When President Snow bombed the Seam following the 75th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s people burned with it. Of the few Seam residents who survived, only three are living in 12. She is awash in a sea of blonde, a stranger in her own home. Just one more reason to waste away in her empty house in the Victors Village. That didn’t sit right with the Mellark boys.
Someone is kicking my door. I was just on my way to the square, had my hand on the door knob, when the loud thud made me jump back.
“Open up, runt! I ain’t your personal delivery service!”
I sigh. There’s a brusqueness to Voss that I can appreciate.
“He’s not here, Voss.” A shaggy blond head pokes out from behind a huge canvass.
“Oh. Katniss.” His tone softens immediately. “Sorry about the door.” I shrug.
“I shot an entire quiver into the study door last year.” I pull the door wide for him to enter.
“You doing okay today?” I shrug again.
“A little better than yesterday.” It’s our standard greeting now.
“That’s good. Where do you want this thing?”
“Put it in the study. He usually paints in the study.”
It’s been fifteen months since I came back to 12. Fourteen since Peeta came back. Ten since I asked him to stay in my house. Six since I admitted I loved him. And it’s been approximately three days since we toasted. We still haven’t told a soul.
He’s completely taken over the study. Some pieces sit out in the open, landscapes, still lifes. There are others covered in sheets. Therapy paintings. Ones we aren’t supposed to see. I can tell that Voss is as curious as I am, but we respect his privacy.
“You want to look, don’t you?” he asks. I nod. “So do I.” We leave the study before the temptation takes us over. “Were you going into town?”
“It’s my turn to do the marketing. Then I’m supposed to meet him outside the bakery.”
“My shift doesn’t start till two. I’ll walk you.”
He knows, I think bitterly. He knows because Peeta told him how awkward and uncomfortable I feel in town, a dark head surrounded by blondes, one of under a dozen residents of the Seam who made it out of 12 alive. Snow knew what he was doing. He left the Victors Village and the town virtually untouched. He decimated my people. The only thing that saved Gale and his family was a secret meeting held by Madge and his paranoid insistence that the family come with him. If Snow had changed his mind and hit town, they all would’ve burned. Aside from myself and Haymitch, Thom is the only Seam resident who’s moved back to 12. And that was for Delly. If it was difficult to hide in 12 as a victor, it’s impossible now. Sometimes I’ll only go into town if there’s a Mellark brother beside me. I’ll go in with Delly or Madge if they ask me, but I feel better with a broad-shouldered baker at my side. One is my armor, one is my shield, and the third…well, he’s all that and more.
When I staunchly decided to let myself wither and die, it was the Mellark boys who forced me to live. They didn’t care that the toasting and the baby were all lies.
“You’re in sore need of some family,” Cort said as he pushed his way into my house a week after I had returned. “And if there’s one thing we’re good at—”
“—besides being incredibly good looki-ow!” Cort socked his younger brother in the arm.
“—it’s taking care of broken people.”
“We had a talk over, and we decided you’re kin now, like it or lump it.”
“I don’t want your help,” I leaned against the door. But there were two of them and they’re huge.
“Excuse me?” Voss ducked under my arm and scooped my frail, unwashed body over his shoulder. “I don’t recall asking your opinion on the matter.”
I fought them tooth and nail for a month, and I thought when Peeta came home they would transfer all their attention to him. But they just started working in shifts. Cort was easier to get around. Sometimes Voss and I spent entire afternoons scowling at each other. He pushed me the way he pushed Peeta, which is why I guess Peeta came home from the Capitol after only a month more stable than I had seen him since his hijacking. Aside from a daily check-in, They left us to our own devices for the most part, knowing it would only be a matter of time before we grew back together.
“How’d he look this morning?” Voss lets his eyes wander to the blackened pit that used to be the mine.
“Good. All smiles. Didn’t you see him this morning?”
“Didn’t sleep at home,” he smirks, but it vanishes quickly. “We’ll see how it is today. She’s gonna be in a mood. Cort said he’s marrying Mayapple last night.” She hasn’t come back from 13 yet, the tall Seam waif Cort loves. Her entire family burned while she was safe in town. The two of them were behind the sweet shop when the mine exploded. Cort couldn’t bring himself to watch his baby brother die and decided to bury his grief in his love’s arms. She tried to run for her house when the bombing began, but Cort knew that there wouldn’t be anything left. Even now, he’s often distracted, wishing he’d stayed in 13 to help her.
