Thank you so much to HGRomance, DarkenedRuby and eeg01 for all your input and assistance! (And thank you, eeg01, for your evil genius.) Slightly expanded "MA" version is on the DustWriterFics blog.
Chapter One: Katniss' POV
I need to stop pulling on this button. If I pull this button off, the coat won't close over my throat. I don't have a scarf; I need to keep this button. But my hands won't leave it alone. I've rubbed this spot on my index finger and thumb raw picking at the cracked button. They've bled before. Calluses are forming. I can't stop picking at the button, like a cut on one's inner cheek. I have to pick at myself to remind me I'm still alive. And as long as I breathe, I'll make sure he does.
I pick up my quiver and bow and toss the too-light game bag over my shoulder. It's already mid-morning and I have a long walk to the Hob. I should leave now. The cold air isn't as painfully crisp this morning. Spring must be only a few days away. This has been a hard winter, but then I've never had to work so hard to survive a winter. I slip through the trees, the bag of game bouncing against my back. It's not much. Just a few squirrels and one wild turkey, but it's enough for today. It'll feed me and my sister. Maybe my father will eat today.
I can always hope.
I weave through the tall, thickly packed trees with my bow at the ready. Even on my way out, I won't give up one last chance to snag something. I need more money.
I jump and turn my eyes to the quick, sharp noise. My shoulders relax when I recognize the dark eyes peering out from behind a shielding tree, lest I had loosed the arrow and shot him by surprise. "Hi, Gale."
The tall, lanky young man appears from around the trunk. He is thinner than the last time we ran into one another. Far thinner than the first time I saw him outside the Justice Building.
It has been a very hard winter.
He thrusts his chin at bag in my hand. "How's the catch this morning?"
"Not bad," I murmur, minding my volume out in the woods. Predators are nearby and I don't need them to come after my only food. I also don't want the influx of new, inexperienced hunters to hear where I find my game. Competition is getting stiff now that the fence is down. But Gale – I'll share with him. "Mild weather is bringing out the smaller animals."
"Good," he nods. "Today's a teaching day." He glances behind him. I spy a smaller boy peeking out from behind a tree a few yards away.
"Which one is that?"
"That's Vick. Next year is Rory's turn."
"Rory," I remember quietly. I glance up at him. "Good luck. Take care."
He gestures for his brother to follow him. I watch the scrawny, limber boy duck and run after his only father figure. I am momentarily grateful I do not have any growing boys to feed. A rail-thin sister is difficult enough.
I wonder briefly if Gale Hawthorne and I would be friends if our circumstances were more similar. If rather than strangers passing in the trees, we knew more about each other. But neither he nor I have time for friends anymore. There's too much work to be done.
His father is dead. Mine is dying.
"Can you help me with this?"
I should have known he was sick. He had never asked for help before. Not with sincerity. Only to make me feel like I was a strong young woman able to help her father.
We were out in the woods less than two years ago. Just twenty months. Chasing down birds to shoot out of the sky. I was getting better every day, he said. And I was.
His arm had shot out from his side and grabbed mine. I looked up in surprise as he pressed one index finger to his lips. He pointed dead ahead. In the stillness of the clearing I saw the doe. Through the barren trunks, her fawn coat camouflaged her well with the trees. It was more beautiful than anything I'd ever seen. I held my breath.
My father's arrow was strict in its path. I was still staring when the doe fell. I blinked and she was down.
He saw me frowning at the loss. "It's all right, Katniss," he murmured. "Her life was given for ours. Someday our bones will nourish this forest and give her descendants lush green plants to eat. It's a circle. I promise you." He winked. I believed him.
He stowed his quiver across his back and handed me the bow; I hurried after him. We reached the doe and he bent to pull the roll of knives from his boot holster. He suddenly stopped and gasped.
His bow was fitted with my arrow immediately. I raised my arm and surveyed the woods.
"No, no," he muttered. "Just got a little short of breath there. Here, why don't you clean her?"
"Yes, sir," I grinned. I took the roll of knives from him.
He still walked me through the steps, but waiting to be sure I hesitated. He never assumed I didn't know what to do; he wanted to give me the benefit of the doubt. I appreciated his confidence.
