Title: Hanging By A Moment
Author: Missi Marie
Warnings: Kisses, death, mentions of violence.
Characters: Peeta, Katniss, Gale, brief mentions of others
Summary: AU. Somewhere in Mockingjay I suppose, although it's such an alternate timeline, I'm not sure that's true.
Author Notes: Check out "Hanging By A Moment" by Lifehouse. Okay, see, now this was supposed to be a very short, quick little story about an alternate timeline in which Katniss was captured instead of Peeta and has been scheduled for execution. And then, like all Monster Bunnies, it grew. And grew. And grew. And now... Now it is approximately fifteen pages long and has a whole long backstory that it wants to include that I am refusing to write and I'm still not entirely happy with it. Further proof that there is no making bunnies happy...
P.S. This is basically word vomit. x)
They had stripped me of everything the Capitol had put me in. No more little girl dresses or flaming capes. No sparkling make-up and fancy hairdos. It was just me, just Katniss, finally.
My brown hair was down, tangled and messy, reaching past my waist, darker against the white of the long t-shirt they had put me. I was only in that t-shirt and my underwear, not even wearing shoes. My bare feet were cold against the concrete as I walked forward, flanked by Peacekeepers. They had me handcuffed, though it was unnecessary. There was no escaping this final sentence. Today was the day that I would finally die and I couldn't fight, bargain, or beg my way out of it. All I could do was hold my head high and march forward with sure steps as the crowd watched in a mixture of horror and anticipation.
Maybe even the Capitol didn't want to see me die. But I had to. Snow couldn't afford me to live, not this time. Not after all the damage I had done. It was a risky move for him, likely to cause as much harm as good, if not more.
If that was supposed to make me feel better about the whole thing, it didn't.
I walked down the hallway focusing on my breathing, on putting one foot in front of the other. I wouldn't be a child, not now. I would face my death with a measure of dignity and pride that hadn't really belonged to me since the day my father died. Everything I had done since then had been about desperation and the fight for survival, no matter what Snow or Coin believed of me. No matter Capitol, or District, or Rebellion, I had done this all to make it one more day.
But here, now, I was walking to my death and I was doing it because it was the last thing I could do. I was ready to be a martyr for the Rebellion, because Snow no longer had anything to bargain with. He could torture me, threaten death and destruction, but he had already stripped me of everything that mattered, so here we were at last. The last option afforded to either of us.
My execution was a long time coming.
I thought of Peeta, rescued from the arena of the last Hunger Games Panem would see—because no matter what happened after I died, we could not go back to how things had been. A fire had been started in a dry forest and it would burn until there was nothing left. I thought of little Prim, dead somewhere in the ashes of District 12 right alongside Gale and Hazelle and my mother and Posy and Rory and Madge and everyone I had ever cared about. I thought of Haymitch swaying drunkenly, of my father singing in the woods, of Finnick hiding behind a mask of flirtation, of Cinna telling me that he was betting on me, of Effie and her stupid pink wig telling me how coal turned into pearls.
It was strange that the most painful thoughts my mind could conjure were the ones that gave me strength now.
I would do this for them.
The hallway opened up into a bright, open space that was colossal in size. It was round with seating stacked up higher than twelve floors. The City Circle, where once I had clutched Peeta's hand in a death grip, because the two of us were too scared to let go as we were paraded around in a chariot on fire.
I'm not sure either of us had really let go after that night.
Now, it was set up for something very different. The circle was empty, save for a single black stage with a tall L shaped beam in the middle of it. A rope hung from the arm, unmoving. The end of the rope was looped and spun up tightly.
I thought of the song my father used to sing to me, the one that terrified my mother. The Hanging Tree. In a way, it seemed appropriate that I would die here, neck broken, throat closed, air no longer entering my lungs... Perhaps my hanging body would become a symbol, as Madge's Mockingjay pin had.
Maybe my death would do nothing.
