First Place Winner - Silent Smiles by Ashley McDonnell

Silent Smiles by Ashley McDonnell

A Hunger Games fanfic

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The Peacekeeper stalked through the snow, camouflaged in their bright white uniform. A speck of blood would stand out more than them if it weren’t for Prim, walking by their side, bundled in a dark blue jacket trying to stay calm and warm. Fear paralyzed Peeta for a few seconds as he watched the two approach his house in Victor’s Village. He let out a breath and looked at the painting he’d been working on.

 

In it, Katniss’s sleeping face—which normally he found solace in for its serenity—was marred by the welt she’d received from a whip after stepping in to protect Gale from further lashings. She slept in a chair, her head cradled in her arms on the table where Gale fought to recover from the whipping. Capturing the hue of Gale’s ruined olive skin covered in blood soaked up by a once-white cloth in a dark room proved challenging for Peeta. But he’d have to postpone that challenge, because now he had a new one—protect Prim and himself from the Peacekeeper at all costs, or be haunted by new nightmares.

 

After Peeta put his painting supplies down with care, three hard knocks came at his door. While descending the stairs to the ground floor, he quickly composed his face with an airy smile, like he’d been dreaming happier thoughts about Katniss than he actually had been. When he reached the door, he didn’t hesitate to open it.

 

“Hey, Prim,” Peeta said, stepping forward to hug her. Even though they’d never hugged before, Prim wrapped her arms around his torso and pressed her face to his chest with more urgency than he’d expected. The fear lingered between them as they broke apart. “You have your own Peacekeeper now? You must be even more special than Katniss,” Peeta joked.

 

The Peacekeeper—a middle-aged woman with short-cropped brown hair that Peeta didn’t recognize—turned to him. “Speaking of Miss Everdeen,” she said, in a voice as cold but not nearly as fragile as the snow, “she wouldn’t happen to be with you, would she?” Her smirk let Peeta know she already knew the answer.

 

“I thought maybe she’d come to see you, like she does sometimes, so you can spend time alone,” Prim added hurriedly. The absurdity of her statement almost made him laugh. Katniss had stood on his doorstep a few times before, like they were all doing now, but had never set foot inside his house in search of private intimacy. The Capitol had become quite good at killing his laughter and leaving the tattered memories there to torture him, though. Surely his house was bugged, and the Capitol knew Katniss had never come over, yet he tried his best to play along with Prim’s game.

 

“I’m sorry, but she’s not here right now, and I’m not sure where she is,” Peeta said, hoping he wouldn’t be forced to say much more on the matter. The more details he gave—like that he hadn’t seen her today, or that he had been expecting her now, or anything else—would make the lie harder to coordinate with Prim and her mom.

 

“Why don’t you come over while we wait for Miss Everdeen to return for dinner?” the Peacekeeper asked.

 

Peeta forced himself to smile wider. “Of course. I always love more excuses to see Katniss. But why are you waiting around for her? She’s not in some sort of trouble, is she?” He felt powerless without information, helpless with no way to get it, and despair at the possibility of getting Prim into trouble with his questions.

 

“We have a message for her from Head Peacekeeper Thread,” the Peacekeeper said.

 

“Why not leave the message with Prim? It must be boring for you to sit around in their house,” Peeta said.

 

“Head Peacekeeper Thread would like us to personally deliver the message.”

 

Peeta nodded like this made perfect sense. “Let me get my coat.”

 

Once he returned, the Peacekeeper said, “We’re going to Mr. Abernathy’s house as well to see if Miss Everdeen is there.” She turned on her heels and started crunching her way through the packed snow. Peeta and Prim exchanged glances that said more than their veiled words could. They would both be wary. They would work together. They would free Katniss from this trap. Somehow, it didn’t appear to be as easy as taking a beating from his mother to toss her a loaf of bread, or losing a leg to protect her from Cato’s sword. He didn’t know what he was up against. He only knew that Katniss’s dark humor was rubbing off on him.

 

Prim jogged a bit to keep up with the Peacekeeper, with Peeta bringing up the rear. Prim was just as slim as Katniss, and even shorter, but aside from that, Peeta saw no hints that they were sisters. With her blond hair trailing behind her in pigtails, her blue eyes, and her pale complexion, Prim looked more like she could be his sister. And in a few months, once he’d married Katniss, she would be his sister, by law, anyway. It made him feel even worse about the marriage being nothing more than a political power play than he already did.

