Disclaimer: I do not own The Hunger Games.
That's it then. Our team is assembled. Me, Peeta, Gale, Boggs and some soldiers from Thirteen. Cressida and her camera crew. As the Star Squad, we document our travels and actions for the cause of the rebellion. This also means we have to stay out of harm's way a lot. We travel toward the Capitol, not seeing much action at first.
But then we start running into the pods. After the death of Boggs, I realize just how serious things have become. The closer we get to the Capitol, the more dangerous our mission becomes. Even just existing is dangerous, because of the pods. Each death of a member of the squad makes me feel a little more numb. We end up having to go down into underground tunnels in order to avoid the Peacekeepers. Some horrible, terrifying mutts (designed specially for me) find us and we have to start running. Just when I think we may have lost them, we hear them again, in the distance.
"Run!" I say, pushing Peeta toward the ladder that leads up to a higher level. Surely the mutts couldn't reach us up there. I don't think they're human enough to climb it. "Go! Hurry!"
He's not foolish enough to waste any time arguing with me of course, but when we get to the ladder, he turns to me, reaches for my waist, and lifts me up onto it so that I have no choice but to begin my ascent. He wouldn't put himself in front of me. I can hardly stand going first, and leaving him behind me, but it would be a stupid waste of time to jump back down now that I'm on the ladder. I climb as fast as I can and when I reach the top, I turn around and frantically pull Peeta up and toward me, and together we stagger away from the ladder. I clutch him tightly and feel so glad I still haven't lost him. Gale.
I pull away from Peeta and see Cressida reach the top of the ladder, followed by Pollux and finally Gale. No one else comes.
"No!" I say. I have to do something, Castor, Homes and Mitchell are still down there. It's too dark to see them very well from this high up, but it's clear that the mutts have reached them.
"There's nothing we can do," Gale says from right beside me. I turn to him and look up into his gray eyes. They're hard and serious, but there's something else there, too. "Come on," he continues, "we have to move on."
I nod my head, knowing that he's right. In hopes of getting rid of some more mutts, I say "Nightlock" three times, to the Holo Boggs transferred to me, and then throw it down.
It's as we're walking through the tunnels again that I realize just what I saw in Gale's eyes after we escaped the mutts. I realize that it was me who cause that hurt, resigned expression, and I know exactly what I did. Telling Peeta to run and pushing him toward the ladder had been a reflex. I knew the mutts were coming, and I reacted without even thinking about it. I just had to save him, that was the only thing that mattered. Of course I tried to put him before myself, just like I did in the Quell. He deserves to live more than I do. But without even realizing it, I also put him before Gale. I made it incredibly clear which one of their survival was most important to me. Gale knows by now that it's Peeta I need, but that had to hurt after how much we've meant to each other these last few years.
Unless…I did it because I thought Peeta needed more protecting? Did I think Gale would be all right to fend for himself? Maybe. But after that story Peeta told me about killing Brutus, I should know that he can take care of himself also. Realistically, I don't know how much chance either of them would have stood against those mutts, but I think their chances of surviving would have been close to equal. Or at least, if it wasn't for Peeta's leg they might have been equal; I'm sure Gale can move faster.
After all that running from the mutts, we're all exhausted. We find a place where it's safe to go aboveground and Cressida leads the way to a closed down fur underwear shop. The woman who runs it, Tigris, is a former stylist who is on the side of the rebels. She offers us shelter, in a hidden section of the shop. It's a small space in which to get a few hours of rest. I can't remember the last time I slept, and quickly find a corner to curl up in. Peeta says he doesn't think he can sleep, so he sits in the doorway of the room. After a while, I hear him speak to someone.
"Thanks," Peeta says, and surprisingly, it's Gale who answers.
"Sure," he says, and I hear a slight shuffle as he sits down. "She okay?"
"I think so," Peeta says.
There's some unintelligible muttering from Gale and I strain to hear, but it's useless. But when Peeta speaks again, it's louder and then Gale takes to talking a bit louder, too.
"You've noticed, then?" Gale asks, surprised.
Peeta's silent for a few moments, then he says, "Well, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't eager to see you take an interest in someone."
"Someone besides Katniss," Gale says, unnecessarily. There's a pause before he adds, "I don't know what's between Johanna and me. Sometimes she's normal enough, but other times, she pushes me away."