We stopped at the mouth of the hallway, standing straight and tall. I saw my face appear on the screens that hung from high in the air. All of Panem was probably watching now, if not certainly the Capitol and whatever districts were still under Capitol control. I couldn't say how many that was, hadn't been privileged to that information even when I had been the figurehead of the revolution. Maybe the rebels were watching, too.
"Gale!" Peeta shouted across the short distance to the older boy. The hovercraft was an older model, still loud in the carriage. "We're not going to make it!"
He held out the small handheld screen that showed Katniss. She was handcuffed, flanked by Peacekeepers. They were leading her into the City Circle where a black hangman's platform awaited her. There wasn't enough time; things were going too fast.
"Shit," Gale said, frowning angrily.
They weren't going to make it.
They loosened the knot just enough to fit my head through the loop. The hands of the Peacekeeper who was doing so shook slightly. Fear seemed to cling to him and I couldn't figure out why. I was the one dying after all. But all around me there was that fear. It hung in the air, clutched at the figures surrounding me and those sitting in the stadium. It was a fool's hope to think they feared for me. That was just too much to ask of the poor, frivolous Capitol citizens.
When the rope hung about my neck, the shaking Peacekeeper tightened the knot again until I felt the burn of it against my throat. It was uncomfortable, constricting, and maybe now I would have run or fought my way free if I were given the opportunity. I was kind of glad that that was such an impossibility. At least I wouldn't die a coward.
The circle of Peacekeepers around me took a unanimous step back, moving off the stage so that I was visible to the crowd.
For once, there was no cheering.
I took a deep breath—it had only been to steady me, really—and without thinking, I began to sing.
"Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where they strung up a man they say murdered three
"Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree."
If there was a time to do it, it would be now. Her voice carried over the crowd, silencing them, distracting them. There would be no better chance than this. No other chance at all. It was now or never and Peeta was definitely in favor of now.
"Take the shot," Peeta urged him quietly.
Gale tried to aim, but Peeta saw him struggling. The distance was too great. There were too many factors that were going to influence his shot. He shook his head. If he messed up this shot, they wouldn't have another opportunity to save her.
"Take the damn shot!"
"I can't!" Gale spat angrily. "I can't make the shot! I'm just not that good! I'm not Katniss."
They both looked out past the crowd below them. It was an insane distance; the arrow would never make it. And if it did, Gale would never have a good enough aim to hit the rope. It was impossible. They had to be closer, Gale had to be a better shot, they needed more time.
"Shit," Peeta cursed.
Katniss' voice rang out loud and clear. Peeta didn't know if it was being amplified or if he could just remember her so clearly that his mind was filling in the blanks. She was giving them all the time she could.
It still wasn't going to be enough.
As though they had planned it together, the two boys rushed from their covered hiding places and ran down the large staircases leading to the inner circle. They would never make it. Someone would take them down before they even got half-way, and by that time it would be too late anyway. Katniss would be hanging from that rope around her neck, dead.
It was my imagination, I was sure of it. Probably some part of my mind still trying to cling desperately to life. Or maybe it was the part of me ready to die. Either way, I was sure I saw them. Two tiny figures running from the top of the stadium, down the aisles of stairs. I knew it was them before I could even really tell they were people.
That was what convinced me that they couldn't be real. That and the fact that I knew Gale and Peeta were already dead.
Gale had died in Twelve along with everyone I had ever known. Peeta's death had been announced to all of Panem three days ago. He had died when the rebels charged the Capitol. The viewing had been brutal. Explosions, strange black tar that ate everything in sight, terrible muts that devoured their prey... I had wanted nothing more than to look away, but my eyes were glued to him. That's how I knew it was true. I had been watching the entire time, focused solely on him. When the explosion went off, he was right there in the thick of it. In the end, when the smoke cleared, I only saw the charred remains. Black and unrecognizable.
My father's song continued of its own volition, the words spilling from my throat in a melody that had all of Panem silent to listen.
"Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where the dead man called out for his love to flee
"Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree."
