The change in the District is immediately noticeable. The new Peacekeepers make themselves known the moment their trucks pull into the town square.
A raised dais. Stocks. A whipping post.
All they're missing is a hanging tree and the picture would be complete. I wonder if they're bringing one on the next train.
Either way, I'm on edge as I finish at the bakery and slip out the back. My father lets me decorate the more intricate cakes that are beyond his and Rye's ability so long as I stay clear of the front. Mother's orders, of course. She's convinced I'm bad for business.
Much as I wish it was just her latent anti-Seam bias, she's not wrong. Coming home from the Games was eye opening. I'd always thought people steered clear of Haymitch because he's, well, Haymitch. Turns out it's all Victors.
Must have something to do with killing children.
Of all my old friends and wrestling teammates, only Delly bothers to check up on me. She comes by for tea weekly, a routine I'm becoming more and more grateful for.
Madge Undersee has stopped by a few times as well, surprisingly. I'd always just assumed she was Katniss' friend by virtue of their shared reticence, but the Mayor's daughter is pleasant enough to talk to and laughed at my jokes.
More than I can say of Katniss on most days, regardless of our newfound united front since the Victory Tour.
Thinking of her brings me back to the Peacekeepers as I slide past a duo knocking on the door of the Apothecary. There's no telling what caused this sudden influx of Panem's finest, but I'd bet a year's worth of winnings that the fence is on. My heart stutters at the thought of her being caught outside the District, and I pick up the pace back to the Victor's Village.
The going is tough given the slippery ground and my prosthetic, but I've gotten better. Running is still a challenge, but I can hustle without tripping.
As I come upon the familiar gates, I see Haymitch striding toward me from the other side. He hasn't bothered to bundle against the chill. My pulse quickens further.
"We're in deep shit," he says without preamble as we meet just inside the gates.
"Yeah, I saw the Peacekeepers pull up to Town. Look like they mean business," I say. I slide around him, only for his hand to close on my upper arm like a vice. "I've gotta warn Katniss."
A stricken look falls over my mentor's face that leaves my stomach bottoming out.
"Listen, kid," he begins haltingly, only for the sound of boots hitting the pavement to turn us both around.
The form of a Peacekeeper stands directly to my right, effectively blocking my route into the Village. Instead of the traditional white uniform, their armor is entirely red. The contrast of such vibrant color in the dreary winter of Twelve is enough to throw me for a momentary loop.
"Peeta Mellark," the Peacekeeper says in an artificially modulated voice. "You're coming with me."
The voice brooks no argument, but I turn slightly to Haymitch, whose let go of my arm, and raise an eyebrow. His expression is neutral, which puts me more on edge than anything else. He nods slowly to me, mouth shut.
What the hell is going on?
The Peacekeeper tugs me back toward the village, clearly fed up with their orders being ignored, and I barely keep from stumbling. I right myself after a step and make a note to pat myself on the back later.
"New in town, huh?" I ask. My head is spinning with all the new changes and, while I don't expect the Peacekeeper to respond, talking has always helped clear my mind. "Are all your buddies jealous of your uniform? Know I would be if I could only wear white all the time."
The jab of a baton into my low back is all the response I get. I nearly stumble again, but oddly enough the pain focuses me.
I've never seen a Peacekeeper in red before. I may not have Katniss' instincts, but even I can tell this is serious.
I glance toward Katniss' house as we come upon the Village. All the lights are on and I can clearly hear stomping around coming from the inside. A sudden crash makes me flinch, and my heart does its best to beat out of my chest.
Please be ok, I plead, and hope she can hear my thoughts. I haven't seen my 'fiancé' in a couple of days, but that's nothing new. Effie had done her best to get her in a mood to plan our wedding upon our return from the Victory Tour, a task that our poor escort was woefully unprepared for. I'd kept my distance, figuring Katniss didn't want to see the man she never wanted to marry so soon after the announcement.
That it was her idea in the first place didn't matter.
I climb the steps to my front porch at the Peacekeeper's urging, the pit where my stomach used to be deepening. The door is wide open, letting out all the heat, a fact that would irritate me under any other circumstances. I shuffle sideways into the cavernous house, keeping my new friend in my periphery.