"She just doesn't know how to be happy," Peeta says, "she's lost everything. Maybe things will change after all this is over."
"I don't know," Gale says resignedly, "I'm not really expecting anything of her."
They're both silent for a little while, then Peeta speaks again. "I know Katniss loves you."
"Don't believe it," Gale says, "I see the way she looks at you…you won her over. Whatever was between us, it doesn't matter anymore." Then there's silence, and I assume Gale has left, though it's impossible to be certain, because of the velvet tread that I know he walks with.
Gale and Johanna? How did I not notice anything, when Peeta did? I mean, I've seen them talking a few times, but I never thought anything of it. And she did say something about thinking he was attractive, but everyone thinks that. Before I can stop myself, I start to feel angry. She's too old for him, I think, how could he even take her seriously, her being the way she is?
Gale is mine, I am his…no. That's not right. I'm not his at all, not anymore. So how can I expect him to still be mine? And Johanna…she's like him in some ways. I think of the time they were talking about their scars over breakfast. When I felt like she was being mean to him and implying that because he wasn't a victor he couldn't possibly know anything about pain or wounds. Did I misunderstand what was going on between them? Another thought occurs to me: they were both conspicuously absent from the celebration after Finnick and Annie's wedding. I assumed Gale was working and Johanna was in therapy or something, but now I wonder if they were together.
I suppose she's only two or three years older than he is. That's nothing, really. It's not as if she's more mature than he is. Gale had to grow up when he was barely a teenager because of the accident in which our fathers died. And whenever Johanna calls me 'brainless' I wonder about her maturity.
Still, I don't like thinking about it. I wish Peeta would just get over here so I can fall asleep for real. I want to sit up and ask him to, but I don't think he would want me to have heard any of that, so I remain silent and consider Peeta's half of the conversation. He told Gale I loved him. Oh, no. I haven't been as consistently demonstrative with my feelings as Peeta is (especially since we left Thirteen), but he must know how much I care for him. I just don't want Gale to see us together, and it's hard to see someone die and then just pretend everything is okay and hold Peeta's hand or hug him. Does he think I regret choosing him? I can't let him think that.
I don't know how much time passes before I feel him settling in beside me, but when he does, I pretend to just be waking up. I turn toward him, reach one hand out and, pressing it against the back of his neck, pull him in for a kiss.
When we break apart for air, Peeta smiles and says, "I thought you were sleeping."
I consider telling him that I was, but I don't want to lie to him, so I just give a little shrug. I pull him down so we're lying side by side, and I smooth the hair back from his forehead. After a few seconds of silence, he speaks again.
"Thanks for helping me toward the ladder," he says with a little smile, trying to lighten the somber mood that fell over us all when Boggs died, and has only gotten worse and worse since then.
"That's what you and I do," I tell him, interlacing my fingers with his and raising his hand up to my lips so that I can kiss the back of it. I want to say more, to assure Peeta that Gale was right. That whatever was between he and I is over now, and it doesn't matter anymore, but I can't find the words. "We protect each other," I add, after a few seconds.
Peeta nods and leans in to kiss my forehead. "Always," he whispers, then pulls me in close and we try to get some rest.
Finally having reached the part of the Capitol that is not deserted, we can now start to think about getting to Snow. His mansion is well guarded, but more rebel forces are arriving all the time. The Capitol is in a state of mayhem and it's dangerous just to be out on the street. Peeta, Gale and I are separated in the crowds, and I'm all by myself when I see the group of Capitol children, herded together in front of Snow's mansion to form a human shield. It's the worst horror of my life to witness the Capitol planes show up and drop bombs on them. I can hardly believe that even the Capitol would want to do this to the children. Then, I see some people going in to help and I spot Prim. What's she doing here? I thought she was still in Thirteen, as safe as anyone can be these days. I start heading over there, trying to reach her. I call her name and she looks up, I think she sees me…
And that's when the second wave of explosions happens. I feel pain, as some of the flames reach me, and I mercifully lose consciousness.
…Why aren't I dead? I should be dead…
I'm given morphling to keep me out for I don't know how long. By the time I have little enough of the painkiller in me to form rational thoughts, I'm told that Snow has been removed from power and taken prisoner.
We've moved into Snow's mansion. I'm still reeling from the loss of Prim and don't know who all is here, but I've been given a room, and so have Haymitch and Peeta. I'm wandering around one day when I unwittingly stumble upon the place where Snow is being held. Guards try to stop me, but Paylor appears, as if from nowhere, and orders them to allow me in. They must be her guards.
