a/n: to respond to an anon review from "Emma" — Heavensbee, his loyalties, and what else he told Peeta after the scene ended were meant to be unexplained in the last chapter, because I can't exactly reveal everything right at the start! I'm afraid this chapter won't explain, but, according to my tentative outline, the fifth chapter will, so you'll just have to stay tuned :)
"I don't mean to bellyache, Katniss, but I can't stand to stay in this house one more day!"
Katniss doesn't reply, but Prim heaves another sigh, a whine in the sound. Katniss sits back on her heels, pulling out her handkerchief to pat the sweat on her face as she tips her hat back a little to look at her little sister, currently sprawled on the back porch steps, her skirts hiked up innocently, her blonde curls seemingly everywhere, her straw hat covering her face and muffling her voice.
"As long as you're in this house," Katniss tells her, "you're safe."
"That isn't true, you know," Prim replies, sitting up and catching her hat in her hands. "Mrs. Evans said that two Union soldiers broke into her house and stole her wedding china to sell for food. She wasn't safe even her own home." She looks at Katniss with large eyes, still so very much a child.
A war has raged for two terrible years, yet Prim is still so innocent.
It breaks her heart to look at Prim lately, to see her thinner face, a daily reminder that, for the first time since their father died, Katniss can't keep her own sister well fed, to see in that thin face how very trapped her sister feels. And she does hate that Prim is cooped up, but the house is still safest.
"If Mrs. Evans turns up dead in her living room," Katniss replies, "caught in crossfire between soldiers, we can have another conversation about how a house isn't any safer than out in the street."
Prim sighs and collapses dramatically back on the porch steps. "I wish I were a cat," she declares.
Katniss picks up her sheers and continues to prune the little garden. It isn't even June yet, but the summer heat is unbearable, and the little herb garden she keeps has already started to suffer for it.
"If I were a cat," Prim continues, "I could do whatever I wanted, just like Buttercup."
"Buttercup will surely kill himself before this war ends," Katniss replies.
"Oh, that's horrible, Katniss!" Prim exclaims. "Who would hurt a poor little kitty?"
"I'm counting on a stray bullet, actually," Katniss mutters, and Prim doesn't hear, too busy reciting the poem she wrote about Buttercup yesterday. As much as Katniss loves her little sister, her poetry leaves something to be desired. But if Katniss didn't keep Prim locked in the house every day, perhaps she wouldn't be forced to endure poetry recitals. This is her punishment for that.
But she won't regret it. If Prim stays in the Seam, stays in their house, stays away from the constant warfare that her own foolish neighbors wage on the streets, she will survive this war.
And that matters more than anything else.
"I don't understand why you let Miss Rue walk into town for the post every week," Prim says petulantly, apparently finished with her poem, "but I'm not even allowed to walk down the street."
Katniss heaves her own sigh, sitting back on her heels a second time to level her sister with another stern look. "I don't let Miss Rue do anything," she replies. "She is an independent woman, free to make her own choices, free to risk her own life, and I'm grateful to her that she checks the post for us as well as for herself." And, Katniss adds silently, she can hardly deny Rue that small comfort.
She likes Rue.
The small girl is smart, sharper than she lets on, and quick and quiet, too. She can read better than Katniss can, and she is observant, always aware, always alert. Katniss respects that, and she simply likes Rue, likes her soft giggle, likes the way Rue hums under her breath when she works, likes how well Rue can swallow the poetry, a chore in itself. Katniss easily understands why Mr. Mellark adored her as much as he did. She knows Rue adored Mr. Mellark, too, even if they never talk about him, never even allude to him. The first few months, Rue used to mention him often.
She would even read aloud the letters he wrote her, and she couldn't sing his praises enough.
His letters abruptly stopped, however, and Rue keeps his memory close to her heart now, too close to share with Katniss or Prim, who never really knew him. Katniss is more than happy not to talk about him, not when the thought that he died forgotten on a distant battlefield makes her feel sick.
All the horrors from the war seem endless, yet somehow the idea that this war cost sweet, honest Peeta Mellark his life seems the worst possible crime to Katniss. At the very thought, in fact, her sweaty hands tighten a little on the sheers, pressing the handle into the fresh blisters on her palm.
But Peeta Mellark is surely dead, and Katniss cannot afford to dwell on that.
"If she didn't," Prim says suddenly, "you would check the post instead, so you would risk your life, and you do risk your life to hunt. It doesn't seem very fair to me that you should be allowed to risk your life but not let me." She crosses her arms over her chest and tries her best to stare fiercely at Katniss. The expression needs as much work as her poetry, but Katniss tapers her own smile.
"I do not believe I ever said it was fair," Katniss replies.
She knows Prim is about to mention their mother; they've had this discussion countless times, and it always follows the same thread. Prim will claim that their mother risks her life every day to help their friends caught in the fighting that rages through town. "And I can help her!" Prim will insist.