Gale was faster. He had spent years as a hunter, was already stronger than most, and loved Katniss dearly in a way that was different than Peeta. It bred out of years of friendship and mutual survival, while Peeta's had been born of a song and watching from a distance.
Peeta's prosthetic leg didn't help any, either.
So nearly five steps ahead, Gale with his arrow still loaded pushed himself harder than he ever had to reach the moment when he would be close enough to nick the rope that would hang Katniss. All the while, he knew he was never going to reach her.
They were getting closer, my mind deluding me with false hopes of seeing them up close one last time. Peeta was struggling to keep up with Gale, and Gale had his bow at the ready, but even my mind was a traitorous thing. They were still so far away and my song couldn't last forever, no matter how I prolonged the melody with soft tones in between the words.
But this wasn't so bad, I thought. Seeing them, it brought me a measure of peace in that twisted sort of way that comes with insanity and defeat.
"Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run, so we'd both be free.
"Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree."
Peeta's leg ached, his lungs burned, and his breathing was heavy. Their race against time and death wasn't an easy one. He couldn't help falling behind as Gale surged forward, but he decided it didn't matter. As long as one of them got there in time, he didn't care. Gale or Peeta or some surprise ally who could be Finnick Odair, it didn't matter. Just so long as someone reached Katniss and saved her.
Because her life was the only thing left that mattered to him.
They moved swiftly, and no one stopped them. They couldn't be real, then, because no one would have let them get this far. Closer, and closer, but still not near enough.
I wouldn't get to say good-bye, would I?
"Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me"
"Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree"
The final note of her song rang clearer than all the rest if only because it was followed by a deafening silence. This was the moment. Peeta heard the pull of the lever; his heart seemed to stop.
He watched her fall.
I felt the floor fall out beneath me.
There are times in life when time seems to just stand still. Where you step outside of your body and look at the world paused at what is the defining moment of your life. You are an outside observer, a spectator there to judge all the moments leading up to this one. You can see everything and everyone. They are moments of adrenaline and intensity and usually are points on the verge of brokenness.
This was one of those moments.
I could feel my body ready to plummet towards the dirt of the earth. The rope around my neck seemed to loosen fractionally, weightless and ready to tighten at a moments notice and stop my descent. I could see the Peacekeepers at the base of the Hangman's platform, fear still clinging to them. I could see and feel the audience completely surrounding me, watching with this choked breath held tightly in their lungs, ready to burst free. My face on the monitor was frozen in the same mask I had worn since watching Peeta die on that screen.
In the not so far distance, I could see him now. Poised midrun, a look of terror on his face as he realized he would never reach me in time.
And then I saw Gale. His bow was pulled taut, he was no longer running, and his face was a mask of concentration. In the tick of a second, he released the arrow and the world unfroze.
If anyone had asked Peeta Mellark only a year ago if he were prepared to kill right then and there, he would have thought it impossible. But things can change in just a year. Rebellions can explode into wars, Games can become lawless slaughter, and love can be twisted into something strange and devious. And Peeta Mellark could become a desperate soldier in a poor man's war.
As this new Peeta held the gun at the Peacekeeper, he had a moment of hesitation before pulling the trigger. He didn't wait to watch the body fall. Already he was racing to the dirt beneath the stage, where the trap door that had let Katniss fall still swung on squeaking hinges.
He slid in the dirt and knelt beside her.
I had just enough time to wonder how many times I would face death and win before Peeta was there beside me, calling my name. There was panic in his blue eyes and a sheen of sweat on his face. He didn't wait for me to answer, satisfied that I was not simply a lump of body mass, unmoving and dead. His arms wrapped around me so tightly that I struggled for breath.
When he pulled back, his hands cupped my face and he kissed me. Passion and desperation mixed in with sweet relief transferred from his lips to mine and I wanted to return it. But in an awful, detached moment, I could see us kissing on the large screens hovering in the auditorium. It twisted something in my stomach, making me pull away.
