Katniss climbs the trellis of his townhouse, pulling herself through the window and onto his bed with an ease borne from a decade of familiar footwork. He’s waiting, quiet and comfortable under a thick comforter sewn by hands of a child in a far-off district. His face is paler than usual, drawn and tense, but still just as beautiful when he looks at her with blue eyes that plead for her to change her mind.
“Please,” Peeta says, his hands twisting in his lap. “It’s not too late.”
“I can’t,” she tells him, stripping away her black, generic shirt with a symbol stating she’s a trainee for the Guard. Her no-nonsense pants come off next, right over her black, scuffed shoes. Tomorrow they’ll be replaced with shiny, leather boots meant to defend, preserve, and to crush. “It’s the way of things.”
“It’s not.” He sits up and stares around the opulent room. Rare, bewildered frustration lines a face that hasn’t ever known struggle, fear or hunger. “I could petition to marry you. The Undersees would find someone else—”
“No one would allow it. You’ve been promised to Madge since we were children,” she says, blunt and pitiless. She cups her ribs, then runs a hand down her meager hips. “You’re meant to be Capitol royalty. I’m meant to serve you from afar. Protect your babies.”
“We’re supposed to protect each other.”
“We still can, in our own distant way,” she says, swallowing. “It’s for the best, you know? That it happens like this. I’m no good for you.”
“How can you be so calm? Won’t you miss me at all?” Peeta looks at her with despairing, resentful eyes. “You’re my best friend, and after the Choosing ceremony, we’ll never…we can't—”
She slides beneath the covers once she’s completely bare. He can hardly keep his hands off of her.
“We only have tonight,” she says, arching her back when he slips his hand over her breast. “And I want it to be you.”
He’s nervous and shaking and nothing like a confident young godling of Capitol privilege. She spreads her legs and holds her tender flesh apart with two fingers, guiding him inside of her with false confidence of her own. It’s painful, but not unbearable, and she takes her pleasure from his unabashed joy while he thrusts above her, kissing her lips and calling her name.
“Katniss, Katniss,” he cries, burying his face in her neck.
She pats his back and closes her eyes, wanting to freeze the moment and live in it forever.
“Don’t go,” he says into her skin, double layers of meaning in his words. He watches as she pulls away and dresses with reluctant haste. “Please.”
But they both know she must. Even if she were gone by morning, the possibility of discovery would be too great. His family tolerated their friendship because of this very moment—the inevitable separation of hierarchy. If she were found unmarried and Un-Chosen in the bed of a One by the wrong person, she could be punished. Possibly even stripped of the ability to Choose her own path, though the alternatives for a Seven are limited. Housekeeping, sewer duty, the Guard—those are the options for lower-level orphans such as Katniss, while Ones like Peeta are meant for politics and leadership.
“I have to.” She kisses him one last time, her forehead touching his. “Peeta…”
“I love you,” he says, cupping her face. “Yesterday, today, tomorrow. Even when I’m Choosing someone else.”
She climbs down his trellis for the last time, ending a tradition started from the time they were eight years old. Her feet touch the clean pavement below, so different from the litter-lined gutters of the level Seven Seam where the Community Home is located. She silently stalks down the softly-lit street to another posh townhouse, this time slipping through an open first-floor window.
“Hi,” Madge says, holding out her arms.
“Look at these saps,” Gale scoffs with smug lips, leaning over the top-floor railing of the Choosing Center. “Eighteen years old and pledging their eternal love and loyalty to another pampered baby just like them. Totally clueless to the world.”
“I think it’s sort of nice,” Leevy says, touching her shaved head with a self-conscious hand. She was called down to Choose toward the beginning of the ceremony. After she picked a life of Guard service, her head was promptly shaved and she was presented with new boots and a firearm before being sent back to the top level with the rest of the initiates.
“Nice?” He stares at her as if she’s gone insane.
“They were always the nicest ones in our class in lower school,” she says, looking at Katniss with pitying eyes. “They had friends outside of their caste. Even Sevens like us.”
Gale glares at Leevy. There’s no love lost between himself and Peeta, having spent their childhood years vying for the friendship and affection of Katniss Everdeen.
“Shh,” Katniss murmurs, leaning over the railing. Her hands tighten around the smooth metal as she watches Peeta Mellark, junior lawmaker for the Capitol Justice Department, marry Madge Undersee, housewife.
He slips onto Madge’s finger a ring that shines and shimmers even from Katniss’ remote vantage point. A split second before it rests snugly above Madge’s slim knuckle, they both glance heavenward. Peeta tries to appear stoic and brave, the mask of pleasant happiness cracking for only a moment. Madge just looks thoughtful.
Katniss gives them a sad smile and touches her still-intact braid, a quiet sort of farewell.
She’s turning away to speak to Gale when the Choosing Chancellor addresses the young newlyweds again.
“You have listed one asset request,” the man says, consulting a tablet. “A level Seven domestic.”
Gasps echo throughout the coliseum.
“Greedy sons of bitches,” Gale swears. “I swear, this should be outlawed.”
Katniss swings her head around in shock. Domestic entertainment is synonymous with legalized slavery. Ones, the highest citizens in the hierarchy of the Capitol caste system, are allowed the luxury of requesting someone from a lower caste as a household “domestic.” This could mean anything from cleaning to companionship, but only the prettiest young men and women are plucked and collared and lead around on golden leashes by their level One owners. She’s heard far too many whispers and rumors about what goes on behind the closed doors with domestics.
The polite society of the Capitol calls them domestics. But they’re universally known as playthings.
“Asset approved,” the chancellor says, bored. “Katniss Everdeen? Come to the stage with haste.”
All eyes are drawn to her.
“What?” she asks, laughing. She looks around at her group of Guards. Leevy has her hands pressed to her swarthy cheeks. Gale looks furious and terrified. Thom’s mouth swings wide open. “What?”
“Katniss Everdeen, level Seven,” the man says again, sounding less patient. “Come.”
“No.” She blinks and stares down at her worn shoes that should be shiny, leather boots. “No,” she says, louder.
Guards appear behind her, and she’s dragged backward down the stairs, her feet barely touching the steps as she’s hauled down to the main stage. She’s pushed down to her knees in front of the two people she never thought she’d see again outside of a polite, steely nod of her helmet-covered head, one filled with memories of the friends they once were.
Madge tilts her head at Katniss, her eyes sad but resolved. Peeta stares at her with horror and turns to the Chancellor. He starts speaking with quiet insistence, pointing at Katniss with a jabbing, accusatory finger. The Choosing Center is alight with scandalized, excited whispers.
“No,” she hears him say, Peeta’s words low and intermittent as he tugs at his expensive, silk tie. “Didn’t ask for….cancel this…”
“I did,” Madge says musically, gesturing for a male attendant waiting in the wings of the stage. He walks over with a collar and slips it around Katniss’ unwilling neck. “I asked for it.” She glances toward her politician father, who sits at a front row table reserved for Ones, his face calm as he nods back at his daughter.
Katniss struggles. The guards push down on her shoulders with their large, meaty hands.
She barely registers Peeta arguing with the Chancellor. She starts to feel dizzy and exhausted, a strange hollow sensation sucking at her brain. Still, she lashes out, twisting her body and trying to rip away the collar that feels heavy around her throat.
Someone reaches down and twists a dial on the collar, and she stills. She feels cold, and empty, and then…she’s blank.
He’s numb to the bone during the drive back to his and Madge’s new home. His wife chatters happily, twisting the ring on her finger and petting Katniss’ hair.
“We’ll go into town as soon as you’re…ready,” Madge says, unraveling the other girl’s braid with eager fingers. “I’ve been dying to have your hair done by one of my stylists. Doesn’t that sound good?”
Katniss blinks. She opens her mouth, and her lips move, but nothing comes out.
Peeta squeezes his eyes closed and drops back against the seat.