But their mother barely sleeps and barely eats, is rarely home, is dying herself to help people, and Katniss respects her mother for it, but she isn't about to let Prim carelessly ignore her own life, too.
She is saved from the argument, however, when she hears voices in the house, and the back porch door opens before Prim can respond. Rue appears, two letters in her hand, and she holds one out to Prim, who squeals in delight, scrambling to her feet. As Prim tears open the envelope and sinks back onto the porch steps, all her attention on the letter, Katniss only shakes her head at her sister.
She prays every night that Rory Hawthorne survives this war simply to spare Prim the heartbreak.
Rue crosses the backyard to hand Katniss the other letter, the return address from Winchester.
"Madge," Katniss murmurs, smiling a little, and she thanks Rue. But she doesn't read it yet, not when she sees the person to whom Rue spoke in the house, his hulking frame blocking out the sun as he crosses the yard towards her. Another smile tugs on her lips; it is always a relief to see Gale.
He makes her absolutely furious,his pig sticker always by his side, a constant reminder that he is helping tear their town to pieces, yet she cannot help her momentary happiness when she sees that he is still alive, that he survived another month, another week, another day, another awful battle.
He holds out a hand to help her to her feet. "I came across him outside the post office," Rue says, and something is in her voice. Katniss suspects someone must've opened fire on the street, and Gale probably protected Rue. Katniss squeezes his hand a little, the best thank you she can manage.
She leads him into the house. He always looks so large in their small house, his frame too big for the doorways, his legs too long for the chairs, but she loves the sight, loves knowing that he is safe. If she could lock him up the way she does Prim, she wouldn't hesitant for even a heartbeat.
"The Yankees took Second Street," Gale says, and Katniss feels her relief start to fade. She doesn't respond as she pours him an iced tea. "They've started to dig trenches, if you can believe it. And they've forced every shop on the street to fly a Union flag." He shakes his head, clearly annoyed.
She can't help it. "Am I supposed to believe the Confederate sympathizers wouldn't do the same?" she asks. "Am I supposed to believe this town has been torn asunder by the Yankees alone?"
He stares at her, and she stares back. He sighs, looking at the table. She continues to stare at him.
"I don't want to fight with you," he murmurs. "It seems every time we talk it turns into a fight."
"I thought you liked to fight," she replies.
His jaw locks. "Look, the only reason I even brought it up is because I do not believe you're safe here. We've managed to protect the Seam from the Union, but they're more determined than ever to take the entire town, Katniss, and I cannot stand to imagine what would happen to you if they —"
"They've wanted to take the town since the day Virginia seceded," Katniss interrupts.
"And I've fought to protect the town from them," Gale replies, "to protect you from them —"
"I am not an excuse for you to fight in this war," she snaps.
"I did not claim you were!" he exclaims, and he slams his fist on the table, frustrated.
She forces herself to breathe. "I don't see why we must continue to have this conversation," she finally says. "I feel the same as I have felt for the last two years, Gale. This war is foolish, and I will not pick sides among my own neighbors. I will not help turn my own town into a battlefield."
"The town already is a battlefield," Gale says. "And I'm fighting to protect it."
"Yes," Katniss replies, "because you clearly would protect the town better than John Raymond, despite the fact that my mother helped deliver you both, despite the fact that you live two houses down from each other, despite the fact that you attended the same schools, despite the fact that you both love this town. Yes, you need to shoot a musket at John Raymond to protect our home, because he supports the Union, and you support the Confederacy, and it is all so clear, isn't it?"
She nearly spits her last words, and her eyes flicker with fury to the musket he brought into her house, the musket leaning against her kitchen wall, the musket he uses to kill his oldest friends. Hers is to protect her house, but his is meant for so much worse. She hates the simple sight of it.
He doesn't reply, and her anger starts to settle uncomfortably in her stomach, a familiar weight.
"I am not afraid to see Yankee sympathizers control the town," she tells him. "At least if they did, if someone did, the fighting would stop, no more trenches on Second Street, no more bodies abandoned in the meadow, no more blood stains on the streets where we used to play hopscotch."
His face starts to soften.
"And I wouldn't need fear to let my sister walk further outside than our backyard," she finishes.
"At some point," he whispers, "you shall be forced to pick a side, Katniss. This war might be as foolish as you claim, but it is still a war. If you do not pick a side, you shall surely be caught in the crossfire." His expression implores her to understand. Her heart clenches, reminding her how much she hates that they argue, reminding her how they weren't always at such cross purposes.
"If I am forced to pick a side," she replies softly, "I do not think it will be yours."
"How can you not side with your own?" he asks, a whispered desperation in his voice.
"This war is not right," she replies.
"No, it isn't," he says, "because this war was begun by those who would deny us our rights."
She shakes her head. "No, this war was begun by wealthy men who wanted to keep their wealth."
It is quiet, and the house seems too hot, even with all the windows and doors open.
