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The Darkness Within

Chapter 9

Reading of the Card

It felt like an arrow through the chest.

Heartbreak felt just like an arrow through the chest.

It was a sharp, painful tearing followed by a constant, aching throb as fear, misery and understanding rushed through the body.

Katniss clutched at her face and hair as she paced away from the door and then back again. Just as in the Hunger Games, a broken alliance could mean death for her, and worse; it hurt. It hurt so much.

Pressing her ear against the door she listened once more, her fingernails digging into the wood paneling – Effie would be furious – as the giggles of a woman were accompanied by the low rumble of Cato's chuckle. For what seemed like ages, Katniss stood frozen at the doorway.

What was it that was happening across the threshold?

It was something frightening and forbidden to Katniss, but yet, something natural. Something that was her right to share with her husband but she hadn't and now likely would never get to.

The repercussions of this event filled her head and seared her temples. She stumbled away from the door, unable to support herself standing any longer. Dropping onto her bed, Katniss fell into a fretful sleep. She was afraid. Afraid of what the days to come would bring and afraid of losing something that could have been wonderful for her.

Katniss woke to her sister's warm form cuddling into her. For a bleary moment she almost forgot where she was. Prim's hair was soft beneath her hand and the victor pulled herself up so she could see the other girl.

It had seemed she wouldn't sleep at all, but daylight now streamed through the windows. Her head ached fiercely, but as Prim smiled up at her, she managed to smile back.

"Hey little duck, did you sleep well?"

"Mmhm! I've never slept on a bed so comfortable, it felt like a cloud!"

Katniss was startled at the observation. She had so long cursed her circumstances the luxury of it all had been lost on her. She had been blind to so many things for so long. "I'm glad. What did you want to do today? I could see if we could go to a park –"

"Actually, Cato said he would take us to the botanical gardens. We were hoping to buy some seeds to plant at home for Mum's patients."

The bitter streak in Katniss had her wanting to ask if she was even invited, but not wanting to spark her sister's concern, she swallowed the fear and smiled indulgently.

"Come on, if you thought the beds were great, wait until you see the showers-"

Whether Cato had meant for her to come or not, he didn't make any sign of acknowledgement nor irritation as she followed her family into the car. Letting her mother take the front seat, Katniss rode in back with Prim.

She watched as her husband expertly steered the wheel of the car, his broad forearm strong and formidable as he rested his hand on the clutch with a type of casual expertise that made her stomach tumble. Had those arms wrapped around another woman just hours before? She couldn't stop imagining it.

Soon, Prim, who had rarely ever been in a moving vehicle before began to feel stomach sick.

"Her face is turning green!" Katniss called in alarm as her sister groaned and Cato quickly pulled the car into the parking lot of a gas station.

Prim pushed at the door of the car and tumbled out, running for the bathroom. Unbuckling herself, Katniss' mother was after her in a second.

A moment passed before Katniss and Cato both realised they were alone with one another. Her lips twitched and before she could stop herself she said it: "Did you cheat on me, Cato?"

A flash of blue centered on her as he glanced at her in the rearview mirror. At first it seemed he wouldn't answer her, but then, very calmly: "Most people aren't concerned with their jailor's romantic life."

Her face grew hard, but her voice gave her away as it trembled, "You're my husband."

"Am I?" He returned coldly.

"Yes, and I'm so sorry for everything I've done. I know that all you've done is help me and I was stupid and blind, I see that now-"

"Hm. And yet it was easier for you to believe the words of a complete stranger over the actions of a man who saved you?" Cato's voice was dark as he watched her in the mirror.

Leaning forward so they could face one another, she looked upon her husband with misery, "Our first impression wasn't the greatest."

"Neither were any of the others you gave," he returned.

"Prim is just cleaning up," Katniss' mother announced as she got back into the car. The tension obviously struck her and she looked between the two, "…is everything alright?"

"Fine." And for the rest of the outing, Cato didn't acknowledge her once.

At the botanical gardens, Katniss trailed behind her family as her mother and Prim spent the day admiring and making notes on all the different plants they found. They breezed past a red flower before Cato gave a low whistle and they turned in their tracks.

"Cato?" Prim asked.

"You both just walked right by this one, don't you know what it is?"

"A poppy," Prim said as Katniss curiously read the name engraved in the plaque nearby.

"And …" Cato tried to lead them to the answer, but meeting only blank stares, gave an exasperated smile. "Morphling comes from this."

"Mom! Mom we need to get some of this!" Prim exclaimed as their mother's eyes lit with enthusiasm.

"Isn't it illegal to transport?"

"No, Mrs. Everdeen – the drug is illegal. The plant seeds itself; nope."

Katniss felt her forehead creasing. "Mum, why would want to make morphling?"

"It's not just a recreational drug, Katniss. It's therapeutic for pain relief."

"Gosh, it was a real lifesaver with Gale-"

Mrs. Everdeen shot her youngest daughter a sharp look just as the hair on Katniss' neck stood straight.

