Reporters greeted Katniss Everdeen at the station when the train brought her home from the Capitol. The whole of District 12 was packed on and around the platform, the perimeter peppered with peacekeepers. Quickly she scanned the faces till she located her mother and younger sister, Prim. Breath hitching, her heart seemed to swell and contract all at once.
Stepping off the train she surged forward through the parting crowd and flung her arms around her family. Her friends. Katniss prickled as she felt the cameras filming intrusively; recording every emotional reaction she shared with her loved ones. Disappointed, she did not feel the calm she had expected with her return.
Trailing behind was the District mentor, Haymitch Abernathy. Embracing him, Mrs. Everdeen whispered her gratitude. Haymitch had brought Katniss home to her. Pulling his head back, he met her eyes. A flash of deep sorrow swept across his face and shook his head, denying her grace. He could never make up for every other year he'd failed to bring a child home. The long look they shared ended as Mrs. Everdeen conceded with the tilt of her head. Reaching for his flask as he pulled away, his expression was once again unreadable.
Gripping Katniss's arm, Prim beamed as the crowd began to disperse. She blithely chatted to Seam and Merchant well-wishers alike, with an natural ease that Katniss did not possess. A few schoolmates that Katniss had never spoken to clapped her on the shoulder in congratulations. Darius, the young redheaded peacekeeper grinned a hello. Madge, the mayor's daughter and Katniss's only school friend, came to offer a visit in the near future.
Leaving the station brought no respite. The Capitol people stalked the Everdeen family as they walked through the town with Haymitch. They swarmed around her as they approached Victor's Village, asking all types of ridiculous questions that only caused her confusion. Her head swam and exhaustion threatened to overwhelm her.
Like exotically colored birds that she had once seen in a book of animals, they squawked about with their dyed skin, bright wigs, and strange clothes. Surely all was the height of fashion in the Capitol. Yet, even in Victor's Village, completely Capitol built, they seemed grotesque and foreign.
Walking along the cobbled lane edged with neatly trimmed hedges, Mrs. Everdeen soon paused in front of a white clapboard house with black trim. The new house was huge, not just compared to the small one-bedroom Seam cottage she'd grown up in, but larger than even the wealthiest merchant. Outside of Victor's Village only the Mayor's mansion could equal in grandeur.
Haymitch hurried on toward his own house, back already to the group, arm raised in farewell. Tugging Katniss forward, Prim skipped across the front lawn and slipped into the house. The day had turned very hot, and the coolness of the house was startling in contrast. Her skin prickled with goose flesh when she stepped over the threshold.
The front entrance of the house was its own room, two stories high with a sweeping staircase with a bright white carved banister that curved to the right and disappeared up into the second floor. The floor was some type of white stone, veined with pale grey. The walls were covered with a pale silver wallpaper with darker silver birds possessing long cruel beaks, all in various forms of flight. An enormous shiny chrome chandelier was dripping with clear crystals. When the sun was just at the right angle they refracted rainbows on the ceiling and walls. The room had a cold, uninviting feel that had nothing to do with the temperature.
Shutting the door behind her, Katniss paused. Taking in the luxury of the foyer it struck her that her life was changing, not just her home. She was already mourning for that old life, when things were difficult, yet so simple. With a tightening in her chest and a fear she didn't understand, she wondered what would be left.
It was the first Sunday since the festivities celebrating the Hunger Games victory had ended. Parcel Day had come and gone, and the cameras and menagerie of Capitol reporters had finally left on the train just two days before. She'd been home nearly three weeks, yet was still waiting for relief.
Waking two hours before dawn, anxiety and anticipation robbed Katniss of a few hours of precious sleep. After her father had died she'd had the odd nightmare, but since returning home they came every night.
Katniss dreamt of the horrors she'd experienced in the arena, wolf mutts, designed to resemble fallen tributes. Accusing eyes glared, teeth ripping meat and bone. She dreamt of little Rue, trapped, screaming for her. Fire consumed Katniss, blistering and blackening her skin with white-hot flames, while her feet remained rooted to the earth, paralyzed, unable to flee. She dreamt of brutal, horrible Cato, slowly dying as the wolves tore at his flesh. Screaming. Always dying, but never dead. She dreamt of snake eyes, glittering in the dark.