"I shall never convince you to leave this house, shall I?" he says, and it isn't really a question, even he knows that. He looks at her sadly. "My mother would welcome you with open arms, and you could sleep with Posy in the larger room." But Katniss only shakes her head at him, and he sighs heavily. "What if I were to tell you that Prim would be safest at my house, too?" he asks.
"I wouldn't believe you," Katniss replies, offering a small smile. "This is our home, Gale."
He nods, and he stands, reaching for his musket. The iced tea sits untouched on the kitchen counter. The backyard is silent, and Katniss knows Prim and Rue probably listened to the entire conversation through the kitchen window, but she can't be bothered to worry over it.
Gale hesitates. "Just tell me this isn't about Peeta Mellark," he says. She is speechless at the sudden question, and she can only blink at him. He sighs, and he continues, his voice sad and soft and sympathetic. "I talked with Lorie Mellark only last month, Katniss, and she admitted that even his own brother believes Mellark is dead. They haven't heard from him since last summer. He is dead."
"I hardly see how this is relevant," Katniss says, words sticking in her throat.
"It is relevant," Gale tells her, "if you refuse to leave this house, refuse to stay with my family, where you would certainly be safest, because you fear what he might think should he ever return."
She opens her mouth, trying to find some way to answer him. She doesn't want to talk about this.
"It would not matter what Peeta Mellark would think should he ever return. Why would it?"
He scoffs. "Katniss, we've been friends since we were children. If you expect me to believe that you were not romantically involved with Peeta Mellark, you unjustly injure our friendship."
"I was not — I am not — I have never been — I barely even knew Mr. Mellark," she exclaims.
"Yes, so you've said, yet his slave lives with you," Gale says, "and —"
"I've told you before that Miss Rue is not his slave," Katniss breaks in, irritation starting to stir inside her, "and I'll be fit to be tied if you don't start to listen to even a single word I say, Gale Hawthorne. Miss Rue stays with me because Mr. Mellark asked me to look after her, and I —"
"And why did he do that, Katniss?" Gale asks. "Why ask you to look after her?"
"Because," she says.
"Because," he repeats, expectant, and Katniss feels her face flush.
"Because I — I owe him," she mumbles. "I owe him my life." She swallows thickly, and she can see that she managed to surprise Gale. But she doesn't want to explain; somehow, now that Peeta is most likely dead, the burnt bread that he once carefully tossed her after her father died, the hope that he once quietly offered her when she needed it most, seems a sacred secret, never to be shared.
"I thought you barely even knew him," Gale says, almost accusatory.
"Peeta Mellark is an honorable man," she says. "We were not friends. We were not romantically involved. But he was kind to me when were children, and before the war he often came by to buy pills for his ailing mother. He is an honorable man, and he asked me to help him. That is all."
"So if I were to ask you to marry me right now," Gale says, "you wouldn't refuse for his sake?"
She can't understand the way he stares at her, so intently, so fiercely; it makes her heart pound.
"I would refuse because I never intend to marry anyone," she murmurs, "you know that."
"Even if he were still alive, and he asked for your hand?" Gale challenges.
"I never intend to marry anyone," she insists. "I am not in this world to be a wife or a mother."
A small voice cuts in before Gale can respond. "He isn't dead, sir."
Gale looks to the porch door, to Rue, but Katniss looks at her hands. She can't look at Rue.
She shouldn't have talked like that about Peeta, shouldn't have made out that he was dead.
"Mr. Mellark isn't dead, Mr. Hawthorne," Rue repeats. "He simply hasn't been able to write. He is too involved the war, too important to the cause, and he hasn't been able to write. He is not dead."
"Yes, of course, Miss Rue," Gale says. "I apologize. I should not have said he was. It was rude and uncouth, and I apologize." No one says anything. Katniss finally turns to the iced tea, surely warm at this point, and she takes it out to Prim. She touches Rue gently on the arm as she passes.
Prim smiles a little and thanks Katniss for the tea as Katniss sits beside her. She opens her letter from Madge, always a treat. She doesn't acknowledge when Gale leaves without a farewell, and she pretends not to hear Rue murmur a prayer for Peeta under her breath as she starts to fix supper.
Her conversation with Gale is still heavy in her mind when she takes her own musket and heads into the woods the next morning. She likes this early hour best, when the sun hasn't completely risen, and the spring air is still cool, dew on the grass. The town is quiet, all the soldiers asleep.
The forest welcomes her, the sun sprinkling patterns on the ground as it trickles through the trees, and she takes a moment to roll her shoulders, to push aside her frustration with Gale so that she can focus on the hunt. She doesn't use her musket, of course; it would make too much noise. She finds the old bow her father made before he died, and she catches two squirrels within an hour.
The first time fighting broke out in the streets, it only lasted a few hours.
The night passed, the Confederacy claimed the town, and all was well. Rue came to live with Katniss a few weeks later, and life carried on. Katniss kept her family fed, she helped her mother sew bandages for the town militia, and she comforted a tearful Prim when Rory joined the militia.
