“And now for the boy tribute…Peeta Mellark.”
Oh no, I think. Not him. Because I recognize this name, even though I have never directly spoken to its owner.
I watch as he makes his way to the stage. Effie Trinket asks for volunteers, but no one steps forward. He has two older brothers, I know, but family devotion only goes so far for most people on Reaping Day.
Effie opens her mouth to speak, ready to move on – but a voice calling out from the crowd stops her in her tracks. It’s a voice that I know, a voice that I heard only minutes earlier, saying “Up you go, Catnip,” as he held my sister back.
The anthem booms in my ears, and then I hear Caesar Flickerman greeting the audience.
Gale holds tightly onto my hand as we sit side by side. To everybody else, I’m sure that this looks like a sign of his devotion. But I know him better, and can feel the underlying fear and protection in his gesture too.
Neither of us dares to look President Snow in the eye as he places the victory crowns on our heads.
Gale is quiet during the interview – too quiet – and I know that Haymitch must have spoken to him too, informed him of how much danger we’re all in.
“Katniss, I have to ask,” Caesar begins, and my chest immediately tightens, because I know what’s coming next. “The moment you pulled out those berries. What was going through your mind?”
I take a long pause, trying to gather my thoughts. This is the crucial moment where I have either challenged the Capitol, or went so crazy at the idea of losing Gale that I can’t be held responsible for my actions.
“I don’t know,” I whisper. “I guess that Gale has been such an important part of my life for so long, that I just couldn’t bear the thought of being without him.”
Back in our quarters at the Training Center, I’m the one who suggests a public marriage proposal. Gale agrees to do it but then disappears to his room for a long time. Haymitch tells me to leave him alone.
That night, on stage, we rattle through a list of questions. When Caesar asks us about the future, Gale gets down on one knee, pours his heart out and begs me to marry him. I, or course, accept.
President Snow himself makes a surprise appearance to congratulate us. I dare to raise my eyebrows, asking a question that my lips can’t. Did I do it? Was it enough? Was giving everything over to you, keeping up the game, promising to marry Gale enough?
In answer, he gives an almost imperceptible nod of his head.
We fight on the day of the wedding. It’s an old argument, one that we’ve had since the day we were reaped. Not reaped, I have to remind myself. The day we both volunteered.
“I was trying to protect you,” Gale yells for the millionth time.
“And I never needed your protection,” I yell back. “What I needed was for you to take care of my family if I didn’t make it back.”
“But you did come home. We both did.”
“At what cost? We have Snow watching our every move, we know what he did to Haymitch’s family –“
“We’re doing what he wanted, aren’t we? He’ll leave us alone now.”
I scoff. “Don’t be so naïve, Gale.”
His eyes flash with a fire that I’ve seen too many times in the recent months, ever since the Victory Tour. “Then we’ll fight him again. And we’ll win – again.”
I had expected the stares and the whispers to fade eventually, but even after a year, they haven’t. I am Katniss Hawthorne, joint victor of the 74th Hunger Games. I live in Victors’ Village with my husband and fellow victor, Gale, and with our mentor Haymitch Abernathy. We were all once residents of the Seam, the poorest neighborhood in our district, but the owners of these eyes and mouths don’t seem to care about that now.
They only care that the Capitol is infatuated with my marriage, that the Peacekeepers are harsher than ever, that there is less and less food to go around as my husband and I seemingly sit on our wealth. They think that we kicked our families out after the wedding, made them return to the Seam – but that’s not true. We had argued that as we had inherited two houses in Victors’ Village, we could live in one and our families in the other. But the government had refused. We were the victors, not our families, and if we chose to marry and reside together, then the other house should remain accessible for future victors.
“Future victors,” Gale had spat out. “We’ve had three victors in 75 years. Most of the district lives in poverty while ten out of twelve of these houses continue to lie empty.”
So now everyone thinks that we’re as stuck up and aloof as the Capitol, that we don’t care about anyone else.