Finally she was ready to be taken home. When my father stood again, I heard the same hitch in his breath. Then he asked.
"Can you help me with this?"
I should have known something was wrong.
He took the head; the heavier side. I took the feet and slung the game bag of birds over my shoulder. We marched home proudly.
Our home was at the furthest edge of the Seam; you couldn't go any further west without walking into a fallow meadow. If you walked north for a quarter mile you ended up in the mouth of the mine. My father had walked into that mine every day for eighteen years, since the day after he had eloped with my mother.
I expected one day I'd be swallowed by its darkness as well. If you have to flee to the woods to find food as a child it's not likely you'll escape the hunger as an adult.
My mother greeted us as the door in excitement. My little sister was at her heels. At first Primrose winced at the sight of blood dripping onto my boots, but she recovered to beam and accept a kiss from my father. She followed our procession around the side of the house where my mother helped him hang the deer from the meat hook to carve.
My mother hurried Prim inside to start rearranging our ice box to fit the meat we would keep. She ran to the kitchen to find waxed paper to package some to sell at the illegal trading warehouse called the Hob.
As my father and I stood outside, looking at the rare kill, I felt prouder to be his daughter than at any moment before. I felt him watching me.
"Happy sixteenth birthday, Katniss," he smiled.
A month later he collapsed in the forest.
I'm nearly at the Hob. I give my customary curt nod as greeting to the characters that hang around this dismal part of town. The drunk, the corrupt police officer, the retired schoolteacher with no pension. They know me well.
I find the warehouse cool; the windows have been opened so the smoke from the wood-fire stoves can escape. I turn immediately to the left. I know the way to the butcher's booth by heart.
"Katniss," Greasy Sae smiles gently. "Good to see you again."
"Sae," I nod, hauling my bag up to the counter lined with scales.
"Your father?" she asks quietly.
She's been here long enough. She used to trade with him before me. She knows my family. She knows not to push for more information.
She peers into the bag. "Turkey?"
"I need it for home."
"I can give you more for the turkey," she whispers. "Give you some stock for squirrel soup."
"It's my father's birthday."
She nods, although I can tell she hasn't given up. She knows as well as I he can barely eat. It is a waste to keep the turkey and sell the squirrels. But we haven't eaten anything but meager soup in so long. I need to eat today.
I crack my bony knuckles. "The squirrels," I decide with finality.
She acquiesces and weighs them on her scales. "Four pounds!"
"Four pounds? You are a talented woman," her husband smiles as he comes around the corner.
She smiles back at him. She was lucky. In all of the auction marriages in our district, hers turned out to be a good match. She might be the only one with a good match in recent history.
The name 'Bristel' floats through my mind. I push it away roughly.
Her husband counts out fifteen coins for me; a bit generous for my catch, but they are both good people and I never question their kindness. I thank them, pull the bag with the turkey over my shoulder and walk down the row of merchants to the apothecary. He glances up and nods; he knows me.
"Ginger root. Fish oil," I say. I drop five coins on the counter. He sweeps them into his palm and turns to his elaborate shelving unit. He's located the ginger root in seconds and wraps it carefully in the paper for me. The oil he pours from a large canister into a small glass jar I produce from my pocket. I shove the root and bottle into my leather jacket; a gift from my father for my seventeenth birthday. The coat he could no longer wear hunting himself.
The apothecary and I nod and our transaction is over.
The next stop is the wool maker for Prim; she has outgrown her clothes again and mine are so threadbare they don't patch well. I can tell I'm not growing much anymore. There isn't enough food to spur it on. I hope there will be a time when she's taller than me and can wear new clothes.
I can always hope.
The money is quickly gone. I make my way back to the door. Sae waves. I only nod. It's all I can ever do.
I step outside to begin the journey home by crossing through the narrow Seam marketplace of coal mining tools and the poorer vendors who sell found articles and, I suspect, goods stolen from the Merchant marketplace. It's crowded in the late morning. People barter around me for the things they desperately need and cannot afford.