We’re in the same boat, her and I, caught up by these damn Mellark boys. I can already hear Peeta dropping the bomb about our own toasting just to rile his mother up more. None of the titles that have been heaped on me or the bundles of cash I keep secreted in my mattress mean a thing to her. I will always be Seam filth. I kind of like that, actually. Unlike everyone else in this district, who can’t decide if I’m a savior or a lunatic, Mrs. Mellark and I will always know where we stand.
If Peeta’s brothers were a help to his recovery, his mother was a hindrance. I don’t think the stress of the situation made her any meaner, but Peeta’s experiences made his tolerance for her disappear completely. They can hardly be in the same room without breaking out into violent screaming matches. He threw a marble slab at her head once. Cort rounded us up one evening, myself, Voss, and Delly, the group he had started to refer to as “the Mellark siblings” on a good day and “damage control” on a bad one, and we decided that it would be in everyone’s best interests if Peeta spent as little time as possible around his mother.
But it’s spring, and a round of toastings and an influx of supplies from the Capitol has Peeta stuck at the bakery helping his father frost cakes. Mr. Mellark is a very, very sweet man, but I’ve come to learn that I can’t depend on him to step between his wife and his son. He was defeated long before the reaping. So it’s up to the kids to put things together and keep one-third of the Mellark family from killing each other. I have a vested interest in this family, I think to myself, especially since I’ll be legally part of it once we file the paperwork.
As we enter town, heads start to turn at the flash of dark hair. Then they see who it is and they really start staring. I’m trying to will myself invisible when Voss leans down.
“And you didn’t believe I was this popular,” he whispers. I snort, which draws even more attention, but with Voss at my side, I don’t care. Right now he’s my armor. My anchor. My brother.
I’m more grateful he’s beside me when we approach the bakery. The row in back can be heard out in the street and, even though I can’t make out the words, I know Peeta and his mother are spitting venom at one another.
“No more cakes today, I guess.” Voss is trying to crack a joke, but every muscle in his body is pulled taut. He’ll have to go in and break it up—I’d only make things worse.
There’s a large crash and Cort charges out of the back, grasping Peeta tightly to his chest in a bear hug. I can tell by the rigid line of his body that it’s worse than a normal fight. He’s had an episode.
We follow them back into the alley behind the bakery. Cort pins his brother against the wall with his hip while Voss pushes his wrists against the bricks.
“It’s okay, Peeta.” Cort’s voice is soft and even. “You’re in 12. We’re all here. We’re all safe. You’re safe.”
Peeta’s breathing is quick and ragged through his teeth. I’ve kept my distance, unsure if he’ll see the real me or the mutt me the Capitol made him see. But they’re having trouble snapping him out of it.
“Peeta,” I take a tentative step towards him. Instead of seething, I can see his muscles give a little. I take it as a sign to move closer. “Peeta, it’s okay. You had an episode.” Panic takes over.
“Did I hurt anyone?”
“Just bruised egos,” Cort smiles, easing the pressure on his brother’s body. I step between them to hold his face in my hands.
“Just let it go, Peeta. It’s alright. Take a deep breath—” He sucks in a slow, shaky breath and releases it. “—and let it all go.” His pupils shrink down to normal and his head falls onto my shoulder. As I wrap my arms around him, I feel his body slump into mine, exhausted. He begins to shake against me and I tense for another episode. Then I hear him laughing. Maybe this is it. Maybe he’s finally cracked.
“I told my mother we toasted,” he chuckles against my neck.
“You don’t have to lie to try to help Mayapple and me,” Cort sighs. “Why would you say that?”
“Because it’s true,” I tell him, twining my fingers through my husband’s hair, damp with sweat. “We did it three days ago.”
Cort’s face hardens and Voss’ falls. I would’ve thought they’d be overjoyed. They already treat me like a sister. Have I been reading them wrong the entire time? The stillness of my hands makes Peeta lift his head off my shoulder and examine his brothers.
“Three days,” Cort breathes. “You been sitting on this for three days?!”
“We didn’t plan it,” Peeta says, pulling himself together. “It just happened.”
“You just happened to get married.”
“And then kept it to yourselves.”
“We were just waiting for the right time…” I don’t like seeing them upset and for the first time in three days I feel guilty. Peeta and I have been living in our own little bubble since the toasting, making various excuses to stay curled up around each other in our bed. We do this every now and again—one of us will fall into a depression and we’ll hole ourselves up for awhile until it passes. Haymitch suspects something, though. He’s our only neighbor in the Victors Village and his bedroom window lines up with ours.