I ignore the hostility as I make my way through the Main Square, drifting from one shop to the next. I make sure to spend money in each one, even on items that I have no need for. It is one of the few ways that I can help without making the resentment worse.
Entering the bakery, the chattering of customers and the two staff behind the counter quickly dies down as my presence becomes known. Mrs. Mellark, the head of the family, frowns before continuing to serve her customer. Her eldest son, Bran, avoids my gaze and concentrates studiously on refilling a tray of muffins.
When I get to the front of the queue, Mrs. Mellark sets her chin high as she greets me. “Mrs. Hawthorne.”
“I’ll take six cheese buns and a large white loaf,” I tell her bluntly, in no mood for false civility either.
She packs my items quickly, and I hand over the money without another word. I had also wanted to visit the Cartwrights’ shoe shop, but feel too exhausted to put myself through any more of this today.
The perfectly formed buildings of the Main Square are barely behind me when I hear rapid footsteps sloshing through the rain puddles.
I turn to find the youngest member of the Mellark family jogging towards me. Peeta. I vaguely recall seeing him emerge from the kitchen as I had pulled the door shut behind me after leaving.
He clears his throat as he comes to a halt. “I, erm, I know coming into town must be difficult for you, so you if you’d prefer, I was thinking about starting to make some house deliveries. They would have to be in the evenings, owing to the early starts required to fire up the ovens, but the bread would still be made that day.”
“Your mother may not like that idea,” I tell him with a wry smile.
He rolls his eyes. “My mother likes any idea that brings in money and doesn’t create any more effort for her.”
“But it will obviously create more effort for you,” I point out.
“True. But it gets me out of the bakery for a while, into the fresh air, and introduces a few new customers who can’t or don’t want to make the trip into Town.”
I have to admit that it’s tempting, though I still don’t think that it’s a fair deal for him. Still, I nod and tell him that he can count on me as a customer if the idea takes off. He seems pleased and wishes me a good afternoon before turning away, towards the Square.
He stops and spins around, surprise evident in his expression.
“I was sorry to hear about your father.”
It had happened not long after the new Head Peacekeeper had arrived, and Gale had worried that someone had seen old Mr. Mellark trade a handful of cookies for the two squirrels that we had caught that morning. But I assured him that my mother had said that it was a heart attack that had killed the baker, and not anything else.
Now, I’m not so sure when I sees Peeta’s face cloud over. “Thanks.”
I watch until he reaches the side of the apothecary, glancing back at me for one final time, before continuing home.
The knock on the door early one evening makes us both jump, and I look across at Gale with concern. He stands as I steel myself for what’s to come – perhaps Peacekeepers, or a visitor from the Capitol. We had asked our families to stop visiting not long after returning from mentoring at the Quarter Quell, when Haymitch had casually suggested that our house was most likely being monitored. We make daily visits to the Seam, both together and individually, but we don’t expect any visitors to our house other than Haymitch, and he never bothers to knock.
I hear the murmur of low voices in the hallway before footsteps approach. Gale returns, and when he moves to one side, I see that our visitor is Peeta Mellark.
Unconsciously, my gaze flits to the large basket that he carries with one hand. “Delivery?” I ask.
“The very first one,” he says with a grin. “I was telling your husband that we had spoken of it last week, and that I was hoping to count on the two of you as regular customers.”
“You certainly can,” I tell him, ignoring Gale’s look of surprise. “What did you bring?”
He unpacks the basket slowly, listing the goods as he lays them out one by one on the kitchen table. Gale and I must look dumbfounded at the wealth of choice, because Peeta snickers. “I thought I should bring along a wide variety for this first trip, and seeing as you’re my first customers, you get first pick. I can make a few suggestions if you like?”
“Sure,” Gale mutters, still eyeing one of the more elaborately decorated cupcakes that has inexplicably survived the journey here from the bakery.
