him and the camp. He has a bag full of mulberries in one hand.

 

“Yes. We should probably get moving,” I say. “There were dogs.”

 

“Let’s walk along in the river for a little while then,” he suggests, pointing to the shallow water along the edge.

 

We pack up the camp and head out.

 

“You know, we should do this again sometime. Maybe without the wild dog action,” Peeta says.

 

The three of us laugh and head home.

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Brand New Breeze:

 

“You know, we should do this again sometime. Maybe without the wild dog action,” Peeta suggests.

 

The three of us laugh and head home.

 

oOo

 

My mother looks askance at the sheep when we return.

 

“No!” I interject to head off any protests. “It’s wool! And meat!”

 

“We don’t need any more meat, Katniss,” my mother counters. “We’ve probably got enough meat to last us from now until December.”

 

“That’s not all the way through winter.” The fact that all of the food we’ve gotten won’t get us through the winter worries me. It’s still more food than I’ve seen in one place in my life, but we’ve got six people and a cat to feed and no general store or tesserae to supplement what we can hunt and gather.

 

Apparently my mother doesn’t see it the same way I do because she tells us, “Stop hunting! We need fruits and vegetables.”

 

“I brought back mulberries,” Peeta offers.

 

She throws her hands up in the air. “Thank you! At least somebody listens!”

 

“Brown noser,” Gale mutters.

 

Peeta shrugs. “I can’t help it if I’m the favorite.”

 

I shoot both boys a glare. “Knock it off.”

 

My mother gets herself back under control. “Thank you for the wool, Katniss. And the meat. I’m sure Prim will be happy to card it and spin it while she’s recovering. It’ll give her something to do.”

 

A thread of guilt shoots through my belly. Prim… I can’t believe that I left Prim alone to go sort out my relationship with Gale and Peeta. What was I thinking? I look down at my feet and then back up at my mother. “Yeah, um, how is Prim?”

 

My mother regards me sympathetically. “Better. It’s going to take her a couple of weeks to fully recover. She’s got some cracked ribs and pretty deep gouges. They’re going to scar, but she’s still alive and she should make a full recovery. I don’t want her doing anything too strenuous, but spinning and weaving shouldn’t be out of the question.” I can tell she’s saying this to assuage my guilt. It doesn’t. But I appreciate the attempt.

 

“That’s something,” Peeta says, rubbing my back tenderly.

 

My mother gives us a look. “So how did things go?”

 

“Fine,” I say, not really sure what she’s asking.

 

“Is there anything you three would like to tell me? Or maybe, should I rephrase that, ask me?” She smiles at us, crosses her arms, and waits.

 

Gale, Peeta, and I share a glance. I’m not really sure what to do here. Thankfully Peeta steps forward. “Um, Violet, I’d like your permission to be in a relationship with your daughter.” He nudges Gale.

 

“Yeah, what he said.”

 

She arches an eyebrow. “I see. How do you feel about this, Katniss?”

 

I shrug. “I’ve already had this conversation with Gale and Peeta.” I look up at her. “I want this.”

 

“You do realize you’re only sixteen.”

 

I nod my head.

 

My mother regards me solemnly, but I refuse to be cowed. I meet her eyes and stare back. This is what I want. This is my choice.

 

Finally, she nods. “Okay. Then I give all three of you my blessing.” Then she narrows her eyes at both Peeta and Gale. “But if either of you does anything to hurt my daughter, I will hit you over the head with a shovel and bury you where not even the dogs can find you.”

 

I’m a little surprised at my mother’s vehemence, but I’m also a little heartened at the same time. She loves me and wants to protect me. I haven’t felt that since before my father died.

 

“We promise not to hurt Katniss, Mrs. Everdeen,” Gale vows.

 

“Please, I told you to call me Violet,” she says with a smile.

 

He shakes his head. “Yeah, not gonna happen.”

 

oOo

 

The first problem that we run into after my mother’s wrath is how all three of us are going to sleep together. The haphazard pile of grass and reeds that all of us other than my mother and Prim have been sleeping on isn’t large enough for the three of us to sleep together. Not to mention, it’s pretty uncomfortable.

 

After one night of near sleeplessness and lots of tossing and turning, Gale says, “That’s it, we’re making a bed for all three of us.”

 

“Agreed,” Peeta says with a yawn. “There’s only so long I can put up with sleeping like that.”

 

I nod my head. “We really need a bed.”

 

Gale and Peeta get started right away, felling several pine trees and putting the bed together. It still takes a couple of days, during which Rory complains on multiple occasions that if Gale and Peeta are making a bed for us, he should get a bed too.

 

To shut him up, I take him out hunting.

 

“So are you and my brother dating now?” he asks.

 

“It’s none of your business.”

 

Rory stops and points at me. “That means yes. Prim says that means yes.”

 

I curse stupid meddling little sisters. “Yes, I am dating your brother.”

 

“Woohoo!” He pauses, narrowing his eyes at me. “But, wait, what about Peeta?”

 

“I’m dating him too,” I answer honestly.

 

“How’s that work?”

 

I shrug. “Beats me. We’re making it up as we go along.”

 

“Sounds complicated,” Rory says, tilting his head like a confused dog.

 

“You have no idea,” I mutter. “I thought you wanted to go hunting.”

 

“I do!”

 

“Then enough with the questions about my love life, let’s see what you’re made of.”

 

Rory gets a pheasant and, remembering my mother’s outburst from earlier, I call it a day.

 

We head back to the cave. Peeta greets me with a kiss. “So how was it?”

 

“It was okay.” I shrug. What am I supposed to say? It’s a forest in the mountains. There were rocks and trees and trees and rocks and trees and rocks and water.

 

“See anything interesting?”

 

I point at Rory’s pheasant.

 

Peeta laughs. “I suppose that counts. You want to come into the bedroom for a second? Gale and I want to ask your opinion on something.”

 

I’m not sure what they want, but I don’t see a reason to protest. “Okay. Can you take care of the bird, Rory?”

 

Rory glares at Peeta for a second and then nods his head.

 

Peeta doesn’t say anything but I can see he’s sort of surprised at the pre-teen’s dislike. Once we get into the bedroom he asks, “What’d you say to him?”

 

“Me? Nothing! He asked if I was dating you!”

 

“And what’d you say?”

 

“I said yes!”

 

“And did he ask about Gale?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“What’d you say to that?”

 

“That I was dating him too.”

 

Peeta sighs and shakes his head. “Oh, Katniss.”

 

“What? I told the truth. I don’t want to hide.” I’m confused by Peeta’s reaction.

 

Rubbing the back of his neck, Peeta shoots me an apologetic glance. “I know, and I don’t want to hide either, but it probably would’ve been better if it’d come from Gale.”

 

“What would’ve been better?” Gale looks up from the half-assembled bed.

 

“Katniss told your brother that she's dating both of us.”

 

Gale turns to me. “Katniss, you didn’t.”

 

“What?” I ask again.

 

“Nevermind, I forget that your sister is Prim.” Gale rubs at his face with one hand. “I’ll take care of it.”

 

I have no idea what I did wrong, but it’s clear I did do something. I decide to change the subject. “So… what’d you want me to have an opinion on?”

 

“We were just wondering where you wanted the bed,” Peeta states. “Once we finish assembling it, it’s going to be pretty heavy to move.”

 

I shrug. “I don’t know? Why not up against that wall?” I motion to the wall between the main room and the bedroom.

 

Gale shakes his head. “Peet had a suggestion, and it’s a good one, so listen. He thought, since we’re all going to probably be on separate watches at some point, that whoever’s on the inside shouldn’t have to climb over two people to get out.”

 

“So?”

 

“We were thinking of putting the headboard up against one of the walls but sticking the bed out into the room so we can get in from either side.”

 

I guess that kind of makes sense, but I think I see a problem. “What about whoever’s sleeping in the middle?”

 

“They only have to climb over one person then,” Peeta points out.

 

I think about it. It’s not a bad idea. “Fine, um, that wall’s good.” I point at the far south wall.

 

Gale smirks, clearly pleased with himself. “I thought you’d say that.”

 

I don’t know why he’s surprised. That location has the best view of both entrances to the room and, if we can figure out a way to make a couple of screens, will have the best privacy.

 

That brings up my next question. “So… what are we going to do about privacy?” Growing up in the Seam, I’ve always known what goes on between a man and a woman. But my parents were always careful to draw the curtains when they wanted to be intimate. If we get to that stage, when we get to that stage, I’m going to want that. I’m not comfortable with the rest of our group being able to see what we do. All of us, to some degree, have learned to block out the sounds, but not the sights.

 

“Peeta talked to your sister and asked her to weave a few large mats for us, maybe see about putting them between a few willow saplings so we can have screens. Your mom’s using the bark anyways and willows are everywhere around here. I figured, for now, we might be able to use some of the material your mom brought with us as a temporary curtain, but we’ll want it for clothing and other things in the long run.”

 

That makes sense. Which brings up the next question. “What are we going to do about a mattress?”

 

“I want to ask your mom to see if she’s okay with us taking some of the fabric and turning it into a mattress case. We can stuff it with reeds, grass, and rushes. If that doesn’t work, we’ve got those deer hides that I tanned. We can use them,” Peeta says.

 

I wrinkle my nose at the thought of using leather as blankets.

 

Gale notices and says, “You’re going to have to get used to it, Catnip. When winter comes, we’re going to need the warmth.”

 

I shrug. “So is that it?”

 

“Not quite.” Gale stands up and smiles.

 

“Oh?”

 

He comes over and wraps his arms around me. “Missed you.”

 

“I was only gone for a couple of hours.”

 

He bends down and nuzzles my hair. “I always miss you when you’re gone.”

 

Peeta comes up behind me, sandwiching me between them. “We both missed you.”

 

I lean my head against Gale’s chest and sigh. “I missed you both too.”

 

oOo

 

I walk back out into the main room and my mother pulls me aside. “Come with me to the garden,” she says.

 

“Um, okay?” I grab my bow and we go.

 

I try to figure out what she wants me to do down there and I’m hoping that there’s not a predator.

 

When we get there, I’m even more confused. There’s nothing to see.

 

My mother bends down and picks a few lettuce leaves and says, “So, I see that all three of you are sleeping together.”

 

“It’s just sleep.”

 

“I know. I wanted to talk to you before it becomes more than just sleep.”

 

I give her a look. “Didn’t we already have this conversation?”

 

“No.” She shakes her head. “This is a little different. I wanted to talk to you about sex.”

 

“We talked about sex before,” I remind her. “How not to get pregnant.”

 

“No, not that. This is about the actual act.” She tilts her head. “Did you know that it’s going to hurt the first time?”

 

I narrow my eyes. “What do you mean, hurt?”

 

“Well, it depends on each woman, but there’s usually some discomfort the first time a man enters a woman.”

 

I blink. “Okay…” My mother is talking to me about sex. I don’t want to talk about sex. Especially with my mother.

 

She doesn’t seem to register my growing discomfort because she continues, “Now, if the man is an experienced lover, there are some things he can do to make it more enjoyable for his partner. Also, lubrication is important.”

 

“Can we not have this conversation?” I ask, knowing she’s going to say no. I can feel my cheeks burning

 

Just as I expected, my mother shakes her head. “Unfortunately, it’s a mother’s duty to talk to her daughter about this. You’ve always been a little oblivious to matters of the heart. I didn’t have to worry about this back in Twelve.”

 

I don’t want her to worry about it now.

 

“Sex can be very enjoyable,” she says, refusing to let my embarrassment deter her. “And if done right, it can be one of the most pleasurable experiences in life. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, but I do think it’s important that you at least be somewhat aware of what’s going on with your body.”

 

“Okay?” I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say to that.

 

My mother sighs. “Have you decided who you’re going to have sex with first?”

 

This, at least, I know I can answer. “Peeta. Peeta asked to be my first.”

 

“And is he experienced?”

 

I shake my head. “No.”

 

“That’s unfortunate,” my mother says, shaking her head slightly.

 

“Why?”

 

“It’d be easier if he already knew how to make sex easier and more enjoyable for you, but I guess you’ll have to teach each other.”

 

“That’s good, right?”

 

“It can be,” she tells me. “I certainly was Solomon’s first, but he wasn’t mine.”

 

I cover my ears with my hands. “I did not need to know that!”

 

My mother removes my hands from my ears and holds them in hers. “I just don’t want you to have unreasonable expectations. The first time is unlikely to be perfect, and you may not enjoy it very much, at least after penetration.”

 

“So why would I want to have sex?”

 

“It gets better. It gets a lot better. And with the right partner, or partners in your case, it can be one of the most moving experiences in the world.” Her voice is sincere, like she really does care.

 

I pull my hands from hers. “I guess I should say thank you. Are we done?”

 

My mother laughs. “Not even remotely.”

 

For the next hour, I grow progressively more mortified as my mother describes in clinical detail just what Peeta and I will need to do to make sure our first time making love is enjoyable for the both of us. I learn more about the human body than I ever wanted to know and right now I’m a little grossed out and I don’t even want to think about having sex, no matter how good my mother says it feels.

 

“What’s wrong?” Peeta asks when I return to the cave.

 

“I had a talk with my mother,” I tell him dully.

 

“Oh, that talk,” Gale says. “My dad had that talk with me when I turned thirteen.”

 

“Oh!” Peeta says. “Mine had it with me a couple years ago, but I’d actually had it before then, from my brother Farl.”

 

Gale nods, then smacks his hand to his forehead. “Aw, shit, that reminds me, I gotta talk to Rory about this.”

 

Peeta nods. “And soon. You see how he’s mooning over Prim.”

 

I feel the blush from earlier making a return appearance. “Can we not talk about my baby sister having sex with your little brother?”

 

“It’s going to happen someday,” Gale points out.

 

“That doesn’t mean I want to think about it now. Or ever!”

 

“Sorry?” Gale says with a shrug. I can tell he’s not really sorry but he’s just saying it because I’m upset.

 

“So is there anything else you want to talk about?” Peeta asks.

 

“No,” I say, flopping down onto my mother’s bed. “I’m just going to take a nap and forget this all happened.”

 

Unfortunately I can’t, because that night my mother hands Peeta the romance novel and says, “I want you to read this. I’ve marked the appropriate sections.”

 

He takes the book with a confused frown, “Uh sure, Violet. What’s this about?”

 

My mother shoots a glance at me then at Rory and Prim. “I think it’s best if you just read and find out.”

 

Peeta blushes and I feel my cheeks heat up as well. While I’m grateful to have my mother more involved in my life, having her input into my sex life is intensely embarrassing.

 

I wish I knew what to do to make her stop.

 

oOo

 

For the next few days, Peeta and Gale spend most of their time working on finishing the bed for us, but before they have time to start in on one for Rory, the salmon start running again.

 

These salmon are bigger than the last run’s, which is good for food but makes the nets harder to haul in. The river is running a little higher and the current is fast moving.

 

We also continue to be careful about bears. In deference to my mother’s request, we try to scare off any bears that approach us rather than killing them. It’s somewhat successful but two bears are especially persistent. They look to be younger and less proficient at landing the swarming salmon and therefore more intent on getting an easy meal. I feel bad about killing them, but their hides are warm and useful.

 

Rory and Prim stay up at the cave, which makes the work even more difficult because we have fewer people. The first day goes off without a hitch, but the second we run into trouble. The first problem comes when one of our nets slips out of my hands and starts to drift away. I dive in and am able to retrieve the net, but end up losing all of the fish that were in it.

 

“Don’t worry about it, Catnip,” Gale tries to tell me.

 

I brush him off. I’m angry at myself for the mistake.

 

“We’ve got plenty of food,” my mother says, “and we still have plenty of time to get more.”

 

I don’t want to hear it. I let food get away and I’m not sure I can forgive myself.

 

It’s because I’m so angry with myself that I push all of us to get more.

 

We get a good catch, better than yesterday, but we’re getting tired and my disgust at the earlier loss has me distracted.

 

Peeta and I are working at hauling one of the nets out from the mouth of one of the two nearby small streams that empty into the river. We discovered on the last salmon run that it’s easier to net just at the edge of the mouth and we have less of a chance of getting swept away.

 

But less of a chance isn’t no chance.

 

Peeta, perhaps tired from hauling in hundreds of pounds of fish, slips on the edge of the bank and tumbles head first into the swiftly moving water.

 

“Peeta!” Gale and I both cry.

 

I search frantically for his blond hair so I can leap in after him.

 

Several feet away, Peeta surfaces and takes a breath. I take a few steps in preparation for diving in when he shouts, “No! Katniss, stop! I’m okay, I’m okay.” He starts carefully and very slowly moving towards the water’s edge. “It’s okay, I can just touch the bottom. Just barely, but you don’t need to come in after me.”

 

“Are you sure?” I’m ready to leap in at a moment’s notice if I even think he’s going to lose his footing.

 

Gale comes up beside me, holding a rope. “Grab it, Peet. I’ll pull you in.” He tosses the rope slightly upstream of Peeta so it drifts towards him.

 

“Thanks.” Peeta grabs the rope and wraps it around his arm so that it won’t slip off.

 

Straining against the current, Gale pulls him ashore.

 

When he’s back on solid ground, I throw myself into Peeta’s arms, not caring that it’s going to get me wet. We topple to the bank together, me half in his lap. “Don’t you ever do that again! I don’t know what would happen if I lost you! I can’t lose you!”

 

Gale sits down next to us and places his arm around Peeta. “Gotta admit, you gave me quite a scare there, Peet. I thought I’d be losing another member of my family.”

 

Peeta looks at us, his eyes full of confusion and emotion. It’s like he didn’t expect us to care as much as we do, and thinking back on his family life, I can imagine why.

 

Gale must see his expression too because he says, “We’re not like your ma. You may not have joined this family in the most conventional way, but you’re definitely a part of it.”

 

Peeta slips an arm around each of us and draws us closer to him. “Thanks. You guys are my family too.”

 

oOo

 

The salmon run finishes the following day, which means we now have to work on preserving all of the meat. I’m down at the lower smoker, checking on the bear meat, when I hear the sounds of two people approaching behind me.

 

I turn to look; it’s Gale and Peeta.

 

“Hey, Catnip.”

 

“Hey.”

 

“So, Gale and I wanted to talk to you.”

 

“About what?” My tone is wary. That’s never a good conversation opener.

 

“Um, are you okay?” Peeta asks, his voice earnest.

 

“I’m fine.”

 

Gale shakes his head. “I think what Peet’s trying to ask is, how are you handling all of this?”

 

“All of this what? I don’t know what you mean?” And I don’t. I’m fine. We got fish. No one was injured by a bear. I have no idea what they’re talking about.

 

“Of course you don’t,” Gale says.

 

“Katniss, you’re… you seemed really upset when I fell in the river.”

 

“Well of course I was! You don’t know how to swim and I thought you would drown!”

 

“But I do know how to swim. You taught me. Remember?”

 

“Not well! Not well enough to stand up to a current that strong!” I can feel myself getting upset just thinking about Peeta’s brush with death.

 

“Well thankfully I didn’t have to. I could still touch the bottom.” He reaches out to take my hand. “But I don’t want you putting yourself in danger to save me.”

 

I pull my hand back. “But that’s what you do for people you love. You try to save them, you don’t let them die. I couldn’t let you die, don’t you understand that?”

 

“It’s all right, Katniss, I’m here,” he says, wrapping his arms around me. “You did save me. You saved me when you taught me how to swim. And Gale saved me with that rope he tossed.”

 

“It was really stupid,” I mumble against Peeta’s chest. “What if he’d lost his balance and fallen in? Then I would’ve lost both people I love!”

 

“I was perfectly safe, Katniss,” Gale says, somehow able to understand me.

 

I pull back enough to glare at the both of them. “But you don’t know that! You can’t know that! You might’ve been safe then, but what about today? Or tomorrow? Or the next time we go hunting?” I push myself out of Peeta’s arms and start gesticulating wildly. “This isn’t going to work! This just isn’t going to work! I’m in love with you and I’m going to lose you and I’m going to turn into my mother and I just can’t do that! I won’t do that! I just wish that I could go back to feeling nothing for either of you!” Peeta pulls me back into his arms, pressing me against his chest so I can feel his heartbeat under my cheek. “It was safer that way.”

 

Gale wraps his arms around both Peeta and me. “Shhhh. We’re both here and we’re not going anywhere, Catnip.”

 

“You can’t know that!” I cry.

 

“We know that right now, and for as long as we have, we’re not going to go anywhere. We’re not going to leave you.”

 

“I can’t take that chance.”

 

Peeta steps back a little and tilts my head up so he can look me in the eyes. “And so you’ll just wall yourself off?”

 

I nod my head. “If that’s what it takes.”

 

“Sounds like a lonely existence,” he says gently.

 

“Yeah. But at least I won’t end up like my mother.”

 

Gale looks at Peeta and shrugs. “I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

 

I tell them brokenly about how my mother went away for months after my father died, how nothing Prim or I did could rouse her from her broken state. That not even the potential death of her children could rouse her into action. That only through Peeta’s kindness and my father’s plant book were we able to survive.

 

Gale sighs and pulls me closer to him, wrapping me tightly in his arms. “I’m sorry, Catnip.”

 

I struggle free and turn to face him. “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”

 

“And if we lose Gale first, you’ll have me to rely on,” Peeta says. “And if you lose me first, you’ll have Gale.”

 

“But I don’t want to lose either of you!” I protest.

 

“Life just doesn’t work that way, Katniss,” Peeta tells me a little sadly. “The people you love are going to go away someday, and there’s absolutely nothing any of us can do to stop it. The only thing we can do is keep them alive in our memories and move on, living life the way they would want us to.” He strokes my hair tenderly. “Do you think your father would want you to never know love? To never know the joys of having a family?”

 

I think about the man my father was, how he used to sing to both Prim and me. How he would lift us up in his arms and twirl us about. About the way he would look at my mother, like she was the most precious thing in the world to him.

 

I shake my head.

 

“I didn’t think so.”

 

“I still want to have a family someday, Katniss,” Gale says. “Even though Posy died, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to have a family.”

 

I look at Gale and realize that he’s lost more than I have. “I’m sorry,” I mumble.

 

“So am I.” Gale reaches out to take one of my hands. “But I still want to have a family with you. Even if that means that I might lose you someday.”

 

Peeta grasps my other hand. “The same goes for me. Loving someone is worth the pain. You’re worth the pain.”

 

I squeeze their hands and try to calm myself down.

 

After a few minutes, Peeta asks, “So… we’re still a trio, right?”

 

I nod.

 

“Good. Hug?”

 

I nod again. The three of us step into each other’s arms. It’s comforting and not romantic at all. But it’s what I need right now. Peeta strokes my back while Gale runs his fingers along my braid.

 

“Just so you know, Catnip, you just admitted that you loved us.”

 

“Did not.”

 

“Back me up here, Peet. She totally admitted it.”

 

“You really did, Katniss.” Peeta sounds pleased and a little hopeful.

 

I sigh. I can’t dash both of their hopes. I won’t. “Fine. I love you both. You happy now?”

 

“Yes,” they say together.

 

oOo

 

As if my admission opened a floodgate, my relationship with Gale and Peeta quickly becomes more intense. The boys are more sure of themselves and it shows in their actions. But they’re still considerate about making sure that I have time for myself.

 

For my part, I’ve become more open with the two of them, more willing to initiate physical and emotional affection.

 

The first time I actively flirted with Gale, he was initially shocked, but ultimately pleased.

 

With Peeta, it’s different, a little calmer, steadier. We still flirt with each other, but it’s gentle.

 

And then there are the kisses.

 

Just like the night of the Reaping, I find myself wanting more, craving more. But unlike the night of the Reaping, I know what it is that I want. I just have to work up the courage to say so.

 

I finally pull both Peeta and Gale aside one evening and ask them to come join me up on the top of the hill, underneath the same maple tree where the boys took me to talk before. This time I take the lead.

 

“You wanted me to tell you when I was ready. I’m ready.” I blurt it out, afraid that if I don’t say it now I never will.

 

“Are you sure?” Peeta asks.

 

“This is awfully quick, Catnip.”

 

I shake my head. “Not really. I think I’ve wanted this for a long time. I just was afraid to admit it, even to myself.”

 

“We are talking about sex here, right?” Gale asks. “Or is this, uh, something else?”

 

“Um, both?” I’m talking about sex, but I’m also talking about more.

 

“What’s the something else, Katniss?” Peeta asks, his eyes intent.

 

Of course Peeta would ask. “Well, you know! I care about you! I want you. I want us. This isn’t easy for me to say. You know how I am with words!”

 

Both boys laugh. “Of the three of us, I think Peet’s the talker,” Gale states.

 

I nod. I agree with that.

 

“So you’re ready to make love? Are you sure you’re sure?” Peeta asks again. “This isn’t you trying to please us, right? We’re happy with whatever you’re willing to give us, whenever you’re willing to give it to us.”

 

“No, I’m sure.” I blush, thinking about what it would feel like. “My mom says…” I trail off.

 

“You don’t need to go any further, Catnip. Please.”

 

Peeta blushes. “Um, I’m okay whenever you are.”

 

I look down at my hands.

 

Gale runs his fingers through his hair. “Oh for fuck’s sake! Just set a date and a time and we’ll make it happen! I’ll make sure that everybody else is out of the cave for a few hours so you two can have some privacy.”

 

Peeta looks over at Gale. “Thanks. For everything.”

 

“No problem, man. Just show her a good time so she’ll actually want to do the deed with me. If you screw this up for me, I will take your dick and hang you from it.” He turns to me. “Assuming you actually want to have sex with me too.”

 

I nod my head. “I want to. With both of you.”

 

“Well thank fucking goodness.”

 

“I’d like to with you too, I mean...” I’m not sure how to say this.

 

Gale barks out a laugh. “I’m interpreting that sort of garbled speech to mean that you want to have sex with me on the same day as you have sex with Peeta.”

 

I nod my head.

 

“Okay. We’ll see what we can do. But it might not be possible, I’m just saying.”

 

“Not gonna be able to get it up, Hawthorne?” Peeta asks, his voice light and teasing.

 

“In your dreams, Mellark.” He turns back to me. “But seriously, there’s no need to rush. When you’re ready, after Peeta’s shown you a good time - you’d better show her a good time, Mellark - I’ll be here to show you an even better one.”

 

“Cocky bastard.”

 

“Excuse me, my parents were married when they had me. And I’ve got a reputation to maintain.”

 

Peeta looks around the hillside forest. “With who? We’re the only ones out here!”

 

“Shut up, Mellark.”

 

I can’t help it. I laugh.

 

oOo

 

A couple days later, Gale takes my mother, Rory, and Prim out to gather several kinds of berries that we’ve noted have now come into season. It’s the first outing for Prim since the bear attack.

 

As she leaves, my mother raises an eyebrow at Peeta and me. It’s clear she knows what’s going on, she’s just choosing not to say anything. I shoot her a grateful smile for her silence.

 

Peeta and I wait until we can’t hear their voices before turning to look at each other.

 

“So…”

 

“Yeah, um, so…”

 

Silence reigns.

 

“You know, we don’t have to do this, Katniss,” Peeta says after a few long moments.

 

“But I want to!” I protest.

 

“Really? Cause I’m not getting that impression right now.”

 

“I’m nervous!” And I am. I don’t know what to do and I don’t like it. Not one bit.

 

He takes my face in his hands. “You’ve got nothing to be nervous about. If you want, we can just go into the other room and take a nap, call it good.”

 

I shake my head. “No. That’s not what I want.”

 

“So what do you want?” he asks softly.

 

Deciding that words are totally useless, I pull Peeta’s face down to mine. The kiss is intense and I deepen it quickly. I don’t know of any other way to show him just how much I want this.

 

Peeta starts at my boldness before pulling me into his arms. I love it. The feeling of his broad chest and strong arms around me. I feel safe. Protected. And more. We stand there, lips fused together. His tongue slips out, flicking at my lips, asking for entrance. I let him in. He tastes like raspberries and mint tea. Our tongues dance. I’m still a little new to the sensation, but I find I like it. I feel the building of desire deep in my belly, just like it has been every time we’ve made out since Reaping Day.

 

My resolve solidifies.

 

I want this.

 

I want him.

 

I pull back and look up at him. His skin is a little flushed and his breathing is a bit erratic. “Peeta?”

 

His eyes meet mine and I see his pupils are dilated. “Katniss,” he whispers.

 

I take his hands and tug him towards the bedroom. “Let’s go.”

 

He follows me eagerly.

 

We stand there, at the foot of the bed, and Peeta draws me into his arms. I lift my head and he leans down to touch his mouth to mine. This kiss is gentle. He and Gale have remained smooth-shaven since they shaved after Reaping Day so I’m not distracted by his beard. Instead, I focus on how soft his lips are. There’s no force to this kiss, just tenderness, and I realize Peeta is leaving it up to me to take the next step.

 

So I do.

 

I slide my hands up his chest, feeling the definition of his muscles through his shirt. His breath catches as I run my fingertips lightly over his chest, tracing each ridge of his pectoral muscles. I find his nipples and draw my fingernails over them.

 

He tears his mouth away from mine. “Katniss…” he draws out my name with a hiss.

 

“Do you like that?” I ask a bit nervously.

 

“Mmm-hmm. Here, let me.”

 

He bends down to kiss me again and ghosts his fingers across my stomach and rib cage. Then slowly he drags his hands up my chest, circling my nipples with his thumbs. I gasp.

 

“Somebody likes that,” he whispers huskily.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Good.”

 

Peeta bends down to start kissing my neck. It’s nice, but it’s not what I’m craving. I tug his shirt free from his pants and beginning at the bottom, I start unbuttoning it. When I reach the button at his waist, I slip my hand under the thin fabric and lightly score my nails across his abdomen. He draws a breath.

 

“Ticklish?” I ask.

 

He lifts his head up from my shoulder before shaking it. “Ticklish isn’t the word I would use.”

 

I do it again and get the same reaction. “Oh?”

 

“Katniss…”

 

I chuckle.

 

I continue my task of divesting Peeta from his shirt, taking the time after each button to rub my hand across the planes of his stomach and chest. When I reach the top button, I slide both hands under the shirt, lightly flicking Peeta’s nipples, much like he did to mine earlier.

 

His reaction isn’t as pronounced as mine, but it’s definitely there. Emboldened by his reactions, I push the shirt off of his shoulders, sliding the sleeves down his arms. Then I lean in to start laving kisses across his chest.

 

“Katniss…” he murmurs. “This is supposed to be about you. You’re supposed to enjoy this.”

 

I pull back and look up at him. “I am. We’re together, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“So let’s do this. Together.”

 

He smiles down at me. “Sounds good. Although, one of us is slightly more dressed than the other.”

 

“Why don’t you do something about it?” I challenge.

 

The smile becomes decidedly more feral. He tugs my shirt over my head and tosses it on the floor. I’m not wearing anything underneath. He stares at me, drinking in my form, and I shudder at the intensity.

 

“Peeta…” I pull my hands up and cross them over my chest. I’m not shaped like the ideal Capitol beauty and even in Twelve my figure isn’t much to speak of.

 

“No. Don’t.” He lifts his hands to stop me. “You’re beautiful, Katniss. More beautiful than I’d ever imagined.”

 

I drop my arms.

 

“Can I touch you?” he asks.

 

I nod my head, my earlier boldness gone.

 

He reaches up and draws a line from the tip of my chin down my neck between my breasts to my navel. He drifts lower until he reaches the buttons on my pants. There, he gently traces along my waistband before running his hand back up along my side. He repeats the action with his other hand along my other side.

 

It tickles slightly. “Peeta, you’re teasing.”

 

He shakes his head. “No. I’m just not quite sure if you’re real.” He lifts his head to look me in the eye. “You’re here with me, right now. Real? Not real?”

 

I lift his hand and place it over my heart. “Real.”

 

He pulls me into his arms, crushing me against his chest, running his hands along my back. Then he pulls back to capture my lips with his. The rest of our clothes disappear in a flurry of hands and fingers.

 

Peeta lifts me up and carries me to the bed. “I’ve always dreamed of doing this,” he murmurs into my hair.

 

I don’t say anything. Instead, I pull his head down to give him another kiss.

 

He lays me down in the center of the bed and looks at me. I try not to hide myself with my hands, but it’s hard. Instead, I return the favor and study him.

 

His shoulders are broad and heavily muscled. His chest and abdomen are well-defined, with a small trail of curly golden hair leading down to where his penis is standing at attention. I’ve never seen a guy’s penis this close up and I’ve definitely never seen one fully erect before.

 

Without thinking, I reach my hand out and ghost my fingers over the tip. It’s smoother than I expected, so I do it again to confirm what I felt.

 

Peeta draws in his breath, trailing into a moan.

 

I snatch my hand back. “I’m sorry. Did that hurt?”

 

“No, Katniss.” He shakes his head with a groan. “If anything, it felt too good.”

 

I lift my hand up. “Do you want me to touch it again?”

 

“I don’t think that’d be a good idea.” He sits down carefully on the edge of the bed. “Can I touch you?”

 

I lay back against the covers and nod my head.

 

He touches me gently, painting his fingers across my skin. He explores every inch of my body except for the junction between my legs. He discovers the ticklish spot behind my left knee and bends down and gives it a kiss before moving on. He rubs his hands around my calves and I let out an involuntary moan.

 

“Looks like someone likes having her legs rubbed.” He sounds pleased with himself.

 

I nod. I never thought of my legs as an erogenous zone until now.  

 

He kisses my calf and moves on, up my thighs, across my hips, up my sides, and to my breasts. There he pauses, circling both nipples until they harden into points.

 

I suck in my breath and hold it. It feels so good.

 

Peeta bends down and draws one nipple into his mouth.

 

I let out the air I’m holding in a breathy moan.

 

“I think someone likes this more,” he says, pulling his head up and blowing across the nipple.

 

“Less talking, more kissing.”

 

“As my lady commands.”

 

I draw him up for another kiss. I want to touch him everywhere. I want him to touch me everywhere, especially between my legs.

 

“Mmmmm,” I moan against his mouth.

 

He pulls back. “What was that?”

 

I’m not sure I can put what I want into words. So instead, I take his hand and place it over my curls.

 

To his credit, he understands what I want, and he slips his fingers between my folds, searching for something, I don’t know what. I’m a little surprised at just how wet I am but I don’t get any time to question it further because he finds what he’s looking for and flicks his fingers over a small little nub that I’d never really noticed before.

 

A loud gasp escapes unbidden from my throat.

 

“There it is,” I hear him mumble under his breath. He flicks the little bundle again and another gasp escapes. His fingers play, exploring, touching, but always coming back to that same spot that causes me to react every time.

 

His other hand comes up to play with my breasts and this time I feel the jolt of desire zip straight down between my legs to where Peeta’s hand is. The feeling is intense and it keeps building.

 

And building.

 

Until finally it washes over me in a crescendo of sensation. Peeta’s fingers stroke me through the feeling until I’m able to come back to myself.

 

Peeta sits back up and sucks his fingers into his mouth. “Mmmmm.” He sounds pleased and not a little smug.

 

I’m a little dazed but I manage to get out, “What was that?”

 

“Fucking sexy,” he replies.

 

I open my eyes to glare at him. “You know what I meant.”

 

He smiles at me gently. “Well, that book of your mom’s calls it the ‘Mother’s Gift of Pleasure.’”

 

“Really? That’s a horrible name.” That sounds like something that the Capitol would say. What’s next? The Father’s Sexy Stick of Doom?

 

“I totally agree with you,” Peeta says with a laugh. “My brothers referred to it as ‘cumming’ but I don’t know what that really means.”

 

“I don’t know what it means either, but it feels good. Can I make you feel that way?”

 

He nods his head.

 

“What do I need to do?”

 

“Nothing, Katniss. Nothing matters more than you enjoying this.”

 

“But I want you to enjoy it too.”

 

“And I am!” He motions towards his erect penis. “Believe me, I am.”

 

“So now what?”

 

“That’s up to you. What do you want?”

 

I draw him to me. “I want you, Peeta.”

 

The smile on his face is radiant and he starts laving kisses all over my body, paying close attention to my more sensitive areas.

 

He kisses his way down my belly while slipping his hand between my legs. One finger enters me. He pumps it in and out before adding a second then third finger, the entire time kissing, licking, and nipping at my hips, belly, and chest. I feel his fingers stretch me. It’s an odd sensation, but one that makes me want more.

 

Peeta looks up at me earnestly. “Let me know if you want me to stop.”

 

I shake my head. “No, keep going.”

 

He lets me get used to the feeling of his fingers in me, distracting me with his lips and tongue.

 

At some point known only to him, he removes his fingers and positions his body over me. I can feel the tip of his penis at the entrance of my folds.

 

“Katniss?” he asks, supporting his weight on his arms.

 

I give him my answer by reaching up and pulling him to me. I’m ready.

 

Carefully, he reaches down and slips just the tip of his penis into me. Once it’s in, he rubs at my nub. A bolt of pleasure shoots through me. I buck my hips, pulling Peeta further in.

 

“Katniss, I don’t want to hurt you.” His voice sounds strained.

 

“You’re not. Please, Peeta, just do it.”

 

He pushes forward slowly and I can feel my body stretching to accommodate him. It’s uncomfortable and a bit painful and I’m grateful that my mother warned me that it might be.

 

When he’s fully seated within me, he pauses, letting me adjust to his width.

 

I can see beads of sweat across his brow. “You okay?” I ask, reaching up to brush the sweat away.

 

He looks up and smiles at me. “I should be asking you that. How are you?”

 

I clench my muscles around him. “I think I’m okay, if you want to move.”

 

He lets out a groan. “Yes, I really want to move.”

 

“So come on, Peeta,” I murmur. “I want you to feel good too.”

 

He doesn’t wait for me to tell him again. He slowly withdraws from me, then pushes his way back in. He repeats the motion again and again, each time getting faster and faster.

 

My hips tilt up to meet his and I feel a little something building within me, it’s similar to the crescendo I felt earlier, but different. I don’t get very much time to figure out what it is before Peeta lets out a loud groan. I feel a splash of warmth inside me.

 

Peeta slows his thrusts, drawing out his climax. He lowers his body onto mine, careful not to crush me. He stares down at me wonderingly, his eyes full of love.   “Thank you, Katniss.” He kisses me.

 

I kiss him back. “Mmmmm,” I mumble, snuggling into his arms. “No, thank you.”

 

“I love you,” he whispers into my ear.

 

I draw him to my lips for another kiss. “I love you too.”

 

We hold each other as we drift off to sleep.

 

oOo

 

“Okay you two, time to get up.”

 

I blink and slowly open my eyes to see Gale standing over us, his arms crossed and an amused smile on his face. “What time is it?” I ask, looking around the room.

 

“Time to get your butts dressed,” Gale answers. “Your ma and the kids are down at the smoker taking care of a pig I shot but I can only hold them off for so long.”

 

“Nnnngh,” I groan, slipping out from Peeta’s arms, looking around for my clothes. I spot my shirt in a crumpled heap near the end of the bed. I move too quickly and immediately wince. “Can you hand me that?” I ask Gale, pointing at it.

 

“Sure thing, Catnip,” he says, retrieving my discarded shirt.

 

I find my pants and gingerly pull them on, tossing Peeta’s at his head. “Wake up!” The area between my legs feels a little sticky and I desperately want to take a bath.

 

“Do I have to?” He mumbles into the pillow. “Mmm, five more minutes?”

 

I snatch the pillow away. “Nope. If I’ve gotta be up, so do you.”

 

“Nnngh.” He rolls over and looks at me flirtatiously. “Can you make it worth my while?”

 

I sigh and carefully crawl over the bed to give him a kiss. “Come on, lazybones, time to get up.”

 

“Isn’t that just cute? So I’m guessing you two kids had a good time?” Gale sounds eerily like my mother.

 

“Yes, Mom,” I say.

 

He laughs. “I don’t suppose you’re up for another round?”

 

I think about the lingering soreness between my legs and shake my head. “No. All I want now is a nice warm bath and another nap.” I pause. “Maybe some food.”

 

“A little sore?”

 

I nod my head.

 

“I didn’t mean to hurt you, Katniss,” Peeta says. “I’m sorry! Tell me what I did wrong and I promise never to do it again.” He looks stricken.

 

I want to kiss the pain in his eyes away, so I do. I don’t know what to say to him to make him feel better. But this, this I can do.

 

Gale, thankfully, knows what to say. “I’m sure you didn’t do anything wrong, Peet,” Gale reassures him. “Lots of girls are sore after their first time.”

 

“Katniss?” He’s pleading with me.

 

I nod. “I’m fine. I enjoyed myself. I wouldn’t mind doing it again, just… not today.” I look at Gale apologetically.

 

“No worries.” Gale sounds like he was expecting me to say that.

 

“You don’t sound surprised,” Peeta points out.

 

“Gale’s got a lot more experience with girls,” I tell him. “I hear he’s the king of the slag heap.” It’s meant to sound flirtatious. It doesn’t come out that way.

 

Gale picks up on that. “You almost sound jealous there. I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

 

I nod. “I’ll hold you to that.”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Brand New Breeze:

 

“Gale’s got a lot more experience with girls,” I tell him. “I hear he’s the king of the slag heap.” It’s meant to sound flirtatious. It doesn’t come out that way.

 

Gale picks up on that. “You almost sound jealous there. I promise I’ll make it up to you.”

 

I nod. “I’ll hold you to that.”

 

oOo

 

It’s a little awkward when Prim, my mother, and Rory return. I’m still moving a little stiffly. I’m doing my best to hide it, but my mother notices anyway and raises an eyebrow at me. I struggle not to blush. There’s no hiding what we’ve done from her.

 

Prim, on the other hand, wants to know what Peeta and I were up to all day. How am I supposed to explain that without lying? I can’t do that to Prim. She’ll know. I’m a horrible liar and no one knows that better than my sister.

 

Thankfully, I don’t have to. Peeta’s got it covered. “We stayed behind because we’ve got something special for you.” He walks back into the bedroom and brings out a small stool for Prim.

 

She looks at Peeta then at me, happiness painted all over her face. “You made this? For me?”

 

“Yup, just for you,” Peeta answers, smiling. “The very first of us to get a chair of our very own.”

 

“Why’d she get a chair and not me? And where’s my bed?” Rory protests.

 

“You keep acting like that, you’re never gonna get a bed,” Gale says, rolling his eyes.

 

Rory crosses his arms, a pout on his face. “Fine! I’ll just sleep with you!”

 

“Oh hell no,” his brother tells him. “There’s already three of us sharing a bed. We do not need a fourth.”

 

My mother snorts.

 

Shooting her a glare, Rory counters, “Fine! I’m sleeping in the kitchen until you make me an actual bed!”

 

“Just so long as you know that if somebody gets sick, you’re going to have to move,” my mother tells him serenely.

 

“None of you get sick!” He points at all of us accusingly, his finger lingering on me for some reason.

 

Peeta changes the subject. “I could really use some help for the next couple of days. We’ve got a lot of hides that need to be cured and it’s a lot of work to do it by myself. I haven’t been able to keep as many as I’d like.” He’s not wrong. He’s managing to cure about six hides out of every ten. Unfortunately, he seems to be having problems with the larger skins and that book of my mother’s gives only minimal instruction on how to do it. But without Peeta we’d probably only have a few furs and that’s being optimistic. And I know that we’re going to need those furs come winter.

 

My mother seems to understand that too. “We can help you, Peeta,” she says. “It’s a pretty slow time for me right now with the garden and I think a little bit of work would be good for Prim.” She turns and looks right at Rory. “And I think your brother would be much more willing to make a bed for you if you spent a little more time helping us around the cave rather than exploring all the time.”

 

Rory groans. “Fine.”

 

oOo

 

I’m feeling better a couple of days later. The initial soreness has gone away and I’m starting to crave that pleasurable feeling that Peeta gave me again. It’s never been all that important to me before, but now that I’ve felt it I want more.

 

I broach it with Gale that morning while we’re out hunting.

 

He looks over at me half-hopefully and half-nervously. “Are you sure, Catnip?”

 

“Yes. I am.” I nod and look up at him a little shyly.

 

He smiles and says, “So I’m free this afternoon if you are.” His tone is light. Teasing. It’s meant to make me feel more at ease.

 

And it does. I laugh and tug him back towards the cave. “Come on.”

 

We slip back into the cave. “Hello?” Gale calls, swiveling his head around to make sure that nobody else is around.

 

No one answers.

 

His smile widens. “I think we’re alone.”

 

“That’s good,” I say, wrapping my arms around him. “I don’t think I want Rory or Prim to see this yet.”

 

“No, no, I agree.” He bends down and kisses me. “I want you all to myself.”

 

“You’ve got me,” I reply huskily.

 

He hoists me up into his arms and I wrap my legs around him. He carries me to the bedroom, placing me down on our bed. He makes sure I’m in the exact center. Then, he starts removing his clothing.

 

I sit up to take off my shirt when he stops me. “No, I’ve dreamed of undressing you. Let me.”

 

I nod my head, laying back down on the bed. I can accommodate him in this.

 

He smiles at me gratefully before finishing getting undressed and sitting down next to me completely nude.

 

I look at his chest and the small sprinkling of hair curled across it, trailing down to his legs. He’s hairier than Peeta but I don’t mind. The contrast is nice and both men are equally attractive.

 

Gale runs a hand through his hair. “Fuck, I can’t believe I get to do this.”

 

“Do what?”

 

He traces the edge of my cheek and down my neck, resting his fingers just above my heart. “I get to touch you.” He kisses me lightly on the lips. “Kiss you.” He laves his tongue along the column of my neck. “Taste you.”

 

Closing my eyes, I arch my back trying to follow him. “Gale, stop teasing.”

 

“But I like teasing.” To illustrate his point, he traces his fingertips across my lips.

 

I nip at them and he laughs. My eyes snap open to glare at him.   “If you don’t stop teasing, I’ll… I’ll…”

 

“You’ll do what?” It’s a dare. I don’t normally respond well to dares.

 

But this is different. I reach out and wrap my fingers around him.

 

He takes a breath.

 

I’m unable to keep myself from smirking. “I’ll figure out something.”

 

Gale moans softly. “Minx.” He leans down to touch his lips to mine. The kiss starts off teasing but quickly becomes something deeper, more intense.

 

I moan against his mouth.

 

That seems to be the signal he’s been waiting for because he reaches up and starts slowly unbuttoning my shirt. With each button he opens he pauses to take in the new expanse of skin, touching, licking, and kissing his way down my breastbone and across my stomach.

 

I sit up so that he can push my shirt off my shoulders.

 

When I’m bare from the waist up, he traces a hand down my side. “Are you real? Tell me you’re not a figment of my imagination.”

 

I wrap my arms around him and draw him in for a kiss. “I’m real and I want to be here with you.”

 

The smile on his face is blinding.

 

I take his hands and place them on the waistband of my pants. “Come on, help me get these off.”

 

“As you command.” He flicks the button open and bends down to kiss my navel.

 

“Gale…”

 

He chuckles and finishes divesting me of my clothing. My pants end up with my shirt, tossed in a pile on the side of the bed, and soon I’m as naked as he is.

 

“Is there anything you want me to do?” Gale asks.

 

I shake my head. “Like what?”

 

Gale smirks. “Oh, Catnip. There’s so much we can do. Like… has Peeta touched you down here?” He gently caresses the top of my curls.

 

I nod.

 

“Did you like it?”

 

I nod emphatically.

 

“Did he taste you?” he asks huskily.

 

I shake my head.