Worst and most often, she dreamt of her district partner dying. Dying by the stream, in the cave, by the lake, on the hovercraft. Dying, engulfed by fevered infection, bleeding from open wound, or snapped neck. Then dead. Always dead, with eyes that stared but did not see.
She would wake screaming, soaked with sweat, sheets tangled around her limbs. Panic remained until Katniss was alert enough to sort out where she was and what was real. There was no comfort in waking alone and sleep often became elusive. The deprivation was beginning to wear on her young body, not yet completely restored from the arena.
Rolling out of bed she padded softly to her bathroom. It was probably her favorite room in the whole house, second to the full stocked pantry. The bathroom was quite bright during the day, full of natural sunlight that bounced off the clean white tiles that covered the floor and walls.
Next to the white porcelain pedestal sink was an oversized bathtub. Across the room, taking up an entire wall, was an enormous glass enclosed shower. By District 12 standards it was beyond luxurious, with two showerheads, hanging from the ceiling, one on each side of the stall, as well as several small body sprayers that were scattered along three of the tiled walls. There was a tiled bench that ran the length of the back wall. Katniss hadn't bothered with the bath, as the lure of the shower was so seductive.
After washing her face, brushing her teeth, she braided her hair. Passing through her bedroom to her closet, she debated what to wear. Normally, before the Games, she wore her father's old shirts, but having a slight build, had to trade for smaller trousers, usually not too worn. Her dilemma now was that her Capitol stylist, Cinna, had sent her home with every type of clothes anyone could ever need or want, including beautifully designed outdoor gear.
The cloth was a dark muted green that seemed nearly brown in a certain light. The fabric had a slight stretch and felt very light and soft. There was even a pair of matching boots, still in their box. Cinna had told her that the garments were specially made with a fabric that would help keep her cool in hot weather. There was a separate set for winter. The slim fitting pants and top would be perfect for running and climbing trees, and the color would blend well the forest. Clothes like these were an extravagance that no one else had in the entire district, not even Madge.
It was still mid-August, very hot, and very humid. She rubbed the fabric of sleeveless top between her forefinger and thumb, brows furrowed. The company she planned to keep today would surely scoff at these fine things, maybe even at her. Deciding that she didn't want to appear like a Capitol plaything, she set aside the gear for another time. Rooting around in the back of her closet she found one of her father's shirts and an old pair of trousers. Conceding it wouldn't matter if her undergarments were Capitol-made she found a modest set in a dark navy and began to dress.
Katniss silently left her bedroom. Both Prim and her mother had insisted she take the largest. Compared to the downstairs level of the house it was plainly decorated, with it's white wood furniture, white walls, and white bedding. One of the first things Mrs. Everdeen had done, before unpacking any of her own things, was to spread a quilt across the bed. The one that had been on the bed Katniss and Prim had shared for years.
Crossing the hall she crept down the stairs to the sitting room. Loathed to disturb her mother or Prim she quietly shut the kitchen door. The whole room seemed larger than all of their old home. Across from the sitting room door was a wall with six windows, all looking out over the rear yard. Toward the far right, near the windows, was a huge brick fireplace, possibly large enough to roast a pig. In front of the fireplace were two rocking chairs. Beside the fireplace was door to the mudroom. Opposite the fireplace was the door to the large pantry, and to the left of that cabinets and countertops flank the length of the wall with the stainless steel stove and icebox.
Before the windows ran a long wooden plank table with equally long benches, one each side. There were thick cream-colored quilted cushions, held taut to the bench top with ties the wrapped around the legs. The flaxen rug under the table seemed to be woven out of some kind of grass, and the floor itself was covered in large dark orange earthen tiles that had been laid out in a herringbone pattern. The walls had been painted a pale green, like grass, just before it turned gold in the summer heat.
Near the large stainless steel stove hung gleaming copper pots, suspended from the ceiling over a large wooden worktable that seemed too tall to sit at comfortably. Under, a shelf ran the length, and on it rested large grey willow baskets. One filled with purple paper skinned onions, another with large golden pocked potatoes, and a third with beautiful red and pink skinned apples.