Snow's there, tied up to a chair. He tells me that he was hoping I'd find my way to him, and then he starts talking about what a waste the dead children are. He says that there would have been no reason for him to do it, something so unnecessary, especially at that point. And he says that it was a masterful move on Coin's part.
"I don't believe a word you're saying," I tell him.
"My dear Miss Everdeen," Snow says, shaking his head in mock disappointment, "I thought we agreed not to lie to each other."
In spite of myself, I wonder if he may be telling the truth. And I also wonder why Prim, who was only thirteen years old, would have been sent to the front lines of the battling in the Capitol the way she was. I know Coin and I have never really gotten along, but…no. I can't let myself think like that. I'll lose my mind if I do. Or… have I already lost it?
After this, I return to my room, but I'm soon called to a meeting with the other living victors and Coin. Prim is gone and I can hardly believe the world still even exists. I don't want to go to a meeting, I just want to feel the morphling seeping into me again and making all of the pain go away. But the world hasn't stopped and I can't stay like that forever, much as I want to. I force myself to attend the meeting, even though I feel so hollow that I don't think I even have it in me to speak.
"We're considering having another Hunger Games tournament," Coin tells us, "with the children of influential Capitol residents. I thought the decision on whether or not to do this should be left up to all of you. Your votes will be kept confidential, but it will be known that, whatever you decide, the choice was yours collectively."
I look around the room. Peeta, Finnick, Annie, Haymitch, Enobaria and Johanna all look as shocked as I feel. I can't believe that Coin would do this. Because she's lived in Thirteen her whole life, she obviously has not been affected by the Games as much as those of us in the other Districts, but still. I'm appalled, but manage to keep my face set in an expressionless mask. She's the same as Snow, I think, she's exactly the same. Nothing is going to change. I've lost Prim and now more children are going to die. Nothing will ever change or get better…unless…
Peeta, who's sitting directly across from me, is the first to speak up. "No! I vote no, of course! This is why we rebelled! Remember?" he says incredulously, looking all around at the rest of us. When his eyes meet mine, he holds my gaze until I look away, and down at the full glass of water that I'm clutching in both hands.
Enobaria is the first one to vote yes, followed by Johanna. "Why not? It seems very fair to me," Johanna says.
Finnick and Annie vote no, of course, and then everyone looks at me. I know what I have to do to make Coin think that I'm on her side, so she won't be suspicious of me.
"I vote yes," I say, "for Prim." I can feel Peeta's eyes boring into me, but I won't look at him again. I hope he understands what I'm doing. He's seen me do horrible things, so perhaps he believes that I do want the cruel insanity of the Hunger Games to continue. If that is what he thinks, I don't want to know about it.
"Haymitch?" Coin says.
If Haymitch votes no, it will be a tie, but we don't have to worry about that. "I'm with the Mockingjay," he says.
It's now that I glance up at Peeta, who looks completely shocked and exasperated at this turn of events. He frantically looks around at all of us again. "Wh-what about Beetee?" he asks.
"Beetee chose to stay in District Thirteen and work on his current projects there, so his opinion is irrelevant," Coin says dismissively. "We'll make the preparations for a reaping," she tells us, not even trying to hide her satisfaction. The public assassination of Snow will come first, though, and Coin assures me he'll be told about the Games. I'm supposed to do it tomorrow, in the City Circle.
The meeting breaks up and I go back to my room in the mansion. I pull the comforter off the bed and take it with me into the closet, where I lie on the carpeted floor and cocoon myself within it. I can't stop thinking of Prim, of the last glimpse I caught of her. Thoughts of what I'm going to do in the City Circle tomorrow occasionally surface in my mind, as well. I keep telling myself that I have to do it. I have no choice and it doesn't matter what will happen to me afterwards, anyway. I have nothing left now that Prim is gone.
I don't know how long I've been lying in the dark when I hear a soft knocking on the door of the bedroom. I ignore it, even when it's repeated twice more. I hear a voice that I think is Peeta's saying what sounds like my name, but it's hard to be sure from in here. "I'm coming in," he says more loudly, then there's shuffling around within the room, and eventually the closet door opens and light shines in. I pull the blanket up to cover my face, and I hear Peeta approach me, then sit down beside me.
"Katniss?" he says softly.
