Katniss steps into the Victor's Village, the place she thinks of as a tomb.
She walks slowly, feeling the weight of her wounds, body and soul, retracing a path she's walked a hundred times, reflected in umpteen windows like dead eyes, until she stands in front of the newest tomb, the one that had once been a home, the last place she'd been happy.
She stands for a long time on the porch, the last place they'd talked, really talked. She remembers Peeta's face that day, his laugh, the last time she'd see him smile.
Then she grips the door handle, too tight, and steps inside. It's not locked.
As always, the kitchen is impeccable, no trace of their last supper. The house feels deflated somehow, devoid. The only sound is the clock on the mantel, tick tock.
Katniss walks up to that clock, right up to it, and stands staring at its face.
Still, it beats, tick tock.
It might beat forever, tick tock.
With a cry of rage, Katniss heaves the clock against the wall. It jangles and fractures, innards spilling every which way. Yet still it goes tick tock tick tock a dying clock. She stomps on it, again and again, until its heart no longer beats, still and dead like hers.
She stares down at it, its fractured face.
It's really over.
Fires across Panem have banked, Snow has been executed, the Peacekeepers disbanded, a new government in place, life moving on, for everyone but her. With no Prim and no Peeta, there's no purpose. Gale, one of the first volunteers of the war, has yet to return from the heart of the action, still helping to mop things up in the Capitol. Even Mother left the district as soon as the trains were running again, leaving Katniss with nothing but a scrawled note on the kitchen table—Gone to 4. Come if you can.
Katniss drags herself upstairs, to the door at the end of the hall, and drowns in Peeta's bed.
She grieves. She looks out the window, and the moon is forever alone in the sky. She looks out the window, and the sky is the color of his eyes. She looks out the window, and there's a hovercraft parked in a nearby meadow.
She ignores it, a half-remembered dream.
Later, she looks again. There's still a hovercraft parked in the nearby meadow. Lively voices waft in the breeze, headed her way. Likely just another camera crew, come for a soundbite about Prim or Peeta, the downside of her staying in his house.
She's about to turn away when she spies someone familiar in the interstices of the Victor's tombs, someone golden. In a beat, she's throwing some clothes on her skeleton, drawing a comb across her skull. Then she creeps down the stairs, staying just out of sight, peering through windows.
Sure enough, she'd seen Finnick. And with him, never far away, is Johanna. They've come for a visit, how quaint. As she watches from the bottom of the stairs, they jockey for position at her door, Johanna slapping Finnick's hands from the doorbell, let me.
By the time they press it, Katniss stands in the middle of the kitchen, disheveled in a painter's smock.
"Surprise," Finnick says with flourish.
"You look excremental," Johanna states, the obvious.
They both smile like sharks, too many teeth. Impossible, that they should smile, as if there's anything at all to be happy about.
"So," Finnick says. "We brought you something." And then he and Johanna step aside, to reveal the reason they're smiling, the reason they can smile.
"Rather," Johanna adds, "someone."
That someone is walking up the path behind them. An impossible someone.
"What have you done?" Katniss whispers, horrified. She's sickened and she's angry and she's devastated. Finnick cocks his head, uncertain how to interpret her tone.
The someone bounds up the steps, eyes locked on her the whole way. The someone steps through the front door. The someone stands but a few paces away, facing her in the middle of the kitchen.
It's just like Finnick and Johanna to do this. To bring her this…this thing as a consolation prize.
Katniss can't even.
He's not real, not real, not real.
"Mutt," she snarls, launching herself at this someone who wears Peeta's face. She slams into him bodily, and he takes several staggering steps back, hands up to protect his face.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," say Finnick and Johanna, leeching themselves to her arms and pulling her off, spitting and scratching.
"Katniss," the mutt exclaims, holding his hands carefully where she can see them, eyes wary. "It's me."
Me, he says. It looks like Peeta and it sounds like Peeta.
"In the woods," she demands, "when I followed you out. What did I tell you about the way you walk?"
His reply is immediate. "That I walk like a rock."
She deflates then, sitting down abruptly onto the floor, too many days without food.
"How…?" She doesn't even know where to begin.
"They made a mutt," Finnick says, popping a sugar cube, as though this explains everything.
"And then they were stupid enough not to destroy it," Johanna adds, rolling her eyes. "Thought it might come in handy someday." Inspiration strikes. "Ooh, maybe some kinky Victor-on-Victor action." She side-eyes Peeta, approving. "I'd watch that."