“I can’t fucking believe you,” he says hoarsely, his voice low and sharp and edged with needles. He looks around Katniss to stare at Madge, who just gazes back at him with cool eyes. “Katniss didn’t want this. She’d never…Christ, she’s not even in there. She’s gone. Gone.” His eyes grow wide and frantic, and he slips a finger beneath Katniss’ new collar. “I’m taking it off.”
“It won’t do you any good.” She shakes her head at him as if disappointed, her perfectly coiffed, blonde bun unswayed by the movement. “If anything, it will make things worse. That collar is a part of her chemistry now. Calm down.” Madge waves at him with a bored hand. “She’ll come back to herself…slowly, over time.”
“She won’t be Katniss,” he snarls, releasing his hold on her collar and pressing his face into his hands.
“Mm. She’ll be better,” Madge says. “She’ll be our Katniss, just as we like.”
He looks up at his wife, trying to avoid Katniss’ confused, eerily blank eyes. “Who are you? We were friends! All three of us. Have you always been…” He makes a noise of disbelief in the back of his throat. “You’re demented.”
“No,” she says, studying her polished nails. “I’m practical. I didn’t discuss the decision with you because I knew you’d react like this. Did you really want five-foot-nothing Katniss Everdeen in the Guard?” She spits out the word and touches Katniss’ cheek, who leans into the gesture like a hungry kitten. “She would have never made it. Maybe you were content to let her die, but I was not. I did what I had to do. Daddy has a domestic of his own, you know. He was quite pleased to approve the request.” Her lips grow thin. “This is better. She’s safe—Katniss will never be some common drudge in the line of fire. She’ll never want for anything.”
She trails a nail down Katniss’ collar and looks at Peeta. “We can all be happy.”
He swallows. “I’ll never be happy again.”
“Don’t be dramatic,” Madge says, her lips curling into a smile. She picks up Katniss’ hand and places it over Peeta’s lap. He scoots backward with a violent twist of his body, disgusted when he hardens beneath the touch of the girl who was once his best friend. “You’ll change your mind.”
“You’ll…change your mind,” Katniss mimics softly, turning her head to look at Peeta.
“What the fuck is that?”
He stares at the monstrous, golden thing in the corner of their bedroom.
“It’s a cage,” Madge says, unlocking it with a matching golden key and giving Katniss a gentle push. “Daddy had it installed for us as part of our wedding gift. Technically, it’s a kennel. All playthings—” She corrects herself. “Domesticshave one. Ours just has a better one.” She says it so smugly that Peeta turns on her, his eyes snapping and fierce.
“Do you even hear yourself?” he shouts, tearing at his hair. “This is Katniss!Not a plaything.”
Madge ignores him, her expression blithe as she stares over his shoulder.
“Look at her,” she coos, stepping forward and wrapping her hands around the golden bars. “She looks so happy.”
Katniss settles down onto the plush cushions lining the bottom of her cage, twirling a sparkling baton in her hands with utter fascination.
Peeta lowers his hands, resigned, with a sour, desperate taste in his mouth.
He and Madge sleep five feet apart in their massive, princely bed. They haven’t consummated their marriage vows, and at this point, he never wants to.
God. He can still remember the way before-Katniss felt beneath him, the way her soft skin slid over his own, how it felt to come inside of her.
Peeta turns on his side, his eyes unwillingly drawn to the cage in the corner and the sleeping girl inside. He watches her unlined, peaceful face, and a part of him yearns to crawl inside her golden prison and curl up next to her familiar but hollow skin.
“We can pull her out of there,” Madge says from her side of the bed, her voice innocent. “She’s not like other new domestics. She’s not going to turn on us in the middle of the night and stab us in our sleep. Not after the dial on her collar was turned up to the highest training setting.”
“Hm.” Madge’s voice fades, like she’s turning away from him. “Well, when you change your mind…”
He sleeps poorly that night, intensely attuned to every soft breath, every rustle that comes from the corner of the room.
It’s been three days. He can still barely look at her.
Madge scolds him, constant reminders on her tongue about how it’s important to be an active part of her training.
So that they can make a bond.
The most he’ll do is sit on the couch while Madge teaches Katniss basic behavioral structures using gourmet chocolate treats. Her vocabulary is slowly coming back, and it’s a painful process, like watching a water pitcher being filled in reverse.
She can identify all the objects in the living room except some of the items before-Katniss wasn’t familiar with. The more advanced technological toys that are only available to Ones still elude her. She can feed herself and go to the bathroom, but when she looks at him with those blank, grey eyes, he knows that she’s not seeing Peeta, her closest friend since lower school.
She’s seeing Peeta: her owner.
And it doesn’t matter how disengaged he is, how curt, she still finds a way to crawl over to him and curl around his feet, looking at him with those big, eager-to-please eyes.
“Peeta,” she says, lip quivering. “Hug?”
He ignores her, reading an article about the newest labor laws. There’s a tentative tug on his shoelaces, and his eyes flicker down to the girl at his feet.
“Hug?” she repeats, so pitiful he almost caves. His fingers are twitching toward her when his wife stomps into the room.
“For Capitol’s sake, Peeta.” Madge comes from the kitchen and pulls Katniss from the floor and into her arms. “How can you look at this face and treat her badly?”
He slams his tablet onto the coffee table so hard it probably cracked. He’ll have a courier deliver another one.
“I’m not treating her badly. I’m just not engaging in this…this freak show.”
Katniss’ eyes widen at his statement. Guilt flickers at the sight of her stricken face, and he wonders if she understands the meaning behind the words or if she’s responding to the harsh cadence of them.
Madge leads Katniss away by hand, pausing to turn back toward him.
“You’re making this more difficult than it needs to be.” She pushes Katniss into their bedroom, and he can see from the open doorway that she’s heading straight for her ‘kennel.’ “Who are you punishing, Peeta?” She lowers her voice. “Yourself or Katniss?” Madge turns and looks at the girl who docilely walks into her plush, gilded cage. A satisfied smile spreads across her face. “Because I guarantee it’s not me.”
A fork scrapes on a plate. Madge quietly corrects Katniss, who blushes prettily at the rebuke.
“Gentle.” Madge pops her hand with a firm pat.
“Gentle,” Katniss repeats, carefully piercing a baby carrot with her utensil. She looks up at Peeta for approval, who stares back with a stony expression. Her face falls, and she chews her food with the intense caution of a prisoner facing the guillotine. “I’ll be gentle.”
The telephone rings, and Madge excuses herself to answer it, giving Peeta a look as she walks by.
Be nice, she mouths, lifting an eyebrow.
Peeta’s stabbing a piece of roast with his fork when hears it.
“I want cheese buns,” Katniss says softly. She looks at him with hazy, confused eyes. “Will you make them, Peeta?”
His fork clatters to the plate, and the chair scrapes the tiles of the floor as he hastily stands and drops to his knees beside her. He grabs her hands in his, and she stares down at their intertwined fingers with a look of shock.
“Katniss?” he says urgently. “Sweetheart, is it you?”
Her lips repeat his words and her eyes drift away until he pulls her face toward him by the chin. His heart beats wildly in his chest, his lungs in his goddamn throat because she just asked for him to make her favorite food.
“No.” He holds eye contact with her. “Katniss, did you say you want cheese buns? Ask me again and I’ll bake them for you. I’ll make you anything you’d like—just say it again.”
She smiles at him with worried, tentative eyes and touches his chin in return. “Say it again,” she says innocently.
His hand drops away from her face, and he curses so loudly that she whimpers. He passes by Madge as he storms out of the dining room, giving her a warning glare when she asks what’s wrong.
Peeta goes to bed early that night, turned away on his side when Madge puts Katniss inside of her cage.
The next morning, he rises early before going to work. He ends up in the kitchen, his hands reaching for bowls and flour.
