So, I finished the books in under 24 hours and couldn't get them out from under my skin.
I'm sure we all have questions about some of the ways Peeta and Katniss grew together between the end of Mockingjay and the epilogue.
Here's my interpretation of the famous 'real or not real' event.
Oh, and thanks to littlesecret84 for reading this & betaing it so quickly. I love you.
All recognizable characters, events, etc are credited to Suzanne Collins. I make no profit from writing this.
"From what I've tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire." – Robert Frost
The worst nightmares are those that have a sense of total nothingness. They exist in my mind, an endless vat of grey. It's not a strange fog, dripping acid onto my flesh. It's not darkness, something a pair of glasses could reveal. It is just grey, grey, grey, as far as my eyes can see. I stand in the middle of the muteness, feeling the weight of it crushing my lungs with screams I cannot muster. I am alone, completely alone, in the wastelands of my mind. This is all that is left for me.
Nothing at all.
Eventually, I always wake up. Someone hears the screams I swear don't pass my lips and shakes me. Maybe the thrashing rolls me off the bed. Or I just wake up, and a deceptive morning greets me, bright through my window.
This is how I awaken today. The sun is crawling through my blinds, its fingers reaching out to touch my face. But I roll away from it. I am no stranger to fire and its deceptive qualities. Bright does not mean the same to me anymore, the girl who was set ablaze.
Fleetingly, I think of Peeta. I can see the smoke from his chimney, puffing away, leaving grey streaks against the sky. The marring of the bright light makes me smile, although the grey brings bile. I think I'd throw up if I had anything in my stomach.
He is downstairs when I finally descend. He's thumbing through the book we're creating, mouthing words to himself. Haymitch told me once that I could do much worse than him. Months later, he told me I'd never deserve him. All the same, Peeta is firm in my life, planted like the sturdy primroses around the boundaries of my home.
"Morning," he volunteers carefully. There's bread on the counter, with honey melting down its side. "I hope I didn't wake you."
"Quiet as a mouse," I murmur, sitting at the table. He plants a cup of tea in front of me, peppermint with sugar and milk. I smile at it faintly, and he basks in the warm expression.
"Quiet as a mouse with a peg leg," he corrects. "I'm sorry for dropping in. I… actually, I have a favor to ask you."
This is not like Peeta. He gives and gives and gives and doesn't take, doesn't even act like he needs a thing. We've existed for a few months now, rebuilding our sanity slowly, even though we know we'll never be the same – because really, who could be? But when he asks something of me, the boy who loved me despite everything, and the man who grew to like me again through his Capitol torture, I am his willing slave, his Apox, his paintbrush.
I sip my tea and nod, hoping to convey that he doesn't even need to ask. I've grown past the point of counting the number of things I owe him for. The truth is, I'll never stop owing him, so why bother? Even if I can't be emotionally available to him, help him nurse love for me that I'm not sure still exists, I have two hands, a strong body, and a mind mostly in tact. That is more than most.
He tugs on the end of my braid, his fingers looping against the loose strands. My hair will never be as long as it was once upon a time, but it's stopped smelling like ash.
"I'm having guests," he says awkwardly, like the thought of such formalities is almost silly. "Greasy Sae's granddaughter is sick, so she can't help cook. I… well, unless it comes to bread or pastries, I'm kind of useless."
I think of the groosling and Rue, and how she was unsure she was allowed to eat the whole drumstick. I think of Peeta a little later, too sick to even smell it. I'm overwhelmed with a sense of protection, a sense of pride that being able to provide has always brought me. Even if I'm not the world's best cook, I can definitely help.
"When do we start?" I ask, standing.
The returning smile Peeta gives me makes me wonder, as always, if he still loves me. I'm not the same Katniss he proposed to, not the same Katniss he swore to protect. I don't even look like her.
He takes my hand and kisses a scar there. It's the most physical contact I've had with him in ages, and it sends a strange current through me, a strange thought. I am Katniss, the girl on fire.
Peeta's supplies astound me. My kitchen is well-stocked, but that's because Greasy Sae makes sure she has everything she needs before cooking me meals. She's had to make do on wild dog and watered down broth for more years than I've been alive, so she's not in the least bit frugal. She uses up everything she can, like she's afraid one day, she'll be reduced to selling beaver as beef once again.