Peeta, always more observant than I, masked the hurt at my rejection.
I opened my mouth to explain—it wasn't him, it was the cameras. I just couldn't kiss him for the cameras anymore, not now—but we didn't have time. Pandemonium had erupted all around us. There was gunfire and flying arrows and fire and explosions in the distance. There was screaming and the sound of thousands of people stomping frantically as they tried to leave the City Circle.
Gale was suddenly there beside us, yanking on my upper arm to pull me up. Running on nothing more than instinct and adrenaline, I ran together with these two boys who had become men too soon.
I could figure out how they were alive or if I was dead later. Right now, the only thing to do was run.
So we did.
I didn't like District 13. It was the complete opposite of the Capitol in every way imaginable—from the gray color palate to the regimented eating schedules to the tightly restricted daily routines—but I couldn't shake the feeling that it was another side to the same coin.
The fact that the one running the place was named Coin just made me think it again and again.
But I couldn't really complain in the end. Not only had Coin authorized my rescue—which may or may not have been a propaganda move on her part considering my notoriety—and managed to rescue Peeta from the arena, but District 13 had saved several hundred from my District. Including my mother and Prim. Yes, she was alive and I could breathe with one less life weighing on my chest. Without her, I didn't think I could do more than fall into a pile of depression.
Here in Thirteen, I was safe and secure. No starving, no murder. I knew what I had to do and who to ask if I didn't. Everything was easily laid out here, simple and neat.
Still I struggled.
I never followed my schedule. I slept whenever I felt like it. I talked to whomever I pleased. I left the medical center without permission. I missed the tactical meetings that I was supposed to attend.
And I longed to go outside.
But that was definitely not going to happen. Although they had managed to rescue me in a daring assault on the Capitol, there was still fighting there. The war had not yet been won, and until it was officially, no one was allowed to go above ground without special orders.
I never got those kinds of orders.
In the end, it all just made me frustrated. Because I felt like I was still someone's toy. My owner might be different, but that didn't stop her from playing with me, using me for her own purposes. And I wasn't okay with that.
It made me fidgety.
Which was why I was currently sitting amidst a pile of clean laundry, chin on my hands, head poking out of the once neatly folded sheets. I had messed them up a bit when I nestled into them to take a nap. Idly, I wondered if once I left someone would find new orders on their schedule to refold laundry. I was staring at the gray wall opposite me, counting the lines in it that I could see. It kept my mind off of the destruction of Twelve, the Capitol's torture, and the memories of Peeta's death.
Even if they had been wrong. Snow had manipulated what I saw; Peeta was alive.
I held my breath and clenched my eyes shut, trying to push everything aside.
Prim was alive.
Peeta was alive.
Gale was alive.
I was alive.
I was no longer in the Hunger Games.
The Rebellion was strong.
The other Districts were joining us.
The list helped. I released the air from my lungs and sucked in another breath quickly. My eyes opened, ready to count the lines on the wall again, but instead I saw the black of a cotton t-shirt. I looked up and there he was in front of me.
"You're still supposed to be in the medical center," Peeta whispered to me gently.
We hadn't talked much since I had pulled away from his kiss the day he and Gale saved me. That was nearly a week ago.
"I feel fine."
He knelt down in front of me so that we were eye level. He didn't look convinced. "Right. Which is why you are hiding in a laundry bin."
I frowned at him. "People sleep on sheets," I mumbled half-heartedly. He had a point.
Peeta gave out a small laugh, shaking his head. "Okay. But usually the sheets are on a bed."
"I..." I pulled off the sheet that was partially covering my head, suddenly feeling ridiculous for being nestled in a bin of half-folded sheets. "I don't like the nightmares."
The look on Peeta's face told me that he understood completely. Together, we had faced a number of horrors, and probably there were nightmares that we shared. Now I had nightmares from things we had faced apart and I didn't know what to do with any of them.
He sighed and stood up, offering me his hand. "C'mon. We should get you back."