When he walks out the front door an hour later, he leaves a batch of cheese buns on the marble counter.
His eyebrows furrow together when there’s an insistent knock on the door.
“Expecting company?” he asks his wife.
Madge shakes her head, looking up from the blue polish she’s applying to Katniss’ toes. “No.” She tilts her head and smiles warmly at Katniss, who looks back at her with fascination. “Are you expecting company, Kitty?”
Katniss laughs with her, the sound airy and uncomplicated.
“No,” she says with complete understanding, shocking Peeta. “Should…I get the door?” she adds politely.
Madge throws Peeta a triumphant look. “We’ve been working on social customs while you’re at work,” she says, turning back toward Katniss. “No dear, I’ll get the door.” She pats Katniss’ leg before standing.
“Thank you…for the cheese buns,” Katniss says haltingly, her expression turning shy as she looks at Peeta.
He coughs, his heart constricting at her familiar gratitude. It would be so easy to fall into this false sense of comfort. To believe she’s his Katniss. Now that she’s adapting to the collar, she’s become more dangerous to his willpower.
Madge peers through the peephole before leaning back with a faint frown.
“Peeta,” she says, tapping the door lightly. “It’s Gale Hawthorne.”
He wipes a hand down his face and stands. He opens the door, revealing a thunderous man in boots and the regulation black apparel fit for a member of the Guard.
“Where is she?” he demands, his head swinging around until he spies the girl on the couch. “Katniss!” He pushes his way through the door, sending Peeta stumbling back a step.
“Stop!” Madge cries, standing in his way.
“Move or I’ll make you move,” he growls. He steps around her and crouches in front of Katniss, his eyes taking in her appearance. Her shiny hair, her healthy skin, her clear eyes. He opens his mouth and closes it before speaking again. “Kat, are you okay? Do you need help?”
“No,” she whispers, her eyes wide and terrified.
“Do you know who I am?”
She blinks at him with an open mouth.
He reaches for her arm, and hell breaks loose. She screams.
“Madge. Peeta!” She shrieks and holds her arms out, accidentally hitting Gale in the cheek. “Peeta!”
Peeta rushes over and pulls Katniss into his arms, glaring at Gale. “You need to go.” He wants to curse at how good she feels in his embrace, even shaking and traumatized.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“I’m a man of the law now. A junior judge and a One,” Peeta says, furious. He gives in to his desire to stroke Katniss’ hair, and the repetitive motion seems to comfort her. “I know my rights, Hawthorne. You’re in violation of them.”
“You really wanna discuss the violation of rights?” He raises his voice. “That’s awful rich coming from you. What about Katniss’ rights?”
“You’re scaring her.”
“I’m scaring her?” Gale scoffs and paces back and forth, a large specter in black. He points at Katniss with a shaking finger, who cowers away from his accusing gesture. “She’s a vegetable! You’ve ruined her! You should be shot for what you’ve done. She doesn’t even know me after this…this mind wipe. You’ve made her into a—”
“Stop,” Madge says calmly, holding the door open. “You will leave, and you will leave at once. You will never return. We’ll overlook the way you’ve shamelessly overstepped your boundaries today. The way you’ve terrified our domestic! But if you come back, you’ll not only be removed from the Guard— “she taps her chin with mock thoughtfulness “—but…I believe it’s your brother? Rory? He’ll be Choosing soon, right?” Her voice hardens. “Well, I’m prepared to make life very difficult for Rory. Hmm. And Vick. Even little Posy down the line.”
Gale stiffens, a look of intense hatred passing over his dark face. “You’re going to burn for this some day. You’re both disgusting.”
“Bye, now.” Madge waves at him with careless fingers.
With one last, tortured look at Katniss, he leaves.
That night, Peeta is tortured with the sounds of Katniss’ whimpers and cries, who is clearly in the throes of a nightmare.
“I can’t take it anymore,” he says, peeling back the comforter. “Where’s the key?”
“The door isn’t locked,” Madge tells him with smug satisfaction, refraining from an I told you so.
He stalks to the cage and opens it. He reaches inside and picks her up as if she weighs no more than a sack of flour. She barely stirs in his arms, instead quieting when she lies in them. He carefully lowers her down to the bed.
“Put her in the middle,” Madge says happily.
When he wakes the next morning, he and his wife have curled inward, both of their arms slung around Katniss’ waist while she sleeps with a peaceful expression.
No more nightmares.
Peeta walks down the hallway of the Justice Department, straightening his tie and smiling at his fellow practitioners. He walks into his office and greets his secretary, a former level Four whom he vaguely remembers from school. He thinks her name is Leticia or Lavinia, but the name refuses to stick in his mind—maybe he’ll make her wear a nametag. She’s nice enough, but asks too many questions about Katniss, even though they’re of the harmless how is she? variety.
Other people’s questions aren’t as innocuous.
“Stop holding out,” Cato Andromedas says during a work lunch, watching with a sneer as an Avox cuts his steak. “Smaller pieces. Christ, are you an idiot?” He gestures to the mute servant with a disgusted expression. “Anyway, Peeta, how’s that pussy?”
He almost chokes on a bite of pork tenderloin. “Excuse me?”
“Yeah, tell us,” Marvel Morrigan says, chewing with his mouth open, revealing a mouth full of platinum fillings. “You’re the only one of our generation to take on a domestic during your Choosing ceremony. Brass balls, I tell ya. Then again, when you have Chancellor Undersee as a father-in-law…” He makes a low, envious whistle under his breath.
“I didn’t think you had it in you.” Cato appraises him, his lips tilted in a cruel smirk. “I always knew you wanted to fuck Katniss Everdeen. Didn’t know you’d go to these lengths to get it. I figured she’d already spread those pretty legs for you in lower school. Why else would a One be friends with a Seven?”
Peeta takes a deliberate sip of water.
“Don’t insult Katniss,” he finally says, carefully removing the napkin from his lap. He folds it into a square, his eyes flicking upward to meet their stares. “In fact, don’t even bring up her name, or I’ll take proper steps against you. I’ll file an order if I must.”
Cato’s smirk falls.
“It’s just talk between friends—”
“We’re not friends,” Peeta says, flashing them an insincere smile. He stands and politely gestures for an Avox to clear his plate. “I tolerate you because you are distant colleagues.” He steps away, then pauses. “Katniss is a level One domestic now. You are both…Twos. Chew on that, would you? Preferably with your mouths closed.”
He walks away with a whistle.
Peeta opens the front door and freezes, shock giving way to fingers of icy hot disbelief.
His wife and Katniss are wrapped around each other on the couch, all smooth hair and smoother legs and plush lips. Madge breaks away from Katniss with a soft smack and inclines her head toward the door.
“He’s home,” she sing-songs, her hand sliding down the other girl’s arm.
Katniss turns her head and smiles, her eyes alight with pure joy at the sight of him. She stands and skips —skips!—over to him, intensely focused on his face. It’s hard not to be affected by the simplicity of that smile aimed at him, the uncomplicated radiance—
She kisses him. Her hands cup his face, the warm fingers gentle on his cheeks. He’s stock-still as she works those full lips against his, gently prying them open to receive her slick tongue. He’d like to say he fights against her, but instead he leans in with an unconscious eagerness, his hands winding into her unbound hair. A tiny, pleasure-filled whimper escapes from her mouth into his, and finally, finally, he pulls away.
“What the hell?” he gasps, covering his lips with his hand. His eyes fly to Madge, who just looks back, coolly amused as she reclines against the leather couch. “What was that?”
“It was a kiss!” Katniss says with excitement, practically bouncing on the balls of her feet. “It’s how we say hello. You, me, and Madge.”
“Come on, let’s practice more,” she murmurs insistently, grabbing his hand and tugging him toward the couch. “Come on, Peeta. Please?”