 

The one time he’d had any meaningful conversation with Prim happened only two weeks ago, when they’d been tending to Gale after the whipping. Growing up, they’d exchanged nothing but small-talk every once in a while. Much like he’d done with Katniss, he admired Prim’s kindness when surrounded by such despair from afar. His father was particularly fond of her, but he’d always been a quiet man, so he mostly showed his admiration by making favorable trades with Katniss for squirrels.  Now he gave them more cookies or cheese buns than they’d paid for when they came to make more legal purchases.

 

There was no time even for small-talk on the short walk to Haymitch’s house. Peeta got in the quip “Haymitch is coming too? So much for a romantic evening with Katniss,” and then they were at his front door. The Peacekeeper knocked three times, just like she’d done at Peeta’s house. They all waited in silence on Haymitch’s doorstep.

 

When he opened the door, his gray eyes lit up and he laughed. “Well, this looks like an interesting party we’re gathering here,” he said. “Thank you for coming to invite me.”

 

“We’re looking for Katniss Everdeen,” the Peacekeeper said, ignoring Haymitch’s strangely jovial outburst.

 

“You’re going to have to keep looking, then,” Haymitch said.

 

“While we wait for Miss Everdeen to return, you’re invited to come to her house for dinner,” the Peacekeeper said.

 

“As long as you’re not cooking,” Haymitch replied with a shrug, retrieving his jacket from a hook right beside the door. He locked his house and started leading the way back to the Everdeen’s. Despite his inappropriate jokes, Peeta was glad Haymitch would be around while they all waited for Katniss to come home. As District 12’s once-lone Victor, now a famous figure for public drunkenness and spectacle each year when the Hunger Games rolled around, Haymitch got away with saying pretty much anything he wanted. If he had held up a bunch of berries and threatened to commit suicide, people probably would have just laughed and let him die. Nothing he said was seen as a serious threat.

 

“Are you with the new shipment of Peacekeepers?” Haymitch asked.

 

“I was brought in by Head Peacekeeper Thread. You should address me as Peacekeeper Septima,” the Peacekeeper replied.

 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Peacekeeper Septima,” Peeta said, which may have been the biggest lie he’d told so far.

 

The conversation died after that, and Peeta was almost glad to find a second Peacekeeper, Titus, waiting at the Everdeen’s. Introductions sustained the conversation a little longer before the Peacekeepers’s presence stifled it again. At least they could entertain each other while Peeta thought of some way to put on a show of Prim and him being close friends.

 

Haymitch wandered over to Mrs. Everdeen, to help put her at ease with some tasteless jokes. The Peacekeepers sat at the long kitchen table. The last time Peeta’d been here, Gale had still been recovering on that table, laying on his stomach as his back throbbed in pain. Two weeks ago Peeta and Haymitch had to drag Katniss away from that table, away from her mother, at whom Katniss hurled curses that weren’t nearly as accurate as her arrows. This catastrophe convinced her they had to stay in District 12, had to do something to fight the Capitol rather than run from it. Peeta looked away from the table and instead focused his gaze out the window, on the setting sun. Had she run away, or had she instead run straight into trouble?

 

“Katniss’s wedding dresses came today,” Prim said to him. She started walking towards the rockers next to the fireplace and he followed.

 

“It’s a shame that Cinna made all these dresses, and only one will ever really get worn,” Peeta said.

 

“That’s true,” Prim said, sitting down in one of the rockers. Buttercup, the Everdeen’s mangy orange cat, came scampering over to lay in Prim’s lap. She stroked his matted fur with a smile on her face.

 

“He should make another six dresses, one for every District. We should hold a separate, live ceremony in each one,” Peeta said. He thought that was a pretty good idea, by Capitol standards, actually. Effie would love it.

 

“He’d need to make thirteen dresses. One more, for the Capitol ceremony.”

 

“That’s right! We can’t forget about the Capitol.” His eyes shifted to the Peacekeepers for a second.

 

“You could start with the Capitol ceremony and end in Twelve. It would be perfect!” Prim said.

 

“It really would,” Peeta said, trying not to think of marrying Katniss thirteen times when she didn’t even want to marry him once. “What about your dress, Prim?”

 

“I don’t think Cinna’s had time to worry about that yet. And I’m a little nervous about getting all dressed up like that …” Even though her current clothes were simple—an off-white sweater and cozy black pants—they were such a step up from the threadbare or patched or baggy clothes the Everdeens wore before Katniss won the Games. He, too, had more clothing now, more clothes that didn’t have stains from cooking all day or painting. But none of their clothes competed with the finery of the ones he and Katniss wore in the Capitol. Just one of Cinna’s dresses currently packed in a box in the corner probably cost more than all of their clothes combined.

 

“Don’t worry. You’re very pretty, Prim. You’ll look amazing in your dress. Cinna will make sure of it.”

