A/N: So I know it's been done before, but this is my take on the story of how Peeta and Katniss grow back together after the war. I'm starting with Peeta in the Capitol toward the end of Mockingjay and going from there. I'll be writing from both Peeta's and Katniss' points of view.
For anyone who has read my story The Lake, this will be the expanded version I proposed in the AN.
I'll be keeping everything (more or less) in canon for this story, but will be introducing new characters and adding a few twists along the way to keep things fun!
I find music very inspiring, especially when setting a mood/tone, and whenever applicable I will name a song or two at the beginning of each chapter. If you're not familiar with the song, or even if you are, I encourage you to look up the lyrics and/or listen to it.
Without futher ado, I present with love The Embers. Please enjoy.
Disclaimer: The Hunger Games and its characters are property of Suzanne Collins, whom I thank.
Song:In Repair by John Mayer
Chapter 1 – The Hospital
If the pain of the handcuffs around my bloodied wrists had allowed me to avoid falling into the poisoned recesses of my mind, then this pain rockets me fully into reality. For a brief, blazing moment, I know everything I am experiencing is absolutely true.
I had seen only a flash of fire and heard the blast and screams at the first explosion. In the short span before the second round of bombs go off, I see her: Katniss calling out to Prim, who turns to her sister the moment before flames engulf her body. My Mockingjay, too, is aflame. I am blinded by the deep and resounding truth of my love for Katniss, my desire for her to live.
And then it hits me. I am also on fire, my clothing ignited. Chaos and flames consume everything. All I can feel is the torturous pain of my smoldering skin, and all I can hear, in spite of the din around me, is Katniss' screams.
The screams stay with me as I lose consciousness, joined now by agonizing visions of children, Prim, Katniss, mockingjays all burning and screaming, the birds echoing the shrieks of the others.
After a time, the screams fade, and different terrors take hold. I still hear Katniss, but her voice vacillates between sounding scared, calling for help, and being vile and cold, spitting vicious aspersions.
When I first become aware that I am in a hospital, I'm overtaken by confusion and dread. What had happened? Where is Katniss? Is she alive? Even in my medically numbed state, the prospect of her being dead sends a wrench through my gut.
They tell me she is alive, but also badly burned. That my skin may be painful and scarred for a while, but I would heal. That the rebels took the Capitol, won the war, and Coin leads Panem. The only part that matters to me is that Katniss lives. With this knowledge, I resolve to regain my physical and mental health so that I can help her regain hers.
Weeks pass. I endure the excruciating process of rebuilding my skin. Even after countless treatments, my body is mottled with tender swaths of red and pink. My singed eyebrows are yet to grow back in, although I've been told I can have them cosmetically restored if they don't. I'm still in the Capitol, after all.
One morning, sometime after my weaning off the morphling begins, Dr. Aurelius enters my room accompanied by a tall, willowy woman in a crisp white doctor's coat. Her smooth, glossy hair, simply but elegantly styled, suggest she is a Capitol citizen, but her wide eyes and smile covey genuine warmth.
"Good morning, Peeta," Dr. Aurelius says. While he's part of my team of doctors, Dr. Aurelius has never actually treated my burns or other injuries. I have the feeling he's a mental health doctor of some kind, keeping an eye on me.
"Good morning," I reply, pushing aside the remains of my breakfast.
"Peeta, this is Dr. Aceso, an associate of mine. We have been discussing your condition with your burn doctors, and we feel it is time to resume your mental recovery. If you feel ready, that is."
"Yes, of course I do." I pause. "Can you?" I ask solemnly. The doctors in District 13 had helped somewhat, but I know I'm still not right, that much of what I remember may not be real.
"We certainly hope so," says Dr. Aceso. Her voice expresses the gentle sincerity of her eyes, golden and mellifluous like her hair. "I've been reviewing the notes from your doctors in District 13. I believe I can continue and expand on their treatments. I've-" She hesitates a moment. "I've been researching something similar to the methods they were working with." Dr. Aceso's voice drops and she takes a step toward my bed. "You've been through so much, Peeta. We all think you deserve to get well, go home, and have a quiet life. Or whatever kind of life you want."
A quiet life at home sounds exactly like what I want, but only under one condition. "What about Katniss?" I ask.
"Miss Everdeen is recovering from her burns and should be discharged from the hospital soon. She will remain in her mother's care for the time being," Dr. Aurelius replies. "It is our hope that you both will be able to live as normal a life as possible after this is all said and done."