 

“I think that’s where we’re going to start.” He lays me down on my back. “Just relax, let me take care of you.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Gale starts by kissing me on the mouth. It’s slow and languid and there’s no hurry to it, like we have all the time in the world. Then he slips downward, licking and kissing at my neck and collar.

 

I feel my body respond to his and I let out a low moan.

 

Gale look up and smiles at me before continuing his exploration. He runs his fingertips across my chest and breasts, following the path they take with his mouth. He pauses briefly to suckle at my breasts before moving on to ring my navel with his tongue. I’m surprised it doesn’t tickle, but instead shoots little bolts of desire directly between my legs.

 

Gale keeps going, spreading my legs and slipping between them. He strokes me open, his finger very deliberately not touching my nub.

 

“Gale…” It comes out much breathier than I’d anticipated.

 

“Katniss?” He looks up at me, a little smirk on his face. He’s clearly taking pleasure in making me writhe.

 

“Get on with it.”

 

He chuckles and I can feel his breath against my most intimate parts. “As you command.”

 

Tilting his head down, he very gently pokes his tongue out and touches me with it.

 

There are no words for me to describe this feeling. “Oh my!” The words are ripped from my throat against my volition. While Peeta’s fingers felt good, Gale’s tongue feels fabulous.

 

“You like that?” Gale teases.

 

“Yes!” I answer breathily, glaring at him. “You know I do.”

 

He chuckles again. “So I’m guessing you don’t want me to stop.”

 

I growl. “Don’t you dare.”

 

He smirks at me before bending down to return to his task. As before, the feeling of Gale’s tongue running along my folds and teasing my nub is intense. He lightly nibbles at my center and I’m unable to keep a breathy moan from escaping my lips.

 

As if spurred on by the noises I’m making, Gale redoubles his efforts. The pleasurable feeling grows and grows until I feel my body quivering on the edge of a precipice. I fall over the edge when Gale inserts a finger into me.

 

I let myself fall, riding the sensation. It’s more intense than when Peeta used his fingers on me.

 

Then Gale draws my nub into his mouth, sucking on it while curling his finger inside me. I come apart again, crying his name. I can’t believe I’ve fallen over the precipice twice in such quick succession. He lets me ride the wave, gently stroking his fingers inside me until I come back to myself.  

 

But Gale’s not done. He reaches out and touches me with his tongue again and this time the feeling is just too much.

 

I gasp out a “Stop!”

 

And he immediately does.

 

“Are you okay?” he asks, sitting up to look down at me. I can tell he’s concerned.

 

I reach out to him and clasp one of his hands. “Yeah, wow. Just intense.”

 

“So would you like me to do it again?” He sounds both hopeful and a little smug. It’s an odd combination.

 

I nod my head. “Just… give me a bit to recover.” My legs are shaking and I can feel little aftershocks thrum through my core.

 

“Of course. Take all the time you need.” He crawls up next to me and lies down, gently tracing abstract patterns over my stomach. “So how did you like your first oral sex orgasm?”

 

“Is that what it’s called? Peeta didn’t know.” It sounds much better than ‘The Mother’s Gift of Pleasure,’ anyway. Or ‘cumming.’

 

“I’m not surprised Peet didn’t know, he’s almost as innocent as you are.” He looks down at me hungrily. “Or should I say were.”

 

“Can I do the same to you?” I ask.

 

“Of course you can,” he says, nodding his head. “Just not right now. I want this to be all about you, Katniss.”

 

“But I want you to have a good time too!”

 

“Oh trust me, I am.” He leans down and kisses me and I can taste myself on his lips. It’s not unpleasant, but it is a little weird.

 

I feel the shaking in my legs stop and I say, “If you want to do more, I’d like to.”

 

“You sure?”

 

“Yeah. I’m sure.”

 

He rolls onto his back, pulling me on top of him. “I’m gonna let you take control here.”

 

I’m confused. “What do I do?”

 

“Whatever you want to.”

 

I look down into his eyes and see the utter trust and desire reflected in them. It’s so moving that I want to kiss him. So I do. The kiss is gentle, tender, and I let all of my feelings for him flow into it.

 

He moans against my mouth.

 

Taking that as permission to start my exploration, I start running my fingers along his chest and arms, feeling the hard muscle underneath. I trace the curve of his pectorals to his stomach along the trail of curls until I reach his penis. I wrap my hand around it, noting that it’s larger and longer than Peeta’s. I trace my way up his length and dance my fingers around the tip.

 

Gale groans.

 

“Sounds like someone likes this,” I tease, just like both boys teased me.

 

“Damn right I like it. The woman I love is touching my cock. That’s pretty much every guy’s dream.”

 

I laugh.

 

“Come on, Katniss. I want to be inside you.”

 

“How?” I ask. This position is nothing like the one Peeta and I were in a few days ago and I’m not sure what to do.

 

“Here, straddle me.” He lifts me up and places my legs on either side of his hips, then carefully places the tip of his penis at my opening. “Just do what feels good.”

 

I slowly lower myself onto him, feeling my body stretch to accommodate his length. I’m a little surprised that I can take all of him in me and I can feel him hitting something deep inside me. I’m not sure if I like it or not. So I lift myself up off of him a bit, shifting my hips slightly, before settling back down.

 

“Fuck, Katniss, you feel amazing.”

 

I smirk at him and bend down to give him a kiss. The angle of him changes within me and I feel the base of his penis putting pressure on my nub. I gasp. It feels incredible. I want more.

 

I lift my hips and slide back down, hoping that I can repeat the sensation. I can. So I do it again. And again. I repeat the motion over and over, riding him, my desire growing with each stroke. This is a completely different experience than what I had with Peeta. I like being in control, feeling my own orgasm approaching.

 

Gale must sense I’m close because he reaches up with one hand to caress my breasts, the other slipping between my folds to tickle my nub.

 

I buck on top of him.

 

“Someone likes having her clit touched.”

 

I stop and look down at him. “Clit?”

 

He flicks my nub again. “This is your clitoris, also known as the clit. You like it when I touch you there.”

 

I nod my head and swivel my hips. “But you like being inside of me.”

 

“Oh hell yeah. What gave it away?”

 

“I don’t know, something must have come up.”

 

There isn’t any more talk as I concentrate on bringing the both of us to orgasm. Gale keeps flicking my clitoris and I feel myself explode around him. I ride the sensation to its end, feeling my insides flutter around Gale’s length.

 

A few seconds later, Gale lets out a loud groan and I feel a warm wetness within me. I smile, content in the knowledge that I’m the one who can make him feel like that. I lay down on his chest, revelling in the feeling of him inside me.

 

He kisses the top of my head. “You were amazing, Katniss.”

 

“You weren’t too bad yourself,” I murmur against his chest.

 

oOo

 

Even though we’re now sexually active, we have to call a halt to it for several days because it’s too close to that dangerous time my mother mentioned. When I tell Gale and Peeta the reason why, they understand. We don’t need a baby just yet. This is too new and I’m not sure I want children at all. It ends up working out in our favor because, for the next several days, we have a flurry of other things to do.

 

My mother’s garden is finally starting to produce vegetables. Because nothing is in nice neat rows, it takes longer to harvest and all of us are needed to bring in the crops. The first crop we harvest is turnips. We’ve been eating some of the greens in salads and stews, but now it’s time to harvest the roots so that we can try to get another planting in. We don’t get as many as I’d like, but my mother seems pleased.

 

“I wasn’t sure that would work,” she says, dusting her hands off. “Hopefully we’ll get more next time.”

 

“I hope so too,” I say. “You’re the one who’s so concerned about us getting too much meat, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to gather enough vegetables to make it through the winter.”

 

“I wouldn’t worry about it too much, Katniss. I’ve noticed a few fruit trees and there are lots of oaks and chestnuts around. We might not have fresh vegetables, but I think we’ll have enough other variety.”

 

I nod my head. I have been keeping track of where I’ve seen various fruit trees even though they’re not in season yet. And I’ve noticed my mother doing the same.

 

We spend the next few days experimenting with drying turnip greens and gathering what other plants we can find. I come back with a bag full of sweetgale and find Peeta and Gale finally working on Rory’s bed.

 

Peeta eyes the bag. “What’d you find?”

 

“Not much. Burdock roots, some pond lily seeds, and some sweetgale.”

 

“Sweetgale? What’s sweetgale?” Peeta asks.

 

“It’s a plant,” Gale states flatly.

 

“I gathered that.” Peeta gives him an odd look. “I meant what do you use it for?”

 

Gale sighs. “You can make a tea out of it and my mom used to use it for spicing up the food my dad caught. Kinda tastes a little like sage.”

 

I blink. I didn’t know Gale knew much about gathering or cooking. It’s never really been his thing and the fact that he knows the plant so well surprises me.

 

I don’t get a chance to question him further because he and Peeta get back to work making Rory’s bed, leaving me confused behind them.

 

oOo

 

A couple days later we all head back out to my mother’s garden to help harvest the beets and cucumbers. There’s a decent number, and after our experimentation with the turnip greens we think we’ve found a way to dry the beet greens effectively.

 

Gale and I break off from the group, ranging out to check the snares and other traps situated around the garden. They’re mostly there as a deterrent, but they seem to get something every day. Most of the time it’s a rabbit, but sometimes we get something surprising like a turkey or wild dog. One time we even found a dead cat in one of the snares. We didn’t dare tell Prim, but we did make sure that she did her best to keep Buttercup away from the garden. The last thing that we want is to have to tell my sister that that damned cat of hers that she insisted on lugging all the way from Twelve died in one of my or Gale’s snares.

 

As we reach the first line of snares, we hear a weak high pitched meow. Gale and I share a panicked look.

 

Oh crap!

 

I hope it’s not my sister’s cat. That’d be bad. That’d be really bad.

 

Gale voices my fear aloud. “That better not be Buttercup.”

 

Another meow comes from a few feet ahead. “I hope it isn’t either. Come on, let’s go check.”

 

Thankfully, it’s not Buttercup. That spares me the wrath of my sister, but we’re not out of the woods yet.

 

Dangling from its back right leg about two or three feet off of the ground from one of our string snares is a cat. No, not a cat. A kitten. A tiny fluffy gray kitten with darker gray stripes and bright green eyes. It doesn’t look to be more than two months old. It mews at us pathetically and I sigh. The damned thing probably got separated from its mother and wandered into our snare line.

 

“Fuck,” Gale says. “It’d be better if it were dead.” The animal is hurt and there’s no telling how long it’s been hanging there.

 

I regard the small fuzzy thing. “Yeah, but it isn’t. What do we do now? Prim will never forgive us if we kill a kitten.”

 

“Do we really need another cat?” Gale’s voice sounds resigned, like he already knows what the answer will be.

 

I know what the answer is going to be too. There’s no way I can bring myself to kill a kitten and be able to look Prim in the eye later. “It wouldn’t hurt. Maybe it can help Buttercup keep the mice out of our stores.”

 

“So I’m guessing we’re giving this to your sister.”

 

“Unless you think Rory wants a cat.” My tone is teasing.

 

Gale shoots me a look. “We’re giving it to Prim.”

 

Gale grabs the kitten by the scruff of its neck. It goes limp in Gale’s hands. I carefully detangle it from the snare, noting that the string has cut into the kitten’s flesh. I wince sympathetically. Prim is going to be so upset.

 

Gale sees the injury and grimaces. “You know Prim’s gonna want to doctor the cat.”

 

I sigh. “I know.”

 

“So I guess we should head back.”

 

Holding my hands out, I say, “Give it to me. You finish checking the rest of the line and resetting everything.”

 

“Gladly.” He deposits the quaking ball of fluff into my hands. “I don’t want to be in your shoes.”  

 

I don’t want to be in my shoes either, but I take the small gray kitten and walk back towards my mother’s garden. It’s meowing pitifully in my hands and I can feel the small body shaking in fear.

 

“Is that a cat?” Peeta asks, looking up from a cucumber plant.

 

I nod my head and sigh. “It was caught in one of the snares.”

 

Prim rushes forward. “Is it okay? Is it hurt?”

 

“See for yourself.” I hold the cat out and Prim takes it.

 

“Oh poor kitty!” she exclaims, spotting the kitten’s hind leg. “I gotta go take care of this!” She doesn’t wait to see if it’s okay, instead darting back towards the cave.

 

I shake my head and watch her go.

 

“So I hear we have a new cat?” my mother says, coming over.

 

“You should probably go after her,” I say. “Otherwise you’ll find all of your bandages and supplies you brought here used on the kitten.”

 

“You’re probably right,” my mother says with a sigh. “You think the rest of you can finish this up?”

 

I nod. “Yeah. We’ve got this.”

 

When we’re done, we lug our harvest back to the cave to find Prim cuddling the kitten in her arms. Buttercup is glaring at the interloper and hissing at it every few minutes. I’m glad I’m not the only one he hates.

 

“So, how’s the new family member?” Peeta asks, setting down his basket.

 

“Dandelion is doing well, poor baby girl,” Prim answers, nuzzling the small cat. “We’re really lucky we were able to get her patched up in time. She’s really weak!”

 

“So she’s a girl?” I ask. “How can you tell?”

 

My sister glares at me. “She doesn’t have any male parts. Duh! She’s a girl and she’s gonna be Buttercup’s new girlfriend!”

 

Buttercup hisses at the kitten.

 

Peeta smiles wryly. “I think Buttercup might have something to say about that.”

 

oOo

 

In the beginning of July, the salmon start to run again though this breed seems to be a little smaller than the last bunch and is a bright red color. Even though Gale and I managed to bring down a cow a few days ago and we’ve had good luck with both the snares and hunting, we don’t want to miss this smorgasbord of easy to obtain food.

 

Besides, we have another mouth to feed, even if it’s a small mouth.

 

Prim’s been fussing over the cat, much to Rory’s chagrin. Although he’s happy that his bed has finally been completed he doesn’t like taking second place in Prim’s attentions. He and Buttercup have that in common.

 

As for Peeta, Gale, and myself, once my dangerous time passes we resume having sex. My mother was right, it’s very enjoyable and it’s been a lot of fun learning each other’s bodies and teaching each other what we like. Thankfully, the jealousy that plagued us before has not reared its head again and the boys are getting along.

 

Sometimes I think they like spending time with each other more than they like spending time with me. I’m guessing it’s a guy thing. They often go off and do things together, laughing and joking the whole time. I’d be jealous except then I’d be a hypocrite. Besides, sometimes it’s nice to be alone, although the three of us do spend plenty of time together, most recently gathering lots of berries.

 

It’s been a busy time. All of us are working at new skills and we’re slowly improving. While Peeta still ruins a hide or two here and there, it’s not as many as it once was. Prim still hasn’t managed a watertight basket yet, but she’s a whiz at storage containers, which are actually more useful. Rory’s even started contributing more to our table and I let him take a bow with him now as he goes out exploring. He manages to bring back several interesting items here and there so it’s time well spent. He wants to range further afield and we’re considering it, but not until after the salmon run is over.

 

The first day goes well. We manage to catch over twenty fish and our smoker is full to overflowing.

 

So on the second day, Rory comes down to take the catch from overnight up to our secondary smoker at the top of the hill.

 

Peeta and I are hauling in the nets near the mouth of the smaller of the two creeks when we hear a familiar male shout. We look up and back to Gale to see what’s going on, but his eyes aren’t on us. He’s fixated on something behind us.

 

We turn to see five leather-clad sun-bronzed people running at us, brandishing weapons. “Hey! What are you doing?” a long-haired blond man with several pieces of jewelry on shouts. “This is our place!”

 

One of them, a young male teenager from the looks of it, starts whirling a sling over his head. I don’t know who these people are or what they’re doing out here, but one thing is crystal clear.

 

They’re not friendly.

 

I drop the net and dash for my bow. I hear the sound of a stone striking a nearby tree and several of the others shouting, but I can’t make out what they’re saying. It doesn’t matter anyway. They’ve attacked us and I have to protect my family.

 

Rory is the first of us to fire. He misses. The raiders are too far out of range for him.

 

But not for me.

 

I pick up my bow and nock an arrow. Out of the corner of my eye I can see my mother hustling Prim up the hill toward the potential safety of our cave. Good. I can’t afford to be distracted by them.

 

Another rock whistles by my head. I don’t have time for any more thought. It’s us or them.

 

I fire.

 

The teenager drops, an arrow protruding from his neck. The woman near him cries out in sorrow. I don’t have time to feel pity. He attacked us and the threat isn’t over.

 

The rest of the raiders keep coming.

 

Other than the woman, I’m not even sure if they’ve noticed their fallen compatriot.

 

Gale fires at a dark-haired man who’s getting ready to throw a spear. He hits the man in his chest and follows up with a second arrow to his head. The man drops.

 

This one they all notice.

 

“Take out the archers!” the woman shouts.

 

“Over my dead body!” Peeta responds, picking up his spear and running towards them.

 

“Peet! Get out of the way!” Gale yells.

 

Peeta doesn’t listen.

 

Gale swears and starts pounding after him, pulling out another arrow as he goes.

 

The woman snorts and calls, “I’ll leave those two to you, Lothar, Tyler. I’ll take care of the little ones.” She hurls a spear at Rory, who just barely manages to get out of the way. She swears and pulls another spear from a container on her back.  

 

I can’t let her get another shot. Gale would never forgive me if something happened to Rory. And I couldn’t forgive myself.

 

Rory shoots at her but he’s off-balance and only manages to graze her side.

 

My shot doesn’t miss.

 

She falls to the ground, her spear clattering down next to her, an arrow buried in her heart.

 

I turn to see how Peeta and Gale are doing. I see that Gale’s discarded his bow and is brandishing his hunting knife. Peeta’s managed to get a good hit in on the blond raider and is now engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with the other.

 

Out of the corner of my eye I see Rory pick up his bow and take aim.

 

“Don’t fire,” I order. “You could injure one of them.”

 

“We can’t just stand here and do nothing!” he argues.

 

I drop my bow and pull out my knife. “You head back up to the cave, keep my sister and my mother safe. I’ll go help your brother and Peeta.”

 

“Oh yeah! Prim!” He darts off.

 

I dash towards Peeta and Gale.

 

Time seems to slow down.

 

Peeta’s wrestling with the dark-haired raider. They seem evenly matched but it becomes clear as I get closer that Peeta’s the better fighter. With a complicated maneuver of his arms, Peeta manages to get the upper hand. He twists the man’s head violently to the left and I hear the crack echo through the air.

 

The remaining blond raider draws a knife and from the ground slashes at the inside of Peeta’s left thigh.

 

Peeta goes down, blood spurting from the wound.

 

Gale cries out in rage, descending furiously on the fallen man, driving his knife through the man’s neck. He pulls the weapon out, splattering blood everywhere. There’s a liquid gurgle. Then nothing. The blond man is dead.

 

Gale stares down at his fallen foe for a few seconds before dropping his knife and yelling, “Peeta!”

 

Peeta’s clutching at his thigh. “I think I’m gonna need help back to the cave,” he says. His face is ashen.

 

I fall to my knees, pressing my hands against the wound to try to staunch the blood. It’s bad. The knife has cut through muscle almost to the bone and Peeta’s in real danger of bleeding to death. “We need my mother!”

 

“Is he gonna make it?” Gale asks, his eyes frantic.

 

“I’m fine,” Peeta says, right before he slips into unconsciousness.

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Brand New Breeze:

 

Peeta’s clutching at his thigh. “I think I’m gonna need help back to the cave,” he says. His face is ashen.

 

I fall to my knees, pressing my hands against the wound to try to staunch the blood. It’s bad. The knife has cut through muscle almost to the bone and Peeta’s in real danger of bleeding to death. “We need my mother!”

 

“Is he gonna make it?” Gale asks, his eyes frantic.

 

“I’m fine,” Peeta says, right before he slips into unconsciousness.

 

oOo

 

“Peeta!”

 

He doesn’t respond.

 

“Peeta wake up!” I shake him lightly, praying he’ll respond.

 

He doesn’t move.

 

Gale comes up behind me. “Katniss, we need to get him back to the cave.”

 

“How?” I ask, my voice betraying my fear.

 

“I’ll carry him, but I’m gonna need you to keep pressure on the wound. Can you do that?” His tone is calm, the same tone he uses when approaching a wounded animal. He’s trying to keep me from becoming hysterical.

 

I feel the urge to laugh burble up within me, but I tamp it down ruthlessly. Peeta needs me. They both need me. I can’t fall apart just yet. I nod my head in answer to Gale’s question, not trusting myself to be able to speak.

 

Gale carefully lifts Peeta into his arms, carrying him bridal-style, his injured leg facing me so I can keep pressure on the wound. It’s not perfect and I can see drops of red staining the ground between Gale’s feet. We have to go. Now.

 

We start back to the cave, moving slowly to avoid jostling Peeta. It feels like an eternity. Take a step. Readjust my hands. Take another step. And on and on. As we get closer, Gale and I both start calling out for help.

 

Rory’s the first to answer. “Is it safe?”

 

Gale calls back, “We need Katniss’s ma!”

 

“Why?” He sounds suspicious.

 

We don’t have time for this. “Stop arguing and just get her!” I shout.

 

“I’m not arguing!”

 

“Dammit, Rory! Get her now!” Gale roars before I can.

 

My mother calls down a minute later. “What’s wrong?” I hear her crashing down from the cave heading toward us.

 

“Peeta’s hurt!” My voice catches and I can’t say anymore. I’m having trouble seeing, everything seems to be distorted. Like through a glass of water. I’m crying. When did I start crying?

 

“How bad?”

 

Gale answers since I can’t. “Very!”

 

“Can you get him up to the cave?”

 

I can tell Gale is starting to feel the strain of carrying Peeta’s weight. “We - we need help!” I manage to get out. I don’t think Gale can carry him any further.

 

Gale gently sets Peeta down and shakes his arms out, trying to restore his strength. “It’s gonna be tough getting him up the hill,” he admits. “I’m not as strong as Peet is.”

 

I scrub at my face with the back of my hand, trying to force myself to think rationally. “Do you need the travois?”

 

He nods. “I think that might help.”

 

My mother joins us, paling at Peeta’s wound. “Give me your shirt,” she orders, holding out her hand.  

 

Gale and I both strip our shirts off immediately, holding them out to her.

 

My mother grabs Gale’s and motions for me to put mine back on. “I only need one.” She looks back at Peeta’s injury, before murmuring under her breath, “I hope.”

 

My heart sinks.

 

My mother starts giving orders. She sends me up to the cave to start preparing the bed in the kitchen for Peeta. She also tells me to send Prim down with the rest of her medical supplies and Rory with the travois. They’re going to need Gale’s strength to get Peeta back to the cave, and I’ll just be in the way.

 

I’m grateful for something to do to keep my mind off of just how ashen Peeta’s face was. I’m so afraid I’m going to lose him I can’t even think. I go through the motions of making the bed, pulling out the blankets in a daze. Somehow I manage to put a pot of water on, but I don’t remember drawing water from the spring or stoking the fire.

 

I don’t know what I’ll do if Peeta dies. He can’t die. I need him. We need him. I wish he and Gale were here right now to comfort me, but they’re not.

 

I slip to my knees, wrapping my arms around my body.

 

I hear the faint mew of Dandelion and I scoop the kitten up to my chest and cry into her gray fur. The kitten I rescued has taken to following me around ever since her recovery, rubbing herself against me and trying to make a nest in my lap. It’s annoying. But right now I’ll take the comfort that the kitten provides. She purrs against my chest, happy that her chosen person is giving her attention. The cat helps a little but not a lot.

 

Nothing’s going to make me feel better until Peeta’s back in my arms.

 

oOo

 

“I need you to move, Katniss,” my mother says, annoyance and amusement mixed together in her tone.

 

I look up from where I’m sitting on the floor holding Peeta’s hand to see both Prim and my mother staring down at me impatiently. Peeta’s been unconscious for over six hours and it’s now late afternoon. It feels like an eternity rather than less than a day.

 

I nudge Gale with my foot; he looks over at me confusedly from where his head is resting on the sickbed, his hands wrapped around Peeta’s and mine.

 

“We’ve gotta move,” I say.

 

Gale blinks. “Why do we gotta move?” He holds my and Peeta’s hands a bit tighter.

 

My mother’s had enough. “I need to check on my patient, and I don’t think either of you want to stick around while I’m changing Peeta’s bandage.”

 

“Already?” I say. “You just wrapped it a couple hours ago.”

 

“We need to keep it clean and check to make sure there’s no infection setting in. We don’t want him to lose his leg, or worse.” My mother lets Gale and me draw our own conclusions.

 

Reluctantly, Gale and I stand up to let my mother and sister work, but we linger, unable to bear leaving Peeta. He’s not dead, but he still hasn’t woken up from the attack earlier.

 

“You’re hovering,” my mother says without looking up.

 

“I don’t want to miss Peeta waking up.”

 

She sighs. “You won’t, I promise you. Peeta’s not going to wake up anytime soon.”

 

“Why not?” I can’t keep the panic out of my tone.

 

“Because he’s lost a lot of blood and the medications I’m able to get him to swallow make him sleepy,” she explains patiently. “But it also means he’s going to need a little extra care and unless you feel like changing his underwear, you two don’t need to be here.”   She sighs and pushes the hair that’s escaped from her bun out of her eyes. “Look, why don’t you two go help Rory?”

 

I’m confused about the subject change. “Where is he?”

 

Prim pipes up. “He’s dealing with the mess down by the river.”

 

“Are you sure?” As much I don’t relish seeing what my mother and sister are doing with Peeta, I want to stay for Peeta’s sake and my own.

 

“I promise you he’ll be fine. If he wakes up, I’ll send Prim to go get you.” My mother sounds exasperated.

 

“Don’t worry, Katniss, he’s in good hands,” Prim says, trying to soothe me. I’m not sure I want to be soothed, but Gale and I head out anyways.

 

We find Rory by the smoker. He looks up and motions to Gale’s and my bows which are sitting next to him. “You dropped these,” he says. “I figured you wouldn’t want anything to happen to them.”

 

Gale looks over at his brother. “Thanks.”

 

“How’s Peeta doing?” Rory asks.

 

“Still unconscious.”

 

“Does your mom think he’s gonna make it?” he asks me.

 

I shake my head. “I don’t know. She hasn’t said either way.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

“It’s not your fault. It’s those fucking raiders!” Gale clenches his fists.

 

“Speaking of, I think we should do something about the bodies,” Rory says, taking in his brother’s stance. “They might have some stuff on them we can use. Plus we really don’t want to attract scavengers.”

 

Rory’s right. We don’t want to attract scavengers and they might have things of use on them.

 

Seeing that we’re not going to object, Rory leads us down to where the raiders fell.

 

The bodies are starting to bloat in the warm sun, clouds of insects flying over them. Their eyes have been pecked out by crows, but so far there hasn’t been too much other damage. Still, it’s disgusting.

 

We start with the blond-haired male who injured Peeta, stripping the body of its weapons and clothes. Pinned to the man’s vest we find a gold mockingjay pin that’s the sister to the one Madge gave me. It’s facing the opposite direction, the wings are higher, it’s not holding an arrow, and there are twelve spokes connecting it to the outer circle, but the bird itself looks very similar and it was clearly made by the same person.

 

Gale unpins it and holds it up to the light. “I guess we know what happened to the Donners. Looks like this bastard took it as a trophy.”

 

“Well, probably not him,” Rory points out, motioning to the dead young man. “He’d be, like, a million years old. But you’re probably right. Maybe his grandfather or something stole it.”

 

“I’ll keep it, give it to Peeta later. He earned it.” Gale tucks the pin into his pocket.

 

Rory nods in agreement, wisely choosing not to argue with his big brother.

 

We strip the rest of the bodies then follow their footprints back to where they first noticed us to pick up several packs and large baskets dropped there. When the bodies are stripped and we’re sure that we haven’t missed anything useful, we turn to the now naked bodies.

 

What are we going to do with the corpses?

 

“Why don’t we just throw them in the river?” Rory suggests in answer to our unspoken question.

 

“It’s not a bad idea, but they’ll just wash up on shore over there,” Gale says, nodding towards the oxbow. “We need to take them further downstream. Maybe even across the river to the other side.”

 

Rory groans. “But they’re heavy! And they’re naked!”

 

“Just try not to think about that,” Gale says, but I can tell that he’s just as disturbed as Rory is. I am too. We killed five people. Technically only Gale, Peeta, and I did, but Rory still played a part and his life was in just as much danger as the rest of ours. The woman tried to kill him. She didn’t succeed, but she could have.

 

Gale grabs one of the bodies while Rory and I struggle with another. We drag them downstream and toss them in on the other side of the oxbow. The water moves swiftly, but not as fast as it did earlier in the season. Hopefully they’ll be carried far downstream away from us before attracting any bears or wild dogs.

 

“This feels wrong,” Rory says. “Like it’s disrespectful.”

 

“What do you want us to do?” Gale asks. “You’re the one who suggested throwing them in the river.”

 

“I know, but… that doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do.”

 

“We can’t bury them,” Gale points out.

 

“I know.”

 

“And we can’t burn them.”

 

“I know!” None of us can stomach the smell of burning flesh and we had our fill in District Twelve during the flu.

 

“Look, this is the best option.”

 

“I know, but it doesn’t mean that I have to like it,” the boy says, shifting uncomfortably.

 

Gale and I share a glance. We know what he means. We don’t like it either. But it’s the only way we can protect our family.

 

oOo

 

With our gruesome task done, we pack up all of the supplies we’ve managed to recover and return to the cave.

 

We don’t even bother going through it all. We’re too exposed out here in the open and Gale and I want to get back to Peeta.

 

Peeta’s not awake when we get back. But before my mother lets us hover at Peeta’s side again, she requests a family meeting. Prim stays in the doorway of the kitchen in order to keep an eye on Peeta but the rest of us gather in the main room.

 

“What’s this about? How’s Peeta? He’s not dying, is he?” My tone becomes higher pitched and more frantic with each question.

 

My mother opens her mouth to answer.

 

I cut her off before she can say anything.   “Oh no, that’s it! He’s dying! You’re gonna tell us he’s dying! Please, I don’t know--”

 

“Peeta is not dying!” my mother interrupts. “Well, not yet anyway. He’s lost a lot of blood and it’s going to be up to him to heal.”

 

“Is there anything we can do?” Gale asks, his voice full of concern.

 

I realize, guiltily, that I’m not the only one affected by Peeta’s condition.

 

My mother turns to Gale. “The most we can do is make sure he keeps sleeping and keep him full of fluids. It’s probably going to be a little messy and we’re going to have to make sure that leg of his stays clean and uninfected. We don’t have any drugs from the Capitol to fight infection so the best we can do is make sure it stays clean.” She sighs, and I realize just how exhausted she is. “I’m just grateful we were able to get the wound cleaned.”

 

“So what did you want us for?” Rory asks.

 

My mother takes a deep breath. “We need to talk about what happened out there.”

 

“We were attacked, we defended ourselves, Peeta got hurt, what else is there to talk about?” I’m confused. It seems pretty self-explanatory to me.

 

“Well, who attacked us for one.” My mother’s tone is deadly serious. “They looked like a fishing party or a hunting party. That means that they were were probably part of a larger group, and that group is probably nearby.”

 

I cross my arms. “We’re not moving.”

 

“I wasn’t suggesting we should,” she says mildly. “But we’ve been pretty careless, assuming that there was no one else out here. It got us into trouble. We’re going to have to be more careful now.”

 

“Careful how? We already have watches.” I start to pace, my mind racing. I can’t think clearly. Everything’s just a jumbled swirl of emotion and confusion.

 

“And that’s good. But I think we need to make sure that nobody goes out alone and that all of us,” my mother turns to my sister, “that means you too, Prim - need to start training more for a fight. We’re lucky that Gale and Katniss are as good with the bow as they are, but the rest of us need to be able to pull our own weight.”

 

Prim grimaces but nods her head.

 

Rory pulls out his slingshot and hands it to Prim. “Here. You can have this.”

 

Prim looks relieved. A good shot wouldn’t be fatal to a human, but it could distract someone. It can also be used in a melee situation easier than a bow without the chance of permanently injuring or killing an ally.

 

My mother nods her head in approval. “Good. We also need to start thinking about defenses. Gale was right. This cave is nice, but we could use more.”

 

“I don’t want to go anywhere until Peeta’s recovered,” Gale says, crossing his arms stubbornly.

 

“I’m with him,” I say, stopping pacing long enough to mirror Gale’s stance. “We need Peeta.”

 

My mother sighs. “Then I guess I just have to work on making sure he gets better.”

 

oOo

 

Gale and I return to our vigil at Peeta’s bedside. After dinner, my mother shoos us out, saying, “Go to bed. He’ll still be here in the morning.”

 

“You can’t know that!” I argue.

 

“Yes I can. I’m a healer. Now scoot.”

 

We leave reluctantly, each of us casting concerned looks at our third.

 

We crawl into our bed and try to sleep, but something’s missing. Peeta. Both of us toss and turn, trying to find a comfortable way to sleep. But we can’t.

 

I flop onto my back and stare up at the ceiling, counting the stalactites. Maybe if I do something brainless I’ll finally be able to sleep.

 

It doesn’t work.

 

“You miss him too,” Gale says quietly about a half hour later.

 

I nod my head, not even trying to pretend I’m asleep. “Yeah. I’ve been sleeping with him for almost three months. I’m used to him now.”

 

“I know,” Gale whispers. “I haven’t been sleeping with him near as long as you have, but… it doesn’t feel right, not having him here.”

 

“What do you want to do?” I ask.

 

He rolls over to face me. “I don’t know. Not like we’re gonna get a lot of sleep.”

 

I shake my head.

 

“You think your mom would notice if we snuck back into the kitchen?” he asks hopefully.

 

I shrug. “Probably. But I’m not sure I care. I can’t sleep without Peeta.”

 

“Me either. Come on,” Gale says, getting up and grabbing the blanket off the bed. “Let’s go.”

 

We tiptoe back to the kitchen, noting that Rory is on watch at the cave entrance with his back to us. We peek into the kitchen, hoping we won’t get caught.

 

We don’t.

 

My mother is asleep in a chair next to Peeta’s bed and Prim must be asleep back in the bedroom.

 

Careful not to wake either my mother or Peeta, I climb into the sick bed and nestle down next to Peeta with my head against his shoulder and my hand splayed out against his chest so I can feel his heartbeat. Gale isn’t able to fit on the small bed, but he does his best anyway. He half-lies half-sits with his head on Peeta’s chest and one of his arms sprawled out across Peeta’s stomach.

 

“Think you can sleep now, Catnip?”

 

Feeling Peeta’s heart beat underneath my fingers, I nod my head. “Yeah. At least I can try.”

 

oOo

 

I wake up a few hours later to find another blanket has been laid across Peeta and me. Gale’s still asleep, so it probably wasn’t him. I look around the room and note my mother isn’t in the chair anymore. I guess she saw the two of us and decided that she didn’t need to sit vigil if we were there. That’s fine with me.

 

I listen to the sound of Peeta’s heartbeat and try to drift back to sleep. I can’t. My mind keeps slipping back to the attack yesterday. I killed two people. Granted, they were attacking my family, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any easier. I shift around, trying not to wake Peeta or Gale.

 

I don’t succeed in the latter.

 

Gale lets out a low groan and opens his eyes. “You okay, Catnip?”

 

I shake my head.

 

“What’s wrong?

 

I sit up, shifting around so that my back is against the wall of the cave, and look down at Peeta. “It’s just... hard.”

 

Gale sits up, cracking his neck and wincing. “Tell me about it. I think my back hates me right now.”

 

“No, not that,” I say, smiling slightly.

 

“Then what?” He regards me seriously.

 

“We killed people,” I say, half to myself, half to him.

 

Gale nods. “Yeah. I thought it was just me. You seemed so together, Katniss. After everything.”

 

I snort. “I was a crying mess.”

 

“Over Peeta.”

 

I shake my head. “Over everything.”

 

Gale looks down at Peeta. “I thought it’d be easier, you know. Like killing an animal. It’s not. Even though those people were attacking us, they were still people. They still had lives and loved ones. And we took that away from them.”

 

“I know.”

 

“How do we live with this?” He looks up at me and I can tell that he’s no longer talking about the raiders. “I mean, I almost killed one of the best things in my life. How was I to know this merchant kid was gonna be another part of myself?”

 

“You’re asking the wrong person,” I tell him. I’d have killed Peeta back then too if I hadn’t felt like I owed him. It’s still hard for me to bear sometimes, only Peeta’s continual forgiveness and love makes it any better. “I don’t know. But I’m glad we didn’t.”

 

“Me too. I wonder how long he’s gonna be out.” He regards Peeta with a mixture of worry and something else. “I need to talk to him. I need to say some things, get some stuff off my chest.”

 

I reach down to touch Peeta’s curls. “I don’t know. I just hope he wakes up soon.”

 

Gale reaches for my hand. “That makes two of us.”

 

oOo

 

The next three days are spent in the cave, with people traveling in pairs to the latrine or to check on snares. Nobody goes out alone and my mother and Prim have either Gale, Rory, or me with them.

 

When we’re not on escort duty, Gale and I stand watch over Peeta’s bedside. We take turns holding his hand and talking to him. He’s started to stir, but he’s still groggy and a little feverish. In response to the latter, my mother pumps him full of nourishing broths and teas to help aid the healing.   Whatever she’s doing seems to be working because his fever breaks on the fourth day.

 

Prim is on Peeta duty since Gale and Rory went to check on the snares while my mother and I went down to check on the garden.

 

When we get back, Prim is bouncing on the balls of her feet excitedly. “He’s awake! Peeta’s awake!”

 

Gale and I don’t even bother to set our bows down before we rush into the kitchen.

 

Peeta’s sitting up, leaning against the wall of the cave. I sit down next to him and wrap my arms around him. “Hey,” I say, rubbing my face against his shoulder.

 

He drapes an arm around me and I revel in the warmth. “Hey yourself.” He looks up at Gale. “Hey to you too.”

 

Gale smiles, setting his bow down on the granite bench. “Good to have you back, Peet. I’ve missed you.”

 

“What? You didn’t like having Katniss here all to yourself?”

 

Peeta’s tone is light and teasing, but Gale’s reply is serious.

 

“Wasn’t the same without you. It didn’t feel right.”

 

Peeta wrinkles his forehead, confused.

 

“I’ve gotten used to you, Mellark. Couldn’t sleep without you snoring in my ear.”

 

“I do not snore.”

 

“You know what I mean.” Gale sits down at the foot of the bed and reaches out to take Peeta’s hand. “I owe you an apology, Peeta.”

 

Peeta’s even more confused. “For what?”

 

“What we did - what I did - to you back in Twelve, making you come along with us. That was wrong. I get that now.” He takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I know now that you’d never have betrayed us. But I was an idiot and I couldn’t see past my own prejudices and fears. Thing is, I can’t be too upset about taking you along, cause you and Catnip here are the best things in my life. You’re my family. It wouldn’t be the same without you.”

 

“Gale…”

 

“Please let me finish,” he pleads. “I’m sorry for almost killing you. I’m sorry for taking you away from your family and friends. I’m sorry for treating you the way I did. I was wrong and I’m sorry. Do you think you can forgive me?”

 

Both Peeta and I just stare at him.

 

Gale runs his fingers through his hair. “Fuck. I’m dumping this all on you and you’ve just barely woken up. What am I thinking?”

 

Peeta reaches out to him. “Hey man, it’s okay.”

 

“No.” Gale shakes his head. “I shouldn’t be burdening you like this.” He looks down at the ground like he’s ashamed to even look Peeta in the eye.

 

“No, that’s not what meant,” Peeta says, tilting Gale’s head up to meet his eyes. “I mean it’s okay. I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago. I guess I never got around to telling you. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that you were carrying all this guilt.”

 

Gale still looks stricken. “It’s not your fault, Peet. I didn’t realize until you were lying here just how much I fucked up and how lucky I am to have you in my life,” he looks over at me, “to have both of you in my life.”

 

I nod my head, not really sure what to say. I feel like I’m an intruder in something private and personal between the two of them.

 

“Hey, I feel the same,” Peeta soothes. “It’s okay. I forgive you, Gale. I forgave Katniss so the least I can do is forgive the other person I love.”

 

The relief that floods through Gale is visible. He smiles gratefully at Peeta.

 

The former merchant returns it with one of his own. “So what happened while I was out?” Peeta asks, changing the subject.

 

I’m grateful. This is something I can feel comfortable talking about. “There hasn’t been much. We called the salmon run quits early so that we could stay near the cave and you.”

 

Peeta smiles and squeezes Gale’s hand.

 

Gale scoots forward on the bed so that he’s closer to the two of us. “Katniss’s ma suggested we start setting up some kind of defenses and maybe a few traps in case any other raiders come by, but I told her we needed to wait until you got better.”

 

Peeta looks at us, clearly confused. “You didn’t need to wait for me.”

 

“But I wanted to wait,” Gale says. “This is your home too. You should have a say in how it’s protected.”

 

“What happened with the raiders?” He wants to know next. “We got them all, right?”

 

“Yeah, we killed them all.” I don’t remind Peeta that one of them was his kill. He doesn’t need that burden. “We were able to salvage a few things from the bodies and even more from their packs.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“We have a lot more nets and we were able to recover most of their weapons.” I pause, blushing a little. “They had a tent with them.”

 

Gale pops in. “I figured we could use it the next time we want to have a romantic getaway.” He waggles his eyebrows at the two of us.

 

Peeta laughs.

 

“They had a bunch of huge baskets.” Gale tries to show how big using his hands, supplementing my explanation. “One of them seems to be watertight, so Prim’s been studying it, when she hasn’t been taking care of you, to try to figure out how to create one of her own.” I take a breath before continuing. “They were pretty well-provisioned. Like really well-provisioned. And it’s pretty clear they were planning on hanging out in this area for a while.”

 

“Do you think they’re from around here?” Peeta asks, his eyes full of concern.

 

“I don’t know,” I answer honestly. “It’s possible. But now that we know that there are other humans out here, we should probably prepare for them no matter what.”

 

Peeta nods. “Sounds like a good plan.”

 

“That’s not all,” Gale says, taking a deep breath like he’s gathering his courage. He leans forward and gently kisses Peeta on the lips. It’s tender and gentle, and I can’t help but stare at the two of them in shock. Gale pulls back. “I’m sorry. I know we agreed not to do that without permission. But I couldn’t stop myself.”

 

“What was that for?” Peeta asks before I can.

 

“I realize just how much I love you.” Gale runs a hand through his hair. “I just couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t show you.”

 

“Pffft,” Peeta snorts. “You’re just saying that so you can have your wicked way with me.”

 

Gale laughs. “In your dreams, bread boy.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls the mockingjay pin out and holds it out to Peeta. “One of the raiders had this,” he says, the serious tone he’d used before returning. “It’s just like ours. Like it’s a sign or something mushy like that. Figured it belonged to you. That way each of us has one.”

 

“Gale…” Peeta tries to push it away.

 

“No.” Gale shakes his head, pinning the brooch onto Peeta’s shirt over his heart. “I want you to have this. In fact, I got something else I want to say to you.” He meets my eyes. “To both of you.”

 

Peeta and I share a look. We’re both confused and unsure of what’s about to happen.

 

Gale slips off the bed and gets down onto one knee. He reaches back into his pocket and pulls out two rings. “I just don’t think I can go on without letting you know how I feel. I’m in love with you. It may not be the kind of love most people understand but we get it. I love your soul and that’s enough. Marry me, Peeta. Be my man bride.” He holds out the larger of the two rings to him.

 

Peeta takes it with a smile.

 

Gale beams at him, then turns to me. “I may not have been in love with you as long as Peet here, but I know I want to spend the rest of my life with you. You’re my stubborn, beautiful, wonderful, sexy piece of my soul. Marry me, Katniss.”

 

He holds out the smaller ring to me and adds, “Marry us.”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Brand New Breeze:

 

Gale slips off the bed and gets down onto one knee. He reaches back into his pocket and pulls out two rings. “I just don’t think I can go on without letting you know how I feel. I’m in love with you. It may not be the kind of love most people understand but we get it. I love your soul and that’s enough. Marry me, Peeta. Be my man bride.” He holds out the larger of the two rings to him.

 

Peeta takes it with a smile.

 

Gale beams at him, then turns to me. “I may not have been in love with you as long as Peet here, but I know I want to spend the rest of my life with you. You’re my stubborn, beautiful, wonderful, sexy piece of my soul. Marry me, Katniss.”

 

He holds out the smaller ring to me and adds, “Marry us.”

 

oOo

 

I stare at the proffered ring in shock. I don’t know what to say.

 

Should I take the ring?

 

If I take the ring, that means yes.

 

I don’t know if I want to say yes.

 

If I don’t take the ring, that means no.

 

I don’t know if I want to say no.

 

I don’t know what I want.

 

Peeta slips his ring onto the ring finger of his left hand and says, “I’d be happy to marry you. We’ll need to negotiate a few things later though, I’m still not sure I want to touch your penis.”

 

“Wasn’t asking you to, Mellark.” Gale’s tone is tender, teasing.

 

Peeta tilts his head. “So does that mean I’m going to be Mr. Hawthorne?”

 

Gale shrugs. “Only if you want to be.”

 

Both of them turn to look at me. “Katniss?” Gale asks, pushing the ring a little closer to me.

 

I stare at it. I stare at them. I don’t know what to say. So I tell them that.

 

“It’s a yes or no question,” Gale says. I can see the hurt forming in his eyes.

 

I don’t want there to be hurt in his eyes.

 

Peeta shakes his head. “No, not really. There’s a yes.” He lifts up his newly ringed left hand to count off the possibilities. “There’s a no. There’s also a maybe. There’s a ‘let me think about it.’ There’s an ‘I’m not sure.’ There’s an ‘oh fuck you just surprised the shit out of me and I’m standing here frozen like a tribute on Reaping Day--’”

 

I stop him. “That. That one. I don’t know what to say. I love you both, please don’t think otherwise,” I say mostly to Gale but also including Peeta in my frantic pleading. “I just don’t know if I’m ready for marriage. Hell, I don’t know if I want to get married at all. When we were back in Twelve--”

 

Gale interrupts me. “But we’re not back in Twelve. We’re here. We’re free.”

 

“Is that what you’re concerned about?” Peeta asks.

 

“Yes. No. Maybe? I don’t know!” I stare down at my hands. “I just haven’t thought about it! It wasn’t ever an option! Marriage leads to death and babies, and babies get Reaped! That’s just how it is!” I’m trying to get them to understand but it’s hard because I don’t fully understand why I feel the way I do.

 

“No. No, Katniss, that’s how it was.” Peeta stresses that last word. “We’re free of that. We’re clear. The Capitol isn’t going to come after us,” he tries to soothe me. “Or any kids that we have. You’re safe. You’re safe here. With us.”

 

Gale takes up the cause. “Please, Katniss. We can’t do this without you.”

 

I take the ring and I hold it between my fingers. I feel the worn metal and study the little nicks and dents. This is a well-worn, well-loved ring. It’s probably been in Gale’s family for generations. I turn it so I can see the inside of the ring. There’s a faded inscription. I can’t make out the words and I wonder what they were.

 

“Um, can I think about it?” I ask finally, looking back up at Gale. “The answer isn’t no. But I’m not sure if the answer is yes, at least not yet. I need time.”

 

Gale places the ring in the palm of my hand, closing my hand around it. “Take all the time you need.”

 

oOo

 

I wear the ring on a cord around my neck. I want to keep it close. Safe. But out of sight.

 

Peeta keeps his on his finger and I’m a little bit nervous about someone spotting it. I’m not sure I want to have that conversation with anyone yet.