He falls down next to her, bewildered, allowing her to kiss him again. He feels bereft when she pulls away and leans into Madge, but as he watches their softer, sweeter girl-kisses, he feels a tug of unwilling desire, and his cock hardens from a molten throb to potent steel.
Peeta cups himself and groans quietly, filled with self-loathing as he waits for his turn again.
“It’s not raining,” Katniss says, her hand pressed to the window.
Peeta exchanges a look with Madge, who’s busily writing thank you cards. Almost three months have passed since their marriage, and he’s already been the recipient of a few passive-aggressive comments from his mother regarding societal etiquette and the importance of timely correspondence.
Katniss has been uncharacteristically solemn for the past two days. It started with a thunderstorm. He had mixed feelings about it; he hated to see Katniss frightened, but he’d be a liar if he said he didn’t enjoy the feeling of her pressed against him for comfort. Before-Katniss wasn’t afraid of storms, but the new version of her is clearly shaken up by them. The rain affected her mood: Yesterday he came home, expecting a welcoming kiss from the girl, but instead she was curled up in front of the window, staring balefully out at the insistent raindrops.
“It’s nice out,” she’s saying, turning and giving Peeta a wide-eyed, pitiful stare. “Everything is green and pretty.” She seems to struggle for the right word. “Sunshiney.”
It hits him.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he says, standing and stretching. “It’s a nice Saturday. Would you like that?”
Katniss nods furiously. “Outside?” She points out the window with a hesitant finger.
“Yes, of course.” He gives Madge a hard stare. “Do you not go outside during the day?”
“We’re supposed to wait twelve weeks,” his wife reminds him, waving a dismissive hand without looking up. “That’s when the training period is over.”
“We’re only a week away from that. No one will stop me.” He slips on his shoes and then motions for Katniss to do the same, who looks so overwhelmed he ends up having to put her shoes on for her.
“Well, take her leash at least.” Madge points beside the door at something that looks more like a golden, jeweled ribbon than anything else. “I had it made specially for Katniss.”
“A leash?” His nostrils flare. “No. I’m not doing that to her.”
“It’s the law. And you’re part of the judicial system,” she says absently, signing her name with a flourish to a piece of card-stock. “Do you want to risk doing something to be Un-Chosen?”
Peeta stares at her, unimpressed. He holds out his hand to Katniss, who eagerly fits her fingers into his.
“Or perhaps you’d like for them to take Katniss away?” Madge adds with sarcastic sweetness.
He gets the leash.
Katniss doesn’t seem to mind at all—in fact, she’s in a world of her own when they take the elevator down to the lobby and emerge into the fresh, bright air.
She stops on the sidewalk and spins in a slow circle, and Peeta follows the movement, not wanting her to get wrapped up in the leash.
“I love the outside,” she tells him, solemn.
His heart constricts.
“Let’s go somewhere special,” Peeta says.
They walk in quiet comfort along the clean streets of the most affluent Capitol neighborhood, exclusive only to Ones. Peeta is patient when Katniss stops to exclaim over a puppy, or when she wants to stare into a sweet shop. He buys her a lollipop that’s a brightly colored pinwheel of flavors, watching her lick it with enthusiasm out of the corner of his eye. He accepts when Katniss offers him a taste, and she swallows when his tongue swipes along an orange stripe.
“Kiss?” she asks innocently, stopping in front of a mermaid fountain on Nightlock Lane. She steps closer, tentative little shuffles of her feet. He holds himself still, like a prize she has to work for. She leans in, hesitant because this isn’t a welcome home. This is just because. He can sense the confusion warring inside of her, the desire inside of herself she doesn’t quite know how to interpret.
He’s a bastard for allowing this. He shouldn’t—but he does with a slow incline of his head, a regal acceptance. Peeta winds the leash around his hand, drawing her closer to him.
Their mouths create a sweet fusion of berries when their lips come together. He has to make himself nudge her away with firm but gentle hands, breathing hard with the effort.
They approach a park with a large lake lapping at the center of it. Peeta looks at her with anticipation. He’s not disappointed when her eyes widen in fascination. She starts to run but is stopped by the leash. She hangs her head in shame but snaps her chin toward him when she hears the click of the leash being removed from her collar.
“Go ahead,” he tells her, a little smile tugging at his lips. “Run.”
She does, leaving him in the dust as she moves with the swift, elegant speed of the Katniss she once was. She skids to a stop in front of the shore of the lake, staring at the water’s edge with wary, frightened eyes.
She turns toward him and holds out a hand, waiting for him to catch up.
“Water. A…lake,” Katniss says, pointing with a mix of excitement and trepidation. “It’s big. And cold.”
“You loved the water,” he says without thinking. “You taught me how to swim.”
She tilts her head at him. “I did?”
He sighs and nods, turning away from her. He stares out into the tranquil waves of the lake, watching how the sunlight glitters on the surface, hiding the depths below.
“Yes. Before…before,” Peeta finishes with a purse of his lips, rubbing his jaw.
Katniss looks at him, her eyebrows furrowed together. “Oh.”
He clears his throat. “Do you want to get in?”
“Not even your toes?” Peeta teases, nudging her in the side until she scowls. He decides then and there to tease her more often, because that frown is so familiar, it’s breaking and mending his heart in rapid succession.
She huffs. Scuffs her booted foot across the sand.
“Just our toes?” Katniss asks so suspiciously she sounds just like his girl again. “That’s all?”
He tugs on her hair. “Just our toes. I promise.”
They kick off their shoes, and with his supportive hand on her lower back, they slowly venture into the lake.
“I like this,” Katniss announces, wiggling her feet down into the watery shore. She squeezes his fingers and gives him a brilliant smile. “I like you, Peeta.”
“I like you, too,” he says, blinking before looking away.
Peeta adjusts his tie and checks the time on his platinum watch. He usually found it to be loud and pretentious, but Katniss had looked at it with shining eyes while he was getting dressed, picking it up from his display of timepieces and holding it up to the light. “Pretty,” she had said, and that’s all it took for him to fasten it to his wrist.
“We’re going to be late. Dinner is served at seven.”
“So?” Madge consults her reflection in a compact rimmed with diamonds, baring her perfect teeth. “We’re by far the most important guests. They’ll wait.”
“Where are we going?” Katniss asks, shifting between them with an uncomfortable twist of her body.
When presented with the lacy thing for which Madge had paid a small fortune, Katniss threw as close to a tantrum as Peeta had ever seen. It took pleading, cajoling and finally the threat of no walks for a week for her to finally put it on. A slice of smooth, olive-skinned thigh flashes him when Katniss shifts again, and Peeta rubs his lips. She looks like a sugarcoated dream in the peach and gold confection of a dress.
“A dinner party.”
She bites her thumbnail. “Are they…friends?”
“Of sorts.” Madge pats her thigh, her hand lingering. “Are you nervous, darling?”
Katniss sinks down into the seat and lays her head on Peeta’s shoulder. “I’m scared. Is that the same as nervous?”
“What if they don’t like me?” She sighs, exhaling a warm breath of air onto Peeta’s neck. “When we go for walks, people look at me funny. Mean.”
“No one will look at you funny here,” Peeta assures her firmly. “They’ll answer to me.”
Madge looks at him approvingly, her thumb rubbing circles on Katniss’ leg.
They arrive at the home of Brutus and Cashmere Finklea, allowing the Avox at the door to take their coats. Katniss hides behind Madge and Peeta, pressing her face into his back.
“Welcome!” Brutus booms, walking down the hall and shaking Peeta’s hand. He kisses the back of Madge’s fingers and attempts to peer around them. “I see you brought your play—”
“Katniss,” Peeta interjects smoothly, giving him a look that stops the other man in his tracks. Peeta gently pulls her out from behind him and presents her, his hands lingering on her hips proudly.