Mimicking his sigh, I took his hand and used it to balance myself as I climbed out of the warm sheets. For a moment, we stood there with our hands wrapped around each others'. Now would be a good time to explain about my reaction. Now would be a good time to fix things between us.
Now would be a good time to admit I didn't do so well without him.
But he let go of my hand and pulled back from me, so I just started to walk beside him as we made our way back to the medical center.
There are defining moments in our lives that fundamentally change us forever. Off the top of his head, Peeta could think of seven. He was sure without a doubt that these are different than the ones Katniss would list, but then, they have always been so very different.
The first was innocent enough. He was a five-year-old little boy on his first day of school, nervous and excited and laughing inside about how his dad could have lost a girl to a coal miner. She was there, in his class, in her little red dress with twin braids and missing teeth. Soot had been scrubbed from her so she would look presentable on her first day, but it was still stuck under her fingernails and clung to strands of her hair. Everyone in Twelve was kind of like that; the kids in the Seam were always like that. She had waved her hand about excitedly, volunteering to sing the Valley Song. As soon as the first note escaped her lips, Peeta had his first taste of love.
He would never be the same again.
His next defining moment wouldn't come until eleven years later on the day of the Reaping. There are two parts to this moment, each of them equally important and life-altering. The first was the calling of Primrose Everdeen's name. Not because he had any special attachment to Prim—everyone loved her, but he no more than the rest—but because of whose little sister she was. Because of what Katniss was willing to do to save her only and most beloved little sister. Peeta watched with abject horror as Katniss volunteered, flawless in his eyes wearing a faded blue dress that had probably once been beautiful. This moment made his heart stop.
The next one started it again.
His name was the next one called and he became the male tribute alongside Katniss for District 12. It is a strange thing to be grateful for. Certainly it was never something he wanted, but the idea of staying behind in Twelve as Katniss went to the Capitol to battle for her life was more than he thought he could bear. He couldn't watch her fight for her life in the arena from the safety of his own home. In the end, he didn't envy Gale that.
When the next moment came, it was in the arena. Katniss and Peeta had allied—miraculously, considering his fake alliance with the Careers, the Tracker Jackers she dropped on them, and Cato's unfortunate skill with a sword—and he was feverish. She had holed them up in a cave and was taking care of him. Katniss. Taking care of him. This alone could have been described as a defining moment, but no, it was the kiss, a desperate attempt to shut him up, that changed his life.
He will never forget the feel of Katniss' full lips pressed against his and now he knew that no one else would ever be enough for him.
The fourth moment is a crushing one, something he tries very hard not to think about. It is on their return trip home. They had made a short stop, only to refuel before continuing on their way back to Twelve as Victors from the 74th Hunger Games. Two victors is unheard of... He hadn't really thought of what the price might be to save them both, but Katniss obviously had. He had picked her flowers—she had been acting oddly since they had gotten on the train, as though moving slowly away from him. She clung to them tightly and he knew something was wrong.
He knew before she ever said anything.
But it still hurt when Peeta finally put the pieces together, when she told him the truth. It had all been a lie. The entire time, she had been faking her affections for him. It was all just a strategy to win the Games. He should have known it was too good to be true. Perhaps if the circumstances were different, he would have been grateful. She saved their lives by putting hers on the line. But with things as they were, all he could feel was a sense of emptiness.
Peeta almost felt as though it would have been better to have never kissed her at all. But they did kiss—many kisses—and now that they had he couldn't even will himself to wish they hadn't.
His fifth moment is complicated. He had returned from the Capitol, a Victor. And as per the rules, he now had a home in Victor's Village. Despite having a family, he lived there by himself. He had managed to keep himself busy throughout the day, making the place as much his own as he could, but night had fallen and he stood in the middle of his home just staring. He was alone and the knowledge was crushing. There was nothing but emotion filling him; it was suffocating. This house was too perfect, too empty, too incomplete. He could have asked his family to live there with him, but it would be useless. They could not fill the void that was there. Only one person could, and that was the last thing she wanted.