 

The following day, Peeta joins us out in the main room to discuss fortifications. He’s walking slowly and leaning heavily on Gale, but he’s up and moving. That, more than anything else, proves to me that he’s alive and he’s going to make it.

 

I couldn’t be happier.

 

I find out why Gale wanted Peeta involved in the discussion once we actually start talking. He’s got an almost encyclopedic memory for things he’s heard, seen, or read, as well as an amazing ability for camouflage.

 

Peeta smiles self-deprecatingly. “I used to decorate the cakes at the bakery. It’s not that different.”

 

“Yeah, but decorating cakes doesn’t teach you how to set pit traps.”

 

“No, but the weekly movie marathons I used to have with Madge and Delly did. One of our favorites was ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ starring Finnick Odair as the oldest son.”

 

“Of course it was. You’ve got a Finnick Odair obsession, Peet.”

 

“Talk to Madge and Delly about that. I was outvoted most of the time.” He takes a breath. “Anyway, it’s one of his earlier roles and the acting is horribly wooden, but it’s still hilariously bad, even though I wanted to smack the youngest kid most of the time.” He shrugs at the memory. “But one nice thing was that the end of the movie did a pretty good job of showing how to defend a place in the wilderness, complete with tigers.”

 

“I think we’re going to have a little trouble finding a tiger,” I say dryly, “but pits we could do.”

 

Peeta nods his head. “They’ll be a lot of work and we might not need them. I was thinking more in terms of snare traps. For humans, not animals. We also should see about setting an alarm system for the areas we can’t see, like above the cave. It doesn’t need to be intricate, just stand out enough to alert a nearby sentry.”

 

“We should also see about disguising our smokehole,” my mother says, speaking up. “We don’t want someone or something coming in that way. Also, when it starts to snow, we don’t want it to get covered over.”

 

That seems to be the signal for everyone to chime in with their thoughts. “We also should see about making more weapons,” Rory says. “I’m getting pretty good with a bow and we’ve got the other one, so someone should learn how to shoot it.”

 

“I’ve got nothing better to do,” Peeta volunteers. “I’m not going to be much use hauling things around for a little while. I can try to learn. If one of you is willing to teach me.” He looks at me and Gale.

 

I shrug. “I’ll do it. I should probably teach you too, Mom. Prim too. It’s never too early to start learning. Dad started teaching me before he died.” I make a face at Prim. “I probably should’ve started teaching you earlier.”

 

“It’s okay, Katniss. I didn’t really want to learn anyways,” Prim says. “But I probably should now.”

 

Rory sits back. “So. When do we start?”

 

oOo

 

We start immediately, hauling stone to build Gale’s wall along the east side of the ledge as well as constructing a sort of chimney over our smokehole. We set several traps and alarms around the cave and areas we often frequent, like the latrine, the smokers, and my mother’s garden.

 

Gale and I also set several traps along what we thought were game paths that we realize now could have had more human architects. We mostly set tripwires and we carefully mark where these traps are so our people don’t get caught in them.

 

The one final fortification that we make is a door. Using some of the scavenged materials that Rory found, we construct a door that we can use to close ourselves in and hopefully any animals or other intruders out. It won’t hold up to anything from the Capitol, but against stone tipped spears it should be enough. Peeta also assembles several muds and pastes to try to camouflage the opening and Gale’s wall.

 

While we’re working on the door, Rory spots Peeta’s ring. “That’s a wedding ring! You’re wearing a ring! Did you get married, Peeta? Who’d you marry? Katniss...” He turns to me. “You threw my brother over! You married him, didn’t you?” He points at Peeta accusingly while glaring at me. “I am so mad at you! You could’ve married them both! Why didn’t you marry them both?”

 

Gale looks up from where he’s trying fix guide rails to the floor. “Rory, knock it off. It’s none of your business.”

 

“But she ditched you!” Rory rounds on his brother. “It’s my right as your brother to stand up for you especially if you’re not gonna do it yourself!”

 

“Rory, you need to drop this. Right now.” Both Gale and Peeta are shooting nervous glances at me.

 

I can’t take it anymore. I run out of the cave and down to the edge of the creek. I sit down on the bank, dangling my feet into the water. What am I going to do?

 

I slip the necklace over my head and hold it up, contemplating it. The ring catches the sun’s rays as it twirls lightly, flickering like a firefly.

 

“I was wondering where you’d run off to.” I hear my mother call behind me.

 

I quickly try to hide the necklace but it’s too late.

 

She motions to the half-hidden ring. “So I’m guessing Gale asked you too?”

 

I nod.

 

“And your answer?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Well, I suppose that’s one answer,” she says, sitting down next to me. “Katniss, are you really telling me that you don’t know your own heart in regards to those boys?”

 

“Yes. No. I don’t know.” I look at her, willing her to understand, to help me make sense of this. “I love them, I don’t want to live without them, I just don’t know if I’m ready to marry them.”

 

My mother shakes her head. “Listen to yourself. You love them. You want to be with them. You’re scared of losing them and don’t tell me that you’re not.” She fixes me with a look. The same look she used to give me when she caught me dressing up in her old merchant dresses before my father died. “Those boys have been beyond patient with you. I don’t know what else I can say to make you realize what’s standing right in front of you.” She sighs. “Oh Katniss…”

 

“Just come out and say it,” I growl. I feel myself starting to getting annoyed. Good. Annoyance leads to anger and I can deal with anger. It’s worlds better than this torn confusion I’m feeling.

 

“Why are you so afraid of marrying them?” she asks me. Then she holds up one hand when I start to answer. “And don’t tell me it’s because you’re going to lose them. We already had that conversation. What’s really bothering you?”

 

I squirm under her stern gaze. I feel like I’m a child again and I wish my father were here to make it all better. But he’s gone now and his death effectively orphaned both Prim and me. Which brings me to the core of my indecision. “I’m scared they’re going to be taken away from me like Dad was taken away from you.”

 

“Oh Katniss,” she sighs again. “You can’t let your fear paralyze you like this.”

 

“I’m not letting it paralyze me! I’m dating them, aren’t I?” I want her to agree with me. To see that I’m nothing like her.

 

She doesn’t. “I’m sorry, dear, but you are. You might be young, this might be sudden, but now or five years from now, do you really think that you’re going to change your mind?” she asks pointedly. “Do you really think that you’re going to stop loving them? That you’re going to stop wanting to be with them?”

 

“No! Of course not!” The words slip out before I even have time to think.

 

“Then you’ve got your answer.” She reaches out and clasps my hand. “Seize the day, Katniss. Don’t let fear take away the good parts of life. That would just mean the Capitol’s won.”

 

I pull out the ring again and hold it up to the light, watching it twirl. “I’ll think about it.”

 

oOo

 

On July eighteenth we take a break from working on the fortifications to celebrate Gale’s nineteenth birthday. It’s an important birthday for us in Twelve, since it means that you’re no longer eligible to be Reaped. Even though it’s not a big deal anymore, it still feels that way.

 

Rory gets a turkey and I find several plants in season that will make a good stuffing. Peeta also makes his delicious squirrel stew with katniss tubers, seasoned with sweetgale and thyme. My mother and Prim join forces to make a sweet jelly-like dessert out of gooseberries and raspberries.

 

Over dinner, we talk about the projects that we want to work on and my mother mentions making soap and candles for the coming winter. It’s going to be a fairly major project but it’s also an important one. We’re going to need a lot of fat in order to make both possible. So my mother gives Gale and me leave to start hunting again, but only animals that are, in her words, chubby. It’ll be nice to be able to hunt again and I foresee lots of hunting dates in Gale’s and my future.

 

Then it’s time for presents. Rory insists on going last, claiming, “I know I’ve got the best, you guys can’t top me.”

 

“I don’t know,” Peeta says, pulling out a bouquet of flowers, “I know what your brother’s really been wanting.”

 

Gale takes the bouquet of blue and orange flowers with a wry smile. “Thanks, Peet. Just what I always wanted.”

 

“Well, I did also get you this.” He places a pearl in Gale’s hand. “I wouldn’t want you to get jealous of Katniss now, even though she did throw hers away.”

 

The words are light, but I flush anyway. I feel a little guilty at my treatment of the boys’ gifts even if they were acting like idiots at the time. I wonder what happened to the necklace and pearl the boys gave me. They were gone when Rory and I returned.

 

I distract myself by handing Gale his present. Like Peeta, I also got Gale a bouquet of flowers, this time edible flowers and greens. But that’s not my main gift. I’ve killed a few bluejays and stripped them of their feathers and, using what little carpentry skills I have, I crafted a crude picture frame that I decorated with the bluejay feathers.

 

Gale takes it from me carefully.

 

“For your family,” I say.

 

I see his Adam’s apple bob up and down and he hovers his fingers over the blue feathers, like he’s afraid they’re going to fly away. “Thank you, Katniss.”

 

My mother goes next and hands Gale a pillow. “I didn’t realize it was the bouquet birthday, otherwise I would have gotten you that,” she teases. “But I hope this works.”

 

He takes the pillow and feels the soft fabric. “It works just fine, Mrs. Everdeen.”

 

She shakes her head with a laugh. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, call me Violet.”

 

Gale blushes and nods. He’ll never call my mother Violet. It’s been too ingrained in him by his mother to call all adults Mister or Missus. Even though he’s an adult himself now, my mother will always be Mrs. Everdeen to him.

 

“My turn!” Prim sings out. She reaches behind her and pulls out a large package.

 

Gale unfolds it to reveal a leather vest with carved wooden buttons. “Wow, Prim. This is something else.”

 

“I thought you’d like it!” She beams at him. “I figured you and Peeta wouldn’t want to wear your heavy winter clothing all summer.”

 

“Too bad my birthday’s in the fall,” Peeta teases.

 

“Oh don’t worry, I’ve got an idea for you,” she replies airily.

 

“That just leaves me,” Rory says. “I’ll be right back with your present.” He slips off into the storage room and comes back carrying a large black plastic bag almost as big as he is. He drops it in front of Gale and says, “Here you go!”

 

“Do I want to open this?” Gale eyes it warily.

 

Rory nods his head emphatically, his eyes twinkling. “Oh yeah, absolutely.”

 

Gale opens the bag and pulls out a shiny bright pink satin and tulle floor-length ballgown encased in some kind of clear plastic. “I didn’t know we brought Effie Trinket along.”

 

The thing is hideous, covered in sequins and beads. There’s some water damage along the hem and neckline, but if anything it improves the dress. The dress itself is huge, bigger than either Prim or me. In the bottom of the clear bag are other items of clothing. Some of them are stained or have frayed hems but nothing is as bad as the pink dress.

 

As Gale pulls out item after item, Rory can’t stop himself from laughing uncontrollably. The pre-teen clutches his stomach and gasps, unable to get words out.

 

Finally, Gale pulls out a one-piece jumpsuit in a blue and white pattern with a different pink and orange pattern on the bottoms of the legs. “Who ever thought this was a good idea? It reminds me of the tributes’ parade! Who knew the Capitol was inspired by pre-Cataclysm fashion?”

 

I wave my hand at the pile of hideous clothing. “Well, now you know.”

 

Peeta makes a face at the riotous mix of clashing colors. “I think I’d have been happier not knowing.”

 

“Is this really what you got me for my birthday?” Gale asks, eyeing Rory.

 

The boy takes several deep breaths, trying to stop his cackling. “Naw, I was just pulling your leg,” he gasps out. “Let me go get your real gift.”

 

He slips back into the storeroom and returns carrying a large flat black plastic storage container. “Happy birthday.”

 

Gale makes no move to open his ‘real’ present. “You don’t have more horrible clothes in here.”

 

“Just open it,” Rory urges.

 

His older brother narrows his eyes. “I’m not sure I can trust you.”

 

“Up to you, but if you don’t want it, I’ll take it.”

 

“Fine.” Gale opens it up and his jaw drops.

 

I lean over to look and mine drops too.

 

It’s a black bow, made of some kind of material I’ve never seen, with several strings and composite arrows nestled in little niches in the top of the case. It’s the most modern looking bow I’ve ever seen and that includes the ones I’ve seen in the Games.

 

Gale is equally overwhelmed. He runs his hand over the black bow reverently. “Rory, I… just wow, thank you.”

 

His little brother beams. “Told you mine was the best!” He sticks his tongue out at all of us.

 

We laugh. Rory’s right, his gift is the best.

 

oOo

 

That evening, Gale, Peeta, and I walk up to our maple at the top of the hill and watch the setting sun.

 

“Thanks for the birthday, guys,” Gale says, sounding a little embarrassed. “Rory just got lucky.”

 

“It’s okay, it’s not a competition,” Peeta says. “I’m just glad you enjoyed the day.”

 

We sit down and Gale motions for Peeta and me to sit on either side of him. We do and he wraps his arms around us. I revel in it before realizing that I still haven’t given Gale an answer and it’s hanging over our heads. I really should, but I need more information before I do. And the only way to get that information is to ask questions. Something I hate doing.

 

“So…” I start awkwardly. “How do we do this?”

 

“Do what?” Gale asks.

 

“Marriage. What changes?”

 

Peeta looks over at me. “What do you want to change?”

 

“I don’t want anything to change, that’s what I’m scared of!”

 

“Then nothing will change,” he says soothingly. “Marriage is what you make of it, Katniss. If you want to keep things going the way they are, they can keep going that way. If you want more, we can have more. If you want less, we can have less. You’ve just got to tell us what you want and we can work on it together, as a… trio.” He pauses. “How is that gonna work?” Peeta asks. “Not the marriage. But some of the other logistics. Like arguments or children or even our last names.”

 

“I don’t know,” Gale says. “You’re the guy with all the answers. I’m just waiting to see what happens.”

 

“What will I call you?” I ask. “I mean, you’d be my husband.” I point to Gale. Then I motion to Peeta. “And you’d be my husband.”

 

“Personally, I recommend the term man bride,” Gale suggests, a smile crossing his lips.

 

“Do you really watch that stupid Capitol movie?” Peeta asks, rolling his eyes.

 

Gale drops a kiss on Peeta’s brow. “Apparently I’m not the only one.”

 

“What are you two talking about?” I ask, confused. I’m missing something and I don’t like feeling left out.

 

Peeta’s the one who answers. “Apparently Gale’s got really horrible taste in movies.”

 

“Like you can talk.” Gale snorts.

 

“Fine. It’s not like I wanted to watch it, it’s just on every New Year’s Day,” he explains. “It’s this stupid Capitol movie about a caveman dude who steals another caveman dude to be his man bride. It stars Finnick Odair and I think it’s called… aw, hell, I don’t remember what it’s called.”

 

“I think it’s called Clan of the Cave Man or something,” Gale supplies helpfully.

 

“You mean Clan of the Cave Bear?” I ask.

 

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s not the same as the book your mom’s been reading.” Peeta pauses for a moment, considering. “Though now that I think about it, there are some startling similarities…”

 

“I’m not sure I want to know,” I cut him off, dragging the subject back to my original question. “Still, you’d be my husband and Peeta would be my man bride… what would that make me?”

 

“You’d be Katniss,” Peeta answers.

 

Gale adds. “And if you want to be, our wife.”

 

“Does that mean that--” I start.

 

“Katniss, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Peeta interrupts before I can get going. “We can figure out what each of our chores and roles are together. You don’t have to be the one to cook and clean. You don’t have to be the one to provide everything. You can just be you and we’d be happy with that. In fact, that’s what we want. We’ve only ever wanted you as you.”

 

“But what would I be called?” I can’t let it go. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this litany I recite in times of stress. My name is Katniss Everdeen. My home is District Twelve. My father died when I was eleven. My name is an integral part of that litany.

 

“You don’t have to take my name, Catnip,” Gale says. “Not unless you want to.”

 

A little of the worry I’ve had eases when he says that. My name is important to me and I don’t want to lose it.

 

“I hope that means I don’t need to take your name either. Peeta Hawthorne just sounds weird,” Peeta teases. “But seriously, I don’t think any of us should change our last names unless we want to. We can figure out what to name the kids if and when that time comes.”

 

I blanch. Kids. They’re going to want kids. That just adds another dimension to my deliberations.

 

It must show on my face because Gale says, “You still need time, don’t you, Catnip?”

 

I nod my head.

 

“That’s okay. Take all the time you need. We’ll be here.”

 

oOo

 

With the fortifications finished, we turn our attention to learning how to fight. Peeta gives all of us some basic hand-to-hand training. He’s hampered a bit by his leg and he’s walking with a limp, but he’s still able to take each one of us down with minimal effort. It’s a little humbling. Especially for Gale and Rory.

 

I also start training my mother, Prim, and Peeta in how to use a bow. It quickly becomes apparent that Peeta is absolutely horrible with a bow. He’s just not built for it. His muscles are too developed for wrestling to be able to use a bow effectively. My mother isn’t much better, but at least she can sometimes hit what she’s aiming at. Prim, to my surprise, is a natural, and I regret not teaching her sooner. Much like me, with some practice, she can hit pretty much whatever she aims at. She must get that from our father.

 

We have to pause our training when another salmon run takes place. We don’t get as many as previous runs because Gale and I are standing guard the whole time. There’s no sign of any raiders, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to lower our guard. The biggest threat we face during this run are several fat black bears looking for an easy meal. Gale and I quickly dispatch them. We can use the fat for my mother’s projects.

 

The day after the salmon run, Rory, Prim, and I head east over a large ridge and stumble upon what looks to be a field of corn. It’s odd and I’m immediately on my guard. There’s nobody around and nothing guarding it. But I’m still unconvinced.

 

“Do you think this belonged to those raiders?” Rory whispers to me.

 

I nod my head rather than answering out loud. I’m on high alert and I don’t stop my surveillance. There’s no sign of other people, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not here. I motion for the kids to stay down while I scope out the area, my bow ready to be drawn at a moment’s notice.

 

I find signs of human activity, including several other fields of crops, but no humans. From the weeds and lack of fresh tracks I guess the place hasn’t seen a human in over a week. But I can’t be completely sure.

 

I motion for Rory and Prim to follow me, I don’t want them out of my sight. We follow a well-worn path from the cultivated clearing through the woods to what has to be the remains of a camp. I can see tramped-down earth and places where temporary structures once stood. Everything is now gone. This may have been the raiders’ camp, but there’s no one here now. All that remains are a few miscellaneous pieces of trash and other signs of human habitation.

 

Still, that doesn’t stop Rory from rooting around to see if he can find anything of interest. The boy is naturally curious and I don’t see any reason to stifle that.

 

“I wonder what made them all leave,” Prim says, surveying the former camp.

 

“Us, probably,” I say, thinking it through. “I don’t know about you, but if five of my most able-bodied members went off and disappeared, I’d leave too. I’d think it was the Capitol or another group of raiders. I sure as hell wouldn’t stay nearby where they could find me.”

 

“So… what are we gonna do now?”

 

I smile, thinking of the fields of corn, squash, and beans that we’ve found. “There’s no point in letting their crops go to waste. So we might as well harvest them. I still think we need to stay on alert. For all we know, they left to go get reinforcements and they could come back.”

 

“Do you think that’s likely?”

 

I shrug my shoulders. “There’s no way of knowing. Better safe than dead.”

 

The two kids nod solemnly and we head back to gather what we can, spending the next several days reaping the spoils of the raiders’ planting and hauling it back to the cave to store.

 

Things are still awkward with Gale, Peeta, and me because even though the boys are trying their best to make sure that nothing has changed, everything has.

 

I’m still torn. I love them. I want to be with them. I don’t ever want them to leave me, and I’m scared, if I say no to Gale’s proposal, that that’s exactly what’s going to happen. But, at the same point, I know if I did marry them, that they’d be mine til death we do part. But that’s what scares me. I don’t want them to die and they can’t promise me that they won’t.

 

My mother’s birthday comes at the end of the month. Again we get a turkey. Peeta smothers it in a cherry brandy sauce with garlic and pork belly seasoned turnip greens and a few new potatoes from my mother’s garden.

 

Before we give my mother her gifts, she pulls me off to one side. “I’ve got something for you, Katniss.”

 

My brow furrows in confusion. “But it’s your birthday.”

 

“I know. But I want to give this to you.” She reaches into the pocket of her dress and pulls something out and places it into the palm of my hand. “It was your father’s.”

 

In my hand is a simple gold band. A wedding ring. My father’s wedding ring. “I can’t,” I say to my mother.

 

“Yes. You can,” she tells me softly. “He would’ve been so proud of you. You’re so strong and capable and you’ve got so much to offer. But he’d be sad too. He wouldn’t want his death to ruin your life. All he ever wanted was for you girls to be happy and safe. Make him happy,” she pleads with me. “Make yourself happy.”

 

I close my fingers around the ring. “Thank you.”

 

oOo

 

Sitting on the ledge of the cave, my back to Gale’s newly constructed wall, I let my mind wander as I survey the countryside below. I need to make a decision. It’s been almost a month since Gale first asked Peeta and me to marry him. It’s not fair to both of them to keep them waiting like this.

 

I wish I could be like Peeta and leap in feet-first. But I can’t. I’m just a scared girl from the Seam and that’s never going to change.

 

I pull out my father’s wedding ring and stare at it. I know my mother meant for me to give it to Gale and that feels right. But I’m not sure how to approach them, how to tell them.

 

Why does this have to be so hard?

 

And that’s when it hits me. It doesn’t.

 

I stand up. Gale and Peeta are working down by the smoker making a large pit oven. They should still be there. And, more importantly, they should be alone.

 

I gather my courage and walk down the hill to find them.

 

I hear them working before I can see them.

 

“Can you hand me that shovel there, Peet?”

 

“Sure thing. You want the pick to go with it?”

 

“Yeah, that’d be good.”

 

I smile. They really do make a good team. We make a good team.

 

Clearing a copse of birch trees, I watch them work in the hot summer sun and try to convince myself that I’ve made the right decision. I know I have. But that doesn’t stop my stomach from doing flip flops. I clear my throat and both boys look over at me.

 

“Catnip?”

 

“Is there something wrong, Katniss?”

 

I shake my head. I open my mouth to say something but the words won’t come out. I’ve never been so nervous.

 

Gale hoists himself out of the pit and walks over to me, Peeta at his side. “Are you okay?”

 

I nod my head.

 

Peeta regards me seriously. “Is there something you want to tell us?”

 

I nod my head again.

 

“What is it?” he asks.

 

I open my mouth but the words still won’t come out. I’m just too nervous. Scared. But if I can’t tell them, there’s still one way I can show them.

 

Pulling the ring Gale gave me over my neck, I slip it off of its cord. It sparkles in the sunlight across Peeta and Gale’s faces. Both boys’ eyes follow my movements intently. My hands are shaking a bit and I almost drop the ring, but I manage to place it on my left ring finger and slide it down until it’s snug.

 

“Katniss…” Gale breathes, his voice full of hope.

 

I hold up my hand to stop him. I can’t let him say anything. I’ll lose my nerve. I take my father’s ring out of my pocket and step over to Gale. Taking his left hand in mine, I place the ring on his finger. I take a deep breath and look up to meet Gale’s eyes. I reach my other hand out to take Peeta’s in mine.

 

Whatever thing preventing me from speaking snaps and I’m finally able to breathe out what I’ve been wanting to say for so long.

 

“Yes.”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Brand New Breeze:

 

I open my mouth but the words still won’t come out. I’m just too nervous. Scared. But if I can’t tell them, there’s still one way I can show them.

 

Pulling the ring Gale gave me over my neck, I slip it off of its cord. It sparkles in the sunlight across Peeta and Gale’s faces. Both boys’ eyes follow my movements intently. My hands are shaking a bit and I almost drop the ring, but I manage to place it on my left ring finger and slide it down until it’s snug.

 

“Katniss…” Gale breathes, his voice full of hope.

 

I hold up my hand to stop him. I can’t let him say anything. I’ll lose my nerve. I take my father’s ring out of my pocket and step over to Gale. Taking his left hand in mine, I place the ring on his finger. I take a deep breath and look up to meet Gale’s eyes. I reach my other hand out to take Peeta’s in mine.

 

Whatever thing preventing me from speaking snaps and I’m finally able to breathe out what I’ve been wanting to say for so long.

 

“Yes.”

 

oOo

 

Gale wants to hold our toasting right away, I suspect he’s concerned I might change my mind. I can’t begrudge his concern, I did take almost a month to give them my answer, but now that my mind’s made up, I’m not going to change it so he doesn’t have to worry and we don’t need to rush.

 

Peeta seems to feel the same way. “You know, her mother and sister and your brother might want to help us celebrate this.”

 

“I suppose you’re right,” Gale sighs, running his fingers through his hair. “A celebration would be nice.”

 

“And besides, it’ll get Rory off my back.” Peeta pauses, looking at our fiancé. “He hates me, you know.”

 

“And you think telling him that we’re all getting married is going to fix the problem?” Gale asks.

 

“He did throw it out there as an option, so hopefully he’s at least open to the idea. If not,” Peeta shrugs, “he’ll just have to learn to live with it.”

 

I smile. “If he gives you too much trouble, tell him I’ll take his bow away until he has a better attitude.”

 

“And tell him I’ll kick his ass,” Gale adds. “Big brother’s prerogative. I asked both of you to marry me. I didn’t fucking stutter.”

 

“Aww, you guys are so sweet, offering to protect your little man bride like this.” Peeta bats his eyes at the two of us, imitating many of Finnick Odair’s co-stars. Gale slugs his fiancé’s shoulder and they both laugh.

 

I shake my head at the two of them. “Are you guys really going with that?” I ask incredulously.

 

Peeta shrugs again. “Why not? It works.”

 

“Just so long as I get to be the husband to both of you, I don’t care what terms we use.”

 

“So you’re saying we can call you ‘piss boy’ and you’d be okay with it?” Peeta teases.

 

“Not that.”

 

“What about ‘puppy’?”

 

“I’m not a dog,” Gale states flatly.

 

Peeta grins. “But you’re so cute and I just want to pet your ears and neck and call you a good boy.”

 

“Maybe later.” There’s a promise in his tone. “Right now I don’t think introducing me to the world as Peeta Mellark’s puppy is a good idea. I could go for lord and master, but I think Katniss would kick me in the balls if I tried that on her, so that’s out. Look, I’ll be your man bride if you’ll be mine.”

 

“Sounds fair.” Peeta holds out his hand. “I’ll be your man bride if you’ll be mine. Deal?”

 

Gale clasps Peeta’s hand. “Deal.”

 

I’m not really sure what to say. Part of me finds it hilarious and I’m happy that Peeta seems to be okay with it. But another part of me just goes ‘what the hell are they thinking?’ On the other hand, I guess it does give me a term to use for him, but hell if I’m gonna introduce them as ‘hi, this is Gale Hawthorne, my husband, and Peeta Mellark, my man bride.’ They can both be my husband and the rest of the world can deal with it. Of course that’s assuming we run into someone I actually need to introduce them to.   “I guess we should probably go tell everybody,” I say instead.

 

“You think they don’t know?” Gale asks me.

 

“Please? I’d like this to be official.”

 

Peeta and Gale share a look. “I think we can do that.”

 

Telling my mother, Rory, and Prim goes about how I expected. My mother smiles at me indulgently, as if she already knew my answer. Prim squeals and starts nattering on about all of the plans for the toasting and asking us what kind of bread we’re going to make and if we’re going to have dancing and music. And Rory glares at me.

 

“Couldn’t make up your mind, couldya?”

 

“Rory,” Gale scolds.

 

“It’s not fair!” he explodes at his brother. “She gets everything she wants! And you’re just going to roll over and take it!”

 

“What makes you think I don’t want them both?” Gale growls out. “That I was the one who couldn’t make up my mind? I’ll have you know, Rhod--”

 

“Don’t you dare!” Rory clenches his hand into fists.

 

Gale mimics the action. “Don’t you make me.”

 

Rory glares at his brother for a little bit. “So this was your idea?”

 

“Yup. And if you don’t like it, tough. I’m keeping them.” He puts his arms around Peeta and me. “Both of them.”

 

“Oh, that’s so romantic!” Prim sighs. “Almost like out of a Capitol movie!”

 

“Don’t you start too,” Rory grouches.

 

My mother just laughs.

 

oOo

 

Our toasting takes place on August Fifteenth. Peeta makes a loaf of bread from three types of grain. He uses what’s left of the hardtack as well as cattail pollen flour and some ground corn to make an herbed soda bread.

 

Everybody dresses in their best clothes, although Prim protested at my refusal to wear a skirt or a dress. She even tried to get me into that pink monstrosity Rory found, which everyone else, thankfully, vetoed.

 

When we’re ready, my mother and Prim escort me out to where the boys are waiting. All three of us are wearing crowns made out of orange, blue, and white flowers. Since we don’t have to go to the Justice Building and fill out paperwork, we get to make our own rules. The bread was a given. That’s ours, from Twelve. The crowns were Gale’s suggestion. I swear that man’s a little obsessed with Peeta’s and my hair, but I admit, it works for us. Peeta asked for each of us to write our own promises to each other for our marriage. And my demand was a little more practical: a honeymoon. I wanted time for us to be away, just the three of us, so that we could explore being married together.

 

We leave tomorrow.

 

But first, we have to get married.

 

Peeta and Gale each hold out a hand to me and I step forward, taking them. The boys then join hands. The three of us stand there in a triangle, as a group, stronger together than apart.

 

Naturally, Peeta starts. “I offer myself to you to be your husband. To love, honor and cherish you both through sickness and health, to keep and to comfort, to council and defend. For as long as we all live. Do you accept my heart?”

 

“We will,” Gale and I chorus.

 

Now it’s my turn. “I offer myself to be your wife. To protect and provide, to love and cherish, so long as we all shall live. Do you accept me?”

 

“We will,” Gale and Peeta say.

 

And finally it’s Gale’s turn. “Do you take me to be your husband? To let me care for and keep you, to let me honor and cherish you, to let me protect and defend you, to provide and sacrifice for you, to love you and learn you for as long as we all shall live?”

 

“We will,” Peeta and I answer.

 

The three of us kneel down. At our feet is a small building of sticks, the symbolic representation of the hearth we’ll share together. While Peeta lights the fire, my mother steps forward and hands Gale the small loaf of bread Peeta made this morning.

 

When the fire’s caught, Gale breaks the bread into three pieces, handing one each to Peeta and me. Together we toast our bread over the fire. Each of us has contributed something to this loaf. Gale’s tesserae, my gathering, Peeta’s skill. It’s meant to be symbolic of our life together. I can’t help but feel trepidation and excitement at the thought. I never thought I’d get married, let alone at sixteen. But here I am, about to embark on this journey.

 

My eyes meet both Gale’s and Peeta’s and we smile. I couldn’t be happier.

 

oOo

 

After dinner, Peeta, Gale, and I climb the hill to our tree to watch the sunset. It’s nothing much, more an excuse for us to be alone before our wedding night. We haven’t really talked about logistics and even though I don’t want to, I know we should.

 

None of us is in any hurry to start the conversation. The boys stand on either side of me with their arms draped over my shoulders, holding hands over my back. I like this feeling of closeness. I don’t want it to end.

 

Eventually Gale clears his throat. “Catnip?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“You’re not mad at us, are you?”

 

I smile up at him. “Do I look like I’m mad at you?”

 

“No, but I just thought I’d be sure.” He pauses, clearly nervous. “Peet and me, we have something of yours.”

 

I hadn’t noticed anything missing. I tilt my head in confusion.

 

“After you left with Rory,” Peeta says, picking up the conversation, “after Gale and I had our conversation, we…” he trails off.

 

Gale looks at him over my head. “I thought you were supposed to be good with words, Mellark.”

 

“I normally am! You’re the one who asked me to explain this! If you’re gonna give me critique, why don’t you do it?”

 

“Fine, I will!”

 

I swivel my head between the two of them. “Will someone please tell me what’s going on?”

 

“Look, Catnip, here.” He thrusts something out in front of me.

 

It takes a moment to recognize the object silhouetted against the setting sun. It’s the necklace Gale gave me for my birthday, but now Peeta’s pearl is clutched in the mockingjay’s talons.

 

They’ve combined their two gifts into something even more beautiful. Something with meaning. I reach out and take it, tying the leather cord around my neck. “Can you make sure the knot’s tight? I don’t want it to fall off.”

 

“Sure,” Peeta says. I can hear the pleasure in his voice. He fiddles with the knot, tying it and then double tying it before pulling it taut and testing it a bit. He drops a kiss on the back of my neck. “I think it’s good.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“Do you want to go back inside?” Gale asks.

 

I nod my head in the fading light.

 

When we get inside, we discover my mother’s given us another gift. She’s taken Prim and Rory into the kitchen and put up one of the screens to cover the entryway, leaving us the rest of the cave to ourselves.

 

In Twelve as well as here, privacy is a precious commodity and the fact that she’s giving it to us for our wedding night is an extremely thoughtful gift. We don’t waste it.

 

Finally, a few hours before dawn, we fall asleep entwined together.

 

oOo

 

We leave late the following morning and head west along the river. We walk slowly, only keeping half an eye out for any game. We’re not in any hurry. This is a trip just for us with no ulterior motive. That doesn’t mean if we spot something useful that we won’t grab it, but we’re not actively looking for anything.

 

About mid-afternoon we decide to call it an evening and set up camp. Peeta pitches the tent we scavenged from the raiders a few yards away from the river across from a couple of small islands. In the lee of the largest of the three islands, there is a quiet pool, almost perfect for swimming. Peeta must be thinking the same thing because he says, “So I don’t know about you, but I could use a cool dip.”

 

Gale exchanges a glance with him. “I suppose I could be talked into it.”

 

“Why do I get the impression that you guys are having an entirely different conversation than the one I’m actually hearing?”

 

Gale comes up behind me and nuzzles his face in my hair. “That’s because you’re an incredibly intelligent, sexy woman.” He plants a kiss on the side of my neck.

 

“What does sexy have to do with anything?”

 

Peeta chuckles. “A lot more than you’d think.”

 

“You guys are impossible.”

 

“But you love us anyway.”

 

“Well, yeah. I married you.”

 

“We’re gonna make sure you never have cause to regret it.”

 

We take off our clothes, not even bothering with underwear. There’s no point. Both of them have seen me nude on many occasions. I don’t have anything to hide, and they don’t have anything to hide from me.

 

We paddle around, enjoying the cool water on the hot summer day. The sky overhead is bright blue without a cloud in sight. We shouldn’t spend too much time out in the sun naked because of sunburn, but I can’t bring myself to leave the water. This is as free and unencumbered as I’ve ever been.

 

I stand up and stretch, feeling my muscles protest slightly. The water comes to just underneath my breasts and only up to Gale’s waist and I admire the view before me.

 

“I think getting away from Twelve was good for you,” Peeta says, swimming up to me.

 

“What do you mean?” I ask, taking half a step forward.

 

He reaches up to caress the side of my breast. “These. You didn’t have much of these before.” He trails along the side of my ribs. “And these were much more pronounced.” He tickles his fingers across my stomach. “You have the smallest little bit of a belly now.” He kneels down, lifting me up out of the water, and kisses my belly almost reverently. “I find it sexy as hell.”

 

I splash him. “How long have you been noticing the size of my breasts?”

 

“I’m a guy, Katniss,” he says as if that explains everything.

 

“I thought you were different.”

 

“I’m still a guy.” He pulls me towards him and kisses the skin over my heart. “But I’m your guy,” he adds, looking up at me.

 

I feel his hands caress my leg and I let out a little moan. When I open my eyes, I notice Gale is watching the two of us from a few feet away. I hold my hand out to him. “Join us?”

 

He comes over immediately and I position him behind me, pulling his hands up to touch my breasts. Gale responds to my request before reaching around to gently caress the sides of Peeta’s face.

 

Peeta turns his head and kisses the palm of our husband’s hand.

 

It’s the most intimate we’ve been as a trio. And I don’t want it to stop. “Can we do this together?” I ask. “Is that okay? I want you both. All three of us. Together.”

 

Gale nuzzles the back of my neck, kissing his way down my spine. “Whatever you want, Catnip.”

 

Peeta slides his hands around my body to cup my behind. “I’ll do whatever you want, Katniss.”

 

“You. I want you. I want both of you.”

 

Gale starts flicking his thumbs around my nipples, continuing to kiss his way down my spine. He pulls his mouth away when he reaches the waterline. “You’ve got us. So what do you want to do with us?”

 

That requires thought. That requires speech. And Peeta’s fingers, which have now slipped between my legs to flick at my clit, are making both of those things far too difficult. I moan unintelligibly, hoping that they’ll take that as a hint to continue.

 

Both boys chuckle.

 

Gale’s mouth returns to my back and he starts nipping his way back up to my neck. Pressing his cool body to mine, he nips at the join of my neck and shoulder. “I love your neck, Catnip. Peeta may be obsessed with your belly, but I love your neck. The way your hair curls into little tiny corkscrews right here.” He runs his finger along the nape of my neck. “Normally your braid or your hair always hides it. So to be able to see it? Touch it? It turns me on, knowing that I’m one of the few people who get to see this.” He kisses right where my neck meets my spine.

 

I shiver. I’m not entirely sure if it’s from the cool river or if it’s from the two men’s ministrations.

 

“Come on,” Peeta says, pulling his head back from my stomach. “Let’s get you out of the cold water.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Peeta stands up, sweeping me into his arms, and carries me out of the water, Gale at his heels. He places me on the bedroll, making sure to slip a pillow under my head before kneeling down beside me. “Any requests?”

 

I hold my hands out. “I want you both.” I know I said that before, but the desire hasn’t changed.

 

Gale kneels on my other side. He turns to Peeta. “Have you ever tasted a girl?”

 

Peeta shakes his head. “Tasted?”

 

Gale spreads my legs and runs his fingers around my folds, dipping one long finger inside me. He holds it out to Peeta. “Here.”

 

Peeta sucks Gale’s finger into his mouth. “No. Mmmm, delicious.”

 

“You should try the source,” Gale gasps out.

 

Peeta grins, lifting his head from Gale’s hand. “I think I will.” He moves between my legs and spreads me open, running a finger from my entrance up to my clit. There’s some moisture, but not the same level of slickness that they’re both used to.

 

“Sorry, water always makes me a little dry.”

 

“I guess that means I just have to work a little harder. Gee, darn.” He leans forward and gently kisses my opening.

 

Gale leans over and covers my mouth with his. The kiss is long and sensual. His tongue teases my lips until I open my mouth underneath him. I can feel Peeta starting to go to work on me in earnest and I’m unable to stop the moan from escaping. Gale takes the opportunity to slip his tongue into my mouth, stroking my tongue with his, almost in the same motions that Peeta is using against my lower lips. It’s heady. It’s almost too much.

 

I tear my mouth away and gasp for breath. Gale chuckles and bends down to kiss at my neck while his hand comes up to stroke my face along the edge of my hairline. Unwilling to be left out, I reach out with my right hand and find Gale’s knee. I slide my hand up his leg until I feel the hair on his legs change to something thicker, more wiry. I smile.

 

I run my fingers up his balls until I find his shaft already fully erect. I wrap my hand around the base, stroking it.

 

Gale pulls his mouth away from my neck. “What are you doing, Catnip?”

 

I stroke him again. “What does it feel like I’m doing?”

 

“Feels like you’re issuing a challenge.”

 

“Maybe I am.”

 

“You hear that, Peet?” he addresses our third. “Our girl’s issued us a challenge.”

 

Peeta lifts his head. “Yeah, I heard it.” He licks his lips. “Think she means that whoever finishes first loses?” He grins. “Or should I say wins.”

 

“You wanna play?” I ask.

 

“Oh yeah.” Peeta gets back to work, nibbling slightly at my nub.

 

The feeling is intense, a little too intense. “Stop!”

 

They do.

 

“Are you okay? Did we do something wrong?” Peeta asks.

 

“No teeth,” I pant. “You were good, just… no teeth.”

 

He nods. “Got it.”

 

He starts again, gently kissing and licking as if to soothe my overstimulated flesh.

 

Gale runs his fingers over my chest, slightly pinching my nipples, before slipping down to circle my navel. He bends down to kiss me, making it more difficult for me to keep stroking him. I’m sure that’s his plan but I’m not going to let him get away with it. I rub my thumb over the edge of his foreskin, slipping it along the head to rub against his slit. He gasps, pulling away from me.

 

I quicken my pace, occasionally running my nails up his shaft, changing my rhythm so he can’t get too used to it. I start to run into resistance so I bring my fingers to my mouth, licking them as sexily as I can.

 

Gale narrows his eyes. “You’re playing to win.”

 

I chuckle. “When do I not?” I take him in my hand again, ready to up the stakes.

 

Before I can get started, Peeta manages to hit that right spot, forcing an involuntary moan. I glare down at him for making me lose my concentration on making Gale orgasm.

 

He looks up at me, his eyes crinkling. “What? I play to win too.”

 

And then it’s on.

 

It’s me versus the boys, but I have an advantage. Gale’s nineteen, and as experienced as he is, he’s still a guy.

 

A few seconds later he lets out an anguished groan. “Dammit, Peet! She’s gonna win! Lick harder!”

 

Peeta doubles his efforts, but he’s inexperienced, and as good as it feels, I want to make Gale come first.

 

And he does.

 

He explodes all over my hand and across his stomach. I keep stroking him until he lies down next to me in defeat. “Dammit, Katniss. I lost.” He leans over and kisses me. “Or maybe I should say I won.”

 

I bring my hand up to my mouth to taste him. I grimace. It’s not all that appetizing.

 

Gale sees my expression. “Sorry, Katniss. I guess guys don’t taste as good as girls.” He smiles playfully. “Maybe that fairy tale is true, that girls are made up of sugar and spice and everything nice.”

 

“Pretty sure those are cookies,” I respond, leaning up to kiss him.

 

“Mmm, that’s our Catnip, always so literal.” He captures my lips for a few tender moments before pulling back. “Hey, Peet, get up here and take care of our girl. I wanna get even.”

 

Peeta clambers up my body until he’s lying beside me. “Hey,” he greets me. He turns his eyes to Gale. “Sorry I’m not that good.” There’s something in his tone. Something that gives me pause.

 

“You weren’t bad,” I tell him, trying to soothe away the insecurity I sense inside him. “I just…” I pause, struggling for the right words. “I just wasn’t about to let anything distract me.”

 

“One of these days, that’s not gonna be true.”

 

“Come up here,” I say. “I want to see if I can beat both of you.”

 

“Nope,” Peeta says, positioning his body so the only way I can take him into my hands involves hurting the both of us.

 

Gale slides down my body, taking his place between my thighs. He moves my legs so that they’re not spread too wide and then dives in.

 

Peeta leans over me and I can feel his erection tickling my ear. He reaches behind him and plucks a dandelion, running it over my breasts, circling my nipples with the yellow flower. The coolness of the flower against my now heated skin is electrifying.

 

Dammit, at this rate they’re definitely going to make me orgasm before I can even remotely figure out how to beat them. I turn my head to try to figure out what I can do when a solution quite literally presents itself.

 

All I need to do is lift my body and turn slightly and I can take him in my mouth. So I do.

 

“Oh fuck,” Peeta swears, causing Gale to look up.

 

“Aw man! You get Katniss’s first blowjob too? Bastard!”

 

“Makes us even,” Peeta croaks out.

 

I chuckle around his cock, which causes Peeta to jerk his hips.

 

“Gale, you better get moving,” he warns the other man. “I don’t think I’m gonna last very long.”

 

Gale redoubles his efforts, but Peeta was right. He doesn’t last very long. One long hum around his length and he lets out a loud cry, filling my mouth.

 

As before with Gale, it doesn’t taste very good, and I swallow quickly just to get the taste out of my mouth.

 

I smirk at the boys. “Looks like I win again.”

 

“I think we’re the winners,” Peeta says breathlessly.

 

“Okay, Catnip, enough playing around. Let us look after you.”

 

So I do. I’ve already shown them who’s in charge. Why not lay back and enjoy the spoils of victory?

 

Opening my folds again, Gale kisses, nibbles, and licks, motioning for Peeta to come down so that he can learn.

 

As Peeta watches, he strokes my legs, hips, and belly. I desperately want him to touch my breasts, but without the distraction of trying to win, Gale’s ministrations leave me speechless.

 

I come soon after, arching my back. Gale licks me through my orgasm and sits up while I’m panting for breath. He turns to Peeta. “There, Mellark. That’s how you do it.”

 

Peeta nods. “I look forward to trying again.”

 

I come back down to earth to glare at them weakly. “Will you stop gloating and get inside me?”

 

I notice Peeta make a motion for Gale to proceed, but Gale holds back, saying, “Nah, I made her come once. It’s your turn.”

 

Peeta doesn’t argue. The two of them switch places.

 

But before Peeta can slide inside me, Gale stops him, placing a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “No. On your back,” Gale orders. “I want to watch her ride you.”

 

Peeta lays back and Gale helps me straddle him. I’m grateful for the help because my legs are shaking and I’m not sure I’d be able to move on my own.

 

Peeta helps me impale myself on him before letting me rest for a moment, my hands on his chest, feeling his length within me. I look down at him and he smiles. “Take all the time you need,” he tells me.

 

Gale moves behind me, reaching around to cup one of my breasts. “Take as much time as you need, but don’t be too surprised if Peet comes apart the moment you start to move.”

 

“Hey, I’m not that bad,” Peeta protests.

 

“So prove it,” Gale challenges. “No coming until our girl does. If you can.”

 

Gently, Gale reaches out and starts to help me move over Peeta. He doesn’t need to do much before I’m able to find a rhythm and take back command.

 

Gale lets out a low chuckle and starts to kiss my neck and shoulders, whispering encouragements to me. “That’s my girl. Make him writhe beneath you. Look at how much he loves that.”

 

Peeta reaches up to grasp at my hips. I can see the strain on his face. He’s trying desperately to refrain from ejaculating.

 

I think this is a competition I want him to win. I shift positions slightly so that his length rubs against my clit on each downstroke. I feel the orgasm within me grow.

 

Gale reaches down between Peeta’s and my joined bodies and works at my clit with his fingers. It’s too much and once again I come apart.

 

Peeta follows me a few moments later, shouting my name.

 

I feel a squirt of wetness hit my back and I look over my shoulder to see Gale fisting himself.

 

He flushes slightly. “Sorry about that, Katniss. Didn’t mean to get that on you.”

 

I’m not sure what to say so I just shrug.

 

I lean back, turning slightly, and give Gale a kiss, then lean forward and repeat the action with Peeta. I roll off of Peeta, lying down beside him. Gale snuggles up behind me.

 

Peeta turns to us and smiles. “So, who’s up for a swim?”

 

oOo

 

The following morning, we continue following the river. We pass another set of ruins and Gale asks to stop and explore. We don’t find much, although Peeta has the best luck out of all of us, finding a thick plastic box containing pretty much everything you need for line fishing, even a small collapsible fishing pole made out of an odd plastic-looking material that really isn’t. It’s similar to the bow Rory gave Gale on his birthday.

 

“I don’t know what Rory sees in this,” Gale complains. “It’s just digging around in the dirt, hoping to find something.”

 

“I don’t know,” Peeta says while examining his prize. “I can kind of see the appeal.”

 

“You would! You actually found something.” Gale holds up a piece of something we can’t quite identify. “All I’ve found is junk!”

 

“What’d you expect? This stuff is really old.” Peeta picks up one of the plastic wrapped lures. “The only things that are gonna make it through are the things that are really well-made and well taken care of. Do you think that everybody would have packed up all of their belongings perfectly? No.”

 

“Yeah, you’re right. Still doesn’t mean this is fun. Besides...” He leers at the two of us. “There’s things I’d much rather be doing.”

