They look awful.
Peeta leans against the scraggly tree, his face white and coated with sweat, pain etched into his pinched, colorless lips, and Finnick is slumped against him, eyes wide, glassy, and unseeing. He is alive, but he is teetering on the very edge, his breathing coming out slowly, labored, as though he is ready to be finished but his body doesn't know how to die. They look awful, waiting for death.
The soldier she ran into on guard in the woods is bending over Snow, and the soldiers she found in town look uneasy, refusing to let their eyes land on Peeta and Finnick. She doesn't blame them. But the doctor squats beside Finnick and starts to tear open his shirt, exposing pale, bloodied skin.
Katniss kneels next to Peeta, brushing his damp hair from his forehead.
"I think I'm going to lose my leg," he breathes. He looks as though he might pass out.
She is surprised he hasn't already, to be honest.
She curls closer to him, takes his hand, and kisses his knuckles.
A moment later, Finnick lets out an awful, guttural scream.
"Is that really necessary, you piss pot?" Finnick pants, the words harsh and heavy as he struggles to say them. Katniss steels her stomach and glances over to see the doctor probing the wound, his hand bloodied as he finger disappears into the torn flesh, and her stomach rolls. She can't watch.
Peeta shifts, his hand tightening around hers. "He's helping you, Captain," he tells Finnick.
"It's a gut shot," Finnick spits, and Katniss is amazed that he is strong enough to muster the fury. "He can't — can't help, but he can — he can let — let me f-fucking die without making me —"
His words are cut short as whole face contorts, and the doctor rocks on his heels and wipes his bloodied hands on his trousers, apparently finished with his assessment. He turns to Katniss. "The bullet didn't touch his lungs," he says, "we're fortunate for that, but his stomach is terribly torn."
She isn't a fool. She can see that his stomach is terribly torn. A gut shot, Finnick said.
The orderlies stumble into the clearing with the medical supplies, stealing his attention.
As soon as Katniss stumbled to the small, mousy doctor and started to explain what happened, the words tumbling from her mouth, he said he ought to try to treat the boys in the woods. It might kill them to try to carry them into town, and he told the orderlies to gather his supplies. "I'll start to assess the soldiers," he said, and Katniss led him through the woods to find both boys fading fast.
The taller orderly starts towards Peeta, saw in hand, and her heart seizes.
"No," Peeta breathes, grasping her arm, suddenly terrified. "No, I don't — I can't —" It's one thing for him to admit to her that he'll have to lose his leg; it's another for him to see the knife that'll do it.
Katniss clutches him to her chest. "The bone might not be broken," she protests.
The doctor pulls a small knife from his pocket, turning to Peeta and starting to cut though his trousers before Katniss can say a word. Peeta seizes against her when the doctor probes the wound, and he passes out, sinking into her arms. "I'm afraid the bone is broken," the doctor says.
"We have something to keep him out," an orderly adds. "He won't feel nothing, ma'am."
"But," the doctor continues hastily, "should you prefer that he keep the leg —"
She nods. "I do! Of course, I do!"
The orderly cuts in. "A clean cut, and he'll live. Anything else, you risk killing him." He looks pointedly at the doctor, but the doctor acts as though he can't hear the orderly, his eyes on Katniss.
"I've an innovative technique," he tells her. "We set the bone, and we —"
The other orderly sighs. "This is gonna be like the maggots, isn't it?"
"It saves life and limb!" the doctor declares, glaring at the orderlies. "And I'll need you, Brant, to put away your papers, because we need not record any names for the dead! And take the cloth, wash the wound on this soldier." He nods at Finnick. "The bullet tore through him, but I can sew up the wounds. And I'll need you, Jackson, to hold our other soldier while I deal with his leg."
He nods at Peeta, and the orderlies surge forward.
Katniss is stunned.
"I assume this is your husband," the doctor says. "Might I ask for his name, ma'am?"
She nods. "Mellark. First Liuet. Peeta Mellark."
And the doctor smiles. "I will try to set his leg, Mrs. Mellark. I'll need you to stand back, though."
She moves away from Peeta, hesitant, and the taller orderly catches her eye. She can see what he wants, what he thinks. Cut off the leg, and Peeta lives. It's simple. Anything else, and she risks killing him. He is passed out, his mouth slack in his pale, sweaty face. He can't make the decision.
And Finnick is alive despite everything, swaying where he sits, staring at nothing as the other orderly leans over him, cloth in hand, cleaning his wound, because the doctor intends to save him.
But the fact that he hasn't died, that he took a shot to his stomach half an hour ago, yet —
The doctor touches her arm with bloody fingers. She feels faint. "Don't worry, Mrs. Mellark," he says. "My name is Arvin Aurelius, and I'm an able operator, I assure you. I've saved many lives."
"Do whatever you can," she breathes. She presses her palms into her eyes until her head hurts. It's falling apart around her, the whole world; Prim is sick and Finnick doesn't have more than minutes to his name and Peeta might lose his life because she doesn't want him to lose his leg. It's absurd.
Peeta jerks awake suddenly, his whole face contorted with pain.
She wants to go to him, to help him, but the orderly is already putting clothe over his mouth. Peeta stiffens, his eyes seem dizzy for a moment, and he slumps over, momentarily spared from the pain.