But Peeta's kitchen is full of color. It shouldn't surprise me; everything he does is full of color. But there is so much – ripe fruits in bright, garish reds, plump vegetables in verdant greens and sunset oranges. There are thick cuts of raw meat, deep crimson beef and succulent pink poultry. There are spices lining the walls, every fragrance and long ago lost taste ready for our use.
I hug him on impulse. He's sturdy and surprised, but gives me a squeeze before letting me go. He understands, just like always. This hug doesn't give him hope, but it makes him happy all the same. I wonder how he can balance the two.
"Just – all this food," I breathe. Even after being carted around, District to District, eating the richest food possible – it doesn't bring me to my knees like this does.
Maybe it's because these things are going to be our creations. Our steady hands are going to be making something delicious to feed the mouths of… whom?
"Peeta," I say suddenly, as he goes to a sink to wash his hands.
"Katniss," he answers back, teasing me.
"Who are these mysterious guests?"
He dries his hands on a towel before answering. I watch the pink, raw skin rub against the cloth, and I wonder if our scars will ever fade. "Would it be too much to ask to just trust me?"
'Yes' is on my tongue before I can think about my answer. But his honest face – not necessarily handsome one, although I think he's almost beautiful – flashes through my mind in various scenes, and most of them involve him saving my life in times I thought I couldn't trust him. Now that I do trust him, it seems an act of bad faith to say no over something as simple as dinner.
"Fine," I say blandly, letting him know I'm not happy about being out of the loop, but not wanting to seem difficult when just a half hour ago I wanted him to understand how I'd do anything for him.
He looks surprised by how easy that was, but chooses not to comment. "Okay. Well, how about a crash course in spices? Greasy Sae gave me a list of what they're meant to do, and what spices taste good on different things. Or… maybe we should clean the meat first? I've already done it once, but I left it exposed to run over to your house. I really…" He trails off, lost. "I took advantage of my mom for a long time. She had a temper, but… she knew everything. She'd know what to do."
We speak about those we lost in random intervals like this. There's no clinical way to speak of the dead, which is why Dr. Aurelius is rendered so useless. When you're asked to talk about those you miss more than you can express, your throat closes up in a tight hole, like it's stopping you from wailing. But sometimes, things slip out in casual conversations or bleak realizations, and you stand stock still as the pain threatens to wilt your skin from the inside out.
"Well," I start, snapping Peeta out of his mind, "things can't ever be too clean."
So we wash the meat again, and then our hands. Flour is placed on the counter, and Peeta draws a pretty little flower in it. Then he grabs the list of spices and reads aloud.
"Spices for poultry: garlic, lemon pepper, basil. Beef: brown sugar, garlic…" He continues to list spices for everything we could possibly make. Eventually, I drown out his words, but his voice is comforting. Even though he can't sing, it's almost like music.
"You aren't even listening," he accuses after about ten minutes. He realizes this because I'm doing nothing as he tells me to, but I find cooking like this is almost hunting. Well, not really. It just reminds me of sitting on that rock, thinking of the kill and how good it will taste.
That's all I'm doing now, and it's driving me. I roll the chicken in flour and coat it in garlic salt. I rub the beef down with peppercorns and something fragrant called Rosemary, just because the name reminds me of my sister, and it doesn't make me want to crawl into a hole.
"You may be a natural," he comments, leaning against the counter next to me.
I haven't been driven with purpose like this in quite some time. Sure, there's hunting, but that's mechanical to me now. But this is new, exciting. Something I'm making, something I'll be damned if Peeta doesn't let me eat, guests or no guests.
"I almost feel bad for making you do this," he says quietly, brushing a lock of singed hair out of my eyes.
The fire gave me bangs that I hate. No amount of hair pins keep them back, but Peeta has commented before that he likes them. Sometimes, I think Peeta would tell me he liked something I did, even if I was pissing on myself.
"You know I don't know what you mean," I grouse, referencing the fact he won't tell me who I'm making this dinner for.
He gives me one of those looks, and for the millionth time, I wonder what he's thinking.
We finally get the food in the oven, and then he takes me outside in the sun. He paints and I watch him, content. I haven't felt so full in a long time.
As I watch the strong lines of his arms and the way they steadily hold that brush to create beautiful things, my stomach churns with acidic butterflies, and I think, real or not real?