I pass the Auction Board. I shouldn't stop, I never want to see, but I always have to. Ever since the day I saw her picture posted there. It had been a beautiful picture. Her captivating smile had sparked a lot of interest. It must have been from a special occasion well before she turned eighteen.
Once Bristel knew she was going to be married she never smiled again.
It's not a terribly old practice from what I know. I think it's only been happening since my mother's time. That doesn't make it better, but it gives me hope we can find a time when it doesn't happen anymore.
I can always hope.
It's not really a marriage. It's a purchase. The starving family posts a special announcement on the Auction Board, congratulating their son or daughter on turning 18. It's just a less obvious way of saying anyone with at least 200 coins can trade their money for their hand. The weddings might as well be funerals for their dismal atmosphere. The potential spouses have little more than the coins they use to find a partner. If they were wealthy, or at least wealthier, they'd have the money to court properly and pay for a service outside the Justice Building. But very, very few people here do. It's more common for girls. Miners rarely have time or money to court young women. Boys can work in the mine at 18 and end up there more often, but if a poor family needs a strong back for the family business a husband is found on the Board.
Some families can't even wait until an eighteenth birthday. Those are the worst announcements; congratulating a child on their 14th birthday and mentioned how strong or quick they are. They'll find a host family that will take them in as a servant until they are 18; then they are married off for a profit or sent to the mines. If they survive. All for just thirty coins.
I saw Bristel last on the morning of her wedding six months ago. Her face was drawn in mourning as her father helped her around the side of the Justice Building standing in the town square, the very center of our District.
She didn't see me spying on her.
I watched her mother and older brother stop at the front steps. Her mother was crying and unable to continue. Her brother offered her a rag for her nose but could not offer comfort. There was none to be had.
Morbid fascination drove me to the side of the building. I hid behind a crate of supplies arriving for the mayor. Probably more fencing to keep the wild dogs from running into the public market and destroying the dismal meats delivered by a struggling founding Capital. The revolution that had come fifteen years before was slow to establish a supply chain. Power struggles between the opposing parties have only worsened conditions.
Bristel was led to the wooden stairs erected against a small, dusty platform. It was faded from sun exposure and the wood was grey and splintered. It sloped against the stone wall of the Justice Building. Her face was expressionless. I couldn't look away.
The potential husbands waited around the side where they could bid on the bride. Bristel was beautiful and known to be smart and strong; I'd always thought with her self-discipline she'd be a mine foreman or headmistress of the school. I suppose those attributes could also go to a mother of a mining family, but I'd never thought of her that way.
The bidding started at 200 coins, and within minutes she had been betrothed to a man more than twenty years older than her who lived with his brother on the opposite side of town. Her father shook his hand with a thin-lipped grimace.
A shout from the front of the building garnered some attention from the gathering. I spied a young man running towards Bristel. He nearly ran straight into her father, pleading and begging for him not to do this. That he would find his own money and take care of Bristel.
Her father shook his head and said he knew the boy couldn't; the boy was supporting his own family on his own. Her father said taking on Bristel would mean death for them all. Bristel's father thanked Gale Hawthorne for loving his daughter, but he couldn't marry her.
Bristel said nothing.
The stranger led her off the stage and handed her father 350 coins. They walked into the Justice Building to find a magistrate and disappeared from view.
I move quickly towards home, trying to outrun my own thoughts. I hate to remember Bristel. I hate that I know the losses Gale has suffered. He saw me when he'd left in defeat and shame. I had walked away.
I focus on getting home where I can be near my family; safe from the world in which I am trapped.
I push open the creaking door and see Primrose immediately. She is singing softly to the bundled mass on the armchair in front of the fire. She twists her neck to smile at me and motion for me to stay quiet; he is resting.
"Is that Katniss?" comes a wheezing from the blankets.
"Yes, it's me, Father," I call softly. "I have more ginger root for your tea."
"Thank you," he sighs. "And thank you for my song, Prim." She nods and stands, collecting a tray of picked-over food from his side. "How was your hunt today?"
"Very good," I say with a grin. "I brought you something special."
"For me? You shouldn't have."
"Yes, I should!"
"What is it?" he asks eagerly. I can see his bright eyes trying to strain to see what I've got in the bag as I toe my boots off at the door.