The doctor starts to tend to Finnick, and his hands disappear into Finnick, into his torn stomach.
And Katniss stumbles away, retching into a butterfly bush until her throat burns.
She doesn't know how long she waits, but the sun is high overhead when the orderly fetches the ambulance wagon. Katniss climbs on, wedged between the boys. They're strangely indistinguishable in that moment, unconscious, their faces pale, their lips colorless, their clothes bloodied and soiled. She can't look at Peeta, but she takes his hand as they start towards town.
The awful weighs heavily on her shoulders, and she can't escape the sickness that sits in her belly.
They've set up a makeshift hospital in a large, abandoned house that overlooks the city, and Katniss washes her hands and face in a porcelain washing jug edged with gold. Someone pressed lavender flowers into the soap she uses. She can't remember when she last she smelled something as lovely.
Peeta wakes, face flushed and feverish.
He mumbles under his breath, and she looks nervously at his plastered leg.
A nurse with thick red hair tries to help Katniss undress him, but she doesn't need help. She can look after her husband, thank you very much. She uses the lavender soap, washing his hands, his arms, and his torso, trying to clean the blood and sweat and dirt from the little cuts that pepper him.
She tries to wash his hair, too, and puts a cold cloth on his forehead.
It seems to help.
She is afraid to look under the bandages that cover his plastered leg. She should, because she should find out whether his blood was poisoned. She should find out whether she needs to make the operator take his leg. But she is afraid at what she might find, afraid that she might need to make the demand. She dreads it. And she needs to look after Finnick, too, doesn't she? She does.
Because Finnick is alive. Still.
He is sweating through the sheets, tossing in the bed, and her hands shake as she struggles to tug off his shirt. His torso is completely bandaged, but she can't smell rot, and her mother used to say that smelling rot spelled the end. The end hasn't arrived yet. She can't do anything for him, not really, but she washes him as best she can, and she search through his things to find it. His Annie.
She slips the beloved photo under his pillow before she returns to Peeta.
She falls into an uneasy sleep, her thoughts flickering between Peeta and Prim, and she wakes to find Dr. Aurelius looking over Peeta. "His leg is healing very well," the doctor says, smiling. "I'm very pleased." He nods his head to himself, and he pats her hand. "But I'm sorry to have woken you, Mrs. Mellark. Try to sleep, I urge you." He heads to another patient. She can't sleep, though.
She reads the letter from Madge.
Prim is waiting for her.
But she can't leave Peeta. And Finnick doesn't have anyone else, either.
Morning comes, and Peeta blinks groggily at her. He murmurs her name, and he tries to smile.
He is awake, and he is aware. She squeezes his hand, and she tells him that the nurse should be around with broth. She can find him water, though. His fingers curl around her palm, stopping her.
"I'd rather have you," he rasps.
She intertwines their fingers.
He doesn't have an appetite, which frightens her, but she uses little kisses to coax him into eating the broth that the nurse offers him. She makes him drink, too, and an orderly changes his bandages. He dozes throughout the day, but he is recovering, and he hasn't lost his leg. And he eats that night, sitting up in bed. He'll survive. She can't say she is as confident about Finnick, who moans throughout the night, fussing at every nurse, unable to eat any food, choking on everything.
It seems as though bringing death to him might be merciful, but she isn't about to suggest it.
Peeta slips into sleep, and her eyes trace over his leg. Dr. Aurelius is convinced that Peeta will be as he was, is convinced that it will be as though his leg were never hurt, but she can't really imagine that's the truth. Surely, he'll not have the strength he did. He'll be crippled. Or his leg will pain him.
She falls asleep in a chair beside Peeta, and she wakes to find him sitting up in bed.
"How are you feeling?" she asks, wiping the sleep from her eyes.
"Very well." He smiles softly, his eyes clear. "I'm going to be fine."
She looks him over, doubtful; he would lie for her benefit, she's sure of it.
But he is going to be fine. The morning light trickling in the windows lights his face, and he isn't as pale as he was, isn't coated in sweat or given to shakes. She smiles, wiping a little broth from his bottom lip. "But you'll need to stay in bed for at least a month," she tells him. "Or longer, I expect."
He nods. "I can feed myself, though. And there are nurses to look after my leg."
What is that supposed to mean?
"I can look after you as well as any nurse."
She might not have the healing touch that her mother and Prim possess, but she isn't useless.
"I mean that you don't need to stay," he says. "Or do thoughts about Prim not plague you?" His gaze doesn't waver, and his words are firm. "Go to her," he says. "I'll be fine. I'm not going anywhere, and the Rebels aren't about to take Staunton. I'll be safe, and your sister needs you."
She stares at him. She can't leave him. He needs her.
"I shall be fine," he continues. He grasps her hand. "I will be fine."
Prim needs her, too. Peeta is recovering, but Prim isn't. Not yet. Katniss needs to be with her sister, needs to look after her as she hasn't for years. "I'll return as soon as Prim has recovered," she says.
But people don't really recover from consumption, do they?
Prim will. She is young and strong, and she'll recover.
"Or I'll come to you after I've recovered," Peeta says, "whichever happiness finds us first."
She nods. It's Sunday. She won't manage to make her way very far on Sunday. She can use the day to gather food and to plan her route, and she can leaves as soon as daylight comes tomorrow.
