I took a week writing this, and I'm still not certain where it came from, but here it is anyway. Post-mockingjay, pre-epilogue. There is sex, but it's not gratuitous.
One Last Time
I am still here, somehow.
My bathwater is cool now, but I make no effort to move. The window is open, and the muggy summer air has given way to a soft breeze. Something outside twitters; a bird calling another. I hear no response.
My knees prickle with goosebumps, arched out of the safety of the water. I spend a lot of time in water these days. Somehow it eases my tight scars and puts out the fire in my soul. And so I am spent, quenched, and heartsick. The girl on fire, the girl without skin, the girl who lost her sister.
The distance from my heart to my mind seems too far to walk, to run, to throw a thought from one to the other. My mind thinks, but my heart has no response, and equally, my heart aches without informing my mind of why. Outside, there is fire, inside, I am a damp bog. Everything feels slow, hampered by my loss, my loneliness.
My hair feels a little thicker, but I am still conscious of the damaged patches. I cover them with my hands even though there is only Greasy Sae to see them. I wear long sleeved shirts, long trousers, and keep my outside on the inside.
They put me back together wrong. I am a patchwork doll, a toy of the Capitol and District Thirteen; one that they played with too roughly, and then reassembled in a hurry when I fell apart. I am outside of the game; outside of the world.
The Games are over. I did not win.
The moon shines bright through the open window. I love the fresh air, but am not yet brave enough to go hunting. I feel as though my raw flesh will attract every predator in Panem; a cooked meal, I think wryly.
Greasy Sae comes in with a warm towel. There is no point in trying to hide my scarred body; she has seen everything. She has coaxed me into nightclothes when I would fall into my bed in trousers and my old leather jacket. She has rubbed medicinal cream into my wounds when I refused to handle myself. In front of her, I am always naked.
I can tell that she is worried; I have been in the bath for more than an hour now. I have no wish to move, though.
"It's time for bed, child," Sae tries.
She keeps me going. She tells me what I cannot tell myself; time to wake up, time to dress, time to bathe, eat, move, eat again, and sleep.
My fingernails are chewed down, and with the help of the bathwater they are soft and pliant. I tug one between my teeth and pull, rip, until the nail gives way to the soft baby flesh underneath. I will regret it in the morning, when I have to function with the tender skin facing challenges that it wasn't meant for, but for now it stills my worried heart and body.
I do not speak to Sae, but I lift myself up. It is the least I can do for her; after all she has done for me. I am glad that after what seems like an eternity of rebellion, I can simply obey.
She wraps the towel around me carefully, and I step into its warm embrace. It feels like a cup of hot tea on a winter's morning; a warmth that comes from the inside out. I close my eyes, tired.
Greasy Sae leads me to bed, and I fall into the cushions. I slip into a robe and she combs out my hair. Whenever I try to reach up and do it myself, the scarred skin on the undersides of my arms will stretch and splinter. Once it cracked and bled. We agree that this is the best way, and so I let her handle the remains of my hair, but I close my eyes, because she has sat us so that I can see myself in the mirror.
"You ought to look at yourself," Greasy Sae says. I shake my head. "Look. Just open your eyes and look. Time heals."
"I can't," I say, and they're my first words all day.
"You can. I thought you were brave. Look at yourself, child."
Brave. Something about the word prickles inside me.
I sigh and open my eyes. At first, I focus only on Sae. Her old face, behind me, comb in hand. Then piece by piece, I fix myself together in the mirror. A start with my ear, then travel along the roots of my hair, then the ends. It's bad, but my hair is shiny and thick, revived by the lotions my prep team gave me. A new lease of life. And then I move to my face, because it wasn't burnt off. There is smooth, normal skin. My eyebrows are dark and full again, but my face still holds pain, and I can't look at it for long. So I move to my neck. There are scars there, and along my shoulders. I brush away my robe where I need to, so I can examine myself.
Time heals. Perhaps she is right.
The scars are no longer a raw, angry red. They are now a sweet, shiny pink. Some are even bordering on white, or olive. I am wearing my skin now, rather than it wearing me.
I can't look anymore though. I am exhausted.
Greasy Sae seems to be proud of me, because she presses a dry kiss against the top of my head before she continues to brush the tangles from my hair.
"The boy misses you, you know," she tries, now that she has had some success with me.
"He hates me," I whisper.
"He loves you," she throws back.
I know that we could go on like this forever. We are from the same part of the Seam, and neither will back down. We could sit here and throw sharp remarks at each other all night, and so I back down first. I sigh.
"They ruined him," I say.
"Just like they ruined you?" Sae asks.
"Yes," I say.
She sighs, and tugs a little too hard on a tangle of hair. I wince, and I'm not certain that it was an accident. "He said so, too," she says.
My heart feels ready to stop completely. "What?" I ask.
"He said that they've ruined you," Sae says, bold as brass.
"Peeta said that?"
"No," Sae admits, and then sighs heavily, "But it's not nice, is it? Thinking that someone you love has given up on you? Written you off as spoiled goods. And that second just then, when you thought Peeta had given up on you, you just think on that, because that's how he feels all the time. Poor boy."
"Peeta doesn't know what I think," I argue.
"It's written all over you," Sae says, "But we both know that if you'd been poisoned like he was, and you'd been filled with so much hatred, he wouldn't have given up on you. In fact, he'd probably just lie there while you wrangled the air from his lungs, still loving you."
I close my eyes because there are tears there, and I don't want to cry. Of course, she is right. Peeta would never have given up on me in the way that I have given up on him. But I miss him; the old him.
"He's still in there," she whispers, and ties off the end of my braid, "You're just not looking hard enough."
The next day, I open my eyes. I look. I watch.
The primrose bushes that Peeta planted are thriving in the warm summer air. The smell of life is sweet in the air. People pass by my house with wood and supplies, and their voices taste like hope as they begin to rebuild. Why shouldn't they; Panem is free. Or, as free as it will ever be. Still, I will not go outside.
Peeta comes for breakfast for the first time that morning.
He is silent when I walk in, and I almost start at the sight of him. He looks healthy and fresh faced, like he's been running in the morning sun. I am feeling tight and muggy in my clothes, and for a moment consider fleeing upstairs and taking a cool bath.
Greasy Sae has cooked eggs, and I sit on my stool as though it might eat me. This all feels rigged to explode at any moment.
"Katniss," Peeta greets boldly.
"Hello," I manage, but I cannot look at him.
This is all wrong; I want the old Peeta back. I want to flee from this messed up version of the boy with the bread and be swallowed up in the warm arms of my bed. I want to hide behind a rock in my woods, with Gale, and let the wind cool my burning face. I want to kiss Peeta breathless, and hit him for leaving me here alone, but I cannot, because my skin is too tender to punch anyone. I will rip apart.
And so I eat my eggs.
"Beautiful day," Peeta says.
I throw my plate at the wall. It smashes with a satisfying crash. I like it; the stain of eggs on the Capitol-white kitchen wall, right next to the old pins where my little sister's best school work had been proudly displayed. I had ripped them down. It looks right; damaged and broken, and I am so, so glad that no one can tell me what a beautiful day it is anymore, because I have just thrown something and upset the balance of things. I consider throwing something else, but then I think that the balance would over-tip and everyone would disappear away from me. I do not want that. In fact, I have no idea what I want.
Greasy Sae hovers with a damp cloth over the mess, looking pale and shocked.
I glance at Peeta. He is staring; just staring at me. As though I've just said something vaguely interesting. As though I'm not hurling projectiles at kitchen walls.
As though he isn't scared of me anymore.