“Well, for your daily meal, I recommend these part-baked rolls. Just pop them in the oven for ten minutes in the evening and they’ll taste as fresh as they would do first thing in the morning at the bakery. And for dessert, there’s the apple pie, or a couple of these cupcakes. And, of course, I know that you’re fond of the cheese buns,” he says glancing at me. “Just two minutes in a hot oven and they’ll taste as fresh as ever, too.”
I don’t realize that I’m staring at him until I hear Gale clear his throat. “We’ll take all of those, thanks.”
I feel his gaze on me as I watch Peeta gets to work putting away all of the items that we didn’t want, ready for his next customer. I ignore him mostly, except for a small shake of the head when he reaches for my hand. I don’t miss the way Peeta eyes flick towards us when he sees the movement, pausing in his packing before continuing at a faster pace.
Peeta is by the back door when Gale calls out to him. “Hey, baker?”
There’s a small smile on his lips when he turns. “Yes?”
“You should stop by more often. Maybe bring more cupcakes next time, my little sister loves those.”
I don’t miss the fact that Peeta is looking at me when he answers. “I will.”
It takes Peeta six months to admit to me that his delivery business only has three customers – us, Haymitch and the Mayor.
“But that’s three more than before, and three particularly wealthy customers we wouldn’t otherwise have, so it keeps my mother happy. Well, happy is a strong word in her case,” he adds. “Not miserable would be a better description.”
I smile. “She seems a difficult person to live with.”
“She has her moments,” he says diplomatically. “But she’s family.”
In front of me, Peeta’s face is transformed to that of an eleven year old, his left eye black and swollen.
“I never said thank you,” I say with an emotional gulp. “For the bread.”
He looks confused as his eyes flit to the basket. “That’s alright. You are paying me, after all.”
I shake my head. “No. I mean from before.”
He stares at me until his eyes widen with understanding. “From when we were kids?”
“You don’t have to say thank you,” he says kindly. “It was a long time ago, and I would have done it for anyone.”
“Still. I need you to know how grateful I am.”
We stare at each other – for a long time, I suspect, because my tea is cold by the time the front door slams shut. Peeta drains his own cup as Gale’s light but quick footsteps make their way to the kitchen.
I look up to see my husband regarding the room with interest – the cups on the table, the unpacked basket…us.
Peeta stands and reaches his arm out in front of him. “Evening, Mr. Hawthorne.”
Gale glances at me before stepping forward and shaking the proffered hand. “Evening, baker.”
Despite his jovial tone, even I can sense that the mood has abruptly changed, and Peeta clears his throat as he steps back. “Well, I should be on my way. More deliveries to make, and I need to be home safely before the new curfew.”
I watch Peeta cover up the top of his basket with linen before making his way to the back door. “’Night.”
I smile in response before turning my attention to Gale, who is staring at the spot on the table where the basket had rested and clearly lost in thought. I should ask what’s on his mind, but that’s a dangerous question to voice in this house.
“Do you want some wine with dinner?” I ask instead.
“Yeah. Why not.”
I still have to go into Town for other items of course, but Peeta’s daily delivery means that these trips have become less frequent, and I can spend more time in the woods. Gale used to come with me, but we haven’t been hunting together in a few months now, each of us favoring different times of the day. If anything, Haymitch sees more of my husband these days than I do.
It’s after one of these drinking sessions with our former mentor that Gale comes home to find me and Peeta at the dining table once more. There are no pleasantries now – barely any civility, in fact, as Gale all but glares at Peeta until he leaves.
“That was uncalled for,” I state as I whirl around once we’re alone.
“Does he have to spend so long here? He’s supposed to be making deliveries, not listening to all of your worldly problems. Or listing his own. He doesn’t spend as long with Haymitch, I’m sure.”
“How would you know how long he stays here? You barely spend any time in this house these days.”
“I’m just saying that he seems to spending a lot of time here,” Gale argues back, his eyebrows lifted as if imploring me to understand his deeper meaning.