 

“He’s not going to set me on fire, is he?”

 

“He usually only sets fake fires, but you never know.”

 

“I thought you both looked beautiful during the Tribute Parade,” Prim said as she looked down at Buttercup.

 

Peeta smiled. “Thank you. Honestly, making us beautiful was the least Cinna could do after making us fear he’d roast us alive before the Games even began.”

 

“What’s the Capitol really like? I’m nervous about leaving District 12,” Prim said.

 

Peeta’s eyes flicked toward the Peacekeepers again, as they remained silent, sipping tea or some other hot drink Mrs. Everdeen had given them, clearly eavesdropping on their conversation. Nervous about leaving District 12? Everyone should be grateful to leave the clutches of the cold winters and coal mines for the finery of the Capitol. The only reason he and Katniss left with any consternation involved what they believed to be their fated death sentence.

 

The Capitol had wanted to kill Prim at one point, or at least, to make it very hard for her to survive. She’d only been twelve at the time. The rage District 12 felt after Effie called Prim’s name at the Reaping could only be expressed through dead silence, and that assured that everyone would hear Katniss’s rebellion when she declared she volunteered. Watching Katniss walk up on stage, insisting that Prim let her go—it was all so cruel and by the Capitol’s design.

 

What if he and Prim had fought in the Hunger Games together instead of him and Katniss? His hand moved to his artificial leg. They’d probably both be dead right now, but he’d still have fought Cato and whoever else to keep her safe. He would’ve given his life for her.

 

Luckily, he and Prim survived and were simply talking about dresses for a wedding that wouldn’t have happened without the Hunger Games. He would never be grateful to the Capitol, but he could keep it together for this conversation.

 

“Everyone dresses a little funny, but the food is delicious and they’re all really nice,” Peeta said, looking Prim in the eye. “Plus, the Capitol loves you already.”

 

“They don’t even know me,” Prim said.

 

“It’s okay, they have Katniss vision,” Peeta said. “And when they do finally get to know you, they will still love you.”

 

Again Prim turned away, focused on scratching Buttercup behind his mangled ear. “We should make dinner.”

 

The sun had set sometime during their talk. The mention of dinner brought a new sense of dread over Peeta, but he agreed to help Prim. They set to work making a stew—cutting up carrots and potatoes and small chunks of meat—and then Peeta showed her how to make a slightly sweet but still hearty loaf of bread. Throughout, they hardly talked, and when they did, it was of small things, like how Lady, Prim’s goat, was handling the harsh winter.

 

By the time they’d prepped everything, Katniss still hadn’t returned. While the bread baked and the stew warmed on one of the lowest settings on the stove, Peeta and Haymitch decided to play chess, with Prim watching. She didn’t know how to play so they briefly explained the rules to her beforehand, and then reiterated them every time they made a move. Haymitch provided snarky commentary every time he took one of Peeta’s pieces. His humor wasn’t enough to entertain Prim for more than a half hour before she wandered off to see if the Peacekeepers or her mother needed anything.

 

Another fifteen minutes passed. The Peacekeepers now stood in the threshold to the kitchen, arms crossed, staring at the stove. “Prim, can you take the bread out of the oven for me? I’d do it, but Haymitch will cheat if I get up,” Peeta said.

 

“I’ll have you know I’m a very honorable man. That’s how I won the Hunger Games. With honor,” Haymitch replied.

 

“I’ll get it, Peeta,” Prim assured.

 

“Alright, next time both of you distrust me, remember that I helped keep that Katniss girl you both love so much alive,” Haymitch said, in a light tone that proved he wasn’t taking this at all seriously enough.

 

“I know, Haymitch, and I’m so grateful to you,” Peeta began. “But I also really want to beat you at this chess game.”

 

The older man laughed. “You determined your fate about four turns ago, boy.”

 

“We’ll see.” And so they kept playing, pretending they didn’t notice time passing without the appearance of Katniss. How late would it have to get before the Peacekeepers smiled at Mrs. Everdeen to report that their comrades had killed her daughter hours ago? Peeta leaned his head against his hand, covering his mouth. Any move he made on the chess board led straight into trouble and an eventual loss. He moved his knight anyway.

 

Only a few turns before Haymitch could take Peeta’s King, Katniss came home. He and Haymitch continued to stare at the chess board like her arrival didn’t matter as much as their rivalry. They heard her greet the Peacekeepers with a curt “Hello,” and her mother claimed she was just in time for dinner, even though the bread has been ready for a while, and even on a low heat setting, the stew had cooked plenty.