She didn't expect any more fighting, not in their town.
The war was bigger than them, and those who wished to fight had already left.
But on a hot, balmy day in July, only two months after the war started, she heard a woman scream in terror a moment before bullets peppered the large estate house where Katniss had come to trade strawberries, and suddenly the street itself was at war. And it stayed that way all summer, and all fall, and all winter, and all the following year, until suddenly two bloody years had passed like that.
The moments when the fighting paused, when one side managed to claim the town, were few and far between, and they were always little comfort, because they usually meant soldiers from outside town had arrived to secure the town, and the outsiders were brutal, breaking into homes, stealing food, shooting at beer bottles for sport while little children squealed in terror only a few feet away.
Katniss was so happy when Gale didn't join the militia, when he didn't take a train from town to join the fight, but that happiness went up in smoke when he decided to join the war raging in town.
She shoots a third squirrel, but she isn't able to collect the kill, not before she hears voices.
A loud chorus, louder even than the footsteps that stomp through the forest, scaring any animals far away, alerting any enemies that soldiers, for they must surely be soldiers, are on their way. Katniss quickly scrambles up the nearest tree, losing her footing once in her hurry, but she makes it high into the branches, her bow over her shoulder, her squirrels abandoned on the ground.
The soldiers march right beneath her, an unruly ten dozen at least, all with familiar grey caps.
Confederates. She tries to breathe as little as she can, and they pass under her, thankfully oblivious.
Her skirts catch on a branch as she finally risks venturing back down, and bark scratches her thigh, drawing blood. She doesn't care. She picks up her squirrels, cleans her arrows and hides them away with her bow as quickly as she can, and she hurries home, taking the roads she spent works sorting out as the best roads to take better her house and the forest to avoid any notice whatsoever.
The Seam is untouched, Prim drawing at the kitchen table, Rue milking Lady on the back porch.
Katniss doesn't let them see any panic; soldiers in town aren't new, not at all.
And two days later those soldiers have taken the town, temporarily stalling the fight for control.
It isn't a reason to panic. They just need to wait the Confederates out.
It won't be long before the corps decides to pass through, to move onto a bigger, better battlefield, or before the Union sympathizers push them out. It never takes long, so they must simply wait. She doesn't let Prim outside, not even to the backyard, she convinces Rue not to fetch the post for just a little while, and she sleeps with her musket by her bed. They can survive this as they always do.
The first Monday in May, however, the sun set, the day finished, as Prim plays with Buttercup on the floor, Rue stirs stew over the stove, and Katniss finishes skinning the rabbit she caught that morning, someone pounds loudly on the door. Buttercup flies from the room. "Open up!" a man shouts, and Katniss nearly slices her thumb open, but she doesn't set down her knife. She sees Rue curl her hand into the pockets in her apron, where Katniss knows she keeps a knife from Peeta.
The pounding only continues louder. "I can smell dinner on the stove! Open up!"
Katniss starts cautiously down the hall, motioning for Prim to hide upstairs, but Prim can't do more than start to stand before the front door violently slams open, hitting the wall so hard the small cross stitch hung over the kitchen table falls to the ground. Katniss can only stare at the two Confederate soldiers who stumble into her house, down the hall, and right into her silent kitchen.
They aren't from town; she would recognize them if they were.
Their faces are hidden behind dirt and tangled beards, their hair greasy beneath stained grey caps, their uniforms wrinkled, pulled from their trousers, as dirty as their faces. The younger, his eyes dark, starts across the kitchen, right towards the stew, but the older stops him with a hand, and he looks at Katniss. "Ma'am," he says, taking off his hat, "I apologize for our disrespect, but we are only two hungry soldiers, and we hoped you might show us your good Southern hospitality and let us eat at your table tonight." He keeps his head bowed politely as he talks.
"We don't have much," Katniss murmurs, "but of course you are welcome to join us."
The soldier smiles, introducing himself as Jonah and his companion as Peyton, and Katniss motions them to the backyard, to the water trough, for which she receives another grateful smile. She wonders how kind he would be if she tried to refuse. She quickly finishes skinning the rabbit, one eye on the soldiers, and Rue ladles rabbit stew out into two bowls the moment the soldiers are back inside, sitting at the table. Katniss take a seat with her own bowl, and Prim copies her motions, but Rue knows better than to eat with them tonight, or even to take a bowl for herself.
She stands in the corner, and no one speaks as the soldiers eat, spilling soup into their beards, obviously as starving as they claimed. Prim watches them carefully, her hands trembling a little as she tries and fails to eat her own stew. Katniss is afraid to breathe, but she doesn't let it show.
"What else do you have?" the younger soldier demands, mouth full.
Rue offers him the little meat left on the rabbit bones, and he takes the entire plate from her, eating it all. Prim starts to say something, but Katniss cuts her off with a sharp look. She can always catch another rabbit. The older soldier asks Katniss a few polite questions, and she answers quietly.