The look on the elder Mellark brothers’ faces makes me feel selfish, though. Even if we didn’t want all of 12 to know, we should’ve told them. Peeta and I simultaneously begin to apologize when Cort waves us quiet.
“Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to go home and scrub up nice. We’re coming over tonight. Not everyone, just us and Delly and Loam. You decide you want to have a bigger one, that’s on you for another time. Tonight it’s just the siblings. You’re going to dress nice and do a proper toasting, understand?” I feel like a child who’s just been scolded for snatching sweets. I was expecting Cort’s hard resolve to break and for him to scoop me up in those big arms and swing me around. But the two of them just continue to stare. “We’ll be over after the shop’s closed up. Katniss, take him home. We’ll settle matters here.”
I take Peeta’s hand and drag him through our errands in town. He’s still a little hazy after his episode and our chastising. But he’s started to snap out of it by the time we’re on the path to the Victors Village.
“I should’ve at least helped clean up. I’ll have to start that three-tier from scratch tomorrow.”
“No more bakery.” He laughs.
“We’ve got four weddings next week alone!”
“I don’t care,” I snap. “You can’t be at the bakery anymore.”
“You’re being awfully bossy,” he’s still trying to laugh it off. “That’s not fair to Pop.”
“It isn’t fair for him to expect you to be there when he knows what’ll happen!” The smile has vanished from his face. “I like your father. I do,” I sigh. “But he’s living in a world where you haven’t changed.”
“It’s hard on him,” he mumbles.
“It’s hard on all of us. I know you want to be there, but this…war…between you and her, it’s not going to stop. You know it.” He goes silent, his grip tightening around my own.
“She called you it again,” he whispers to the dirt.
“Called me what?” There is a dictionary filled with descriptive names his mother has for me. “Seam slut?” That’s her favorite. He shakes his head vigorously.
“Mutt.” That’s the one that gets under his skin. The one that brings up hijacked memories and more often than not causes him to snap.
“No more bakery,” I repeat. There’s a finality to my voice that tells him I’m not going to budge on this. My own recovery is rough at best and impossible at worst, but taking care of him gives me purpose. I’m pretty sure it’s the only reason he lets me boss him around like I do.
That part of me that takes care of him knows I can’t fully pull him out of the family business. He loves it, when he’s not being pushed to psychotic breaks. So I give a little on my ultimatum.
“Maybe you can do the cakes at home,” I offer. “We never use the whole ice box. You like it better at home, anyway.” He cracks a small smile.
“Promise you won’t bug me when I’m working?” I slide my hand into his back pocket and give a little squeeze. Marriage has made me much more forward.
“Only when you want me to.”
“We gotta stop doing that,” I gasp, stumbling out of the shower. Now we’re running late. He laughs a little breathlessly and chucks a towel at me.
“I was under the impression that we’d do more of that after we got married.”
“It’s not the act, it’s the timing,” I ruffle the towel over my hair. “They’re going to be here in an hour and all I want to do now is sleep.”
“So next time keep your hands to yourself. Don’t act like I’m the chief instigator, grabby.” I shake out a pair of leggings. “Nope. Put ‘em back.”
“Peeta, I really can’t go another round right now…”
“I mean don’t wear those,” he laughs. “Come on, Katniss. We hurt their feelings. Put on a damn dress.”
I pull out the soft orange dress Delly made for me when she came back to 12. Aside from an inaugural wearing, to show her that I really did like it, it’s hung in my closet, squeezed between one of Cinna’s gowns and boxes of Peeta’s charcoal sketches. Maybe it’s time to clean this closet out and make a fresh start. Not throw everything away, but make it useable. Less painful to open. I thump down on the bed to get dressed, but I barely get my underpants up before I’m lying back against the sheets, yawning.
“You’re really out of it!” he laughs, tucking in one of his nice shirts.
“You always wear me out,” I mumble into the nice, cool comforter. I feel his hands grab my ankles and I’m sure he’s about to drag me to my feet. But he swings my legs around so I’m lying properly in the bed and pulls his side of the sheets over me.
“Take a nap.” He tucks the blankets in around me. “I’ll wake you up before they get here.”
“But then you have to do all that work by yourself.” My husband leans down and kisses my forehead.
“It’ll go faster without you mucking up my kitchen.” My eyes are closed before he reaches the door. He really does make me so sleepy.