"I can already see your mind spinning with plans," Peeta says. He tugs on her hand.
"It'll be the first time I've travelled alone," she replies.
He frowns. "Are you worried? I'm sure we could ask someone to —"
"I can handle it," she interrupts. "It's simply sad to think that those with whom I've travelled. . . ."
She doesn't finish. Rue is safe. She knows it. And Finnick —
"Finnick survived another night," Peeta says. "He could survive many more." He is bright, encouraging; she wants to believe him. "And we'll find Rue as soon as the war ends." She nods.
And, again, he tugs on her hand.
"What is it?" she asks. "Do you want me to fetch someone?"
"No," he says, "I want a kiss." He looks at her impatiently, petulant, and she is surprised at the smile that tugs on her lips. She leans forward, her knee pressing into the thin mattress, and cups his face as she kisses him. His arms instantly wrap around her waist, trapping her against his chest.
She doesn't mind.
She kisses his cheek as she draws away to let him breathe; he isn't entirely recovered, and he shouldn't exert himself. His hands curl into her skirts, his protest evident in his pout. "We aren't alone," she tells him, because it's an argument he'll accept. She shifts, though, to sit beside him on the bed, tucked against his side. It appeases him. She turns, feeling his heart against her forehead.
It calms her, lets her think.
It'll be two days at best to Prim.
"I love you," Peeta says. He says the words often, and she suspects he likes to say them; they're cherished on his tongue, as though he is reveling in them. He loves her, and he likes to say it, is allowed to say it, because she loves him, too. She doesn't say it as often as he, but she loves him.
She was never much for words.
It's harder to leave him than she would've thought.
She hasn't spent more than mere hours away from him since Sheridan saw him released from Point Lookout, and being without him makes her nervous. Uncomfortable. She doesn't like it, the neediness, and her mind returns continually to her mother, lost to the world after her father died.
But she isn't like her mother.
And she can't think about the past. She needs to focus on the present. On Prim.
She kisses Peeta goodbye, takes his pistol, and starts for home.
It's late on Tuesday when she arrives in town, her legs aching under her, chilled to the bone from the constant drizzle overhead. The town is grey and quiet, a shell with the insides cared out from the war that swept through. She heads down narrowing, muddy streets towards the Seam, and the landscape is painfully familiar. She sees a few familiar faces, but no one really pays her any mind.
A child shouts gleefully, and Katniss sees their house ahead.
It's been in their family for generations.
The fence is gone. A few broken posts remain behind, but the rest must've been used for firewood.
And the house is empty. There isn't any food in the kitchen, Lady isn't on the porch, the rooms are quiet. No one lives in this house. She stands in the kitchen for a moment. It was where she stood when she promised Prim that she would come home. It was where she stood when Rue handed her a bundle with food, clothes, and medicine, ready to run. Katniss swallows thickly and tightens her hold on the very same bundle, packed with food, clothes, and medicine, the silence overwhelming.
It isn't far to the small, brown house where the Hawthornes live.
The windows are open, the curtains fluttering in the wind, and the place seems to glow as the sun sets. A little girl rushes out to meet her, small and slight, grinning widely. It's Posy. "Katniss! I lost my front tooth!" She hops around Katniss, and Mrs. Hawthorne appears in the doorway, smiling.
But her smile is sad. Katniss can't find her voice.
"She hasn't passed," Mrs. Hawthorne says, opening the door wider for Katniss.
Katniss tries to thank her, but she isn't sure the words come out. She sees Vick at the kitchen table. He moves to his feet, nodding at her. He looks shy. He was only a child when she left, but he is tall as can be, surely growing every second. Mrs. Hawthorne leads her down the hall to her room.
Mrs. Everdeen is beside the bed, and Prim is in it.
She looks as sick as Katniss imagined; her tiny body is emaciated, her lips parted in sleep, air rattling loudly in her lungs with every breath. "She was certain that you would come," her mother says, and Katniss nods. Mrs. Hawthorne touches her shoulder, helping Katniss take off her coat.
She should change into something dry, and she should eat, and ask after Gale, and —
She sinks on the bed, reaching out to her sister, stroking her hair, feeling her forehead.
Her skin is feverish to the touch.
"I've done everything that anyone can," her mother murmurs. "It's in God's hands."
No, it's in her hands. And Katniss isn't about to let her sister die.
She stays on the bed until Prim wakes, and her sister looks at her with glassy eyes. She starts to smile, and Katniss finds herself smiling, too, as Prim reaches for her. Katniss takes her hand, small and dry, and she kisses her knuckles. "I've been waiting for you," Prim tells her. "I missed you."
Her voice is wispy, catching for the briefest moment on every other word.
"I missed you, too, Little Duck," Katniss says, brushing the hair from Prim's face.
Prim laughs, and the sound is frail, but her eyes are bright. Alive.
"Madge said you married Peeta Mellark," she says. "I can scarcely believe it."
Katniss nods. "Nor can I," she admits. "But it's the truth. A few months ago, we wed."
"I'm glad," Prim says. "I like Mr. Mellark."
"Me, too," Katniss says, smiling.
"Rory asked me to marry him," Prim says. "He was home on leave. He took me to the lake, and we swam the entire day. And the very next morning, when the sun was rising, he took me out onto the porch, and he asked me." She bites her lip and smiles sweetly at Katniss. "He said he didn't want to ask at dusk, because that's the end of something, and he wanted to ask at the start of something."