It doesn't matter, because I'm scared of him.
I cover my neck with my hands, and try to keep myself from choking on the memory of Peeta's, crushing the life from my windpipe. I choke back tears instead, and try to tell myself that the tightness in my throat is from the upset, and I'm strangling myself from the inside out with my own stupidity. Peeta's hands are safely on his knife and fork.
This helps a little, and Greasy Sae has placed another plate of eggs in front of me, muttering something about how I don't deserve them.
"Well, those eggs sure had it coming," Peeta says.
There is a stunned silence. No one has cracked a joke in this godforsaken house since I returned here. It rings out, and sounds so much like the old Peeta that I want to box the moment, squeeze all of the air from it and keep it from rotting away. But it just gets stored in my memory, in the file marked; old Peeta, and the moment is gone.
Greasy Sae chuckles and I realise that I resent her for laughing in my house.
Face burning, but feeling better, I sit down and eat my breakfast, Peeta's voice still ringing in my ears.
"The markets on today," Peeta continues pleasantly, "They're selling fruit half price because the weather's been so good. I'm going to pick up some apples and strawberries, to put in pies. Maybe even blackberries."
"Pick me up some plums, would you?" Greasy Sae asks, and nods to me, "Stew with plums is all that brings half a smile out of her these days."
I can feel Peeta's eyes on me, "I can bake you some cheese buns, if you'd like, Katniss?" he offers, "You like cheese buns, right?"
"I...sure," I say lamely, "You remembered that?"
"Dr. Aurelius told me."
I think back to one of my only successful conversations with the psychiatrist. He had asked me what I remembered of how Peeta was, and the floodgates had opened. I could talk about Peeta; about our memories, because they were from a time before the pain. I told him about the cheese buns, and the last night spent on the roof, and how when he held me, the world went away.
I squeeze my eyes shut. After that phone conversation, I had shut myself away for three days; hadn't uttered a word, and let myself long for him.
Peeta's hand jerks across the table, as though he's about to reach for mine, but I snap it back at quick as I can, and he seems to shake himself out of some kind of madness, frowning.
I force down the last morsel of eggs, but my throat feels like sandpaper.
My head hurts, and I want to smash my empty plate over his head this time, for being so here, but so far away. He left me, all alone, while crowding me at the same time. Peeta, who held me in the darkest moments of my life, when other's hunted me down, who slid poison into his mouth side by side with me. Peeta, who swore he would be with me always. And here, he left me in the darkest moments of my life, and let a stranger take his place.
Where did you go, Peeta?
Why did you go?
"I found a patch of land for my bakery," he continues, so bright he's scaring me, "With the market stall doing so well, I can't wait to get business going again."
Peeta sells the things he bakes – or rather, Greasy Sae's granddaughter does – at the marketplace on Sundays. Everyone thought that she was simple minded, but with proper instruction and supervision, the young girl is more than capable of selling the little cakes and pastries. Still, people are sure to give her the correct change, and are always kind to her. There had been several other girls and boys who applied for the job, but Peeta had insisted that he hire her.
He is kind; rooted in my heart, but unreachable.
With a sense of purpose, the girl has grown taller than anyone thought she would.
I want to wrap my arms around him and never let him go.
"I think I need to excuse myself," I mumble.
"Are you feeling sick?" Peeta asks.
"Yes, I feel sick," I say.
All eyes are on me as I move away, back up the stairs, back to bed, where I am safe from my own feelings, where I can dream of Prim, of the past.
How I long for that sort of love; the love I had for Prim, and that she had for me. Pure, unquestionable, uncomplicated. This warmth that I feel for Peeta is so riddled with doubt and uncertainty that I can't grasp it, can't hold it in my fingers and let it warm through me. It squirms around uncomfortably in my stomach until I'm sure that I'll scream, because there's something of him missing, some holes in the jigsaw that will never be filled. And do I want to love this Peeta? Can I?
He loves, so hard and so passionately. But I still do not know if he can love me.
There is anger inside me; anger for the Capitol, and for Snow, and for everything they took from him, from me. The boy who didn't want to kill in the Games for fear of losing himself. His soul meant so much to him, and so much to me. He was everything – is still everything that I wish I could be. Free, feeling, loving, kind, generous, gentle.
He is all that is good within me. The better person.
But now, hate will sit within him forever, waiting; stifled but present. The boy who could not kill would strangle me to death.
And I know that what Greasy Sae told me is true; if I had been hijacked, he would have loved me even as I squeezed the final breath from his body.
I should be able to do the same for him.
But instead, I stay in bed, a coward. I can hear, through the open window, the faint sounds of the crowded market. In the square, children will be coming out of school, dragging their parents to buy them a fresh apple or even, if they're lucky, some honey or jam to eat with their bread. It's Friday; things seem better on a Friday. With the end of the Games, there came a new love for children; people would indulge them, let them play out longer after sunset. Each child is cherished, for each child survived. We are all victors.
I open my eyes. It's well past sundown, and the sounds of the market have drifted off. Peeta is there, in the doorway, his skin flushed with the heat of the day. I pull the covers up to my chin.
"I'm sorry, Greasy Sae said I could come straight up," he says, looking at his shoes.
"It's fine," I say awkwardly.
I notice that he's holding a small earthenware bowl in one hand, and a glass of something in the other.
He looks so earnest, so sincere and unsure, that I invite him in. He smiles and sits awkwardly on the side of my bed.
"I brought you some strawberries and cream," he says, and holds the bowl out, "And a glass of lemonade; it's good, they're selling it by the bucket load to the school kids."
I lip my lips, which are dry, and accept the gift. It tastes of summer; of a childhood that we could never afford. My eyes sting; Prim had once been given a lemon as a prize for the best drawing at school. The teachers had told her that she could make lemonade with it, but we had been too poor to afford sugar. Without the heart to tell her that sugar was a vital ingredient, we had let her squeeze out the lemon juice and hand us a tiny glass each. My mother hated sour fruit, as do I, but we both drained our glasses and lavished Prim with praise for her drink.
But this is good, this is sweet and perfect and cool. I am so desperately warm and stifled beneath these sheets, I realise.
When I set the glass on my bedside table, Peeta hands me the bowl, eyes on my face.
I have only eaten strawberries a handful of times. These have been grown here, in the Seam.
I can barely contain myself at the taste; not something alien and engineered, from the Capitol, but the gorgeously sweet taste of a thriving hometown. The strawberries are lumpy and misshapen, and beautiful. The cream is cool, and I eat as though I'll never see food again.
When I'm done, Peeta smiles at me, and takes the bowl back. "It's good to see you smile."
As I let my face fall, I realise that I have, indeed, been smiling.
"I could make you smile before, real or not real?" he asks, frowning.
"Real," I nod.
He looks sad. His eyes drop to the bowl of strawberries and he takes a deep breath.
"Do you think I could still make you smile?" he asks.
"You just did," I remind him.
"Without the strawberries. Without anything," he counters.
I bite my lip. My smiles are rare, especially now. I cannot bring myself to give them; each one feels wrong, like cheating, like dishonour.
"I don't know," I admit.
"When we were in District Thirteen…when I was…ill," Peeta begins, "Delly told me that the way you smiled for me in the Games, was like a gift. Like, she'd never seen you smile that way before, and she's known you all through school."
"I smiled in the woods," I reply, without thinking.
"When made me watch old footage," he continues, "I couldn't see it at first, but then I remembered how your eyes lighten when you smile, when you really smile, and how your left cheek lifts before the right, just a little. How would I remember that if I'd really hated you? If I really wanted you dead?"