 

“Yeah, uh, speaking of that, we should probably stop doing that, having sex I mean, pretty soon. Likely in a day, two at most. I’m getting near what my mom says is the danger time, and…” I kind of trail off. I know how much Gale wants to have kids, and from Peeta’s earlier expression, I suspect he does too. But I’m not sure if I’m ready and I have no idea if I ever will be. And until I am, I don’t want to have the choice taken away from me.

 

“Then I think maybe it’s time for us to have another talk,” Peeta says, packing up his finds.

 

I’d expected this, even though I was hoping it wouldn’t come. I’d like to put it off as long as I can.

 

Gale seems to feel the same as me. “Why don’t we find a place to set up camp? Then we can talk. Maybe set that net we brought. I don’t know about you, but I could go for some fresh meat tonight.”

 

We find a place a little farther along the river and Peeta sets the net. I look around the large clearing. “I’m surprised there’s no trees,” I say.

 

Gale points to a few blackened and charred logs peeking up through the thick grass and scrub. “If I had to guess, I’d say there was a fire a few years ago.”

 

“What do you think set it?”

 

“Lightning. Maybe those raiders. Still, whatever caused it, it’s probably a good thing.” Gale motions further up the hill. “I think those are some sheep or goats or something. Could be good hunting.”

 

“We don’t need more meat,” I say.

 

Gale laughs. “Never thought I’d hear you say that.”

 

I toss a stick in his direction. “Shut up.”

 

Peeta rejoins us. There’s no need to set a fire unless we actually have something to cook. It’s just too warm and it’s not dark enough to need protection from predators yet. So we sit down in a loose circle facing each other.

 

“So, what do we need to talk about now?” Gale asks the other man once we’ve gotten settled.

 

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but this relationship’s changed.”

 

“Well yeah, we got married.”

 

“Yes, but… not just that,” Peeta says, slowly. “Yesterday on the river, all three of us? That’s new. And we need to talk about it.”

 

“Why do we need to talk about it?” I ask, feeling nervous and not liking it one bit. “You liked it, I liked it, Gale liked it, what’s there to talk about?”

 

“Yes I did like it, Katniss. I can’t speak for Gale, but he seemed to be having a good time. But it adds a new dynamic to this relationship.”

 

“What do you mean, ‘dynamic?’” My tone is wary, hard.

 

“No, I think I get what Peet’s saying,” Gale says, looking over at me. “It’s not about you, Catnip. It’s about Peet and me. What we did with you comes a whole lot closer to that no penis touching rule.”

 

Peeta nods his head. “Got it in one. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy what we did. I did. I really did. I’d do it again. But Gale and me? We need to figure out what’s still forbidden and what’s not.”

 

“So how are we doing this?” Gale asks.

 

Peeta shrugs. “No clue. I thought you might have an idea.”

 

I think about it for a second. “Why can’t you guys just do what you did with me? Ask each other if you’re okay with something.”

 

“That’s a good start,” Peeta agrees, “but sometimes, in the heat of the moment, we might do things that we’re not okay with later.”

 

“Oh. So why don’t you just list off a few things and see if you’re okay with them?” I shrug, mirroring Peeta. “It seems kind of easy to me.”

 

He smiles at me, then turns to Gale. “So, kisses?”

 

“I’m okay with it. Heck I’ve kissed you already and it weren’t half bad. I’m not saying you’d be my first choice, but I’d be okay with it.”

 

“That sound doable.” Peeta shifts around nervously. “I’d also like not to have to ask permission. Sometimes you just want to kiss the person you love and not stop and ask ‘is this okay.’”

 

“You sayin’ you love me?”

 

“Yes.” It’s almost a challenge.

 

“Good. Me too. So no restrictions on kissing.”

 

Peeta smiles. “That means I can do this.” The blond man reaches up and runs his fingers down Gale’s jaw. Then he leans in and tentatively presses his lips to Gale’s. The kiss looks gentle, exploring. I don’t know how Peeta and Gale feel about it, but I’m pleased. I realize that it’s a bit of a relief to see that I’m not going to have to be the center for all physical interactions.

 

They pull back. Gale touches his lips. “Not bad, Mellark.”

 

“So you’d be up for more?”

 

He smiles tenderly at the other man. “Maybe. What’ve you got in mind?”

 

“How about hugging?”

 

“Whatever.” Gale waves his hand dismissively. “I don’t think we need any restrictions on that.”

 

Peeta smiles. “I don’t think we do either. Touching?”

 

“Depends on where and when and how.”

 

“So what’s out?”

 

“I don’t really feel like giving you a handjob, Mellark.”

 

“Same. But anything else?” he presses.

 

“Innocent touches, comforting touches, normal everyday kind of touches, you don’t need permission for those.” Gale pauses for a moment. “Stuff like we did yesterday, I’d like to do more.”

 

“More like what?”

 

“I don’t need you touching my penis, but I wouldn’t mind it if we were both working together to please Katniss and each other.”

 

“I think that sounds fair. I’m guessing sex sex is still out?”

 

“How would you even do that?” I interject.

 

Peeta’s voice takes on the sing-song quality of the Capitol. “Well, when a man loves another man…”

 

“Oh shut up!”

 

Gale laughs. “Don’t traumatize the girl, Mellark. It’s a no anyways.”

 

“It’s a no here too.”

 

“So Katniss, how do you feel about things?” Peeta turns back to me.

 

“I don’t know what you mean. I like sex. It’s fun, it’s good. I love both of you. So long as I don’t wake up to find one of you shoving yourself into me, I’m pretty much okay with whatever so long as I’m able to give you consent. And if I tell you to stop, you stop.”

 

“But how do you feel about maybe both of us at the same time?” Peeta asks.

 

“Both of you at the same time? Would you even fit? And wouldn’t that involve your penises touching?”

 

“There are ways you can do it.” He’s blushing as he says it.

 

“How do you know this?” I can’t stop myself from asking.

 

The blush gets worse. “Madge and Delly and I watched a lot of bad Capitol movies. That included some porn.”

 

“Ew! I don’t want to know… so how do you do this?”

 

“Well, there’s three common ways. We did two of them yesterday, kind of. One of us in your mouth, one of us inside you.”

 

I think back to how it felt good and how I liked it. “That’s fine.”

 

“Then there’s one of us in your hands and one of us inside you.”

 

“That’s fine too.”

 

“And then… one of us inside you and the other, um,” his cheeks are practically flaming and he’s almost stuttering to get the words out, ”inside of another... part of you.”

 

“Huh?” I have no idea what he’s trying to insinuate.

 

Gale’s eyes widen as realization dawns. “Oh! He means your ass, Catnip.”

 

“Ew! Yuck, no!”

 

“And there we have another boundary,” Peeta says, clearly grateful that Gale figured out what he was implying. “So, Katniss, if Gale and I decided that we wanted to have sex, which we don’t yet, but if we did, how would you feel about it?”

 

“I suppose I’d be okay. I mean, it’d be really hypocritical of me to say you two can’t have sex if I’m having sex with the both of you.”

 

Peeta smiles. “That’s why I love you, Katniss. You do what’s right, not what’s easy. That just brings us to one more thing.”

 

“Haven’t we covered everything? I mean, I suppose licking, but that kind of goes under kissing.”

 

“No, Katniss, not licking.” He fixes me with an intense look. “Kids.”

 

I squirm a little. “What about them?”

 

“I want them. Do you?” Peeta looks at Gale and me.

 

Gale half-shrugs. “I want them too. I loved being a dad to Posy and I’d love us to have a kid together. Catnip?”

 

I make a face. I don’t know what to say. They both want children. I mean, I suppose I’d always known that, but now it’s been said out loud. It makes it so much more real. I decide to be honest. “I never wanted kids, not back in Twelve. Not with the Games. I couldn’t bear it if I had a kid, raised them, loved them, provided for them for years, only to just lose them to the Capitol’s whim. I don’t know how the families that had it happen to them were able to bear the pain.”

 

“And now?” Gale presses. “We’re not in Twelve anymore.”

 

“I don’t know. Part of me still doesn’t want kids, but the other part is just... confused. I don’t want to bring a kid into this world unless all three of us want them. Besides, only one of you can be the father,” I say, bringing to voice one of my lingering fears regarding this relationship. “And there’s no guaranteeing that we’ll even be able to have children! So why worry about something that might never happen?” I finish in a rush of words.

 

“I think you’re being a little delusional, Katniss. You’re young and healthy. The chances are pretty good that, if you want to have kids, you’ll have them,” Peeta tells me. “It’s just a matter of you wanting them.”

 

“I don’t know if I want them. Is it okay that I don’t know? Do I have to decide right now?” I’m pleading with them to understand. “I mean, you’re right, I’m just sixteen. Do we have to make that decision right now? We have time, lots of time! I mean, my mom didn’t have me until she was twenty four, that’s years away!”

 

“You’re right, Katniss, we do have time. I suppose we don’t have to have this discussion right now,” Peeta says with a sigh. He looks up at me, his heart in his eyes. “Just, if you ever do decide you want to have kids, you’ll let us know? I’ll do my best not to pressure you, but I really want to be a dad.”

 

“I’m with Mellark. Besides, any kid of yours is a kid of mine,” Gale says, addressing my fear. “It doesn’t matter which of us technically fathered them. Posy was mine, I ain’t got no problem loving another man’s kid.” He thumps at his chest. “It’s about what’s in the heart, you know?”

 

“I’m sure I’ll love any child of ours, too,” Peeta adds. “Genetics don’t matter.”

 

I want this conversation to come to a close, so I say, “I’ll let you know when I’ve made a decision, but it’s probably not gonna be for a while. A few years, at best. We’ve got to make it through the winter here first, right?”

 

“Right,” Gale agrees.

 

“So, you up for an afternoon quickie while you still can?” Peeta asks.

 

“Um, sure. But Gale gets to be inside me.”

 

Gale raises an eyebrow. “Not that I’m complaining, but why’s that?”

 

“I don’t want you guys getting jealous of each other, not again. If we keep it even, you won’t have anything to worry about.”

 

“I’m not really sure it works that way, but if it makes you feel better.” Peeta smiles at me.

 

“It does.”

 

“Then we’ll do as my lady commands.”

 

oOo

 

The next morning, we follow the river south. One side is all meadow and brush while the other is fully forested. It’s kind of eerie.

 

We follow the path of the fire’s destruction along the river until we reach something rather odd: a large pile of concrete, rock, and gravel. The river cuts through part of it and there’s several ruins around the area.

 

“What do you think this was?” I ask, walking around.

 

“I don’t know, but there’s something concrete over there.” Peeta points toward something.

 

“Looks like it could’ve been a dam,” Gale suggests. “Kind of looks like that big one down in Five.” He points towards what might’ve been a spillway. He looks at the wilderness beyond and motions with his hand to it. “And look, you can see, the forest here - you can see where the water line used to be. The forest in the valley isn’t as dense or as mature as the stuff above the waterline.”

 

“When do you think the dam broke?” I ask.

 

Gale shrugs. “I don’t know. Makes me glad that we weren’t living where we are when it did.”

 

“Although that explains some of the damage we’ve seen along here.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

We walk around, looking at the dam.

 

“How much further do you want to explore?” Peeta asks. “I’m up for it, but I’d really rather spend time with the two of you.”

 

“We don’t have to go anywhere. That fire meadow’s a good camping area and there’s fish to eat and I’m sure there’s game. We can stick around, do nothing.”

 

“Can you do nothing?”

 

“I’m willing to try.”

 

The boys laugh.

 

“Come on, I’ll show you how to hunt,” I say to Peeta.

 

“I’m gonna suck at it.”

 

“You’re gonna get better at some point,” Gale says encouragingly.

 

“You’d like to think that,” he says dubiously.

 

“Well, even if you’re crap at the bow, I can at least show you how to make some snares. Those don’t take much effort.”

 

He smiles at me. “Yeah, I think I’d like that.”

 

oOo

 

We spend the last few days of our honeymoon growing closer. None of the conversations are as difficult as the one when we first got to this campsite and most are light-hearted, teasing, and flirting.

 

By the end of it, I know more about the pranks that Peeta and his brothers used to play. I always thought he was such a good boy, and to hear about the pranks that they used to play on the teachers and other shopkeepers had Gale and me laughing for hours.

 

Gale also shared stories of his own. I’d always known he’d been a bit of a rebel, but I never knew that he did his best to try to woo the butcher’s daughter, and that she’d shot him down in favor of Peeta’s eldest brother.

 

“Is that why you hated me so much?” Peeta asks when Gale tells the story.

 

“I suppose maybe. I just heard the name Mellark and cringed. I had the biggest crush on Reenie when I was about Rory’s age and finally worked up the guts to ask her out when I was about fifteen. By then she’d already hooked up with that older brother of yours and she shot me down hard.”

 

“Was she at least nice about it?” Peeta asks.

 

Gale shakes his head. “I was fifteen, and even more of a hard-headed ass than I am now, if you can believe it.”

 

Peeta opens his mouth to say something and Gale says “No!” before he can.

 

Peeta just smirks.

 

Gale continues his story, “But to fifteen year old me, Reenie Gibbs broke my heart. Luckily around that time I noticed what an amazing girl Catnip here was and transferred my affections.”

 

“Really?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Well, not really. There were a few girls in between. You don’t mind?”

 

I shrug my shoulders. “It’s in the past now. It’s not like anyone from Twelve is gonna show up here. Besides, you’re the one who wanted to get married. If you even think of finding somebody else, after all the shit you’ve put Peeta and me through, I will hang you by your entrails and let the crows feed on your rotting corpse.”

 

Peeta leans over to Gale and stage whispers, “I think that means that she’d be a little jealous.”

 

“Ya think?”

 

“You’re lucky she didn’t threaten to castrate you first,” Peeta continues. “I would. And I don’t make idle threats.”

 

“Good to know. Same thing’s true for you, Mellark.”

 

“You think after being in love with Katniss for eleven years that I’m going to start looking for some other girl? Or boy? Please.”

 

“Well, you did fall in love with me,” Gale points out.

 

“True. But only ‘cause you’re such a bastard.”

 

“And you love it.”

 

“What can I say?” Peeta kisses Gale lightly on the nose. “I guess you can say I have a thing for emotionally constipated people from the Seam.”

 

“Hey! I’ll have you know I am not emotionally constipated!” Gale exclaims.

 

“Really, Mr. I-only-realize-I-love-someone-when-they’re-on-the-brink-of-death?” He follows up his kiss with a playful tap. “Don’t think I didn’t notice that! And I bet Katniss here noticed it too!”

 

Put on the spot, I nod. I hadn’t noticed. But I’m not going to tell them that. I would never hear the end of it. “And I’m not emotionally constipated, whatever that means.”

 

Both Peeta and Gale throw back their heads and laugh. “Oh, Katniss,” Peeta gasps, trying to regain control. “I love you with every bit of my being, but you’re a hard person to get to know.”

 

Gale recovers and adds, “Worth the effort, though.”

 

“Besides, you have no idea the effect you have on people,” Peeta finishes.

 

“Huh?” I don’t know whether I should be offended or flattered at their words.

 

“I’m with Peet here. Once I saw what was right before my eyes, I was gone.”

 

“I’m nothing special,” I tell them.

 

Gale shakes his head. “That’s where you’re wrong.”

 

We head back home the next day. I want to go overland, to see more of the countryside, but Gale and Peeta veto that idea. We’re expected home soon and we don’t want my mother, Prim, or Rory to start worrying about us.

 

They’ve got a point. We can always explore the area later. We have time. If not now, maybe next month, or even next year.

 

We make it home late that day. The sun’s almost set and I would’ve insisted we stop earlier, but I knew we were close. I sing out the chorus of the Valley Song as a recognition signal, so that they know it’s us. The last thing we want is to get an arrow in the knee by Rory or Prim defending the cave.

 

As we get near, I hear my sister calling out. “They’re back, they’re back! Katniss and Peeta and Gale are home!”

 

I smile at the thought. She’s right. I take Peeta and Gale’s hands in mine.

 

I am home.

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in Brand New Breeze:

 

We make it home late that day. The sun’s almost set and I would’ve insisted we stop earlier, but I knew we were close. I sing out the chorus of the Valley Song as a recognition signal, so that they know it’s us. The last thing we want is to get an arrow in the knee by Rory or Prim defending the cave.

 

As we get near, I hear my sister calling out. “They’re back, they’re back! Katniss and Peeta and Gale are home!”

 

I smile at the thought. She’s right. I take Peeta and Gale’s hands in mine.

 

I am home.

 

oOo

 

The end of summer signals a new phase in our life here at the cave. We still hunt some, but only if anyone is having any particular cravings.

 

We spend several hours every day gathering the fruits and nuts that are in season to add to our already overflowing stores. Rory and Prim keep protesting that we need to stop, but I won’t let us. We have no idea how much food we’re going to need over the coming winter or how long winters are in this area. There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to hunt game. And there’s absolutely no way we’ll be able to fish.

 

I can tell that Peeta and Gale are indulging me. They don’t think we’ll need this much food, and Peeta and my mother are very careful to keep checking our stores daily for any signs of rot or spoilage. Vermin aren’t much of an issue, mostly thanks to Buttercup. Dandelion isn’t much use, but she does a good job of flushing any rodents for Buttercup to kill. The cats don’t even try to raid our stores because they, like us, are going to bed with full bellies every day.

 

So it’s surprising to me that I’ve had more hollow days lately, where I can’t seem to eat enough. But for the first time in my life I can actually try to satiate my need, there’s plenty of food for me to eat. Peeta seems to take great pleasure in feeding me on my hollow days, serving up a spicy tomato and bean stew with cornbread. He’s managed to make yeast out of some of our potato crop and together with the corn and other things we’ve found, we’re finally able to start having bread again. Some of his creations are near inedible, but others are surprisingly good. I’ve especially developed a fondness for a rice flour and hazelnut bread sweetened with a little bit of honey.

 

Much of the time we spend getting ready for the long winter ahead. When he isn’t in the kitchen, Peeta is out with Gale collecting firewood and storing it in the cave. They also stack several large logs along the top of the hill just in case we need them partway through the winter.

 

My mother and Prim gather several kinds of reeds and rushes and grasses to use as bedding throughout the winter.

 

I’m responsible for making the candles. Prim’s made the wicks from various fibers, but she’s got other skills that we need more, so I get stuck dipping the wicks into the hot melted tallow in the late summer sun. Rory helps me, when I can find him, but he’s trying to spend as much time as he can out doing other things, so he can get out of what he calls “boring work.”

 

My mother makes the soap. It’s almost as smelly as making candles, but she scents the tallow, some with herbs, some with flowers. And one batch she uses stale urine. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but she says it will help keep our clothes clean. And so long as I don’t have to touch it, I don’t care.

 

Despite all the work, we still manage to have fun. Gale, Peeta, and I are as close as ever. True to their word, they’re not pressuring me in any way about children. We have time.

 

Every night we slip into bed together. Some nights we make love, other nights we just sleep. But it’s still the most content that I’ve been in my life.

 

That contentment is shattered midway through September, when my mother pulls me aside. “Have you had your period recently, Katniss?” she asks me, her eyes intent.

 

“What?”

 

“Um, I’ve noticed that your period things haven’t been in the laundry lately and I was wondering, when was the last time you had it?”

 

I think back. “August.”

 

“When in August?” my mother presses. “I seem to recall you had it at the same time I did.”

 

I nod my head. She’s right. I remember us both being a little grumpier than normal and I was grateful that the salmon run delayed our toasting ceremony so that I wouldn’t have it on our honeymoon.

 

My mother clicks her tongue. “I thought so. I got mine a little over a week ago. You should have gotten yours by now.”

 

“Not necessarily. I skip periods all the time.”

 

“In the springtime. When we don’t have enough food.” My mother points to the overflowing storage room. “That isn’t a problem here.”

 

“I’m sure I’m just late. You know, stress. Or… or…” I try to find another reason I could be late and fail.

 

“Or you could be pregnant,” my mother finishes for me.

 

I still refuse to consider it. “But we’ve been careful! We’ve been following your advice.”

 

“It’s not a guarantee,” she tells me.

 

“I can’t be pregnant. There’s no way.” I shake my head. “You’re wrong.”

 

“Fine. We’ll wait another week,” she says with a sigh. “Maybe you’re right, it could be stress.” Hanging unspoken in the air is that, if my period hasn’t come in a week, the possibility is very high that I actually am pregnant.

 

I try to keep my mind off of it, and I distract myself by going hunting. The animals are much fatter now than when we first arrived and the thought of roasted pork has me salivating. Besides, we can always use more lard since we’ve used up most of our fat making candles and soap.

 

I think back to District Twelve and the links of cured meats in the butcher shop. I wonder if I do get a pig, if I could try my hand at sausage-making. I don’t have much to lose by trying.

 

I’ve gotten to know the area very well, so it doesn’t take me long to find a game trail and several pigs rooting around the base of a chestnut tree. I shoot the largest of them then swear under my breath. I’ve managed to do it again. Killing large animals when I’m upset really is a trend with me.

 

I sigh. At least now I know what I need to do.

 

I field dress the hog and cut down two straight trees and make a travois. I’ve done it so often now that it’s almost second nature. I manhandle the pig onto the travois and start hauling it back.

 

About halfway there Gale and Peeta find me.

 

“We heard you coming through the forest. Why didn’t you come get us?”

 

I don’t want to admit that I left the cave without a plan and shot without thinking. I should have gotten Gale or Peeta or even Rory to come with me. But the need for distraction was too great and I couldn’t risk having someone, Gale or Peeta, ask me what was wrong and me accidentally blurting out the answer.

 

Instead I shrug and say, “I had it handled. I can’t keep asking you to drop what you’re doing and haul stuff back to the cave for me every time I kill a large animal.”

 

Peeta gives me a suspicious look. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m fine! It’s just… I’m fine.” It sounds lame, even to my ears.

 

“If you’re sure--”

 

“I am!”

 

Peeta motions to the pig. “So would you mind if we helped you?”

 

“Fine, if you insist.” I really do want the help but I don’t want to give away why I shot the pig.

 

For the rest of the week, my mother keeps giving me these little looks like she knows what’s going on and is waiting for me to come to terms with it. By the end of the seven days, I’m not sure if I have, but my time is up and I still haven’t gotten my period.

 

Once again, my mother pulls me aside. She’s made sure that everybody else is out of the cave gathering chestnuts when she drags me into the space that she and Prim share and instructs me to lay down on the bed.

 

The next hour of my life is quite possibly the most embarrassing I’ve ever experienced. My mother performs an examination on me, even breaking out the long stethoscope that she uses to listen to people’s heartbeats and lungs, which she places on my belly.

 

She sits back with an expression of certainty on her face. “Well, my suspicions were correct. You’re pregnant. You’re not very far along and that gives us options.”

 

I don’t have to ask what those options are. My mother’s the primary midwife in Twelve, but more importantly, she’s helped several other women to not have babies, most commonly women who’ve sold themselves to Cray and found out a few weeks later that they got a little more than they bargained for or girls who were still Reaping age and couldn’t risk being pregnant during the Games.

 

And I know that my mother is offering this to me now.

 

If I were back in Twelve, I would demand the herbs that cause a miscarriage immediately. There’s no way I’d ever bring a child into a world where the Games still exist.

 

But I’m not back in Twelve and I’m not the same girl I was back then.

 

I look up at my mother, biting my lower lip. “How long do I have to decide?”

 

“You’ve got a few weeks,” she tells me. “It’s still early enough that the herbs will work without too much risk of other side effects.”

 

I nod my head. “I need to think about this.”

 

“Are you going to tell your husbands?”

 

“Not yet,” I say, shaking my head. They’ll want to keep the baby and I’m not sure if I’m ready to.

 

My mother makes a face and shrugs. “It’s your decision.”

 

oOo

 

I’m still in shock and denial about my pregnancy and I’m aware enough to know it. But knowing something and believing it are two very different things. I can’t be pregnant. My mother has to be mistaken. It’s too soon to tell. Gale, Peeta, and I have been so careful. This can’t be happening. The thoughts swirl in my head, over and over.

 

I walk up to the top of the hill and sink to the ground underneath our maple tree, wrapping my arms around my legs and resting my head on my knees. What am I going to do? I don’t know.

 

I ask the question over and over again each time with the same answer, losing all track of time.

 

“Katniss?” I hear Peeta calling for me.

 

I debate not answering, but I know if I do, that will cause more questions than I’m ready to answer. “I’m up here,” I respond, not looking up from my knees.

 

“You okay, Catnip?”

 

My head shoots up. Crap, Gale’s with him too. I sense my mother’s handiwork.

 

“Yeah, I’m fine. I need to talk to you.” The words slip out before I can stop them. I swear internally. I hadn’t planned on talking to them right now, or at all. In fact, I don’t want to. But I need to. I’m married now and my decision, like it or not, affects us all.

 

Gale and Peeta drop to the ground in front of me.

 

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Peeta asks, taking in my body language. I’m still seated with my knees drawn up to my chest and my arms wrapped around them.

 

“No?”

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“I don’t know. I’m pregnant.”

 

The boys freeze, staring at me in shock. It’s not the romantic declaration that’s shown in all those Capitol TV shows and movies. It’s not the excited utterances. It’s just a statement of fact.

 

I. Am. Pregnant.

 

“How?” Peeta whispers.

 

Gale shoots him a look. “Well, Mellark, when a man and a woman love each other very much--” Mimicking the same Capitol tones Peeta used on our honeymoon.

 

“Oh shut up!”

 

I laugh. I can’t help it. Now that I know their bickering isn’t in earnest, they make me laugh as much as Rory and Prim do.

 

“When did you find out?” Gale asks.

 

“Well, my mom first suspected a week ago. She confirmed it today.”

 

“I see,” he says. “What do you want to do?”

 

That is the question. What do I want to do? I don’t know.

 

“It’s okay if you don’t know, Katniss. I mean, I’m just as surprised as you are. I’d like to be a father, I just don’t know if I’m ready to be a father right now.” Peeta rubs the back of his neck. “I kind of thought that we’d have a year or two to get used to being with one another and getting settled, that we’d have time to make a cradle.”

 

“We still have time,” Gale says, looking over at our husband. “They don’t take that long to make.”

 

“But even so, it is a bit fast, so I can understand how you feel.”

 

“But you want children! I still don’t know if I do! I still don’t know if I’m ready!”

 

“To be fair, I don’t think any parent is ever ready to become a parent,” Gale says matter-of-factly. “My mom had three other kids and she still was a wreck in regards to Posy. I don’t think that so much matters. It’s more about do you want the kid in the first place.”

 

“Do you want the child? Do you want the baby?” Peeta asks.

 

“Yes. No. I don’t know! I thought I’d have time! I was supposed to have time! I like being married to you, I’m not so scared of the Capitol coming and intruding on our life here like I was. Even the raiders, in fact, if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be as well off as we are right now! Everything’s been going so good. I’m scared when it’s gonna end. I keep watching for the Gamemakers’ twist. Is this it? Is this the Gamemakers’ twist?” I ask, half-hysterically. “Am I gonna decide I’m okay with having this baby and then lose them? Is that what’s gonna happen? Or if I choose to not have the baby, does it mean that this was my only chance and I’ve now screwed it up for good, for all of us? I just can’t do this by myself.”

 

The boys wrap their arms around me, comforting me.

 

“You don’t have to,” Peeta murmurs into my hair. “There’s no sadistic Gamemaker watching our every move, plotting our lives out and cackling at our trials and tribulations. We’re the ones in charge of our lives now. We get to make our own decisions. We get to live, and die, based off of them. But we’re free. We’re free of the Capitol, we’re free of Twelve. It’s just us against the world.”

 

“You have waited your entire life to say that, haven’t you?” Gale asks him wryly.

 

“It was a great movie.”

 

“You guys and your movies,” I say, grateful for the distraction. “I drag you out here, in the middle of the wilds, and rather than sitting at home watching them, you guys are now in them. How does it feel to be the leading men?” I look at the two of them critically. “One of you isn’t nearly shirtless enough.”

 

“Take off your shirt, Mellark,” Gale hisses.

 

“Why not you?”

 

“She’s seen you naked!”

 

“She’s seen us both naked!’

 

“Your chest doesn’t look like it’s one of your rejected furs!”

 

“Ah, yeah, right.” Peeta slips off his shirt and drapes it over his shoulder.

 

“I’m not going to protest a shirtless Peeta, but it wasn’t really necessary,” I say, still grateful that he did it to make me feel better. “I think that we need to talk, all three of us. Humor aside, teasing aside, scary baggage thrown down the side of the hill and smashed into oblivion with boulders aside. I’m pregnant and one, or both, of you, are the father.”

 

“Both?” Gale asks, surprised.

 

“Twins have been known to happen,” I supply.

 

Peeta blinks and nods his head. “Right. Twins.”

 

I can see that neither of them had ever considered it before. “Personally I’m praying for only one, if we choose to have this child. I think I can only handle one right now, at least until I learn not to drop them. Him, her, it? What am I supposed to call this thing?” I rest my hands on my stomach, as if asking the parasite within me what we should call it.

 

It doesn’t answer. With the way my day’s been going, I’m kind of disappointed it doesn’t.

 

“I think the most important question is, do you want to be a mother? Right now,” Gale asks me seriously. “Because Peeta and I get to be fathers, but in order to do that, you have to be a mom first. It’s your body that’s going to be going through all these changes. It’s your body that’s going to be hit with morning sickness--”

 

“Actually, I haven’t had any of that.”

 

“Oh, you will,” Gale says with certainty. “Mom was miserable with Posy. And Vick. And I think I remember she was miserable with Rory too.”

 

“You’re not making me want to keep it,” I tell him. “Weeks and months of vomiting up food? That doesn’t sound very appealing.”

 

“It gets better,” Peeta soothes, “and there are things we can do to make it so you don’t have bad symptoms.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Well, ginger! I’m really good at identifying wild ginger,” Peeta says. “And I can make all of your favorite foods. If you want something that means that your body is craving it, and you just need to tell me, and we can make it.”

 

“You both really want this kid, don’t you?”

 

They exchange a look. “I’d be lying, Catnip, if I said my heart didn’t do a little flip flop when you said you were pregnant. I want to scream it to the hills. My wife’s pregnant. I’m going to be a daddy. I want to be there for you. I want to feel that little person within you start to squirm around. I want to be there when it comes out all covered in gunk, squalling its head off.”

 

“If you meant for that speech to make Katniss want to stay pregnant, I think you failed. After a speech like that, I wouldn’t want to stay pregnant and I want children.” Peeta turns to me. “Don’t listen to him, Katniss. Think about what you want. If you choose to keep this baby, you’re going to get to know them for nine months before we even get a chance to meet him. Or her. Part of me is so envious. You get to feel them grow, you get to help them grow. You get to sing to them and they’re going to come out wondering who that angel is. And when you sing to them again, they’re going to know that the angel they’ve been hearing is their mommy. It doesn’t matter if they’re Gale’s or if they’re mine, that child’s going to fall in love with your voice just as much as I did. And I want to be there to see it all happen and smile.”

 

Peeta takes a deep breath. “But it’s got to be your decision. Gale and I may want this baby, but it’s your body. I’ll support you either way and I love you no matter what you choose. That isn’t going to stop.”

 

“Peeta’s pretty much said everything I would want to say, other than this. I’m glad you told us,” Gale tells me earnestly. “I know you didn’t have to and you’d have been totally within your rights to not tell us. But I just want to say thank you. We’re not going to push you, Catnip. It’s not our decision. All I ask - all we ask - is that you let us know when you’ve made it, ‘cause we want to be there for you either way.”

 

oOo

 

The boys hold true to their word. They don’t mention my pregnancy, leaving me free to think about things. I know I don’t have a whole lot of time before I have to make a decision, and that makes it harder. I don’t want the choice taken away from me, so part of me is grateful to my mother, Peeta, and Gale for letting me have it. But another part of me wishes that this weren’t even happening.

 

I’m sixteen. I’m going to become a mother. And that terrifies me. I’m not ready for this. I’m just not. But what if this is my only chance? What if this is our only chance? Do I want to waste it?

 

If I were in Twelve, I know what I’d do in a heartbeat. I’d take my mother’s herbs and be done with it. It’s that simple.

 

But out here, things are different. I have other people to think about, it’s not just me anymore. And both Gale and Peeta so very much want to have children. They want a child. This child. They don’t care if it’s theirs genetically or not. They want this baby. And part of me wants to give it to them. I’m happy with them. They make me happy. And the thought of our child, of watching my husbands play with our child and helping him or her grow, fills me with happiness.

 

But at the same time it fills me with terror. I would be responsible for yet another life out here. A helpless life, an innocent life. A baby would rely on me for all of its nourishment. I wouldn’t be able to do as much as I do now. I’d have to rely on Gale and Peeta and the rest to pick up the slack. Peeta’s not a hunter and while Gale’s a good hunter, he’s still not as good as me. And other than my mother, who is surprisingly adept at identifying edible plants, I’m the best gatherer we’ve got. They need me and a baby would just slow me down and prevent me from doing everything I need to do to ensure our survival.

 

I don’t know what to do. I just wish this decision were easier.

 

I don’t have to make the decision right now, but I need to make it soon.

 

To distract myself, I work on assembling the things I need for Peeta’s birthday present. I noticed Peeta got very excited over a few plastic paintbrushes that Rory found and has been talking about decorating the screens and our furniture come wintertime. I’ve heard him talking about making paint out of charred wood and some of the alcohol that Rory’s found, but he deserves better. I know from my father’s book how to make dyes out of pokeberries, walnut husks, sumac, junipers, elderberries, onion skins, and a host of other plants. There’s also some rocks I’ve seen that were mentioned in the romance novel that I might be able to use.

 

It’s a good distraction, since it requires me to actually pay attention to each step so I don’t mess up and make something completely unusable.

 

But I’m still not able to block it completely from my mind.

 

Do I want a child?

 

Do I want this child?

 

The thought keeps repeating in my head over and over and over again, a never-ending litany that I can’t escape.

 

What am I going to do?

 

I don’t know.

 

oOo

 

By the time Peeta’s birthday rolls around on October second, I still haven’t made a decision. I’m running out of time. I know the longer I delay, if I choose not to have the child, the more complications there could be. I’ve seen it happen with those women who went to Cray and the other Peacekeepers. I don’t want that to happen to me.

 

But I’m still not sure if I’m ready to give up this child. I can tell that Gale and Peeta are starting to hope, and I don’t want to build it up only to crush them.

 

But I can’t think about this right now. I have to make it through Peeta’s birthday party.

 

The party is similar to the other birthdays that we’ve celebrated since leaving Twelve. We don’t do anything strenuous that day and instead spend it in celebration.

 

My mother and I take over the cooking to give Peeta a break. He keeps trying to come in and help, but we keep shooing him away. Finally I make Gale take him out of the cave so that we can get things done. I’m trying my hand at making his squirrel stew while my mother stuffs the turkey with wild rice, raisins, and onions, before wrapping the whole bird in grapes leaves, rosemary, and sage. The cave starts to smell amazing and my stomach growls. We also have a fat Canada goose that I’m butchering to fry in a skillet with tomatoes, onions, and garlic. Several large potatoes are washed and set to one side to be put in the oven later to bake and sitting on the counter is an apple pie made from an old recipe I found in my father’s book.

 

My eyes keep drifting over to the pie and I want to eat it now. My mother keeps chuckling and finally shoos me out of the kitchen with a baked apple and a bowl of stew before I can make do on my craving.

 

I can tell, as soon as I put the spoon in my mouth, that today is going to be another hollow day. I’ve been having more of them lately, although thankfully none of the nausea or other symptoms that Gale and my mother described have seemed to hit. In fact, if I didn’t know I was pregnant, I would think there was nothing wrong with me. I feel good, healthy. Peeta’s right, my ribs and other bones don’t stick out anymore. Looking in the mirror that we found, I look healthy. Really healthy, for the first time ever.

 

I do my hair up in its usual braid and get dressed for the celebration this afternoon. Peeta’s requested that he, Gale, and I watch the sunset together every day. It’s his favorite time of day and when the weather’s nice it’s an easy request to fulfill. It also gives us a little alone time other than at night in our bed.

 

I snort. That’s one thing I won’t have to worry about if I decide to keep this baby. I can’t get any more pregnant than I already am. I look down at my clothes and pull them taut against my stomach. I’m not showing yet, but I wonder what I’ll do if I do choose to keep the baby. Clothes are one thing we don’t have a lot of.

 

I hear someone come into the room behind me and I look up to see Gale standing in the entryway. “Am I interrupting anything, Catnip?”

 

I shake my head. “Just thinking.”

 

He comes up behind me, wrapping his arms around me, and drops a kiss on the back of my neck. “So, what’d you get our man bride for his birthday?”

 

“I made him some paints and a few things like that. Figured he’d like that.”

 

“I’m sure he will.”

 

“What’d you get him?”

 

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a mockingjay necklace that’s a mirror image of my own. “I figured I’d make a matched set. Had to do a bit of scrounging to find another pearl, but there were a few that Peet had found and put into a little bowl.” He nods towards one of the niches in the cave wall. “I don’t think he’ll notice one missing, and if he does, I don’t think he’ll mind.”

 

“Probably not. He’s pretty easygoing.”

 

“Yeah. How’d we end up with a guy like him?” he asks me.

 

“I have no idea. But we better not let him get away.”

 

Gale holds me more closely. “I ain’t planning on it. Come on, dinner’s ready.”

 

My stomach growls in anticipation. Gale laughs. “Sounds like someone’s hungry.”

 

“It’s the apple pie,” I tell him. “I can’t wait to eat it.”

 

“Then I guess we better get out there.”

 

We each take our seat and my mother motions for Peeta to serve himself first. I can tell he’s torn between leaving the best pieces for me and actually taking what he wants. He settles on a mix, making sure I get the thigh on each bird. Peeta insists I go second and then the rest of us fill our plates. As always seems to happen on these celebration days, we talk about the things we want to do in the future and I can tell the boys are very carefully phrasing their answers to not reveal my pregnancy to Rory and Prim.

 

When it finally comes around to me, I think carefully about what I really do want for the future. Unlike the rest of them, I don’t have any major projects to work on during the winter. I’m more of an outside kind of girl and there isn’t anything I really want or need.

 

No. That’s not true.

 

I want to be happy.

 

And I am.

 

I have never been happier before in my life than I am right now.

 

I take a look at each member of my family sitting there and I realize that I’m not alone anymore. I don’t have to worry about being the only provider. I don’t have to worry about making sure my family has enough to survive. We do. We have more than enough and this land is able to give us that. I have two partners in Gale and Peeta, who if I falter are there to help me back up and keep me safe. Prim and Rory have embraced the freedom that being out in the wild offers, and for the first time since my father died, I actually have my mother back. I don’t need to do everything by myself. I can rely on others, on my family. On my boys. I don’t need to do this alone. This baby will be safe. I will be safe. My mother’s been a midwife at enough births, including difficult ones, that I’m not afraid. With Prim to help her, I should make it through. I know if something were to happen to me, my child wouldn’t be left alone. My child would be provided for. My child would be safe.

 

I look at Gale and Peeta. Our child.

 

A light flips within my head and I know I’ve come to a decision. I’ll tell them tonight, under our tree, as we watch the sun set.

 

The rest of the meal is agony. I’m trying not to give away too much of what I’m feeling, but I can tell Gale and Peeta know something is up. I try to hide it by giving Peeta his present, which he is very excited about. It seems like many of us had the idea to repeat the same gifts we’ve given in the past. My mother gives Peeta a pillow. Gale, the pendant and a flower crown. Rory gives him something that he found in one of the abandoned houses, this time a glass picture frame with the words “my family” printed on it. And Prim gives him something she made, in Peeta’s case a leather jacket made out of the lambskin that we brought back all those months ago.

 

Peeta looks at our group, his eyes glistening. “This is the best birthday ever.”

 

“It’s not over yet,” I say.

 

He smiles at me, leering a little. “Really? Got something planned for later tonight?”

 

“Maybe. You’ll just have to meet me under the maple later.”

 

He nods his head, smiling.

 

With the food eaten and me finishing off half the apple pie, we walk up to our spot at the top of the hill under our maple tree. The maple’s leaves are starting to turn colors, a mixture of red, orange, green, and yellow. It’s a beautiful sight, but not quite as beautiful as Peeta’s and Gale’s faces when I tell them I’ve decided to keep the baby.

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

I am getting sick and tired of this blasted cold. If I never see another snowbank it will be too soon. I don’t know what’s possessed me to leave the comforts of civilization in the middle of winter. Why did I think this was a good idea?

 

Oh yes. Freedom. The freedom to be who I want to be how I want to be when I want to be. That’s why we left. We were inspired by the stories coming out of District Twelve about a boy who fled to freedom and we ran with it. Literally.

 

I lift my mug to my lips and blow on it slightly, letting the warmth seep into my hands. Winter was the best time to leave, the only time. I glance at what’s left of my traveling group and smile at Messalla, Castor, and Pollux. We couldn’t leave from District Twelve as much as we wanted to. There were too many obstacles and too many Peacekeepers to make our escape possible. So we settled on the next best place: District Eight, home of this year’s Hunger Games Victor.

 

We were lucky to be assigned to cover her Victory Tour and I’m grateful to the Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee for making it possible.

 

I’m also grateful to Messalla for filching one of the few detailed maps of Panem before we left. The government keeps all maps on a need-to-know basis and maps detailing where the districts are, and more importantly, where the former District Thirteen is, are rarer still. I didn’t ask him where he got it from. I don’t want to know. In case we’re caught, it’s safer that way.

 

I look over at the rest of our group with a critical eye. I don’t think Steenie is going to make it. After the loss of her daughter, Bonnie, and her husband, Roddy, she just hasn’t been the same. The two fell through the ice over a frozen river a few days ago and were swept away before anyone could do anything. I wish Twill and her husband Corduroy were here to comfort her. They’d been such good travel companions and I’d even started to like them quite a bit, but losing them to a series of Capitol traps around District Twelve was a hard blow.

 

I smile at two of the three former Peacekeepers in our group. Thorn and her lover Nicola are quite adorable together. Back in the districts, their relationship would have been taboo, not only because they’re actively serving Peacekeepers, but because homosexual relationships are forbidden out in the districts. The Capitol, in its typical hypocritical way, doesn’t force conformity in its citizens’ sex lives like they do out in the districts.

 

Or should I say most of its citizens. There’s still one group in the Capitol who have even fewer rights: the avoxes. It is forbidden for avoxes to have relationships with non-avoxes. In fact, all avoxes are forbidden to have relationships or even family ties with anyone, so seeing Castor and his red-haired love Lavinia together is most heartening. We were lucky she was stationed aboard the Victory Train. She’s been quite invaluable along this trip, having previously escaped the Capitol once before.

 

Only our third former Peacekeeper, Nicola and Thorn’s former commanding officer Valant, seems as discontent as I. Unlike the rest of our group, he hadn’t intended to run away. Instead, he’d been given no other choice. He stumbled upon our escape and while we planned to leave him behind, he begged us to take him with us, knowing that he’d be blamed for our deception.

 

Gulping my now tepid tea down, I set my cup down to glance at Messalla’s map, trying to pinpoint our location. If I’m right, we need to pick up our pace. We have to get to the crossing point between those large lakes while the rivers are still frozen. It’s just hard, with Steenie so out of it and our dwindling supplies, to keep up a steady pace. Even our Peacekeepers’ weapons are out of ammunition, so we can’t shoot something and eat it.

 

We’re going to need a miracle to make it.

 

“Who in the hell are you? Identify yourselves.”

 

That is not a miracle.

 

I whirl and see a tall black-haired heavily-bearded man with a younger version standing next to him. Both of them are dressed in leather clothing and both of them are pointing arrows at our group.

 

Oh fuck.

 

Out of the corner of my eye I see Pollux motioning frantically at Castor, but I’m unable to make out what they’re saying.

 

None of us dare speak. Who are these people? What are they doing out here? Are they going to kill us?

 

“I said, who in the hell are you?” the bearded man demands again. “What in the fuck are you Peacekeepers doing out here?”

 

“I’m not a Peacekeeper,” I blurt out the first thing that comes to mind.

 

The man’s eyes narrow. “Then why are you dressed like one?”

 

“It’s warm, and we were escaping from Eight. It was the best option we had.”

 

“You’re from Eight?” he asks in a suspicious tone. “You don’t sound like you’re from Eight.”

 

“Well, no,” I admit. “I’m from the Capitol originally. Um, she’s from Eight.” I point at Steenie, who is still staring blankly at our fire.

 

The man’s eyes flick to Steenie and then back to me. “She doesn’t look in very good shape.”

 

“No, she’s not. But that’s not our fault!” I explain quickly before the man can blame Steenie’s condition on the rest of us. “She lost her daughter and husband recently when they fell into a river, and her other friends were taken out by a mutt trap at one of the rivers we crossed.”

 

“Mutts? What kind of mutts? A bear? Tracker jackers?” the miniature version of the man pipes up. I can see now that he’s barely Reaping age. Not that his age matters; like many of the tributes in the Hunger Games, he still is lethal.

 

“Actually, no,” I answer the boy’s question, keeping my eyes locked on their weapons. “It was some kind of giant land bird that had a stinger tail. There was a whole flock of them and Twill got stung and her husband wouldn’t leave her.”

 

“Hm,” the older one grunts. “So you say.”

 

“You can ask any of us!” I spread my arms toward the rest of my group.

 

Beside me I see Lavinia get to her feet. Her eyes are narrowed and she makes a ‘who are you?’ motion towards the man. She points to her eyes and points to him. “I’ve seen you before,” she signals.

 

She’s seen him before? But how? Where? He’s definitely not from the Capitol, his voice gives that away. In fact, if I had to guess I’d say he was from District Twelve.

 

District Twelve!

 

My eyes widen and I look back at the taller man, trying to picture him without his beard. He looks somewhat familiar, but it’s the boy standing next to him that helps me make the connection.

 

“You’re Sw--”

 

“Don’t you dare,” the man growls before I can finish.

 

The boy sniggers.

 

The man glares at him. “You tell anyone my full name and I’ll tell Prim yours.”

 

The boy shakes his head. “Fine, fine. They won’t hear it from me.” He pauses before adding, “Asshole.”

 

“Um, you’re… that boy… Hawthorne, from District Twelve. The one who was Reaped first this year.” I’m unsure what to call him since I can’t say his first name.

 

The older Hawthorne freezes, then lets out a loud breath. “It looks like we were right to run.”

 

Lavinia still keeps signing and Castor translates for her. “I recognize you, I recognize you. You were there, that day in the woods.”

 

The man takes a closer look and nods his head. “I recognize you too.” He sighs. “Sorry about that. Katniss and me, we couldn’t risk getting caught. We weren’t supposed to be out there.”

 

She shakes her head and signs, “It’s okay, you would’ve just gotten caught too. I’m glad you weren’t.”

 

“Why isn’t she saying anything?” the boy pipes up. “Why is she moving her hands like that?”

 

“She’s an avox. They can’t talk,” I reply.

 

He tilts his head like a confused puppy. “What’s an avox?”

 

Pollux stands up, moving closer to the young boy, and opens his mouth, showing his lack of tongue.

 

Castor comes up to stand next to Lavinia. He puts his arm around her. “It’s torture. The Capitol cuts out the tongues and removes other things,” he says, glancing at Pollux, “from those people who they say have done something wrong, turning them into slaves. It’s monstrous and they’ve done it to two people I love.”

 

“That’s horrible!” the boy says. “Gale, we gotta help them!”