She wants to ask her own questions, but she bites her tongue. This isn't the place to take risks.
Her name is Katniss Everdeen, and this is her sister Primrose; they've lived in this house with their mother their entire life. And then Katniss doesn't blink when she lies. Prim does, but Katniss can only hope the soldiers don't notice the way Prim frowns when Katniss says her husband is in town, fighting the entrenched Unionists. "A fine man, I'm sure," the older soldier kindly tells her.
Katniss forces a tight smile.
They pray every night for the Confederacy to end this wretched war, she says, for them to cast the Union army from Virginia, words the soldiers want to hear. She finds the blackberries she picked earlier, and both soldiers devour the entire bowl. "What else?" the younger soldier demands.
"That's it," Katniss replies, stiff fingers stirring her untouched stew.
"That can't be it," he replies. "You're well fed." He stares at her, and his eyes flicker to Prim.
She reminds herself to breathe, but she is too late to stop her sister. "My goat Lady makes cheese," Prim tells them brightly. "I still have a little in the ice box, and I think we have a little stale bread to eat with it." She smiles as the older soldier politely nods and thanks her, and she hurries across the kitchen, Rue at her heels to help. The younger soldier watches Prim, his dark eyes trained intently on her the way they were trained on the food. Katniss forces herself to eat the stew in her own bowl.
Prim spreads the cheese on the stale bread, and the soldiers eat it as eagerly as everything else.
And, finally, the older moves to stand. "We thank you heartily for your generous hospitality, Mrs. Everdeen," he says, tipping his head before he puts on his hat, "and for yours as well, Miss Prim."
Prim smiles at him, offers a little curtsey, and the soldiers walk out.
The door stands, and Rue crumples against the wall, shoulders sagging. She crosses herself.
"We needn't have been scared, Katniss," Prim finally says, and Buttercup is already back by her feet. She pulls the cat into her lap, pressing a soft kiss to his head. "They seemed like kind men."
"Yes," Katniss says, "they seemed like kind men."
She locks both the front door and the back door, staring out into the darkness for a moment before she pulls out the liquor her mother keeps for patients. Prim doesn't want any, but Rue accepts a sip.
Katniss finally understands what Gale meant.
If they were at his house, they wouldn't be safer from the fighting on the streets, but they would be safer from what happened tonight. She shouldn't have so stupidly ignored his pleas. But it isn't too late; as soon as tomorrow dawns, she will hurry to his house. She will see if his offer still stands.
She knows it does. She can always count on Gale.
She sends Prim to bed, and Rue pulls out her cot, and the house is silent. Katniss sits on the floor by the front door with her musket, and she stares through the window out into the empty street. The soldiers will be back. Even if they, by some miracle, missed spotting where Lady was tied up on the back porch, they know she exists now, thanks to an innocent Prim, and they'll want that goat.
They'll be back. Katniss wraps her hands tighter around her musket.
She wishes it weren't dark out, weren't too late to flee to Gale right at this moment. But she can wait out a single night by herself. And, well, as long as the soldiers simply come for the goat, fine.
She wakes up when Buttercup scratches her leg. Katniss blinks, disoriented, the musket sitting in her lap, her finger slack around it. She kicks Buttercup away. The house is quiet and dark, all the candles burned out. She must've fallen asleep, but she can't have slept long; it is still dark outside.
But Buttercup hisses, furious, eyes glowing in the dark, and Katniss hears a soft thud.
She stands, the musket in her hand, and quietly slips down the hallway. As she thought, the back door is open, softly smacking the doorframe with the wind. The soldiers. Katniss peaks out onto the porch. But Lady is untouched, asleep on the ground. The soldiers aren't anywhere in the yard.
Her heart jumps into her throat. The only other thing those soldiers could possibly want —
Buttercup hisses, and Katniss runs to the stairs, runs to Prim.
She hears a choked squeal as she reaches the second landing. She sprints to the bedroom, and she slams open the door, and someone grunts, and Prim screams, and someone is on her, and Katniss slams the musket against his hulking frame, the butt to his head. He curses loudly, lunging around suddenly to knock Katniss off her feet. Prim screams louder, terrified, scrambling from the bed.
Katniss tries to reach for her musket, knocked from her hands, but the soldier has his hands around her neck, and she can't see more than his face dimly outlined in the dark, and Prim screams for Rue, for her mother, for help, and sharp, ridged fingernails dig into her neck, choking her as her hands scratches the ground, trying to reach the musket, so close, but his weight on her is too much.
A moment later he almost collapses against her, because Prim is on his back, scratching his face, screaming at him not to touch her sister. Katniss tries to knee him or to elbow him or to somehow hurt him, and her fingers just brush the musket, but she can't quite hold it, and he jabs her in the face with his elbow.