He seems to be talking to himself more than me now, and I shift uncomfortably.
"You didn't hate me," I say.
"No, I loved you," he nods, and it's almost like he's repeating a mantra, something drilled into him. I don't like it.
"Yes," I whisper, and grip my knees.
And then he surprises me. He hasn't touched me in months, but he reaches out and traces the side of my face with his fingertip, as though checking I'm real. I gasp, and almost flinch away.
"Am I so different, so changed?" he whispers, broken.
"Yes," I reply honestly, "and no."
He leaves shortly after, saying that he has bread in the oven. I say goodbye, but it's hollow, and for a while I stare at the wall opposite me. Even now, I feel the tenderness of the gift he bought; not only strawberries, but that warm ache that can only be brought about by someone who cares, truly cares, deep down in their heart. When I hurt, he hurts, and when I heal, perhaps he will too.
We are linked, whole but broken, a few houses apart but worlds away. There's a wall between us and for the first time, I feel strong enough to fight it, to claw at it helplessly, and pound it with my fists, but still not strong enough to break it down. At least I am no longer sitting next to it, unable to do anything but wait for him to try and break through to me.
In my heart, I shout for Peeta, and hear him shout back; faint through the wall. He is screaming for me, I know.
The first dark day of summer; the clouds block the sun, the windows are shut tight against the wind and District Twelve huddles collectively against the elements. There is a tendency to dwell on days like this; the people who live here need a chance to do so, after all we have lost. On these days, I do not hear the sweet laughter of children from the square. I do not get visits from Peeta, and even Sae neglects to visit. She lost, too.
A dark day, indeed.
And so I do what I always do on a dark day. I curl up in Prim's old room, in Prim's old bed, and ache. I hold Buttercup as close as he'll allow and weep until my mind hurts so painfully behind my eyes that my body will allow no more tears. I do what I need to do, so that tomorrow I can function. I can go through the motions.
I hurt. I let the pain come through me and do its work. I let my skin ache and burn and weep at the slightest touch. I am not the Mockingjay here, not today. Today I am lost, like the rest of my world.
Greasy Sae does come today, but she is pale and preoccupied. Rain brings tears.
She sees mine; she has only seen me cry a handful of times. I cannot see through them, and my eyes hurt so terribly that I fall to sleep without much provocation, because my body has had enough of this.
When I wake, Haymitch is here.
He has been drinking, but he looks steady enough. His eyes hold nothing different; no sense of mourning or misery; well, no more than usual. He sits at the kitchen table, tracing patterns on the wood with a surprisingly careful finger.
He looks straight at me, and offers me a drink. I refuse.
"They want you to-"
They cannot want nothing good. They never do; whoever they are. I've lived from year to year in service to them. They are my captors, my killers, my prison guards, and the death of my sister. I owe them nothing.
"Panem wants to see you forgiven," Haymitch tells me, leaning forwards.
"Forgiven?" I scoff.
Haymitch belches loudly and drains the bottle of its last few drops, then says, "Forgiven. Everyone loves a martyr, sweetheart. They're good for morale; they get everyone feeling warm and fuzzy. And that's what they need right now."
"They need to me to remind them how many people died?" I say quietly. "How many children burnt up? They really need to be reminded of that?"
"They want to see that what you did was real; they want to know that you still exist," Haymitch corrects, serious, "They want to see you."
"I don't want to see anyone."
Somehow, he realises that my statement encapsulates him too, and he nods and gets up to leave. Before he does, he rests a hand on my shoulder. I almost cry.
I wake in the middle of the night, with a cry that I always seem to miss. I can hear the echo, and the resulting shuffle of the birds outside, but never the words themselves. Perhaps I call for my father, or Prim. Somehow I can't imagine that I call for my mother.
I am soaked in sweat, and I peel off my nightshirt, letting the cool night air skim over my naked skin.
Each breath is like ice in my chest. The muggy room is deceptive.
I am so desperately sick of this house, but so tied to it. If I leave, I might miss Prim. She might come back and see that I'm not here; that I left her. She might cry out, and it will be lost forever, unheard in this horribly large home. I want to move, I want to run, and hunt, and live and feel the blood pound through me. I want to run outside right now, naked as the day I was born and dive into the lake. I want to be free of the things that keep me uncomfortable.
I am so bored, so tired.
And so, with Greasy Sae's voice ringing through my ears. I tug the sheet from over the mirror, and stand before it, naked.
Look at yourself, Katniss.
In the soft moonlight, I am glowing. But not in a sweet way. Not in the way that Prim used to glow. I am still a patchwork doll, but my patches are so tight and raw that my surfaces reflect the light. My stomach, my breasts, my legs, they are not mine.
I wonder how Peeta looks, beneath his clothes. I wonder if he still has the fine blonde hair that had stuck in the mud all those years ago, prickling on tender skin, shining in the sun.
I find that I cannot picture him unclothed.
I pity him if he ever sees me.
Holding back tears, I put a fresh nightshirt on. The breeze has dried my sweat to my skin.
I want him here; I want to be held.
I want so many things and nothing at the same time. I want the night to carry on forever, the sun never rising, and I can sleep for so long I forget that I'm a martyr, and forget my own name. I can dream of Prim and play in endless fields with her, where there are no demons, no fires, and no hunger.
And suddenly, like a bolt of lightning hitting me, I do not want to lie still anymore.
It sends me fleeing downstairs and into my boots. It coaxes me into a coat and out the front door. It pushes me into the night, down the street until I am knocking on Peeta's door.
He has barely answered, all rumpled shirt and flannel trousers, before I am in his arms. He catches me with a tiny 'oh' and holds on tighter. I don't know if I can stand it; the warmth of him, the security. I don't know if I can deserve it.
I can feel his heart beating against me; I can feel each breath he takes. I am surrounded by life; every second, he lives. Death does not knock on the door behind me. There are no shadows here, with my ear pressed against his chest.
I hold him tighter.
"Are you alright?" he breathes against my ear.
I want to say that I'm fine now; I'm alright now that I'm here with him, but the words feel so weak inside me that they crumble on my tongue. I stay silent, and nod.
The past rushes through me with all the speed of a Capitol train. I see us running for our lives, curled up in a cave waiting for death, falling into the snow, lying to each other, holding each other, hurting each other. I see his hands around my neck, I see him burn with me, and I see him come back. He always comes back.
"I miss you," I breathe.
"I'm right here."
And just like that, I punch a hole in that wall that was between us. I can hear him now, clearly. I can breathe the same air.
He is right there; there is no old Peeta and new Peeta. There is just Peeta. And I vow to help him however I can.
I crumble in his arms, like the words I cannot say. And so instead, I say, "My skin's all wrong."
It comes out like a sob, and he shushes me gently. I can tell he is wary, unsure, but making an effort on my behalf.
Gently, he leads me to the sofa. Perhaps I was wrong about dragging him from bed, because he seems to have made a nest for himself on the sofa, and the television is on; a cookery programme where a finely dressed woman displays how to make the most out of food in these harsh times. It must be a Capitol show, because the woman talks about how to get by without silver icing and neon sprinkles.
He lays me down, and I go without question. The blankets are still warm, and he kneels down beside me.
"Did you have a bad dream?" he asks, and switches off the television. I almost miss its glow once it's gone. Everything seems dead now.
"I don't know," I admit, and stare up at the ceiling.
Now that words are needed, I feel myself pulling back into the darkness of my own mind, where I can be safe. I hate words.