"I'm not telling," I tease, shrugging off my coat. My sister smiles and collects the clinking bottle from the coat pocket. He groans when he sees it.
"I hope it's not fish oil."
Prim raises a playful eyebrow. "That's hardly a surprise anymore."
"And it's not," I tell them both. "Prim, help me in the kitchen. You'll call us if you need anything?" I ask the bundle.
"Yes," he sighs, settling back down. "Thank you."
I nod and Prim scuttles after me and motion for her to stay quiet and push the bag into our iron sink. When I pull the turkey from the bag she still gasps.
"Oh Katniss," she whispers. "It's beautiful."
"It was pure luck," I agree quietly. "Will you help me prepare this?"
"Help?" she raises a sardonic eyebrow.
"Fine, will you just do it for me?" I smile.
"I will help you," she insists. "Let's pluck this first."
As we strip feathers from the carcass she tells me how his day has been. Wheezing and coughing in the morning, but some anti-inflammatory herbs helped him downstairs and into the chair by the fire.
"So you didn't go to school again?" I murmur.
"No," she admits. "Mother had work today. I had to stay."
I can't blame her. I've not been in well over a year. I hardly went before.
"I don't need it," she says soothingly. "I'll learn more at home anyway. And you're already smarter than you admit."
I roll my eyes. I can't add and I haven't read anything but a price sheet at the Hob for months. I'm lucky I can sign my name. I've spelled it wrong before.
"Where did Mother go?"
Prim sighs. "The mayor's house. His wife's migraines are getting worse."
I shake my head. His daughter could have been called my friend in school. I'm not certain of her name anymore.
Mother has worked every day she can for the past two years. We used to wait for the visit beseeching her help as a healer; now she takes her basket of potions and elixirs and walks into town. She wanders the Merchant and Seam corridors, asking if anyone knows of work. She comes home tired.
She doesn't sing with us anymore.
"What does one do for headaches?" I quiz Prim as she rinses the bared bird with the cold water tap.
"Dried and crushed belladonna in small doses," she answers immediately.
"Very good," I compliment her. "You don't need Upper School after all."
I hear my father coughing violently in the other room and Prim vanishes in the blink of an eye to tend to him. He got sick when she was thirteen. By her fourteenth birthday she was our District expert on Black Lung.
He had collapsed in front of me in the forest. I had thought he'd been shot by a rival hunter; once the fence had been deactivated more of our townspeople had found the courage to wander into the woods. But there was no blood or wounds; it was just his gasps for air.
I hauled him up to lean heavily on my shoulders and we picked our way home slowly and painstakingly. My mother heard me crying and kicking the door and met us with panic. He fell over the threshold; Prim screamed. He was pale and sweating. The three of us dragged him to our shabby sofa and Prim retrieved a cold compress for his forehead. My mother pressed her hands to his flushed cheeks and listened to his coughing.
"Just a cold, girls," he said to our frightened eyes. "Don't worry so much. I'll be fine."
The next week when he couldn't go out hunting with me after school, I hoped it was only the flu. It was late fall, after all. Lots of people in the Seam got sick that time of year. Why would he be any different?
But he didn't get better in a week like the rest of them. He only got worse. By the time my mother knew what was wrong it was almost too late.
He had been standing up to retrieve a spoon for Prim; she'd been giggling at a terrible joke he'd told her and she'd dropped hers on the floor. When he stretched his legs, his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell to the ground, a faint color of blue on his lips. I froze at the table. My mother jumped over to him while Prim scrambled to cradle his head. Mother sealed her mouth to his and exhaled into his lungs. His chest rose and fell. He coughed and sputtered to life in a daze.
"I'm okay," he gasped. "I'm...just let me lie here."
I watched my mother taste and touch her lips.
"Silica," she whispered. Her eyes found mine.
My mother tried to explain what Black Lung was to me and my little sister. She had treated other coworkers that have the same disease and they had lived for many years after diagnosis.
When I asked how we would cure him she was silent.
I dropped out of school for good that day.