“I don’t have many friends, Gale. Madge is the only one who visits. You can’t begrudge me wanting to spend a little time with a former school friend.”
Gale knows that Peeta and I were never school friends – but doesn’t question me. I approach him slowly, the way I would prey in the wild, and he visibly stiffens. He knows the rules to this game as well as I do. “Come on, darling, you know you don’t need to be jealous.”
He smirks. “Who’s jealous…darling?”
I reach up to wrap my hand around the back of his neck before tugging at his throat lightly with my teeth. “You are.”
Upstairs, we go through the charade that we perfected years ago. Wrestling under the bed covers, moans that become increasingly louder and wilder, movements of clothed bodies that, to an observer in the darkness, could only mean one thing.
He’s hard, the way he often is when we do this, and I reach for him the way I’ve often done. But this time, Gale stops me. We had long ago decided that while sex was no longer on the table, there was no reason why we couldn’t get each other off during these faked encounters.
“Not anymore,” he whispers in my ear.
I grimace at Gale’s pet name – he knows how much I hate it. I’m about to tell him as much when he discreetly presses a finger to his lips, imploring me to be silent, before scratching absently at his nose.
“Well, I’ve probably had a little too much to drink over at Haymitch’s,” he announces loudly. “I’m going to head up to bed. ‘Night.”
He lingers in my embrace as we kiss, and it’s only after the sound of his descending footsteps has stopped that I feel the crease of paper in my pocket. Paper that hadn’t been there earlier.
I pluck my family’s plant book from the bookshelf before sitting back down and pretending to peruse it. But in reality, I have placed Gale’s note between the pages and stare at the single sentence over and over again.
Baker boy’s waiting for you at Number 1.
I close the book and return it to its place, before filling a glass of water and sipping it, the way that I always do before I retire to bed. I check that the back door is locked, switch off the kitchen light and make my way upstairs. I don’t switch on the bedroom light, because Gale is already asleep.
I pretend to change my clothes, but I actually put on two extra layers instead of changing into my nightwear.
And then I lie in bed for thirty minutes, until the streetlight outside the window fades to black. Under the cover of darkness, I move as quietly as I can. Out of the bedroom, down the stairs, through the front door that Gale had deliberately left ajar. Across the courtyard and into the first house in Victors’ Village.
Peeta is sitting stiffly on the plastic-covered couch in the reception room.
He gives me a short, bewildered laugh. “I’m really confused right now, Katniss.”
I sit next to him, wincing at the loudness of the creaking plastic. “I can’t tell you too much at this stage, Peeta. All I can say is that my house isn’t safe to talk openly, and Gale suspected that you and I were spending too much time together.”
It’s hard to see his expression in the dark, but his voice is laced with confusion. “Your husband thinks that we’re spending too much time together. And yet, he asked me to wait here for you.”
“He doesn’t object to us spending time together. But we can’t be seen doing it. Not by the people who watch our house.”
“So, what am I doing here?”
“This house isn’t bugged.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
He wants to know why Gale sent him, and me, here – the truth is that I don’t really know. “Gale cares about me,” I finally tell him. “We may not love each other the way a husband and wife are supposed to, but we look out for one another. And he knows that I need more friends in my life right now.”
“Is that what you and I are? Friends?”
“Yes,” I tell him, ignoring the fluttering in my chest. “We’re friends.”
We meet twice a week. Anything more frequent would increase the odds of Peeta being caught out after curfew.
When a cold snap sets in, he grabs a blanket from one of the bedrooms and lays it over the both of us as we sit in our regular positions on the couch. We talk as comfortably as we usually do, but I can tell that Peeta is tired, and it doesn’t surprise me to see his eyes flutter shut.
What does surprise me is that I wake to find that I had joined him in slumber, presumably all too easily when his arm is snaked around my shoulders and my head is resting on his chest.