Peeta nods and gently tugs off my boots. I slide out of my jacket and toss it aside. Peeta picks it up and hangs it for me. I wrap a blanket around my shoulders.
When he returns, every part of exposed flesh is safely tucked away. I am hidden like a pearl inside an oyster shell.
"Let me show you something," he implores, and gently takes my fingers in his.
I hesitate as he guides my fingers to the edge of his shirt, and then slips them under, moving my fingertips over the skin of his stomach. The scars are rougher than mine, and I can feel a sharp ridge of stitches. He watches my face for reaction. I give him nothing.
"How does it feel?" he whispers.
"Like a war," I admit.
"But still like me?" he asks.
"Yes," I say.
He removes my fingers and lets them hang between us; my choice, my rules, my turn. I bite my lip and tug his hand towards me, guiding them through the blankets until his warm palm is splayed on the scarred skin of my stomach. Everything in me says no, but I persist.
"It feels warm," he says gently, "and soft and tender. Does it hurt?"
"Sometimes," I say.
"Sometimes I hurt too," he nods.
Peeta looks ashamed for a moment, "I can't remember what you felt like before," he admits.
"Can I kiss you?"
I pause. It's taken me by surprise. He watches my face anxiously. "I-"
"I have to kiss you," he says, his voice cracking, "I need to remember you. I need to-"
I tug him towards me, and when his lips are warm against mine, I let my eyes fall shut. His fingers rest in the curve under my jaw, and I can feel the strain running through him. He is trying too hard to remember, to feel. I let him kiss me; I let him pull back the tiniest of fractions and then return, pulling my top lip between his. I let his thumb draw a shiver of delight from deep within my stomach as it flitters over the soft downy hair at the base of my skull.
I smile into the kiss, and he draws back as though burnt, staring at me as though he can't believe his eyes. The smile falls from me like butter off a hot knife.
And then he's kissing me again, and there's no room for smiles.
His tongue is hot against mine; he kisses me with more power than he ever has. His hands fist in my hair. His breath is unbearably warm against my cheek.
Blood screams in my veins, wanting more. My body hasn't been this alive since the fire.
We are alone; no one is watching.
He pulls back again, short of breath. I tug him over me, and bury my face in his neck. I want to hide in him, to climb into him, to be the better person. I want to love him again.
"Do you remember?" I ask.
"No," he admits, "but I don't mind making new memories if they're like that."
I am so tired now, and my eyes droop. He settles behind me on the couch, and makes no move to kiss me anywhere but the back of my ear. He keeps the blanket wrapped around me so that our skin doesn't touch, and I am grateful. I am still to raw, too sore, too scarred. But I can feel the pressure of his arms around me, for the first time since it all happened; the first time he's held me like this in forever.
It's like the ghosts scream at me, but I cannot hear. They try to reach me, but I am on Peeta's side of the wall, while they scramble at the side I escaped from. I know that in the morning I will be back there, back to listening to Peeta through at least five inches of awkwardness and reservation, but for now I am too tired to care, and his warmth feels so good.
I hold one of his hands in both of mine, trace the lines of his knuckles, and imagine him working the bread in his hands. I feel like dough tonight; soft and pliant in his hands, his arms.
He always was so persuasive, sometimes I half wonder if he convinces the dough to knead itself.
By the time the sun peeks through the curtains, we are once again separated by walls of doubt. In the light, everything looks different.
I untangle myself from him and slip away. I hurry home, back to the safety of the familiar.
On my way, I notice how beautifully cool the morning is; how the sky is clear as ice and wonderfully warm. My skin revels in it, and I pause for a moment outside my door.
I have a choice. I can go inside now, and do what I always do, or I can stay in the sweet embrace of summer.
I quickly slip inside to change out of my nightwear and collect my bow and arrow. Now that the Capitol has lost power over us, I do not have to hide them anymore; I can hunt as much as I like. Our District is our own. And so I walk through the empty square as the first birds begin to wake. I slip past the clear passage where the old fence used to be, and I let the woods open their arms to me.
I want to hunt, but I head for the lake. The route feels like an old friend.
It is so blissfully quiet here.
I close my eyes and imagine that my father was here with me. He would laugh and duck me under the water. He would sit with him feet under the surface of the water and let the tiny fish nibble at his toes. He would make things better.
I am so desperately lonely.
I slip out of my clothes, suddenly stiflingly warm, and slip beneath the water in my underclothes. I almost sigh in relief. The cool water quenches the fire on my skin.
I submerge myself, and then come back up. I gasp in the air. I squeeze the water from my hair and eyes and do laps of the pool.
When I am done, I lie on the bank and let the sun dry my skin and underclothes. I listen to the sounds of the forest, so familiar yet laced with the dread that fills my stomach. The sounds make me think of the arena. They make me think of Gale. They make me think of things I don't want to think about.
I dress because I need the rustling of my own feet to distract me. I hunt with sweet focus, and catch two rabbits and a wild turkey. I dig up some roots too. But soon, my body aches with the exertion. My muscles have had no real use for weeks, and so I tire easily. My arms hurt when I stretch my bow before me.
And so, I go home, leaving the woods behind me.
I have no real use for the game, so I drop it off at the butchers while his back is turned. He would not accept charity, but I am in no mood to accept money.
The square is busy now, and people stare.
When I am home, I strip off and go to bed. It's mid-afternoon, but I am tired. When Greasy Sae brings me a hot broth, I let it go cold and soon she takes it away, understanding that I do not want anything today. All I have gained from the woods is the clarification that the world has carried on around me, without me, without Prim.
I want the skies to weep for her.
I do not want to go into the woods alone again, and so next time I take Peeta with me. I leave my bow and arrow at home, deciding that I would teach him to swim. He is hesitant when he sees me, but walks with me as promised. For the first time, I am not irritated by his heavy feet on the forest floor. I am simply glad to have him here, alive, with me.
We slip into the lake. He shamelessly slips off his shirt and trousers, and moans in a way that makes me blush when the cool water soothes his skin. He is scarred, yes, but still strong and pale. There is a long, darker scar that dips from his chest and slips into his undershorts. His prosthetic leg shines beneath the surface of the water.
His boldness gives me courage. If he can be so vulnerable before me, then I can do the same for him.
I peel off my shirt and squirm out of my trousers, leaving my camisole and underwear. He turns around until I am in the lake with him, and then he smiles shyly at me. I do not return the smile.
I make him try to float for short amount of time, kicking his legs and getting a feel of the water.
He can remember a little of being taught how to swim in the Quarter Quell, but the real memories are so twisted that he thinks I pushed him into the saltwater in an attempt to drown him, thus resulting in him having to struggle and swim on his own.
This time, he has no flotation belt, and he ducks under a few times. It doesn't seem to faze him.
"Push through with your arms," I tell him, and hold him under his stomach like my father used to do to show me that I wouldn't drown. I had him.
Peeta is soon gliding through the water, a little clumsily, but he can get from one side to the other without setting his feet down. I am satisfied that for his first lesson, he has done well. And I have done well to teach him.
I teach him through the summer, until the leaves fall and the skies darken. I feel my heart cloud over at the thought of losing the summer. I feel as Peeta might leave too.
He comes to my house to sleep. He holds me. Sometimes he calls out in his sleep. Sometimes for me, sometimes for no one in particular. I cannot sleep most nights, but I am glad he is there with me. The shadows scream at me in a way that makes me curl into his side and bury my face in his warm shoulder.
Winter comes, and we take to staying indoors. Neither of us says it, but we feel safer inside anyway.