The chicken burns.
My sister is dead. Finnick is dead. Gale is far away. So is my mother. Rue is dead. Mags. Coin. Snow. Everyone is dead, and the little blackened pieces of chicken in the oven are what make me fall apart.
"It's okay, Katniss," Peeta whispers in my ear as I beat against his chest with my tiny hands. I must be hurting him, but he holds onto me like I'm all he has left.
Then I realize I am, and the wailing picks up, louder than before.
"Why me?" I screech, my snot and tears mingling with the scent of smoke and char, a scent I've come to associate with death.
"It was just the luck of the draw," he tells me, and I realize he thinks I'm asking why it was me, why I was put in the Games, and why I was the end to them all.
"Not that," I insist, still half-crazed. I wrench away from his hands, always so gentle. "Why me, Peeta? There are others – girls, women, anyone – who could have handled your heart so much better than I could have. Than I can. I don't know. I don't know what any of this means. I still feel like I'm in a war, that I'm constantly waiting to get shot down, but what am I fighting, really?"
"I don't know," he says, turning away from me. He dumps the chicken into the trashcan. Then, he places the beef onto the tray, and inserts that in the oven. "But all isn't lost. Let's go make a salad."
He tries to move past me, but I grab his arm. "In the middle of the street, when you were begging us to leave you behind, I kissed you to keep you with me. Real or not real?"
"Real," he murmurs. Then he understands and kisses me.
If I can remember correctly, this is the first time we've kissed without someone in our vicinity. The fact that we're entirely alone wells up inside of me, and I want to touch his skin, mauled and tender. I want to feel it under my hands, alive, thrumming with the hunger that's our game.
He backs away much too soon, his blue eyes bright. He puts his forehead against mine, and that skin-to-skin contact forces my lips up to his once more. They're so warm, so lovely, so achingly gentle against mine, like he's afraid I'm going to break apart. He knows better; he knows I'm not fragile.
Then it hits me. He's not guarding me.
He's guarding himself.
I pull away, and our lips make a wet noise that brings color to his cheeks.
"You still love me," I demand. "Real or not real?"
He looks at me hard, and I can see the warrior who survived with his life through much easier games than this.
"Real," he whispers finally, and then retreats to his room.
I don't see him again until the oven buzzer goes off, nearly an hour later.
It takes a lot to surprise me nowadays. When you've seen all that I have, there is nothing too gruesome to be unreal. Which is what Peeta's motive was, I'm guessing. I'd expect an air attack before this.
His doorbell rings as we're awkwardly avoiding eye contact. I'm tossing the salad absentmindedly, and he's adding a couple more flourishes to the cake he baked. Once it rings, his face breaks into a smile.
"Wait here," he tells me, and I stay. I'm just glad he's not shooing me out now that the food is prepared.
First, I see Haymitch. I don't see much of him, but it's not strange. He lives just a few houses down. Then, in walks Gale, with my mother on his arm.
Peeta just smiles at me.
"What is…?" I can't even formulate sentences. I've been reduced to Nuts.
"It's your birthday, Mockingjay," he tells me.
My birthday. I can't remember the last time I celebrated my birthday. I don't even know how old I am, I don't think.
"Your eighteenth birthday," my mom says, smiling at me. She looks good. She'll never be beautiful again, but I can tell that her work is fulfilling her.
"Happy birthday," says Gale, walking towards me. I'm in his arms before I can blink, and it doesn't bother me as much as I think it should. I try to catch Peeta's eye, to see what he thinks about such a bawdy display of affection, but he just smiles and smiles, like nothing else makes him happier.
"But… how did you all get here?" I stutter.
"They've been staying with me since last night," offers Haymitch. "Happy birthday, sweetheart."
"Thanks," I breathe. Then I round on Peeta. "You made me cook my own birthday meal?"
He shrugs as everyone laughs. "I told you I felt guilty. But you were a natural at it. I can make dough rise, but you've made a feast."
Everyone murmurs in appreciation of the food. We all sit down to tuck in. Peeta's right – I have created a feast. This meal is worthy of any tribute, any victory dinner. No one says much, but then again, no one knows much of what to say. The things that are still on our minds aren't appropriate dinner conversations, and are things we're trying desperately to forget, to move on from.