“Yes, yes, of course.” The man gives her an appraising once-over. “You got a good one, I see.” Brutus gestures to the Avox impatiently. “Take her to Clove’s room, would you?”
Madge frowns. “Where is that?”
“We’d much prefer to have her with us,” Peeta says.
“She’ll be happy there with the other pla—domestics.” Brutus catches himself with a sardonic smile, clearly not used to censorship. “There’s limited seating at the dining table. She’d have to sit at the floor, by your feet.”
Peeta stares at him, unsmiling. “I’m displeased,” is all he says, looking at Katniss.
Brutus shifts uncomfortably.
“It’s fine,” Madge says with a sigh. “I’m just used to the way Daddy does it, is all.” The older man stiffens at the mention of the High Chancellor. “He always has a place set for Portia at the table. But it’s fine. I know certain Ones live by a different set of standards than ours.”
Brutus sputters at the slight. “We’ll certainly try to accommodate her next time.”
“If there’s a next time. Oh—you can go,” Madge dismisses him. “We’ll be along in a moment.”
Katniss grips both of their hands, panic setting in when the Avox steps toward her.
“It’s fine,” Madge says, petting her hair. “Go with the nice girl, Katniss. We’ll come for you as soon as dinner is over.”
She looks at Peeta pleadingly. “I want to stay with you.”
“Listen to Madge,” he says, looking away. Katniss drops her head and shuffles along after the Avox. “Wait.”
She stops, hopeful. He deftly removes the watch from his wrist and fastens it to hers. It’s too large and threatens to spill off of her slender wrist, but she holds it there with covetous fingers.
“We’ll come for you when the little hand is on the nine. Maybe earlier,” he tells her. “Okay?”
“Okay,” she whispers, turning to look at them when he pushes her away with a gentle hand.
Katniss follows the quiet person dressed all in red down a long, dark hall. They emerge in front of a set of pink doors, and when they open, she steps inside of a bright pink room with a big, fancy bed that has lacy curtains falling down around the sides. There are stuffed animals covering the surface of it. A huge painting of a girl with a pretty, mean face stares back at her from the wall.
A delicate cough draws her attention, and she blinks away from the painting.
“Are you coming in? Or are you just gonna stand there and stare like a proper idiot?”
She jolts at the harsh words and turns, meeting the stare of three girls wearing clothes that make her mouth swing open. They’re almost naked, covered only by the lacy strips of cloth across their private areas, and the same itchy stockings that Madge had made her wear only reach the thighs of these girls. Two of them have on shoes with pointy heels, and the mean girl from the wall is barefoot, staring at her with the exact expression in the painting.
“I know who you are,” the girl says, standing leisurely and stalking over to her. Her long, dark hair falls over her slim, pale shoulder, and there’s a sparkling band pushing the strands back from her face. “I’m Clove. This is Bristel and Twill.” She jerks her thumb behind her. “You must be Plaything Mellark.”
Katniss stares at her, baffled.
“I’m Katniss,” she says simply, her eyes flitting around the room. She focuses on an orange cat with long fur, and it hisses at her before running underneath the bed.
“Ignore Buttercup,” Clove says, pulling her by the hand over to the low slung couch in the corner of the room, where the other girls are flicking through the slick pages of the same magazine Madge has delivered every day. “He was a gift”—she rolls her large brown eyes—"from my owners.”
“Pussy for a pussy,” Twill says, and Bristel giggles. The sound isn’t nice.
“You have a lot of dolls,” Katniss blurts out, sitting on the edge of the couch. She runs a nervous hand down its butter-soft surface.
“Fucking gross, huh?” The dark-haired girl sneers and flicks her long, pink nails toward the matching pink bed. “That’s because Brutus likes to pretend I’m a little girl when he fucks me.”
“Pftt. Gloss makes me wear animal tails,” Bristel says, folding her arms underneath her chest. Her nipples point at Katniss, who looks away and blushes. “Stop your bitching.”
“What about you?” Twill asks, dropping a magazine to the floor with careless fingers. She picks up a piece of chocolate from a silver tray on a side table and pops it into her red slash of a mouth. “I’ve seen Peeta Mellark before. He’s so calm and put-together. I bet he’s a perfect beast in bed.”
Katniss blinks. “He’s…we sleep in the bed. He holds me.”
The three girls stare at her. And then they throw back their heads and laugh and laugh, the sound like tinkling, breaking glass.
“That’s beautiful,” Clove gasps, wiping underneath her eyes. “How kind. Howsweet. They must be waiting until you stop being such a stupid little doll.”
Twill snickers, the corner of her mouth stained dark from chocolate. “She shouldn’t have fought so hard. She’s practically retarded now! I mean, little girls and animals are one thing, but the mentally deficient…”
Katniss’ eyes well with tears, not quite understanding their conversation but knowing enough that these are mean, mean girls.
Then they ignore her, and Katniss stares at Peeta’s watch, praying for the little hand to touch the nine.
They collect her a few minutes early, and Peeta notices straight away that Katniss is quieter than usual; there’s no innocent chatter, no little touches of her hand. Instead, she sits quietly in the car between them, reflexively pulling on her hair.
She looks straight ahead, her eyes downcast. “I’m stupid.”
Madge and Peeta exchange alarmed looks over her head.
“Why would you say that?” his wife demands.
“Because I am!” Katniss slams her head back against the seat, the move so sudden and violent that Peeta blanches. “I’m stupid, I’m stupid, I’m a stupid doll!” Slam goes her head again. “The other girls said so. I’m deficient.”
“Stop!” Peeta pulls her away from the seat and holds her immobile, not an easy feat when she’s thrashing in his arms. “Katniss!”
She kicks out a leg and catches Madge in the thigh, who shrieks in return.
“Her collar,” Madge says, holding her leg in pain. “Turn the dial.”
“No,” he grits out, his arms tightening around the girl in his arms. “Are you insane? She’s only just now becoming even a semblance of her old self.”
“A semblance, a semblance, a semblance,” Katniss repeats manically, throwing her head back and almost catching him in the nose with it.
He slaps her face, and she goes limp in his arms.
“Christ.” He shifts her in his arms and looks her over with worried eyes, but she just stares back at him dully, a red print on her olive cheek blooming dark.
“I’m sorry I was bad,” she says and bursts into tears. She collapses against him, her body jerking with silent sobs. She falls asleep before they arrive back home, and Peeta carries her through the lobby of their building. They ride up the elevator to their penthouse in silence. Madge trails behind him into the bedroom. He places Katniss on the bed, and he and Madge quietly watch while she sleeps.
“What the hell did those playthings say to her?” Peeta asks, running a hand through his perfectly coiffed hair. “She’s never acted like this.”
Madge sneers and taps her chin. “I’ve seen Cashmere’s girl before. She’s a surly, hateful thing.” Her eyes take on a faraway look. “I’ll handle it.”
He feels a finger poke into his cheek.
“Have I always been stupid?” Katniss asks, blinking at him with solemn grey eyes. She knows now that she was different before, and sometimes asks questions about it. She was content with the brief answers they gave her, and didn’t seem to grasp just how different her life once was. Until now.
He curses those damn playthings.
“No,” Peeta says, rubbing his face. “You were brilliant.”
“But not anymore,” she says, absently stroking his arm. “Is that why you don’t touch me?”
“You don’t touch me. We kiss,” she says with a clumsy tongue, looking frustrated. “The other girls…they get touched.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking for, Katniss.”
She huffs and closes her eyes, rolling over onto her side and burying her face in Madge’s chest.
Peeta waits until she’s asleep and slides out of bed and into the bathroom. He pulls his rock hard length out of his sleep pants and furiously works himself over until he shoots his orgasm into the toilet, imagining he’s coming inside of Katniss.
He’s trying so, so hard to be good, but he’s only a man.
There’s a dinner at the home of Gloss Paradis the following week. Katniss is reluctant to be separated from them, but Madge assures her that things will be different this time.