We work on a book; Peeta draws, I write. We sit in silence, or we talk; it doesn't matter. By the time winter is well and truly underway, we have developed a routine, and Peeta's bed in his house sits cool and untouched. We cannot sleep alone anymore, that much is obvious. We have been through too much together to face the horror of sleep separately. It is simply another danger, another night in the Games that we must protect each other from. We stand vigil, we soothe, we wait for morning, and when it comes, he goes home.
I wash my hair in a hot bath. I scrub my skin as much as I can stand, cleaning off the dirt of the day. And then for the first time since I had seen my prep-team, I take a razor and scrape off the fine leg hair that I have left. I am careful, aware of the erratic texture of my skin. I shave my armpits too, with the lightest touch I can manage.
My skin feels silky to the touch, hard on the ridges of my scars, but undeniably smooth. Suddenly I feel vulnerable, and can hear Peeta moving around in the room next to me.
Things were different this time, when he came to my house the air crackled between us. I am breathless around him.
Perhaps I am unsure, though, I think, surveying my trembling fingers as the soap slides through them and lands with a deep plop in my bathwater.
I am no expert, nor am I vain, but I am convinced that if the situation should arise – the kind of situation I am growing to fear – I will feel far more comfortable if my skin is free of its thickest hair. Perhaps my prep-team gave me some sort of complex, after all.
Peeta calls to me, and I tell him that I will be out in a moment. It's hard to keep the trembling out of my voice.
Do I want this? Really?
I stare at my arms, my torso, and my legs. Will he even want this?
"Katniss?" his voice is right at the door, and I jump.
"I'll be right there," I say.
"I can't go to sleep without you," he says quietly.
I take a deep breath. I squeeze the water from my hair, and tell myself it's now or never. I wish I could stay in the bath longer; it's so warm and blissful on such a cold night. But I know that as soon as I climb into bed, Peeta's arms will be around me, and I won't resist. I've stopped trying; stopped wanting to try.
I towel off, braid my wet hair, un-braid it when the roots tug on my scalp and bring on a headache, and slip into a clean nightshirt I laid out for myself. My fingers find the tips of my hair and tug on them nervously. I bite my nails. I do everything but leave the bathroom.
I hear Greasy Sae again; I thought you were brave.
It's just Peeta on the other side of that door; Peeta Mellark, I tell myself.
And with his name in my soul I walk in to him. I bite my lip, and he looks up. He always wears a shirt to bed too; his own body is hidden away. I know that while he isn't ashamed of his scars, he doesn't want them flaunted either. I see them sometimes, when he starts changing before I leave the room or when he swims with me.
"Katniss?" he asks, his eyes curious.
I don't say anything, and when I move so I'm toe to toe with him, and stretch up to press a kiss against his mouth, he makes a small noise of surprise and steadies me with a firm hand on my back. Always so steady.
Two years after we stood hand in hand in the chariot, on fire, and we're still clinging to each other, afraid of falling into the unknown, afraid we'll fall out of our chariot and onto the unforgiving floor below, where the other will be sped away with the parade, and we will be separate forever.
I hold onto him tighter. We do not normally kiss. We hold each other and fall asleep. We keep kissing as a means of jolting Peeta's memory; breaking him out of an episode or calming him when he is distressed.
Tonight is different.
I might break if he lets go. I might fall into my own mind and never surface.
He cups the back of my head and kisses me back in earnest. He was always better at this than me; he takes control of the kiss with the kind of firmness that I need. Its reassurance, hope, and love.
I push him so that he sits on the edge of the bed, and he looks up at me with curious eyes.
"Are you sure?" he asks.
I reply with a kiss. I surprise myself with its intensity so much that I barely notice as we fall to the soft mattress beneath us. Peeta's hold on me is firm, supportive and above all, steady. I may be a shell, the wreck of a girl from long ago, but he is a shadow of his former self too. We are ghosts, feeding off the remains of each other, on the cusp of love but never quite there.
He flips us and takes control, and I don't try to smooth my nightshirt when it rides up around my waist. My ribs are prominent; even more so with the aid of gravity, so I occupy him with my mouth on his. As surprised as he may be, he doesn't resist. I feel that perhaps he needs this; perhaps this will be cathartic to his damaged heart. His damaged soul.
Perhaps we can find something; some kind of salvation.
I search for the comforting skin of his back. It's strange, being so intensely intimate with someone for the first time like this, when you feel that you already know them so well; the feel of them, the smell of them. All in my hands, in this way that feels so different. A way that brings fire to my skin.
He tugs up my shirt before I can think. He pulls it over my head and pulls me against him. I gasp and he kisses me.
But then he's gone, pulling himself off me and moving to sit on the edge of the bed.
He looks desperate, clinging to the roots of his hair as though trying to rip them from his scalp. I am still for a moment, cold, unfeeling.
"Who are you, Katniss?" he asks through gritted teeth, and the muscles in his shoulders are tight under his skin, "What do you want from me?"
His voice is different, lower, and harder. I reach for him, and he dodges me.
He seems to weaken, and I can hear the tears in his voice. "I can't remember anything. Everything's so blurred. So confused. All I can think is that you're trying to kill me. All I can think is that I should kill you. But there are all these feelings. And I know that we hold each other every night. And I know that I want to make love to you. But, everything hurts. Everything that does not hate you hurts. When I touch you, it's like you're still on fire."
I am numb. I clutch the shirt to my chest protectively, trying to hide the scars, the hurt, and the humiliation.
"I think I should leave before I-"
He stands up, and looks at me for the first time since the start of his attack. His eyes are conflicted.
"I want you to know, that however much they made me hate you, I can't love you more than I do," he tells me.
And then he goes; he gathers up his clothes and walks out of the door. He leaves me alone with my thoughts, with the warmth of his love tingling like Cinna's synthetic fire on my skin, and the remnants of his hate like ice around my heart.
"They want you to make a public appearance," Haymitch says.
He's made the point before; I didn't let him finish. Deep down I had always known they'd want me back, they wouldn't just let me slip into anonymity; I wouldn't get off that lightly. If I wanted to be allowed to live here, at home rather than in a prison cell, I would be their pawn. I would continue to live on their terms. I am still captive; still a doll.
They still own me.
"And if I say no?" I ask.
"You know that you can't say no," Haymitch says grimly.
I swallow my fear. I have so little to lose now, but the little that I have is so precious to me.
"They want your boy too," he continues, "He's already agreed."
"I'm saying no," I say through gritted teeth.
"Then you'll be saying no through prison bars, and you know it. District Thirteen is who you answer to now, sweetheart. You killed their leader, their face of hope. And they let you go. You will do what they want, or they will make you. You know better than anyone how a prep team can disappear bruises for a camera."
I shudder at the thought.
"For what it's worth, I think you're brave enough to do this. I know Peeta is."
"I don't owe them anything," I growl, "I am nothing to them. Why can't they leave me alone?"
"Because you can't just disappear," he says grimly, "Not when you've been watched for so long."
A week later, I find Peeta sitting on the steps of my porch at dawn. The air around him is so freezing that it's almost fog. The frost clings to the windowsills, the steps, the primrose bushes. He's huddled into a thick jacket, with his hood up. I manage to creep up on him with my gentle steps.
"Don't you want to come in?" I ask.
"I wanted to, I wanted to come lie down with you," he nods.
"And you don't now?" I prompt.
He says nothing, but takes me hand in his. It's surprisingly warm, and there's that steadiness to him that I've needed for so long.
"You talked to Haymitch?" Peeta asks.