My movements seem to wake him too, and I feel guilty for taking up his time when he’s clearly exhausted.
“You must have other friends, Peeta, that you want to spend time with.”
“No,” he says simply. “I don’t.”
“No one of the opposite sex that you’re interested in?” I casually ask. “Or the same sex, if that’s your thing.”
I feel his chest rise under my splayed hand as he puffs in amusement. “No. None of those either.”
I scoff. “I don’t believe you.”
“Well, there was this one girl. But she married somebody else before I even got a chance to talk to her.”
Oh. Does that mean what I think it means?
“When did she get married?”
“Young. When she was seventeen.”
My next breath is shakier than I expect, and I feel his chest hitch in expectation – or, perhaps trepidation.
“Maybe her marriage isn’t what you think it is,” I suggest.
“Yeah. I’m beginning to realize that.”
The sun will be up soon, and I know that I should go if I’m to return to my bed without being seen on the cameras. When I rise, Peeta grabs my hand. Even in the darkness, I know that we’re both looking at the way my fingers are entwined in his.
“Goodnight,” he whispers, despite the fact that it’s almost dawn.
We avoid talking about Gale for a long time – months, in fact – but I know that they day must finally come where I have to explain our decisions. Peeta and I have moved from the reception room of Number 1 to its second bedroom, reasoning that it was easier to lie down in bed when we expected to spend half of our time together sleeping. Ever since I had mentioned that I didn’t get as many nightmares on the nights that I spend with him, Peeta has insisted that we sleep for at least part of our encounters.
At some point, we had started kissing. I have no idea who initiated it – an accident I suspect, amongst two sleep-deprived friends who were used to sharing each other’s personal space – but once we’d started, I had no intention of stopping. It felt way too good.
So with the sleeping, and the kissing that seems to swell with more and more heat each time, it’s not surprising that neither of us wants to talk about my husband.
“There are worse things,” I explain when Peeta asks why I married Gale. It took me a long time to realize that, to be grateful for the cameras that descend onto 12’s Victors’ Village year upon year that remind people that we live here and not in the Capitol. Because they remind me that we should be grateful that we are not part of the Capitol circuit, not like Finnick and Cashmere and so many others. “The Capitol has other, far worse ways, to punish dissenters.”
“And you’re a dissenter because of what happened in your Games,” Peeta speculates.
“Yes. Snow felt that we had made a fool of him and the Capitol by defying the rules and leaving the Gamemakers with no choice but to have two victors. Others saw our act as one of rebellion, and there were riots in some districts.”
“That’s why you had to marry Gale,” he reasons with himself. “To make it look seem like you hadn’t been dissenting at all. Like you were just an innocent girl who wanted her boyfriend to live too. To calm the rebellion.”
“Does it bother you?”
“That the woman I’m in love with is married to someone else?” he asks drolly. “Yeah, it bothers me a little.”
My mind is stuck on his earlier words though. “You’re in love with me?”
He sounds sheepish when he finally answers. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have told you that way. You don’t have to say anything back. I just want to know that there is a chance for us, that’s all.”
I take a deep breath before answering. “There’s a chance.”
“And Gale’s alright with this?”
“He sent us here, didn’t he?”
Peeta seems unconvinced. “But maybe he thinks that we’re just friends.”
“Gale has had other lovers,” I tell him bluntly. “We’re both pretty open about it. Don’t get me wrong, we tried to make the marriage work at first, but we’re too alike. We bring out the worst in each other, not the best. We both need partners who offset our tempers, not stoke them.”
“Does he have others now?”
“Now, there’s only Madge.”
“Madge Undersee? The Mayor’s daughter?”
I nod. “She started coming to the house not long after you did. At first I thought that she wanted to see me because we had been friends at school, but then I caught the way she and Gale would look at each other, and I realized.”
“Does it bother you?”