When Katniss first saw the fully stocked pantry with its rows of large glass jars holding varieties of grains, legumes, beans, dried fruit, and sugar, she had nearly cried. There were also rows and rows of jars that held all types of canned fruits and vegetables, too many to identify. There were tins of meat and fish. She had never provided so well for her family. She took some satisfaction from the knowledge that Prim would never suffer with hunger through another hard winter.
Katniss gathered a few delicacies to share for breakfast, cheese, apples, fresh bakery bread, and cold meat, stowing them in her bag. Simple delights they now had in abundance due to her Victor's earnings.
In the mudroom, near the back door, sat her old worn boots. The greeted her feet like old friends, and she smiled while pulling the laces taut. Leaving her father's on it's hook after deciding the weather would be too hot she ran a hand along the nub of the rough leather, and inhaled it's familiar musky scent.
Throwing her game bag over her shoulder she bounced out the door and out of Victor's Village.
Practically flying to her favored opening in the fence surrounding the entire district, Katniss paused to listen for the hum of electricity. The buzzing was absent.
Hearing nothing but the sigh caused by a soft breeze, she slipped under the fence and felt a calm wash over her. The tightness that she'd been carrying in her chest began to lessen, and it was as if she could breathe again for the first time in over a month.
Day had yet to bloom, though night had nearly passed. While it was still difficult to see, she had walked it so many times she could practically traverse that area with her eyes shut. Her other senses kicked into high gear. The spicy scent of dying fern beckoned her entrance into the woods. Her woods.
Above the creak of waving tree limbs, and the rhapsody of thousands of fluttering leaves, she could hear the clipped thwack thwack thwack thwack staccato of the redheaded woodpecker. Her velvet tread noiselessly met dried oak leaves and pine needles, their perfume recalling memories of contentment and the bounty of summer. Soon she arrived at the mossy hollowed trunk that housed her fathers' bow and quiver of arrows. Smiling again, she slung them over her shoulder and hurried toward the meeting spot.
Gale Hawthorne was her hunting partner. He looked like most Seam folk, olive skin, straight black hair, silver eyes. Just like her. He could be her brother. They had begun hunting together 4 years before, when she was 12 and he was 14. Both of their fathers had been killed in the same mining explosion and they were left to provide for their mothers and younger siblings.
Katniss had been foraging and hunting on her own for months when she stumbled on one of Gale's snares, and his acquaintance. They worked out a deal; he showed her how to lay snares and she allowed him to use one of her fathers' bows. Bonding over their mutual need for survival, they found that together they could accomplish so much more than they did alone. Trust does not come naturally to Katniss. It had taken years for them to become the friends they were now. Though she'd noticed something she couldn't name that seemed different over the last 6 months.
Gale preferred hunting close to sunrise, yet was not there to meet her. She sat on their rock, their meeting spot, and waited. As minutes stretched into an hour the rock began leaching warmth from her body. Hugging her knees to her chest she watched the sunrise in a glory of wispy yellows, soft roses, and mellow apricot. Blazing, the sun emerged vermillion over the horizon, casting the world in a rusty glow.
Has he given up on me? Hate me? Maybe what he saw me do was somehow unforgivable? Was it the killing? The strategy? Or the way I won that bothered him?
Insecurity and doubt bubbled in her and her throat painfully tightened, while her eyes began to prick with tears. The idea of losing him forever, her best friend, the only person she'd trusted with her secrets, was so painful she couldn't stand it. Not on top of everything that had happened.
Shifting against the uneven hardness of the rock she looked skyward, now pale blue and fresh, to keep the tears from falling. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw he was standing about ten feet away, watching her.
Without thought Katniss leapt into Gale's arms half laughing, half sobbing. He held her firm against his body. Finally Katniss released him, overcome with hiccups, forced to find a drink. Then they did what they always did on their Sundays. They had breakfast, hunted, fished, and gathered. They gossiped about people in town. He told her which of his classmates toasted. They had all aged-out after the last reaping. They spoke about everything except the two of them, the arena, and Gale working in the mines.