It steals her breath, and she can't see, is left dizzy and dazed on the ground. He lets out a loud, furious bellow, and Katniss can see Rue, knife glinting in her hand. Katniss tries to sit up, but the world spins under her, and her vision blackens for a moment, and hot blood is on her fingers, but she finally grasps the musket, and she aims wildly, looking for him, finds him back on Prim —
She fires a clean shot to his head. A clean kill.
Prim whimpers under his motionless weight, Rue breathes heavily, and Katniss forces herself to her feet. The musket is molded into her hands. She thinks she might be sick. And she uses the musket butt to knock the man off Prim, who scrambles to her feet and presses her face against Katniss, crying, trembling, her nightgown torn. The man stares unseeingly at the ceiling, dead.
Rue touches her arm, and her small fingers slowly pull the musket from Katniss.
"Are you okay, Prim?" Katniss finally manages to ask, her voice a whisper.
"Yes," Prim sobs, and Katniss looks at Rue, who nods that she, too, is unhurt.
"But you're bleeding, Miss Everdeen," Rue tells her. "Your ear is hurt."
Katniss shakes away her concern. "We need to bury the body," she murmurs, looking at the soldier. "We need to hide any evidence that he was here, and we need to do it now." She slowly kneels, and she looks at Prim, cups her face. "Rue will help me bury the body, but I need you to clean this room, make it look like nothing at all happened. I need you to do this, Prim."
Prim nods, wiping her eyes. "I can. I will. I can do it, Katniss."
Katniss tears the top sheet off the bed. It is already stained with dirt and splattered with a little blood, and she refuses to look the young soldier in the face as she wraps him up, heaving his body onto his stomach so that she can properly hide him in the sheet and carefully tie it tightly closed.
She just killed this man, but she can't think about that yet. She needs to focus.
"Take his feet," she tells Rue, who doesn't hesitate.
He is heavy, and they struggle down the stairs, Buttercup watching with his bright yellow eyes.
They take him into the backyard. Katniss wishes she could take him to the forest, but it is too far. She chooses the square in the yard where she just planted a second herb garden, the dirt fresh. She sets the body down, and she starts to dig with her hands. Rue helps. Katniss stubbornly ignores the sting from sweat in her gashed ear, which buzzes softly, unnaturally. They finally dig enough.
It is too shallow, but the darkness isn't quite so dark now, and the sun will be up soon. They roll the body into the small hole, and Katniss quickly covers it up. She doesn't even need to ask Rue to fetch her gardening tools, and they carefully hide the grave under a garden plot that will never flower.
They head into the house. Prim is dressed, her hair neatly pinned up, the spare sheets neatly made on her bed, her broken possessions hidden. The room looks perfectly untouched. Katniss tries to smile at her, but she can't quite manage it. Rue cleans her ear and bandages it as best she can.
They need to work out a story, but they are all at a loss for words.
Rue and Katniss wash and change. The sun is out. The house is quiet. Rue starts to make oatmeal.
"Katniss," Prim whispers. Katniss shakes her head. She needs to talk to Gale. Prim milks Lady.
"He never came here," Katniss finally says. "We never saw him. My ear happened in the woods this morning, when I went to hunt. I can head out now, catch a few rabbits, and smear their blood on a fallen log, something that will easily excuse my ear. And then I think it best we stay with the Hawthornes."
Rue nods. Prim does, too. Katniss pulls her hunting boots out from the closet.
And someone pounds on the front door. Prim screams. Rue pulls out her knife.
"Katniss!" Gale shouts. Katniss can't run to the door fast enough, and Gale stumbles into the house, his hands heavy and tight on her arms as his eyes flicker over her bandaged ear. "I need you to tell me that you didn't shoot a man last night and bury him in your backyard," he says.
Katniss can't remember how to breathe.
"Gale," she whispers, "I shot a man last night and buried him in my backyard."
"He attacked me, Gale!" Prim says, fresh tears in her eyes. "Katniss had to shoot him!"
Gale shuts the door, locking it, and he turns back to Katniss, but she can already imagine what he is about to explain. "That soldier didn't come to your house alone last night, Katniss. He came with his friend, who waited in the backyard for him. The man heard the musket fire, and he saw you carry the body out with Rue, and he ran before you saw him. The whole town knows, Katniss."
She shakes her head.
"It wasn't her fault," Rue insists. "Miss Prim is right. She only defended her sister and her home."
Gale doesn't really acknowledge her. His burning eyes stay on Katniss.
"It started a battle, Katniss," Gale continues, "even I heard the screaming about dirty Confederate soldiers and Unionist whores and — and half the houses on Fifth Street are up in flames, and — and, Katniss, listen to me, soldiers are on their way to the Seam, to you, right at this moment. They won't listen to reason. They won't. This town knows where you stand, even if you won't outright admit it; they know you're with the Union, and the corps know you shot a Confederate soldier. This is the perfect excuse they need to set the tears down the whole Seam and every Unionist in it."
"Oh, Gale, what do we do?" Prim cries.
Gale stares at Katniss. "Run," she whispers.
He nods. "Run."