I don't respond, but he pulls me up and onto his lap, so that my head is resting against his chest. His arms wrap tightly around me and his cheek leans against my hair. This is the first time that his holding me does nothing to comfort me. There's nothing that could comfort me, I realize, if even Peeta can't. In a way, I'm almost glad. I don't deserve to feel comforted.
"Katniss," Peeta repeats. "I know how much pain you're in, but…this isn't the way."
So he did believe my vote of yes was a sincere one. Perhaps he thinks that if I change my mind we can have a re-vote. Or maybe not…maybe he's figured out what I'm really planning and knows it will result in my death? I don't know, but I do know that it doesn't matter what he thinks, because my mind is made up. I feel something wet hit my head and pull away to find that Peeta's crying. I suppose there must be some amount of feeling left in me, because I feel compelled to try to reassure him.
"Trust me," I whisper. It's not much, but I can't think of anything else to say.
I can see in his face that he does. Just like in the Games, when I shook the berries out of the pouch, and told him to trust me, Peeta will abide by my request. "Do you want me to stay with you?"
I shrug. It doesn't matter to me if he stays or not, but maybe I should let him, for his sake. So that he can spend every moment of the rest of my life with me. We end up lying side by side in my bed, not wrapped in each other's arms the way we usually spend our nights, but he does take my limp hand is his and holds it all night long. I don't know if either of us get any sleep before early morning sunlight starts slanting in through the windows.
Before we leave the mansion, Gale brings me a bow and a single arrow. It seems a bit odd and I find myself asking him, "What if I miss?"
"You won't miss," he tells me. Looking up at him, I can't help thinking of the bomb he designed with Beetee, the one made to kill those who rush in to help after a first explosion. When I found out about it back in Thirteen, I'd questioned if it was crossing some kind of line, and said, "I guess there isn't a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being."
I remember Gale staring at me with hostility, and his verbal response, all too well. "Sure there is, we're using the same rule book the Capitol uses when they design the Games each year."
Gale's right about my only needing the one arrow. When I get to the City Circle and see how close Snow is to me, I realize that I couldn't possibly miss my supposed target. I see Coin, too. Peeta and Gale are both standing with me. Looking at Snow, who is still tied up, I think again of when he reminded me of our promise, not to lie to each other. He's right, we did promise that.
I position my bow, hitch the arrow into place, and let it fly at Coin's heart. Time seems to stand still for a moment, and then she falls to the ground, dead. I hear the sound of Snow's laughter, and I drop my bow, knowing it's finally time to take the nightlock pill that's strapped to my wrist. I try to bring it to my mouth, but end up biting into the flesh of Peeta's hand. I pull back, look into his eyes and say, "Let me go!"
"I can't," he tells me.
I'm arrested of course, and imprisoned in my old room in the Training Center. In the weeks that I spend there, I try to think of a way to kill myself, but am unsuccessful. When I'm finally let out, Haymitch tells me that my trial is over, I've been acquitted, and that Paylor has been elected the new president of Panem. Haymitch, Peeta and I take a hovercraft back to District Twelve, where I've been banished until further notice. We barely talk on the ride home.
I spend the first month or so alone, mostly. Sitting, staring, hardly able to function. Greasy Sae comes over to cook for me twice a day, and Peeta stops by to check on me every afternoon. His visits only last for a couple of minutes, during which he asks if I need anything, and I shake my head, then he reminds me that I know where to find him, and says that he'll be back tomorrow. Then one day, I see Peeta outside planting a primrose bush for me and manage to thank him. After this, he starts coming over for mealtimes. And I start to realize that when he's around I feel better. Not good, certainly not happy, but better than I feel when I'm alone. It seems like I'm starting to come back to life.
One evening, he stays after dinner and we sit together on the couch for a while. When it starts to get dark, Peeta stands up, pulling his hand away from mine. "I guess I should get home," he says.
I don't know what makes tonight different, but at the sound of those words, I feel a sinking feeling in my stomach and I start to panic as he heads toward the door. I think of how all I have to look forward to now are the nightmares I'll have when he's gone. How have I been able to stand being without him for so many nights?
"Wait!" I say, standing up.
Peeta stops in the doorway of the living room. There's so much I want to say, but I can't find the words. He looks at me expectantly, hopefully, waiting to hear what I'm going to ask of him.