She takes a slow, heavy breath, but her smile doesn't fade.
And she's talking despite how weak she is, and she's fine. She's going to be fine.
It's not common, but people recover from consumption. It's happened.
It might take months, but Prim will recover.
"He loves you," Katniss says.
"I love him," Prim whispers. "We'll be married as soon as the war is finished."
Katniss nods, smiling softly at her sister. "He'll be a good husband." It's quiet. She can't take her eyes off her sweet sister. It doesn't seem real that she is home, that she is beside Prim. But she is.
"Is Mr. Mellark a good husband?" Prim asks.
"He is a very good husband," Katniss says. "He's been worried about you."
"How did he ask you to marry him?" she asks.
Katniss smiles despite herself. "With silly words," she says.
"What silly words?" Prim asks, delighted, eager, exactly as Katniss expected her to be. "Tell me."
Katniss shakes her head. "I'm as unmovable as the Blue Ridge Mountains, and he loves me for it."
Prim giggles. "When did he fall in love with you? When did you fall in love with him?" She looks mischievous. "When did you realize you were in love with him?" She tries to sit up as she speaks, but her arms can't seem to support her, and sharp, painful worry pinches Katniss at the reminder.
Prim is going to be fine, but she is sick at this moment, needs care, needs rest.
"I should fetch you something to eat," she says, moving to stand.
"I'm not hungry," Prim protests.
"All the more reason for you to eat."
Katniss finds her mother in the kitchen with Mrs. Hawthorne, a tray already ready for Prim. Mrs. Hawthorne is humming under her breath as she tends to the stove, but Mrs. Everdeen looks at Katniss. "How are you?" she asks. She looks the same as she did three years ago, thin and tired.
She takes the tray to Prim, who she finds staring sleepily at the wall.
"I'm not hungry," she protests. "I want to hear about you and Mr. Mellark."
"I'm terrible with stories," Katniss says. "Wait to ask Mr. Mellark. He'll tell you every detail."
Prim swallows thickly, shaking her head. "No, I want you to tell me. Please, Katniss."
"Eat," Katniss says, "and I'll tell you."
She can't deny her sister.
She helps prop up Prim will pillows, and she manages to feed her the biscuit, dipped in the peas pudding. But Prim requires more information with every bite, and Katniss tries to tell her what she wants to hear. About the kiss that saved her life. About the story Peeta tells, how he fell in love with her when they were only children. About how he loves to draw, and he draws home for her.
Prim starts to fade before very long, though, slipping soundlessly into sleep.
Katniss finishes the food for herself, and she closes the door, undresses, and crawls into bed beside her sister, smiling when Prim curls against her. It doesn't take her very long to fall asleep.
But it doesn't take her long to wake up, either, when Prim starts to shake violently beside her.
Her clothes are soaked with sweat, her hollow cheeks flushed, and she is coughing violently, her lips painted bright red with the blood. Katniss is alarmed, scrambling to sit up, trying to cradle Prim in her arms, but there isn't really anything she can do. Prim coughs, struggling to breathe, and their mother hurries suddenly into the room, mint leaves in one hand and clean rags in the other.
Katniss doesn't leave the bed as her mother kneels beside Prim, putting the leaves to her nose and holding the clothe to her mouth to catch the blood. It takes another few minutes, but the coughs subside, and Prim sinks against the pillows, face flushed, her breath coming out slow and ragged.
"I'm sorry," Prim whispers.
Katniss shakes her head. "No, Little Duck," she says. "Don't apologize. Sleep." She strokes her hair, and Prim drifts to sleep within minutes, as though waking from a bloody cough isn't startling.
Katniss watches her.
"She's dying," her mother whispers. "I've seen what death looks like when consumption claims you, and she's dying." The words are quiet and emotionless. Katniss clenches her hands into fists, and she waits for her mother to leave. Prim isn't dying. "She's been holding out for you, darling."
"She can't die," Katniss says. "I won't let her. She held out for me, and she'll hold out for Rory, too. She won't die without seeing him safely home for war." And Katniss will see them married.
"Katniss," her mother says, a tremor in her voice. "Katniss, Rory is dead."
"I thought —" She looks at her mother.
"He died two months ago. Mrs. Hawthorne showed me the letter."
Katniss is stunned. "No. Prim said they would be married as soon as the war ended."
"I didn't know how to tell her, and a few weeks later she was sick. And it seemed cruel to tell her."
"She'll find out, Mother."
And her mother stares sadly at her. "She's dying, Katniss. Nobody survives consumption."
"Some people do," Katniss protests.
"It's hearsay that the healthy body might withstand it," her mother murmurs, "but I've never seen a patient recover from it." Katniss can't listen to this. How can their mother turn on Prim?
"She might not recover, not truly," Katniss says, "but it's possible to live years with it, isn't it?"
"It's only been a month," her mother replies, "and Prim is already too frail to leave bed."
Katniss isn't going to give up on her. "I won't," she tells her mother. "No matter what, I won't."
Her mother nods, closing her eyes and pressing her lips together, and she seems to take a slow, deep breath. She wipes the tears that gather on her lashes and musters a small, sad smile. "I'm glad you've come," she murmurs. "I reckon she can — she can pass peacefully with you beside her."