She’s led to another bedroom, and she sees Twill and Bristel sitting at a table with an animal print design, having a tea party. Their faces pale at the sight of her.
Clove’s not there.
“Can I play?” Katniss asks innocently.
They trip over themselves to greet her, setting a place at the little table. They fill her cup with tea and arrange her plate with little, fancy cookies. They talk to her brightly, their lips quivering every time Katniss grows quiet.
Finally, there’s a knock on the door. She stands, eager to be with Madge and Peeta again.
“Did you have a good time?” Bristel asks, her eyes pleading. She touches a pair of fluffy, orange cat ears on top of her head, attached to a silver headband. “You had a good time, right?”
“Um.” She cocks her head. “I think so.” She eyes the cat ears.
“Where’d you get that strange thing, Kitty Kat?” Peeta muses, flicking her hair as he leads her out of the front door.
Katniss shrugs and adjusts her headband.
Peeta uncuffs his shirt sleeves and rubs his cheek, weary to the bone after a long day at the office. He wonders what it would have been like to be a level Three or Four, perhaps run a little downtown bakery, where he could make cheese buns all day. Katniss, his wife, sitting on a stool and chatting with him between customers…
He cocks his head and glances around the living room and the kitchen, wondering where Madge and Katniss are. Her leash is beside the door. He peeks out onto the balcony, but there’s no sign of them. It’s too early for bed, but maybe a nap…
Pushing the bedroom door open provides a shock, and he stands in stunned silence and stares at the scene unfolding in front of him.
Katniss is in her cage. Naked. And she’s not alone.
Madge reclines on the bed of pillows that make up the golden cage’s floor. Her legs are splayed, and Katniss kneels between them, her head buried between Madge’s thighs.
“That’s good,” his wife murmurs, her spine arching. He can see little spasms in her abdomen, the toned muscles there twitching with every eager lick of Katniss’ tongue. “You’re so perfect, Katniss. Mmm, god, yes…”
She opens her eyes and meets Peeta’s, staring at him over Katniss’ head.
He walks to the cage and tries to open it, glaring at her, but she just shakes her head with a cunning smile. The door is locked.
Peeta leans his head against the bars of the cage and rubs his straining erection, watching as Katniss licks and nibbles and dines voraciously on his wife’s pussy. He hesitates, struggles, and loses the fight. He unzips his fly and pulls his hard cock free, giving it brutal tugs with his hand, grunting in time with Madge and wishing he were her. It’s the closest he’s felt to her since their marriage, connected by their love and lust for Katniss.
“A little higher, darling—oh, oh, yes! Right there!’”
He watches as Madge comes on Katniss’ tongue, and there’s a loud moan that rips from his own throat.
Madge turns her head with a lazy roll of her neck, gently pushing Katniss from between her legs.
“Take care of Peeta, hmm?” She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear.
Katniss sits up on her knees and twists, giving him a truly torturous, familiar view of her small, perfect breasts. Her mouth glistens when she smiles at him.
He falters, his hand still gripping his stiff length. It twitches when she crawls forward on her knees, and she grasps the bars in front of where he leans against them. She licks her lips and stares as his erection, eyes wide.
“I’ve never seen one,” she says. It pains him that she doesn’t remember their first time together, or any of their fumbling explorations before it. But then her next words bring him hurtling back to reality. “It’s…can I touch it?”
He groans, his hand resuming its stroking. “You wanna touch my cock, Katniss?”
“Your cock,” she repeats, her eyes focused on his rhythmic tugs. He leans forward so far that it slides between the bars, and he almost falls to his knees when she flicks out her little pink tongue and swipes at the head of it.
“Oh, fuck.” His hips pump when her lips wrap around the tip. She looks up at him beneath the tangle of her eyelashes, and he nods frantically. “Yeah, suck like that…oh god, sweet girl, just like that…” He jacks the base of his dick and tugs on his balls with his other hand, and when she reaches up with tentative, curious fingers and joins him in his play, the familiar zap of an impending orgasm shoots up his spine and boils in his balls. He tries to pull away but spills all over her lips, spurting streams of cum down her chin and onto her naked breasts.
Peeta pants and touches his temple in a daze, his semi-hard cock hanging in the air as he thinks about what he’s just done. The line he’s finally crossed with Katniss. He looks past her shoulder and sees Madge furiously fingering herself to another orgasm.
“Did I do good?” Katniss asks, licking the corner of her lips.
Madge crawls behind her, her eyes triumphant as she looks up at him through the bars of the cage.
“You were wonderful,” Madge says, kissing her shoulder. “Isn’t that right, Peeta?”
“Yes.” The word is tinged with resignation and a little spark of something like anticipation storming inside of him.
This was always going to happen, anyway.
Madge visits her parents the following morning, leaving Peeta and Katniss to have Sunday brunch on their own. They lounge in silk robes and Peeta feeds her bits of freshly baked croissants he made himself, spreading various jams onto the pieces until Katniss decides which is her favorite.
“Blackberry currant,” she finally announces, and he kisses the taste of it off her tongue.
Once they’ve eaten their fill, they take a brief nap, which ends with his hands down her panties, knuckle-deep inside of Katniss as he brings her to a shrieking orgasm.
The line he had drawn in the sand burns to ash, and he struggles to regret it as he licks her wetness from the pads of his fingers, the flavor better than blackberry currant.
They take a stroll downtown, and he takes her inside of a jewelry store where he tries various sparkling, multifaceted diamond rings onto her fingers.
“You choose,” Peeta tells an overwhelmed Katniss.
She likes the smallest diamond; he prefers the largest.
So he buys both, sliding them onto her ring finger while fantasizing that she’s his wife as they walk back out onto the busy sidewalk. He tucks her leash into his belt loop and swings their hands between them, his finger rubbing her rings compulsively as they walk. Something has been weighing on his mind.
“Katniss,” he says, pulling her down onto a park bench.
She looks at him, an inquisitive expression on her face. “Peeta,” she says back, teasing.
“I want you to know—” He pauses and meets her eyes. “When I…when I hit you last week—I just want you to know that I would never, ever hurt you. I only want to protect you, even when it’s from yourself.”
She glances away and then back again. “I know,” she says, hesitant. Her eyes take on a faraway glint, as if remembering something. “We protect each other, right?”
“Right.” He grasps her hands. “Do you forgive me?”
Katniss leans forward and kisses his lips.
It’s hot in their bedroom. He’s stripped down to his black briefs, and he’s staring at the ceiling, struggling to contain himself as Katniss rubs against his thigh in her sleep. He and Madge had taken care of her before she finally went down for the night, Madge paying special attention her breasts while Peeta slid down her smooth, tight body and licked her to release.
“It wasn’t enough,” Madge says from her side of the bed, her voice soft and coaxing. “She needs a cock.”
“No. Not yet.” Peeta grits his teeth when Katniss nuzzles his side and rubs her hand across his abdomen, murmuring in her sleep. “She’s not ready.”
“She’s been ready, Peeta. She’s on birth control. What are you waiting for?” she demands, both amused and frustrated. “If I had a dick, I’d do it.” She sits up on her side and raises an eyebrow at him. “It’s not as if Katniss is a virgin. You saw to that little hindrance months ago.”
He looks at her sharply. “How’d you know that?”
Madge scoffs. “You’re not the only person Katniss confided in.” She settles back down on the pillow, a secret smile on her lips. “She came to see me that night, too.”
A tendril of intense, irrational jealousy streaks through him. Katniss is his best friend, his lover—
Peeta groans when her hand skims his groin, willing his erection to fade. But then her eyes flicker open, and when they make eye contact, he pounces. All control is gone.
She gasps, a little sleepy sound. He kisses her hard and pushes up her nightgown. He checks for wetness and lines his cock up at her entrance, pushing in with little resistance from her willing body.