He stops at the door and turns around to face the outside.
"Mr. Mellark. It's a pleasure to see you again."
I feel a shiver travel down my spine as I turn slowly toward my sitting room. President Snow sits in one of my two armchairs next to the fireplace, a glorious blaze crackling beside him, with one leg crossed over the other. He wears a suit of pale blue with gold trim around the edges, the picture of Capitol opulence dropped into District Twelve.
"President Snow," I manage.
"Please, take a seat. And all my friends call me Mr. President."
Is that what we are? I want to ask, but hold my tongue. "Do you mind if I get a glass of water?" I ask instead, heart in my throat. "Winter air's a bit dry," I finish lamely.
Icy eyes gleam as Snow's too-full lips pull back into a smile. "Certainly. It is your house, after all."
I mumble a "thank you' and bolt for the kitchen, not willing to take his surprising acquiescence for granted. With what Effie once described to me as an 'open floorplan', I know he can still see me as I try not to drop a glass as I fill it with tap water. I take two sips, refill it, and do my best to center myself before I turn back around.
Snow's never singled me out before today. Outside of the perfunctory congratulations he'd offered when presenting me my Victor's Crown, we haven't even spoken. That 'honor' was always reserved for Katniss and, much as I wish to relieve her of all her burdens, I can't help being a bit thankful for it.
I avoid his gaze as I walk back into the living area, meeting those cold eyes only once I've sat down.
"How are you feeling, Mr. Mellark?" he asks as soon as I'm sat.
"Nervous, sir." Haymitch's diagnosis of 'deep shit' appears spot on and, given what I know about Katniss' relationship with the man in front of me, I expect I'll have to lie sometime in the near future. I'm good – thanks, mom – but Snow is a different breed entirely. I'm better off telling the truth as much as possible.
Give him what he expects. The familiar refrain is tattooed in my brain courtesy of my eldest brother, Nick. He'd been the best at dodging mother's ire until I came along, but it was his lessons that paved my way.
Snow chuckles. It doesn't sound forced, merely insincere. "I appreciate honesty. Something your fiancé knows well by now."
I say nothing as he drifts off into silence. The less I say, the lower the chance of being caught in any lie.
"Where is she, Mr. Mellark?"
I blink, and the confusion on my face is genuine. "Katniss? I…" My eyes dart to the window which gives me a perfect view of Katniss' house across the road. Two red-clad Peacekeepers are visible in the kitchen. "I don't know, sir."
Turning back to Snow, I find his eyes dissecting me. The silence stretches for five, then ten seconds as I struggle to maintain eye contact.
"When was the last time you saw Ms. Everdeen?" he asks at last.
The sinking pit that has replaced my stomach bottoms out further as my mind jumps to the obvious conclusion.
Katniss is gone.
"Three days ago," I manage as my head spins. We'd worked on her family's plant book.
The silence stretches once more, Snow content to stare at me like a statue. I fight to keep my face similarly blank.
Suddenly, Snow's lips twitch upward and he barks a laugh. It may be the least restrained anyone has ever seen him, and I'm sure my expression reflects that. It'd be a marvel if not for the fact that my life is very much in danger.
"Excuse my outburst. I'm afraid I didn't think her capable of such…" he trails off, searching for a word before shaking his head. "I've underestimated her," Snow says, something akin to respect in his voice.
Icy eyes tinged with real amusement meet mine once more. I'm glad I set my water glass down, as it leaves my hands free to choke the life out of the upholstery.
"She left you here, knowing that she'd be found out, knowing that you would be held accountable. Ms. Everdeen has used you very ill indeed, my friend," Snow says gravely, eyes still glimmering.
Cycling through everything I know, I do my best to calm my mind. Katniss is gone, most likely into the woods. From the looks of her house, Mrs. Everdeen and Primrose are either with her or were taken by Peacekeepers. And Katniss would never leave Prim behind.
Damn you, Katniss, we're supposed to be a team!
"As you've no doubt surmised, Katniss Everdeen is no longer in District Twelve," Snow tells me, and I'm momentarily thankful that I don't have to grovel for answers before I remember he's why I'm in this mess to begin with. "She left between twenty-four and thirty-six hours ago. Her cousin, Gale Hawthorne, didn't check in to his shift at the mine yesterday morning. It appears the entire extended family decided to tag along."
