This is an imagining of the moments in Mockingjay from Peeta's point of view, and how they build to and culminate in the final lines of the book. As such, this contains spoilers for all three books. Apparently, I can't get this moment out of my head.
Also, this is not a sequel to "Consume," because I wanted to try a different conclusion. Enjoy. :)
Disclaimer: Suzanne Collins owns these characters and any book references belong to her. I have borrowed and built from lines to recreate a moment, but none of the existing work is mine.
It's like this. I'm twelve or thirteen, and it's my first reaping. Dad gives me a winning smile, the sort that tells me not to worry, and my mother's scowling because she's gone through this with my brother and I'm not really that important. If anything, I'm the overzealous, clumsy kid who came out two weeks early and has been causing trouble for her ever since. At least, that's what she tells me.
The twelve-year-old me shifts nervously from one foot to the other and back again. I try to go through my chores for later in my head. There's a lot of sweeping, and cleaning the oven, and maybe something about the cupboards. Dad says that after the reaping we'll get to tackle some of the cakes he's prepared for the window. I know he says this because it's his way of saying, "Of course you'll be with us after the reaping. Nothing to worry about it." And so I tick them off, one by one, and assign the minutes and hours that it will take me to get through them all. Easy. I'll be there soon.
I find the dark-haired, grey-eyed girl, and everything gets just a bit heavier. My feet, my hands, my head. Really, I'm a coward. I never talk to her. I just watch her a bit. But then, there's the denial. I'm not like the other boys who have started to show off. I'm not like my brother, sneaking off to spend the evenings with town girls that my mother approves of. No, I just watch and watch and—really, it's not as creepy as it sounds.
She's nice like this. Scowls a lot, like my mother, but the difference is I suspect she's got good reason. But there's that heaviness. In the back of my mind a booming, chirping voice is calling a young girl's name. I snap from a dark-haired, grey-eyed girl to a pale girl who is so thin and frail that she barely makes it up the stairs.
I feel sick at how relieved I am. But then I see her grey eyes snap to the ground, and I barely recognize when another boy is called. The first time that I am spared, I do not have time to remember the face of the boy who strides forward, perfectly ready to murder the girl who teeters on the stage. It's a flurry of movement, of people passing me by.
I lose her easily in the rush. I do not recognize my father's strong hands guiding me through the crowd. When I crawl into bed that night, I am lost in a mess of blankets that entrap me. I am terrified. They wrap around my feet and arms and smother my face. They have the girl's eyes and the boy's sharp teeth. No, that wasn't there before. Just the eyes. Maybe his too.
And in another year, I am doing it all over again. This is how it goes, over and over, until I am the one gliding forward because I'm still in a daze that it was her. The surprise that I will die doesn't register. I am not like the boy before who watched the teetering girl and marked her for a target.
As I said, I am a coward.
The doctor holds my hand as I shake. This is one of the memories that tethers me. I repeat it slowly, and each time they plug me for more details. What was the girl wearing? Should they get a video of that reaping? No, I tell them. Keep this one just the way it is. There's a raw, protective instinct that roars up inside of me each time I say it.
They check me by recording each recounting. I never miss with this one. There are others, too, that I'm saving for if they have to draw me off of her again. I feel like I've got her skin under my nails from when I tried to choke her, and it burns. But I go back to her singing, that's simple enough. I go back to her holding Prim's hand as they left the school. Little details that are separate from when she's trying to kill me—no, that's not right. What did these doctors say? When she was trying to help you survive, or when she didn't know.
I smell blood. I look to my legs and realize I've punctured them with my nails. The doctor's hands are flailing, saying I can't do that and don't I understand. Back to the memory. That's right, I've got the bread. The weight of my mother's hand crashes on me. The bread is crisp yet warm and spongy. I'm feigning tossing it to the animals, and then there she is, grey eyes boring into me. I toss them. She's so vulnerable, so sad, and there I am, going back in the house. Nothing more.
We didn't talk for years.
It stings where she kisses me on my bruise, and I know she intended to do it. It's right after I saw her eyes sweep over me, after the first time she really noticed me. It's the first time that hunger rises up inside of me because she's really looking, and possibly enjoying what she sees. Just like I am drinking her in, she is feasting on me. I realize how lonely we both are, and how if she let me, I would devour her whole.
Part of this is the medication talking. It made me so angry that she only looked at me like that twice, and more so because I thought the other times had been just as real. I thought that after the first time—when we were both on fire—it would stay that way. Even if I died, she might still be burning a bit for me.
I saw her today with that… that Gale. I thought of on the train, how we just lay next to each other. No hunger there, just pain. But still, to be so close and to feel her skin brush against mine. Her hair either smelled like perfume or ash.
I can feel the sting from her kiss, from the doctor's needle, and I wonder if this is better than Snow snarling at me. She never loved you, he hisses. I grasp for any memory to draw me back. The first reaping, the bread, the train. My legs are raw from where I've scratched them, as are my wrists from the shackles pressing into them.
I'm drowning, and she knows that I can't swim.
It happens when she brushes back my hair. I feel the animal inside me stir, and I go very, very still as though willing her not to leave me. This isn't a memory—this is now. This is me holding on right now. My fingers twitch, and part of me wants to slap her hand away because part of me is counting the inches between her throat and my hand. But I stay still in this because there is not a soul here trying to kill me—not even her. No Games, and for the third time I know it's real.