"Where would we run?" Prim asks
Katniss whips around to face her. "No, Prim, we won't run. They aren't about to hang you."
"I can take her," Gale says. "She can stay with me, with my family. The whole town knows Rory intends to marry her as soon as the war ends. It wouldn't be inappropriate for her to live with us."
"But —" Prim starts, shaking her head.
"I can keep her safe," Gale says. "I will keep her safe." He waits for Katniss to nod, and he looks at Prim. "My little brother would never forgive me if I let anything happen to his girl, Primrose."
And neither would Katniss, but she needn't worry; she knows Gale will protect her.
She turns to Rue, only to find that Rue isn't in the kitchen. "If you head to the forest," Gale says, "I can meet the soldiers here, and I can tell them that you weren't here when I arrived, and Prim was in tears because you had said you planned to run north, abandoning her after what you did."
"Yes," Katniss says, nodding.
"It means you can't head north," Gale says. "Head south or east. Keep to the forest."
"What about Miss Rue?" Prim asks.
"I'll help Miss Everdeen," Rue announces, walking in the room, two bundles in her hands. "I packed clothes for us both, Miss Everdeen, as well as some matches, your father's old canteen, and some medicine. We just need to pack what food we can, and we can run." Her face is set.
"Rue," Katniss whispers.
"The soldier saw me with the body, too," Rue tells her. She straightens. "And Mr. Mellark left me with you. I intend to stay with you. I'm quick, and I can help you." She stares fiercely at Katniss.
And Katniss nods. Prim starts to search out food. They don't have much.
Katniss pulls on her hunting boots, Rue packs away the toasted bread and dried squirrel meat that Prim finds, and Gale fills the canteen with water. Katniss can see smoke in the distance. They don't have any more time. It has all happened too fast, and she barely even has time to think that.
Prim clutches Katniss tightly. "Promise me you'll come home," she whispers.
Katniss kisses her forehead. "I will, Prim. I promise." Gale pulls her into a hug, and she presses her face into his shoulder, closing her eyes for a moment, trying to memorize every detail. She doesn't know what to say to him, and they can't linger; they need to leave within the very minute.
"Where will you go?" Gale asks, voice thick.
Katniss draws back from him. Rue is at the door. The answer comes easily to Katniss.
She only has one other friend in this world, one other person she can count on.
She crouches down behind the trees, and she waits. This is it. If this doesn't work, if Madge doesn't take her usual walk, Katniss doesn't know where she and Rue can possibly turn instead.
Her letters say she always walks this path every morning to collect berries, to breathe fresh air.
Rue kneels quietly beside Katniss, her fingers tight around the little knife from Peeta, and Katniss curls her own fingers around her musket. The sun starts to rise, and Katniss spots honeysuckles across the path, too far for her to reach but close enough for her to smell. Her mouth waters, even as her stomach curls with hunger pains more acute than even her pounding head or her parched throat.
It took nearly five days to walk this far. They haven't had anything to eat in two, and the stream they followed dried up last night. But they are finally in Winchester, or at the outskirts. But Katniss won't believe them safe yet. They won't be until they find Madge; they won't be unless Madge can help them. She hears light footsteps, and she doesn't breathe. A girl appears, small basket in hand.
Katniss almost faints. But she manages to scramble to her feet, breathing the name. "Madge."
Madge gasps, her basket falling to the ground, blackberries spilling around her feet.
"What's happened?" Madge asks, reaching for Katniss.
"I hate to ask so much from you," Katniss says, taking her outstretched, offered hands, "but I didn't no where else to turn. I've done something terrible, Madge, something I can't take back."
"What is it?"
But Katniss can't explain here. She beckons Madge into the trees where Rue waits. Madge looks well, her face round, healthy, her thick blonde hair neatly pinned up, her dress a softer, more expensive material than anyone wears back home. She doesn't hesitate to follow Katniss, though, and she kneels down on the ground, concerned eyes searching Katniss and Rue for answers.
Katniss does her best to explain, the soldiers, Prim, the body in the backyard, Gale warning her.
Madge squeezes her hand. "You can stay with me at the Capitol."
"I don't know if —" Katniss doesn't want to put Madge in any danger.
But Madge shakes her head. "I certainly cannot allow you to live in the forest, Katniss, starving and running for your life until the war ends. No. I'm certain my uncle won't begrudge you a room at the Capitol, especially not if you help out around the kitchen. And it won't be hard to make up a story for you. We can say you're my married friend come to stay with me because you aren't comfortable at home with your husband away at war. And Rue is your faithful servant —"
"Slave," Rue says. "I'll be safer as her slave." She starts to fumble in her pack, and a moment later she pulls something out, handing it to Katniss. "And you can wear this. It'll ease any doubts."
Katniss looks at what Rue dropped in her palm. A gold ring.
"It belongs to Mr. Mellark," Rue explains, "but he left it to me in case I might need to sell it for money. He would want you to have it." She smiles, encouraging, and Madge smiles, too, nodding.