"She isn't going to pass," Katniss snaps. She can't bear to look at her mother, to have her mother look at her. She focuses on Prim, sleeping restlessly. There's blood flecked on her chin. Katniss licks her thumb and wipes away the bloody spittle, ignoring the way her hand shakes as she does.
"I don't have anything for her pain," her mother says.
Katniss doesn't reply, and her mother leaves at last.
The night seems to carry on endlessly, but Katniss doesn't sleep.
The next few days aren't terrible, though. Prim sleep for hours at a time, and she peppers Katniss with questions about Peeta when she is awake. She talks endlessly about Rory, and Katniss tries to tell her about his death, but the words dissolve in her mouth. She will wait until Prim is stronger.
They play checkers, and Katniss makes Prim laugh with stories about the dashing Captain Odair.
She doesn't tell her what's happened to the dashing captain, though.
But as the week passes, Prim starts to sleep more and more, dozing through entire days.
A fortnight after Katniss arrives, her sister can't stay awake for more than minutes at a time. A month, and the inevitable gnaws at Katniss as she attempts vainly to interest her sister in anything.
Prim sleeps through the night, waking briefly when a coughing fit seizes her, but she is asleep again within moments. She sleeps away the morning, too. Katniss wakes her to try to have her eat a little something, but Prim refuses to swallow more than a few spoonfuls, her eyes drifting closed.
"Will you sing me something?" she asks.
"Only if you promise to recite some poetry for me," Katniss says.
Prim giggles softly, nodding. "I promise."
Katniss remembers Buttercup. What's happened to the old, awful cat?
He must've died.
Katniss feels sick to her stomach, but she ignores it.
She sings her sister to sleep, and Prim wakes an hour later when the coughs overtake her. Her breathing sounds particularly pained afterward, and her eyes seem to stay half-lidded. "What's your favorite thing about Mr. Mellark?" she asks. "I like his smile. And he's very handsome, isn't he?"
Katniss strokes her cheek, wiping the sweat from her forehead with the cold cloth.
"He is very handsome," Katniss agrees. "I like his curls."
"Is that your favorite thing?" Prim asks.
"His perseverance," Katniss says, deciding. "That's my favorite thing. Peeta Mellark perseveres."
Prim is asleep.
The next night is infinitely worse.
But she helps Prim through the night. And Vick helps her carry Prim out onto the porch the next morning. They watch the sun rise with Prim leaning heavily against Katniss. "Rory hasn't written me in months," she whispers. She doesn't look at Katniss. "And he's not going to write me, is he?"
Katniss stares at the tea that Mrs. Hawthorne brought out. She doesn't know how to respond.
"He was the bravest man in the entire world," Prim says, closing her eyes as a few tears slip free.
Vick carries her back to bed.
And Katniss sings and tells stories and watches over her sister as she sleeps away another day.
Prim doesn't want to eat dinner, choking every time Katniss tries to coax her to take a bite.
She vomits up the little soup that Katniss manages to feed her.
Katniss lies on the bed beside her, stroking her hair, refusing to believe it.
"I have much more to tell you, Little Duck," she whispers. "I'll need years to tell you everything."
Prim curls closer, her hot breath fanning against Katniss's cheek. "Are you going to have children with Mr. Mellark?" she whispers, voice as thin and dry as paper, the words catching in her throat, coming out with jagged edges. "I think you should have children with him, Katniss," she mumbles.
Katniss strokes her hair. "I think I should, too," she says. "And you'll help me look after them."
Another night, she tells herself. She needs to take everything one step at a time. She will see Prim through another night, and she will worry about what happens tomorrow when tomorrow comes.
She starts to sing to Prim, clenching her hands into fists when tears threaten to break into her voice.
Prim is asleep by the time Katniss finishes the song.
Another night, that's it.
But Prim can't seem to breathe, each attempt making her chest shudder, each breath sounding wet and rickety, as though she is gasping for air that can't be found. Katniss shifts closer to her, covers her lips with her own, and blows air into her mouth, breathing for her. "Is that better, Little Duck?"
Prim hums softly, nods. "Do you think —" she breathes in sharply, struggling; Katniss blows air into her lungs, "— do you think Rory will cry when — when we're married?" Her eyes are closed.
"I do," Katniss whispers, and her tears slip onto Prim's cheek. "I will, too."
And she keeps breathing for her sister, until, quietly, the world ends.
Prim's chest doesn't rise and fall, and Katniss starts to shake at the terrible truth.
She can't breathe for Prim, because Prim is dead. She slipped away, lost. Gone.
Another night passes, and the sun rises to find Katniss lying in bed with her dead sister.
She can't sleep, and she can't leave the bed. She waits for her own breath to stop, too, because she can't imagine how she is supposed to be in this world, breathing, living, existing without her sister.
She brushes her fingers through Prim's soft, downy hair, and the sunlight catches on it. Her ring. Peeta. She closes her eyes. She needs to leave this bed. She needs to go to Staunton. To Peeta. But how can she abandon Prim? How can she leave this bed, put Prim in the ground, and walk away?
She left three years ago, and this is what waited for her when she returned.
She must fall asleep, because she rolls over, and her mind is muddled with sleep, her mouth sticky and dry. She reaches for Peeta, but she is alone in the bed, and the memories wash over her. Prim.