Katniss just stares. Stares and stares.
Peeta sighs. "You two," he says, "are not helping."
Then he explains. He explains how a genius named Beetee figured out a way to reprogram the Peeta-mutt, to deliver a final message from the real Peeta, broadcast live to Panem, to spark a Rebellion at last. All the while, Peeta was deep in the bowels of District 13, waiting for the day when he could safely resurrect.
"I came as soon as I could," he says, when it was all over, the fires banked. Communication and transportation across the districts is still spotty at best, so she understands why it took him so long.
Katniss holds up a trembling hand to his face. "They shot you," she says, stuck. "Through the eye." Perhaps it was meant to be symbolic, a macabre message only for her. But how could she have known, how could she ever have guessed?
"Okay then." Finnick looks between them, both just standing and staring. "We'll leave you to it. We're going to take the 'craft for a spin, if you know what I mean. I've been told there's another ocean!"
"Dibs on the cockpit, get it?" Johanna says, as Finnick yanks her out the door.
And then they're gone, leaving her alone with Peeta. Peeta, who's here, really here. Peeta, who's somehow not a mutt. He looks wan and tired, but alive. Nothing between them now but air, no Games, no secrets, exposed for the whole world to see.
He takes a step forward, trying to bridge the chasm. "I'm sorry for not telling you, about my mutt. I had to be sure you'd be safe. We didn't know if it would work."
"Yes. I've been working with the Rebellion for years. Finnick and Johanna, too. We just needed the right spark."
And they finally got it, they got their spark. Katniss just has one question, one last question: "Prim?"
His eyes tell her everything.
That, at least, had been real.
This time, when she grieves, she's not alone.
A morning, Katniss comes down, late, to find Johanna in the kitchen, which she's apparently turned into a war zone, every drawer and cabinet blown wide, supplies upended everywhere. And the smell.
"I tried to make you lovebirds some breakfast, but." Johanna eyes the massacre, what looks to be a banquet of charred and burnt. Katniss takes some anyway, still loathe to waste food.
They crunch in silence for a while, choking it down. Like her, Johanna seems to be comfortable in her own head.
"So tell me," Johanna asks, all casual-like. "How's Peeta between the sheets?"
Katniss spews, milk everywhere. When she recovers from the coughing, she says, "I thought…? You and Peeta…?"
"No, brainless." Johanna enunciates each syllable, as though Katniss is a small child. "Don't get me wrong, I offered. Believe me, I offered." She leers. "But he always turned me down. It wasn't until Finnick and I met you that we finally understood why." She regards Katniss over her glass, which is suspiciously not filled with juice or milk. "Peeta was only for you. Always for you."
As if on cue, he appears at the top of the stairs, all askew and sleepy, a living, breathing miracle. He descends to join them, first giving Katniss a kiss on the top of her head, then stepping over to wrinkle his nose at the plethora of pots and pans. "What died?"
"Bad joke." Johanna smirks.
"Too soon?" Peeta smiles.
"Yes." Katniss scowls.
Like her, Peeta still fills a plate.
Someday, she thinks, she'll ask Peeta so many things. They've yet to have their talk, the one he promised her, a lifetime ago. She'll ask him about the Capitol, about his scars, the Tributes he watched die, one by one. She'll ask him about the woman from the Seam. But she can already guess at his answer, Peeta with his extra helping of stew. It was always just stew, him sharing his food where he could, with whomever would take it.
"So Peeta, do tell," Finnick says, emerging from somewhere, popping an ice cube. "Is Katniss a spitfire in bed or what?"
Peeta just smiles. Smiles and smiles.
The doorbell rings, a mellifluous sound like pickaxes striking rock.
"I'll get it," Katniss calls to Peeta, who's down in his studio, probably fixating on a painting of her face. Or of something besides her face. "Put a lid on it," she warns down the stairwell, as she passes, the door that's wide open. His work, always a bit graphic because of his experience with the Games, has now shifted toward the explicit. She might have had something to do with this.
The first time he'd showed her what he'd been up to down in the basement lately, she couldn't, at first, make out what it was, this thing that she was seeing. When she had, her face had gone so very hot. And then she'd gone hot all over, and she'd made him take her right there. It's only natural, them having years of catching up to do.