 

“Yes please, Mr. Hawthorne. You’re an inspiration to all of us.” He frowns so I change my tack. “I mean, any help you could give us would be most appreciated.” I turn on my charm. I’m not too proud to beg for help. Steenie is in a bad way and all of us are hungry. And despite looking very unkempt, both males appear to be in good health.

 

“Give us your weapons,” Gale Hawthorne demands.

 

Castor, Messalla, Pollux, Lavinia, and myself all quickly hand over our knives. We don’t bother with Steenie, since she doesn’t have anything. We took her knife away from her after her family died so she couldn’t kill herself in her grief. The three former Peacekeepers exchange a glance. Yes, their guns are empty, but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to let go of the comfort of a weapon.

 

Unsurprisingly, Nicola is the first to surrender her gun and knife, followed by Thorn. It takes the rest of us glaring at Valant to make him surrender his to the boy.

 

“Rory, you run ahead with those,” the man orders. “Tell everyone what we’ve found and what we’re bringing back to the cave.

 

The boy, Rory, nods his head and dashes off.

 

Gale turns back to us. “Come on, pack up your shit.” He narrows his eyes. “And you better be on your best behavior.”

 

“Or what, you’ll kill us?” I snark back before I can stop myself.

 

“Not me.” He smirks. “I’m the least of your worries.”

 

oOo

 

The man, Gale Hawthorne, leads us out of the clearing through the woods a couple miles to a cave. I watch him move aside a well-camouflaged makeshift door and motion for us to enter. We have to shuffle in single-file, which I’m guessing is deliberate, because as soon as I enter the space, I see a small, visibly pregnant, young woman pointing a bow and arrow at me. Beside her is a young bearded blond man holding a spear like he knows how to use it.

 

There are three other people in the cave. One is the boy, Rory, who brought back our weapons, which I don’t see anywhere, although I suspect they might be in one of the side rooms to this main chamber. There’s a young girl about the same age as Rory with blond hair braided into two plaits, and an older woman, probably the two blonds’ mother, who is the only one who isn’t holding some kind of weapon in her hands.

 

Instead, she smiles at us and says, “So Rory mentioned that you all escaped from Eight recently. Welcome. I’m sure that we’d be happy to help other refugees.”

 

The pregnant girl grunts, refusing to remove her eyes or her arrow from our group.

 

I can see what Gale Hawthorne meant when he said that he was the least of our worries. This girl is positively frightening despite her diminutive size and pregnant status.

 

The man himself comes in behind all of us and slides the makeshift door shut, sealing us in. It feels ominously like the closing of a jail cell. We have no place to run and no place to hide.

 

“Why’d you bring them back here, Gale?” the pregnant woman asks, her voice hard. “They’re Peacekeepers.”

 

The blond man shakes his head. “Actually, Katniss, I don’t think they all are. Those two definitely are,” he says, pointing at Thorn and Valant, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple others are, but I don’t think the whole group is.”

 

“We’re not,” I say. I’m getting weary of having to explain myself. “We’re escapees. We’re going to Thirteen.”

 

“Thirteen doesn’t exist,” the woman, Katniss, growls. “It was destroyed, remember? The Capitol did that. There is no Thirteen.”

 

I shake my head. “Thirteen was bombed, yes. But it survived, went into hiding. It’s got nukes, it’s been underground, in a standoff with the Capitol for over seventy five years.”

 

“You mean they’ve been just sitting there waiting, watching the rest of the districts suffer, letting the Games happen?” She doesn’t sound impressed or pleased that Thirteen’s managed to throw off the Capitol’s noose.

 

“They didn’t have a choice! The Capitol outnumbers them. The only thing keeping them alive is the threat of reprisal if the Capitol were to attack.”

 

The girl, Katniss, snorts.

 

This conversation isn’t going anywhere and it’d be foolish to continue. I need to find a new topic, a safer one. “I should probably introduce myself,” I say, realizing that I’ve been horribly rude. “My name’s Cressida Powers and these are my compatriots, Pollux and Castor Allison and Castor’s girlfriend, Lavinia Schrader.” I notice that both Katniss and Lavinia seem to recognize each other. I’m guessing she’s who Gale was referring to being with him when Lavinia was captured a couple of years ago. “This is Messalla Locke and Steenie Lowell.” I motion to the three Peacekeepers. “And these are Thorn Montague, Nicola Capulet, and Valant Khan.” I attempt to curtsey in my Peacekeeper uniform. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

 

“Likewise,” the older woman says, nodding her head. “I’m Violet Everdeen and these are my daughters, Katniss and Prim. You’ve already met one of my daughter’s husbands, Gale Hawthorne, and his brother Rory. And this is my daughter’s other husband, Peeta Mellark.”

 

My eyes widen at the group’s names. I’ve heard of all of them. They’re all famous in the rebellion circles. “Oh my goodness! You’re the Mockingjays! You’re the Mockingjays Flying Free!”

 

“...What?”

 

oOo

 

A few minutes later, after we’ve been stripped of our outerwear and given clean dry clothing, we’re seated around the main fire with steaming bowls of some kind of fish and bean stew in our hands. It’s the best food I can remember having. Even Steenie has roused herself enough to eat.

 

Each of us also has cups of soothing herbal tea beside us. A few feet away, Violet Everdeen is examining one of Nicola’s deeper cuts.

 

The weapons have been put away, although I still sense that we’re not entirely welcome here, specifically by the pregnant woman Katniss.

 

“So what was this about mockingjays?” she demands.

 

I motion to the golden pin on her shirt. “After Sw--”

 

“It’s Gale,” the man himself interrupts me.

 

I nod my head in acquiescence. “Gale. After Gale was Reaped, they searched Twelve for him. There’d been a series of vandalism seen all throughout Twelve prior, too, but when they searched your house, Miss Everdeen, they found your stencils and other contraband supplies.” I pause, a bit dramatically, I admit. “And can I say that your symbols were an inspiration to us all?”

 

She looks at me blankly. “What symbols?”

 

“Why the mockingjay symbol, of course! Why it lit a fire within me, if you don’t mind me being poetic, and the only reason why we’re here is because of you.” I open my hands to encompass the whole group. “Because of all of you! Peeta Mellark was the first, you know. The first Mockingjay to fly free. And then, at the Reaping, the discovery that Gale had taken his family and escaped before being called, why it was so inspiring! And to top it off, all the bravery it took to paint those mockingjays all over Twelve, it’s just an inspiration to all of us rebels!”

 

“What?”

 

Peeta breaks down into peal upon peal of laughter. “Well that’s one way to tell it. I like her version better. The truth’s just so much more boring.”

 

I feel my forehead wrinkle in confusion. “You mean that isn’t what happened?”

 

“No, of course not!” Katniss exclaims. “What idiot paints rebellion symbols when they’re about to run away? The last thing we wanted was anybody to notice we were missing!” She takes a breath, calming herself down. She strokes absently at her rounded belly as she thinks back. “We all left at the same time. We didn’t plan on taking Peeta with us, it just kind of… happened.”

 

Peeta wraps an arm around her. “It’s okay. It all worked out.”

 

Gale slips his arm around the other side of his wife. “Yeah. Everything’s good now.” He places his hand on her stomach. “We’re good.”

 

“Oh, that’s just so beautiful. You’re all together! It’s like a movie!”

 

I hear Gale mutter something under his breath but I’m not able to catch what. Peeta’s mouth flickers upward in a grin while Katniss sighs. “I don’t want to be in a movie. I just want to live my life.”

 

“Of course you do! We all want to live our lives. I mean, Castor and Lavinia here wouldn’t be able to be together if they were back in the Capitol. Neither would Thorn and Nicola. And even I have a reason to seek freedom. Just because I’m not born to one of the elite means I’ve reached the top of where I can go. I can be an assistant but I can never be a director, and it’s my dream to direct.” Back in the Capitol only the moneyed elite are allowed to reach that status and the only way to break through the glass ceiling is to buy your way into a marriage of convenience. There’s a whole underground market of the younger sons and daughters of the elite marrying people for money and then quietly divorcing a few years later. I’d started saving up for that, but I hadn’t actually started the search for a status spouse.

 

“What made you set off in winter?” Mrs. Everdeen asks, breaking into my reverie.

 

“It’s impossible to get to Thirteen otherwise,” Messalla answers. “No matter how you go, you have to cross some major rivers to get there or you have to go around some huge bodies of water through some pretty inhospitable wilderness if you’re coming in from the west. We don’t have boats and we can’t swim that far, so the safest time to cross is when the rivers and lakes are covered in ice.”

 

“You’re lucky that the winter’s been pretty cold. It should stay frozen for another month,” she tells him. “But you’re going to want to cross soon, the rivers will probably start to break up in March.”

 

“Oh you’re right!” I say. “It’s just been such slow going and it’s so very hard to keep up the energy to travel very quickly when we don’t have much in the way of food. We didn’t plan on it taking quite so long.”

 

The three teens share a glance before looking over at the girl’s mother. “We can probably restock your provisions, if you want,” the blond man says slowly.

 

I beam at them. “Oh! That would be so lovely!” I pause as a thought strikes me. “Oh, I have an even better idea!”

 

“What?” he asks.

 

“Why don’t you come with us?”

 

He blinks. “Um, what?”

 

“Oh, it’s be perfect!” I exclaim, warming to the idea. “You guys are the symbol of the rebellion! The Mockingjays! Why, you must come with us!”

 

“Hell no.” Gale’s voice is flat.

 

I blink at his tone. “But you must! You’re the symbols of the rebellion!”

 

Katniss shakes her head. “No way.”

 

“But we need you! District Twelve needs you!”

 

“We left for a reason,” she says, her voice hard. “And we were proven right. Gale was Reaped. He would’ve died if we’d stayed in Twelve. That just proves we made the right choice.”

 

“Oh, I’m not saying you didn’t!” I try to soothe her. “But you could come with us now!”

 

Peeta shakes his head. “No. Not with Katniss pregnant, and not with a new baby. You’re welcome to stay here and recuperate here for a long as you need, and we’d like to know if you make it to District Thirteen, but right now we have to decline.” He places his hand on Katniss’s belly. “For our child’s sake.”

 

“I suppose I understand that’s true for you three, but what about the rest of you?” I turn hopefully to the rest of their group.

 

“We stay,” Prim says, speaking up for the first time.

 

“Well, I guess I understand. When we get to Thirteen, we’ll send somebody back for you.”

 

Katniss makes a face. “You don’t need to.”

 

“Oh but we will! I’m sure, once they find out the symbols of the rebellion are living out in the wild, here, free, that they’ll want and need you!”

 

“I hope you’re wrong.”

 

“Oh but I won’t be. Freedom is catching, you know. And you three are the sparks.”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

“Haymitch Abernathy you get yourself out of bed right this instant!”

 

I lash out with the ever-present knife in my hand at the annoying voice. I was having a dream, a good one too. In it I’d died during my Games and Maysilee’d gone on to win and go back home to her girl. Then I’d be dead, and I wouldn’t have to deal with annoying Capitol escorts and dead lovers haunting my waking moments and my nightmares.

 

“Oh for goodness’ sakes, Haymitch, you need to watch yourself with that knife! One day you’re going to hurt someone and I won’t be here to save you!”

 

“If I knew that would keep you away from me sooner, might do it.” I open my eyes to glare at Effie.

 

She waves one lace gloved hand dismissively. “Now you don’t mean that.”

 

“Yes I do,” I grumble, straightening up in my chair. I hear a few of my vertebrae crack in protest. They can shut up too. “Now look, I’m up. Can’t you go make someone else’s life a livin’ hell for a few hours?” I want a drink and maybe something light to eat. But definitely a drink or six.

 

Effie, the blasted woman, shakes her head. “Not until I’m sure that you won’t show up at the Reaping wearing that.”

 

I look down at my vomit-stained and wrinkled shirt and vest. “What’s wrong with it?”

 

“Do you want a list?”

 

“Not really.”

 

“Look,” she says with a long suffering sigh. “I’ve brought you some new clothes, fresh from the Capitol. I expect you to wear them and I expect you to be sober when you do.”

 

“That’s askin’ a bit much,” I tell her. I make it a point never to be sober on Reaping Day. Too many dead kids staring accusingly at me, I don’t want to remember the faces of the live ones and their families too.

 

She smacks a newspaper against my chest. “Just do it. I don’t have time for your childish antics. It’s a big big big day and you wouldn’t want to miss any of it.”

 

“Says you,” I say, stretching slightly and getting a wave of my own funk. I need a bath. And a drink. Definitely a drink. “What’s today but another dead tribute walking?” I look under my chair and spot an unopened bottle of Ripper’s best.

 

“Maybe this year will be different.” Her voice is wistful. “Maybe this year our tributes will actually have a chance.”

 

“You keep hopin’ that, princess.” I pry the cork out with my teeth. “I’ll keep drinking. We’ll see which one gets the job done first.”

 

“You’re so cynical, Haymitch. You’ve got to keep up a positive attitude. For the sake of the children if nothing else.”

 

I take a swig of moonshine, feeling it burn a welcome path to my stomach. “Princess, I ain’t had a positive attitude in over twenty years.”

 

She’s had enough. “Just get dressed.” She leaves my house. Finally.

 

But she’s got a point. I should get dressed. The kids deserve better than an old drunk like me. I should at least attempt to look the part of a competent mentor, even if I’m not. No other mentor’s gone twenty plus years without a tribute in the top eight. Closest I’ve ever gotten was tenth, and I think that was more the girl’s sheer willpower than anything else.

 

I rub the bottle between my hands, watching the clear liquid slosh about. Maybe this year’ll be different. Like Effie said, maybe this year I’ll get a fire, or maybe even two. It’s unlikely, with how everybody’s so beaten down from starvation and the flu. But it could happen.

 

Yeah right.

 

oOo

 

Two o’clock comes and I’m dressed and on the stage, waiting for Effie Trinket to make her grand debut. Most people don’t know it, but escorts aren’t allowed to take the stage until their district’s ready to get shown on television. She’s runnin’ late. Something must’ve happened. Something big. The Capitol’s big on punctuality. It’s one of the first things you learn as a new Victor: don’t be late. Not to anything. Bad things will happen if you are.

 

The kids are shiftin’ around nervously. They all want to go home to their friends and families. Most of them will. But two unlucky sons of bitches won’t. They’ll be on the train and soon after, they’ll be dead. That’s the way of life here in Twelve. You’re born, you get Reaped, and you die. Some of us just take longer.

 

Damn, I want another drink.

 

Ya think anybody will notice if I head down to the Hob for a bottle or two?

 

I don’t get a chance to test that out ‘cause Effie finally makes her grand entrance, mincing up on stage. I can tell she’s out of sorts. Her wig’s askew and there are two bright specks of color underneath that stupid pancake makeup shit she insists on wearing. I wonder what’s up.

 

I tune out the next couple bits. The Mayor says the same things every year, stumbling over the same parts. Ya’d think the man would’ve learned his lines by now. It’s only been fifteen years.

 

Effie doesn’t even bother with her usual brainless speech that I know she spends hours preparing and that I know she forgets the moment she gets up there, falling back on her Capitol training to make it through, which of course means that she always says the wrong thing. It’s one thing I like about her, if a district person can actually like a Capitol one. I suppose I could do worse. She actually cares about the kids, unlike the two pieces of shit who came before her.

 

“Ladies first,” I hear her say.

 

Time to find out who the first patsy’s gonna be.

 

“Delly Cartwright.”

 

I blink. I heard that the Cartwrights lost two of their kids to the flu. They have another daughter? That’s just cruel.

 

“Delly Cartwright? Are you here, dear?”

 

“She’s dead!” I hear a boy call out from near the front of the group.

 

“Oh. Oh dear.” Effie seems stunned. I told her that the flu was bad here when she called to offer her condolences about Johanna’s death. I wonder what fool thing she’ll say next. “She can’t be a tribute then, now can she?” Good ol’ Effie! “Um, it’s a good thing that the Capitol has thought that such a situation might occur and has given me instructions on what to do!”

 

So that’s what she was doin’ in there. Other districts musta had other dead kids get called, Capitol musta come up with a contingency plan, cause I know they sure as hell didn’t have one back when I was twelve, and we damned near spent all day in the damned sun, waitin’ for that damned escort to figure out what to do and who to call when Judd Fry got called when he’d died the morning of the Reaping after falling on that trick knife he liked to play with.

 

“Since Delly Cartwright is unable to perform her civic duty due to being mortality challenged,” Effie stumbles slightly over the rehearsed lines, clearly discomfited by the girl bein’ dead, “it is my responsibility to call another brave young woman to take her place.” She minces forward and pulls another name from the Reaping Ball. “Nancy Malone.”

 

“Noooooo!” I hear a woman cry out from the crowd of adults. That is never a good sign.

 

My suspicions are confirmed when the kids in the twelve year old section part around a frozen girl who hasn’t even got enough of a sense to stop crying. I can see Effie’s shoulders droop. She knows what this means. That girl’s dead. There ain’t no hope for her, ain’t nobody gonna sponsor a twelve year old who’s as much of a mess as this one.

 

“Any volunteers for darling Nancy here?” Effie asks hopefully, an arm around the girl. She wants someone to volunteer, but no one does. No one ever volunteers in Twelve.

 

“Well, I bet you’re desperate to learn who your district partner will be.”

 

“Not really?” the little girl says, not understanding that the question wasn’t really meant to be answered.

 

“Well, unfortunately we cannot dally any longer.” Effie pats the girl awkwardly on the back before clacking up to the bowl holding the boys’ names. “Now for the gentlemen.” Effie pulls a name. “Sweetgale Hawthorne.”

 

I snigger. I can’t help it. What horrible parents named their son Sweetgale? That’s a name guaranteed to get the stuffing kicked out of you in the schoolyard.

 

I look around for a kid that’s flinchin’, but nobody is. Matter of fact, everybody seems to be confused.

 

“Sweetgale Hawthorne, are you here?”

 

Still no answer.

 

“Do you mean Gale Hawthorne?” a girl’s voice calls out from the sixteen year old section.

 

“Um, I suppose? Gale Hawthorne, please come up to the stage. Everybody’s waiting.”

 

No one moves.

 

“Um, oh dear, is it possible he’s dead?” Effie turns to Mayor Undersee and looks at him expectantly.

 

The man shakes his head. “He’s not in our records.”

 

“Has anybody seen Sweetgale?”

 

I see a sea of people shaking their heads and a couple of Peacekeepers detach themselves from guarding the kids. They must be headin’ towards the Hawthornes’ house to check. I hope for his sake he ain’t there.

 

We wait around, the hot sun beating down on us. I desperately want that drink and I’m starting to get angry at whoever this Sweetgale Hawthorne is. He’s preventing me from having my drinking time right now on the train. I could be drinking good Capitol liquor right now and he’s keeping me from it. Where the fuck is he?

 

A Peacekeeper returns and whispers something in the Mayor’s ear. The man goes white. That’s not good news.

 

I get up outta my chair and wander over. No one pays attention to a drunk. I listen in.

 

“--house is empty. No one’s been living in there for months.”

 

“It’s possible he’s dead, we did have several bodies we were unable to identify.”

 

“I don’t think that’s the case, sir. We found symbols of rebellion painted in his house.”

 

If possible, the Mayor’s face gets whiter. “Oh my. I’m sure that’s not what it is.”

 

“What else do you call a bright red three foot wide mockingjay?” the Peacekeeper jeers.

 

Now this I gotta see.

 

“I think we need to perform a house-to-house search, sir,” another Peacekeeper interjects. “It’s possible he might be hiding with someone.”

 

“Yes, of course. I understand,” the Mayor nods his head. “What should we do about the children?” It’s clear the man wants to get them out of the heat before they start to faint. A few kids did when I was twelve and the girl, Eller Cummings, swooned because of heatstroke while waiting up onstage.

 

The lead Peacekeeper shakes his head. “They need to stay here until we’ve confirmed that this Sweetgale Hawthorne is no longer in this district or is deceased.”

 

“Ya need help?” I ask. “Anything’s better than sittin’ around here. Doin’ my duty to the Capitol and all.”

 

The man looks over at me gratefully. “Yeah, we could use the help. You know any trustworthy people?” I’m a little surprised to be taken up on my offer. I’d known that the Peacekeeper corps was stretched a bit thin ‘cause of the flu but I didn’t think it’d hit them this hard.

 

“I can think of several, just none of them are in Twelve.” Most of ‘em ain’t even alive but I don’t say that.

 

“Fine. Do you know of anybody who doesn’t have any kids or any stake in this Reaping?”

 

I think about it. “Well, probably Ripper. She’s a well-respected businesswoman in these parts. I don’t think she’s got children to speak of. Um… you could probably ask the Cartwrights. They’re about the nicest folk you can find around here, and both their eligible kids died in this damn flu. I suppose you could ask for volunteers. I ain’t got nothin’.”

 

They assemble a group and head off to start checking the houses. Lots of them are empty, abandoned. Most of those have bright red mockingjays painted in them. After a time, I start looking for the damned red bird any time I enter one of the houses. That tells me, more than anything else, if the house is lived in or not.

 

There’s a depressing number of houses with mockingjays in ‘em.

 

We get to another abandoned house in the Seam. This one’s got a mockingjay in it that’s different from the rest. It’s about three, four feet wide, and painted, not stenciled, on the wall. As soon as we walk in the door, I know this house is special.

 

“Who lived here?” I ask.

 

The Peacekeeper with me consults a clipboard. “I have this as the residence of Violet Everdeen, Katniss Everdeen, and Primrose Everdeen.”

 

Right. The kid who bought Johanna’s axe off of me. I narrow my eyes. I knew that girl’s story was a lie. I’m beginnin’ to find out just how much of a yarn she spun me.

 

I look at the house again, noting that there’s nothing of personal value in it. I’m guessing they’ve run.

 

Across the room I hear a low whistle come from the Peacekeeper who’s accompanying me. “What’d you find?” I ask.

 

The man holds up a partially red painted stencil and a paintbrush. “I think we’ve found who’s been painting all the houses.”

 

What kind of idiot would hide the tools of their trade in their own house? That Everdeen girl might have been a crap liar but she didn’t strike me as too stupid to live. Probably our mystery artist discovered the empty house and used it as a convenient stash for their contraband. But I’m not about to tell the Peacekeeper that. “Looks like,” I say, lying through my teeth. Time for a little bit of truth to make the lie easier to swallow. “Also looks like the girl’s done skedaddled. If this place has been lived in in the last few weeks, I’m President Snow.”

 

“But you’re not-- ohhhhh. I need to report this to my superior.”

 

“You go do that,” I tell the moron. “I’ll just mosey on back to the square in a spell.”

 

I debate heading over to the Hob to get some white liquor, but I know that Ripper isn’t gonna be there. I shoulda never suggested her, damn near shot myself in the foot with that one.

 

Instead I hightail it over to the Hawthorne house. Of course I know his ma even if I’ve never met any of her kids, we were of an age. I liked Hazelle, she was a feisty one. Still don’t know what she and that husband of hers were thinkin’, namin’ their kid Sweetgale. Best I can come up with is they were drunk at the time. Sounds like as good of an excuse as any to me.

 

I can tell right away that this house ain’t been lived in for weeks, same as the Everdeen place. I think back. Don’t that Everdeen girl have some kind of hunting partner? Tall boy, Seam. Think his name was… Wind? Storm? Squall? Something. I suppose it could be Gale. Sounds about right. I’m guessin’ they took a good look at those odds and skedaddled. Good for them. Wish more people had that much sense, including me.

 

oOo

 

Eventually the rest of the town comes to the same conclusion I did. Gale Hawthorne is in the wind and there ain’t no point in searchin’ for him further. They even searched the Victors’ Village, with neither hide nor hair of him turning up.

 

By the time we finish, they’ve had to bring out floodlights to light the square so we can finish the Reaping. It’s a fuckin’ mess.

 

Someone, probably Effie, has taken pity on poor Nancy and has her seated in a chair with a glass of water. The rest of the kids look about ready to drop. Time to put them out of their misery.

 

Effie eschews her usual affected gait and walks up to the girls’ fishbowl, drawing out the name, “Katniss Everdeen.”

 

“That’s a girl,” a girl yells.

 

Nancy perks up hopefully.

 

“Oh, um, sorry.” She’s probably bright red under that clown makeup. “It’s been a bit of a day.” She hurries over to the boys’ bowl and draws a name. “Buster Ellison.”

 

A thirteen year old trudges up on stage. He doesn’t even have enough energy to cry. Might actually help his case. Still, he’s thirteen, and no thirteen year old has ever won the Games.

 

Effie takes pity on poor Buster and doesn’t even bother with her usual song and dance routine. She calls it a day and ushers the kids in to say goodbye to their families.

 

It’s for the best. It’s been a crazy kind of day.

 

I need a drink.

 

oOo

Chapter Text

 

oOo

 

Last Time in Brand New Breeze:

 

With the food eaten and me finishing off half the apple pie, we walk up to our spot at the top of the hill under our maple tree. The maple’s leaves are starting to turn colors, a mixture of red, orange, green, and yellow. It’s a beautiful sight, but not quite as beautiful as Peeta’s and Gale’s faces when I tell them I’ve decided to keep the baby.

 

oOo

 

The sound of an approaching hovercraft jerks me awake. My heart races. The Capitol! They’ve found me! They’ve found us!

 

I reach in the darkness over my wife’s pregnant belly to shake my husband awake. Inside, I’m cursing myself for suggesting a couple months ago that we stop the nightly watches. We haven’t needed them, and with the door and winter, the chances of anybody finding us were slim.

 

But now somebody has.

 

Gale jerks awake, freezing when he hears the sound. A moment later, I hear Katniss suck in a breath. She’s heard it too.

 

“The Capitol?” she whispers.

 

I nod unconsciously and then realize, belatedly, that she can’t see me in the dark and gloom of the cave. “Yes.”

 

“I’ll get the weapons,” Gale says, rolling out of bed. “You two wake the rest up.”

 

We meet in the main room, with Katniss trailing in a couple minutes later. “Sorry. Had to pee. The baby decided that impending Capitol doom wasn’t a good enough reason to stop dancing on my bladder.”

 

“It’s okay,” Gale says, handing her a bow.

 

“Maybe this is just a false alarm. Maybe it’s just someone, you know, flying over,” Prim suggests.

 

“I hope,” I mutter. This wasn’t how I planned my life would go. Being abducted at knifepoint to make a journey beyond the fence to the middle of nowhere wasn’t high on my list of happy endings. But now I don’t want this life to end, not for the world. I’ve got pretty much everything I ever wanted and a little extra besides. And I’m about to become a father. Life couldn’t get any better.

 

And now some idiot from the Capitol in a hovercraft has to shatter that illusion!

 

“What do we do?” Rory asks.

 

“We stay put,” Gale says, his voice brooking no argument. “There’s no guarantee they actually know we’re here and the last thing we want to do is go running outside and confirm it for them. We disguised everything man-made last fall and we’ve been really good about keeping the smoke coming out of the smoke hole steady and the right color. As long as we give them no reason to come looking for us, they should just fly on by and forget about this place.”

 

“I hope you’re right,” I mutter again. “All we can do now is wait.”

 

We sit in the gloom of the banked fire in the main room with our weapons pointed at the door. We’re trapped in here and, assuming it is the Capitol - really, who else could it be? - six people wielding bows and arrows and a few stone-tipped spears aren’t going to be much defense against well-armed Peacekeepers. But it’s the best we’ve got.

 

We hear the whine of the hovercraft slow and become louder.

 

“What’s it doing?” Prim asks in a whisper.

 

“Fuck,” Gale says, staring up at the stone roof of our cave, tracking the hovercraft’s motion with his ears. I’m right there with him. It’s stopping. Landing. If I had to make a guess, probably over near my mother-in-law’s garden.

 

Prim’s eyes are wide. “What do we do now?”

 

“Same thing as before,” I tell her in a whisper. “We wait.”

 

“And stop talking!” Katniss snaps at her sister.

 

And that, more than anything else, tells me just how tense she is. Katniss never snaps at Prim. Katniss is scared and my wife never reacts well when she’s cornered and frightened. I set down my spear and reach out to rub her back. She’s got the most to lose out of all of us, and I wish I could do more to comfort her. But rubbing her back and letting her know I’m here is the best I can do for her right now.

 

We hear the hovercraft set down and the pop of the main hatch opening. “They’re coming out,” Gale whispers. “Get ready.”

 

I pick up my spear again and move to one side of the door. Violet flanks the other side, leaving a clear shot for Katniss, Gale, Prim, and Rory. I curse myself and my inability to master the bow. No matter how much I’ve tried, I just don’t have the coordination and ability necessary to use the weapon effectively. It’s embarrassing. Katniss and Gale tried to reassure me that I’ve gotten better at other things I used to be hopeless at, like walking quietly in the woods or tanning hides, but right now, with my family in danger, I’d trade all of that for the ability to take our enemies out in one shot from a distance.

 

The waiting feels like an eternity even though I’m sure it’s been less than ten minutes from when the hovercraft landed. From my position by the door, I can hear people navigating through the brush. I’m praying that some of the traps we’ve set tangle them up. And one does.

 

There’s the unmistakable clanking of someone walking up the path to our front door. Our pirate alarm, or, should I say, Capitol alarm. I roll my eyes. Well, it worked, and just like in the movie, it’s not a welcome sound.

 

I shift my grip on my spear and get ready to stab at whoever dares come through our door when I hear a woman’s voice call out, “Gale! Gale Hawthorne! Peeta Mellark! Katniss Everdeen! Are you there?”

 

“Who?” I mouth. The woman’s voice sounds familiar, I know I’ve heard it before. But I can’t quite place it.

 

I don’t have to because the woman calls out again a moment later, “It’s Cressida! Cressida Powers! We met a month and a half ago! Remember? When you helped my group?”

 

“It could be a trick, the Capitol could’ve tortured her to give us up,” Katniss hisses, her eyes wary.

 

My wife has a point. It is Cressida. We all recognize her voice now. But that’s not the problem. Even knowing that it’s her, we don’t know if we can trust that it’s safe.

 

As though she’s aware that we’re suspicious, she says, “Um, Lavinia sends her love! And she wanted you to know that she and Castor are talking about getting married. They’ll allow that in Thirteen.”

 

“Sweetgale Hawthorne!” a male voice calls.

 

I snigger. I’m so going to tease him about this later.

 

Gale glares at me.

 

The man continues, unaware of our amusement. “My name is Commander Derrick Boggs of District Thirteen. On the authority of President Alma Coin, I’ve come to speak with you!”

 

“Sweetgale?” I whisper to my husband. “Your name is Sweetgale?”

 

Rory snorts.

 

“Shut up, Rhododendron,” Gale snaps at his brother.

 

I shake my head at the two of them. “What were your parents thinking?”

 

“We’ll talk about it later! When we don’t have visitors!” Prim hisses, looking at her boyfriend.

 

“Please call me Rory?” the thirteen year old begs. “Please.”

 

“Okay. I love you anyways, you big goof.” She kisses him on the cheek.

 

I smile, then turn my attention back towards our unwanted visitors. I wrack my brain, thinking of some way that we can confirm Cressida’s and this Commander Boggs’s assertions. I look at our door, realizing it’s not really any barrier to Capitol forces. Even if they aren’t from Thirteen, they clearly already know we’re here. We’ve got nothing to lose by testing them. “Send Cressida up first!” I call, watching my family’s reactions carefully. “Once we confirm things with her, then, maybe, we’ll talk.”

 

My mother-in-law nods in approval and I see dawning understanding in both of my spouses’ eyes. If they send Cressida up alone, we can verify the veracity of their claims with our own eyes. And if they are from the Capitol we’ll have one more fighter on our side… hopefully.

 

On the other side of the door, I can hear the sound of lowered voices conferring for several long minutes. Finally they seem to reach some consensus and I hear Cressida call out, “Don’t shoot! I’m coming up!”

 

“Shoot?” Commander Boggs asks.

 

She doesn’t answer. Instead, I hear her footfalls crunching up the path. Then, a few seconds later comes a timid knock at our door. I slide it open just enough for her to enter, closing it behind her once she’s stepped through.

 

The blond woman with the half-shaved head and vine tattoos running up her neck and across her skull stands in the doorway with her hands held up. She’s wearing a charcoal gray coverall and a dark jacket made out of some kind of synthetic material. It’s definitely not something I’ve seen anybody in the Capitol wear, it’s nowhere near colorful or flashy enough. Nor is it the same outfit she was wearing when she passed through here almost a month and a half ago. She looks like she’s been well-fed and she doesn’t have any overt marks of torture on her, although I can see a few scars on the back of her hands that appear to be long-healed.

 

“Are you alright?” I ask quietly.

 

She turns to face me. “Can I put my arms down?”

 

“You gonna attack us?” Katniss asks, not lowering her bow.

 

“No, of course not!” Cressida exclaims. “I’d never attack you! Besides, I’m unarmed! They don’t even give weapons to noncombatants in Thirteen!”

 

Katniss finally relaxes, loosening her grip on her bow. “So you made it?”

 

“Well, not all of us,” Cressida hedges, dropping her arms to her side.

 

“Lavinia?” Katniss asks quickly, her eyes showing her concern.

 

The other woman shakes her head emphatically. “No! No, she’s fine. What I said outside was the truth. She and Castor really are talking about getting married.” She sighs. “But Thirteen doesn’t want to do anything to celebrate the wedding, and…” She pauses, taking in our expressions. “Well, you don’t need to hear about it.”

 

I notice immediately that she’s not the same hopeful idealistic woman who passed through six weeks ago. “Tell us what happened,” I say.

 

“I really am only supposed to be in here to convince you to talk to Boggs and Fulvia,” she tells us crisply with only minimal traces of her Capitol accent slipping through.

 

“They can wait,” Gale says without any trace of sympathy. “If they ask, you can tell them that we were just making sure it wasn’t a trick. Wouldn’t even be a lie.” He pauses, taking in her posture. “You want something to drink?”

 

She smiles gratefully at him. “Um, tea would be lovely, thank you.”

 

“You hungry?” I ask, noticing that even though she’s clearly not starving she doesn’t fill out the formless charcoal coverall.

 

“A little.”

 

“Do they feed you in Thirteen?” Katniss asks bluntly.

 

“Nutrition is very closely monitored,” Cressida answers almost by rote. “Waste is actively discouraged with very severe punishments for those who overindulge.”

 

“Sounds like a great place,” Gale says dryly. He gestures to Rory, who disappears into the kitchen.

 

“It’s not as bad as all that,” she says, trying to sound cheerful. “It’s just... different from what I’m used to.”

 

“So you mentioned that not all of you made it?” Violet asks. “I’m assuming Steenie didn’t last long. She had that look about her.”

 

Cressida nods her head. “You’re right. She didn’t even make it to the crossing point, just wandered off in the woods one night. We found her frozen under a tree the next morning. I think she couldn’t bear living without her husband and daughter. I wish that we could have done something, but…” The woman shrugs. I understand her conflict. There isn’t a lot you can do once someone’s lost the will to live. My father’s father didn’t last a year after my grandmother died, he just gave up and pretty much spent his last few months waiting for death to take him while my father begged him to hold on. I was nine.

 

“It wasn’t your fault,” Prim says, coming over to pat the woman gently on the shoulder. “There was nothing you could do.”

 

I smile at my sister-in-law. She’s always so good about trying to help people. She’ll make a great healer someday.

 

Rory comes back from the kitchen with a mug of tea and a little bit of stew from last night. Cressida takes it gratefully and sits down.

 

“Nicola and Valant didn’t make it either,” she tells us, taking a sip of tea. “Valant fell through the ice on the crossing. Nicola tried to save him but got pulled under as well.” She stirs her soup morosely. “Thorn tried to go in after her, but Pollux and Messalla were able to hold her back. I think if Thirteen hadn’t come along soon after, we might have lost Thorn too.” She takes a long drink of the stew. “She’s outside too, but they didn’t think you’d trust her as much as me, and, well, Lavinia, who you would trust the most, can’t talk.”

 

Katniss makes a motion, conceding the point. She and Gale remembered Lavinia from before, and it was her presence in Cressida’s group last time that made them decide to help. It’s one of the things I like about my two Seam spouses. They may seem hard on the outside, but underneath, they really care about people and have a strong sense of duty and owing. Sometimes it’s a bit annoying, but once you understand the method to their madness, it makes sense. I still think it’s a little silly to keep a running tally of debts and favors, but if it makes them happy and keeps the peace, there’s no point in trying to make them change.

 

“How long did it take you to get to Thirteen? Is it really far away?” Prim asks.

 

Cressida nods her head, chewing her food. “Pretty far. We made the crossing in late February and Thirteen picked us up soon after.” She looks up at us. “You were right, it’s a good thing we left when we did. It was starting to get warm when we crossed, and that’s probably why Valant fell through. The ice wasn’t thick enough.”

 

“I see,” Katniss says. “Why’d it take so long for you to come back, let us know you were alright? I thought you said you’d send word.” There’s no recrimination in Katniss’s tone, but her choice of words sound like she’s chastising Cressida.

 

“I wanted to!” Cressida exclaims. “But it wasn’t deemed to be a ‘prudent expenditure of resources and manpower.’” I can almost hear the quotation marks when she says that. It’s clear she’s quoting somebody from Thirteen. Somebody in power, likely this Commander Boggs who’s waiting outside or another superior officer.

 

“So why are you here now?” Gale asks.

 

“Oh.” Her eyes widen and she sets down the bowl, now completely empty, beside her and gets to her feet. “So much has happened! You’re needed, more than ever, what with the Quell… We need you, Gale, to be the Mockingjay. To motivate the country to rise up!”

 

I hold up a hand to stop her. “I think we’d better invite your companions in. If you’re going to give us a recruitment speech, you might as well do it where the people from Thirteen can hear.”

 

oOo

 

“On the seventy-fifth anniversary, as a reminder that people of all ages and stations died in the rebellion: this year’s tributes will be selected from those males and females who have never taken out tesserae, regardless of age or other exemption. From this announcement until Reaping Day no new applications for tesserae will be accepted. In addition, to accentuate this reminder, volunteers will not be allowed.”

 

Commander Boggs turns off the projection of President Snow reading the Quarter Quell announcement. “So that’s it.”

 

“Oh sweet mother,” Violet breathes. “That’s horrible.” I turn to look at Violet. Her eyes are wide and her hand is pressed to her lips, which are parted in an O of horror. “The children, oh sweet mother, the children!”

 

“You are correct, Mrs. Everdeen,” Commander Boggs says, nodding his head. “This year, in an even more despicable move, the Capitol has decided that the most innocent will be made to suffer.”

 

“What do you mean?” Prim asks.

 

My mother-in-law turns to her youngest and says, “It’s not just people who are older than twelve. You heard the recording. Anyone, regardless of age, is eligible for the Games. Children under the age of twelve can’t take out tesserae. They’ve never even had the chance. All of those babies...” she trails off, looking pointedly at my wife’s stomach. “Newborn babies will have their names entered into the Reaping Bowl,” she continues hollowly. “And worse, no one, not a parent, grandparent, sibling, or anybody, will be able to volunteer to take their place.”

 

I wrap my arms around Katniss, resting my hands on top of her belly. Our child is set to be born before Reaping Day. If what Violet says is true, if we were back in Twelve, our baby’s name would be in the Reaping Bowl on June first and if their name was drawn, there’d be nothing any of us could do to save them. I tighten my arms around my wife. I need the comfort of knowing that this isn’t going to happen. That our child is safe. That we’re safe.

 

I feel Gale come up on my left and wrap his arms around the both of us. I know he’s got to be feeling the same thing. Both of us want this child more than anything, and the thought of losing them before we even get a chance to know them is horrifying.

 

I feel Katniss shift in my arms to wrap her arms around the two of us, humming just loud enough for us to hear her but no one else. It’s the Valley Song. Our song. She’s trying to comfort us without words. Katniss might not be good at words, but her actions speak so much louder. I tighten my arms around them both and squeeze my eyes shut, trying to keep the outside world at bay.

 

After she finishes her song, I feel her squirm slightly, attempting to get free. I reluctantly let her go, resting my head against Gale’s shoulder. If I could I would keep her in my arms forever, but that’s not Katniss and I wouldn’t want to cage her like that.

 

She strokes her hand along Gale’s and my beards. I’m looking forward to spring when I can shave again. I’ve missed feeling her skin against my cheek.

 

Katniss gives us each a reassuring smile before turning to the people from Thirteen. “What’s this got to do with us? We left,” she states, stepping into her role as our de facto leader.

 

“That’s just it, that’s just the point!” the third person, who was introduced as Fulvia Cardew, says. “You left! You escaped this tyrannical regime and you, Mr. Hawthorne in particular, are a symbol for all of those people who are struggling and fighting against the evil the Capitol is perpetuating against the districts!”

 

“You wanna try saying that again in language that a poor boy from the Seam can understand?” Gale asks, coming up to stand next to Katniss.

 

“Mr. Hawthorne,” Commander Boggs says, “Panem needs you. The districts need you. They need a figurehead to rally behind. They need a symbol of rebellion. You, Mr. Hawthorne, are that figurehead. You are that symbol. You are the Mockingjay.”

 

“I don’t have to be there to be that symbol,” Gale points out.

 

“Oh but you do!” Fulvia jumps in. “People need to know your story! They need to know that running away and standing up for themselves can have a happy ending. Why, they need to see you and your lovely wife together!”

 

“And Peeta?” Katniss asks, her eyes narrowing.

 

“Oh, he’s important too!” Fulvia brushes her question off with a negligent wave of her hand. “He, too, was able to escape the chains of the Capitol. Obviously he doesn’t have quite the importance that you do, as his escape wasn’t as public of a spectacle, but he’s important too.”

 

“That’s not what she meant,” Gale states flatly.

 

The woman blinks. “Oh. I’m sorry. Please, what did you mean?”

 

“She meant that Peeta’s my husband. Our husband,” he motions to the two of them. “Katniss may be my wife, but Peeta’s a part of my happy ending too.”

 

I struggle to keep my face from showing just how much Gale’s words mean to me. I’ve always been a little afraid that I’m not needed in this relationship, that the only reason Katniss refused to choose between us was out of pity, and that Gale just went along with it to keep the peace. Yes, they’ve told me many times that they care for me and that they love me and that I’m a part of this family, but that doesn’t stop the fears, especially after my mother told me that I was a mistake and everybody else knew it too. I’ve always believed that nobody would ever want me for me, but only because they had no other choice. So hearing Gale’s declaration that I’m a part of his happy ending fills my heart with emotion.

 

Stepping forward to join Katniss and Gale, I reach out and clasp his hand, noticing the way Fulvia’s eyes narrow when she sees it. She is not happy. I hazard a glance toward the other members of the Thirteen delegation. Cressida looks smugly pleased while Thorn’s face is impassive. Commander Boggs, on the other hand, is unable to hide the look of revulsion that crosses his features.

 

“I’m not sure what you’re asking, Mr. Hawthorne,” Commander Boggs says, his voice stiff.

 

“Okay, how about I spell it out for you?” Gale’s voice is hard, unyielding. “It’s not just me and my lovely wife, but my lovely husband as well. We come as a group, we stay as a group, we’re symbols as a group. Is that clear enough for you?” He catches and holds the other man’s eyes, engaging him in an unspoken battle of wills.

 

Boggs looks away first, a frown on his lips. “Crystal.” He straightens, shooting a glare in my direction. “My answer is that I am not authorized to make that decision. My orders were to find you and your group, Hawthorne, and persuade you to come with us to District Thirteen. I am not authorized to speculate on what kind of living arrangements or roles you might play in doing your part to aid in the rebellion. That would be President Coin and her council’s call.”

 

“I see,” Katniss says, pressing her lips together. “I think then that our answer is going to be no.”

 

We haven’t talked about it, but I know Katniss has been dead set against going to Thirteen since Cressida brought it up.

 

Cressida herself speaks up. “Can you at least talk it over? We can go outside and you can give us an answer later, but I’m sure that President Coin would be happy to make any reasonable accommodations for you. You are the Mockingjays. All of you. I’m sure that an arrangement can be reached that will make everybody happy.”

 

Katniss grunts. “Fine. We’ll talk it over.”

 

I show everyone out and slide the door closed behind them, then we all move into the kitchen so if anybody’s listening at the door, we won’t be overheard. And that way I can start making breakfast. I’m a little surprised that Katniss has made it as long without eating as she has without causing serious bodily harm to someone. All of us learned pretty early on in her pregnancy not to stand between Katniss and mealtime, otherwise you’d be likely to lose something important.

 

With that in mind, I hand her the heel of our last loaf of bread and get to work making breakfast. “You guys talk,” I say. “No need to wait until food’s ready.”

 

Violet sits down on the sickbed. “It’s days like this that I wish I had access to coffee.”

 

“We haven’t had coffee since Dad died,” Katniss points out.

 

“I know.” Violet rubs at her forehead. “Doesn’t mean I don’t need it sometimes.”

 

“We still have some of that roasted dandelion root if you want it,” I offer. “It’s not quite the same as coffee, but it’s close.”

 

My mother-in-law smiles at me. “That would be lovely. Thank you, Peeta.”

 

“Any other requests?” I ask before I start cooking.

 

“Cheese buns,” Katniss says under her breath.

 

“Well, if you’d gotten me a goat, you could have them!” Prim counters.

 

“I know, Prim,” Katniss says.

 

“Maybe we can try in the spring,” I soothe. “That’s when they have their babies, right?”

 

My wife shrugs. “Pretty much.”

 

“So we’ll try soon,” I soothe. Then pause. “If we don’t end up going to Thirteen.”

 

“We’re not going to Thirteen,” Katniss says shortly. “You heard Cressida, they didn’t even care about us until the Quell announcement, and then they only want us because we’re ‘useful.’ Heck, they don’t even want us,” Katniss points out. “They want you.” She motions at Gale. “The rest of us are just your baggage.” She fixes him with a hard look. “What do you want to do?”

 

“I kind of feel we should go,” Gale says, glancing at the two of us guiltily.

 

I’m not surprised by Gale’s answer, but apparently our wife is.

 

“But you didn’t want to before,” Katniss points out.

 

“I didn’t think Lavinia and Cressida and their group would make it to Thirteen,” he tells her. “Three of them didn’t. I wasn’t willing to risk you or the baby. But now… you heard them, we could make a real difference, Catnip. We could finally throw over the Capitol, go back home to Twelve if that’s what you want.” He pauses, running his hand through his hair, like he always does when he’s stressed. “It’s the right thing to do. You heard what the Capitol’s doing this year. Kids are gonna get Reaped. It’s just not right! I’ve always wanted to make a difference, Catnip.” He eyes her hopefully. “I guess this way I could.”

 

“You can make a difference without leaving here,” Katniss counters. “I need you. We need you. We need you, Gale, husband, brother, and father-to-be.” She makes a face. “They just want Sweetgale Hawthorne, the Mockingjay.”

 

I can’t stop myself from sniggering. Now I’ve got something to get back at him whenever he calls me man bride. Payback is a bitch. Still, Katniss has a point. They really only want what Gale stands for, not who he is.

 

“I think,” Violet chimes in, “that going to Thirteen might be the right thing to do. Not because of the rebellion, but because they’ve got access to medicines and facilities that we just don’t have out here.” She regards her daughter seriously. “What if something goes wrong in childbirth, Katniss?”

 

Katniss stares back at her, confused. “I’ve got you.”

 

“But I mean really wrong. Really really wrong.” Violet sighs. “It’s happened before in Twelve.”

 

We all nod. Each of us has known someone who’s died in childbirth. Most recently the Mayor’s assistant’s wife died giving birth to their second child. Poor guy was a wreck. I now have a lot more sympathy for what Carrick went through when I think about Katniss going through the same.

