Disclaimer: Not mine.
Summary: In Mockingjay we're given a neatly tied package that tells us what happens to Katniss and Peeta, but we're left to figure out how, from jagged and torn pieces, such a pretty puzzle is assembled. Katniss/Peeta. Pre-Epilogue.
Rating: T for mature themes and clunky prose.
A/N: Just testing the water more than anything. It's been a long, long time since I've written a shred of fiction, and trust me when I say there's a good reason. I learned, in my long absence, that writing is like a muscle: if you use it, it gets better; if you don't, it turns to shit. Please be patient while I figure out what happened to the writer I used to be.
Poison and Wine
The trees have begun to turn, solid crimson and orange pressed between the spaces of the fence that lies between District 12 and the forest Katniss moves through swiftly, stuffed game bag knocking against her thigh as she walks. The air is crisp, cooling quickly in the fading daylight as she slips under the fence, tugging her braid free as it snags on an upturned diamond of still metal. The snares were unexpectedly bountiful, three rabbits and several squirrels in addition to a particularly plump wild turkey she skewered with an arrow, the force pinning it to a tree through the neck. She'd had to break the arrow in two at the point of entry, the tip hopelessly lodged deep within the tree. As she walks up toward the Victor's Village, Katniss makes a mental note to request a new quiver of arrows. It was a habit of late, shooting with a ferocity that was more instinct than intention, losing arrows to the insides of trees, to the depths of the forest.
She smells the bread before she sees him, crouched studiously over a canvas on the floor of the living room, a laden paintbrush in hand. The past few months have been kind to him, bringing back form to the set of his shoulders and glow to his skin, the rush of light behind his eyes. He smiles often now, though his once fathomless patience has become more of a shallow pond that Katniss is forever splashing around in. Even so, little remains of the distrustful, raging stranger Snow returned to her. Peeta looks up and smiles at her as she walks in, shrugging off her father's jacket and tossing the game bag on a table. They don't say much in the way of words, more inclined to heavy, distracted silences as they busy themselves. It's not uncommon for several days to pass before either of them says anything at all, usually a one word question like, "Hungry?" or, frequently, "Haymitch?" They visit their eternally drunken mentor and get back to not-talking, Haymitch filling in the spaces with rambling about what a ridiculous pair they make, how Katniss should teach an archery class at the school, and where's his knife, goddammit?
She figures she should start skinning her catch, take some meat over to Haymitch and Greasy Sae before night falls and the wind picks up, but ever since returning from District 13, hunting leaves her with a crawling ache. It starts in the pit of her stomach and radiates outwards, coils in her shoulders and slinks down her legs. There is joy sometimes, but loss always sneaks in, inevitably tapering the edges of the bright and boundless into pools of What Was: of Gale, of Games. Instead Katniss takes her seat by the fire and stares, lost to the faces that flicker in the flames. Finnick. Boggs. Rue. Prim. The dancing light licks crackling wood and reveals every single soul she couldn't save.
Peeta curses lightly a second before the smell of burning bread wakes her from the fire's dance. Hurrying after him to the kitchen, the corners of Katniss' mouth lift slightly. It's his way to wander, lost along the shores of memory, just as hers is, though while hers is a convulsing inferno, his is a sea of colors and lines, images of peace and terror unfolding under his careful, artful hands. Peeta's painted no less than 72 paintings since his arrival in the Victor's Village, since he washed his hands of the soil he planted primrose with. He says it's therapeutic, though Katniss suspects he's just restless, waiting for her to snap out of her mute monotony. His lonely house is stacked with gruesome recollections of fallen tributes, barren landscapes of a starved District 12, Snow's gaudy Capitol excess, and hushed portraits of Katniss. His collection of horror and hope, a museum of the dead, is the only real resident of his family-less home. More often than not, Peeta is with Katniss: hauling over canvases and his box of paints, baking impossibly delicious things in her kitchen, humming things under his breath and glancing toward her as she sits at the fire, hoping she'll pick up the melody. Sometimes just staring out the window. Sometimes just staring at her.