"What do you mean with Gale?"

"He … he got in some trouble, and was whipped. He's alright now, you don't need to worry."

Her stomach lurched at the thought of strong, handsome Gale; helpless and beaten. What had he done to deserve such a punishment? Why hadn't she been there to temper him?

"What did he do?" And then realising where they were, and whom they were there with, she shook her head, "Well, it doesn't matter anyway, as long as he's fine now."

"Gale's family are our friends," Prim explained to Cato.

"He and Katniss are basically siblings," their mother continued.

Katniss knew then that her mother and sister were weaving a tale, and she felt both sadness and gratitude that they were playing their own part in keeping her safe. God knew they were much better at placating her husband than she was.

That evening, Primrose was caught up learning the game of chess with Cato, and so when their mother excused herself to bed, Katniss followed after a little while.

Entering her mother's room, Katniss lingered in the doorway for a moment as the older woman blinked curiously at her, "Katniss?"

"M-" But she couldn't even say the word, instead a ripple of tension crumbled her face as she began to sob.

While she hadn't expected her mother to stare hopelessly back at her as she cried, neither did she expect the sudden warmth from an embrace, nor for it to be so strong.

For a long time she cried into her mother's bosom, until finally, the heartbeat she had once listened to nightly calmed her enough to talk.

"I would do anything to save you, Katniss. I know I stopped being a mother to you a long time ago, but now, when I'm ready and able, I find that there's nothing I can do. I'm so sorry I've failed you in so many ways. Does he hurt you?"

Katniss lifted her face to see her mother's pretty eyes look down at her in worry. She remembered so often a wounded patient coming into their house and her mother becoming alive with intensity. Now, it seemed with her life in constant danger, it had brought back that same passion to save.

Not getting an answer, her mother tried again, "Your sister told me that there were bruises on your arms."

"Yes, but those were … I deserved that, honestly. I've made such a mess of things. I'm scared, Mom."

She told her mother the whole story. From the softness she had felt toward Cato, to baiting him into a violent rage. Katniss didn't try and protect her mother in anyway for once in her life. Instead she told her every detail, from the girl who was after Cato, to her fear that she irreparably destroyed any chance of kindness from the blonde.

If it was possible, Mrs. Everdeen looked more pained than even Katniss felt. "I want to ask you a question. Is your fear solely that he will throw you to the mercy of the Capitol, or is there something more?"

"Something more?"

"Do you think perhaps you might not want to lose him either?"

Mutely, Katniss shrugged.

"The only thing I could think that could maybe get him to give you a second chance is for you to be honest with him, Katniss. Beg forgiveness. Show him …show him that you're willing to be his wife."

Immediately, Katniss felt her face flush hot with embarrassment. She knew what her mother was getting at.

"The thing is, he's not just a husband to you, and it's not what I would have wanted for you, but because of that, you can never let yourself get lax. A marriage always requires finesse and patience but yours is not just a simple marriage, you have to learn to play to your audience just the way you did in the Games." Her mother stroked her hair gently. "A divorce would be shameful this early in the marriage, but he wouldn't need to divorce you. You never consummated your marriage, Katniss. An annulment would take him barely a moment."

A strike of fear made her cold.

"Cato seems fond of Prim, of me … I am certain he wouldn't do anything while we're still here. He's a gentleman like that – but after we leave – Cato is like a son to President Snow and if the President doesn't like you…. well, from what Haymitch has told us … your life …. your life will never have a moment's peace."

"I …."

She wanted to say that she was scared, but her pride was in the way. And yet, she had sobbed that very phrase to Cato on their wedding night, her ego destroyed, her bravado missing, and he had been only unexpectedly kind to her.

Haymitch had told her once that it was not her strength that won her favor during the games, but rather her weakness, her softness. Perhaps she could find that part of her, that part that so desperately needed protecting and maybe, just maybe, Cato would shelter her one more time.

"- I know, Mum. Thank you."

While they might've been from different worlds, Narcissa and Katniss' mother got along well. They spent the next day cooking as Katniss and Prim got to reap the benefits of the food.

Prim caught on so quickly to Narcissa's tips that soon the stern matriarch was so pleased she forgot to send icy stares toward Katniss. In the evening Cato arrived home earlier than expected and handing his coat to William, called loudly for the family." Mandatory Programming in five, come quickly!"

"What could that be?" Prim asked.

"Nothing good," Katniss mumbled.

"The reading of the card," Narcissa nodded, "I didn't know it would be today."

Katniss's mother looked as if she was just remembering something and her eyes took on a vaguely blank look, "The Quarter Quell."

With ominous weight on their shoulders, Prim and Katniss followed the women into the living room. Cato was still standing after having switched on the television and nodded a greeting to them.

The anthem played loudly before President Snow took a stage, followed only by a little boy carrying a simple wooden box. He spoke with stern regard about the Dark Days that resulted in the Hunger Games and the tradition that every twenty-five years a Quarter Quell would mark the anniversary.