Once more, she tethers me. Here, coward. See what she does to you. Crawl out and hang on, and maybe you'll get out of this alive.
It takes the memory of the bread to muffle Snow's cackle as she moves away.
Suffocating. Her lips are like snake bites, coursing venom through me. The poison rushes down my chest, my abdomen, my legs. Bread, grey eyes, trains, soft skin, fire. Tick each one off and come back. Stay here. I don't need to fight as hard this time because something about her taste extinguishes the rage inside of me. I realize it's not she who is the snake, but rather she is the antidote, and it is instantaneous and draining. I collapse beneath her kiss, and as she pulls away I hook onto her eyes to keep from falling.
"Stay with me," she pleads.
I'm panting; I can't breathe. But then she's pulling me out because she wants me. She's asking for me. It's all I can do not to scream.
"Always," I manage. Always, always, always, always.
I can't venture very far into town. I bake, I plant flowers, and I paint. I am working on a portrait of my father. He's smiling that wide, genuine grin he'd give me on my birthdays; behind him are birds, small and blue, that swim in the unfinished canvas. I work until my hands are raw.
After we finished the book, we didn't talk much. The most we did was when, after finishing Rae's page, she reached out and took my hand. We stood there, me shaking beneath her touch, and her willing me to hold steady. When she saw me start to dig my nails into my leg, she took two steps back like we'd talked about. It's not exactly a thrilling romance; it's not much of anything at all. But her hand, like her kiss before, brought back that hunger. I want her. I want her because she's here with me, waiting for me to drain, waiting to catch me if I collapse.
It was doing Prim's page that got her talking. It was as though, if only we could get that page as perfect as it could be, Prim's death might be acceptable. I did so many sketches, but only one made her smile. Only one made the cut. It was one of Prim and Buttercup, held tight to her cheek. When we finished the page, we let go of Prim, letting her go wherever she was needed. I tend to the primroses in front; Katniss tends to the cat.
The portrait of my father is ready now, and the lines are neat. The birds are caught in fluid motion with streaks of orange and purple dusted around their blue. It's a sunset.
I begin to shake. I go through my list. I grip the chair around its sharpest edge, testing it on my bruises, drawing out the pain that brings me back. I go through it all: bread, train, fire, kiss, always, always.
I hit the ground.
I wake up to her hand on my cheek. She's moved me from the floor to the couch, and judging by the perspiration lining her forehead, it wasn't easy. I remember falling asleep with her before the Quarter Quell. I remember the slickness when I let my lips graze her cheeks. I played it off as though I had shifted in sleep, but she knew. And then more memories flood over me. We're on the roof working with flowers. I'm asking to freeze the moment.
But now. Focus on now. She's whispering things. She's apologizing. She's talking about how stupid she is, about how it's all her fault, telling me that she should've been watching me. She's saying she can't get through this without me—all of me. She wants the beach. She wants the kiss we had in the cave. She wants me to come back.
I grab her face, and it's rough—too rough for what I hoped this would be like. I'm roaring inside as I try to force down years and years of want as she fights back with rough kisses of her own. She's pouring emotions into me, and I'm drinking it in. She crawls on top of me, and there's that skin again. I can't help feeling whole. And then I know. I break away, gasping, panting.
But she won't let me. Her lips are everywhere, a nonstop barrage. One hand comes up to grip mine, to hold on. Pure, unadulterated happiness is bursting within me. I'm laughing. She pulls back from where she's been kissing my stomach and peers at me with unsure grey eyes. When I kiss her, she laughs back against my lips.
We spend days, weeks, years making up for lost time. Our bodies, as they did on the train, fit together in the cold, nightmare-filled evenings. But we guide each other through the mist. I teach her to bake, and as our hands move through the dough, she sings.
We fight. She screams, slams doors, leaves for hours. I make her angrier by responding with the cool insults that Snow implanted deep within me. She runs, and later I find her in closets. Sometimes, she finds me. We stay beside one another for hours before we speak. Then we kiss. Then we talk. Then we kiss some more. Really, it's not such a bad deal.
It's after one of these fights that she slinks into the room where I'm pretending to sleep. She reaches out and grasps my hand and runs her thumb over my scars. She's crying. I sit up and place my free hand on her hip and guide her closer to me.
"I wish I was better at this," she mumbles.
I chuckle. "I know."
She shakes her head. "You're good at this. You're good, and you've been through…"
"Hell?" I offer.
"So have you," I say.
I kiss her cheek. She shivers. I kiss her lips. She runs her hand through my hair. I rest my head on her chest.
"You love me," I murmur. "Real or not real?"
She pulls back, hand ceasing the slow circles it was drawing on my neck. I find her eyes. But unlike so many years before, she finds mine, too.
"Real," she tells me. It's a startled, yet sure voice. I see her mouth start to open to provide more explanation, but it's enough. It's so much more than that.
A coward. That's what I am as I kiss her. A hungry, needy, empty, mending coward. But as she grabs at me, tugging me so unbelievably, incredibly close, I decide that she's the same as me. We tumble beneath sheets, navigate them together, cowards fumbling forward.
It's like this.