"I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you used his name, either," Madge says, something else in her voice.
Katniss is ready to shake her head, to refuse the ring and the name and the entire story, but Peeta likely is dead, and she does need a new name, especially if she stays. She looks at Rue, and she looks at Madge, and she looks at the ring that shines in the sunlight. She is starved, parched, exhausted. She needs refuge.
She slips the ring on her finger. "How should we approach your uncle?" she asks Madge.
"It won't be hard," Madge says. "Uncle Haymitch doesn't care enough about anything to ask too many questions, and Aunt Maysilee is too sweet to be suspicious. I can take you around to the kitchens and help you clean up, find food for you, and take you around to the front. I'll say I simply forgot to warn them that you had come to stay, and Uncle Haymitch will rolls his eyes, but that that will be all, I promise. Although I should warn you —" And she hesitates for the first time.
"What?" Katniss asks.
"I should warn you that the hotel doesn't let in many guests," Madge says slowly, "because all the Union army officers live with us. They're mostly the pleasant sort, and they shouldn't bother you, but they aren't the most pleasant to Southern ladies, so if you do stay, you must act humbly, act as little like a proper Southern lady as you can, and — and you'll be fine. I'll help." She smiles.
Katniss nods. It won't be tough to act not like a Southern lady.
They bury the musket in the forest, but Rue tucks her knife safely in her pack.
It isn't a long walk into town, and Madge doesn't take them to the main street, to the front entrance, but instead she circles around through narrow alleys, and she leads Katniss and Rue into a small hall where coats are hung on pegs that line the walls, and from down the hall Katniss can hear a kitchen, muffled voices mingled with clanging pots and pans, and sweet, wonderful smells waft towards her, making her still hungrier, but she knows she needs to be patient just a little while longer.
Madge helps Rue and Katniss change into fresh, clean clothes, and she brings them water to drink and water to wash their hands and faces. She helps Katniss with her bandaged ear, and she fetches them fresh bread with cheese next, as well as apples that are so sweet Katniss can hardly stand it.
She tries to eat slowly, afraid to make herself sick, but she is finished within a few minutes.
They head back onto the street, and they walk nearly ten minutes so that they can approach the hotel properly. Katniss hasn't ever stepped foot in a hotel, yet she is about to live in one so large and so splendid as the Capitol, an old, wide, towering building that stretches across almost half a block.
It amazes her that Madge really is a Southern lady, or at least her maternal aunt is.
Madge went to stay in Winchester several months before the secession, sent by her ailing mother and her overworked father so that she could receive better schooling, and her aunt, without any children herself, was more than happy to look after her only niece at the hotel her wealthy husband inherited.
Madge described the hotel in vivid detail in the letters she wrote Katniss, yet the building still leaves Katniss absolutely breathless. It is five stories high, pillars lining the front, and a hotel porter tips his hat at Madge as he opens the door for them. Katniss avoids his eye, and she lets Madge take her sweaty hand as they walk into the entrance hall, where the rugs and the paintings and the chairs that line the rose papered walls, edged in gold, make Katniss feel faint with the extravagance.
"Madge, darling!" someone calls, and Katniss takes a deep breath.
The woman who calls for Madge is a short, plump woman with a pink face, her nose a little too small, her eyes a little too big, and her head topped with thick, curling blonde hair that struggles to free itself from a large, ornate purple clasp that matches her flowing lacy purple skirts. And the woman isn't alone, but instead walks beside a tall, thin man with a black mustache over fat lips.
All Katniss can really notice, however, is his neat blue uniform, that worn by Union soldiers.
Madge curtsies to him, and she calls him General Boggs, and she says she collected enough blackberries this morning for a wonderful pie, the kind he likes best, which pulls a smile from him.
He isn't a Union soldier; he is a Union general. Katniss can't look him in the eye.
"Aunt Maysilee," Madge greets, "you won't believe who just arrived on the train, and two days early — I hadn't time to warn you. I meant to, Aunt, truly, I swear it, but it completely slipped my mind!" Her eyes are wide and innocent, and her aunt smiles indulgently at her. Madge turns to look at Katniss, and her aunt looks to Katniss, too, curious. "This is my dearest friend," Madge says.
Katniss steps forward, unsure how to act, how to smile, how even to stand.
She is suddenly self-conscious in her brown cotton skirt and threadbare blue cotton smock, her whole person so out of place in this beautiful hotel.
But Madge quickly explains that she invited Katniss to stay here, to escape their lonely war torn town, where she cannot sleep safely at night with her husband away at war, and Maysilee Abernathy looks to Katniss, her large blue eyes soft and sympathetic, exactly as sweet as Madge always described.
Katniss tries not to let her hands tremble, and she presses her thumb to the ring on her left hand.
"Oh, my dear Mrs. Mellark," Maysilee exclaims, "you are more than welcome to stay with us!"
And Katniss offers the best smile she can, refusing to let any fear shine through.