“Mm. Sweet girl,” he groans, dropping his forehead to hers. He holds himself still inside of her, slamming his hand down on the mattress when she bucks her hips, willing him to move. “Ahh. My beautiful girl…”
“I want you,” Katniss says, wrapping her legs around his waist. She bares her neck to him, and he scrapes his teeth against her pulsing vein before pulling back and thrusting again. He works up a steady rhythm, Madge murmuring little approving words beside them.
When he finally comes inside of her, he feels as if the weight of the world has been lifted from his shoulders. He presses kisses to her cheeks, her lips, her chin, and she basks in his attention, her eyes fluttering shut with tired satisfaction.
Peeta wraps his arms around her and burrows further under the comforter, uncaring of the way their skin is slick with perspiration.
His last thought before falling asleep is to wonder why he waited at all.
Madge strolls arm in arm with Katniss down the sidewalk of the shopping district, a black luxury car trailing beside them on the congested streets, ready to to be filled with more bags.
“I’m tired,” Katniss pouts, blowing a strand of hair out of her eyes. She yanks on the double-strand of pearls around her neck in annoyance. “I want to go home.”
Madge arches an eyebrow. “Already?”
“Please? We can kiss,” she pleads, leaning into the other girl. She twirls one of Madge’s blonde curls around her olive finger. “We can lick.”
“Fine, fine.” Madge rolls her eyes indulgently and bumps her hip with hers, a playful move like when they were school girls. “Are you hungry? We can eat at that little cafe and then head back.”
Katniss perks up. “Do they have lamb stew?”
“If they don’t, I’m sure they’ll make it anyway,” Madge says serenely.
They walk across the street and sit down in the wicker chairs on the outdoor patio, where a waiter eagerly brings them sparkling water and a platter of artisanal bread and cheese.
“Madge? Madge, is that you?”
“Yes?” Madge looks up from her menu, her expression laced with thinly veiled annoyance. “Oh. Hello, Delly. Johanna.”
“Everdeen.” Johanna, a thin, dark-haired girl with hostile features openly stares at Katniss. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.” Her eyes rake over her expensive, designer clothes, her carefully styled hair, and the jewelry that drips from her neck and ears. “You look…my god—”
Delly, a chubby blonde with a pleasant face, jabs her friend in the side. “Different,” she finishes, her voice chipper. Her watery blue eyes dart back and forth nervously. “How are you, Katniss?”
Katniss looks at Madge, who nods at her graciously, as if giving her permission to speak.
She furrows her eyebrows together and bites her lip. “I’m good. Do I know you?”
“Wow,” Johanna murmurs, her nostrils flaring. “We went to school together. Only, you know, our entire lives.” She stares at Madge, who looks back at her with a calm expression.
“You mustn’t have been too memorable,” Madge replies sweetly. She consults her watch, the gesture deliberately exaggerated to the point of insult. “Well. It was nice seeing you.” She turns away and takes Katniss’ hand across the table, crossing her legs toward the other girl and chatting about her menu choices until their visitors are forced to move on.
“Who are they?” Katniss blurts out, squeezing Madge’s fingers as she watches the girls walk away. She cocks her head, puzzled. “Were they my friends?”
“No,” she replies, smiling at her. “I’m your friend.” She looks back down at the menu. “Hm. Do you feel like caviar?”
“Why are you sulking?”
He gives her a look—the one that says I know you better than you know yourself—and she flushes.
“Your mother is so mean!”
The couple across from them in the train car stare at them with alarmed expressions. The wife eyes Katniss’ collar, and her husband squeezes her arm, muttering something to her that sounds suspiciously like Mellark. The sneer drops from her face and morphs into a weak smile.
“Lower your voice, please,” he tells Katniss, his voice calm.
“I won’t.” She crosses her arms. “I won’t go back there, Peeta. I won’t.”
“You will.” He reaches for her hand, and she scowls. He hides a smile behind a sigh. “We have dinner with my family once a month. It’s inevitable and unavoidable.”
“Madge got to leave early.”
“She wasn’t feeling well,” Peeta corrects her, frowning at her rude tone. “You know that. That’s why she took the car.”
She lifts her chin, stubbornness creeping in her eyes. “Hmph. I won’t feel well, either.”
“Playing sick is for bad girls, Katniss.” He lowers his voice. “You’re being very bad right now.”
She shifts in her seat, and he rubs his lips.
Katniss has been…unruly as of late. According to Madge, she craves discipline. Structure. She’s acting out because she wants them to push back.
“Daddy said Portia did the same thing. It’s the six-month-itch. They start spreading their wings, testing their power because they’re comfortable. The fear is gone.” She gazed at Katniss. “Her wings just need to be trimmed a bit, is all.”
They watched as Katniss pushed a vase from a mantle.
“You do it,“ he told Madge.
"You’re the head of this household,” she replied with a mocking smile, flipping through a magazine. “I’m just the housewife. You be the disciplinarian.”
So Peeta had grown into the role reluctantly, little by little. When Katniss hid his wallet, he sat her down and scolded her for ten minutes. When she refused to eat an expensive dinner, he secured her to the kitchen chair with his tie and fed her every bite. Once, she even spent an hour in her cage as a time-out.
Those were small infractions. Harmless, even. But now she’s being disrespectful in public, in front of people who recognize him. He can’t allow that. It’s not good for him, or for her. Having a soft spot for a plaything is far more forgivable than an owner letting them run roughshod all over them.
It hints at a lack of control, and the Capitol is fueled by a strict, dominating hand. Showing weakness meant having toys taken away, and Peeta desperately loves his toys.
Katniss stands and inches down the aisle, her arms crossed.
“Katniss,” he warns. “Sit down.”
She walks backward, a mischievous glint in her grey eyes. “I want to sit downhere.”
“You’re not the boss of me.”
Peeta stares at her. “Come back or face the consequences.”
She turns away, and he hooks his arm around her waist. He pulls her down onto his lap, and she shrieks when he places a hand flat on her back and pushes so that she’s laid across his knees, her ass is in the air, and the bottom of her dress barely covering the plump cheeks.
He fists the material of her dress. “I’ll give you the choice,” Peeta says, leaning down and speaking into her ear. “I’m going to spank your ass, or you can sleep in your cage for a week.”
She exhales and mumbles out her reply with the gust of air.
“What was that?” He lets his thumb brush against the crease where her thigh meets her backside.
He flips her skirt up, inhales and brings his palm down with a firm smack. Her body tenses, and he stiffens with her. But then she lets out a little sigh, and he swears that he can smell something like arousal.
“Five more,” Peeta tells her, bringing his hand down in rapid succession.
He’s proud of her when she doesn’t so much as squeak, and when he’s finished, he smooths down her dress with a careful, reverent hand. He pulls her into a sitting position on his lap and meets the eyes of the couple across from them. The man looks impressed. His wife, unnerved.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Peeta whispers to Katniss, his arms tightening around her. She leans back against him in reply.
They get off at the next stop, only a block away from their building. Katniss’ hand is loose in his, and when he looks over at her, he’s stunned to see silent tears streaking down her cheeks.
He stops on the sidewalk and cups her face. “Oh, Christ. Katniss, are you all right?” he asks urgently. “I didn’t—did that hurt you? I only meant—”
“Do you still like me?” she asks, a sob in her voice. She wipes at her cheek almost angrily, a flash of the old Katniss who hated to be vulnerable.
“What? Of course I do.”
“You were so mad.”
“I wasn’t mad, Katniss. I was disappointed. Worried.” He frowns remorsefully. “I did that because you have to listen to me in public, Katniss.” He takes her hands in his. “There are people who would take you away if they thought you didn’t.” He rubs the rings on her fingers. “I think of you as my equal, as my partner in all things. But you have to trust me to take care of you.” He meets her slightly confused eyes. “Do you understand?”