And she is alone in bed. She panics, scrambling to her feet.
The room is empty, sunlight curling around the closed curtains in the window. She rubs the sleep from her eyes and stumbles from the room. Mrs. Hawthorne is in the kitchen, her eyes bloodshot.
She looks as though she might try to say something, but Katniss isn't interesting in talking about it.
She finds her mother on the porch, staring at nothing, her arms crossed tightly over her chest.
"The funeral is tomorrow morning," her mother murmurs. "I'm sorry I didn't wake you, but I thought you needed to sleep, and Gale Hawthorne was able to take her body without rousing you."
Katniss sinks to sit on the steps beside her mother. "How is Gale?" she asks.
She hasn't seen him in the week since she returned; she's been too busy with Prim.
"He is as well as he can be. He's been helping his mother look after Posy and Vick." Her words are blank, emotionless. "He is married." And she glances at Katniss. "But you are, too, aren't you?"
Katniss nods, and the sobs shake her, crawling into her throat, choking her, but she refuses to acknowledge them, swallowing thickly. She is married, and Prim missed it. She is married, and she can have children and live until she is old, but Prim won't. Prim is dead. And Katniss can't breathe.
No, that's night right. Katniss can breathe; it's Prim who couldn't breathe because she was sick, Prim who can't breathe because she is dead. Her mother touches her shoulder, but Katniss can't —
She pushes herself to her feet. She can't talk with her mother, or with Mrs. Hawthorne, or with anyone. She crosses the street to their empty house, and she sits alone in the empty, silent kitchen.
And that night, sitting alone on the kitchen floor, she cries until her head pounds.
The funeral is small.
The entire town is small, everyone lost to war and to starvation and to fever.
It's quiet, and it's sunny, and Greasy Sae stands beside Katniss. The old, toothless woman survived. The pastor reads from the book, and Madge says something sweet about Prim when Katniss can't find her voice. Madge is with Gale, Katniss realizes; they're holding hands, and her mother said that Gale was married. Katniss waits to feel something about it, but she doesn't.
Gale is married to Madge, and Prim is dead.
Katniss wanders off to find flowers.
She should lay her sister to rest with flowers, shouldn't she?
All she can find is dandelions, the pretty weeds that pepper the field outside the Seam, and she collects as many as she can. The cemetery is empty when she returns, but she arranges the flowers over the fresh dirt, and she stays beside the grave until the sun starts to set and the sky is pink.
She doesn't sleep. The air is warm enough for her to sit on the porch as the night passes.
She looks at the barren garden she used to keep. It's picked bare, and Katniss wonders whether anyone was living at the house when the soldiers came through and took everything they wanted.
She missed years at this house, years she could've spent with Prim. She wants to ask her mother about those years, but her mother is as quiet as she, and Katniss can't. She can't. Madge visits with breakfast, and she tries to talk to Katniss. She asks after Peeta, making guilt flood through Katniss.
He is in Staunton, and he expects her to return to him. She should.
This isn't her home. She left it, and it was lost to her. The war took it.
"I'm sorry I couldn't be at your wedding," Madge murmurs, touching her hand.
Katniss looks at her. "I wasn't at yours," she replies. The words stick in her throat.
Madge smiles. "It wasn't a large affair, and it wasn't planned."
Katniss nods, but she doesn't really want to talk, and Madge seems to know it; she leaves, and another day passes. Katniss sleeps on the porch, and her neck aches from it when she wakes up.
She visits the cemetery, and the fresh dirt is warm and dry from the sun.
She wants to tell Prim everything she didn't have time to tell her, but the words don't come. She thinks about every moment, though, about Boggs and Thresh, about Seneca Crane, about how to spell arbitrary, about notes in eggs and the girl with a face like a fox. And she thinks about Rue.
They never should've left. They should have stayed, never mind the Confederates.
She should've kept Rue with her, and they should've stayed with Prim.
The day is almost finished when Gale sits beside Katniss.
"I'm sorry," he murmurs. She doesn't respond. "I did everything I could to protect her, but I couldn't — I couldn't protect her from. . . ." He clears his throat. Katniss nods, or she thinks about nodding. She waits for him to leave. She doesn't want to talk. "Where's your husband?" he asks.
Katniss cards her fingers through the dirt beside her. The air is cooler as the sun starts to sink behind the horizon. It's not yet summer, and spring warmth isn't like summer heat; it doesn't linger.
"I'm not sure whether you've heard or not," Gale says, "or whether he might've heard, but there was a fire at the bakery a few months ago, and his parents, his oldest brother, and his sister-in-law were caught in it. They died. And I'm not certain, but I think his older brother was lost to the war."
A fire. No, that's not right. That isn't what happened.
"It's my fault," Katniss murmurs. "His whole family is dead because he wanted to protect me."
Gale stares at her; she can feel his eyes. "His whole family isn't dead, though," he says.
She doesn't respond. Who else is left? Rue, maybe. She needs to be left. She needs to be alive.
"There's you, isn't there?" Gale asks.
She doesn't respond, but the words strike her. There's Katniss. His wife. The woman who said she'd have children with him. He isn't alone, because there's Katniss. And she isn't alone, either.