I thought I'd known heartbreak when Katniss told me she'd been acting for the Games. Whatever that was is nothing to the gaping chasm that's opened in my chest. It's momentarily hard to breathe as I take in everything Snow has told me.
"You're lying," I choke.
Snow smiles, condescension dripping from his lips. "Why lie when the truth is so much more damning?"
Katniss left, taking her family and Gale's, leaving me behind without so much as a word. The part of me that always rears its head in support of her, a small voice that sounds like my conscience, tells me Snow is as gifted a liar as I'll ever meet. It's immediately drowned out by the fact that he has absolutely no reason to play mind games with a seventeen year old when Katniss was, by her own admission, very much under his thumb.
Still, I have a hard time believing she's left me with nothing. Not that it matters. It's not like I can find it in her house, at this point.
The past is done, Haymitch's voice tells me, calling back to his advice before the Games. If Snow is planning to kill me for retribution, there'll be time to sort through what Katniss did later.
"What can I do for you, Mr. President?" I ask, my voice somehow steady.
"You're a forward thinker, Mr. Mellark. I appreciate that in a Victor." Snow leans forward. "Rest assured, we will find her. Unfortunately, her life is now forfeit, which means she's left you in the unenviable position of cleaning up her mess."
Pacifying the Districts. Quelling whatever rebellion was brewing in the wake of the Games.
"I understand, sir," I say.
"You do not," Snow returns, voice like a whip. It's all I can do not to flinch. "Katniss Everdeen inadvertently lit a fire when she gave you those berries, which made her best suited to put it out. I must have faith in you to do what she would not."
The Districts love her. Maybe it was an inevitability when confronted with her kind heart and will to survive against the odds. It'd certainly done me in.
"I think you're overestimating my abilities." I can be pretty convincing when I put my mind to it, but Katniss and I together hadn't managed to quash whatever discontent was bubbling in the Districts. To do it alone?
"A very real possibility," Snow allows. "Should you fail, however, it will not be for lack of trying on your part, I'm sure." The threat is clear. He smiles at me and it's uglier than his laugh. "You needn't worry; charm and charisma are powerful tools in the right hands. Like you, they were once all I had to my name."
Shoving that tidbit of information to the side, I let my mind focus only on the task ahead of me. "What am I supposed to say?"
"The truth. The Games brought you two together. You love her, she claimed to love you, yet she spurned you for another man," he says, and I can't contain my flinch this time. "A damning accusation, and one that will turn the will of Districts against her."
And the rebellion dies with her reputation, I conclude. Still, "It can't be that simple," I say.
"If you're as convincing as your mentor says you are, it will be," Snow tells me. "Of course, you'll be provided all the amenities you enjoy here while you stay in the Capitol." At my widening eyes, he smiles thinly. "I'm afraid I cannot let you stay here on the off chance Ms. Everdeen tries to contact you before my Peacekeepers find her."
"She won't," I return immediately. For all Katniss knew, she left me here to die. I'm still not convinced Snow isn't about to order his guard to put a bullet in my head like they did that man in Eleven. Something like anger bubbles up in me, but it's different; colder.
I raise my eyes to Snow's to find him staring at me, lips turned up at the edges. The bastard is enjoying this.
"Does it depress you, Mr. Mellark, to know how little she cared for you after all?"
The soft canvass in my right fist tears abruptly as I glare impotently at him. A chuckle escapes Snow's throat. "I'm to be the bearer of bad news, my friend. In my experience, however, it is best to get such things out of the way quickly. She would have disappointed you in the end, I'm sure."
He rises, and I don't bother following suit. If he's irritated by the lack of respect, he doesn't show it. "You will board a train to the Capitol in one hour's time. Two of my men will be here personally to ensure you make it."
My eyes follow him as he strides to the door, expensive shoes clacking on the hardwood floor. "Do pass along my regards to your parents and brothers when you see them." He turns at the door. "I expect great things from you, Mr. Mellark."
The canvass in my left fist rips as he steps out, and I'm left alone.
New idea. New story.