“Yes.” She nods slowly, the light of the street lamp above them making her hair shine blue-black. “I think so.” She looks up at him, her eyes a little shy. “Peeta.” She tugs on his tie, and he leans in. “I have to tell you something.”
“I didn’t…I didn’t hate the spanking,” she admits, her cheeks turning pink. “It…” Katniss struggles for the word. “Embarrassed me. But I sort of liked it, maybe.”
He throws his head back and laughs. “I’ll have to remember that, sweet girl. Now I need to find a new punishment for you,” he teases, his heart lighter now.
“I’ll be good,” she says earnestly, and they walk down the sidewalk toward home.
“I find that hard to believe.” He looks at her out of the corner of his eye. “And Katniss?”
“I don’t like you,” he says seriously.
She stops, her expression falling.
“I love you.”
They kiss under the lamp light, and all the stars stop to watch.
“Read this,” Madge says, thrusting a paper under his nose.
He blinks at her harried tone and takes the paper, scanning the contents quickly. He looks up at Madge when he finishes, rubbing his temple.
“Why do I get the feeling this isn’t a request?”
“Because it isn’t.” She looks at Peeta as if he’s a fool. And maybe he is, if he honestly believed that they could go on living this way for the rest of their lives, happily buffered forever by the presence of Katniss. “Obviously.”
He sits down on the couch. “Why is this coming down now?”
“People talk, Peeta. And we haven’t been very discreet about our fondness for our domestic.” She draws the word out with a sarcastic inflection. “We’re not fooling anyone with this.” She gestures somewhere toward the space between them, an accurate representation of their marriage. “And yes, while almost all of the Ones have marriages of convenience, they’re at least bonded together by children. Most are pregnant within the first year.” Madge looks unsettled with this statement.
He waves the paper in the air, wishing it would sprout wings and fly into the sun.
“Now we know why,” Peeta says. He wonders if every Chosen couple receives a pleasantly worded threat to procreate for their one-year marriage anniversary.
Madge crosses her arms, lines of distress creasing her normally unflappable, perfect complexion. “When you don’t fall in line, there are consequences. Things are taken away. Privileges.”
They look toward the terrace where Katniss is sitting on a lounge chair, her face tilted toward the sun.
“We have to have a child,” Peeta says, resigned.
“How do we do this?”
Peeta smiles at her unkindly. “Do I need to explain the mockingjays and the tracker jackers to you, Madge? Did your parents not give you the talk?”
She flushes a dull red and sits up in bed. “You are an ass, Peeta. I’m talking about us…getting pregnant.”
“We’ll do what we always do.” He pets Katniss’ hair and softly kisses her mouth, gently rousing her from sleep. “We’ll use the best of what’s between us.”
Katniss lays sprawled against Madge, her legs held open and splayed. Her mouth is a wide, enraptured circle as Peeta fucks her and Madge strums her clit with a manicured, delicate hand—it’s an erotic dance they’ve perfected over the past few months.
But this time, when he feels the moment of release, he pulls out of Katniss and thrusts into his wife’s waiting, unfamiliar warmth.
Madge is pregnant.
Their families are ecstatic. Peeta is cautiously excited, a muted, bewildered feeling fluttering inside of him. He always wanted to be a father, but when he imagined cradling a child in his arms, they were in possession of his blue eyes and Katniss’ inky hair.
He glances at his wife while waiting at the doctor’s office and wonders if he would have ever felt anything more than affection and history-laden friendship for her if Katniss hadn’t existed.
Then Peeta looks at Katniss, who sits on the other side of him, oohing andahhing over a digital image of something not even the size of a bean in Madge’s stomach, and he smiles, because he only has to wonder.
Fact: he’s already found his love, and she’s squeezing his fingers.
Peeta rushes home, ready to see his two favorite girls. His daughter is three months old now, and Katniss is as proud of the baby as he and Madge are. He was a bit worried at first, wondering how she would react to a child that isn’t hers, but Katniss treats the tiny thing as if she is her own flesh and blood.
As far as Peeta and Madge are concerned, she is. Katniss wakes up for the 3 AM feedings and is the first to change a soiled diaper. He wanted to hire a nanny, but Katniss wouldn’t hear of it.
He checks his watch and knows that he’ll have an hour or so alone with the girls. Madge had a spa treatment with her mother—though she wanted to bring Katniss, the other girl wouldn’t accept a babysitter.
“Lily’s too small,” Katniss had complained, hugging the baby close to her body.
Peeta whistles as he approaches the door to the penthouse, but the sound of his child screaming makes a thread of unease run through him. She’s not a perfect baby by any means, but he knows this cry; it’s the noise she makes when she wants to be picked up, a request that Katniss never fails to fulfill.
He fumbles with his key and swings open the door. He sees the balcony doors open to the right of the living room, the curtains billowing in the breeze. His heart starts to beat faster in its cage, and he rushes into the bedroom and straight to the crib. His baby blinks up at him with angry, tearful eyes, and he strokes her cheek as if to reassure himself she’s okay. Relief fills him when she quiets, but the lingering sense of dread remains, because—
“Where’s Katniss?” he asks Lily, backing away and out of the bedroom, approaching the terrace. His steps slow, because he’s terrified of what he might find.
She’s standing in front of the balcony railing, leaning out and staring down at the busy street below. Her hair is loose and streaming in the wind, and she doesn’t so much as move when he approaches her from behind.
“Are you okay?” he asks, cautiously approaching her side. He touches her shoulder, and she startles. When she turns her head toward him, he blanches at her wild eyes. Her pupils are fat, the grey irises barely visible.
Her mouth moves, so quiet he almost doesn’t hear.
“I feel…I feel as if I woke up from an awful dream.”
“What did you do to me?” she suddenly screams, slamming her head down onto the harsh, unforgiving wood of the railing. She pulls back, and he stares at the already-blooming bruise on her forehead with dawning horror. “What did you do, Peeta? What did you do?”
“Katniss—come away from there. I need to take you inside. Maybe go to the hospital—”
“Don’t touch me,” she snarls, backing away so fast she stumbles against the balcony railing.
“I just want to help you!”
“No. No! You did this to me!” She jerks on the collar around her neck with frantic, desperate fingers. Her eyes are wide and accusing. Knowing. “I hate you! You made me into this! I thought you loved me.”
“I do! I do love you!” He flinches when she pushes back toward the railing again, her balance precarious against the low-slung wood. “Please, Katniss. You’re going to fall.”
She starts to shake, her body twitching with violent shivers. “Maybe I want to,” she says, her voice eerie. “I can’t bear it—my head hurts so much.” She clutches her temple.“ You’re awful. You’re disgusting. You made me your—”
He grabs her, pulling her away from the balcony. Katniss fights against him, screaming and kicking out both legs, her arm catching him in the side of the head. They slip and land on the floor, and he holds her in his arms, his grip tight around her body. Adrenaline races through his veins, visions of her tumbling over the ledge rampant in his mind.
She’s still screaming at him, but she’s not fighting anymore. He holds her, patiently stroking her hair until she quiets down into muted sobs. He promises her it will be okay and don’t worry sweet girl and shh it will be all right.
Finally, finally, Katniss calms down enough to speak.
“You love me?” she asks, exhaustion and terror and confusion in the words. “Real or not real?”
“Real,” Peeta says quietly, his hand dropping to her neck. His fingers hover. “Do you love me?”
She’s quiet. And then:
“I hate you, Peeta.”
He hesitates for only a moment, his arms tightening around her.
Then he turns up the dial of her collar.
Katniss jerks and looks up at him, the betrayal in her eyes slowly turning to that awful blankness from before. He touches his forehead to hers and whispers an apology.
Peeta holds her in his arms, rocking back and forth. It will be okay. He knows he can bring her back. It will just take a little training. In a few months, she’ll be as good as new.
She’ll love him again.