There are cards from Effie and Annie, the latter who writes me of news of a baby. Finnick's baby. I wordlessly pass the card to Peeta, who reads it somberly. He reaches for my hand, and we both squeeze hard as the loss and joy squeezes our hearts.
After dinner, Peeta and my mother, who is practically a stranger to me now, involve themselves in his paintings. Gale tugs on my elbow and beckons me away.
"How are you doing?" he asks as soon as we're alone. "And don't you dare say 'fine.'"
"It's an accurate description, though," I protest. "I'm not good, but I'm not awful. I'm better, how's that? I'm not better in the positive sense, the hopeful sense. But I'm not as bad as yesterday. And seeing all of you… Well, it shocked me. But it's nice to have reminders that there are still people out there who-"
"Care about you?" he offers. He stuffs his hands in his pockets. I notice his pants are a very nice material. In fact, Gale looks nice in general. He's always been more handsome than Peeta, but less interesting to look at. He looks too much like me for me to be captivated, I suppose.
"Yeah," I agree.
"What, Peeta not making you feel loved?"
"Gale," I bite out. There's that old jealousy in his voice, tinged with bitterness. I don't think he's still pining for me, but I know old habits are hard to break. Sometimes, we're jealous, even if we don't want those things ourselves.
He shrugs, looking sullen. "Just asking."
"We're not shacking up every night, trying to forget our pain with flesh pleasures," I snap. It's a bold thing to say, and I can feel myself flushing. I know nothing of flesh pleasures – I know nothing of most pleasures – but I know what he's insinuating.
"So, just some nights?"
I turn away from him, angry. I'm not going to just listen to this crap when I don't have to. He grabs my arm.
"I'm sorry, Catnip," he sighs. "I just wanted to make sure you're doing okay."
"She's doing okay," Peeta says from somewhere behind me. "You know Katniss. Always surviving, against all odds."
Gale slinks off to Haymitch's after that. I'm not sure what his purpose in coming was – he's been surly the whole time, and only lit up when I paid him attention that could have gone to Peeta. It's ridiculous to think he's still carrying a torch after all these months, after I specifically told him there's no way, because –
My mother and I discuss what's going on in her hospital. Her eyes look haunted as she stares around Peeta's walls. Even though it isn't the house she inhabited with Prim, they look nearly identical. She tells me they've named a ward after her, and I smile with my teeth for the first time in… forever.
"Annie is having a baby," I whisper to her, even though I'm sure she already knows. They became close in District 13 when I left with Finnick, Gale, Peeta and the others.
"Yes," my mother says softly. "It's a wonderful reminder that sometimes, death can surpass life. Finnick had given life before he even knew he was going to die."
It's a bittersweet thought, and I look up to see Peeta watching us from his perch on his loveseat. His sketchbook is in his lap and his fingers are black with charcoal, but his eyes are focused solely on me, like I'm his model.
"How are you two?" my mother asks, sipping on her orange juice.
"How are we what?" I ask dully, not wanting a part in this conversation.
"He seems to have recovered," she remarks. "That's not hate that makes him unable to stop looking at you. You're his target, but in a much different way. When you love someone for that long, it stops mattering whether they love you back. As long as they allow you to be around them, you can find perfect happiness. But I'm wondering about you, Katniss."
"He… he is the focus of most of my thoughts, and if he's not the focus, he's in the outskirts. He's always there, swimming in my mind. When it's… a hard day, I go sit with him, watch his sturdy hands make something. It makes me feel centered. Balanced. I don't know if…"
My mom smiles at me. "You've always had a problem understanding love."
I don't know if she's saying this because of my reaction to her when my dad died and she went catatonic. I don't know if this is due to Gale loving me for years and I being blissfully ignorant. I don't even know if it's just a statement, bald and meaning only what it means at face value. But even so, she's right.
"I need Peeta to survive," I say quietly, echoing the thoughts Gale had about me months ago, down in Tigris's basement. "The thought of him hating me forever drew me away from District 13. He's one of the first thoughts I have when I wake up, and when I'm trying to sleep, I think of those nights on the train, sleeping next to him. Or in the cave, as he was holding me, and I wonder if I'll ever feel so safe again."
When I feel a warm hand on my shoulder, I realize my mom's tricked me into giving Peeta answers I've been reticent to give. I should be angry, but I'm just exhausted.