He crumbled to the floor and shut his eyes to the empty house. But the Games play against the inside of his lids and he knew that this would never be okay. It was the first night he painted and he knew that he would never be able to stop now.
The sixth moment is the worst. If he could erase it from his being he would, but he can't. He knows it will haunt his dreams always. It is the day he watched the announcement that Katniss Everdeen was scheduled for public execution. It is the day that he learned the truth about himself: if Katniss died, he would die, too. A person cannot live without a heart.
The last moment is the best, though it has broken him in ways he cannot explain. It is the moment when Katniss falls to the dirt, the rope that is her noose shot through. It is the moment when he killed a Peacekeeper to get to her. The moment when he found her alive and safe and cannot help but kiss her with everything that makes Peeta Peeta.
It is the moment she pulls away from him, regret and apologies and reluctance shining in her eyes. It kills him, but she is alive and that is the only thing that gets him through.
Peeta escorted me back to the medical center, close, but never touching me. We couldn't even hold hands anymore. I knew it was up to me to do something about this, to explain, but I was never any good with words. Words belonged to Peeta, actions belonged to me. And I didn't know what sort of action would convince him that I pulled back from him only because I would never have another kiss for the sake of a camera.
I thought maybe they should just make a card for that.
'Sorry for not kissing you back. I have a fear of cameras. Swear I actually love you.'
Yeah, that would be a great card. Maybe have a little heart with an arrow through it and a broken camera and—
I stopped dead in the middle of the hallway just outside the door to the medical center. Peeta had continued on, but noticed I wasn't beside him and stopped. He turned back to look at me quizzically.
"Katniss?" he asked, obviously worried. Worried even though I kept shattering his heart for apparently no good reason at all.
Because I had just realized, with what felt like the force of a rock crushing my skull, that I was in love with Peeta.
I sighed a little, frustrated with myself.
Leave it to me to not realize I was in love until it was steadily slipping away from me...
There are moments when Peeta thinks there is a light in Katniss' eye that whispers to him of hope. A hope that she hadn't faked every moment with him. These moments... they scare him. It is because he wants so desperately to believe it.
Desperate enough that maybe he is imagining them? Perhaps. Hadn't he done that in the Games? Hadn't he convinced himself that somehow Katniss had fallen in love with him in the arena—or even maybe had feelings for him before that, unbeknowest to her—and that her concern for him stretched beyond saving a fellow tribute from Twelve?
But then, looking back, she hadn't been very convincing at all, had she? No. Her kisses were awkward and detached. Her gestures were contrived and planned. Nothing came natural, nothing was exactly right. Katniss was always such a terrible liar. But he had believed it because that was all he could do. She was his everything. If he was going to die—and he had been certain right up until the end that he was—then he would die believing that he had finally won the heart of the only girl he ever loved.
Maybe that was why he had believed it.
Then they were back in Twelve and it was all shattered. Sometimes, he thinks he should have just died in the arena and saved everyone a lot of trouble. This was all his fault after all. Katniss could have won without him. He was sure of it now. It wouldn't have been easy, but she could have done it. Katniss was just that strong.
But then the Quarter Quell came and they went back in. He wasn't sure what it was, but something had changed. Maybe it had changed on the Victory Tour when he took to curling up with her in bed—just for sleep—to keep both of their nightmares away. When he had gotten to hold her in his arms every night and...
He didn't think she loved him then, but maybe that was when the something had started to change.
By the time the second Reaping came and they were chosen again, there was a new oddness in Katniss' behavior. He realized quickly that it was because she was planning to sacrifice herself to save him. That was what it had to have been, right?
Except that they shared a kiss on the beach that was more than all their other kisses. It tasted of urgency and want and desperation and despair and loss. It tasted of sincerity. If he didn't know better—know for certain—he would have said that she meant that kiss.
He would have said she was kissing him the way he kissed her everytime.