I nod, and my eyes linger on the primrose bushes. I find her in these crisp mornings, in the dawn. Just like Rue, I find my sister in everything beautiful. There are no blooms on the bushes, in the dead of winter, but I still find comfort and pain in the fact that her memory sleeps here, not in its peak but still present, always.
"I can't do it," I say.
"We might have to, Katniss," Peeta tells me grimly, and then he whispers, "Once more for the cameras?"
"It's not just for the cameras," I choke out, "You must know that by now."
"I don't know what I know," he whispers.
I feel suddenly empty at the thought that no matter how hard I have tried, Peeta is still ignorant of how much I care for him. I have failed, somehow, by letting him think that he is not loved, not cared for, after all he has suffered in my name, in the name of loving me, then hating me, then loving me again.
"Tell me more about it; tell me what they did to you," I request.
"They would show me pictures of you," he says, and then clears his throat when his voice starts to waver, "and ask me how it made me feel. I can remember, in the early days, I would tell them it made me feel happy, or that I loved you. It's all a blur. I think someone told me that you were a mutt, and I spat in their face. That's when the venom started. They knew they couldn't get hate from me with pain alone."
I swallow back tears, and squeeze his hand. The air is ice around us. I wait.
"I would dream about you when they started," he whispers. "They could make me hate you in the day, but at night, it would all come back, and I'd dream about holding you, kissing you, protecting you. It was so confusing. I would wake up and scratch my arms until they bled, trying to get the needles out of my arms. The only thing worse than hating you, was knowing what they were doing, and feeling them pull you from me piece by piece, memory by memory. I know…how I used to feel. I know how I feel now. I don't know if it's the same, but…it's all I have for you. I'm sorry."
He surprises me by bringing my knuckles up to his lips and pressing a firm kiss there. My hands are so cold I barely feel it.
"And you still feel it now?" I ask, "What they made you feel?"
"It's like it's deep at the back of my brain," he says, "and when I touch you, or kiss you, or love you, it scratches away at me, makes my veins burn with venom."
"Then you should stop," I say.
"I can't. I won't."
"Why? It causes you pain."
"Because if I stop loving you, then they win," he says.
I nod. Perhaps I was expecting something more; perhaps the old Peeta would have given me something more. But this is the Peeta that the Capitol ruined. I can see the old him in every look, in every kiss, but he is a ghost. A reflection. I long for the Peeta that would embarrass me by saying something horribly romantic, awfully touching, disgustingly fragile.
I stand up and fold my arms.
"So if we do this, what's expected of us?" I say, with the sudden urge to return to business.
"Haymitch says they're doing an anniversary special in the Capitol. They're talking to Plutarch and Effie and Haymitch. And they want to talk to us too."
"So we can't just stand there and smile?" I sigh.
"I guess not," Peeta concludes.
"I don't know if I can face them," I whisper. "I swore not to visit the Capitol; not again. Not after all that happened there."
I see Prim burn, I see my mother leave me, I see Gale follow me into battle and hover on the edge of death, I see Peeta sent to kill me, I see my arrow sink through Coin, and I see the Games end. We were so young, Peeta and I, when we made that chariot ride before our first games. We thought that the both of us couldn't make it through the month, let alone be alive to sit together on the front porch of my Victors house, as almost-lovers.
I am cold. I wrap my hands around the crook of his elbow.
"I'm sorry I ran out on you the other night," Peeta whispers, and rests his chin on the top of my head.
"It's alright," I mumble.
"It's just, all at once, my body was screaming at me to stop, that I hated you, that I shouldn't, that you'd kill me. But I wanted you so much too, you have no idea."
"Do you still paint?" I ask him abruptly.
"Yes," he says quietly, "Nothing I'd want you to see, though."
I sigh, and close my eyes, wondering what could be so bad that I wouldn't be able to look. I've seen so much, it's hard to imagine something that I couldn't stomach. Perhaps something involving Peeta hurting, or Prim, or Gale. Pain to the ones I love. The ones I loved. The ones ripped away from me. Because in one way or another, they're all gone. Some are more gone than others, but all have been taken from me. All that remains truly is Prim's old cat.
I hold onto Peeta's arm tighter; so tightly I might be hurting him.
I want to hide away the remains of him and tuck myself in with them. I want to guard what little I have left of the boy with the bread. The boy that slipped away from me. The boy that died a little, for me.
I rub my face on the rough material of his coat. His breath skitters, warm across the top of my hair.
"Can we start again?" he asks, and I nod. "I love you."
"Thank you," I say, because nothing else seems right. Not even the words themselves.
He knows I cannot say it. He knows I cannot love anymore. But in the broken way I can manage, I open the doors a wide as they will go for him. I let him fill me up, let him be my reason to wake up in the mornings.
"So, I guess we're doing this," I say.
"I guess we have no choice," Peeta nods.
My eyes linger on the primrose bushes once again. They hold the snow like iced cakes. My heart is so empty without her.
"Do you think they'll let me speak?"
We both know they will want me to say something to Panem; the real question is whether they will allow me the freedom that enables me to use my own words, and now something prepared for me. The chances are slim, but I know what I will say if I can. I know who I will thank. I know who Panem needs to be reminded of, because it doesn't matter if the Mockingjay sits here free and alive, because I piece of her died in the war, and that's the only piece that matters; Prim.
I want to thank my sister. I want to tell them how she died saving others, how she ran into the embrace of danger because she couldn't bear to see them suffer anymore. And above all, I want them to see just how much better than me she was.
"I don't know, Katniss. Maybe."
"I want to talk about Prim," I whisper.
I surprise myself. I had, for so long, wanted to keep her to myself, to keep her from the grips of our oppressors, so that her memory may be kept sweet and sacred. But now, the power of what she did struggles inside me, and I cannot contain it. There is grief, so much grief, but there is also pride. Pride for what she did for me, and for us all. The world should mourn her. And the world should know what it destroyed.
"It's strange," Peeta mutters, and when I look at him, his eyes are distant. "I know I had a family, I know that they're gone, I know that I loved my father, but when I think of them, I'm numb. There's nothing there. I guess my love for them wasn't strong enough to cling onto. They drove it out of me with hatred. Something had to give. I wonder if it would be harder if I did still love them; grieving them."
"Maybe," I consider.
He looks at me, his face flushed with cold in his hood. His breath spirals out in cloudy little puffs.
"Kiss me," he requests quietly.
I comply, and his face is so icy I almost jump. I wonder how long he's been out here. But his lips are attentive as ever, moving with mine in a dance we perfected long ago. It feels like an apology, reconciliation, considering what had happened last time we had become close.
"This feels familiar now," he whispers against my mouth, and cups the back of my head so I can't escape.
And then he sounds so vulnerable I almost cry; "Please, don't leave me. Don't let me fall back into what I was. Don't ever let me stop loving you."
"I won't," I promise, "I'll never leave you."
"I'll hold you to that," he smiles lightly.
We don't go inside; we just sit, watching the sun peak up from behind the houses. We share each other's warmth; take the chill of our knuckles with our breath and let the ice penetrate us deep down, until we can't hurt anymore. We are just together, numb, freezing, alive.
I don't know what we have; we were so close a few weeks ago to a normal relationship, and now the lines have blurred all over again, and I am reminded that Peeta is not a solid, steady presence in my life because he is just as damaged as I am, perhaps even more. Perhaps he can feel so much more than I can, because whenever I try to feel hatred, it dissipates into longing for my old life. I cannot hate any more. I am no longer strong enough.
I tell Peeta to come hunting with me, because the act of practicing with my prosthetic leg has taught him to stride in silence. Not as quiet as Gale, but still more gentle than he used to be. He makes an effort too, I know, because he knows it annoys me.