I hunted in the morning and brought a little of the food home. In the afternoons I would take the cleaned and prepared meats and our old possessions to the trading warehouse to try to earn a little extra money for his medicine. My little sister's goat yielded a small amount of cheese that usually earned a few coins for wool to make more blankets.
In the evenings we would sit around the table with whatever I'd caught or stolen that day and my father would suggest that he could learn the accordion to play for parties, or take up knitting and make colorful hats and blankets for newborn babies. It was mostly to make Prim laugh.
We could see he would never be able to work again. Mother was never the same after that night. Besides the work, besides the fear. She grew hardened in front of my eyes; determined to survive this.
I willed my father to find that strength.
Prim returns from the living room, nodding at me. She doesn't say he's all right, because he's not, but nodding tells me he's at least stable enough that I can focus on her teaching me how to salt the bird. We have only salt and pepper; spices are a luxury. She slips her surgeon's fingers between the meat and the flesh and rubs the salt in. I watch her enviously; she has grace in even the smallest things. I rub the calluses on my fingers.
The bird is seasoned and I light the stove. Prim peels two potatoes for the four of us to share while the turkey fills the house with a glorious aroma. I pour water to boil and more into four chipped glasses on the table and we wait with painful anticipation to eat.
Prim is setting the turkey on the table when my mother comes in the door.
"What is this?" she asks as she hangs up her scarf. Her brow is furrowed at the rare full setting.
"A treat for Father's birthday," Prim smiles.
"Don't tell him," I caution. "I want him to see it when he comes to the table."
My mother nods and moves out of sight to check on him on the sofa. I follow her and look away as she asks quietly how he's feeling. The answer is always the same.
He leans on our shoulders as we pull him to his feet and he staggers to the table.
"Oh girls, this is wonderful," he breathes at the turkey and small bowl of sliced potato. "A feast for my birthday."
Prim pulls out the chair for him and we set him down, serving a small portion on to his plate. He doesn't have much of an appetite, but we always try.
Prim serves Mother next, then me, then herself. I always slide a slice from my plate to hers; she's still growing and so much smaller than me. She gives me the same playfully annoyed look, but eagerly eats the meat.
My mother taps her cup with her knife. "I have a surprise as well."
"What is it?" Father asks.
"Mayor Undersee said the medicines factory in Four is finally open," she bursts forth.
"What?" I whisper.
"They are making medicines again. Real medicines that can do more than herbs," she tells my father.
"Real medicines?" Prim gasps. "Father, we can get you real medicines!"
We're cheering and laughing and beaming. My mother smiles. "Gordon expects a shipment within a month."
"Where will we get the money?" Prim wonders aloud before she can stop herself. We don't talk about those things anymore. She drops her eyes to her empty plate.
"What if you sold the leather jacket?" my mother asks me. "Leather will bring in a few coins."
My breath catches. "But," I stammer, "Father gave that to me."
"It was a gift for her birthday," he argues, albeit it weakly.
"It's nearly spring," my mother counters. "I have some warm sweaters you can wear instead of the jacket."
I frown at my water glass. She's right, of course. There's nothing left to sell.
"Katniss, if you want to keep the jacket, you can keep it," Father says gently. "We can find something else."
"No," I say quickly. I smile at him. "It's going to get you medicine. I need you more than that jacket."
He reaches across the table and takes my hand. His other hand stretches out to Prim. "My girls. You make me so very proud."
"Happy birthday," I grin.
As we clear the table, I hear my parents talking softly about the details of the medicines in the living room. I try not to listen to how clinical and business-like it sounds. Since he's been sick the tenuous tenderness between them has all but vanished.
I suppose even a love match has its limit.
The next day is warm, and I'm grateful as I walk to the Hob with the cleaned coat over my arm. It's a good thing I didn't pull the button off.
I walk to the tanner first so he can look over the coat and tell me an honest appraisal. It's worn but in good shape. I give him a handful of strawberries I picked from Prim's garden in thanks.
The clothing trader is a hard bargainer. I nearly walk away before she offers me twenty-five coins. I hand over the coat wistfully. The soft, supple leather glides over my fingers for the last time. It's replaced by a pile of cold coins.
"You're selling your coat?"