I look at him carefully in the dark, making sure that he returns my gaze before I say my next words. “If you’re asking whether I’m only here with you because I’m jealous, then no. I’m not. It bothered me at first, mostly because I hadn’t seen it coming and neither of them had told me. But when I saw how much she meant to him, how good she is for him, I got over it.”
Peeta still seems apprehensive. “Are you with me because you’re lonely?”
“I’m with you because I enjoy your company,” I tell him honestly. “I like talking to you, and listening to you.”
I lean closer. “I like lying here with you. I like touching you,” I whisper. “And I really like kissing you.”
We don’t talk after that.
In the months that follow, I learn that while Peeta has provided bread and friendship to quench a hunger within me, he has instigated an entirely new one. One that shows no sign of abating.
We hardly talk now. We kiss, and we explore, and we experiment, all in that second bedroom of the first unoccupied house in the Village.
Peeta seems to enjoy making me come with his hand, and with his mouth, and certainly enjoys it when I return the favor. But he seems reluctant for us to proceed any further, and one day I pluck up the courage to ask why – and am surprised by his answer.
“You’ve never been with anyone?”
The Peeta Mellark that I remember from school always had friends, including girls, and was far more popular than either me or Gale. I guess that I had wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that one or more of those friendships had developed into something more.
“Well, there was this one girl,” he says, and I can hear the smile in his voice. “But she married someone else at the age of seventeen. I noticed other girls – and other women – and I fooled around the same way most people our age do, but there was never anything serious.”
“Is this serious?” I ask, despite already knowing the answer.
“I want it to be.”
“It’s dangerous,” I remind him. “If the Capitol were to find out…”
“It’s been months. And we’re both really careful. Besides, I don’t think I could give you up even if I wanted to.”
I know that I feel the same, but can’t bring myself to tell him so. Instead, we continue like we usually do, and I let him bring me to a climax with his fingers.
But when he tries to retreat, I stay resting on my back and pull him on top of me.
“I want you inside me,” I tell him.
“I don’t have any –“
“We don’t need it.”
Gale and I have some friends in the Capitol, particularly in the medical department, and despite the public’s desire to see the existence of an Everdeen-Hawthorne child, they’ve been willing to provide me with birth control when I’ve asked for it.
I touch his cheek. “Only if you want to, Peeta.”
It seems that he does, because I feel his tip stroking through my folds. We both groan, and a moment later, he pushes into me.
He laughs helplessly when he’s fully inside. “This is amazing. You’re amazing.”
He moves slowly at first, but quickens the pace when I begin to push up to meet his thrusts.
When his forehead dips down onto the pillow and his movements become more erratic, I can’t help but whisper in his ear. “I want you to come.”
He does as I ask, his teeth buried in my shoulder.
Peeta’s mother falls ill in the spring – a bad cold, he tells me – and our visits to Number 1 stop for a few weeks.
So the knock on the back door minutes after Madge leaves surprises me. It’s open, and the visitor pushes it forward before I’ve even risen from my seat.
“Katniss,” he greets me.
“Please accept my apologies. I couldn’t continue my delivery service while my mother was battling with illness. But she’s better now, and I have your usual order with me.”
We exchange short pleasantries before he makes to leave. Once alone, I’m disappointed to find no note amongst the baked goods that Peeta left behind. Regardless, I make my way to Number 1 under the cover of darkness later that night.
He doesn’t disappointment me, grabbing my hand and pulling me into the house as soon as I push the door open. He has me pinned against the wall to the side in seconds, at least having the sense not to slam the door shut.
His kisses are relentless, I can barely breathe. But I don’t care, because I’ve missed this too. I’ve missed him.
We stumble to the staircase and fall onto the first few steps. I don’t care that it’s uncomfortable against my back – I only care that Peeta is hard and warm and willing against my front. I wrap my legs around his waist and we stumble upward, tackling a few stairs at a time before we have to pause to grind against each other for relief.