"Or wasn't — was that real, Katniss?" The uncertainty is thick in his voice. "Madge told me — she explained how everything started with him. Or she explained as much as she understood. She doesn't know very much about your marriage, though. She says you fell in love with him, but I —"
He hesitates, and she stares at the orange skies above.
"Is it real, Katniss?" he asks.
She thinks about an old conversation.
Peeta tried to convince her that she ought to marry Gale, because —
Because it was always real for him. Since they were children and he heard her sing, it's been real for him. It doesn't truly make sense to her, but he's spent the last three years proving how real it is.
To him, that is. Real to him. And it wasn't real to her, not at first, not for years, not until —
She isn't sure. It wasn't real, until suddenly it was.
And maybe it was the entire time, and she didn't know it. But the timing doesn't matter, does it?
"I'm in love with him," she whispers. "I've lost my faith in everything else, but it's real. He's real."
Gale nods, and his eyes are soft. "I'm happy for you," he tells her.
It takes her a moment to understand his words.
"Happy for me?" she echoes. "My sister is dead." She doesn't mean to say it, but the words come out, and they take her breath with them, leaving her lungs empty, leaving her as hollow as rotted wood. "My sister is dead," she repeats, choking on the sob that catches in her throat. "She is dead."
She cries until she feels faint from it, and she stays in the cemetery through the night.
She doesn't have anything to fear from the dead; it's the living that frighten her. And the air is damp, drawing goosebumps from her skin, but Gale stays with her, and another morning comes.
She is exhausted as they walk through town. Gale catches her arm when she stumbles.
Her mother isn't at home, and Katniss crawls into her old bed, the bed she used to share with Prim. The sheets are dry and dusty, but she can't possibly care less. She falls asleep with her mind on Staunton. She told Peeta that she would return as soon as Prim recovered. But Prim didn't recover.
She wakes with the sheets wrapped around her legs, nightmares making her stomach roll.
Her hair is clinging to her neck with sweat.
The cough doesn't seize her until the morning, and she licks her lips to taste the coppery blood. She doesn't taste it, though. She isn't sick. She isn't dying. She rolls over in her sweaty, twisted sheets.
It was Prim who caught sick. It was sweet, innocent Prim who coughed to death, and Katniss is allowed to carry on with her life, as though fate or God or mere coincidence were laughing at her.
She puts her hands to her mouth to hold in her tears, and she feels the ring against her lips.
She needs to go to Staunton. She needs to see Peeta.
But what if he is dead, too? What if inflammation caught in his stitched, plastered leg, and he died?
Her nightmares are bloody that night, a thousand mouths rimmed with red haunting her, and she wakes screaming, her throat burning. She starts to sob violently, but arms wrap around her shoulders, steadying her. She struggles away from her mother, but it isn't her mother. It's Madge.
"Gale was worried," Madge murmurs. "I came over a few hours ago, and you didn't look well."
"I'm not," Katniss says.
Madge nods. "I made tea," she says. "It'll soothe your throat."
Katniss doesn't say anything, but she accepts the tea that Madge puts in her hands.
"Where's Peeta?" Madge asks.
Katniss stares at her tea. "Staunton. His leg was injured."
"Have you written to him?"
"Not yet." She hasn't had time. She's been busy looking after Prim. Or she was.
The tea scalds her tongue.
It's quiet. "I feel as old as dirt," Madge says, sighing. They don't talk as they drink the tea, but Madge sits with her as the morning passes, and she comments occasionally about the weather or the postman or a new recipe she wants to try, but she doesn't require conversation from Katniss.
She doesn't leave until dusk.
She stops in the doorway, glancing at Katniss. "I know it doesn't help," she says, "but — but gosh a'mighty, Katniss, I'm sorry." She looks as though she might say more, but she doesn't; she leaves.
She returns the next day with a book to read.
Katniss asks her what happened to Buttercup. "The cat," she adds. "Prim's cat."
"A few soldiers fried the poor thing," Madge says. "Gale told Prim that the old cat simply went looking for food, though, and was bound to come home at some point. I think she believed him."
Madge cooks up johnnycakes for Katniss. "I'm not hungry," Katniss tells her.
"I know," Madge says, "but try to eat, okay? Please. For me."
Katniss shakes her head. "I'll have something to eat later," she says.
"No, you won't," Madge replies. "Katniss, don't do this. Don't become like your mother." Her gaze doesn't waver when Katniss looks at her. "I'm not trying to be hurtful, but you're worrying me, and you're my friend. I don't want to see you lose yourself. There are still people who care about you."
She used to blame love for making her mother weak.
But Katniss couldn't help loving Prim.
"Think about Peeta," Madge adds, almost pleading.
She thinks about Peeta.
And she thinks about old, prickly Haymitch Abernathy and what Peeta said.
She picks up her fork and starts in on the cake. Madge is a wonderful cook, always was, especially to make something tasty with whatever scarce ingredients are left in town. She eats, and Madge reads her book. The next morning Gale comes over to see whether Katniss might want to hunt.
The woods are scare, he says, but they might be able to find a few squirrels.
Her old bow and arrow are familiar in her hands, but the muscles in her arms ache as she skins the thin, pathetic hare she shoots through the eye. And she doesn't have the appetite to eat the animal.
She makes jerky with it.
She'll need something to eat on the road, after all.