I swallow hard, then try to begin, "I -" love you, I want to say. Because of course I love him, more than I can believe. I didn't think I had it left in me to love anyone as much as I suddenly realize I love Peeta. But why is this so hard? I admitted to myself that I loved Gale, after his whipping when I almost lost him, but I haven't really thought about my feelings for Peeta in such specific terms until now. If anything I would think, I need him. I try to ask myself why this might be…because ultimately I love Peeta more than Gale. And suddenly it dawns on me. I spent so long telling myself I would never love someone in this way, that it was impossible to see what was right in front of me. It was easy to admit with Gale because we were friends, and it didn't scare me so much. I could love Gale and go on being friends with him. But Peeta? We've never really been friends and to admit how much I cared about him would have meant changing one of the fundamental things about myself. But now, I think I'm finally ready for that change.
"You want me to stay?" he asks, his eyes wide.
"I…yes, I really want you to stay." In seconds, he's reached me and his arms are around me. I feel more safe than I have in a long time. "Stay," I repeat. Peeta gently kisses my forehead, knowing that's all I'm ready for at the moment, then he takes my hand in his and we go upstairs.
Finnick and Annie have returned to District Four, and my mother is there, too, working in a hospital. Gale's gone to Two with Johanna and has some fancy job. Peeta, Haymitch and I are home again. Many of Twelve's former residents return, because it's their home, too. It's where we belong. But of course the place feels immensely lonely, with only a fraction of its former population restored.
We learn to keep busy. Peeta bakes, I hunt. We put together a book, a tribute of sorts, to those we've lost. In it are things that it would be a crime to forget. We put in photos if we have them, but if not Peeta draws pictures. I write things about everyone who we miss: Prim, my father, Peeta's family, Cinna, Madge, Rue. After this, Haymitch joins us, contributing memories of twenty-three years of tributes he was forced to mentor. These additions are much smaller, less detailed, of course.
The arenas are destroyed, and monuments built. I hear all about them in town. The names of every child who died in the Games (and the adults in the Quell) are carved into stones somewhere. All one thousand, seven hundred and forty-three of them
A year or so after our return, Peeta asks Dr. Aurelius if I'm allowed to leave Twelve yet and the answer is yes, though I'm forbidden from bringing a bow with me. Peeta, still far more social than I'll ever be, wants to travel some. He suggests going to see Finnick and Annie, and my mother, in Four. I don't feel ready yet, but I tell him I might like to visit them at some point. The truth is, I do think of them as friends, especially Finnick. And I'd like to see their son, and see the ocean again. Peeta offers to go to Two also, if I want. But I don't think we'll make it there. Destroying the Nut, getting shot, Gale…there are too many memories in Two.
I know I'll never fully recover from the Games or the war, but sometimes I feel happy again. And as long as I have Peeta, I'll be all right. One night, when we're lying in our bed waiting to fall asleep, he asks me what I've refrained from saying for so long.
"You love me now, right?" his voice is surprisingly unsure. I still haven't told him with words, but I can't imagine he doesn't know by this point. He must just need to hear it, I can understand that.
"Of course," I say. I expect him to tell me again that he loves me. I know it's true, and I realize just how much I need to hear it. But Peeta remains silent. Is something wrong? Why won't he just say it? Maybe my own words were insufficient. Somehow, confirming the way I feel about him seems to have opened a floodgate, because I feel like I have it in me to say more. I lift my head and look into his blue eyes, then raise a hand up to cup his cheek and stroke it with my thumb. "I do love you," I say.
Peeta smiles and leans in to kiss me for a few seconds. When he pulls back, he says, "I love you," and starts to stroke my hair. "I'll always love you," he adds, his voice soft and soothing.
And, though I didn't think it was possible, I actually feel glad of something again. I feel so glad that I have Peeta. That I've always had him. To give me the bread, to fight Cato so I could escape from him, and keep me company during that unbearable night on the Cornucopia and during the horrors of the Quarter Quell. To hold me night after night and comfort me when the nightmares strike. I don't know what I would do without him.
We've both lost nearly everything, but at least we've found each other along the way. Life can go on, no matter how bad our losses, it can be good again. And I have Peeta to remind me of that, just like a dandelion at the beginning of the spring.
A/N: If you're interested, I've written a two-shot companion to this, entitled Axes and Snares, which details what Gale and Johanna were doing behind the scenes during this story.
Thanks for reading!