He tags along behind me, awkward, out of place, but when we reach a particularly high point of the woods, where snowfall has landed, he occupies himself with playing in it. He moulds ice together in his palms and forms beautiful little structures. He entertains himself while I manage to shoot two rabbits and a squirrel. Greasy Sae will be glad of them, but I am simply relieved to have something to do.
When I am done, we take the long trek to the lake, which has frozen solid. We press our toes against the ice and watch it crack. We look at the place where we came back together, where I taught him to swim, when our wounds still burnt and the sun was gloriously warm on our skin.
And when I take his hand and lead him away, homebound, I don't feel as though I've lost him anymore. I feel him there, in my hand; the boy with the bread. The boy who saved me.
He came back to me.
I can never, ever stop owing him.
My insides ache for Cinna.
I knew it would be hard to once again be handled by my prep team, but this time it is sickening me to my core. I try not to cry as Flavius handles my hair and twists it in a low twist at the base of my neck.
The train ride to the Capitol had come out of the blue; Haymitch had woken us early yesterday morning and told us to pack, quickly, because if we weren't on a train to the Capitol before noon, they would be coming to get us. I know why he didn't tell us sooner of the exact date we would be going; Peeta and I were good in a crisis, we could think on our feet, but left to dwell on what we would have to do, we would have grown slowly more and more doubtful of ourselves, tried to look for a way out, and done more damage to ourselves than good.
And so we had watched District Twelve speed away from us, with the first blooms of spring lining the train tracks.
My prep team now sport slightly less ridiculous fashions; it would seem that things in the Capitol were calming down. Venia tells me; "It's not in fashion to be ridiculous anymore, Katniss!"
She says it with such reproach, as though I had questioned her, and I smile at her, because she's so wonderfully naïve after everything that's happened to her. After being tortured by Coin, on my behalf.
They all sport normal-looking skin, although Octavia seems to have a faint green glow, as though she is the process of purging the colour from her skin. Flavius seems to have been too reluctant to part with his purple lipstick. Venia works on my nails, muttering to herself about the state of them, but she works gently and reverently.
We don't talk about Cinna, but his presence is everywhere.
We are not in our old Tribute's quarters. We are somewhere smaller, less decadent, but still more than I am used to. My skin is still stinging from Octavia's waxing, although she was gentler this time, in consideration to my damaged skin, and she used a special cream that numbed the pain a lot. I have far less hair now though, I suppose my skin was too damaged for anything to grow there, and it did not take as long as it used to.
"Your dress was made by a young designer called Milla Bone," Flavius says quietly, and I feel a pin slide into my hair, and miraculously the weight is held in place.
I nod silently. I had suggested that perhaps I could wear one of Cinna's designs to honour him, but they had shaken their heads and told me that it was all arranged. Besides, Cinna's designs weren't appropriate; they were too beautiful. This was a day of mourning, of remembrance.
Before they leave, they each kiss me on the cheek. I will see them again, I don't doubt.
They leave me to change by myself, and then Milla Bone will see me, to check that everything is in order. For a brief moment, I bring my raw legs up to my chest and let a handful of aching, sharp sobs take my body. I don't cry, though, conscious of the hard work the team has just done for me.
I slide the dress over my head, do the zip up, and wait for my stylist.
The dress is pure white, fitted, and simple. No embellishments, and no, not beautiful in the slightest. But still, elegant and strong against my olive skin. It falls to my knee and next to it, and pair of matching white heels sits, awaiting me. I don't step into them yet; I don't trust myself not to fall.
Milla Bones comes in quietly and closes the door behind her. She looks young, very young, and her blonde hair is scraped back from her head. Her face carries traces of old tattoos. I wonder what she used to look like.
"Katniss," she begins, her voice steady, "I'm Milla Bone, your stylist."
I nod once, and let her adjust my hair and shift the neckline of my dress lower. My mind is elsewhere, with Cinna.
"You're all fine," she nods, and I'm glad she isn't gushing.
Her deep blue eyes meet mine, and she says, "I was a student of Cinna's. He took a small number of interns every year. He talked about you a lot. And…well, we were all very sad to see him go."
And then that's it, and she leaves. I'm glad. I'm glad she's not a crier. If anyone had to replace Cinna, I'm glad it's her, because I know that it will be impossible to like her.
I can do nothing but wait. This hotel has no accessible roof, and so I am forced to sit in the hermetically sealed room, breathing stale air and scented candles that the prep team insisted on lighting in the name of calming my nerves.
There is a small knock at my door, and Effie steps in, wearing a white wig and a similar white dress to me. She is smiling fondly. I stand wordlessly, and walk over to her, embracing her tightly. She returns my embrace, and we part.
"Oh, you look wonderful," she says, and wipes away a tear from her eye. "Remember, stick to your script. And then you can go home."
I swallow the lump in my throat and nod. She cups the side of my face in the palm of her hand, and it feels so soft that I wonder if they use their hands for anything at all in the Capitol. "My girl on fire," she says fondly, and then kisses me on the forehead, precarious for once on her heels.
She leaves, and calls over her shoulder for me to try not to overbalance on my shoes because the dresses are shorter this time and they can see every wobble of the ankle. I am not reassured.
I cross to the window, and then back to the bed, then back to the window again, relishing the time I can spend on my flat feet. I look at my arms, my legs; at all the scars that are on show. Flavius dabbed some make up on the angriest of the marks, but they are still there, bold as brass, exposed by the shortness of the dress. And then my breath comes short, and I wonder if they made a mistake, because they cannot mean to send me out like this, with my broken body on show.
In my mind, I ask Cinna. I ask him what I should do.
And then I know that nothing happens without a reason here. The dress shows my scars because they want it to. They want the world to see. But do I?
I am so furious all of a sudden, because Cinna would never do this to me; never shove me in front of the nation like a prize pig. He would have covered me, protected me in his beautiful clothes, so that no one could see the tender flesh of my knees, my arms, my back.
I don't want to do this anymore. I want to run.
I am more than just a piece in their games, after all.
But then my feet are moving of their own accord, slipping into the shoes, balancing and then I am being led out by two Peacekeepers, down a corridor, riding in a lift, until I find a gaggle of lost-looking people in white outfits and I am one of them, another face in the crowd. Plutarch Heavensbee stands tall and silent next to President Paylor, who is being kept at a distance from me, I note, and is surrounded by several body-guards. Haymitch is adjusting the tight collar of an expensive-looking white tuxedo, talking to Effie. There are faces that I don't recognise, and some that I recognise as Victors of the Games of old. Faces I have only ever seen on televisions.
Crowds of technicians run around us, barking orders at each other as we are prepared.
And then Peeta is led inside, and I am glad of him. He is wearing a handsome white suit. He takes my hand as soon as he is close enough, and I stare at him wordlessly; imploring. I try to tell him through my eyes how vulnerable I feel in this awful, awful dress. How I don't want anyone to see me.
"I know," he whispers, and kisses my forehead. He wraps an arm around me as though trying to shield me from everyone's gaze.
It's not enough. In a few minutes we will be broadcast into every home in Panem. Homage to the Games. An anniversary of the war.
Peeta and I will be interviewed last, in front of a Capitol crowd. I feel as though we're waiting again, like we did, the last District, always the last.
One by one, the dressed-in-white people are called onto the stage. I am unsure how big the crowd outside is, but I hear only polite applause from them. No shouts, no cheers, no chants. It's almost terrifying, the expectation, the tension. When I step out, I will be in front of a broken world.