Peeta just couldn't decide what that meant. Because Katniss didn't love him.
The days wore on. Peeta visited me occasionally, but they were short and often while I was sleeping. Other times he was sent in search of me when I wandered where I was not supposed to. When I picked up on this—that they would always send Peeta to come find me, because he was the only one who could convince me to return to my apparently permanent residence in the medical center—I started to do it more often. I would sneak out deliberately and find a nice place to "hide" and wait until he came and found me. Then I would let him walk me back.
Once they started sending Gale I did it less.
It wasn't that I didn't want to see Gale. I did. I owed him my life. It was his arrow that pierced and tore the rope that would have strangled me to death. A perfect shot if ever there had been one. But Gale I saw on a regular basis. He visited me often, spent hours with me chatting about life in Thirteen and how I shouldn't be so stubborn and defiant all the time. About how they were the good guys.
This sparked an argument more often than not. I didn't like being told what to do, not by anyone.
That was part of the reason I missed Peeta so much. He never told me what to do. Although he convinced me every time to return to the medical center, I never felt as though it was an order or a duty. It was just Peeta concerned that I wasn't ready to be out yet. That I needed to rest and build up my strength. Everything about going back to the medical center was about my wellbeing, not what was expected of me.
The other part of missing Peeta was my newfound discovery. Love was a strange, hurtful thing, I had decided. I didn't know how Peeta had spent so long living with it.
The nightmares still came. More often now, if anything, despite finding a sense of safety in Thirteen. Although Peeta didn't necessarily trust everything he saw—there was something utterly disturbing about being told exactly what he was supposed to do and when he was supposed to do it—but he had gotten used to the routine and found comfort in it.
But the nightmares were worse here.
They had found new purchase within his mind, taking on ghostly, terrifying forms. Often, they still featured the Games, but these Games had shifted. Sometimes it was the cave without Katniss. Just him, lying there alone, dying. A cannon would sound in the distance and he would struggle to see who it was in the night sky, but there was no point. He heard the announcement that he was the victor.
Sometimes, they were on the beach. Katniss would be curled up in his arms, apparently asleep, but when he would try to shake her awake, her limp body would roll over and he would stare into her open, unblinking, glazed eyes. She would be dead and cold and he would scream for her to wake up.
The newest one, though... The newest one featured her execution. The noose around her neck, the sad song she sang, a haunted melody far too clear... Running, but never making it in time. Gale shooting his arrow, but missing his mark. The peacekeeper he had shot removing his helmet to reveal his already-dead brother. And Katniss... always Katniss, dead. Hanging from the rope as he tried desperately to cut her down.
He hated nightmares, but they wouldn't go away. The only thing that had ever stopped them had been Katniss and now she was gone. Alive, only two halls and three floors down from him, but she might as well have been on the other side of the world.
She hadn't kissed him back, and no matter how relieved he was that she was still breathing, it hurt him more than he could ever express that she hadn't kissed him back.
Finally, they had gotten it into their heads that confining me wasn't working. I would sneak out regardless of what they told me. It didn't matter if they tried putting a wristband or a schedule on my arm, I would always ignore it. I would always do things my way, because I had been doing them everyone else's way for too long now.
So they decided to give me a little freedom. Not a lot, just enough to attempt to placate me.
It wouldn't have worked except for two things. One, they let me go to the surface. Not for long and not far, deep into the woods. I couldn't hunt, I couldn't do much of anything really, and I had to be escorted at all times. They were taking no chances. Two, my escort was Peeta.
We barely spoke, which was odd for him, and when we did it was mostly about how I was feeling and the weather and how Prim was helping so much with the wounded and sick.
Neutral topics. Safe topics. He was being so careful.
It irritated me a lot of the time, but I reminded myself to be grateful that he was speaking to me at all. I wasn't sure I would have the fortitude to be so comforting after being rejected so blatantly by the one person I loved.
I always knew Peeta was a better person than I.