"I'd like that. Let's get started then."
The plan was simple enough, in theory. Katniss and I both get better, then return to the remains of District 12 and try to piece together what remains of our lives. I even feel like it's working for a while. Some days, the doctors just want to talk to me, but most of my therapy consists of using drugs to re-modify my tainted memories. Dr. Aceso, who seems surprisingly adept at this process, is developing a schedule of different medications and their doses to be given when I experience certain types of memories. While I really don't understand the medical science, it seems to make me less confused than my treatments in District 13 did.
On the appointed day of Snow's execution, I am told I am needed by President Coin in a meeting of some kind. What could they want me for, and what can it possibly have to do with the execution? I'm baffled. After I shower, I change into a gray District 13 soldier's uniform that's been provided for me.
There's a knock at my door. One of my doctors, a middle-aged man by the name of Dr. Albright, has come to take me by car to the president's mansion. The trip is only a few blocks, but we're silent the whole way. I have a feeling that whatever this meeting is about, it's not going to be good.
As we are being lead through the hallways of the mansion, Haymitch, wearing a matching uniform, joins us.
"What's going on?" I ask under my breath.
"Not sure, exactly," he answers as we turn a corner. "But I caught a glimpse of Johanna and Annie Cresta on my way over, also dressed in Thirteen grays. It looks like Coin's gathering the victors together."
Victors. Katniss will be here. Of course. She's killing Snow personally. The last time I had seen her, she was on fire. I can tell Haymitch is thinking something over, but before I can ask him anything, he growls, "Look, I don't know what's going to happen in there. But try to keep your cool, alright?"
"I'll try," I say.
We enter the room to find Beetee and Enobaria sitting at a large table. Johanna and Annie soon join us. No one seems to know what we're doing here.
Katniss comes in, as confused as everyone else. Despite the perceived strength of her Mockingjay suit and the deft work of her stylists on her hair and makeup, I can detect her burn scars and the hollow cheeks and sunken eyes that suggest she isn't well.
Coin enters after Katniss. I can barely listen as she explains the so-called Mockingjay Deal and the current state of Panem. I'm staring at Katniss, searching her face for information. It's like being back at school, wanting only to take her in while I'm supposed to be paying attention to something else. I quickly turn away as she raises her eyes to meet mine.
I start listening to Coin, if only as a distraction. It works. She's suggesting a new Hunger Games, using Capitol children.
The idea is absurd, and I say as much. Is this what the rebels fought for? For the right to be just as cruel and hateful as the people who oppressed us? I rant and object and protest, give every argument against the idea I can think of. I would pound my fists on the table if I didn't have to grip its edge so tightly to avoid letting my fury get the best of me. But all is in vain. Haymitch casts the final vote with Katniss, and it's done.
I try to figure out what just happened as I'm ushered with the rest of the victors to the room where we will watch the execution. It looks like we'll have a clean view through the windows. At least something today will be clear. I hear the growing clamor of the crowd outside, and I can't help but be sick at the fact that killing continues to be public spectacle in Panem. My thoughts are spinning. Why did Katniss agree to more games, and why did Haymitch agree? It makes no sense. Unless…unless she's planning something, trying to keep something hidden. What are you doing, Katniss?
I am overwhelmed by the stench of blood and roses. Snow is brought through the room and out to the terrace and a vociferous ovation. His waxen, skeletal appearance makes his surgically enhanced face grotesquely distorted in its gauntness. I don't think he needs an arrow to the heart to die soon.
Katniss takes aim. A nation holds her breath. And Coin collapses, dead.
I instinctively run for Katniss. Still on edge from earlier, I'm on the brink of a frenzied rage, but I know I'll be okay if I can get to her in time. Soldiers converge on her. I remember the nightlock on the sleeve of the uniform and realize she probably thinks she's going to be killed anyway. Pushing through the pandemonium, I see her. Katniss turns her head for it just as I'm able to grip the place where I know the purple pill is hidden. The pain of her bite lets me hold on to reality long enough to rip the capsule from her sleeve even as the guards rip her away from me.
I don't mind when Dr. Albright jabs the sedating needle into my neck. I've done all I can do for now.
Friend. Lover. Victor. Enemy. Fiancée. Target. Mutt. Neighbor. Hunter. Tribute. Ally. I mull over the list in my mind again as I walk slowly around my makeshift art studio in the Capitol hospital. I've returned to painting as part of my therapy. Sometimes, I find that painting a memory can help clarify it. I'm still not sure how well it's working, but the doctors are hopeful. They better remain optimistic so I can get out of this hospital. But when I go home, I go home to Katniss, and I'm still working on figuring her out.