Effie and Haymitch join us, offer us a few words of wisdom, tell us to stick to what's been agreed, and then we'll all be able to go home safe and sound. Peeta and I agree, and soon they are called away from us, and onto the stage, along with a woman who I know won the Games a few years after Haymitch. I remember her decapitating her final opponent with a hacksaw.
Polite applause, again, and I realise there is no one left but Peeta and I.
We are next.
I grip his hand, and a polite applause sounds again, and several pairs of hands usher us out through a heavy black curtain, round a corner, and then the bright lights hit my face.
We are standing on a large stage, with every eye in the crowd trained upon us. I bring myself back to reality, focus on Peeta's hand in my own and let him lead me to a black velvet couch, where Caesar Flickerman is sat on a large, egg-shaped chair, ready to face us. He is not smiling, but he does not look hostile either. As ever, he is doing his job, and trying to make the best of us.
We sit, and Caesar wastes no time, "Miss Everdeen, Mr Mellark. This is a solemn day indeed. As tributes in the Hunger Games, you know better than anyone the horrors that were faced. Horrors which we're only just beginning to get the full grasp of."
I bite my lip. Of course, they understand now.
Peeta is speaking. Always, so reliable. "Yes, well, we're happy to honour those who lost their lives in the Games, and those who fought alongside us in the war, and helped brought an end to the injustice that was served for all these years."
I want to scream at Caesar, and ask why, of all people, they chose him to do this. Why, when he had been so complicit in the Games for so many years, would they choose him?
Night is falling in the Capitol, a quiet stillness embraces us. I let Peeta's voice wash over me, soothing, and think about how much nicer a crowd is when it's silent, and not screaming. I think of the interviews, the Victor's Parade, the endless bombardment of noise. But here, I have a crowd of people, huge, listening, hanging off my every word.
I cannot let this slip away. I cannot stick to my script, as Effie urged me to.
Caesar begins to turn to less serious topics, and draws a few laughs from the crowd as he banters with Peeta about our relationship, about how he's sure he can't believe his luck in finally having the chance to marry me, against all the odds. I tend to forget that the world doesn't know what happened to Peeta; his story is ours and ours alone. It's almost reassuring, that the boy with the bread still lives in the heart of Panem.
So, when it's my turn to speak, I say everything I'd supposed to, I thank those who helped put me back together, I commend President Paylor on fixing Panem, I talk about the Games and how much we lost. And then, when I'm supposed to be saying my final thank you, and folding my hands peacefully on my lap to indicate that I'm finished, I grip the edge of the sofa and take a deep breath.
"Of course, you know what I did," I say, and my voice shakes, "You know my story. You've been there with me since day one. But there's someone I haven't thanked. Many people, in fact, but one that I can't let go. You see, on the day when….when it all ended….I lost my sister, Prim. A lot of you may remember her. She…she died in an explosion trying to save injured lives. She…she deserves to be remembered, and to be honoured, as much as anyone today. And I, I love her more than anything."
I am done. The feel of tears behind my eyes is too much.
Polite applause follows.
As I walk back to my room with Peeta's hand in mine, my skin sings. I am no longer wounded. I can feel the memory of Prim buzzing around us, electric in the air, finally honoured. A caged bird inside me has been freed. I am free, almost, as free as I can ever be. People try to stop us, try to remind us that we have a dinner to attend, and that we are expected there in half an hour. I ignore them, and drag Peeta with me.
No one can touch us.
When the door closes behind us, I kiss him with enough intensity to make me tremble on my heels. I step out of them and push him backwards, towards the bed.
Because I am alive. I did not die in this war.
Peeta catches me around the waist and takes me with him. The bed is so wonderfully soft, and the springs don't groan as they do in my bed back home. The sunset stains the room red, and I pull back to examine him, to make sure he's alright, because the last time we did this, he was overwhelmed by poison.
His eyes are half-closed, drooping in the daze of passion, and he pulls me back to him for a deeper kiss, sliding his tongue along mine, showing me that he can handle this tonight, because after being thrown in front of the entire world, how can we be anything but our brave selves?
He flips me over and pauses on his arms to stare down at me, and then his lips are moving down, trailing over the skin that my white dress has left exposed and vulnerable. I find a noise building low in my throat and let it go, not caring about anything anymore, because we have nothing left to lose, nothing but each other, and we are safe now, safe in each other's arms.
I am electric for him, responding in a way that makes all of our old kisses seem sluggish and half-hearted.
I grabble with his shirt, and manage to push it over his shoulders. I press hot, wet kisses along his scarred collarbone, and his breath comes hot against my forehead. He wriggles out of the shirt and sets to work on the zipper of my dress, not pausing for ceremony, because we are so keen to be free of the Capitol, so keen to be home, that the only thing we can do is be naked together, stripped from the expectations of the day. Just Peeta and I.
He stops, short of breath, and then rids me of my underwear, kissing his way around my scars, drawing the trembling breaths from me like poison.
And when he finally stops teasing, and pushes into me, I cry out and cling to his sweat-slicked back, because he's all I have left, and I can never let go of him, and together we have both extinguished the flames from my skin and reignited them. I am the Mockingjay once more, not quite whole but as good as I will ever be, in his arms, arching up to him, at my utter, complete best. With Peeta.
My breath comes short, and I open my legs wider for him. He grunts in appreciation, and I think about blushing. Perhaps I am drunk off the sense of justice that has been done today, or perhaps it's the fact that Peeta is touching me, really touching me whilst keeping full control of his own tortured mind, but for the first time in a long time, I see the first dandelion of spring. I see the sun rising, and with Peeta beside me, beneath me, inside me, I can do no wrong. And I feel hope, right down to my bones. Hope for a better future, where the Primrose bushes will bloom every year and honour my sister.
We finish, hard and blissful and almost together, with the sound of someone knocking at the door telling us we are half an hour late for the dinner. Neither of us intends to answer it.
Peeta slips from me and I am boneless on the heavenly bed. I brush the carefully styled hair from my face, which was destroyed courtesy of Peeta's fingers, and try to catch my breath.
The sun is almost down when he wraps a warm quilt around us, and I am pulled to his damp body, filled with warmth, born from my own ashes, and when he asks:
"You love me, real or not real?"
There is only one answer.
It was always going to be. Peeta would always come back to me, through the worst days of our lives, the nights spent in the Games. The days spent without him in the war, waiting for him to come back to me, and finally when he did, having to accept that I'd lost him all over again.
We don't go down to the dinner that night. In fact, we don't intend on doing anything for the Capitol for a very long time, because we've done what we had to, and we've taken our orders, and they got their fallen Mockingjay. It's time they leave us alone. We are in debt to them no longer. We've given them closure, and I used them for my own. We've played our games nicely for once, fairly.
Peeta's lips brush my forehead.
He wakes that night in the unfamiliar bed, screaming at me to get away from him, and it takes me hours to calm him.
We return home on the morning train, and quickly return to our routines. But this time, the love clings like a confirmation in the air between us, around us, so when there is a rainy day, Peeta will hold me and let me ride out my misery. He will let me scratch my hands raw attending to the primrose bushes and then tend to my wounds when I'd good and done.
Days pass, weeks, months, and we heal.
We get by, we take each day as it comes, we help Haymitch tend to his geese, and we write letters to Effie. There is no happy, I realise one day, there is only alright or not. And thus, sometimes we are alright, and sometimes we are not, but we are done trying to shut each other out, because we are both shells of a person, clinging to each other in the cold. A part of us both died in the Games, or still sits, huddled in a cave somewhere, listening to the rain.
And we live.
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