I’m at the outcrop, and I really hope Gale isn’t going to make an appearance, but I’m never able to control who shows up in my dreams. I’m in the orange dress, my hair done up the way my mother wears it. While I wait for whoever’s going to come along, I pull the pins out and chuck them over the side of the ravine until my hair lies in a plain braid down my back. I smell bread and rabbit, but there’s no fire. I wonder if Peeta’s in here somewhere. He hasn’t popped up since we started fooling around six months ago.
Finally I’m tired of waiting. I brush the dirt off my backside and head into the woods. Maybe I’m supposed to go somewhere. As I pass under a large oak, leaves begin to fall on me. I brush them out of my hair. I don’t want to look up, in case someone’s hanging there. I found Rue there once, strung up and gasping for air. An acorn bounces off my head, and a familiar laugh trickles down after it.
“You never climbed trees.”
“But you do. You want to be up high.” I sigh, hating that the dream put me in a dress and sandals. I hike the skirt up to my thighs and scale the trunk until I reach the limb where Prim is perched.
“I’ve been wondering,” I say as I adjust my clothes to avoid getting blood on the hem where I scraped my knee. “If you’re really here or not.”
“In what way?” She begins to unbraid her pigtails.
“Well, I know you’re…gone. But am I just dreaming or…”
“Am I a ghost?” I expect her to laugh, but she just shrugs. “What does your doctor say?”
“That you’re a manifestation of my subconscious.”
“That’s probably it, then,” she sighs. “Does it really matter, though?” I pick at a large piece of bark.
“I suppose not. I prefer you like this to some of the other stuff.” there’s still times when I see her go up in flames, my name on her lips.
“Maybe you’re getting better. “
“Maybe… I married Peeta.”
“Finally!” she laughs. “Did you have a party like Annie and Finnick?”
“No.” I would’ve thought my subconscious would know this. “We just decided to toast one night. We didn’t even tell anyone until today. Peeta’s brothers are mad.”
“Just because they missed out. I know I’d be angry if you’d toasted without me there. If I could’ve been there.” She’s plaited her hair in a single braid, like mine.
“I didn’t want to do it without you there.”
“That’s stupid, Katniss.” Her brow furrows. “Do you think it makes me happy to see you miserable?”
“Everything’s so much harder without you.” She pulls my head into her lap and unbraids my hair.
“It’ll get easier. You’re going to do a proper toasting. And then come back and tell me about it.”
“M’kay.” My eyelids sag.
When they open, I’m in my bed. I would expect I would be crying, but I’m strangely peaceful. I sit up and run my hand through my hair, pulling it back into a low knot. I put on the orange dress, being careful around my knee until I remember that it’s not actually injured. I’m suddenly excited for company, if for no other reason than having something to tell Prim the next time I dream of her.
The bread and rabbit I smelled in the dream woods wafts through the house. I can’t gauge how long I’ve been out—he’s a fast worker.
“I was just coming up to get you,” he smiles, wiping his hands on a dish towel. “You sleep alright?” It’s an ordinary question, but for us it’s anything but casual.
“I saw Prim.” He immediately stops what he’s doing.
“The woods.” He sighs in relief. Bad things don’t usually happen to Prim in the woods.
“And how was she?”
“Good. Up in a tree. I told her we toasted.”
“And what did she think about that?”
“Ecstatic,” I smile with a roll of my eyes. I like talking about my dreams with Peeta. He doesn’t try to analyze them like Dr. Aurelius does. He treats them like real conversations. Although sometimes I worry that he’s just humoring me. “Do you think I’m crazy?” He clears a space on the counter and hops up. His false leg bangs against the cabinet door.
“There are fourteen bottles in your medicine cabinet that say you are at least a little bit crazy.” He reaches a hand out to me and helps me up onto the counter beside him. “But there are twenty-three bottles in mine, so who am I to say?” I lean my head against his shoulder, breathing in rosemary and thyme and lemon soap. “If you’re asking if I think it’s crazy that you see these people in your dreams, that you talk to them like they came for a visit, I’d say no. If it’s just your head sorting itself out or something else altogether, what does it matter? I talk to Portia all the time.”
“What does she say to you?” He stirs a pot on the burner.
“That it’ll be okay. That it—” I watch him swallow hard. “—that it wasn’t my fault.” I try to put my arms around him, but he lowers himself off the counter. “Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll believe her.” He finishes cooking and I set the table in silence.
About a quarter hour before the siblings arrive, he pulls me next door to tell Haymitch we toasted.