 

The Peacekeepers asked where she’d been, and she dodged the question with “easier to ask where I haven’t been” as she headed into the kitchen, passing between the two guards. Then they all started to enact some sort of comedy sketch, one of those low-brow ones Peeta’d seen on TV from time to time that he supposed were popular in the Capitol, where only laughs came cheap. He played the teasing but kind and caring boyfriend as Katniss insisted Prim gave her the wrong location for the Goat Man.

 

While Titus seemed quite amused by their incompetence, Septima frowned and asked Katniss what was in her bag. Clearly she hoped to trap Katniss with a bag full of dead game. Peeta got up after Katniss dumped the contents of the bag on the table, ready to jump to her defense if a squirrel came rolling out.

 

Instead, she’d gotten a bunch of fresh bandages and a bag of candy. Peeta came over and opened the candy bag, again hoping he didn’t find a dead squirrel inside. “Ooh, peppermints,” he said, taking one for himself. Katniss tried to get them back but he tossed them over to Haymitch, who stuffed a handful in his mouth. Probably only part of his punishment for Katniss making him wait around for her all day.

 

Peeta tried to calm Katniss down before their comedy act started to wear thin. He wrapped his arms around her gently, yet she yelped like she was a dog he’d just kicked. To cover it up she turned the sound into something of a snarl, a sound of anger rather than pain. All the more reason to placate her. He admitted Prim gave her the wrong directions, and they’d been idiotic for trying to fool her into thinking otherwise. Begrudgingly she accepted this apology and his kiss before asking the Peacekeepers what exactly were they doing in her house, again?

 

They relayed the message they’d been withholding from Prim and their mother all day—that the fence bordering the woods of District 12 would now be electrified at all times. So that was it. They’d been hoping Katniss would get stuck on the other side of the fence, thus proving she was a punishable lawbreaker. They could do more than give her one good lash to the face with that kind of evidence. Peeta continued to hold her gently, being careful not to touch the small of her back.

 

Katniss thanked the Peacekeepers for contacting her about this patch in security, and nearly collapsed on the kitchen table as soon as they left. With care Peeta led her to one of the rockers by the fire and lowered her into it while she explained that she’d slipped and fell on some ice. He didn’t believe her for a second—the girl who had berated him constantly in the Games for snapping every stick, who walked through leaves so swiftly and soundlessly, would have to be taken by complete surprise to fall hard enough for these injuries—but they all let it slide. He and Haymitch stayed for dinner, suspicious when Katniss asked for a third bowl of stew. “Save some for the rest of us,” Haymitch said halfway through his second bowl. Katniss didn’t respond.

 

The only person she talked to after dinner was Prim, who sat on the floor next to her older sister, resting her head in Katniss’s lap. Prim popped a peppermint in her mouth and handed another to Katniss. They sat in silence for a bit, Katniss stroking Prim’s silky blond hair. Then they started talking about school and wedding dresses. Peeta watched them from the kitchen table, feeling like a child as he listened to Mrs. Everdeen and Haymitch talk about all the mangled bodies seeking her healing hands with this new regiment of Peacekeepers. District 12 didn’t need Muttations or fancy technology to be riddled with deadly traps. Compared to the people who came with whip marks or burns from the mine or frostbite and any number of other horrors lurking in District 12, Katniss had minor wounds.

 

While Peeta and Prim cleaned up the dishes, Mrs. Everdeen checked Katniss over again, bandaged her up, and gave her a cup of tea with sleep syrup. Navigating the stairs would have been hard with her banged-up heels, but became impossible when the sleep syrup started to take effect while she still sat in the rocker. Knowing sleeping while sitting up wouldn’t be good for her tailbone, Peeta volunteered to put Katniss to bed. Initially she simply leaned on his shoulder. Halfway up the stairs, though, he decided this would go much faster if he just carried her. So he picked her up, making sure her feet didn’t hit the wall. He remembered the time in the Hunger Games she’d dragged him into the cave, their hiding place, when he couldn’t walk. The strength contained within this small girl endeared a whole nation to her, made him keep loving her even if she didn’t feel the same about him.

 

He tucked her in and wished her good night, but as he turned to go, she grabbed his hand and asked him not to until she fell asleep. How could he say no? He sat down on the edge of her bed and took her hand in both of his, expressing how he’d thought she’d run away today in the vaguest of terms. A few seconds passed before she understood and assured him she’d never leave him just like that. As if to prove it, she brought his hand to her cheek and smiled as she said “Stay with me.”

 

“Always,” he whispered, feeling the faint pulse in her fingers fire up his own.

 

Had she asked him more directly, he would have crawled into bed with her, like he used to on the train, to make sure that when she woke to the screech of her own screams, she’d be greeted by his soothing whispers about everything being okay. But she was drugged, and hinted that she’d prefer Gale’s company, so he just continued to hold her limp hand while watching her sleep.