Gale surprises me and I jump. He drops a pile of fabrics onto the counter for the clothing trader to sort. I eye them.
"My sister. She's the only girl; we don't need to keep dresses for hand-me-downs," he explains.
"You're selling your coat?" he asks again.
"For medicine. From the factory," I tell him. "They've started making real medicine again."
Gale blinks. "Real medicine?"
I nearly smile in public at his surprise. Even the clothing trader is enthralled. It's been a long time.
"That's wonderful news." He coughs. "How is your dad?"
I swallow hard. "Fine."
He watches me. I fear he knows how to track prey too well; he's learned how to read body language. "Good."
"Yes," I nod. "I have to go, I'll-"
The scream ripping through the air makes my blood run cold. Gale and I only hesitate a moment to stare before we run outside. The woman who screamed had fainted just beyond the door and we had to push her out of the way to get out of the warehouse. We run to the circle of people to survey what's happening.
She's standing on the lip of the disused well. It's been dry for years; it's just a fifty-drop down to the earth below. Her cheeks are pale and dirty; her face pinched and tired. She's nothing like the Bristel I knew.
"Come down here!" I spy her husband yelling frantically from the side of the circle. A bag of goods to trade is spilled; she must have slipped from his side while he was bartering. He's too afraid to approach her.
Gale's voice is soft. It catches her attention. His eyes are wide; disbelieving and still hopeful.
Her vacant eyes find him. He steps forward. A smile ghosts over her mouth. "My sweet," she whispers.
His sorrowful smile grows as he inches closer to her. "My beauty," he murmurs to her, holding out his hand. "Please."
She turns her heart towards him. She smiles at him.
She steps backwards.
I know there is screaming behind and all around me but all I can see is Gale crumpled on the ground; staring at where the girl he loved had been standing. I step over to guard him; to keep anyone from disturbing him.
I watch her husband sigh with disgust, pick up his bag of goods and walk away.
"She was pregnant."
I don't know how to respond to Gale. We've been sitting in the meadow for nearly an hour. This is the first thing he's said since I made him come here when they were going to try to retrieve her body from the well.
"We didn't know if it was mine or not." He looks up a pair of turtledoves cooing to one another in the sky. They land a few yards away from us. "I guess it was his."
"You don't have to say anything," he says gruffly. I suspect to mask the pain. "You don't need to know all this. We're not friends, are we?"
I shake my head. "You may be the closest thing I have to a friend," I confess weakly.
He stares at the blades of grass beneath his boots. "I was going to buy her back."
"There's a clause in the contract. If something was found to be illegal or breached, you can break a contract and be re-auctioned." He glances over at me. "I studied the laws a lot after I lost her. That's why...we kept seeing each other. Infidelity is a clause. I could have brought it to the Justice Building, they would have revoked her contract and I could marry her then. But I just couldn't save the money fast enough." His shoulders start to shake as he weeps.
I watch one of the turtledoves fly to a branch on a tree bordering the meadow. The one on the ground calls for its mate before flying after it.
I say nothing. There is nothing to say.
I let him cry for another half hour before I show him the way back to the Seam through a shortcut in the forest bordering the meadow.
He thanks me not to tell anyone he was still seeing Bristel; he doesn't want her husband to try to take the money back from her family. It paid to put a roof back over their heads. I promise to keep their secret. It's the least I can do for someone who has lost everything he was and would have been.
"Thirty-four," I count out onto our barren table. My mother slides it over and adds it to the jar of coins we've been collecting.
This is the third night this week we've eaten two slices of bread and a glass of water for dinner. My stomach aches for the food we've sold to pay for the medicines. My hair is falling out.
"That makes ninety-three, Mother," Prim says weakly from the chair next to me. "How much more until we can - afford the medicine?"
I wonder if she was going to say 'eat again.'
"Gordon says the anti-inflammatory pills are one hundred sixty a bottle," my mother whispers. My father is sleeping on the sofa again. Without the meat, he's gotten weaker.
"One sixty?" I gasp. It's taken nearly a month of hunting all day to save ninety three coins.
"Can he help us out?" Prim asks gently. "Surely with all you've done for him."