 

“I’m fine!” Katniss protests. “Haven’t you all been saying just how easy I’ve had this pregnancy? I feel fine! Yeah, I wish that the kid would stop dancing on my bladder while I sleep, but other than that, I feel the same!”

 

“You’re lucky, Katniss,” Violet tells her. “But do you really want to take that chance?”

 

“Yes,” she says stubbornly.

 

That’s my wife. So distrustful of outsiders. I’m lucky to have gotten in.

 

“I’m with Katniss,” Rory pipes up. “You heard that Boggs guy. Can’t make a decision without having say-so from his commanding officer, sounds awfully restrictive to me. I bet it’s like school.   Every minute of your day planned out to the second. No way to escape, nothing to do except for what they tell you to do. Well fuck that.”

 

“Rory Hawthorne!” my sister-in-law gasps.

 

The boy shrugs unapologetically. “I’m sorry, Prim, but that’s what I think. We’re gonna be miserable there. Besides, if we go to Thirteen, you’ll never get your goat. And who knows? They probably won’t even let you bring your cats.”

 

Prim’s eyes widen as she considers the possibility. “But I can’t leave Dandelion and Buttercup! They need me! They’re about to start a family!”

 

I stifle another snicker, but Prim’s right. The kitten that Katniss and Gale found ended up becoming Buttercup’s girlfriend after all and is now pregnant. Who knows when she’ll have her litter? And if we go to Thirteen, they may not let us bring the cats at all.

 

I sigh. “Both Violet and Rory have good points. I’d like to go to Thirteen just for the medical care, but I’m not sure if it’s worth it,” I add. “I was watching the group. Boggs doesn’t like us and Fulvia’s trying to figure out how she can use us. Only Cressida seemed to be in our corner, and if I had to guess, she doesn’t have very much say in Thirteen’s politics at all. If we were to do this, we’d have to negotiate with this Alma Coin herself. From Boggs’s reactions, she doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who negotiates or accepts unusual circumstances.”

 

Gale thins his lips. “So what you’re saying is that they’re going to try to break us up.”

 

I shrug deprecatingly. “Well, you have to admit, what we have is pretty unconventional. They’ll probably try to keep you and Katniss together and shunt me out of the limelight.”

 

“So do you want to go to Thirteen or not?” my husband asks.

 

“Part of me wants to go,” I answer honestly, “but I’m just not willing to give up what we have here.”

 

“I know what you mean,” Katniss says.

 

“Have any of you realized that what we’ve got here is already over?” Gale points out. “If Thirteen can find us, so can the Capitol.” He crosses his arms over his chest. “And if we say no? The type of place you’re describing doesn’t sound like it takes no for an answer very easily.”

 

“I think we’ll have to take that chance,” Katniss says. “I’m not going. Is anybody else with me?”

 

Rory and Prim raise their hands.

 

“Anybody against me?”

 

Gale raises his hand.

 

Katniss looks at her mom and me. “What about you two?”

 

“I’ll do whatever the group wants,” I reply. “I wish we could have just their medical facilities and not the extra baggage, but I don’t see that happening.”

 

“Same,” my mother-in-law says. “Part of me thinks that we should do what we can to help, but I’m selfish. I know what they’re talking about means war, and war means people are going to die, and I’m just not ready to lose any of you.”

 

“Then I think we’ve got our answer,” Katniss says. “We’re not going.”

 

“Prim, you go tell them,” I say.

 

“Shouldn’t Gale be the one to tell them?” the girl asks.

 

I shake my head. “I don’t want to give them any opportunities to snatch him and run,” I say. “Not that I think they will, but better safe than sorry.”

 

The group nods. We’ve learned that lesson well in the past year.

 

oOo

 

The group from Thirteen decides not to leave right away, just in case we change our minds. I suspect it’s because they’ve got orders not to return without us, and they don’t know what to do now that we’ve said no.

 

Cressida and Thorn are both welcome additions to our group. The former Peacekeeper tells us stories of what it’s like growing up in Two’s Peacekeeper Training Camps. While Cressida explains some of the realities of making television in the Capitol. It’s an enjoyable way to spend an evening.

 

I go into the kitchen to make some more hot water for tea when I hear two sets of footsteps approaching. I look up to see both Katniss and Gale silhouetted in the doorway. My heart jumps. “What’s wrong?” I ask, setting the pot down.

 

“You don’t have to stay now, you know,” Katniss leads, nibbling her lower lip.

 

My heart drops. Is she saying she doesn’t want me?

 

My expression must be giving it away because Gale follows up with, “No! I meant it when I said you were a part of my happy ending. When I asked you both to marry me, I meant it and I meant it for life. Just, Katniss and I know we didn’t give you a whole lot of choice in the beginning there. You should have that choice now.”

 

Katniss looks up at me, her heart in her grey eyes. “I don’t want you to leave, Peeta. Not now, not ever. I need you. I want you. I love you. I just hate having that whole kidnapping thing hanging over us. It’s never going to go away. You might have forgiven us, but I’m not sure we can forgive ourselves.”

 

It’s the most I’ve heard her say in a long time. She doesn’t do talking, but I can tell she’s trying for my sake.

 

I open my arms. “Come here,” I say to both of them.

 

They come over quickly and I hold them tight. “You’re both mine, and I’m yours,” I say thickly. “‘Til the end of time, if you’ll have me.”

 

“Of course we’ll have you, Peeta,” Gale murmurs against my ear. “This wouldn’t work without you. You’re my man bride.”

 

“And you’re my Sweetgale Hawthorne,” I grin up at him, giving him a quick peck on the lips.

 

My husband rolls his eyes and sighs. “I’m never gonna live that down, am I?”

 

“Nope.”

 

oOo

 

The following morning, the team from Thirteen makes one final attempt to persuade us.

 

“I’ve mentioned your concerns to President Coin, and she’s agreed to hear you out,” Fulvia tells us. “Won’t you please reconsider? Your country needs you. We need you!”

 

“We don’t need you,” Katniss counters bluntly.

 

I step in before my wife can alienate these invaders any more than she already has. “Thank you for the offer.” I nod at each of them in turn. “We do appreciate all of the lengths you’ve gone to. We’re happy to see that Cressida and her group were able to complete their journey. But at this time I’m afraid we’re going to have to decline your generous offer.”

 

“I thought you might say that,” Boggs says in a carefully neutral voice. “I’ve been authorized to leave a communication radio in case you decide to do your duty to Panem.” His tone makes it clear just what he thinks about our refusal. He motions to the radio. “Just flip this switch and depress this button and it’ll send a signal to our headquarters indicating that you’re calling for a pickup.” He holds the radio out and Gale steps forward and takes it. I notice Katniss scowling at our husband, but I understand why he’s accepting the offer. If something happens to Katniss or the baby during childbirth, I know that Gale will change his mind, even if it makes Katniss angry. This way, we have an emergency button in case something goes wrong. Yes, there will be a high price, but for our family? For our wife? For our child? For each other? Gale and I would be willing to pay any price to protect those who matter most to us.

 

oOo

 

We put the visit from Thirteen out of our minds because we have so much to do at this time of year. We need to finish prepping Violet’s garden and, now that the rivers and streams have finally fully thawed, it’s time for me to start setting nets once again. We also need to go through our supplies and stores and get rid of anything that’s gone bad, as well as take stock of what we need for the following year and see if we have enough surplus to plant. Winter was a slow time, but now that the days have gotten warmer, we’ve got a lot to do.

 

Besides, Gale and I have one very important job. We need to make a cradle.

 

Gale and I talked about it over the winter, and we decided that we wanted the cradle to be of a finer quality of craftsmanship than any of the beds or other furniture that we’ve made. And we don’t have a whole lot of time to build it in.

 

I hate to admit it, but I’m excited to work together on this project with my husband. Like Katniss and her voice, there’s one specific thing I adore above all others in Gale: his hands. It was his hands that I first noticed. Granted, at the time, they were holding a knife on me, but they were strong, beautiful, masculine hands. I found myself staring at them even while we were at odds. The things he could do with them - turn hunks of wood into furniture, set a snare, draw a bow. His hands told a whole story, covered with little nicks and calluses, the nails short and uneven. Gale can do amazing things with his hands.

 

In fact, it was because of what Gale could do with his hands that I fell in love with him. It wasn’t anything flashy. It happened the morning after Reaping Day, when Katniss, Gale, and I had our first date as a triad. After we decided we were going to try this unconventional relationship, the three of us got to know each other better and Gale made me a flower crown. He probably didn’t think anything of it, but he made me, Peeta, the first flower crown. No one had ever put me first before. Not even Katniss. But Gale did. It was then that I realized that I’d grown to love this prickly, stubborn, Seam man.

 

I guess I just have a thing for emotionally constipated hunters from the Seam.

 

In about mid-April, after we’ve finished tapping the trees for their sap, Gale and I head out to fell a large willow along the stream. We decided that the light-colored wood would work best and that Katniss would be upset if we chopped down any ‘useful trees,’ in her words. Gale initially wanted to use cherry, and I wanted to use walnut, but both of us came quickly to the conclusion that, in order to keep the peace, we’d go for another kind of hardwood tree.

 

We get to the tree we’ve staked out and start chopping it. It’s hard work. Unlike the conifers and softwood trees we’ve used earlier, this tree is going to take a lot more work to fell. Gale and I take turns rinsing our heads and hands off in the cool stream water. We’re making so much noise that I’m not worried about any predators approaching us. So when I’m at the stream cooling down and I hear the unmistakable sound of several large animals moving through the brush, I freeze, swearing internally. Stupidly, I left my spear back with Gale. All I’ve got to defend myself is my knife. I hope to hell it’s not a bear.

 

I consider calling out for Gale but decide against it. If it’s not a bear, it’s most likely a human, and I don’t want to give away my position. I look around, trying to find a decent hiding place or a way I can get back to Gale quickly.

 

I don’t find either.

 

I swear again, this time under my breath. I’m going to have to have Katniss or Gale show me how to operate in the wilderness more effectively. This merchant uselessness is getting old. No wonder Katniss and Gale were so frustrated with me early on. I’m frustrated with myself.

 

I hear a male voice calling out in the woods. “Please! If anybody hears me, help! Help us, please!” The voice is familiar. And I feel like I should know this voice. But it’s not Gale or Rory. Who in the hell can it be?

 

I stand up, careful to keep myself shrouded in the brush. I’m still not about to give away my position just because somebody’s voice sounds familiar. It could be my mind playing tricks on me. The cries come closer and I’m able to see three forms emerge through the thinning woods. One is a young blond haired male, and he seems to be supporting the much thinner figure of an equally young blond haired female. Behind them is an older blond haired woman with a vacant expression on her face.

 

All three of them look familiar, even through the dirt, grime, and blood that’s covering them.

 

“Anybody! Whoever’s out there! Help us, please!” the male cries out again.

 

And that’s when it clicks.

 

“Rye? Is that you?” I ask, taking a step forward in disbelief. It can’t be… But my mind isn’t able to come up with any other conclusion.

 

The man turns, revealing his face, and I can confirm that it is my brother.

 

His eyes widen in shock. “Peeta? What are you doing here?”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in We Didn’t Start The Fire:

 

And that’s when it clicks.

 

“Rye? Is that you?” I ask, taking a step forward in disbelief. It can’t be… But my mind isn’t able to come up with any other conclusion.

 

The man turns, revealing his face, and I can confirm that it is my brother.

 

His eyes widen in shock. “Peeta? What are you doing here?”

 

oOo

 

I stare at my brother, my heart beating wildly in my chest. I can’t believe it’s him. It can’t be him. It doesn’t make any sense. What is he doing out here in the wilds with two other people? I narrow my eyes at the other two. They both look familiar, and I suspect they’re both from Twelve. I start to piece together who they might be.

 

The older woman looks to be a pale shell of the butcher, Rooba Gibbs. Her daughter Reenie was engaged to my oldest brother, Farl, at the time of my departure. I also seem to remember she had a son, Wyatt, who was a couple of years younger than me. I don’t see any of them. I feel a sinking feeling form in the pit of my stomach.

 

The girl is more confusing. It’s not Reenie. Reenie is - was - a big girl, sturdy with sandy blonde hair. This girl’s a little slip of a thing. She’s emaciated and there’s a very major wound on her right calf, probably from some kind of animal. Her face is smudged with dirt and her almost wheat blonde hair is stringy and caked with mud. It takes me longer to piece together who she might be, because the first time my mind suggests a name, I dismiss it as being too unrealistic. It can’t be the Mayor’s daughter, Madge. But the longer I stare at her, the more I realize that it’s my old movie-watching buddy.

 

“Peeta?” Rye croaks, interrupting my realization. “What the fuck are you doing out here?”

 

“Chopping wood,” I answer, still partially distracted. I shake my head to clear my thoughts. “I could ask you the same question.”

 

“What’s it look like we’re doing, dumbass?” Rye asks, glaring at me.

 

“Honestly? Dying,” I snark back, unable to help myself. I look around. “Where’s Farl?”

 

A spasm of pain crosses Rye’s face. “Dead.”

 

“How?” I close my eyes, trying to let the grief that washes over me overwhelm me completely.

 

“Mutts. Along the river.”

 

I remember the traps that we ran into and I’m a little surprised that any of them made it at all. “Why’d you guys leave Twelve?” I can guess the answer, the timing is too suspicious to be anything else, but I need confirmation.

 

“The Quell,” Rye answers. He takes a deep breath before continuing, “There weren’t that many people left who hadn’t taken tesserae and Madge, me, Reenie and Wyatt, even Rooba… none of us took out tesserae. That’s the twist for this year. Anyone who’s never taken out tesserae is eligible for the Reaping.”

 

I just nod my head. I want to say I know, District Thirteen told me, but something stays my tongue. Maybe it’s the fact if I admit to my knowledge he’ll want to know how I got it and I’m not ready to talk about that just yet. Maybe it’s also I don’t feel I should reveal information to Rye and the rest without checking with my new family first. And maybe I just don’t want to get into an argument right now. But no matter the reason, I choose not to say anything.

 

“Peeta? Is that you?” Madge asks, really looking at me for the first time. I know that the way I appear to her must be as odd as her appearance is to me. Gale and I haven’t shaved since October and our hair is getting long and we’re dressed in leather clothing. I know I must look like a wild man, and the reality is I am.

 

Still, I’m grateful for the distraction. “Yeah, it is.”

 

“Oh good.” She smiles at me, clearly still out of it a little. “You’re alive. You made it. Does that mean we’re safe?”

 

I nod my head again. “Yeah, Madge. You’re safe,” I tell her gently.

 

“I’m glad. I don’t think we’d have left if it weren’t for you and Katniss and Gale.” She looks around hopefully. “Are they still with you?”

 

I stare at her in surprise. “How’d you guess that?”

 

“Figured it out.” She smirks at me a little. “Didn’t say anything.”

 

“Wait a minute,” Rye says, narrowing his eyes. “So Madge was right? You left with that Seam girl you’d been mooning over forever and her Seam boyfriend?”

 

Rye is closer to the truth than I’d like and the way he’s presenting it sounds a lot like the way my mother would put it. I have no idea how he’s going to react when he finds out about my marital situation, and I’d rather have that conversation in the safety and comfort of my home. “I don’t think we should be having this discussion out here,” I say. “Stay here, I’ll be back.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I just - I gotta go get something.” I don’t want to explain it to him now and I really, really want Gale or Katniss right now. I need to feel the security they give me because my world’s just become a whole lot less secure.  

 

“What?” Rye asks warily.

 

“I told you, I was chopping wood. Do you see an axe around here?” I motion to the streambank with my hands. “No.”

 

“But I hear one,” he points out.

 

I roll my eyes exaggeratedly. “Of course I’m not out here by myself. Look, the longer we stay out here and argue, the weaker Madge and Rooba are becoming,” I point out, trying to be reasonable when my brother is doing his best to press all of my buttons. “We’ve got food where I’m staying, and hot tea. And people who can help. I just can’t run off without letting the person I’m out here with know where I’m going.” I wince internally as soon as the words leave my mouth.

 

“Why? You’ve done it before.” There’s anger and resentment in his tone.

 

Taking a deep breath, I say, “Things are different now, Rye. Just wait here. Please?”

 

Rye nods once.

 

I don’t stick around any longer. I head back to where I left Gale to find him still chopping at our chosen tree. I get his attention and he hands the axe to me. “Ready to take over?” he asks, giving me a smile.

 

“No,” I say shaking my head. “We’ve got a situation.”

 

“Situation?”

 

“Apparently we are an influence.”

 

He gives me a look. “Huh?”

 

“My brother’s here,” I say with a sigh. “Along with the Mayor’s daughter and the butcher. They fled from Twelve after the Quell was announced.”

 

“Never took out tesserae, huh?” It’s not really a question.

 

I nod, happy my husband is able to catch on so quickly. “Apparently not. And apparently you and me and Katniss inspired them to run away.”

 

“How bad off are they?” he asks me seriously.

 

“Bad,” I tell him, letting all of my worry and doubt come out.

 

Gale doesn’t say anything. Instead, he pulls me into his arms for a hug. I wrap my arms around him, leaning my head on his shoulder. “I’m not sure Madge is gonna make it and Rooba… I don’t think she’s all there,” I mumble, still wrapped in my husband’s arms.

 

“Fuck,” he swears although there’s no real heat in it. “Katniss is gonna be pissed.”

 

I chuckle. “Tell me about it.”

 

“I suppose we’d better get the group back to the cave,” he says calmly. “We can take care of this later. Not like the tree’s gonna get up and walk off.”

 

“No, that’s true. Thanks man.” I let go and take a step back.

 

Gale kisses my forehead. “Anything for my man bride.”

 

“Shut up, Sweetgale.” My tone is light, completely devoid of rancor. He’s already made me feel a little better.

 

He grins at me and together we walk back to where I left my brother. Rye has set Madge down along the edge of the stream and is trying to coax Rooba to drink something out of a canteen, probably water. They don’t have the supplies for it to be anything else.

 

He looks up when he hears us approach and says, “Wasn’t sure if you were coming back.”

 

“Said I would.”

 

Rye glares at me. “Said that last time and yet here we are.”

 

Gale steps in. “Peeta wanted to go back to you. But he saw us leaving and we couldn’t risk him breaking under torture.”

 

My brother rounds on Gale. “So you what? Just took him with you?”

 

“Pretty much,” my husband replies with a shrug.

 

“And he allowed it?”

 

“Not like he had a whole lot of choice. Five against one, when all five are armed? Not very good odds. Your brother’s smart, give him a little credit.” As Gale talks, I can see he’s taking stock of the situation and positioning himself between me and my brother. That’s my husband… always the protector.

 

“You sure don’t look like much of a prisoner now,” Rye turns back to me.

 

“He’s not,” Gale says flatly. “Your girl doesn’t look like she’s in good shape. We’ll carry her back to the cave, if you and Rooba here want to follow.”

 

Rye opens his mouth to argue but Madge stops him. “I can walk,” she says, struggling to get to her feet. “I’m not an invalid.”

 

Gale rolls his eyes, muttering something under his breath.   He fixes Madge with a look.   “Sure you ain’t, but that leg looks to be in pretty bad shape and my mother-in-law’d have my hide if I didn’t take care of you.”

 

Both Madge and Rye’s eyes shoot to me when Gale drops that little tidbit. I shrug my shoulders. There’s no point in explaining the intricacies of my love life until we’ve gotten back to the cave. “Come on. Let’s go,” I say instead.

 

We’re lucky it isn’t too far, because I’m not sure that even Rye or Rooba could have trekked much further. All three of them are in bad shape, but Madge is easily the worst off. I hope Violet has something that can save her. I’ve lost so many people already. I don’t want to lose more.

 

We get back to the cave and find Rory sitting on the ledge, skinning a rabbit. Prim must be inside making lunch. We’re back a little early, so it’s probably not ready yet.

 

Rory drops the rabbit and leaps to his feet, instantly on guard when he sees we’ve got company.

 

Gale calls out, “You know where Mrs. Everdeen is?”

 

Rory nods his head.

 

“Run and get her,” my husband tells him. “She’s needed.”

 

The boy takes off, heading towards the garden.

 

I wonder where Katniss is. She mentioned wanting to go out hunting and we didn’t see any point in stopping her. Gale and I have learned to pick our battles in regards to that. At least she’s agreed to stay within shouting distance in case something happens. If she wants to range out further, she has to take someone with her. But some days, she really needs to have time to herself and Gale and I understand her well enough to give her that.

 

We enter the cave. My brother’s eyes widen, taking in the well-lived-in and decorated state. There are several stools and chairs and even a small table in the main room, along with several shelves holding this and that and some paintings on the cave walls with a sculpture or two that Rory salvaged placed artistically underneath them. There’s screens covering the entrances to both the storage room and water room and the bedroom screen is pulled to one side for easy access and airing out during the day.

 

Gale carries Madge into the kitchen and the other two follow, with me trailing behind.

 

“You’re back early,” Prim says, turning around from the stove to face the doorway. Her eyes widen when she sees who we have with us. But her surprise is short lived because as soon as she sees Madge in Gale’s arms she switches into full healer mode. Taking charge of the situation, she motions for him to place the Mayor’s daughter on the sickbed.

 

As soon as Gale does, my sister-in-law springs into action. She feels Madge’s forehead, neck, and wrist, and frowns. She lifts what’s left of Madge’s pant leg up to survey the damage and the frown deepens. “I’m gonna need Mom,” she says.

 

“Rory’s getting her,” I tell her. I look around the kitchen. “Is there anything to eat or drink?”

 

She nods her head. “A little. Lunch isn’t ready yet, but we’ve got enough that I don’t have to wait for Katniss to come back to get started.” She moves to start cooking again.

 

I shake my head. “No, you work on Madge, I’ll take care of lunch.”

 

I ladle some hot water out of a pot and into a bowl and grab a cloth and hold them out to my brother and Rooba. “Go clean yourselves up.” I look over at my husband. “Gale, can you get them some clothes?” He nods and I turn back to my brother and the butcher. “I’ll have tea and food for you in a sec.”

 

My brother takes the bowl gratefully and goes over to Rooba to explain what she needs to do. I watch for a moment while the woman woodenly goes through the motions of taking off her jacket, shirt, and skirt, leaving her dressed only in her underthings, to scrub at her face and arms and body with the warm water. I’m disappointed that she’s not showing more signs of life, but I’m guessing, with her family dead, she’s decided to go away too. She reminds me of Steenie from Cressida’s party and I hope the once vivacious and gossipy butcher doesn’t share the other woman’s fate.

 

I turn my attention back to my task, trying to figure out what, if anything, I can do to help Madge, Rooba, and my brother. Tea would be good, but I don’t dare make anything other than hot water because Violet has warned me about drug interactions. They need food, but looking at the state that they’re in, I’m guessing that they haven’t eaten in close to a week. I note they don’t have any packs on them. I’m guessing they left them behind at some point, unable to carry them any further. They’re lucky they found us when they did. A few more days of trekking through the wilderness and all three of them would be dead.

 

I grab some of the remainder of our dried venison and chop it up finely and put it into a pot to make a broth. I might be able to add a little bit of ground corn or rice to the mix to make it a little more substantial, but until I’m sure they can keep the food down, I don’t want to give them too much.

 

Prim comes up beside me.

 

“How’s she doing?” I murmur to my sister-in-law so that nobody else will hear.

 

Prim shakes her head. “Not good. She’s running a fever and that leg is in bad shape. I think she’s got blood poisoning, but I’m not sure.”

 

“Is there anything we can do?” I ask, my heart going out to my injured friend.

 

“Willow bark will help some. There’s not a lot available out here,” she says sadly. “Madge really needs Capitol medicine, Capitol healing.”

 

I make a face. Katniss really isn’t going to like this.

 

Gale comes back with some clothes. Good, that’s one thing down. Where are Rory and Violet? Shouldn’t they be back soon? I can’t remember how much time has passed. It seems like an eternity. I look at the broth in front of me and notice that it hasn’t even started boiling yet. So it can’t have been too much time.

 

I take down the jar of willow bark Violet keeps in the kitchen and ask Prim how much I need to make for one cup. She tells me, and then tells me that it’d be okay if I made rosehip and camomile tea for the whole group. I’m grateful to have something to do to keep me distracted.

 

I keep worrying about how Katniss is going to react and how she’ll feel, knowing that one of her few friends is sitting at death’s door. I know I’m concerned. Katniss, on the other hand, gets very worked up whenever someone she cares about is in danger, and I worry what that will do to the baby.

 

My mother-in-law and Rory rush into the room only a couple of minutes later. Violet immediately tells Prim to go get her medical kit and comes over next to me to get some warm water to wash her hands. “Has Prim given her anything yet?” she asks.

 

I shake my head. “The willow bark tea is steeping and I’ve just started to make camomile and rose hip tea for everybody.”

 

Violet nods her head. “Good call.” She points to the broth. “That for them?”

 

I nod. “I wanted to give them something light.”

 

“You probably don’t need to worry about that too much,” she says with a small smile. “They haven’t been starving for that long. But it won’t hurt.” She looks at me. “Do we have any garlic left?”

 

I have to think for a bit. “Not much.” Keeping up with what we have in storage is my job. Katniss worries too much and with my background I have a better idea of how to estimate how much food we need and how to best keep track of what we do have.

 

She nods. “Get what’s left and add it to the broth, but leave me several cloves. I’m going to need it for Madge. When Prim gets back with my kit, I’m going to have you make some other teas and stuff for washes.” She sighs and rubs at her face. “There’s not a lot I can do,” she tells me sadly.

 

“Is she gonna make it?”

 

Violet shrugs. “I don’t know.”

 

Violet takes the willow bark tea and brings it over to Madge.   I check the stove. The broth is pretty much ready even without the garlic - I’ll add that to the next batch - so I ladle it out into several small bowls, finding three clean spoons for them to eat with. Rooba takes the food and mechanically spoons it into her mouth.

 

Rye watches her to make sure she eats before sipping at his broth. “Thanks bro.”

 

I shrug. “It’s the least I can do. I’m not much of a healer, but I know my way around a kitchen.”

 

Rye nods, looking around. “So this is home.”

 

“Yeah,” I say, shoving my hands into my pants pockets. There’s a hole in one. I wonder inanely if we have enough thread to fix it.

 

“Nice place you’ve got here,” he says, looking around. “Cosy. Guess you really aren’t a prisoner. Wouldn’t have thought you’d have stuck around once you didn’t have to.” There’s accusation in his tone.

 

“Things changed.”

 

“Changed?” My brother sounds skeptical.

 

“Got better.”

 

“Better?” he asks incredulously. “Living out here in the wild is better?”

 

I shrug. “It’s better.” I’m not sure how to talk to Rye, how to let him know that I’m married, that my wife is expecting a baby, that my husband is the best friend a guy could ever ask for. I’m not sure how to explain that, at night, I get to wrap my arms around Katniss and feel our baby grow inside her, and I’m looking forward to the day I can finally meet our child and hold them in my arms. I don’t think Rye’d understand Gale and how much he means to me, so much that I can’t imagine not having him in my life. I can’t explain the simple pleasure of being able to bake bread in an oven I’ve made from scratch from ingredients I’ve had to find and refine. The pleasure of having a group of people who look out for each other and care for each other and being able to go to bed at night without raised voices seeping through the thin walls.

 

Because I’m not ready to talk about any of this, I change the subject. “So… why don’t you tell me what happened?”

 

Rye snorts. “What’s there to tell? We slipped down to the fence, ran away, got chased by mutts, lost Farl and Reenie to that damned river and those fucking tracker jackers, about near lost Madge to the cackling mutts on the other side of the log, lost Wyatt to a fever of some sort, damned sure I was gonna lose Rooba and Madge, only to find that my baby brother is living it up out here in the wilds, king of the castle with the girl of his dreams married to another man!”

 

Gale looks over at me, silently asking if I’m going to correct my brother’s misconception. I’d never understood until I started working together with my husband what it’s like to be able to communicate with somebody silently. With Gale I finally get it. Katniss and I still need to talk in order to communicate, but me and Gale? We get each other. A raise of an eyebrow, a quirk of a lip, can convey a whole host of meanings.

 

I shrug one shoulder. It’s complicated.

 

Gale frowns slightly. Why?

 

I tilt my head. Now’s not the time to tell Rye. I’ll get to it.

 

 

I know Gale wants to clear the air now, but I’m not ready for that explosion. Rye’s already not reacting very well to finding us out here. I hate to think how he’s going to react when he finds out about Katniss.

 

Gale shakes his head, but I can tell by the set of his shoulders that he’s going to leave it up to me. I appreciate that, although part of me wishes Gale would just come out and say it so I don’t have to.

 

“It’s complicated,” I say.

 

Gale snorts. Yeah, I’m echoing our silent conversation. So? It works.

 

“You’re not helping,” I tell him.

 

“You saying you want my help?” Gale smirks at me fondly.

 

“No,” I say, shaking my head. I make shooing motions. “Now, get out of the kitchen before something burns. Just having you in here is bad luck.” Gale was right all those months ago. Food just burns and goes bad in his presence. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would have thought it was a joke.

 

Gale laughs. “Fine, I’ll go finish taking care of that rabbit Rory killed. Anything you want from the storeroom?”

 

I think about it. We’ve got a pot of beans soaking, we always do. I’d ask him to bring me some dried meat or fish, but Katniss is still out and knowing her, she’s not going to come back until she has something in hand or hunger gets the better of her. Either way, I should have something ready to go just in case she doesn’t get anything. I look up and say, “Maybe a few potatoes and a turnip or two?” I look around the kitchen, taking stock mentally. We’ve got a few dried turnip greens still. They’re pretty tasteless, but they’re nutritious. “Why don’t you grab some of that smoked trout? If we don’t eat it, that’s fine. Oh, and Violet wanted garlic. Bring whatever’s left of that.”

 

Gale nods and leaves the room.

 

Rye raises an eyebrow at my requests but I don’t bother to explain. I’m not sure I can. I can tell he’s upset, but part of that is concern over Madge. I glance over to Violet to see that she’s still working on the Mayor’s daughter. Madge is sipping at her cup of willow bark tea, making a face at every sip. I know from experience that the stuff is bitter, but there’s no way we can add anything to it to mask the taste.

 

To keep Rye from asking any more questions, I refill his bowl with the rest of the broth. Rooba’s finished her broth as well, but Madge hasn’t even started on hers. I’m guessing she doesn’t have much of an appetite. There’s not a lot I can do about that.

 

Violet’s working on Madge’s leg, trying to get it cleaned and drained of pus. It’s even worse-looking without the obscuring effect of her clothing. I can tell that Violet is really concerned by the set of her mouth and the tenseness in her shoulders. She’s trying to keep a brave face for Madge’s sake, but unlike when Prim was injured, there isn’t that same feeling of hope emanating from her.

 

Gale comes back and hands me the cleaned rabbit and the other items I asked for. I flash him a quick smile in thanks before turning to preparing the rest of the meal. Tackling the rabbit first, I chop it up and drop it into a stewpot with a few herbs. I dice the potatoes and turnips and set them to one side to add once the rabbit’s more done. To keep myself from dwelling on what’s going on around me and to hold off any more of my brother’s questions, I putter around, adding a few herbs and other things to the pot.

 

“Smells good,” I hear my wife’s voice say. “What’s for lunch?” She comes up beside me, dropping a large white bird onto the granite bench next to the stove. She slips her arm around my waist and kisses my cheek.

 

I’m happy to see her, and I’m even happier that she got something. That means that she’ll be in a better mood.

 

“I see we’ve got company,” she whispers into my ear.

 

I set my lips to the shell of her ear and whisper back, “My brother and Madge and the butcher.”

 

Katniss nods her head. “Are you okay?” Her face is turned towards mine. It’s so earnest, so concerned, the love that she has for me just radiates from her.

 

I shake my head. I’m not okay. I’m holding it together for my brother’s sake, for Madge’s sake, for my family’s sake, but inside my emotions are churning.

 

She takes my face between her hands and leans up, kissing me gently on my mouth. It’s the comfort I want, the comfort I need. The only thing that would make this better would be if Gale were here with us.

 

That comfort is shattered a moment later when I hear Rye’s voice exclaim, “What the fuck?”

 

oOo

 

We have a very uncomfortable lunch where I have to explain my relationship with Gale and Katniss to a very disbelieving Rye.

 

Katniss, being Katniss, in her typical fashion, gets fed up very quickly with Rye’s continual skepticism and pitying looks in my direction. As soon as she finishes her food she very deliberately comes over and sits down between my legs and motions for Gale to sit down behind me, essentially making a Peeta sandwich. “Is this proof enough for you?” she asks. “Or do we need to have sex in front of you? Which we’re not doing. But Peeta’s my husband. Gale’s my husband. Deal with it.” I don’t need to see it to know my wife is glaring at my brother right now.

 

“And you’re just okay with this?” Rye demands. “She gets to have both of you! That’s not fair!”

 

“So? I get both of them,” I answer. “It’s a fair trade.”

 

“So you sleep with them both?” Rye’s skepticism pours off of him.

 

I know what he’s asking, and the answer to that is no. Gale and I are not having sex with just each other. We’ve talked about it and we’re not ready for that right now. We might never be ready for it. But that doesn’t mean I feel any less married to him than I do to Katniss. That I love him any less. This marriage wouldn’t work without all of us and that includes Gale.

 

Rye’s waiting for an answer.

 

“Yes,” I say, knowing he’s going to take it the wrong way. “We do sleep together. All three of us.” It is true. We do sleep together and did before we were sexually active.

 

“Fine. Whatever.” He turns to my mother-in-law and asks, “How’s Madge doing? She’s gonna recover, right?” There’s something in the tone of his voice that makes my ears perk up. There’s more to it than just simple worry. I know that tone. He’s in love with the girl, which all of a sudden makes another point crystal clear: why Madge would go with them. She’s in love with my brother too. There’s no other explanation which makes sense.

 

Violet schools her features. “I’ve given her something to sleep as well as something for the pain and to hopefully get her fever down. I’m not going to lie to you, Rye. Her leg’s in very bad shape and I’m afraid, if I don’t see any signs of improvement in the next two days, I’m going to have to remove it to try to save her life.”

 

Rye goes white. He knows that out here, an amputation is pretty much as good as a death sentence. He pushes the rest of his food away and gets up. “I’m going to go sit with Madge,” he declares.

 

We let him go. All of us have had someone close to us be at death’s door.

 

Violet sighs and motions for Rory and Prim to start cleaning up. Then she looks over at the three of us. “I think we need to have a talk.”

 

I feel Katniss and Gale nod their heads and I do the same. I know what she wants to talk about. It’s obvious. There’s only one way to potentially save Madge.

 

Katniss is really not going to be happy.

 

We head outside and down the hill. We don’t go very far, just far enough so that our voices won’t reach the cave. This is going to be loud, and there’s no place in the cave that we could go where we wouldn’t be able to be overheard.

 

“I think we need to call Thirteen,” Violet says without any preamble.

 

“What? Why?” Katniss exclaims.

 

“Madge’s injury is beyond my skill,” my mother-in-law answers. “Even if I remove her leg, I think the infection’s spread too far. I’m not sure there’s anything I can do to stop it. And removing her leg carries risks as well.”

 

“There’s no guarantee Thirteen can do anything either!” Katniss protests. “And then what? We sacrifice our freedom for a dead friend? No thanks!”

 

“We can make that a condition of our joining,” I tell her. “Madge has to survive. We’re going to need to have conditions anyway. You saw how they acted. I don’t trust them not to try to push their own agenda on us.”

 

“See?” Katniss motions to me. “You don’t trust them either!”

 

“No. I don’t. But they can potentially save Madge.”

 

“Look, Katniss,” Violet says, “even back in District Twelve, I don’t think I could have saved Madge. But Thirteen’s got medical care. It’s got better facilities than we have out here. I can’t, in good conscience, as a healer, allow someone to die when I can do something to save them.”

 

“I still don’t like it.” I can hear her relenting, but only because someone she cares about is in trouble. Katniss doesn’t like change. Hates it. Fears it. To her change is a bad thing, and this whole rebellion, this whole thing with Thirteen is going to turn our lives upside down.

 

She’s not entirely wrong about that. And she’s not the only one who doesn’t want things to change.

 

“You don’t have to,” I say a little sadly. “Besides, it’s not us they want.”

 

All eyes turn to Gale.

 

We’ve talked this out before. But the circumstances are different now. If we don’t call Thirteen, we’re as good as condemning Madge to death. Even Katniss, as much as she doesn’t want to, is beginning to see that.

 

I can see the conflict on Gale’s face. He’s always been the one who’s wanted to go to Thirteen the most, and I can tell that his first instinct is to say yes. But he also knows that going to Thirteen means giving up not just his freedom, but the rest of ours as well. He sighs. “Do you think we should make the call?”

 

Violet nods her head emphatically, as do I. Madge’s life is worth it, and if they can save her, we’ll pay the price.

 

Katniss chews at her lower lip. “Fine. Just, let’s make a list of conditions before they come. And if they don’t agree to follow them, we don’t go.”

 

“I think that’s fair,” Gale agrees. He runs a hand through his hair, a nervous gesture he’s never managed to get rid of. “Alright. We make the call.”

 

“Thank you,” Violet says and hurries back to the cave to signal Thirteen.

 

“So,” I start, “what are our conditions?”

 

“Madge lives. They can’t save her, they don’t get their Mockingjays.” Katniss’s voice is hard.

 

“Agreed,” Gale says.

 

“I think your sister will kill us if she isn’t allowed to keep her cats.” I suspect that Thirteen doesn’t look kindly on pets. “All of them,” I add a moment later. “Including the kittens.”

 

Gale snorts. “Oh yeah. Prim won’t go anywhere without those damned cats of hers.”

 

“I know,” Katniss says. “This feels so familiar.”

 

Gale grins.

 

I’m guessing that this is an inside joke between the two of them relating to the preparations for when they left. I feel a twinge of envy. I wish I’d been a part of that then. There’s no way for me to turn back time. But I’m a part of it now. That’s what’s important.

 

Speaking of… “I think we’re going to have to fight to stay together,” I tell them. “You saw how Boggs and Fulvia reacted, and how Rye’s been reacting. You can bet we’re going to get more of the same when we get to Thirteen.”

 

“I am not giving you up. Either of you,” Katniss says.

 

“And I ain’t giving up my wife or my man bride.” Gale grins at me. “Fought too long and too hard for this.”

 

I grin back. “I love you too, Sweetgale.” I sober. “There’s no way I want to be with anyone else. You guys are it for me. But you know that they’re going to do their best to separate us.”

 

“They can try,” Gale says ominously. “They’re gonna fail.”

 

“I know they will. We’re stronger together than apart. Any idiot can see that.”

 

“So you’re saying Thirteen’s made up of idiots?” Katniss asks, amused.

 

I shrug. “We’ll have to wait to see that, won’t we?”

 

Katniss scowls. “Fine. Just one more thing. I may be pregnant, but that doesn’t mean that I’m an invalid. I’m gonna keep on hunting and no one, not Thirteen or anyone else, is going to stop me.”

 

Gale nods his head. “I’m with Catnip.”

 

“I think all of us need to have some freedom. We’ve gotten too used to it out here,” I say. I wonder not for the first time just what Thirteen is like. Cressida didn’t seem happy but at the same time she didn’t seem sad either. If anything, the word I’m looking for is resigned. It doesn’t inspire confidence. I shake my head and continue, “So I think that’s another condition. All of us get some time outside of their fence or whatever they have.”

 

Gale nods.

 

Katniss rubs her arms. “I don’t want to go.”

 

I pull her to me, resting my head on top of hers. “I don’t want to go either. But it’s the right choice.”

 

Gale comes up behind me and wraps us both in his arms. And we stand there for a few moments in our woods and slowly realize that life as we knew it is over.

 

oOo

 

Now that we’ve called Thirteen, all we can do is sit and wait and watch. Katniss, Gale, and I congregate in the kitchen, although Gale is not allowed anywhere near the food. This may be the last chance that we have to cook together like this. I’ve cleaned the bird Katniss got and roasted the legs in the oven while placing the body of the bird in a large stewpot with the rest of the beans to make a sort of cassoulet. It’s one of Katniss’s favorites and I love cooking it for her. Also in the oven I have several potato biscuits. On the stove beside the cassoulet I’ve got another pot with a light fish stew.

 

In one corner, Buttercup and Dandelion are gnawing at some of the scraps I’ve given them. The whole thing feels incredibly homey and I realize just how much I’m going to miss it.

 

We’re talking quietly about inconsequential things, doing our best to keep our minds off of Thirteen. I bring up wanting to paint the screens in our bedroom.

 

But at the word ‘paint’ Madge starts mumbling deliriously under her breath. “Must… no… gotta hide. Don’t wanna be… don’t want them to catch me. Not safe. Gotta hide the paints...”

 

“What’s she talking about?” Gale asks, looking over at Katniss and me.

 

Katniss and I shake our heads and shrug. This is a whole side to Madge that we’ve never seen.

 

“It’s the fever talking,” Katniss tells us. “Ignore her.”

 

“No! No! Rye! Not there!” Madge whispers frantically. “The other house! The Hawthornes!”

 

“It’s kind of hard to ignore her when she’s saying my name,” Gale states wryly.

 

“What about the Hawthornes, Madge?” I ask, kneeling down beside her.

 

“Gotta, gotta paint. Gotta paint big mockingjays. Can’t let anyone know it’s me…”

 

“Oh shit,” Gale mutters, staring at Katniss. He’s come to the same conclusion I have.

 

Katniss is staring at Madge blankly, confusion painted on her face.

 

“Hide! Hide the things! No one can find… Everdeens… Katniss won’t mind. She’s gone, free. Free… can’t get caught. Gotta paint.” Madge rolls over, burying her face in the pillow, silencing any further ramblings.

 

But she’s said enough. I see Katniss’s eyes widen until there’s a ring of white around the grey of her iris.

 

“It can’t be,” Katniss murmurs.

 

“It can’t be what?” Gale shakes his head slightly. “Pretty sure that was a fevered confession that Madge is the mysterious painter everyone’s mistaking you for.”

 

“But she’s the Mayor’s daughter!”

 

“So?” Gale asks. “Makes sense. She’s the one that gave you that pin in the first place!”

 

“But she’s the Mayor’s daughter!”

 

“You already said that, Katniss,” I say. “Besides, just because someone comes from a relatively well-off family doesn’t mean they don’t deserve or want to be free. She’s here now. She could’ve stayed in Twelve, but she’s here. It’s not a coincidence.”

 

“But…”

 

I shake my head, cutting her off. “No buts, Katniss. It’s pretty clear all three of us inspired her to begin her own little rebellion. Painting those mockingjays was pretty daring, if you consider it. If she’d been caught, she could’ve been hanged.” I pause for effect. “And being the Mayor’s daughter, she’d have known that. Not even her position would have saved her from the noose.”

 

The look on her face tells me my words have sunk in. “So what do we do?”

 

“We don’t tell anyone,” I say firmly. “Let Madge and whoever else knows keep their little secret. I suspect Rye does, he’s in love with her you know, considering she mentioned him in her ravings. It’s better off that Thirteen thinks that you’re the one who painted those mockingjays.”

 

“But I’m not an artist,” Katniss protests. “That’s your department.”

 

I shrug. “Stencils. It’s not that hard. Even a child could do it. But, if Thirteen finds out you aren’t one of the architects of this rebellion, I think their stance regarding us might change.”

 

“Change how?”

 

“Well, they could demand we separate for one. You’re not of critical importance.” I hate having to say that to her, because Katniss means so much to me and I don’t want her to think I don’t value her. But she needs to know this so we have a chance of making it work when we get to Thirteen. “You heard how Commander Boggs talked. It’s all military and order.”

 

“They also might not agree to any of our demands,” Gale points out. “They need all three of us, even though they only think they need me. I’m not a good figurehead, Catnip, you know that.” He strokes the side of her cheek. “I don’t inspire people. I don’t know what to say to make people love me.” He pauses. “Heck, I’m not even that good-looking.”

 

“So modest,” I murmur.

 

“But I’m like you! I’m nothing special!” Katniss exclaims. “I don’t know how to make people love me!”

 

“That’s what’s always been so magical about you.” I come around and take her hands in mine, feeling the calluses she’s formed from drawing her bow under my fingertips. “You don’t even realize you’re doing it, but somehow, someway, you lure people in and connect with them in ways I can’t even begin to explain. I know this is going to be hard for you. It’s going to be hard for all of us. But we can do it.” I pull her to me, enveloping her in a hug. “So long as we’re together, we can do anything,” I murmur into her hair.

 

Gale comes up behind our wife, enfolding us both in his arms. The three of us stand there for a moment, drinking each other in and gaining strength from the others.

 

By mutual agreement, we drop our arms a few seconds later and Katniss looks back over at Madge. “I suppose I don’t have to correct their misconceptions.” She regards us seriously. “But I’m not gonna lie.”

 

“That’s fair,” Gale says. “You’re a crap liar anyways.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

He grins. “Just telling you the truth.”

 

“And you should stick with just the barest truths, Katniss,” I tell her. “If any of us needs to lie, I should be the one to do it.”

 

“That good of a deceiver, huh, Mellark?”

 

I shrug. “It was a defense mechanism. My mom, well, you know my mom. All of us learned to lie at a pretty young age. It was safer that way.” It’s not something I like to talk about and I’m not proud of my facility with lies and deceptions. It just is something I’m good at, like making bread or painting a flower.

 

Reaching out with one hand, Gale squeezes my shoulder gently. “Sorry about that, Peet. Didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”

 

“I know.” I smile at him to let him know all is forgiven. “But hey, at least one good thing came out of it.”

 

“More than one good thing came out of it,” Katniss states, stepping forward to cup my face in her hands. “We got you.”

 

“You know I’d never lie to you. Either of you,” I say. It’s important that they know I wouldn’t, couldn’t, betray them like that. I made a vow years ago that I would never lie to the people I loved and I mean to keep it.

 

“I know,” Gale soothes, stroking his hand up and down my back.

 

Katniss nods. “We know.”

 

oOo

 

Thirteen arrives the following morning. Once again, Commander Boggs and Fulvia are on the team. But this time they’re joined by Messalla and two other soldiers who are so similar in looks that they have to be sisters.

 

“I was surprised to receive your signal, Mr. Hawthorne,” Boggs leads off with. “Your ‘wife,’” I can hear the air quotes on that, “was most insistent that you’d not be using it. I take it something has changed?”

 

Gale hears the implied insult too and is clearly struggling not to go off on the man. I know my husband, he’s protective of those he cares for. “Damn right something’s changed.”

 

“Ah. Might I inquire as to what?” Fulvia asks.

 

“Does it really matter?” Gale snaps.

 

The woman recoils slightly, a hurt expression on her face.

 

Running his hand through his hair, Gale sighs. “Look, we got a hurt friend that needs Thirteen’s care. And Katniss here is maybe a month away from giving birth. We decided it would be better to come to Thirteen. We’ll join your rebellion, be your Mockingjays, but we got conditions.” I decided to let Gale take the lead and I’m beginning to wonder if it was a good idea. It’s important that the people from Thirteen see Gale for who he is, but maybe this wasn’t the right time.

 

I can see Boggs struggling to keep himself from reacting. “Somehow I expected nothing less from you. You know I’m not able to promise anything.” There’s a challenge in his tone.

 

Time for me to step in. “No, we know that. That’s why we’d like to speak to your president at the earliest possible convenience,” I say. “After all, we understand that a soldier like you is not able to make command decisions affecting the whole of Panem. Only an elected official can do that.”