 

Soon after dozing off, Katniss appeared at ease, her hair in a blissful, disheveled state from the snow and her brows no longer creased with worry. The lash mark on her face still stuck out prominently to Peeta, but it was no longer so angry or ominous. The new skin came in a lighter, more tender tone than the rest of her tanned face. This blemish did nothing to diminish her beauty, and Peeta could only that this was the Katniss who haunted his dreams tonight.

 

“Peeta,”  Mrs. Everdeen whispered from the doorway. She said it with some mix of pity and a light admonishment. Pity for his pathetic puppy love after watching her daughter come home happy after secretive jaunts with Gale out in the woods. Admonishment for taking advantage of her daughter’s affection while in a drug-induced sleep.

 

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “She asked me to stay until she fell asleep.”

 

Mrs. Everdeen just stood in the doorway nodding, unsure what else to do. The obvious response would be “she’s asleep, so you can go now,” but instead she said, “The syrup should help her stay asleep tonight. I don’t give it to her on other nights because I … I don’t want that to be the only way she can sleep.” She glanced at him again. “You can stay as long as you want. And if you ever need anything …”

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Everdeen,” he said softly.

 

It only hit him then how awkward his romantic advances on her daughter must have seemed during the Games, especially since he told the whole nation that his father had been in love with Mrs. Everdeen. What did she think when she looked at Peeta? Did she see his father in his youth, too shy to act on his crush? Did she think he was pathetic? Did she like him well enough? Mrs. Everdeen had always been perfectly cordial to him, but she’d never treated him like he could possibly be her son, and he didn’t think it was all part of her “Katniss is too young to marry” act.

 

Another shadow stretched across the room from the doorway. Peeta expected Mrs. Everdeen to reprimand him this time, but instead Prim walked into the room and sat down beside him.

 

“Do you have nightmares, too?” she whispered, even though Katniss couldn’t be pulled out of her sleep by their normal speaking voices.

 

“Yes,” Peeta admitted. “I don’t wake up screaming like Katniss, though. I wake up silently, overcome with fear, or sadness, or anger.”

 

“I try to comfort Katniss,” Prim says, staring at her sister’s peaceful, limp body. “I don’t think I help that much, though.”

 

“No,” Peeta said, shaking his head. “It’s just hard to calm Katniss down afterwards. But I’m sure seeing you when she wakes up reassures her.”

 

“How do you know?” Prim asked. It wasn’t accusatory, like he could never know what Katniss wanted more than Prim did. She said it sadly, like she needed to be reassured she did something—anything—useful for her sister.

 

“Katniss entered the Hunger Games to keep you safe, Prim,” he said, also leaving out any accusations. “And she did keep you safe. Seeing you after a nightmare would remind her of that.”

 

She nodded a bit to this and remained silent. Had he made it sound like everything that haunted Katniss was Prim’s fault? It hadn’t been what he meant, but he couldn’t think of how to say it without making it sound like it really had all been her fault.

 

After a moment of silence, Prim said, “But you live alone. So what do you do when you have nightmares?”

 

Peeta shook his head. “I just try to convince myself it’s not real. I look out the window and see your house across the way and I remind myself that Katniss is there.”

 

Again Prim nodded, and before the conversation could get into any more of a terrible territory, he said, “And I really should be going home.”

 

They walked down the stairs together. The cat meowed at their presence. “Goodbye, Buttercup,” Peeta said, giving the cat a quick scratch. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Slipping on his shoes with his prosthetic leg still made him feel self-conscious. It was always obvious he was missing a limb—one of his pants legs looked much less filled out than the other—but when putting on shoes, he actually had to look at the leg, had to reveal it to others. Prim didn’t say anything, but he knew she was watching.

 

He opened the door and stepped outside before turning around to tell Prim goodbye. But before he could say his handful of words, she whispered, “She wants to protect you, too. To keep you safe. Because she loves you.”

 

First Peeta frowned at this, trying to decide whether he should laugh or cry. He did neither; he settled for a smile and a gentle joke. “Yes, but we all know who she loves the most.” Not Gale. Not him. Not her mother. Prim. It had always been Prim.

 

          In the pale blue light from the reflection of the moon off the snow, Peeta watched Prim’s face flush a dull red. He assured her he’d visit tomorrow and trekked back to his house. Knowing what nightmares awaited him in his bed, he went back to his painting from earlier. He stared at it a bit before getting a new canvas and starting a happier painting, one where Katniss held his hand to her face, smiling and covering the scar on her cheek.