My mother glances are her sharply. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Prim frowns. "Mrs. Undersee's headaches. You've been over there so often."
My mother nods. "Yes, well. He's already paid me handsomely for my help; he gives us this bread every time I visit."
"Do you think he'd give us meat?" I dare to ask. I can always hope.
"I will not test his generosity, young lady." She stands abruptly. "We'll be fine."
I sigh as she hurries away to store the money in a secret place only she knows. "She'll be fine," I mutter. Prim shushes me, but I think she agrees.
Gordon Undersee always invites Mother to stay for tea and biscuits. She gets to eat twice a day. Three if his daughter needs a herbology lesson.
Prim swoons when she stands and I catch her elbow. She smiles and pats my hand with her dry fingers before she crosses to my father to listen to his breathing. I look at his sunken cheeks.
"I'm going out, Prim."
She glances at the clock on the wall. "At this hour? It's nearly ten."
"Just for a walk," I tell her. I don't need to say more. She already knows.
Pulling my father's hunter green sweater over my head and check my black pants for tears, I slip out the side door and eat two strawberries from the garden. I need the sugar.
It's a long walk to the Merchant's Quarter.
It's pitch black by the time I've reached the two miles across the district. Perfect for thieving.
The first stop is the butcher's shop. He forgot to leave his smoker locked last week. He remembered to lock it this night; he must have noticed the three missing sausage links.
I move on.
The poulterer's hen house isn't secure and I pull the loose lock from the rotting wood to steal a half-dozen eggs. I don't even care if he notices; I'm too hungry. I consider stealing a chicken, but two miles is a long time to fight with a bird. I swipe a cardboard container to keep the eggs in and keep moving.
The metalworker's display cart is out front of his shop; he wheels it to the Merchants' marketplace in the afternoons after he crafts his artworks in the morning. I wriggle my bony hand between the locked wooden cover and into the cart. I feel around for something; anything. I retrieve a cheap hammered silver bracelet and let it slide over my wrist. I wonder if I should steal more, but he might notice more than one bracelet. I can't risk his figuring me out.
The bakery is the last shop on this street and the last I have the strength for this night. It lies only fifty yards from the woods on this end of town, so the darkness covers me entirely as I creep along the side of the house. I know the family lives above the shop. I used to go to school with the younger brother before he dropped out when he was twelve. I heard it had to do with an accident and his mother, but since I'd never seen him again I didn't ask.
I can't remember his name either.
Their windows are locked tight, but their trash cans aren't chained. Sometimes I think they don't lock them out of pity. I pick up three burned crusts, a stale and slightly moldy loaf of seeded bread, and a failed pie crust. Wrapping them in paper from another bin, I look up to the house.
I jump. I swear I saw eyes watching me.
I peer harder. There's nothing in the window set into the back door now.
Shaking from the scare, I tuck my finds under my arm and head back home.
I stop on the way and steal a chicken.
The bottle arrives at the Mayor's home this morning. We'd been waiting for two weeks after he placed the order. It was like waiting for an honored guest who would come and fix everything.
The day after my pillaging trip, we ate half the chicken and Prim baked the other half into a pie after refashioning the crust. I'd traded it to Gale's family for clothes for my father; he'd grown so thin he needed Vick's old clothes.
I'd sold the bracelet and eggs in the Hob. I nearly raced home with the coins and tried to push my mother out the door to take the money to the Mayor to send for the pills. She'd insisted we behave and waited until she was summoned the next morning to attend to his wife.
Now that the medicine has arrived, Prim and I can't do anything productive all day. I haven't felt this happy in a long time. When Mother walks in, we squeal like children and help Father to the table. We sit and wait anxiously as Mother opens the package.
"This is all?" Prim whispers. My own heart is crushed.
The bottle contains only fourteen little white pills. The instructions say to take a two a day.
Two months of starving. For a week of medicine.
"That's it," my father pounds his fist on the table as hard as he is able. "Take this back to the Mayor. We'll return it and get the money back."
"What?" My mother blinks. "Gordon did us a favor pushing to get this medicine before any other District! We can't just send it back like we're ungrateful."