 

Boggs’s mouth twitches slightly at my words. I don’t have time or information enough to guess as to why, but I intend to find out as much as I can. Knowledge is power. All those stupid Capitol movies taught me that.

 

“I guess you and your group had better get onboard,” Boggs orders. “President Coin’s waiting.”

 

We gather everyone and all of the things that we are unable to live without - all of the bows, a few mementos, but not everything. Several items, including some gifts, have to stay behind. When we’ve loaded up onboard, Boggs tells us, “We’ll be back to collect the supplies within your cave. They’ll be distributed to the kitchens and other appropriate departments to aid in the welfare of District Thirteen. Your contribution will be appreciated.”

 

Katniss opens her mouth to protest but Gale stops her. “When you come back, one of us needs to come with you,” he says, his tone indicating he’s in no mood to argue. “There’s some items of a personal nature that we aren’t willing to donate.”

 

Boggs frowns at Gale’s words. “I take it you’re planning on returning.”

 

Katniss nods. “After this war of yours is over? Yes. We’re doing this for Madge. We have no interest in Thirteen.”

 

“President Coin will be happy to hear that.”

 

I digest that bit of information, trying to figure out exactly what he means. It’s fairly clear Coin needs us but doesn’t want us. That makes our position both more secure and more precarious at the same time. It’s going to be a tightrope act and there’s no net underneath us to catch our fall.

 

My initial impression that Thirteen is very rigid and militaristic is confirmed again when we land. Thirteen is dark and dour and located completely underground. I see Katniss frowning as she realizes her ability to go out in the woods is going to be even more curtailed than we’d initially thought. I take her hand and feel Gale take mine.

 

“Come on, you three. President Coin’s waiting for you,” Boggs tells us, very studiously ignoring our joined hands.

 

There’s a team of medics waiting at the end of the gangplank to rush Madge off to their hospital or whatever they call it. I’d like to go with her, but we have a president to meet. I note idly that the rest of our group follows Madge’s gurney, so I know she’ll be looked out for.

 

We walk through the maze of underground passageways, passing several slim pale people in gray coveralls. I notice nearly all of them are over the age of twenty five and have a military bearing. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about this place just feels wrong.

 

We get to a large gray metal door and Boggs presses a button located next to the portal. “The Hawthornes have arrived,” he says to the person waiting within.

 

I can see Katniss bristle at the name and I shake my head at her slightly in warning.

 

“Send them in,” a low female voice comes back several minutes later.

 

I struggle to keep a smirk off my face. She’s using a tactic I’ve only read about in books. She’s keeping us waiting to show us how much power she has over us. I take note of my wife and husband and am unsurprised to see Katniss is chomping at the bit, angry at being forced to wait as well as the name game, while Gale is right there with her. It’s up to me to protect them. It’s up to me to play this game. I’m the only one of us who knows how.

 

I squeeze their hands to tell them to let me take the lead. Gale looks over at me and nods. I just need to get Katniss on board. She gives me a confused look and I wish, once again, I had the ability to communicate with her nonverbally the way I can with Gale. I smile and squeeze her hand again.

 

She shrugs. It’s clear she doesn’t get it.

 

I sigh. Knowing Katniss, she’s going to be unable to prevent herself from blurting out exactly what she thinks. It’s going to be up to me to do damage control, to try to spin this into a better lie so we get the conditions we’ve agreed upon without getting killed in the process.

 

The door opens and I fix an expression of bored indifference on my face. I’m not going to pretend I’m happy to see this woman.

 

Behind a steel gray metal desk sits the grayest woman I have ever seen. Her hair blends seamlessly into her coverall and the only indication of her rank is a small badge on her upper left arm.

 

“Welcome to District Thirteen,” she greets us. “We have a lot of work to do.”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in We Didn’t Start The Fire:

 

Behind a steel gray metal desk sits the grayest woman I have ever seen. Her hair blends seamlessly into her coverall and the only indication of her rank is a small badge on her upper left arm.

 

“Welcome to District Thirteen,” she greets us. “We have a lot of work to do.”

 

oOo

 

I step forward before Katniss can say anything about President Coin’s last sentence. There’s assumptions in those words, that we’re just going to play along with what Coin and District Thirteen want, and I know my wife will be very quick to disabuse them of those notions if she starts talking. We can’t do that, not yet. We need to play their game until we’re sure Madge is out of danger and our baby is delivered safely.

 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Peeta Mellark.” I extend my hand.

 

She takes it and shakes it firmly. “Mellark? I was given to understand you three were married.”

 

“I am. We are.” I motion to the three of us. “We just chose to keep our own names.”

 

“I see,” she murmurs even though I can tell she doesn’t. A thought confirmed a moment later when she says, “I thought the tradition in your district was to take the name of the husband.”

 

“Typically it is,” I say. I realize now that I’ve unintentionally stumbled upon a landmine. Time to diffuse it. “But with two husbands, it didn’t seem fair to make Katniss take both of our names. That’d be quite a mouthful. Katniss Mellark-Hawthorne. Or would it be Hawthorne-Mellark? You see, already we’re running into confusion,” I dissemble. I make sure that my features are schooled into a pleasant, non-threatening appearance as a contrast to both of my spouses’ wary looks. “We’re much better off each keeping our own name. We know that we’re married.” I close for the kill. “And, because we don’t live in Twelve anymore, we wanted to start our own tradition rather than one encouraged by the Capitol.”

 

“You make a valid point, Mr. Mellark,” she concedes, nodding warmly. “I can see how throwing off the Capitol’s yoke would influence you to start your own traditions. Although you must understand the confusion that you three will cause.”

 

“They’ll deal with it,” Katniss says flatly. “What goes on between the three of us is nobody’s business but ours.” That’s my girl. Rough. Abrasive. Stubborn and protective of those she loves, which now includes me. I’d been outside of that love for so long that it still warms my heart to realize I’m now in the close circle of those she holds dear.

 

Coin flicks her pale eyes to regard my wife. She’s keeping her face carefully neutral, but I can see a hint of annoyance in those almost unearthly eyes at Katniss’s words. With that flash, I know Coin isn’t happy with the situation or with Katniss. Katniss says what she thinks. I can see how that wouldn’t sit well with a woman as clearly conscious of rank and position as Coin. She’d see it as a challenge. My mother’s the same way.

 

“You mentioned we have a lot of work to do,” I interject. “What kind of work would we be doing?”

 

Coin returns her attention to me. I can tell she’s sizing me up and she wants to know the reason why I, not Gale, seem to be the leader of our group. I’m not. But she doesn’t know that. In fact, if we had to pick a leader, it’d be Katniss: Gale and I follow her lead. But in this situation, it’s better for me to be the spokesperson. I’ve got experience handling difficult situations and I know how to use my words to keep us safe. Katniss and Gale are too direct, too honest, and I get the feeling that this woman is much more deceitful than she lets on.

 

An impression which is confirmed when Coin answers my question. “Ideally, you would just be creating propos to inspire those people in the districts who are still undecided about our cause.” She pauses, probably for effect. “However, wars are rarely ideal. And it would be expected that you would be a rallying point for our troops as well as being the figureheads of our rebellion against the tyranny of the Capitol.” Nothing about us actually leading said rebellion or having any real power. I suspect she plans on keeping that for herself.

 

“And how do you envision us being this rallying point?” I ask her politely.

 

“Can I speak frankly, Mr. Mellark?”

 

“Of course! By all means.” I don’t think she’s going to be totally honest with us but I’ll take anything that gets us out of this landmine-laden conversation.

 

“I don’t envision you being a rallying point at all,” she says bluntly. “Your story, while inspiring, is not the same cry to arms that Sweetgale’s is.”

 

“Gale,” my husband interjects, his arms crossed over his chest. “My name is Gale.”

 

“Of course.” She nods. “Gale. Your story, Gale, of taking your family and fleeing into the wild to avoid the Reaping, along with the iconic symbol of the Mockingjay,” she motions to Katniss, “is really what this rebellion requires. We have the symbol, thanks to your wife. All we need now is the man whose story can inspire us all.”

 

I can see Katniss biting her lip to not correct Coin’s interpretation. I’m glad to see she’s sticking with our plan, even though I can tell it’s eating at her. She’s the most honest person I know, so misrepresenting herself like this is hard on her.

 

“It’s not just my story,” Gale says emphatically. “It’s all of ours.”

 

Coin frowns. “I’m not sure the public will respond to three figureheads.”

 

It’s pretty obvious that she’s one of those people who is dead set on doing things her way. From the set of her jaw, I can tell nobody’s challenged her before like we are now. Unfortunately for her, my husband and wife are just as stubborn as she is, and what’s more, they have me. I’ve been in love with Katniss since I was five. If that’s not stubborn, I don’t know what is. Coin doesn’t know it yet, but she’s run into a mountain that she can’t chip her way through. I know she’s not going to be happy, but there’s no way we’re going to budge. She either gets all three of us or she gets none. Now I just need to find a way to spin it so she doesn’t immediately reject it out of hand.

 

“They might respond better than you think,” I begin. “After all, each of us represents a different group. Gale’s the handsome masculine rebel, the guy who throws everything away and dives headfirst into new challenges and danger. He’s the one who every man will want to be and every woman will want to be with.” I catch Gale shooting me a look, asking me what the hell am I doing. I tilt my head, telling him to just trust me.

 

Coin nods her head. “I’m pleased to see that you’ve grasped exactly why we want Gale to be our Mockingjay.”

 

“And that makes perfect sense,” I say soothingly. “However, have you considered just how inspiring Katniss would be? She’s the one who had the audacity to paint those symbols. She’s the one who took the chance to spread the word, to inspire the rebellion. Without that symbol, would you even have a Mockingjay?” I ask rhetorically. I see Coin considering my point, so I press my advantage. “I would argue that you would not. You need people who are willing to stand up and rise up, not just to run away to fight, but who are willing to stay at home and continue supporting Panem while resisting the Capitol’s yoke. Additionally, what you don’t know about Katniss is that she was equally important in Gale’s decision to run away. They left at the same time, with both of their families.” I deliberately leave out that I was with them as the date of my defection is well known and we can’t risk Coin finding out just how early Katniss and Gale left. It’s better to keep the date a mystery, at least until we can get the story straight with Madge. “Katniss has now had the freedom to live her life with the men she loves and is starting a family with them. She’s what every woman will dream of becoming and, perhaps more importantly, she’s the symbol of the future. She’s carrying the hope of the rebellion in her belly.” It’s a hunch, based off the fact that I haven’t noticed any children in Thirteen. The children could be hidden or in another facility, but somehow I don’t think so.

 

I can see my hunch has paid off when I catch Coin nodding thoughtfully. “You bring up a good point, Mr. Mellark.”

 

“Please, call me Peeta.”

 

“Alright, Peeta. I concede that Ms. Everdeen is an important figurehead, especially considering her breeder status.” The term gives me pause. Breeder? I don’t have a lot of time to consider what it could mean because Coin asks, “And what about yourself, Mr. Mellark? No, I’m sorry. Peeta. What can you offer our rebellion?”

 

I smile and spread my hands self-effacingly. “As I’m certain you might have noticed, I have a way with words. Katniss and Gale are inspiring, but they’re not actors and since you’ve mentioned propos, I’m assuming that that means there’ll be scripts? Lines to read? Speeches to give?”

 

“You are correct.”

 

“Then you’ll need me.”

 

She raises her eyebrows. “How can you be so certain?”

 

I turn my eyes to my spouses and I feel my smile become more real. “Because I love them. I know them.” I turn back to look at her. “I know their strengths and weaknesses and public speaking isn’t either of their strengths.”

 

“You’ve given me quite a bit to think about, Peeta,” she says, drawing the conversation to a close. “Why don’t I have one of my aides show you to your quarters? We’ll discuss things further tomorrow.”

 

“What about Madge?” Katniss asks.

 

“Your companion will be taken care of. I’m certain she’s receiving the best medical care.”

 

“Thank you,” I say before Katniss can add more fuel to the fire. “I look forward to talking with you again.” I don’t. But we’re going to have to. I just have a feeling that Coin is much more dangerous than we’d even guessed.

 

oOo

 

The aide, last name James first name not given, takes us through the bowels of Thirteen to a line of numbered and lettered doors. I notice as we’re moving further and further into Thirteen that the air is becoming more dry. Recycled. I miss the fresh air of the area around our cave and the smell of rain on the wind. I can only imagine just how poorly Katniss and Gale are reacting to this.

 

I hazard a glance over at my husband and wife. As I expected, Katniss is chewing her lower lip. That’s one of her tells. Normally she does it when she’s nervous or uncertain of something, but lately she’s been doing it when she wants to say something but doesn’t feel she can. I can see her eyes flicking about the narrow gray hallways. She’s never been one to be confined. And I can tell these walls bother her.

 

Gale is also looking uncomfortable. He’s not as bad as Katniss, I suppose because before we left Twelve, he had consigned himself to working in the mines. But I make a mental note to add to our list of demands a room with a window that can open to the outside. Thirteen may not have them, but I’m not sure Katniss and Gale will be able to function without being able to see the sky.

 

A mockingjay has to fly free, and we are the Mockingjays.

 

The aide places his hand on a panel on the right hand side of a door. The portal slides open, revealing four bunk beds and a surprised woman standing in the middle of the room. She appears to be a little older than me, closer to Gale’s age, with mud brown hair and the same pale pallor that everyone in Thirteen seems to have. “You’re my new roommates!” she says. “I’m Robin Hawkins. You must be Sweetgale Hawthorne, our new Mockingjay. I’ve heard so much about you.”

 

Gale frown deepens. “Then you would know not to call me Sweetgale. My name’s Gale. When are you people going to get that through your heads?” It’s apparently a very sore subject for him and I make a vow to tease him about it only when I know he’s not going to snap.

 

“I’m sorry!” The woman takes a step back. “I didn’t mean to upset you, they just told me that was your name when they gave out the room assignments.”

 

“Wait what?” Katniss asks, her eyes flicking to the three narrow beds. “Are we all staying here?”

 

“Indeed, as you can see there are three available beds and last I checked there are three of you,” the aide says, failing to keep his disapproval out of his tone.

 

I step forward before Gale or Katniss can explode at the man. “Um, excuse me, Mr. James. I think you might have been mistaken. We’re all married. All three of us.”

 

The man pulls out a rectangular tablet and consults it. “I don’t see your union registered and you all have different last names...”

 

Katniss growls low in her throat.

 

“...There is no indication that you are officially married. Therefore I was informed that you three are to be boarded in the unpartnered persons barracks.” There’s an unmistakable smugness in his tone when he delivers his statement.

 

“Fuck that,” Gale snarls, stalking off down the hall.

 

Katniss and I share a look. This is bad. Gale’s forgotten the plan to let me take the lead, and I’m afraid of what he’s going to say or do. I hurry after him, but I’m unwilling to leave Katniss too far behind, which means our husband keeps getting further and further ahead. Behind us, I hear the aide, Mr. James, calling after us, trying to get us to come back. I’m not quite sure how Gale knows where he’s going, since I’m completely lost, but both he and Katniss seem to be able to navigate through these identical hallways with ease.

 

We catch up to Gale just in time to see him stomp into President Coin’s office.

 

Shit.

 

I hear a loud slam come from inside the office and I look through the door to see Gale with his hands placed on the desk, looming menacingly over Coin.

 

The president glares daggers at us for an instant before schooling her features, all of the hard earned goodwill from earlier gone.

 

Fuck. I don’t know how I’m going to rescue this.

 

I note that Coin isn’t alone in her office. Commander Boggs and Fulvia, the woman who came with him and Cressida to fetch us, are both there, along with an older gentleman who looks to be around President Coin’s age with gray-flecked red hair, gray eyes, and a slightly redder complexion than I’ve seen in Thirteen. He’s looking at us with an amused expression on his face to counter the shocked and angry ones on Fulvia and Boggs respectively.

 

Coin is doing her best to contain her anger, but it’s clear that she’s livid. She tilts her head up to regard Gale. “Is there something I can do for you, Gale?”

 

“What the fuck is up with these room arrangements?” he asks calmly, deliberately.

 

She blinks. “I beg your pardon?”

 

“Why are you shoving us in unpartnered persons living quarters? We told you we’re married. All three of us. What part of that don’t you understand?” My husband isn’t yelling, in fact his voice has gone very quiet. I glance at his hands, his very expressive hands, and note that they’re clenching and unclenching into fists. That tells me, more than anything, just how unlikely he is to back down on this right now.

 

“I’m sure there’s been some misunderstanding,” Coin tries to reason. “If you take this up with my aide, James, I’m certain this can get straightened out.”

 

“Your aide seems to think that we’re unmarried.” Unspoken is why the aide would think that. There’s an accusation in my husband’s statement.

 

“You have to admit it is an unusual situation,” Coin says smoothly. “Perhaps we can clear this up another time.” She turns back toward Boggs, her body language signaling a clear dismissal.

 

It’s immediately apparent to me that Coin is the one behind our lodgings. She doesn’t seem surprised at Gale’s words, only his anger. The real question is why.

 

Unfortunately, my husband’s missed the cues. “We clear this up now!” Gale is adamant. He straightens up, crossing his arms over his chest.

 

Coin is equally unwilling to budge. “That is not an option.”

 

“It better become an option. The three of us stay together in our own private quarters, otherwise you lose your Mockingjays,” Gale vows and I try not to wince at his words. He’s just backed Coin into a corner, and in front of witnesses. This is not good.

 

Coin’s eyes go hard. She is beyond livid. The last time I saw that much anger in a person’s eyes, my mother beat Farl and me to within an inch of our lives for ruining a batch of cookies. Coin is even more dangerous than my mother and instead of her fists, she’s got other weapons to use against us.

 

But I understand why Gale is not willing to concede this point. I’m not pleased with the arrangements either. And I know Katniss is pissed too. But why would Coin do something that would so obviously anger her figurehead?

 

Then it hits me. The living arrangements are a test. I’m just not sure if we’re passing or failing at the moment. It’d help if I knew just what we were being tested on, there are several possibilities and each one requires a different approach.

 

“I see.” Coin draws out the last word. “You must understand that space is at a premium.”

 

“Are you saying you don’t have any place for us to sleep?” Katniss interjects pointedly. “We can always go back home.”

 

“You did arrive quite unexpectedly,” the woman tries to reason. “We don’t have any quarters large enough to accommodate three full sized adults. The barracks are the best solution.”

 

“And you always make pregnant women sleep in the barracks?” I ask, trying to keep my tone curious rather than accusatory.

 

The red haired man shoots Coin a startled look and I know I’ve hit on the right excuse for Gale’s anger. I hate using Katniss’s pregnancy like this but if it keeps us together and stops Gale and Katniss from leading us back into the minefield Coin’s laid for us, I’ll use any ammunition I have.

 

The man turns to Coin. “Alma, don’t we have larger quarters set aside as incentive for potential breeders?” There’s that term again. “I believe there are several available in the lower levels.”

 

A micro-expression of rage flits across Coin’s features before she schools them back into a politely concerned façade. “You are correct, Georges. I had forgotten about those.”

 

“Then that seems to be our solution.” A smile spreads across his ruddy face.

 

“I’ll authorize the change,” Coin says. “Although I should warn you, the bed may not be able to accommodate all three of you.”

 

It’s time for me to take over. “Your largest bed will be fine. We’re used to sleeping together and we have trouble when we can’t. And Katniss already has enough trouble sleeping, what with the baby and all.” Deliberately, I rub the back of my neck. “I think that’s what Gale is really trying to say. I told you that he wasn’t the most eloquent out of the three of us.” I smile slightly as if I’m embarrassed by the admission. “I hate to say it, but if you want us at our peak performance, we have to make sure that we’re able to get a good night’s sleep.”

 

“Is there anything else?” It’s clear from her tone that she wants us to leave.

 

Gale and I exchange a glance. This is as good of a time as any for us to lay out the rest of our demands. Delaying at this point won’t help us, we’ve already burned our bridges. Also, the longer we wait, the more likely it is that our requests will be ignored or turned down. And there’s the possibility we might have an ally in this red haired man, something we are currently lacking.

 

“I’m glad you asked,” I say, stepping into my role as speaker. “There are a few conditions to us taking on the roles of Mockingjays.”

 

Her eyes flash. “I’m listening.”

 

“The first, and as you can tell, one of the most important, is that all three of us remain together and be acknowledged as a married trio. If there’s paperwork we need to make it official to Thirteen, we’d be happy to fill it out,” I concede, acknowledging her concern on that subject. “But we are married, all three of us.” I let my tone indicate that I’m not going to budge there either. I might be the spokesperson, but I’m not a doormat.

 

“It’s irregular, but I’ll have an aide figure something out.” She makes a note on a screen next to her. “The standard paperwork does not allow for more than two people in a union.”

 

“When you’re making the changes have the decency to refer to us by our proper names,” Katniss says before I can speak. “He’s Gale Hawthorne. Not Sweetgale. Gale. I’m Katniss Everdeen. Not Mrs. Mellark or Mrs. Hawthorne. Katniss Everdeen. He’s Peeta Mellark. Got it?”

 

The red-haired man smiles at my wife, it’s a real smile and it actually reaches his eyes. “I believe you’ve gotten your point across, Ms. Everdeen. I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m General Georges Glenn, commander of District Thirteen’s advance troops.”

 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, General Glenn,” I say and mean it.

 

He seems to hear it in my voice. “No, no, the pleasure’s all mine, Mr. Mellark.”

 

“Please, call me Peeta.”

 

“Now that we have that out of the way,” Coin steps in, annoyance coloring her tone, “are there any other demands the three of you might have?”

 

“Since we are changing our rooming assignments,” I say, “we would like to request a room with a window or some kind of view or access to the outside.”

 

All three people from Thirteen frown slightly. “That’s a bit of a difficult request,” General Glenn tells me. “Pregnant women are typically kept on the lower levels for their safety as well as proximity to both the nursery and medical facilities. Is there any particular reason why being on the uppermost level is so important?”

 

“Please don’t take any offense at this, but Thirteen is a bit, well, confined.” I’m being diplomatic. The place is downright claustrophobic compared to what we’re used to. I struggle to explain without giving up too much. “All six of us have gotten used to coming and going as we please, being able to see the sky, smell the wind. We’ve gotten used to that freedom. It’s even more important for Gale and Katniss. They’ve always roamed free, even back in Twelve. I feel it would help improve relations if this request could be honored. In addition, we’d be able to perform more efficiently.” I pause slightly. Time to drop the next bombshell. “Also, our family is composed of more than just human members. Katniss’s sister has cats, which leads us to another of our requirements. Prim gets to keep her cats.”

 

“Just how many cats are we talking about?” Coin asks, her tone carefully neutral.

 

“She has two.” I deliberately don’t mention the fact that Dandelion is pregnant. “But considering that we brought Buttercup all the way from District Twelve during our escape and Dandelion was rescued as a kitten near our home, the loss would be quite devastating to all of us.” I’m stretching the truth quite a bit. Both Gale and Katniss don’t like the cats, and only see them as being useful for keeping away vermin. But we all know just how devastated Prim would be if she couldn’t have her furry babies.

 

Coin’s mouth becomes a thin line. I can tell she wants nothing to do with the cats and would probably eat them if she could. But she gives a terse nod. That’s one point down. “You may have your cats.”

 

I do a little internal victory dance. She didn’t specify the number, which means that Dandelion’s kittens are safe.

 

And then I realize: I just told Coin that we brought Buttercup with us during our escape. Not their escape. Ours. I’ve pretty much stated that Katniss and Gale left Twelve when I did, before Madge ever painted a single mockingjay. I glance around the room, noting that no one seems to have noticed my slip of the tongue. Then I hastily change the subject. “That brings us to another of our requests. All of us would like to be allowed outside to hunt, gather, fish, or just take in the wilderness.”

 

“What would you do with the things you collect or kill?” Fulvia asks curiously.

 

I’m pleased she’s given us an opening to show that we’re not being totally selfish in our requests. “We’d be happy to turn them over to the group kitchens. That way we can contribute to the well-being of District Thirteen in gratitude for you granting this request.”

 

“I believe that’s reasonable, Alma, don’t you?” General Glenn says. “I know the troops would enjoy some fresh meat now and again rather than the typical rations.”

 

I notice President Coin flash a look of utter hatred at General Glenn before she manages to cover it. If I hadn’t been looking so closely at her face, trying to catch the moments where she actually shows what she’s feeling, I never would have seen it. I try to keep my disappointment to myself. It appears our lone ally is not as highly regarded by Thirteen’s president as I’d hoped.

 

“I think we can accommodate you, Mr. Mellark,” President Coin says. “I assume you have more demands.”

 

“You would be correct, Madam President.” I smile slightly, but don’t do anything else that could be construed as weak.

 

She crosses her hands on her desk. “What are they?”

 

“We only have two more conditions,” I tell the group. “The first is in regards to our companion, Madge Undersee, the Mayor’s daughter from District Twelve.” I pause to make sure I have their full attention. “She must survive.”

 

“She’s already receiving medical care,” Boggs tells us.

 

“Yes. Thank you.” I nod my head, acknowledging the commander’s words. “We want to reiterate our initial stance that Madge receives the best possible treatment and care. If Madge dies we will not be able to be your Mockingjays,” I say with faux regret. “Madge is, ultimately, the only reason we came. And if something were to happen to her, we’d have no reason to stay.”

 

“I am assuming you will want to keep her out of the fighting then,” Coin says. It’s a statement, not a question.

 

“Yes,” I say without any preamble. “We understand that if District Thirteen were to be attacked that all inhabitants must do their part, but Madge stays out of your war.”

 

“Done,” Coin says crisply. “And your final demand?”

 

“It’s a simple one, but one I’m sure you’ll understand.” This is the demand I insisted we include. “We reserve the right to add to our list of conditions later. After all, wars do change and circumstances need to change with them. There might be something in the future which we will need to discuss that hasn’t come up yet.”

 

I can tell that Coin isn’t happy about this condition. She counters with, “I think we can work with that, so long as we in Thirteen can reserve the right to renegotiate any of your previous conditions.”

 

“We can negotiate them,” I concede. “However, our willingness to negotiate does not mean that we’re willing to give in on any of these points.”

 

“So let me make sure I have this correct,” Fulvia says, speaking up before Coin can. “You three wish to be quartered together, in a location that has a window or a view of some sort, and be acknowledged by your chosen names and as a married couple - a trio, I mean.” She blushes slightly at her gaffe.

 

I nod my head, acknowledging her correction, and motion for her to continue.

 

“You will keep the cats you brought with you. Your group will be allowed outside to hunt, gather, and do whatever you do outdoors, and any fruits of your labors will be donated to District Thirteen.” She turns to Coin. “I assume they’ll need to check with the appropriate people before they’ll be allowed outside and you’d prefer if they’d schedule their outings in advance?”

 

“That is correct.”

 

Fulvia turns to me. “Can you work with that?”

 

I look at both Katniss and Gale. It’s not an unreasonable request but they’re going to have to be the ones to agree to it.

 

“Our weapons?” Katniss asks.

 

“Will be kept in the armory with all armaments,” Coin answers. “You can retrieve them before you go out and will be expected to return them when you come back.”

 

Katniss nods first, followed by Gale.

 

“That’s fair,” I say.

 

Fulvia smiles. “Continuing... Your companion, Madge Undersee, will receive the best medical care Thirteen can provide, and for the duration of the war will be kept here in Thirteen on the homefront. And finally, both parties reserve the right to renegotiate, add to, or remove these conditions at a later date. Does that seem correct?”

 

I nod my head and I note Gale and Katniss doing the same.

 

“Then we’ve come to an accord.” She claps her hands. “How splendid!”

 

President Coin looks up from her desk. “I believe you’ve summarized it correctly, Deputy Director Cardew. I’ll have my assistant James show you to your temporary quarters for tonight. We will do our best to find ones that meet your other demands tomorrow.”

 

“We understand. Thank you for meeting with us.”

 

“It was a pleasure. Now, if you don’t mind, we were in the middle of a very important meeting.”

 

“Not at all, Madam President, not at all.” I grab both my spouses and escape before they can do any more damage. We’ve got a lot to talk about.

 

oOo

 

I flop down on the bed in our temporary quarters and let out a long sigh. It’s been one hell of a day and I am emotionally exhausted. I feel Katniss and Gale sit down on either side of me, Gale reaching out to take my hand.

 

“You okay, man?”

 

“That’s a loaded question,” I say. “Define okay. You mean not dead? I’m fine. If you mean not in mortal peril, well I would say that I’m slightly less than okay.”

 

“What do you mean?” Katniss asks, laying down beside me.

 

I don’t answer her right away. Instead I roll over so I can rest my head against her belly. It’s been my favorite position ever since she told us she was pregnant. I love the comfort of feeling our child grow and move within her and the happiness it gives me. She lets me have my moment, running her fingers through my hair. I feel Gale lie down behind me, protecting my back. They’re trying to guard me, protect me. That’s what they do. They just have no idea how much danger we’re in here. Actually, Katniss probably has some idea. For all that she’s not politically savvy, she’s got a strong protective instinct. It’s probably why she didn’t want to come in the first place.

 

Gale’s the one I’m really worried about. He’s wanted to be a part of something meaningful like the rebellion for so long. If he’d heard of it before leaving Twelve, he might’ve stayed and become an agitator like Madge. Not that that would’ve done him any good, but that’s just how my husband is. He’s an idealist. He’s a crusader. And right now I have to keep him from tilting at windmills in his quest to save Panem. And I can’t do that curled up against Katniss’s belly.

 

I roll over and stare up at the concrete ceiling over our heads. The smoothness and uniformity remind me more than anything else just where we are. This isn’t home and we aren’t safe.

 

“Gale?” I say. “The next time you confront a power-hungry paranoid militaristic dictator, can you please give me a heads up and maybe let someone else, someone more eloquent, do the talking, so we don’t get ourselves killed?”

 

“You’re talking about Coin, aren’t you?” Katniss asks.

 

I turn my head to look at her. “Who else would I be talking about?”

 

She frowns at me. “I don’t know.”

 

“Sorry, didn’t mean to be short.” I sigh. “It’s just… that woman is dangerous with a capital D.”

 

“Why do you say that? She seems pretty reasonable,” Gale says.

 

“Seems being the operative word.” I take a deep breath, trying to put into words everything that I observed today and just what it means for us. “That woman hates having her authority challenged, and worse, she’s paranoid that someone is going to come along who’s going to remove her from power. All three of us, both individually and together, represent a challenge to her power. We’re either with her or against her, and that whole thing with the accommodations? That was a test. And we failed. Badly.”

 

“A test?” Katniss asks. “What do you mean?”

 

“It was a test to see if we’d go along with what she wanted.”

 

“What did she want?” my husband asks.

 

I roll over to take Gale’s head between my hands. I stare into his eyes, trying to convey all of the fears that I have.   “If I had to guess, she wants you. We’re just excess baggage. You’re the one she wants.”

 

Gale reaches up and takes my hands in his. “She doesn’t get me without you.”

 

“I know that. You know that. And now she knows that.” I pause, replaying the day in my head. “We probably could have gotten our way with less hostility if we’d approached her a little less antagonistically, but you,” I kiss Gale’s nose, “love, had to go and ram it down her throat in that forceful bullheaded way of yours.”

 

“I’m sorry?” he says in a tone that’s anything but. “I’m just not willing to let them bully us like that.”

 

I kiss Gale’s mouth in gratitude that he’s willing to fight for us, for me. “I know you’re not, and that’s what we love about you. But really, Gale, we’d probably have been better off choosing the time of our battles rather than tipping our hand like we did.” I stroke his cheek with my thumb.

 

“So she knows that we’re not gonna compromise on this,” Katniss says. “What’s the big deal?”

 

I roll over to face our wife. “The big deal is that she now knows that she can use us against Gale, or any of us against the others. In a way, all of us are hostages, but you and this one,” I rub her belly, “most especially.”

 

“The baby would always be a hostage,” she points out. I can hear the fear in her voice and it echoes the fear in my heart.

 

“Maybe, maybe not,” I try to soothe her and myself. “If we’d stayed on Coin’s good side, she probably wouldn’t even think about it. You saw her reaction when we brought up the baby. That matters here. That matters a lot.” I pause, closing my eyes. “But even then, she’d probably be willing to sacrifice one baby, our baby, if it meant that she could retain power.”

 

Katniss reaches up to place her hand over my heart. “So what are we gonna do?”

 

“I’m open to ideas,” I say with a sigh, taking her small hand in mine.

 

“Is there any way you think we can get back into that woman’s good graces?” Gale asks, slipping his left arm over Katniss’s waist and mine.

 

“Maybe. But the only way I can see that happening is if we turned into perfectly obedient Thirteen soldiers.”

 

Gale chuckles. “Not happening.”

 

“I know that. It’s not even really an option.” I sigh. “We’ve defied her, and what’s worse, we did it in front of others, including somebody she sees as a rival.”

 

“Huh? Who?” Katniss asks, looking up at me.

 

“That General Glenn guy.”

 

She makes a face, trying to attach a face to the name. “The nice redheaded one?”

 

“Yeah, him.” I nod. “Coin hates him.”

 

“How do you know?”

 

“I saw it on her face.”

 

“I didn’t see it.”

 

“Because you weren’t looking for it,” I tell them both. “I’ve had to become good at reading people’s expressions and figuring out what they mean. It’s the only way I could survive.” I don’t like talking about my home life. My mother wasn’t fit to be anybody’s parent and to this day I’m not sure why my father married her. Especially since I know he was in love with Katniss’s mother until the day he died.

 

“So do you think she’s gonna kill us?” Katniss asks me bluntly. “I mean, we haven’t really agreed to stay. We can still go.”

 

I take a deep breath. “Yeah, but what about Madge?”

 

“Madge isn’t either of you,” she answers seriously. “Madge is my friend. You’re my husbands. I’m not about to sacrifice you for her.”

 

“It’s not totally your call,” I say softly.

 

She glares at me.

 

“Gale still wants this. Don’t you?” I tilt my head back to see a flash of guilt cross my husband’s features.

 

“Gale?” Katniss’s voice is confused, wary.

 

Our husband sighs and tightens his arms around the two of us. “I’m sorry, Catnip, but Peet’s right. Not just about Madge. It’s not about her. It’s not even about us anymore. It’s about everyone. Panem needs us.”

 

“But I don’t understand why!” Katniss exclaims in frustration. “Why can’t they use someone else? I mean, it’s not like we’re all that inspiring, it’s not like we got up in front of the Capitol and defied them repeatedly on television. It’s not like we pulled one over on them. All we did was run away!”

 

I pull her closer to me. “But that’s just it. We did pull one over on them. We got away.”

 

“And what’s more, we got away cleanly,” Gale adds. “Six people? And now we’re inspiring others to run! You heard Cressida, you heard Peet’s brother and Madge. Our defection is inspiring people.”

 

“Your defection,” she mumbles into my chest. “I’m just an afterthought.”

 

Tilting her chin up, I see that she’s struggling to hold back tears. Katniss rarely cries. I know part of it is the pregnancy messing with her hormones, but part of it is her fear of loss. “Not to us. Never to us.” I bend down, kissing her gently.

 

She returns the kiss, clinging to Gale and me. “I just want to go home. Can’t we go home?”

 

I roll over slightly and Gale and I exchange another look. Both of us know, out of all of us, that this is going to be the hardest on Katniss. It always was going to be. With her pregnancy, she’s going to be limited in what she can do. And her story is technically Madge’s story. If Thirteen were to find out, she’d become expendable, and now that Coin is against us, she’s in even more danger.

 

Without really thinking about it, we shift positions so that Katniss is lying between us. We’ve gotten used to being able to switch who’s lying in the middle without it turning into a big production.

 

“We can’t,” I tell her, spooning behind her and resting my hands on her stomach. “Maybe if we never came here, if we never confronted Coin, we’d be safe. But Thirteen knows where we live now, and as long as we’re alive, as long as Gale’s alive, Coin is going to see us as a threat. She’d have no problems sending a troop of assassins to kill us one night.”

 

“We can always move.” I can tell from her tone she doesn’t really believe it, but she’s trying to find a way out even if there isn’t one.

 

“Where? How?” I ask. “You’re pregnant. We’re going to have a baby. Even if we managed to get away, there’s still the Capitol and those raiders out there. No. We have to see this through.”

 

“I still don’t like it,” Katniss says, her tone resigned.

 

Gale sighs. “I owe you both an apology. I fucked up. I really fucked this up.”

 

“Yeah.” I look over at my husband. “You really kind of did.”

 

“Is it wrong that I kind of found it a little hot?” Katniss asks, a small smile gracing her lips.

 

I laugh. “Nope. I gotta admit it, Gale in his alpha maleness is a pretty damn fine specimen.”

 

“Okay good, it’s not just me.” She grins. “But Gale?” She rolls over to face him. “Next time, leave the talking to Peeta. Or at least make sure I have my bow so I can kill anybody who threatens us.”

 

The three of us laugh and snuggle close together. We might be in danger. We might be far from home. But at least we have each other.

 

oOo

 

The following morning, we’re escorted to a commissary where we eat a very bland, very gray breakfast. Each of our portions is carefully measured out, with Katniss receiving the most because she’s pregnant. It makes sense in a place like Thirteen. It wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that citizen after citizen of Thirteen keeps coming over and placing their hands on Katniss’s belly.

 

Katniss turns to me after the last person, an older woman, steps away. “Can you get them to stop?” she hisses.

 

I sigh, looking around the cafeteria, noting that most of the people are watching Katniss with something akin to awe on their faces. “I’m guessing there haven’t been a lot of pregnant women in Thirteen lately.”

 

“That’s not my fault!” she snarls, crossing her hands over her belly protectively. “The next person who comes over and places their hands on my body without my permission is going to get smacked!”

 

I can tell she means it. Katniss has always been a very private person and only physically demonstrative with those people she cares about deeply. Outside of Gale and myself, Prim receives the majority of Katniss’s affection. Even Rory and Violet only get the occasional touch. So Thirteen’s reverent pawing is driving her crazy.

 

I reach over and rub her back, trying to catch Gale’s attention. I need him to stand guard so I can talk our wife off the ledge. Her pregnancy is the only real thing Katniss has which makes her the third Mockingjay. The rest of her image is built on a lie and Madge’s work. Katniss’s position is precarious and she cannot shatter Thirteen’s image of her.

 

“They’re going to keep doing it, Katniss,” I tell her quietly once Gale’s standing guard. “This baby’s important to them. You’re important to them, and they’re going to want to be a part of it.”

 

“But does that mean that they have to touch me?” She leans against me. “Can’t they just talk? Or wave? I’d be okay with waving!”

 

I wrap my arms around her and murmur, “I don’t think it’s going to work like that. Look around you. How many people under the age of twenty do you see? There aren’t any. In fact, if I had to guess, I’d say Thirteen’s dying and that the reason they have to have the rebellion now is because it’s their last chance.”

 

Katniss does look around and I can tell she sees I’m right. The only people under the age of twenty are ourselves and Rory and Prim. Everyone else is older than us.

 

“So you’re right.” She rests her head on my shoulder. “It still doesn’t mean that they get the right to touch me!”

 

“It’ll be over soon, if that’s any consolation.”

 

“But then they’ll want to touch our baby!”

 

“And then we’ll put our foot down.”

 

She looks up at me. “Why can’t we put our foot down now?”

 

“We’ve got to give them a reason to love us.” I caress my fingers along her jaw, playing idly with a tendril of hair. “Go along with it for now, and if it gets to be too much for you, pretend that you’re not feeling well or that you’re sleepy or something.”

 

“I’m not feeling well.”

 

“Good, you won’t have to pretend.”

 

She scowls. “You’re not helping, Peeta.”

 

I laugh. “If it’s any consolation, I’d carry the baby for you.”

 

“What woman hasn’t heard that before?” She sighs. “I know you would, Peeta. Sorry. It’s just… I don’t like it here. I want to go home.”

 

“I know.” I look up and see Gale regarding the two of us sadly. “I think we all do.”

 

“So why don’t we leave?”

 

“Because we can’t.” It breaks my heart to have to keep saying that, over and over again. I know she doesn’t want to be here and that the only reason she came is because of Madge. I only hope she doesn’t hold Madge’s injury against her. It’s not the Mayor’s daughter’s fault she was hurt. That fault lies solely with the Capitol.

 

“We should probably get going,” Gale says, breaking in. “There’s a new rush of people coming in and I don’t think we want to be here for round two of touch Katniss’s baby belly.”

 

Katniss stands up abruptly. “Fine. Let’s go.”

 

“Go where?”

 

“Anywhere but here.”

 

“Why not go check on Madge?” I suggest. “We need to make sure that Coin’s holding up her end of the bargain.”

 

“Good idea,” Gale agrees.

 

We take our leave and I do my best to try to keep track of where we are. One thing I notice is that everyone seems to have this purple tattoo printed on their wrist. Some people are wearing bracelets that they occasionally lift up to their mouths to speak into, and almost everyone has a military-like bearing to their step.

 

We don’t know where the Infirmary is, so I stop an older woman to ask directions. She rattles the directions off and I shake my head. I have no idea how to make sense of what she just said.

 

The woman sighs and tries again.

 

I still don’t understand.   “Could you maybe draw a map?”

 

The woman looks at me like I’ve asked her to remove her left leg. “And use up valuable resources? How wasteful!”

 

“Sorry? It’s just that we’re new here.”

 

She narrows her eyes. “Then where’s your escort?”

 

The three of us exchange a look. “We didn’t know we had to have one.”

 

“All transients must have an escort. It’s in the rules,” the woman snaps. “Haven’t you read the rules?”

 

“I think we’re an exception,” Gale says dryly.

 

“I’m calling Security.”

 

“Go ahead and do that,” Gale tells her, amusement in his tone. “Maybe they can show us how to get to the Infirmary from here.”

 

Glaring at all three of us, she orders, “You wait right here.”

 

“Not a problem,” Gale says, watching the woman walk away.

 

“I think I’m beginning to see a bit of a problem with Coin’s plans,” I mutter.

 

He glances at me. “What do you mean?”

 

“Nobody’s going to recognize us,” I explain to Gale. “It’s not like we’re Finnick Odair famous. Or even Haymitch Abernathy famous. Even if there are pictures of us circulating out in the districts due to our escape, they’re out of date, probably our school photos from a year and a half ago.”

 

“Not to mention you’ve got these.” Katniss reaches up and tugs at my beard with a slight smile.

 

I grin down at her. “Exactly. I don’t know what Coin’s planning on doing, but it’s going to take a lot more work than I think she’s expecting.”

 

Gale sighs. “Great. One more reason for her to hate us.”

 

The woman returns with two men dressed in body armor carrying batons. “These are the three transients I was telling you about.”

 

“Thank you for informing us, Miss,” the shorter of the two men states in a monotone. “We’ll take it from here.”

 

The woman nods and leaves.

 

Not waiting for the men to speak, our husband steps forward, his body language reading frustrated teenager. “So let’s get this out of the way now. I’m Gale Hawthorne. No, we haven’t read the transient handbook since no one gave it to us. We have no clue where we are. That woman was a bitch.” I can tell he’s not talking about the woman who summoned Thirteen’s equivalent to Peacekeepers. “And we’ve had a shitty last few days. Would you mind showing us how to get to the Infirmary from here? Hospital, medics, whatever you call it? We need to check up on the rest of our party.”

 

At Gale’s name, the hostile demeanor drops. “I’m sorry about that, Mr. Hawthorne. We didn’t recognize you.”

 

Gale turns to me, asking me to take the lead, rolling his eyes slightly.

 

“It’s okay, soldier,” I soothe. “Sometimes we don’t recognize ourselves. I’m Peeta Mellark, and this is Gale’s and my wife, Katniss Everdeen.”

 

“It’s a pleasure to meet all three of you,” the taller man speaks. “We’ve heard quite a lot about you guys. I’m Soldier Neil Hayes and this is my partner, Soldier Bart Ashley. It’s nice to be able to put a face to the name.”

 

“Do you think you can take us to the hospital?”

 

“Absolutely, right away!” Neil consults a cuff around his wrist. “In fact, I think they’re actually waiting for you.”

 

Gale and I exchange a look. Waiting for us? That sounds ominous.

 

The two men lead us to the Infirmary, Neil chattering the entire time. Even though he’s older than us, he acts younger. He tells us about how he’s been a soldier since he was fourteen and how he’s really looking forward to finally being able to do something else with his life.

 

I raise my eyebrows at that information. Fourteen seems young, really young, almost as bad as the Capitol taking twelve year olds and forcing them to compete in life or death games. I don’t say that, of course, I’m not stupid. But it’s another tick in the bad column regarding Thirteen.

 

Soldier Ashley doesn’t say much, although he seems to be amused at his companion’s steady stream of conversation. He meets my eyes and gives me a little shrug. It’s nice to see that these people from Thirteen are human, even with their pale sameness.

 

They show us into the Infirmary, which is located in the bowels of Thirteen. There’s a nearby bank of elevators and a large set of reinforced doors at the end of the hall with the words ‘Fallout Shelter’ stenciled on the wall next to them.

 

When we enter the Infirmary, we’re shown to a large square desk with four people monitoring a bank of screens set up there. Congregated along one side is a group of several doctors and nurses dressed all in white and blue going over tablets of information.

 

Bart Ashley talks to one of the people at the desk, who motions to one of the doctors in the group.

 

The man looks up when he hears the conversation, looking first at Bart then over to us. “There you are!” he exclaims. “We have been sending patrols all over looking for you! Why didn’t you pay attention to your schedules?”

 

“Schedules?” I ask.

 

“The one that’s printed on your wrist every morning!” he answers impatiently.

 

I hold up my blank wrist. “What schedule?”

 

He glares at Neil. “Did nobody give them the transient information packet?” He reaches out and snags Katniss’s wrist. “Anyways, Mrs. Everdeen--”

 

Katniss wrenches her arm back. “Ms. I am not my mother.”

 

“Whatever. You have an appointment,” he snaps. “You had an appointment an hour ago.” He pauses. “I don’t suppose you’ve eaten already.”

 

“I just finished breakfast.”

 

The doctor swears. “There goes most of our tests. I suppose you’ll have to come back tomorrow. But we might as well get done what we can get done now, so it’s not a total loss.”

 

Katniss looks over at me. I can tell she’s reached the end of her patience, but she’s trying not to blow up like Gale did yesterday.

 

I step in, but I’m just as confused as my wife is. “Um, we were just here to see a friend of ours, one of your patients. Madge Undersee. She’s here, right?”

 

“Not right now,” the doctor snaps, reaching for Katniss again. “We’re already off schedule.”

 

My wife has had enough. “No. I’m not going anywhere with you until you let me see Madge.”

 

“Katniss…” I say warningly. “I’m sure Madge is fine.”

 

She shakes her head stubbornly, crossing her arms protectively over her stomach. “No. No one gets to lay a finger on me until I know how Madge is doing.”

 

“Fine,” the doctor says. “If you’re going to be stubborn like that. She’s in here.” He walks over to a small room and opens the door. Inside, I can see my mother-in-law seated in an uncomfortable looking plastic chair that’s in one corner while Madge is lying on one of the beds, her eyes closed.

 

“How is she?” I ask, turning to Violet.

 

“Stable,” my mother-in-law answers. “They’ve pumped her full of antibiotics and other drugs. She’s got surgery scheduled for later this afternoon. They may have to remove her leg, although they won’t know for sure until they get her into the operating room.” She sighs. “They don’t even know if she’s going to make it. But they’re trying.”