He sets me on my feet when we get to the landing, and we race to the bedroom – our bedroom, as I’ve come to think of it. I want him inside me right now, feel as though I’m going to implode if he’s not.
But I don’t implode, not even as he resolutely shifts down the bed and lines his face up with my stomach. “You’re mine,” he growls before moving lower.
His mouth is relentless, alternating between soft laps of the tongue and hard sucks between his lips as he renders my body boneless within minutes.
When he’s satisfied, he makes his way back to the head of the bed and apologizes. “I saw you both on TV,” he explains in between gentle kisses. “It was a rerun of last year’s Games, and you were only on briefly, but you were there with him.”
Our tributes last year didn’t even make it through the first night in the arena, so it’s not surprising that the program wouldn’t choose to focus on me and Gale. Still, there is always a short segment on us, even if it’s just mindless droning about why we don’t have any kids yet.
“It’s not real,” I whisper as his teeth tugs at my earlobe.
“I know. But it still hurt.”
I let him roll me over onto my front, let him wrap an arm around my waist and pull me onto my hands and knees. He seems to hesitate in that moment, so I lower my upper body onto my elbows and push my ass back towards him.
I moan – too loudly, really – at the delicious feel of him sliding into me, right to the hilt.
He curses over and over again as he pulls almost all of the way out before driving back in. I clutch the bedspread between fisted hands, holding on as he pounds into me. Somewhere along the way, Peeta has leaned forward, and I gasp when he reaches forward to rub my clit feverishly.
The bedspread serves to muffle my cries as I come, in the same way that my back stifles Peeta’s groans when he follows soon after.
I collapse forward and onto my stomach as he falls on top of me, both of us spent. I whimper when he pulls out and slides to one side, shifting some of his weight onto the mattress. His splayed fingers lie on the pillow inches from my face, and I move to grab them.
“This is real,” I tell him as I clutch his hand tightly. “Right here, right now.”
“I was thinking that I should marry Madge.”
We’re lying on the dusty bed in the room that has become our sanctuary over the past year. Peeta looks embarrassed – but then resolute. “If Madge and I stay close, then it might be better for the four of us.”
“You don’t need a marriage certificate to stay close to her,” I grumble. “You already live nearby.”
“Things are changing, Katniss. It’s getting worse for us out there, the curfew’s getting earlier and the Peacekeepers are more willing than ever to use weapons rather than words. Something is going to happen, whether we want it to or not. I might not be with you when it happens, not if you’re here in Victors’ Village, or on tour, or in the Capitol. I have to trust Gale to protect you. And I want him to trust that I can protect Madge and his family, as well as yours.”
“You still don’t have to marry her.”
“It’ll be a ruse, just like you and Gale.”
“You don’t need to do this,” I argue. “You don’t have the Capitol watching your every move.”
“But I do have my mother. And Madge has her father. Us living together would make it easier to move freely, to plan for the future.”
I sigh. “We can’t plan for the future, Peeta.”
“We can always dream, Katniss. They can’t take that away from us.”
“So you want to dream about me while you’re marrying Madge?”
“Why not? You dream about me when you go home to Gale, don’t you?”
I don’t know what possesses me, but I’m overcome with a feeling – a need – to show him what he means to me. That while our situation is far from ideal, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. I don’t want to be without him.
He doesn’t protest when I climb onto him. I take him in before I’m ready, grateful that the darkness will have hidden my wince at the pain. But we are moving together with ease soon enough, and Peeta clings to the tops of my thighs as I ride him ruthlessly.
“You’re mine,” I tell him with a fierceness that surprises me. “You belong to me.”
“I’m yours,” he grunts, thrusting up and into me. “And only yours.”
The air is cool against my stretched neck when I come, my eyes rolled back and unfocussed. Beneath me, Peeta grunts and grips my hips tightly as he drives upward for a final time.
I collapse on top of him, focusing on the feel of our moisture seeping out of me and onto him. We are both marked now, by ourselves, by each other. I am his, and he is mine.