"I've worked nonstop to make enough money to buy this!" she cries out. "I'm so tired! How can you say no?"
"Because this is crazy! Katniss and Primrose are suffering for this? Something that won't even cure me? I'm not going to let the girls starve for-" but he has to stop now because he's coughing too hard.
I stand and walk to the kitchen. I come back with a glass of water and hand it to him. He tries to thank me as he sips the water. I pick up the bottle and let a tiny little white pill fall into my hand.
He carefully sets down the water with his shaking hands. "No."
"Father, take it. Please."
It hurts him to need us to care for him. He loves to take care of us. But in this moment, for the first time, I think he sees what we see. This is our life from now on.
I think Mother sees that now too. He will never be well. She sits in silence.
He takes the pill with a defeat I've never seen before.
"Father?" Prim whispers.
He doesn't respond.
"Father." Prim never demands anything, but this tone is clear.
He looks up to her.
"We love you. We want to do this for you."
He nods. I hope he believes us.
I can always hope.
The next morning is surprisingly cold for spring. I pull on two sweaters as I roll out of the bed I share with Prim. She's a little furnace under the blanket, so it's doubly cold to leave her side.
I hop down the stairs and am not surprised that no one else is awake. Since I became the sole hunter, my internal alarm clock is set for the crack of dawn. I find a bit of bread and a tiny ball of cheese waiting for me on the counter. Prim must have known I would start back up hunting right away.
There is so much more medicine to buy.
It's a long day out in the woods; ten hours of hunting for a sufficient pull. The more hunters there are, the less there is to go around. I'm still the best; I know this to be true. But inexperienced hunters frighten away the animals and I must travel further and further into the woods to find quality game.
I stumble exhausted to the Hob at dusk.
Sae's husband whistles. "Six pounds of birds. You have a gift, my dear."
I sigh and find the energy to nod.
"I can buy four pounds," he says.
I blink. "What?"
"Four? Four pounds. About seven of them."
"Why not all?"
"It's a bit late," he apologizes. "I've bought a lot today. I just don't have any more money."
I stare. I look over his shoulder to wear Sae is slaughtering a heap of birds piled to her elbow.
"How much?" I dare ask.
I catch myself before I stumble. "Okay," I choke. I push the remaining three pheasants back into my bag.
The coins are light in my hand and I work my way around the vendors, vying to see who will take food instead of money. I've never begged before. I don't know how to. Yet.
The wool-maker turns up her nose at the pheasant. The apothecary agrees to take one, but only for the ginger root. I can't get fish oil without money. I eye the liquor distiller and slip over to her stall.
"Wondered when you'd get the taste for it," she nods. She knows my face.
"What do you charge?"
"What you got?"
"Pheasant. Good meat."
She sucks on her rotted teeth. "Show me."
I pull the larger bird from the bag and she turns it over. I look at her yellowing skin. "I know you're hungry," I tell her.
She eyes me. I know her too. "A bottle. The big one."
I hand her the bird and take the heavy bottle with a nod. I don't ask twice. I march straight outside to the town drunk. He leans heavily against the well. My stomach turns over.
"How much do you pay Ripper for your bottles?" I hold the bottle behind my back.
"What's it to you?" the man called Abernathy spits.
"I'll do fifteen."
"Thirteen and you don't tell her." I square my jaw.
I trade him the bottle for his thirteen coins and he's popped the cork before I even walk away. I shake my head. I don't have time for distractions. It's getting dark and Prim is going to be very hungry. This is the smallest bird, but it will have to do for tonight.
I walk in the door as the light goes from the sky.
"Sorry I'm so late, I had to barter," I begin as I walk in the door, but I stop short.
They're all sitting at the table. My father's lips are pale blue again. His face is drawn. My mother's mouth is a fine line; Prim has been crying.
Mother clears her throat. "Katniss."
I turn my head very, very slowly to her. Something is wrong.
She looks at her hands, clasped tight on the table. "You'll be eighteen next week."
A cold sweat breaks out on my forehead. I can't nod.
"We're going to announce you on the Board."
I will never have hope again.
Chapter Two: Peeta's POV will be up as soon as I possibly can post it...