She was just starting to feeling like everything would be normal between them, that she still had that in her life. That at least Gale could be counted on. Sundays could be counted on, could be normal, like they were before. She had been clinging to this hope, desperately, that one thing in her upside down life could be steady.
After Katniss had given him all of her game to trade at the Hob, she said she needed to get home. She hadn't told her mother or sister she'd be hunting, and had forgotten to leave a note. She was just suggesting that she take over the daily snares when he captured her face in his hands.
Gale pressed his lips fiercely against hers. Then he let her go saying, "I had to do that. At least once." And then he was gone. Katniss had been too startled to react. She stood staring at the empty space he had just occupied.
The day had a hesitant start, yet seemed to bloom into the promise of something familiar, before it thrust her back to the unpredictable. Frustrated, Katniss now sits outside the fence; her fingers absently weaving through the dried grass stalks that surround her while she attempts to sort her emotions.
Gale had suggested they run away together the morning of the reaping, but he'd never come close to anything that would suggest an interest beyond what they've always had. Nothing romantic.
Had she ever accidentally done anything to make Gale think she wanted that? Huffing, she rubs her hands rhythmically across the coarse fabric on her thighs. She knew, KNEW, that Gale would be unhappy about the strategy she used in the Games, but never considered why she knew.
Groaning, Katniss yanks up a handful of grass by its roots, forcefully spraying clumps of baked earth on her trousers and shirt. While they hadn't spoken about the arena that morning, or how different her life had become, she had hoped that he would have understood that she wanted everything to return to how it was before the reaping.
His lips had been warm, soft but hard, and a little chapped. She felt like maybe the kiss was something he did to her, rather than something they shared. She didn't feel violated, exactly, but he didn't ask, or give her time to say no. He had shattered some invisible barrier between them and with it any hope she had of resuming their old uncomplicated friendship.
Gale was well aware of just how much she's hated change. "The world won't stop spinning for you, Catnip," he'd laugh. That kiss just confirmed that nothing from her old life remained. Even Prim seems to have matured and gained a new level of independence in the month Katniss had been gone.
Without warning her chest tightens again and panic erupts deep in her belly. It splits wide into a black hole, and the world violently tilts. She feels herself sliding towards the inky depths, claws of dread drawing her into its abyss. Frantically she scrabbles for any other emotion. Finding anger, she clings to it like a lifeline, allowing it to catapult her to safety.
"Damn you Gale!" she yells to no one.
In the district older girls and women go about attracting boys and men a lot like how animals attract their mates. They add color to their cheeks and lips, sometimes their eyes. They wear clothes that accentuate their breasts and hips. Then they might act bold, swaying those hips and thrusting out their breasts, or perhaps demure, shyly looking up at their intended target through their lashes. Katniss had done none of these things, ever. At least, not with Gale, and not in the District.
In the Capitol she'd been plucked, primped, and painted within an inch of her life, along with the other tributes. After they'd been displayed for all of Panem in the Tribute parade they'd been forced to train and eat together, know each other, before they were put in the arena. There they'd been forced to fight each other. Kill each other. After, she was celebrated, expected to be proud, pander to the Capitol Citizens. While her thoughts franticly ricocheted, fear having unhinged her mind, she smiled calmly.
Seeing Snow's cold unforgiving snake eyes lock on hers while he placed the Victors crown on her head she wholly comprehended there were much worse things to fear than the arena. Prey, she understood better than humans, but in that brief moment she grasped the blame for the outcome of the Games was solely on her shoulders. And the outcome was unsatisfactory.
Katniss refused to even acknowledge the gaping chasm of fear triggered by the very possibility she might be punished; anytime the thought began to solidify into consciousness she forced it out of her mind.
As she had traveled home from the Capitol on the train, after she had washed away the makeup and changed from her dress and heels to trousers and a plain shirt, some of her paralyzing fear began to fade away. She had felt more herself, and her thoughts turned toward her sister Prim, Gale, and her mother. Home. Where she would feel normal. Safe.
Of course she hadn't really felt safe since her father died. Except for the cave. Katniss sighs. In the cave, in the arena, she had felt safe in Peeta's strong arms.