“I can’t be there,” I tell him. “At the wedding.”
It will hurt too much.
“I know,” he says quietly. “It won’t be real, Katniss. Just like you and Gale aren’t real.”
Our tributes this year, Kavan and Sanna, are both from Town, both likable yet fiery – and clearly both in love. Cinna kits them out in a modernized version of our old tribute outfits, complete with artificial fire, sending the Capitol crowd wild and Caesar gushing over me and Gale once more.
And I know immediately that Haymitch and Gale have hatched a plan that they don’t want me to be a part of. I suspect that they want to save the boy over the girl, and set about trying to give her as much of an advantage as possible. I visit potential sponsors by myself, something that I have never done before, and enthusiastically discuss Sanna’s abilities and qualities, all the while furiously ignoring veiled – and not so veiled – attempts to tempt me to throw more favors into the bargain.
It all comes to nothing – not because the boy wins and the girl dies, but because that had never been my co-mentors’ plan. They are rebels, more so than I had ever been.
Somehow, we become the lucky ones, as all of the victors and tributes of 12 make it on board the hovercraft out of the Capitol. Most districts aren’t so lucky.
And, as we discover after landing in 13, the remainder of District 12 hadn’t been so lucky either.
Gale and I are in the midst of an argument when Haymitch steps into our compartment. I’m in no mood to speak pleasantly with him either, feeling equally betrayed, but he holds fast against my withering glare.
“We’ve received word from one of the hovercrafts that stayed in 12 to look for survivors. They found some.”
“Where?” Gale asks immediately. “They told us that all of the neighborhoods were destroyed.”
“They were. But some people made it to the woods.”
Some people made it to the woods. I repeat those words in my head, over and over again, during the torturous wait.
Gale and I, and Kavan and Sanna, race from the control room to the hovercraft bay as soon as three dark spots appear on the radar screen.
I’m shaking by the time they land, and Gale reaches for my hand. I can feel him shaking too.
I don’t recognize the first few people to file out of the craft. They gather at the bottom of the ramp, looking bewildered. A couple look across at us and nod in greeting. But my attention remains fixed on the exit of the craft.
Slowly, those huddled on the ramp are gently moved on by 13’s medical staff and led to the infirmary. And more bodies begin to file out.
My feet are moving before I have even confirmed that the head of blonde hair belongs to my sister. “Prim!”
She’s in my arms before I’ve stopped moving, and we both barrel into my mother. The three of us stay clutched tightly, even as Gale races past and gathers his own mother and sister into a tight embrace. Vaguely, I register the sight of his two brothers somewhere at the edge of the huddle.
Another head of blonde hair makes its way towards them. Madge. I catch her eye and we share a small smile.
And then, emerging from behind her, is the one face other than Prim’s that has haunted my dreams in recent nights. Peeta.
I let go of Prim, aware that she is staring as I make my way to him.
His strong arms are around me before I come to a stop, but he braces well for the impact. Closing my eyes, I take in the smell of pine and soil, so familiar and yet so unlike Peeta.
“How did you know to go there?” I whisper into the side of his neck.
“I didn’t, not really. I just remembered you saying that you felt safest in the woods, especially after the Games. So we headed over to the Seam and got your family, and Gale’s and some others, and made our way to the fence. We tried to convince others, but so many wouldn’t come…”
His voice hitches, and for the first time I notice that there hasn’t been any sign of his mother or his brothers. They could be on the other hovercrafts, but somehow, I suspect that they’re not.
“I’m so sorry,” I whisper.
Peeta doesn’t say anything as he holds me tighter.
President Coin and Plutarch join the remainder of District 12’s citizens in regarding the four of us curiously, observing the way that I am pressed up against Peeta and how Gale’s arm is wrapped around Madge’s waist.
Slowly, Coin nods, as if in understanding, and addresses us all.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to District 13. Welcome to the revolution.”