The loaf isn't too badly burned, smoke wafting from the oven, and he hands the pan to Katniss while he fans the blackened clouds. Unthinking, Katniss reaches out with bare hands. There is first a bright flare of pain, and between the space of one blink and the next, there is a knife in her hand, pressed tightly against someone's throat. Peeta's.
"Katniss," he says calmly, hands at his sides. "Katniss, it's okay."
Shaking, the knife trembling in her hands, Katniss feels her tense muscles resist her command to relax. It'd happened in an instant, her body springing to life at the taste of danger, of fire. For the next few, confused moments, Katniss can't get her body to react. This is Peeta. This is the boy with the bread. He didn't hurt you. It was an accident. The hot pan, the burned bread. This is Peeta, and he…
The knife clatters to the floor, Peeta turning quickly and wrapping his arms around her. Her instincts tell her to flee, that it's a tactical move and her arms are pinned to her sides. She almost struggles against him, readies herself to shove him away with panic rising in her throat, when she hears his whispering against her neck, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Katniss."
She wants to tell him that it's fine, that it's her own ridiculous absent-minded neglect that forgot to put on gloves or grab a dishtowel before handling the scalding pan, but there are no words in her mouth; the sentences are caught somehow in her throat. With horror, Katniss feels her eyes flood, her body a complete stranger. The knife, the tears, the weight of memory rips through her: Peeta, eyes crazed with his fingers crushing her windpipe. Clove, spitting hate inches above her face. Cato, desperate and dangerous as he threatens to break Peeta's neck. Gloss slicing a crimson smile across Wiress' throat. And Prim, her precious Prim alight, Katniss' name on her lips turning into a scream of unconscionable pain. Her hands throb like blood pulsing, and it's too late to wrest control of her body back from her stupid, incessant emotions. Always these emotions, these feelings taking control of what's rightfully hers, what she won the right to again and again through blood and sacrifice in those arenas, those stadiums of death. Her body, her life hijacked by the ghosts of chronology. The spectral faces of her friends and family parade across her consciousness in the light of dawn. They float beneath the surface of her bathwater, speak in the wind through the trees. Why can't she just stop? Stop with all the feeling and all the sorrow and all the useless grief. What can she do with grief's hollow, formless waste? The more you give to it—the more tears and memories and countless staring hours you pour in—the more it takes. Grief cannot give back the dead, can offer no solace. Not white liquor nor all the morphling in the world is enough to silence the nightmares. She who was hunted is now haunted. The Girl on Fire, burning still.
Peeta's stroking her hair, muttering soft, sweet things to her. They're by the fire again, on the floor with her head against his chest. "Sorry," she manages, her voice cracking.
"You don't have to apologize to me," Peeta says, fingers stroking against her neck. Even that gentle, quiet touch inspires fear in her. Her jugular there, exposed. His strong hands, her neck easily broken.
"Is this how it's going to be now? From now on?" Snow's final triumph, that Katniss may have won the Hunger Games, but this lasting victory over her mind was his. "Am I going to draw an arrow at every drop of a hat?"
"Maybe," Peeta says. At least he's honest. "But I don't mind, Katniss."
"I'm a monster," she says. "I'm his monster." An aberration, a killing machine. At least Peeta's trackerjacked psychosis excused his behavior. What was her excuse?
"No," Peeta shakes his head firmly. "You're a lot of things, but not that."
"Oh?" she asks, and she hates the way the smug disbelief drips from her voice. "So what am I, Peeta?"
"Extremely dirty, for one," Peeta says, wiping a smudge of dirt from her cheek. He nods at her game bag, one corner damp with blood. "A great shot, for another." His fingers stroke absently at her neck as he rambles on, an odd, alarmingly endearing list of all the things Katniss is. Lazy. Infuriating. Brave. Stubborn. Great at knowing what plants can kill you. A singer more akin to a songbird than a canary. Startling, but in the best way.
"And you're the girl I love," he finishes simply, his fingers coming to rest against her pulse as it speeds briefly at his quiet declaration. Her body, determined to do absolutely nothing she wants it to, warms from the inside out, a flush coloring her cheeks.
"Sap," she mumbles as pulls away from him, hurrying upstairs to run a bath before her rebellious mouth can say anything as foolish as, "I love you, too."