She means to pack her things, but she ends up on the floor, surrounded with the poetry that Prim put to paper in neat, loopy script. She reads every stupid word, and her hands tremble as she carefully collects the poems into a pile. They're what's left, these silly, stupid poems. They're Prim.
She doesn't manage to leave that day, or the next.
It's Sunday when someone knocks on the door.
She can't imagine why Gale or Madge would decide suddenly to adhere to propriety, and there isn't anyone else in town she has the slightest interest in seeing on her doorstop. She frowns, starting for the hall, but she stops when she sees him. Madge left the door propped open to let in the breeze, and Katniss can see him through the screen door, hat in his hand, leaning heavily on a cane.
She stops, staring, stunned.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Mellark," he says, smiling shyly at her.
It's three strides to the screen door, to him, and she throws her arms around his neck.
Peeta stumbles, his hat dropping silently as his cane clangs loudly against the porch steps, but he clutches her, turning his face to press his lips to her cheek, and she curls her fingers into his shirt.
She can't let go. She won't.
She slides her hand up to hold his neck, to sink her fingers into his curly hair.
"Madge wrote me," he murmurs. "I came as soon as I could manage it."
She nods, and she tightens her hold, closing her eyes. She needs another minute.
"How's your leg?" she asks.
His lip curls up against her cheek. "Hurting something awful, but I can walk on it."
"I'm glad," she whispers, nodding. She tilts her head to rest against his, and he pets her hair, smoothing the messy tangle away from her face, arms as steady around her as they always were.
"The war is over," he says. "It's finished. General Lee surrendered last week."
She isn't surprised, and she doesn't know what to feel at the news. Tired, maybe. That's it.
"And, if you can believe it," he continues, "Finnick is alive. He moans about absolutely everything, but Dr. Aurelius is convinced that a few more months abed will see the captain as fit as a fiddle."
"I can't believe it," she admits. "I was sure he was for dead."
"He said to tell you that he intends to hold us to our promise to come to Texas," Peeta says. "Not yet, of course, because we need to return to Staunton and help nurse him to good health. He sent for his wife and his son, though, and I'm not sure he'll have any interest in us after they've arrived."
It's quiet for a moment, a wonderful, blissful, perfect moment.
"How are you?" Peeta asks. "Madge said —"
She draws away from him, but his hands stay on her hips, and his gaze holds hers.
"What did Madge say?" she murmurs.
He looks guilty, as though what he is about to say is his fault. "She told me about Prim."
Katniss nods. "I tried — I — I've always done everything I could to protect her, to keep her safe, to — to look after her, but I couldn't — this wasn't something from which I could hope to protect her. I came home in town to see her — to watch her die, and there was nothing I could to stop it."
He rests his forehead against hers. "She must've been happy to have you with her."
"I hope so," she whispers, taking a deep breath.
She hugs him, and she doesn't know how long she stands in his arms, but she doesn't care.
He finally pulls away to look at her, taking her hands in his. "I've missed you."
"I've missed you, too."
His smile is sad. "And I was worried about you. I am worried about you; you're thin as a rail."
She doubts a time will come when he won't find reason to worry about her.
"I'm strong enough to travel," she tells him. "Rue is waiting on us, isn't she?"
"She is," he says, starting to smile. "As soon as we can, we'll head north. To Philadelphia. And as soon as we've found her, we can come home." His eyes are bright, but she shakes her head at him.
That's not right.
This town doesn't hold anything for her. This town isn't home.
It hasn't been since she left, and her heart was torn and scattered from place to place, a large piece left with Prim, another taken north with Rue, a tiny piece reluctantly handed over to Finnick Odair.
She isn't sure what's left, really, something battered and bruised, something small and scarred.
But she knows where it is, whatever's left.
"This isn't home," she says. "Home's wherever you are." It sounds like something awful that Prim would put in her poems, but he smiles, reaching out to hold her face. "Stay with me," she breathes.
"Always," he says.
He kisses her, soft and sweet, his hands sliding into her hair as she presses closer to him. She doesn't want a soft, sweet kiss, though; she wants to disappear inside him, hide away in his warmth and his kindness and his love. She wraps her arms around his neck, deepening the kiss.
She needs him.
She isn't like her mother, not really. The kiss ends, and she tells him.
"I feel like prickly old Mr. Abernathy," she murmurs, smiling against his lips. Broken, never the same, irrevocably scarred, but she'll carry on, she'll survive, because there's someone left with her.
There's someone left who loves her. There's Peeta, and that's enough.
He nuzzles her nose. "I can live with that," he says, as though he understands.
"Do you realize that makes you my Mrs. Abernathy?" she asks.
He smirks. "It makes perfect sense," he replies, cheeky. "After all, we share the same sweet complexion, adoration for cats, and interest in fine milk glass." He squeezes her hip, affectionate.
She stares at him.
This is the day she will finally say it.
"I love you."
And, as other days come, as days fade in to weeks and months and years, they'll survive.
a/n: And that's it, folks! There will be an epilogue, which means this isn't really the end. I'll try to post it as soon as I can, but I'm sure you've realized that doesn't really mean much. I'll try, though! And, yes, people in the war could survive gut shots, and the lucky soul might've kept his leg, especially in 1865. But nobody survives TB! Katniss couldn't be lucky on every single count, right?