He enjoyed their time in the forest outside Thirteen more than he probably should. However brief the time they spent together, he couldn't help but revel in it... no matter how much it was like torture. Being so close to her, and being so far... God, how he missed her.
They spoke of calm topics, nothing that might agitate or hurt her. He didn't want this time with her to be filled with dark memories or impending battles or the losses they would surely take as the war progressed.
He just wanted her to feel safe.
Today, they were above ground again. They had wandered only a scant few feet from the entrance to Thirteen and had been sort of lazily lingering in the small clearing. Katniss had been behaving oddly ever since he met her for their routine and carefully planned excursion. Fidgety and nervous, it seemed. Something was on her mind and he felt the desperate urge to probe it, finding whatever was agitating her. Maybe he could do something to push it away.
He had resisted commenting thus far, but it was not in Peeta's nature to be silent.
"Katniss?" he asked carefully.
He startled her—she was so used to quiet in the forest, he thought—and she spun around quickly to face him. Her gray eyes were wide and her full lips were parted, slightly redder than usual. She had been worrying at them with her teeth nervously.
"Is something wrong?" he whispered a little huskily. It wasn't intentional on his part to be attracted to her; he just couldn't help it.
She shook her head quickly, the dark hair that had escaped her braid flying with the movement. "No," she said, but it was unconvincing. "I just..."
She didn't finish her sentence. Instead, she stepped closer to him—closer than they had been in what felt like an eternity to Peeta. Her breathing was heavy and he saw her swallow had. When her hands reached up to the back of his neck, pulling him down to her, he wasn't prepared.
Her mouth touched his.
I pressed my lips against his as hard as I could, clenching my eyes shut tightly. He didn't respond; he didn't move. There was just me with my arms thrown heavily around his neck, pressing as close to him as I could, kissing him. He might as well have been a statue.
Lingering as long as I could, when I finally pulled away, I didn't open my eyes. This must have been what Peeta felt every time he knew I was kissing him for the Cameras. Every time I pulled away when they weren't around. Every time my half-hearted affections were thrown in his face.
I never knew it would hurt so much.
"Sorry," I mumbled, my hands balling into fists as I realized I had waited too long to make a decision. To sort through my feelings for him.
I opened my eyes, but trained them on my plain, unassuming black shoes. They were blurry as tears made my eyes shiny. I blinked them away, unwilling to cry. Not now, not here.
"It took me awhile to figure it out," I said because the silence was a lot to dwell in right now. "Which was, um, not fair."
A lot of things seemed unfair. Like the fact that now that we had no more cameras and I could finally just kiss him for the sake of kissing him, now he didn't want me to. That seemed worlds of unfair. And it wasn't like I had been trying to take forever. I didn't start this war!
Okay. Maybe I did. A little bit. With my stunt with the berries. But that had been Peeta's fault, too. If he had just not been nice to me, just not been crazy in love with me, if he had just not tried to sacrifice himself to save me... well, then killing him wouldn't have been a problem.
Except for the bread.
So, really, we started this. Together. And now that things were drawing to a close, now he decided to not care about me anymore?
How did I deserve that? I mean, I didn't. Probably.
I clenched my fists in anger and finally looked up at him, because I needed to vent and yell at him that I was sorry for taking so long, but that he said he loved me, and didn't that sort of thing mean forever and a heck of a lot of other things that probably weren't relevant right then... but I stopped before I got one word out.
The look on Peeta's face was... confused. Like he was debating something in his head. His eyes were fixed on my face, staring so intensely I took an involuntary step back. This seemed to decide something for him, because his hands shot out and grabbed my upper arms, pulling me back to him, crushing my body against his. His lips found mine and he kissed me like he used to kiss me.
When he thought I wasn't faking.
Peeta has added one more defining moment to his list. It is his happiest one. It is the moment when Katniss Everdeen kissed him for no reason other than she wanted to kiss him.
His heart beats only for her and he thinks, finally, she is listening to it.
A/N: Hope you enjoyed! Review if it pleases you. :)