I hadn't watched her trial.I couldn't, knowing what the punishment would be if she were convicted; she would die hating me because I had kept her from ending her life on her terms. It was harrowing, waiting for the trial to end, knowing even best possible outcome would leave her fractured, and the worst... I refuse to bring myself to imagine it. The only thing I could do to help her was try to get well myself. I had to keep faith that there might be something to live for. I can't give up on Katniss, on me. To give up is to die.
Haymitch had awoken me this morning to tell me that, by some miracle, Katniss had been absolved of all charges and would be returning to District 12 with him today. After telling my doctors I want to be discharged as soon as possible, I had wandered around a bit before finding myself in my temporary gallery.
Many of my paintings of the games, including those featuring Katniss, were brought in from my house in Victor's Village. These are my true memories. If only they could talk.
I'm learning to separate my hijacked self from my real self; one is a cruel weapon devised of Capitol torture, the other an injured human being trying to unravel the mystery of Katniss Everdeen, friend, lover, victor, enemy, fiancée, target, mutt, neighbor, hunter, tribute, ally. Some words are easier to wrap my mind around than others.
Examining my own artwork, the tender subtleness and care with which I paint her, I know she was never a mutt, nor do I think she was ever my enemy or target. Those ideas belong to a weapon, not to me. I lump fiancée in the same group, also a product of the Capitol's manipulation.
I study more paintings. Tribute, victor, neighbor. These are the neutral words, the words based in fact. She volunteered to take her sister's place at the reaping, making her a tribute. She and I won those games, making her a victor and my neighbor in Victor's Village. None of these words seem to adequately define our relationship.
I examine an image of Katniss aiming her bow at a groosling in the arena, her bowstring pulled taut, eyes precision-focused on her prey. Hunter? Ally? While both of these words could be thought of as neutral, they both have meaning for me. Hunters are killers, no matter how you look at it. And for her to be my ally tells me, at the very least, that she wanted me to live.
Friend? Maybe. I hope so. She helped me, protected me, even when she didn't have to. I don't know why, exactly, but it has to count for something.
Lover? The Capitol, for all the misery they could subject a person to, hadn't been thorough enough. As I dig into my mind in the attempt to heal it, I find that there are more than enough pure, untainted memories of Katniss to know that I have always loved her. But, for all of her supposedly feigned emotion, did she ever love me? If it were all forced, all pure manipulation, I would be undone. There would be nothing left for me. But if some chance exists that any of it was real, if there's a thing in this world left for me to live for, it's Katniss.
I come upon my favorite portrait of her. An ethereal image conjured out of a dream come true. I was lying in that cold, dank cave, wracked with fever, convinced I was dying. Hazy visions swirled around me, specters of bloodied tributes, my family, Katniss. Mostly Katniss.
I was having a fevered dream in which I was lost in some vast, featureless expanse filled with a uniformly dense, unrelenting fog. I hear Katniss' voice shouting my name, but she sounds like she's a million miles away. No matter what direction I run in, her voice stays faint, barely audible, desperately calling out to me, but I can't find her.
And then I had awoken, briefly, to find her hovering over me, running a damp cloth over my face, her beautiful black hair framed against the stone gray of the cave, the intensity of the steely rain, the silver of the mist in my dream, the shade of her eyes.
This memory, I'm almost certain, is real. It came to me in a rush, along with many that weren't so pleasant, when I first looked through the paintings after they had been brought here. I had to work up to being able to handle the paintings with Katniss in them. The doctors started me on landscapes of the arena and the the Cornucopia, and then progressed to other tributes as my mind attempted to piece together a true account of that first Games.
The first time I was shown an image of the rock cave, I was jerked into a luminescent vision of terror and rage, knowing that traitor mutt Katniss had trapped me here to leave me to die after having Cato slash my leg. She enters the cave ostensibly to kiss me and care for my wounds, but hisses venomously under her breath about how she's playing poor, pathetic, lover boy Peeta for a fool, how she's going to kill everyone in this arena, then everyone in Panem.
The vision continued to terrify me, even through the haze of the drugs the doctors knocked me out with after I went ballistic. I came to strapped to my hospital bed, my body sore, my mind exhausted. That wasn't real. Katniss isn't a mutt. She saved my life in that cave. I want to question the kisses, but I can't.