“Figured as much,” he snorts through a smile. “You’re lucky I prefer my windows shut.” I push the red from my cheeks.
“Sorry we didn’t tell you,” Peeta apologizes for both of us.
“Why would you feel guilty for not telling your old mentor?” There’s a heavy hint of sarcasm in his voice. In many ways, Haymitch is more of a parent to us than our own blood. He’s certainly there for us more than they’ve ever been. He claps Peeta on the shoulder. “Get her mom to come out from 4. That toasting I’ll go to.” I hadn’t thought that my mother would want a toasting. And Peeta’s father probably will as well. Just how many times do people expect us to get married?
As we walk away, he cups his hands and yells as loudly as possible. “And have a talk with your shrink! I don’t think it’s normal to laugh that much during sex!”
“Shut up, Haymitch!” I scream over my shoulder, but turn quickly to whisper at my husband. “Do you think he’s right?”
“What’s normal?” he laughs with a shrug. “Nothing about us is normal. Besides, I like it when you laugh.” He runs his fingertips up along my ribs where I’m ticklish. I swat him away.
“Calm down, mister. Your sister’s here.”
Delly squeals with delight upon seeing the orange dress, but she quickly remembers that she’s mad at us. She elbows Loam in the ribs, reminding him that he’s supposed to be angry, too.
“If you hadn’t had an episode today, I’d slap you,” she says in that harsh tone she reserves solely for Peeta. The one that tells him he’s an idiot. “Years—years of listening to you go on and on about Katniss Everdeen. Then you marry Katniss Everdeen and not a word.”
“I made you rabbit,” he murmurs by way of apology. Her pale hand runs through his newly washed curls.
“It’s a start,” she smiles, and begins pulling Loam along to our house. The lanky boy lags behind a step. He’s never been much for words, which makes him a good hunting partner. Sometimes we’ll walk an entire snare line without saying a thing. Through a quiet grin, he mumbles, “You look real pretty, Katniss.” I blush so hard, I have to roll my eyes to play it off.
“Come on, Katniss,” his big sister calls over one shoulder. “I want to put up your hair.”
She sits me down at the vanity in my mother’s old room. I’ve never really had use for it. It came with the house. Delly hums a soft tune as the brush floats through my hair. Peeta told me once that she was the lead soprano in our school choir, and she’s quite good. I like hearing her sing on balmy nights in our backyard, thinking of the day when maybe I’ll add my voice to hers. She’s never called me her sister. I think everyone’s too afraid to even speak that word in front of me. Peeta’s brothers always say “sibling.” I hadn’t even realized until recently that I think of myself as their sister. I wonder if Prim’s talks in the woods have anything to do with that. For some reason, I feel that she would be upset if I closed myself off to the notion of being someone else’s sister, to considering someone other than her as my sister.
“Your hair’s grown back nice,” Delly smiles as she quickly plaits dark strands into four braids. Otherwise she works in silence, abandoning even her sweet hum as she twists and curls the braids into an intricate coronet. I had resigned myself to any sort of lavish show they want. If putting on a dress and letting Delly put my hair up would make them smile, I would do it. But I’m surprised that I do indeed look pretty, even though scars still peek through my collar and my hair’s a little uneven. I’m even more shocked that being pretty is making me so happy. It’s not for Peeta’s sake. When we toasted, I was in my hunting gear and his sleeves were dusted with flour. It’s for them, my brothers and my sisters—One who lives in my head and one who stands behind me, pressing a fat kiss to my cheek with a soft laugh.
Cort and Voss are waiting when we come down the stairs and finally Cort picks me up in his giant arms and swings me around. Even though Delly yells at him, Voss can’t help but muss my up do a little when he hugs me. He kisses me on the nose, but it isn’t the teasing kisses that I’m used to by now. It’s sweet and tender.
“We decided to sign the papers tomorrow,” I tell him. “So I guess I’ll really be your sister, then.” Delly, Cort, and Voss all freeze and I’m afraid that I’ve just upset them again. Even Peeta pokes his head out of the kitchen, nervous. Cort clears his throat.
“So…it would be alright if we…called you…” None of us seem good with words right now.
“I think legally, you’re obligated. I mean, after tomorrow. If you don’t, I can take it up with the authorities.” Voss finally cracks that smile I remember seeing through the slit of my door, when I was so broken and they were so stubborn.
“Oh, little sister,” he grins, “you’re gonna do the Mellark name proud.”