"Let's go to bed, Katniss."
It's a strange world that he can say this in front of my mom and she just smiles. I take his hand, and my mother tells me she'll see me tomorrow. She's staying for a week, but a hovercraft is picking up Gale in the morning. She asks if I have anything else to say to him.
I shake my head. "If I do, I'll write." I never write. This is as good as a dismissal as I can muster. Then I tug on Peeta's hand and allow him to pull me up his stairs.
When we reach his bedroom, he balks. "You don't actually have to stay. You just looked really uncomfortable, being grilled like that."
"I wasn't uncomfortable," I insist. I have to figure out my feelings towards you sooner or later, I add inside my head. "It's just strange, being back with my mom. With Gale. Haymitch left after dinner – he hates parties – and he's the one, besides you, I feel most comfortable with."
"Gale seemed as charming as ever," Peeta remarks, moving to turn down the bed. "Are you… going to sleep here? Should I walk you back home?"
His bed looks so comfortable, and I'm so tired. I'm sure those sheets have his smell all over it, and the thought of being swathed in nothing but Peeta all night makes my eyelids droop in pleasure.
"I'll stay," I decide, plopping down on his bed. A t-shirt hits me in the face. I look to Peeta for an explanation, but he's red and ducking into the bathroom.
I'm supposed to sleep in this? Peeta is taller than me, but only by a few inches. This will barely cover me to mid-thigh – and then I stop that stupid girly train of thought, knowing that Peeta has seen me bleeding, dying, as his worst enemy and the girl he's loved for almost 15 years. What does a little thigh matter? It's not pretty; it's burnt and scarred. I won't be seductive in this plain black T-shirt, just comfortable.
I'm underneath the covers when he shuffles back into the room. He flips out the light, and I reach for him. His warm body comes alive under my fingers, and I realize he's shirtless.
"Still refuse to see me naked?" he teases, his breath warm against my neck. He's closer than I thought.
"You aren't naked!" I insist, backing away.
He laughs, pulling me closer again. "I'm not naked. I was just seeing your reaction – it was perfect, by the way."
I huff and make a big show about settling into his arms, like I'm being forced to. His skin is so different now, inhumanly soft in some places and ridged raw in others. But it's Peeta, and he's my home.
That thought takes me aback. Home. I haven't had a home in a couple years, but ever since this boy – man – stood next to me, with some of my same roots, he became the personification of that home. Now, he's the living, breathing element of it.
I run my hands down his skin, feeling where he's burnt. "Does it hurt?" I ask.
"No," he answers, his voice sounding strangled. "It doesn't hurt at all." One of his large, sturdy hands grips lightly around my thigh, and the warmth dips down to my toes and goes all the way back up to my head. It makes me feel sleepy and strangely beautiful.
I'm asleep before I can take my next breath.
When I wake up, there's stillness in the darkness surrounding me. Not the kind that precedes an attack, but the kind that speaks of utter contentment. I roll over before I realize where I am, and confront a warm male chest.
I breathe in, knowing it's Peeta. I can smell him, the slight medicinal scent of his skin masked by his clean soap. I wrap my arms around his waist, driven by some innate feeling to take comfort when it's being so readily offered.
He stiffens. I back away slightly, and then he thrashes. His foot connects with my shin, and I hiss in pain. But he doesn't stop. Then the sounds start. They are terrible noises. They remind me of the Avoxes unable to truly scream down in the sewers before the rose creatures slaughtered them. Then, that reminds me of Finnick, the way his throat was ripped out and his head fell away. Finnick, with his eyes like the sea, and his Annie, and their love, and he's gone, and –
"Peeta, stop!" I cry, beating on his chest. I know he's asleep and can't help it, but he's bringing me into a panic attack of my own. "Stop it, Peeta!"
I'm pinned suddenly to my back. Peeta's eyes open, the blue turning silver against the moon. He looks ethereal, otherworldly, and terrifying.
"Peeta," I whisper, afraid that he's going to kill me. That somehow, what he's worked so hard to fight has taken over him once more.
"Katniss," he answers, his grip on my wrists lessening. "I – I dreamt… you were – and I had to watch, and then I had nothing, but there was no way to join you, everyone hid their weapons from me, and their pills, and I had to live in this world without you. I was like a man wandering the desert for water. I couldn't breathe."