How long had it been since that episode? Eight weeks? Ten? Sometimes I feel as if I've been imprisoned in this hospital. Wanting desperately to be stable enough to go home, I've plunged into my therapy with the same determined focus I channeled when we trained for the Quarter Quell. My goal, I have decided, remains keeping Katniss alive, and I can't do that from here.
I examine the portrait of Katniss. It still evokes images of varying degrees of sheen, but as I run my fingertips over the brushstrokes, I am suddenly struck by a different memory. The memory of creating this particular canvas. I had labored over it for weeks, coming back to it even after I began other work, making every tone, every detail so precise. I became obsessed with shades of gray.
I add one more item to the list of things I know for certain: This portrait of Katniss Everdeen was a labor of love.
Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath and exhale, exhausted. Dinner must have been over an hour ago, and even though I'm allowed to be out of my room now that I'm more stable, I should go back. No need to give anyone any reason not to send me home as soon as I'm able. So I head back to my clinical cell and brace myself for the nightly phantasmic mosaic of torture and pain, of loss and love, of bread and dandelions and Katniss.
I glance around my room. I would pack, but my only real personal possessions are my paintings, and all of them are already on their way home, as I will be shortly.
A knock on my door, the second of the afternoon. The first had been Dr. Aurelius, who had wished me well and asked if I could check on Katniss. "Please tell Miss Everdeen that I cannot properly treat her if she will not answer her telephone."
This time, I find Dr. Aceso in my doorway. "Ready to go?" she asks as she walks in.
"I hope so," I reply, returning her easy smile.
"Only one way to find out," she says. "Let's go. I'll be accompanying you in the hovercraft to District 12, but I won't be staying," she explains as we make our way toward the roof.
During the journey home, Dr. Aceso verifies that I know the dosages for my medications and when to expect her phone calls. "And you don't need to wait for me to call, if you need anything," she offers. "How do you feel about seeing Katniss?"
"Nervous," I say. "I don't know how she'll react to seeing me."
"You've missed her." It's not a question. We've had this discussion before. "Remember to be patient with her, and be patient with yourself. You've seen firsthand how surviving such horrific events can change a person. But never forget that at your core, you are still the loving, giving young man you were before all this started."
"I hope Katniss can see what you do," I say.
"I think she will." Dr. Aceso normally looks me in the eye when we talk, but for a moment her vision softens, like she's looking through me. "If there was ever any love at all, you'll find it again. I've seen love do surprising things."
I want to ask, but it's not my place. Night falls well before the hovercraft touches down on the barren lawn behind my house. A curl of smoke from my chimney tells me someone has started a fire for me. Before I even enter my house, I look toward Katniss' and find it dark.
Dr. Aceso walks up behind me. "You can see her tomorrow. Try to get a good night's sleep."
"Peeta," Dr. Aceso continues softly. Her tone has changed from her normally professional demeanor, as if she is speaking to a friend, a confidant. "If you love her, hold on to her." Her voice is barely more than a whisper, and her eyes have that faraway look in them again.
"Forgive me for asking," I say, "but are you okay? Did something happen?"
"I lost my fiancé last year," she says after a pause. "He was involved in the rebellion. Snow…" her soft voice trails off. I can tell there's much more to the story, but I won't pry.
"I'm sorry," we both utter at the same time, but with different meaning. There is a moment of silence in which I stare at Katniss' dark house, Dr. Aceso into the void of darkness beyond.
"I'll be going so you can get some rest," she says finally, attempting to regain her professional demeanor.
After Dr. Aceso and the hovercraft depart, I find myself alone in a house that has always seemed large, but now feels vacant and hollow as well. Sleep refuses to come to me, so I spend the remaining hours of darkness in my art studio, where I begin a new painting.
At the first light of dawn, an idea strikes me. Grabbing a shovel from behind my house, I head toward the woods. The early spring air is sharp, and as my head clears, I allow myself to wonder what the future might hold for me, for Katniss. For us. But for now, all I can offer is a gift of love to help bury the past.
I hope she likes it.
A/N: Thanks for reading all the way to the end! If you have any opinions at all on any part of this story, please review. Reviews are candy for my soul! LilD
I'm sorry it's taking me a while to post the next chapter. I had a hard time getting going with it, and I've been busy with work lately. But have no fear, I hope to have it up on Sunday or Monday! I hope subsequent chapters will come out faster, but I'll see what I have time for during the school year. Thanks for your patience! Love.