 

I frown and hazard a glance at Katniss to see if she’s heard. She has, and I can see that she doesn’t look pleased. I don’t blame her. I’m not happy either. But there’s nothing we can do right now.

 

“Have you seen Rye?” I ask, changing the subject.

 

“I think he’s in the next room over.”

 

“And Rooba?”

 

“She’s around someplace,” my mother-in-law answers vaguely. “They’ve classified her as mentally disoriented.”

 

“What does that mean?” Katniss asks.

 

“I think it means she’s lost her marbles,” Gale supplies.

 

“I suppose that’s one way to put it,” I murmur. I walk next door to see my brother. He too is asleep, and I’m a little disappointed. I can tell that he’s still alive. They’ve hooked up some kind of monitor to him and he’s got an IV going into his left arm.

 

A nurse, an older gray-haired woman, comes up beside me. “You’re the brother, right?”

 

I nod.

 

She smirks. “Thought so. We’re keeping him asleep for now,” she tells me, keeping her voice low. “He kept trying to go into the girl next door’s room, which was against the doctor’s orders. We don’t want to risk him getting infected with what she’s got.”

 

“What does she have?” I ask, concerned.

 

“A better question is what doesn’t she have,” the woman answers with a shake of her head. “The mutts that attacked her had some kind of venom or something in their bite and we’re having to give her a broad-spectrum antiviral and antibacterial in order to fight whatever it is off.”

 

“Madge is gonna make it, right?”

 

“We’re doing our best, Mr. Mellark.” She sighs. “Just, the Capitol are bastards, you know.”

 

I reassess the woman beside me. Unlike the doctor from before, she actually seems to give a damn.

 

“Thanks,” I say.

 

The woman smiles over at me. “It’s my job. I took an oath.”

 

“I should probably get going,” I tell her, looking around. “Before my wife kills that doctor.”

 

The woman laughs. “Don’t mind Dr. Andrews. He’s always like that.”

 

“Good to know.” And it is. If the guy is as rude to all of his patients as he is to Katniss, it makes it easier to deal with him.

 

Gale and I stay with Katniss during her exam. The man pokes and prods her and draws several vials of blood before wheeling in a machine with a television screen attached to it.

 

“You’re doing surprisingly well, Ms. Everdeen,” the doctor says, “considering the lack of medical care you’ve had during your pregnancy.”

 

“I’ve had plenty of medical care,” she protests. “My mother’s a healer.”

 

He snorts. “Yes, well, let me be the judge of that.”

 

“So what are you doing?” I ask as a distraction.

 

“I’m performing an ultrasound.”

 

I have no idea what the word means, but I’m not about to tell him that. Instead I say, “We don’t have those back in District Twelve. The Capitol likes to keep our medical care, well, I suppose you would say primitive.”

 

“Yes, I’ve heard. The monsters,” he replies with some heat. “Access to modern medical care should be a right, not a privilege for the Capitol elite.”

 

I realize then that the guy isn’t necessarily as bad as we thought. He’s just set in his ways and has no patience. “So do you mind explaining what you’re going to be doing?” I ask before Katniss can start to protest.

 

“Well, this machine allows us to see how the baby’s doing in real time, without the invasiveness of a probe or other kinds of scan,” he explains absently, his eyes focused on his work. “The bloodwork we’ve taken will assist in that and help point out any chromosomal anomalies or birth defects, and will identify which of you is the father.”

 

“You can do that?” Gale asks.

 

“Of course!” Dr. Andrews looks up in surprise at Gale’s tone. “It’s a relatively simple test. We just need a reference from the two of you to compare it against. In fact, I’m going to demand it, since it’s possible that one or both of you might be carriers of any number of hereditary diseases.”

 

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with Thirteen taking my blood. It’s no different, I suppose, from the Capitol requiring a test from all of its potential tributes on Reaping Day or mine workers having to provide a reference sample in case of an accident in the mines like the one that killed both of my spouses’ fathers. I can tell Gale is as uncomfortable as I am, but I suppose it’s better to know now if one of us is a carrier of some kind of disease. I wouldn’t want to inflict that on a child of mine.

 

Dr. Andrews rings for a nurse. A young brunette woman responds, coming in and drawing our blood while the man finishes setting up his equipment. When he finishes, we get to see our child for the first time. It’s gray and indistinct, and the first thing I’m aware of is a fast-paced swishing sound.

 

“That’s the child’s heartbeat,” the doctor says.

 

I feel tears come to my eyes and I reach out to take Gale and Katniss’s hands. Our child has a heartbeat. It’s alive.

 

“It appears the fetus is well-developed,” Dr. Andrews continues. “And there’s only one in there.” The man pauses the screen, taking a few measurements before continuing. “So far, I don’t see any cause for concern. Ah!” he exclaims. “And there’s the penis. Congratulations. You’re having a boy.”

 

A son.

 

We’re going to be having a son.

 

We haven’t even started talking about what we want to name the child. Katniss has always been a little skittish about that. But now that we know what we’re having, I desperately want to start considering names. I want to talk to him, let him know how much I love him, how much he’s wanted. I want to tell him all the things I never heard. I feel my eyes start to fill with tears.

 

Katniss squeezes my hand. She knows how much this means to me.

 

I look over at Gale and see he’s just as moved as I am. “So what are we gonna call the tyke?” he asks, echoing my thoughts. He turns to Katniss. “Do you wanna name him after your father?”

 

She shakes her head. “No. He should have his own name.”

 

Gale nods his head. “Well if that’s the case, I suppose that also takes Dominic and Matz out.”

 

“Yeah. He doesn’t need the baggage,” I agree. “Let him carry his own.”

 

“How do we even go about deciding?” Katniss asks.

 

“We could just pick a name we like,” I suggest with a shrug.

 

“I’m vetoing Finnick right now,” she says, shooting me a stern glance.

 

I laugh. “Wasn’t even on the list, I swear.”

 

“Uh huh.”

 

“We’re not naming him after any kind of flower,” Gale says firmly.

 

“Oh Sweetgale,” I say teasingly. “You don’t want to call him Rose? Or Lily? How about Lavender?”

 

Gale glares at me. “No. Just no.”

 

“Okay, flower names are out,” I say with a chuckle at my husband’s expression.

 

“Just for the boys,” Gale corrects. “For a girl it’s okay.”

 

“We don’t have to decide right now,” I point out. “We’ve got time.”

 

The doctor cuts in. “Three or four weeks, I suspect, based on size.”

 

“Not soon enough for me,” Katniss grumbles.

 

“I hear that from all of my patients,” the doctor says.

 

“How many patients do you have currently?” I ask curiously.

 

“Not many.”

 

“Why not?”

 

Dr. Andrews glances up at us sharply. “You haven’t heard?”

 

“Heard what?” Katniss grumbles. “We just got here yesterday.”

 

“There was an epidemic twelve years ago,” he explains. “It swept through our population like wildfire. It came without warning and was especially virulent among the young. Some called it a Capitol plot while others blamed it on our isolation.” He shrugs. “In the end it didn’t matter as we were able to synthesize a cure, but by then the damage was done. The majority of the male population was rendered sterile due to testicular swelling while much of the surviving female population suffered from intrauterine growths, preventing implantation and gestation.”

 

“You’re saying Thirteen is dying?” Gale asks bluntly.

 

“I am absolutely not saying that, Mr. Hawthorne,” the man says firmly. “I am saying our current rate of replacement is not sufficient. However there has been some improvement thanks to various restrictions and incentives enacted by President Coin, as well as her recruiting transients from other districts.”

 

That last bit niggles at my brain. “Of those pregnancies you mentioned, how many have both parents native to Thirteen?”

 

“None.”

 

I shake my head. No wonder everyone was so excited about Katniss being pregnant. Their population is dying and they need infusions of new blood in order to keep it going. We’re breeding stock.

 

I don’t have a lot of time to consider the greater implications of what the doctor’s told us because the brown haired nurse returns, a tablet in her hands. “I have the DNA results.” She looks up at me. “Congratulations, Mr. Mellark. You’re going to be a father.”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in We Didn’t Start The Fire:

 

I don’t have a lot of time to consider the greater implications of what the doctor’s told us because the brown haired nurse returns, a tablet in her hands. “I have the DNA results.” She looks up at me. “Congratulations, Mr. Mellark. You’re going to be a father.”

 

oOo

 

I sit down heavily, my hands still holding Gale’s and Katniss’s.

 

I’m going to be a father.

 

I mean, I knew I was going to be a father, but to have it confirmed that the baby is mine, really mine, that it’s really real... I’m just overwhelmed.

 

Katniss is having my baby.

 

I glance up at Gale and immediately feel a stab of guilt rush through me.

 

Our baby, I correct myself internally.

 

Katniss is having our baby.

 

I’m sure the nurse didn’t mean anything by it, but I’m afraid that this little piece of news is going to tear at our family. In some ways, it would be better if we didn’t know. Jealousy is a horrible thing. I’ve seen what it does to a family firsthand. My father never stopped loving Violet and my mother never forgave him for that. He tried to be a good husband, but even so, my mother could never reconcile that he was being honest with his affections towards her. And her insecurities carried over to the rest of us.

 

I can’t let that happen to my family. Not again. I won’t. I look up at the brown haired nurse and get to my feet, removing my hands from my spouses’. “We’re going to be a father,” I say, pointing to my husband and myself. “Gale and me. Both of us are going to be this baby’s father.”

 

The nurse blinks at me in confusion. “But the test results are clear!” she protests. “The baby’s yours, Mr. Mellark. Genetically!”

 

“It doesn’t matter,” I tell her, shaking my head. “He’s ours. All three of us.”

 

“That’s not how this works! It’s not how any of this works!”

 

Katniss sits up, pushing the doctor away. “It’s how it works in our family.” She glares at the other woman as if daring her to say any more.

 

I turn and smile at her. I’m grateful for the assist. I know Katniss is worried about how jealousy will affect our marriage too. She’s always been worried about it. I admit that Gale’s and my initial rivalry didn’t do much to alleviate that concern. But we worked past it. We created something good. And now, with this revelation, I can’t help but be afraid that our carefully built happiness is about to be tested.

 

I feel Gale’s hand clasp my shoulder. “Congrats, Peet. Looks like you got another first.”

 

I turn slightly to see that his smile is real, genuine. I ask him with my eyes if he’s really okay with this.

 

His gray eyes crinkle slightly. Yes, he is.

 

I feel a rush of relief. “So we’re tied then.” I keep my tone light.

 

“I can’t believe you guys are keeping score,” Katniss says, shaking her head.

 

“We’re not, really,” I tell her.

 

She raises an eyebrow.

 

“Okay, I guess we are.”

 

“But we don’t mean anything by it, Catnip,” Gale breaks in. “It’s not like we’re gonna break into a fist fight in your hospital room over who’s got the bigger dick or whose little swimmers got there first.”

 

“You better not,” she grumbles. “I’ll shoot the both of you.”

 

Gale and I share a grin. The crisis is mostly averted. We’re still going to have to have a talk later, but that’s better saved for someplace more private.

 

The rest of Katniss’s tests are anticlimactic. After the excitement of seeing our son move and the revelation that I’m our baby’s biological father, nothing else can really compare.

 

It’s still morning, but for some reason it feels like it’s already been a full day and, if I’m being honest with myself, it has been.

 

I’m not the only one feeling that way. Katniss is starting to show signs of needing to escape and while Gale is better at hiding it, I’m sure he feels the same way. I know I do.

 

“Maybe we should talk to Boggs, see about going hunting,” I suggest.

 

Gale looks over at me gratefully. “They did say we could do that.”

 

“Yeah they did,” Katniss agrees, a real smile of relief crossing her features. “I can’t wait to get a bow in my hands.”

 

The doctor cuts in. “You’re going to have to wait a bit longer, Ms. Everdeen. I’m afraid, this close to your delivery date, you shouldn’t risk anything that might cause premature labor.”

 

The smile on my wife’s face falls away and her ever present scowl returns. “But I’m fine! You yourself said I’m surprisingly healthy!” She glares at Dr. Andrews. “Why can’t I go outside?”

 

“We just can’t risk you or the baby,” the man answers. “I’m sure you understand.” His tone is crisp, like the reason is obvious.

 

It isn’t. Not to me and definitely not to Katniss.

 

“No! No, I don’t!” she protests. “I was hunting two days ago! Alone! In the woods! Where bears live! I’m sure it’s much safer here!”

 

“I’m sure it is too, but as your physician, I cannot and will not allow you to put your life and the life of your unborn child at risk with your selfish need to go gallivanting through the woods.”

 

I’m unable to stop myself from wincing. Katniss is going to kill the man and I’m not that far behind. “Would talking to President Coin, having her permission, change your mind?” I ask.

 

Dr. Andrews shakes his head. “You can talk to the president all you want. It’s still not going to happen. The life of the baby is of the highest priority here in Thirteen.” He tries to give a comforting smile to us. “As soon as you recover from the birth, I’m sure you’ll be allowed to go outside, Ms. Everdeen. Naturally the baby will stay in the nursery where it’s safe, but you can go outside with your husbands.” He pauses for a moment. “I would not object if your husbands wanted to bring something from the outdoors in to you,” he offers in what I’m certain he thinks is a gentle tone of voice. “I would allow it if that would make you feel better, so long as I was able to examine the object for any harmful substances prior to your receiving it. It’s the best I can do, Ms. Everdeen.”

 

I see it for the olive branch it is. The doctor isn’t trying to make our lives more difficult, even though he’s managing to do so anyway. He’s just very focused on one goal: healthy babies.

 

He’s the first person in Thirteen who hasn’t batted an eye at our relationship, and he’s the first who’s accepted us unconditionally. Dr. Andrews might not be our favorite person right now, but we can’t afford to alienate anybody who’s at all in our corner while we’re on essentially hostile ground.

 

Katniss looks over at Gale and me. I can tell she wants to fight but she’s not sure if she should. We’ve talked about how we need to be in this together while we’re in Thirteen, and after Gale’s explosion yesterday, we shouldn’t waste our time and political power on battles we stand no chance of winning.

 

I take her hand. “Thank you for being willing to compromise as much as you are,” I tell the doctor. “I understand that you’re just trying to do what you feel is best for our child.”

 

“And for your wife,” the doctor cuts in.

 

“And for our wife. Maybe we can try to figure something else out for the future, armed escorts or maybe Katniss’s mother accompanying us. She is a healer, you know.” I pause, trying to figure out how to explain to this man why being able to go outside is so important to us. “I just - we just feel that confining Katniss would be more harmful than helpful and might cause our baby undue stress. She’s not, as I’m sure you’re aware, the typical woman from Thirteen or even the other districts.” I’m deliberately not fighting, but I am trying to break through Dr. Andrews’s stubbornness.

 

The doctor does seem to consider it. He turns to Katniss and asks, “Is it true that you’ve been living out in the wilderness all this time?”

 

She nods her head. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!”

 

“If your mother’s a healer, what restrictions did she place on you?”

 

“No lifting anything heavy, no running, have to stay within earshot of the cave or somebody else, and no eating or drinking anything unless I clear it with my mother first.” Katniss ticks the restrictions off on her fingers.

 

The doctor nods his head. “We can discuss this, but I wouldn’t want you to go very far from the opening. And I want to get the rest of your test results back first, including your fasting bloodwork. Then, maybe, we can reconsider.”

 

“How long will that take?” Katniss asks intently.

 

“For all of the tests we need to run? About a week.”

 

“Any way we can do it faster?”

 

Dr. Andrews shakes his head. “Five days is the fastest we can go. Some of the tests take time.”

 

“Just… do it as fast as you can.”

 

“We can start the first round of tests tomorrow morning,” he tells her. “No eating or drinking anything other than water after seven pm and you come here first thing in the morning, before doing anything else, to provide blood and urine samples. Oh, and no intercourse until the tests are done, assuming you’re still having intercourse.” We are, not that we want to talk to the doctor about it. Dr. Andrews goes over to a screen and types something in. “I’ve updated your schedule to reflect this.”

 

“Schedule?”

 

The doctor holds up his arm to show the schedule printed in purple ink. “It should have been in the welcome packet you were given, but since you said you haven’t received one, you might want to talk to somebody else about how things are done here in Thirteen. I have another patient to see and I don’t want to get too far behind.”

 

I reach out to shake the man’s hand. “Thank you for all of your help. We’ll be sure to be on time next time.”

 

He snorts. “You’d better.”

 

oOo

 

It must have gotten out that nobody showed us how Thirteen works, because the rest of our day is spent with President Coin’s aide, James, who walks us through how Thirteen does things. He explains terms that have a different meaning to us, like Reflection. Which is apparently an hour’s worth of time when we’re supposed to think about the day’s events or just cool down that apparently most people in Thirteen use to take naps or explore interpersonal relations - James’s words, not mine.

 

He also shows us how to access our weekly and monthly schedules, and I note several doctors’ appointments have been written in for Katniss, including one on May 16th labeled “Inducement.” I make a mental note to find out what that means, but it sounds ominous.

 

On all of our schedules, we have listed the word “Training” and the location where it’s supposed to take place. Not that it helps any, since I still have no idea where I’m going. James shows us how to get directions for any of our appointments, which requires us to hold our pre-printed schedule underneath a scanner in one of the hallways. Good. I don’t have to remember where everything is. He explains that there are no maps for security reasons, which I suppose I understand. Coin is that paranoid, and I bet there are several places hidden here in Thirteen that she doesn’t want anyone finding out about.

 

We ask James to work in several outdoor excursions. The man makes a face, but slots in two hours outside tomorrow. Unfortunately, Katniss can’t come. It’s during her morning doctor’s appointment, and then there’s Dr. Andrews’s restrictions.

 

Gale looks over at Katniss. “We don’t have to go,” he offers. “We can wait for you.”

 

Katniss shakes her head. “No, you need this too. Just…” she trails off.

 

I can sense her disappointment so I reach out and clasp her hand. “We’ll bring you back something green.”

 

She smiles at me. “Thanks.”

 

The following morning, we say goodbye to Katniss and head out. Gale picks up his bow and quiver from the guards stationed near the entrance. They offer me one of the bows and I wave it away. It still bothers me that I can’t use a bow, but there’s no point in me even trying. Instead, I grab a gathering bag and a hunting knife. I’m not about to go out unarmed in a strange wilderness. My spouses have taught me that.

 

Gale and I quickly move away from the entrance, looking for a location where we can have our talk. There’s only so much you can communicate non-verbally.

 

We find a fast-moving stream and sit down beside it. It’s not our river or the two streams that flow into it, but it’s the closest place we’ve found around here that reminds me of home.  

 

“So what’d you want to talk about, Peet?” Gale reaches over and takes my hand.

 

“How are you doing?” I ask, getting straight to the point.

 

“Fine?” he answers. “Frustrated that Katniss can’t be out here with us, annoyed at people not understanding that, no really, all three of us are married, happy to be outside, and a little horny.” He waggles his eyebrows at me. “How about you?”

 

I laugh at the last bit. “Pretty much the same, except for that really wasn’t what I was asking.”

 

“Then spit it out.”

 

I take a deep breath and plunge in. “Are you okay about the baby?”

 

“What about the baby?” Gale sounds confused.

 

“That - what that nurse said.” I squeeze his hand. “About the baby being mine. Mine biologically.”

 

Gale gives me a look. “You think that matters?”

 

“Not to me, but…” I trail off, words failing me.

 

“It doesn’t matter to me either. This is our kid, Peet, our son,” he tells me, squeezing my hand gently. “Just because your little swimmers managed to beat mine, which considering how you can kick my ass is not that surprising, doesn’t mean I’m gonna love this child any less.” He pauses. “That I’m going to love you any less.”

 

“The next one’s yours, I promise.”

 

“Aren’t you listening to what I’m saying?” he asks, his voice intent. “It doesn’t matter. Not to me. Besides, it’s not our decision to make. Katniss might not want to have another kid.”

 

I nod my head. He’s right: it is Katniss’s decision if we’re going to have more children. She’s the one who has to carry them and has to give birth to them. Becoming parents affects all of us, but it affects her the most.

 

“I want to give him your last name,” I blurt out suddenly.

 

“What?”

 

“I want to give him your last name,” I repeat. “I want him to have something of yours.”

 

Gale squeezes my hand again. “You sure?”

 

“I know we haven’t talked about it, but yeah, this is what I want.”

 

“So long as Katniss is okay with it, I’m okay with it.” He leans over and kisses me. “Thanks, Peet.”

 

I reach up and take his face in my hands. “I just… I want you to know how much I love you. How much I love both of you. I mean, Katniss is easy. You and me?”

 

Gale cuts me off. “I get it. Love you too. Just ‘cause these assholes don’t understand how we work doesn’t mean that I don’t. I married both of you, and I wasn’t just doing it because I wanted to bone Katniss. I love you, Peet. Just because we don’t fit their definition of love doesn’t change how I feel about you.”

 

I lean over, wrapping my arms around my husband. He puts his arms around me and we stay that way for a while, just listening to the sound of the stream and feeling each other’s beating hearts.

 

oOo

 

“Come in, come in!” Fulvia greets us effusively. “We have so much to cover! How are you settling in?”

 

“It’d’ve been nice if we’d gotten the transient handbook we’ve been told so much about,” Gale grumbles.

 

“Oh but that doesn’t apply to you! You’re the Mockingjays!” she exclaims in a perky voice. “You’re not going to be peeling potatoes or doing the laundry. You’re not just the rank and file! You’re not him.” She motions towards Neil, who’s apparently been assigned to be our guard and protection in Thirteen. “No offense, darling.”

 

Neil waves her comment away.

 

“Still. The guide would have been useful,” Katniss says. “How were we supposed to know about schedules and appointments? We’re not mindreaders!”

 

“Speak for yourself,” I tease. “Personally, I find it very boring to hang out in people’s minds. That’s what attracted me so much to my husband and wife here, I couldn’t get a read on them at all.”

 

“You’re just like Edward!” Fulvia squeals, clapping her hands. She turns to Gale. “Which makes you Jacob!” She then regards Katniss with a happy smile on her face. “And you’re Bella! Only you’ve chosen both of them! Oh, I wish Twilight had ended like this! I always hated the ending, you know!” she tells us with a little shudder. “Super creepy! But Finnick really was a wonderful Edward, don’t you think?”

 

“Oh absolutely,” I say, playing along.

 

“Finnick Odair is one of Peet here’s favorite actors,” Gale stage whispers to Fulvia. “Asked for the whole Magical Moments boxed set for his birthday.” He winks at me.

 

I stick my tongue out at him. It’s a bit of a running joke between my spouses and me that I have a Finnick Odair obsession. I don’t. I find his movies hilariously bad and I feel a lot of secondhand embarrassment for the handsome Victor. But I don’t mind the teasing. It’s just one way that my emotionally constipated spouses show me that they love me.

 

Fulvia apparently completely misses Gale’s teasing tone because she replies to him with, “I got that for New Year’s last year!” She pouts slightly. “Unfortunately I had to leave it behind when I fled the Capitol. Otherwise, I’d love to watch it with you.”

 

“Maybe after we win this war.” I’m a bit amused that Fulvia is such a Finnick Odair fan, but I really shouldn’t be that surprised considering the Capitol’s obsession with him. However, I’m glad that my teasing comments got us another person in our corner. Now that she equates us with the Twilight trio, she’s less likely to want to separate us. I suppose that makes up for her abominable taste in movies.

 

Fulvia sighs. “Yes, yes, you’re right. We have so much to do. I think the first thing we need to discuss is your appearance. This,” she waves her hands, indicating all three of us, “won’t do. You’re all too… dirty. Rugged, don’t get me wrong, but our audience would respond better to something softer. More refined.”

 

“I don’t do refined,” Katniss says.

 

“We’ll work on that, dear.” She smiles at my wife. “Besides, you’re not the problem. No, no, it’s the boys that need the most refinement.”

 

“What do you mean?” Gale asks.

 

“Well, that hair. Those beards. Those eyebrows! They’re all far too hairy and haphazard. It’s like you haven’t trimmed or sculpted them at all, just let them grow in willy-nilly.”

 

I can tell Gale’s struggling not to laugh in Fulvia’s face. “Well, we have been living in the wilderness for a year.”

 

“And it shows! No one is going to recognize you as Sweetgale Hawthorne--”

 

“Gale!”

 

“Right. My apologies. No one is going to recognize you as Gale Hawthorne. Rebel. Inspiration. With a bird’s nest on his face.” She turns to me. “And you. And you, the pictures we have of you, my darling Peeta, are of a sweet curly-haired cherub and sitting before me I see a rugged mountain man.”

 

“Thank you? I’ve worked hard to become so.”

 

“I know. Survival and all that. But what this rebellion needs are inspirations everyone can relate to.” The woman is gesticulating wildly and I watch her hands fluttering with a bit of fascination. “I’m sure your haven’t-shaved-in-months look will be a big hit in the wilds of District Seven or the fishing crews of District Four, but it will offend the order of District Two and the glamour of District One.”

 

Gale scratches at his beard. “Don’t we want both?”

 

“We do. Of course we do. But, looking at the big picture, there are certain districts that are, well… more strategic than others.”

 

“And I take it District Four and District Seven aren’t strategic?” I ask pointedly.

 

“Exactly!” She pauses for a moment. “Now, District Two has the largest military force other than the Capitol. As for District One, it’s nearest to the Capitol and cannot be underestimated.”

 

“So what other districts are of strategic importance?”

 

“Well, all of them, to some degree,” she admits. “But in order of importance after Two, we really need District Six, as it’s the nearest district to Thirteen,” she tells us. “And then Districts Three and Five are also quite important, as are Districts Eleven, Ten, and Nine.”

 

“Where does Twelve fall on the list?” Gale asks.

 

“Unfortunately, District Twelve… it does come in last. Only because of its size!” she hastens to explain. “Your district is the smallest district and the most removed from the Capitol’s influence.”

 

I wince. “That also means it’s the most expendable, doesn’t it?”

 

The woman shakes her head. “Not to us. Never to us. To the rebellion, each innocent life is as important as the next!”

 

That’s a lie.

 

Fulvia believes what she’s saying, but I have no doubt President Coin would happily sacrifice District Twelve if it meant winning her rebellion. I think that’s going to be our next fight, to save the people of District Twelve. I have no idea how successful we’re going to be.

 

“But returning to my initial point,” Fulvia says. “I think we need to do something about your appearance, to bring you back to the images we all remember and give you a little special something that will make you even more special in the eyes of the people.”

 

“Like what?” Katniss asks.

 

“A full body wax, for one,” she answers, looking over my wife with a critical eye. “My dear, you are far too hairy. And a little bit of eye makeup, I think. And your lips. And, oh, I would just love to pierce your ears! And maybe a tattoo.”

 

“Um, ma’am?” Neil cuts in. “I think you might want to keep it simple. That sounds a bit Capitol to me.”

 

“Oh you’re right you’re right you’re right you’re right!” Fulvia gushes. “Of course. Forgive me. Old habits and all.” She makes a vague gesture of absentmindedness.

 

Neil smiles at her. “It’s quite alright, ma’am. I do think that the beards are a bit much, though. They’re not allowed here in Thirteen.”

 

“That is an excellent point, Soldier Hayes,” she beams at the young man before turning back to Gale and me. “We must also have you appeal to the people here in Thirteen.”

 

“So I’m guessing that we’re shaving?”

 

She nods. “As soon as possible.”

 

“I guess we know what we’re doing tonight,” Gale murmurs over at me ruefully.

 

I nod my head, wincing internally. Removing several months’ worth of hair is not a task I’m looking forward to. But their point is well-made, and it’s not worth fighting over, and even Katniss can understand the need to be more presentable.

 

Gale says, “I suppose I get why you want us to be your Mockingjays, but you’d think you’d want somebody who was, I don’t know, more well-known. Someone who’s been on TV, who’s been spreading rebellious words. We’re just a bunch of nobodies.”

 

Fulvia sighs. “True, you aren’t ideal. But as much as we’d love to have someone who publicly defied the Capitol in something like the Hunger Games or on the Victory Tour, it just wasn’t going to happen and you’re really our best shot.”

 

“And I guess the rush is because of the illness?” I ask carefully.

 

“Well not just the epidemic that happened several years ago in Thirteen, but also the recent influenza epidemic,” she confirms. “The Capitol really mismanaged its resources, and there are several districts that are quite devastated by the Capitol’s indifference. They’re ripe for rebellion, they just need a little push.” She mimes pushing something.

 

I tilt my head. “And the Quell announcement wasn’t enough?”

 

“Not completely. It was another stick of fuel for the fire, a large one even, but what every rebellion needs is a spark. And you, my darling Mockingjays, are that spark.” She spreads her arms wide to include all of us. “You just need a little bit of tinder and some tender care and you’ll soon be a full-grown bonfire, sweeping Panem and cleansing it of the filth of the Capitol!”

 

I refrain from pointing out that Fulvia herself used to live in the Capitol. I can see that Gale is struggling to do the same.

 

“I guess I get it?” Katniss says. “But you mentioned the Hunger Games. What about this year’s Victor?”

 

“Taylor Paylor? What about her?”

 

“Why not use her? She’s obviously a winner from an unusual district, those don’t come along all that often,” Gale points out. He’s right; with a name like Taylor, she has to be from Eight. They don’t win the Hunger Games that often.

 

“Unfortunately, Mr. Hawthorne, I’m afraid that Taylor would be unusable.”

 

“Unusable? Unusable how?”

 

Fulvia sighs. “Well, I think you’ll just have to watch the Games so that you can understand.”

 

Katniss’s face goes hard. None of us want to watch the Games, and we thought we’d escaped watching children die when we fled District Twelve.

 

We were wrong.

 

oOo

 

The viewing room is small and entirely gray concrete, just like everything else in District Thirteen, from the clothes to the food. I’m starting to hunger for color.

 

Fulvia is with us, as are Neil and President Coin’s aide James, who, we’ve learned, has the unfortunate first name of Topsy, a name he clearly does not want us to use.

 

Fulvia is bouncing in her seat while both James and Neil look dour. We’re lucky. We only have to watch the three hour recap and Taylor’s final interview with Caesar. But even three and a half hours is too much.

 

I feel Gale reach down to clasp both Katniss’s and my hands. This is going to affect our husband the most; he was supposed to have been in these Games and only because he had the forethought to run, did he survive. We’ve only had two Victors in District Twelve, so even though Gale is strong and a good hunter, the odds, to quote Effie Trinket, were not in his favor.

 

When Fulvia’s ready, she starts the tape, and we brace ourselves for the worst.

 

The footage starts as it always does, with a highlight of Reaping Day. The tributes look a lot like every other year of tributes, but I notice there seems to be an odd time skip in both District Five and District Twelve’s Reapings. Based on the clothing and the way the camera is angled, the male Reaping for District Five appears to be taking place on a whole different day from the female Reaping, while District Twelve’s Reaping for the boys takes place at night, when it’s clear that the female Reaping happens in the early afternoon.

 

“What’s up with the time skips?” Katniss asks.

 

“To the best of our knowledge, they only chose to show the actual Reapings for those people who ended up in the Games,” Fulvia explains, pausing the tape. “District Five had a similar situation to District Twelve, where a dead tribute was called initially for the girls, and there they had to wait for a solution. For the boys, it was much more complicated. The initial tribute for District Five, Coil, died enroute to the Capitol and a replacement Reaping took place a few days later.”

 

“That poor kid,” Gale says. “Probably thought he was safe. He looks like he was older.”

 

Fulvia nods. “He was. Eighteen.”

 

“Fuck. That’s messed up.”

 

Gale gets no argument from me.

 

“What about Twelve?” I ask.

 

“Well as you know, Gale here was called initially. According to our sources, they then conducted a very thorough search of the district before concluding that you’d escaped your cage,” Fulvia explains. “By the time the search was finished, it was already night, so they did what all the other districts did when they had a dead or otherwise ineligible tribute and drew another name.”

 

“Who was called for the girls?” Katniss asks.

 

“I’m assuming you mean originally?”

 

My wife nods. “Yes.”

 

“Delly Cartwright.”

 

I feel Gale’s hand squeeze around mine. Delly was a friend. She was everyone’s friend. Nobody hated Delly. She, along with Madge, were probably my two best friends in all the world. She’d been part of our bad movie group and she’d let me stay at her house a lot more than she needed to, just so that I could get some relief from my mother. She’d also managed to bridge the whole merchant/Seam gap and was dating a man, Thom I think, for the last few months before school closed and she died. I wonder inanely what Thom’s doing now.

 

Fulvia unpauses the tape and the Games go on. They briefly show the parade, and I note that District Twelve is dressed in the typical miners’ costumes from the year before. No one’s going to notice Buster or Nancy. Not like it matters. They’re both so young. They don’t stand a chance.

 

It’s during Caesar’s interview that we finally get introduced to the tribute that would go on to win. Taylor Paylor is a pretty girl, but very monotone. She’s got straight medium brown hair and unremarkable brown eyes. Her skin is nice, but it’s the same shade of brown as her hair. Her stylist has clearly tried to give her some color, but instead of playing up the warmth in her skin with rich earthy colors, they’ve used insipid pastels, which do nothing for her. My artist’s eye winces in sympathy.

 

She seems nice, if a little afraid, but absolutely nothing she says is memorable. In fact, the most memorable interview is with the boy from Six, Spork, who is clearly so excited, he just runs out into the audience to start giving everybody hugs.

 

Once he’s corralled back to the stage, Caesar says, “Looks like you really like it here in the Capitol.”

 

“Oh it’s great! Me and Chewy are having the best time!” He holds up a little stuffed dog, indicating that it’s the Chewy he’s speaking of.

 

Beside me, Fulvia murmurs, “We found out later that he was encouraged to volunteer. He was from the Community Home and developmentally delayed. Poor boy had no idea what was in store for him.”

 

“And the Capitol allowed it?” I ask.

 

Fulvia shakes her head. “It’s not against the rules.”

 

“But he had no idea what he was signing up for!”

 

“It’s an unfortunate occurrence, one we’ve seen a few times in the past. It’s just one more reason why this rebellion must succeed.”

 

For the first time since we came to District Thirteen, I find myself in agreement. People not in their right minds shouldn’t be taken advantage of like that. I’m angry at District Six for pushing Spork into volunteering. I’m angry at the Capitol for allowing it. What happened wasn’t right and it just shows that desperate people do unspeakable things in their desperation.

 

It’s unsurprising perhaps that the first death of the 74th Hunger Games is Spork. Before the countdown finishes, the poor kid drops the stuffed dog he’s still holding and immediately jumps after it. The smile on his face never leaves until the moment it’s disintegrated by one of the buried mines.

 

The bloodbath is brutal, as always. The two tributes from Nine, Gera and Theresa, go down next, killed by the big hulk of a beast from Two. Taylor gets a kill, knocking Moira, the girl from Four with the withered arm, on the head with a rock before grabbing her pack and running away. Poor little Nancy, Delly’s replacement, dies next, killed by the male tribute from District Four. The girl from Ten, Sue-Ellen, is killed by her own district partner. These Games are brutal. Normally district partners don’t turn on each other until much later in the Games. What’s worse, when he does it, there’s a little smile playing across Bronson’s face and an eerie coldness in his eyes. I’m almost grateful to see the boy from One, Marvel, take out Wool, the male tribute from District Eight, next. At least Marvel flinches a little when he makes his first kill.

 

The action slips away from the bloodbath momentarily to show us that the youngest tribute in the Games, Rue from District Eleven, is dying. She’d been leaping through the trees and happened upon a tracker jacker nest. I avert my eyes to avoid seeing the gruesome damage the mutated insects wrought. I can hear that the action slips back to the bloodbath and Dante, the boy from Five, the one who wasn’t even supposed to be there, goes down fighting, killed by Cleo from District Two.

 

The action lingers a little on the excitement at the Career camp. They accept both the District Four boy and, much more unusually, the District Three boy into their pack, and set up camp near the Cornucopia. The District Three boy starts digging up and rewiring the mines to form a shield around the supplies at the Cornucopia, which explains why the Careers let him into the pack. By the time he’s done, no one can get to the supplies without jumping over a series of mines. It’s an innovative and unique way to keep the supplies safe while the Careers go out hunting.

 

The next death is anti-climactic. The girl from Three, Ada, expires that night of exposure. She doesn’t have anything, no fire, no blanket, no nothing, and dies shivering under a bush.

 

Buster, Gale’s replacement, doesn’t do much better. He hung out near the Cornucopia after the bloodbath and saw where Curie from Three had placed all of his mines. He tries to jump over them to get at the supplies early the second morning, but stumbles and falls, setting them all off, which ends up killing Glimmer from One in the process.

 

The loss of the supplies and one of their members angers the remaining Careers. Cato from Two and Kai from Four just want to kill Curie for his mistake, but Marvel states, “We have to put on a good show,” and elects to torture the poor boy from Three. Cleo is an active participant and the recap lingers on Curie’s abuse.

 

I can’t watch.

 

I turn my head and I find myself meeting Katniss’s eyes. She can’t bear to look at it either. The sound is bad enough.

 

Gale clutches at our hands, his eyes fixed on the screen. I know what he’s feeling. He feels responsible for all of this. He feels he should have been in there, that he could have done something, anything. If Buster hadn’t set off those mines, then Curie wouldn’t have been tortured.

 

It’s not Gale’s fault.

 

Our husband is never going to believe that.

 

The action switches to another tribute and I feel a bit of relief. How pathetic is that? Watching the girl from Seven, Bjork, die at the hands of Thresh, the huge boy from Eleven, is a relief. Thresh dies a few hours later, his body convulsing. He’d been sick with the flu, and it looks like the flu has another victim.

 

I’m grateful that the next death we see is Curie. Cleo finally kills him, clearly taking pity on the poor boy.

 

But Curie’s torture is just the beginning. The Careers stumble across Bronson next. The unrepentant boy from District Ten is tortured by Marvel and Cleo, just like Curie. But unlike Curie, he’s got an unlikely defender.

 

“This is wrong!” Cato shouts at the other two.

 

“But we need to put on a good show!” Marvel screams. “This is what the Capitol wants!”

 

“This is wrong! This isn’t a good show! This is torture,” the boy from Two snarls back. “There’s no honor in this! There’s no glory. He’s just meat.” Cato stabs Bronson through the heart, putting him out of his misery. “And I don’t like playing with my food.”

 

“Big mistake, Two,” Marvel growls.

 

Cleo places a hand on Marvel’s shoulder. “Let me handle this. Cato, I understand that you are troubled by Clove’s death. But you’re letting it cloud your judgment.”

 

“My judgment is clear.” Cato holds his head up high. “You have no honor.”

 

Cleo’s face spasms and I know that look. She’s in love with the boy from Two and his words have wounded her to her core. I don’t relish being in Cato’s shoes right now. She doesn’t strike me as the kind of woman who you’d like to scorn.

 

I’m unfortunately proven right when, with a high-pitched screech, she leaps forward and slashes the knife that she’d been using to torture Bronson with through Cato’s throat. The boy from Two falls, drowning in a pool of his own blood.

 

It’s enough for Kai. He slips away, not even bothering to announce he’s leaving their alliance. I don’t blame him.

 

The next death is anticlimactic and I feel horrible for thinking that. Kiefer, the boy from District Seven, is killed by a falling log. One moment he’s walking through the forest, the next moment he’s dead. I’m sure his death was only included in this recap for completeness’s sake, rather than anything else.

 

“Where’s Taylor?” Katniss asks Fulvia. “The last time we saw her was at the bloodbath!”

 

“And there you pretty much have the reason why she’s unusable,” the other woman answers. “She and a couple of other girls formed an alliance and spent most of the Games doing nothing. They hung out in a cave near the edge of the wheat field and spent their time getting fat off of fish and grain and whatever supplies they’d managed to grab from the Cornucopia.”

 

“Doesn’t sound like that bad of a strategy,” Katniss says.

 

“It is an effective strategy, I suppose,” Fulvia concedes, “but it’s also dreadfully dull. I’m surprised you even remembered she was in the Games. I certainly didn’t when I was watching the first time.”

 

Somehow I’m unsurprised that Fulvia watched the actual Games. For all of her enthusiastic support for this rebellion, she’s still at her heart a Capitolite. It makes it doubly confusing why she’s a rebel, but it’s not my place to ask her reasons.

 

The remaining two Careers go on the warpath, hunting down the last few tributes. They stumble upon Kai first, and Marvel kills him as the fifteen year old from Four tries to escape. In a way, I’m happy Kai dies cleanly. I’m not sure I could bear to watch or listen to another torture session.

 

As if the death of what they consider the last of their real competition signals a change, Marvel and Cleo turn on each other. The fight is long, over an hour of the three hour long recap. Both of the Careers are skilled fighters. Both of them are attractive, good-looking. They taunt each other throughout the fight, but over time Cleo’s stronger stockier build and better training with the sword become more important. Marvel might be fast and have a longer reach, but Cleo’s better.

 

The boy from One gets in several debilitating hits, but for every wound he inflicts, Cleo inflicts two more. He finally collapses to his knees, panting heavily, and Cleo decapitates him with one swift blow. It’s the kind of fight the Capitol will talk about for years.

 

And the Games aren’t near being over yet.

 

The next part of the recap shows Cleo searching for the remaining few tributes, but the three girls of Taylor’s alliance refuse to be budged. Not even a wildfire that sweeps through the wheat field causes them to move. They have enough grain stored and fishing hooks to keep them well-fed.

 

But their luck runs out eventually. Chrys, the girl from Six, has the unfortunate luck of being spotted by a now-delirious Cleo. She tries to put up a fight, but Cleo, even in her wounded and fevered state, still gets the better of her.

 

Now it’s down to three. Tesla and Taylor, alerted by Chrys’s dying screams, are ready for the Career. The fight is short but brutal. Tesla and Taylor gang up on Cleo, leaping in and attacking from behind while Cleo’s busy with the other in front. It’s a good strategy and has some success, but Cleo’s still better trained than either of them. She’s able to get a good belly jab to Tesla and the girl from Five goes down, but while she’s pulling her sword free, Taylor jumps in and stabs Cleo in the back before darting out of range.

 

She runs, with the Career chasing her, until Cleo finally succumbs to her injuries several long minutes later.

 

The trumpets blare, announcing that Taylor Paylor from District Eight is the winner of the 74th Annual Hunger Games.

 

Taylor’s exit interview is nearly as boring as her initial one. Caesar Flickerman tries his best to add a little spice to the proceedings, but the girl is still shy and quiet and doesn’t even seem to register that she’s won the Games.

 

But I also see something else.

 

Perhaps it’s just years of putting up a faҫade and knowing how to keep myself out of trouble, but I see intelligence in her eyes, a type of cunning. She knows she’s boring, and what’s more, that’s her goal.

 

I wonder why it’s so important for her to be unremarkable. Tributes who stand out in the Games get more sponsors and, as far as I’m aware, Taylor and her group never got a single sponsorship gift. Even Bronson, the creepy boy from Ten, received a little something.

 

When the interview is finished, Fulvia leans back and says, “So you can see our problem. That girl, she’s… nice, but she’s… nothing. No one will follow her.”

 

“Why not someone else?” I ask. “Why not Finnick Odair?”

 

“Oh, Finnick!” Fulvia fans herself. “We’d love to get him on our side! Don’t think we haven’t considered him. But there are too many complications with that one. Most of the districts don’t like him, you see,” she whispers conspiratorially. “They see him as a Capitol sympathizer. He’s also far too well-guarded.”

 

I sigh. “So I guess we’re it.”

 

“You are correct. So!” She claps her hands. “We have a lot to work on and not much time to do it. We’d like for you to make your debut soon.”

 

“When?” Katniss asks.

 

“Well, we’re still trying to figure out what day would resonate the most with the districts. I’m arguing for Reaping Day, personally, the symbolism of announcing you on the very day your defection was discovered is far too poetic to pass up.” She pauses, frowning. “But there are still detractors. Some feel we should announce you as soon as you’re ready.” She makes a face, showing what she feels about that suggestion. “Others feel that a better time would be the Victory celebration. There’s really far too many options, and it all ultimately comes down to two variables. When the technicians feel they can break in and when you three, specifically you, Gale, are ready to make your debut.”

 

“Wonderful,” Katniss grumbles. “At least by then we’ll have the baby.”

 

oOo

Chapter Text

oOo

 

Last Time in We Didn’t Start The Fire:

 

“You are correct. So!” She claps her hands. “We have a lot to work on and not much time to do it. We’d like for you to make your debut soon.”

 

“When?” Katniss asks.

 

“Well, we’re still trying to figure out what day would resonate the most with the districts. I’m arguing for Reaping Day, personally, the symbolism of announcing you on the very day your defection was discovered is far too poetic to pass up.” She pauses, frowning. “But there are still detractors. Some feel we should announce you as soon as you’re ready.” She makes a face, showing what she feels about that suggestion. “Others feel that a better time would be the Victory celebration. There’s really far too many options, and it all ultimately comes down to two variables. When the technicians feel they can break in and when you three, specifically you, Gale, are ready to make your debut.”

 

“Wonderful,” Katniss grumbles. “At least by then we’ll have the baby.”

 

oOo

 

“People of Panem, we fight, we dare, to end this hunger for justice!” Gale shouts, lifting a pole that they tell us will have a red flag added to it later. I think they said by computer or some other form of incomprehensible technology. All I know is that Gale looks like an idiot raising a metal pole and shouting asinine slogans.

 

I cover my face with my hands. They’ve had Gale say that stupid line over and over again. It’s not working and nobody has sense enough to realize it.

 

When we first got the script and I read it through, I knew immediately there would be problems, especially with the dialogue. I tried to raise my concerns, but no one listened. Instead, I was brushed off. ‘What does he know about a rebellion?’ their eyes seemed to say. I wanted to shout back at them, I may not know anything about a rebellion but I know my husband and wife. I know how to twist words and make them sing for me, much like how Katniss is able to sing notes. I know, if we could capture Katniss in one of her rare unguarded moments singing one of the old songs from our district, that it would be much more moving than this green screen effect that they’re trying to do now.

 

“Cut, cut, cut!” Fulvia says, her voice full of frustration. The crew gratefully lower their equipment while the former Capitol woman minces over to her star.   “Now Gale, you need to put some more life into that phrase. You want people to rebel. You want them to rise up with you. With us!” She tilts her head and asks, “Don’t you want the rebellion to succeed?”

 

Gale runs a hand through his hair in frustration. “Of course I do! Just… these lines suck.”

 

I nod my head emphatically.

 

“Why Peet could shit out better crap than this!” He motions at me with his pole.

 

“Gale, you’re flattering me.” He’s not wrong though. This pile of tripe deserves to be in the compost heap, not on the page.

 

Fulvia sighs and looks over at me. “I suppose you have a better suggestion, Mr. Mellark?”

 

I shrug. I want to say that I had lots of better suggestions that no one wanted to hear earlier. But there’s no point in rubbing it in. Instead I say, “How about I give it a try?”

 

“You?” Fulvia asks with some disbelief.

 

Shrugging again, I tell her, “I’m a better actor than Gale.” It’s not a lie. It’s also not hard to be a better actor than my husband or wife, too, if I’m honest. Both of them are too honest and earnest. “If you need someone to say something that they aren’t feeling or that they didn’t write themselves, I’m your Mockingjay. So long as I have the ability to improvise a little with the emotions, I can say the lines.”

 

“But why can’t Gale?” Fulvia wails, scrubbing at her face with her hands. “Gale’s the one we need!” She motions vaguely at my husband. “He’s the spokesperson!”

 

“No, I’m the spokesperson,” I correct her. “We’ve g