"I'm right here," I tell him, even though I know he can plainly see that. Sometimes, people just need to hear things.
"You keep all my nightmares away," he responds, running his hand down my cheek. "Except the ones about you. I've never been so terrified than those times, thinking I was all alone now."
"We survived," I promise, and he settles down into me, his heavy weight a blessing against my skin. "We don't… we don't ever have to be parted again."
"We don't?" he asks against my neck. "Every day, I swear I'm going to wake up and see that you've gone." He nods to a suitcase in the corner of the room. "I've… already packed, in case that happens. I have no purpose in this world but to be with you, do you know that? Even if that means chasing you all over Panem."
"I'm not leaving 12, and I'm not leaving you."
He tips up my face, staring into my eyes, like they have pictures of our future reflecting in them. "Ever?"
I shake my head. "You want to kiss me," I murmur. "Real or not real?"
"Not real," he breathes. "I want you to kiss me."
My lips touch his first, but he takes over as he always does. His passion is a real thing, a livewire just under the surface, like Beetee's golden strings that turned out so deadly. Peeta is hungry tonight, and I feel it too, what I felt on the beach. It leads me on instinct, something animalistic, something I didn't know I had in me.
It turns Peeta onto his back and kisses his neck, chest, all his scars. It pins his wrists to the bed as I kiss his mouth, wet with tears from our nightmares and hopes from our dreams. He's so warm, everything about him, his eyes, his skin, his heart.
The thin black t-shirt comes off over my head, and then his artist's hands trace patterns over my skin. He makes my body into his art, molding it for his pleasure and my own. He touches me in places I never knew existed, had only heard about from loose women in the Hob when I was younger. The way a man can use his fingers and tongue, and the explosions in your belly when it all gets too much.
I find what's been pressing into my thigh and squeeze. Peeta huffs against my mouth, and then says my name against my neck.
"What are we doing?" he whispers, his fingers going underneath my underwear.
"I don't know." I really don't. I've never done this before. I know what sex is all about – well, the basics – but it always seemed silly to me. I didn't want love, marriage or a family, so why would I care about sex?
Peeta presses his fingers against something, and my hips rocket off the bed.
"You're the only girl I've ever… I've never done this before, either." He settles on his forearm, and then pushes a finger into my body.
I'm not sure if it feels good, but it's interesting. It's foreign. And… okay, yes, it feels good. The way he draws it back and forth and the noises he makes when he hears my sounds – my whole body is flushed, arching towards something I'm not sure I can find.
I draw him down to my mouth, since kissing him is the one thing I'm sure of. His lips are open and hot, and we don't kiss. We more breathe into each other, and then he grabs the hem of his pajamas, asking me if it's okay, and I say yes, even though I'm not sure what I'm agreeing to.
Someone told me once that it would hurt, but there's no snapping pain when he eases himself inside. There's the discomfort of being stretched, but I imagine the toll my body has taken over the past year has rid me of whatever barrier was supposed to be there.
"You feel perfect," he whispers to me, and then I can't concentrate on anything else but him, his beating heart, and the sound of his voice. "I never thought…"
I adjust, and he slides further, and it feels so strange but so good. I've been stabbed more times than I can count, and that always felt like an invasion, a foreign something entering my body. But this, this feels right, like he's a missing puzzle piece that's finally connected.
We stop and start all night. He comes, and we both cry. He kisses me in secret places, and I explore every inch of his beautiful skin, his armor. I'm sore when the morning comes, another day of sunshine reaching across our bodies, tickling us with its fingers.
This morning, however, it's not deceptive. Peeta's told me he loves me in sharp gasps, long whispers and quiet moans all night, and it's filled me up to the brim with a foreign emotion. But as I watch the sunrise creep across his face, throwing corn silk in his waves and silver flecks in his eyes, I know the answer before he even asks.
"You love me," he whispers. "Real or not real?"
I touch his face, and look to the fireplace, thinking of the ritual I want to perform before I'm even all the way awake. I think of my life without him, and how I've never been braver when I've had him to fight with or for. If that isn't love, I'll never know the meaning, and I won't care. Because what Peeta makes me feel, I know nothing will ever be more –
And when he kisses me, crying and smiling, I'm finally content with my nickname: the girl on fire.
I'm quite nervous about what you think. Let me know? xoxo