Katniss flings open the door, flushed at the memory. Perhaps, if she can get rid of whoever it is…
The uniform is a douse of cold water. For a moment, she doesn't even recognize him, standing so stiff and formal. But then Gale calls her Catnip and it's him, it's really him, and she's in his arms.
"Peeta's alive," she blurts into his ear.
"So I hear," he chokes out, from where she's squeezing his neck. "Thought I'd come see him for myself." He's not done with her. He'll never be done with her, but at least now he understands.
He relinquishes her at last, takes a step back.
"You look good."
"So do you."
From behind, Peeta clears his throat.
"Come in, come in." Katniss leads the way.
"Just for a bit," Gale agrees.
"Nonsense," Peeta says, extending a hand, grip firm. "You must stay for dinner." Some unsaid something passes between them, and, miraculously, Gale agrees.
It should have been awkward, the three of them breaking bread, except that this is what Peeta does best, always seeming to know exactly what to say. He plies Gale with questions about the war, the reconstruction efforts, the new President elect. Gale warms to this, becoming animated, knowing way too much about it.
When the dinner and the conversation wind down, they've moved into the living room.
"It's late," Katniss says. "You should stay the night. The couch is comfortable." Gale considers, idly stroking his teeth marks in a cushion.
"Thanks, but I've got a room at the inn." District 12 has its very own inn now, with visitors and everything.
Gale stands, and extends a hand. "Peeta." It's the first time Katniss has ever heard him say the name.
"If you hurt her…" he says, this time with a faint smile.
"You can kill me," Peeta finishes, a smile of his own. A real one.
Katniss follows Gale out onto the porch, flicking on the light so he can see. There's some sleek, slick vehicle down the path. Gale is doing well, where he is, like she always knew he would.
He takes a couple of the steps, then stops. Katniss waits, at the edge of the porch, for him to decide. Then he turns back to her, something in his eyes. He steps back up, one step, until they're at eye level.
"Maybe tomorrow…" she begins but she can't finish because Gale is kissing her. And she's letting him, their goodbye. For a moment, she feels it, the spark that could have been. They'll never know, if it could have become flame.
"I had to do that," he whispers. "At least once."
"Here," he says as he releases her, pressing paper into her palm.
She frowns. "What is it?" Her fingers are already unwrapping it like a gift.
"It's a report," he says. "One that I thought you might like to see."
She skims the page, small type in long columns. Names. He's given her a list of names. And then she sees it, a single name that jumps off the page. The name of a Capitol star that many ladies of the town had fancied so many years ago.
"Killed in action," Gale confirms.
For a moment, tears blur the names into a solid blob of gray, erased. Then Katniss folds the paper, carefully, gently, closing it forever. Later, she'll watch with Peeta as the fire creeps, burns it away to nothing but ash, scattered.
"Thank you," she says.
"Until next time," Gale promises. He's not done with her. He'll never be done with her, she forever a scar on his heart. But as she knows better than anyone, scars fade.
When Katniss steps back into the kitchen, Peeta is there, pulling something from the oven, always pulling something from the oven. When he's done, setting the loaves aside to cool, he stands there for a moment with a mitt on each hand. They're from the Capitol, silly and frilly and pink, completely impractical. He still uses them, as a joke, as a reminder.
But now he's not joking, his expression a mask. She chills at this, for she knows he's seen, her and Gale through the window. He makes eye contact and then pulls off one mitt, slowly, using only his teeth, then the other. She thrills at what he might do.
Then his hands are on her, warm and a bit rough, like she sometimes likes it, like she sometimes needs it. He kisses the taste of Gale, right off her lips. He kisses Gale right out of her mind.
And then he shows her, repeatedly, why she's only for him.
There's a legend in Panem, passed down by generations of free citizens after the Rebellion, that tells of the 80th and final Hunger Games. Fathers and mothers repeat the story to their children and their children's children, so they'll never forget.
It's a story of love and of loss and how one person can change the course of the world. Over the years, the details have been lost. Details of names like Finnick and Johanna and Plutarch and Effie. Even the names Haymitch and Katniss.
But one detail remains clear, if not entirely true: how former tribute Peeta Mellark gave his life, wielding his words as weapons. How Peeta died so that others might live. Decades later, the video of his final speech—his last five minutes—is replayed often on the anniversary of the Harvest, the day when the Capitol's yoke was lifted at last.
History remembers him as the Victor.