He continued on to describe the Quarter Quells of previous years and when he discussed the Fiftieth – twice as many tributes – Haymitch's year – Katniss' mother spoke softly, "I had a friend in the Games that year. Maysilee Donner. Her parents gave me her songbird after. A canary."

Prim and Katniss exchanged a look, when Narcissa nodded. "Yes, my cousin was in that year as well. Janie Pelleo." The wealthy woman kept her eyes toward the screen, her lips pursed. "I'd never agreed with Cato becoming a career. But then I thought, if it was inevitable that we lose those we love, at least it would be proficient to give them their best possible chance."

From nearer the television, Cato sent a startled glance at his Mother.

"And now we honor our third Quarter Quell." The president reached into the box that the boy carried. Inside, were row upon row of tidy little yellow envelopes. Opening the one labeled seventy-five, he cleared his throat as he began to read, "On the seventy-fifth anniversary, as a reminder to the people that the rebels had a selfish agenda and were willing to let others suffer for their actions, any tribute chosen has the option of instead choosing TWO individuals of their same gender to go in their place. No volunteering will be accepted."

It was clever. Taking advantage of the terror of death, it would pit family against family, creating discord and distrust within each district.

"Well," Narcissa said primly, "I suppose it'll be another 48 tributes this Quell."

"It's a hybrid of the first and second."

As Cato and his mother debated the decision, Prim tightened her hold onto Katniss' arm, curling closer into her sister.

"Prim," Cato said sharply, "If you get chosen again, you choose two names, do you understand? The two worst girls in your district. I don't care about honor, you do it, alright?"

Prim's face crumpled expectedly.

"The child won't get chosen again, what could the chances possibly be?"

"Low," Katniss said, more to comfort herself. "Low."

Cato's handsome face was strangely contemplative, "I think it's best we cut your visit here short. Staying in the Capitol might breed resentment toward the Everdeens. People may think Prim is privileged and elect her instead of them."

"Oh my God, I didn't think of that!" Their mother gasped.

"We'll cut it short, and you'll say that the Capitol was cruel to you. That people threw things at you, that they …. that you weren't even allowed into the Capitol to see us … that they kept you in detention and then sent you back."

As Cato took charge, Katniss felt a flutter in her chest. He was so strong in that moment, making clever plans to keep Prim as safe as possible. An attraction swelled in her stomach before it suddenly went flat when she realised what that would mean.

Her family would leave.

And Cato would not have the need to play nice. In fact, he could just as easily send her packing shortly after, back to District 12 to await her life of prostitution and abuse.

And once more, her future looked bleak.

The next morning gave rise to a tearful goodbye and soon Katniss was by herself once more. With her mother and Prim gone, Narcissa went off to visit friends. It worried Katniss that her mother-in-law didn't attempt to get her to study Capitol history or cooking. Was it because she didn't think there was a point as Katniss may not be around the house much longer?

Cato was also suspiciously missing and when Katniss, lying awake at night waiting for him to come home, realised by 5AM that he wasn't, she screamed into her pillow.

That night she had muddled dreams of being at the Reaping. Instead of Effie, the beautiful red-head with the painted lips pranced up on stage with practiced elegance.

"Katniss Everdeen!"

"What?" Fear engulfed her senses as hundreds of hands pushed her toward the stage. She had been reaped? How was this possible? There was something that made this impossible but she couldn't think what.

Smiling at her with a simper, Minnie gave her caress on the cheek. "Would you like to say any last words, Katniss?"

"I … " She peered out into the crowd of blank faces, "I want to-"

And suddenly she was in the forest from the Games and everyone was running toward the Cornucopia. Her legs felt like jelly as Clove went running past her and she scrambled around to find a weapon. There was nothing to grab onto and so she did the only thing she could, she turned and ran.

But then, from the trees came Cato, cold and blank like, and in his arms, with his neck snapped like Mr. Moseley: Peeta.

Katniss screamed."Cato, what did you do?!"

Minnie, the redhead came prancing up behind him, a bow in her arms, "Kill her, Cato!"

"No," Katniss choked, "No, Cato, it's me! Your wife?"

"Who?" He sneered.

Suddenly she realised that she was missing something. Prim was here. She had to find Prim. She had to save Prim!

"Prim is here!" Katniss pleaded, "Let me save her first and then – then –"

But he was gone as was the girl and Peeta's body. In their place were hundreds of muttations, growling and salivating as they bared down on her.

Cannon shots rang out, deafening and suddenly blood was dripping from Katniss' ears. It hurt terrible, it all hurt so terribly-

She woke with an ache in her ear.

It took her two hours to stop shuddering.

The next night, Cato came home. He ate dinner with his mother while Katniss sat holed up in her own room. She heard him enter his room and after a few minutes had passed, left hers.

She had planned this meticulously, down to the fact that she would knock on the main entrance to his room in order to increase her chances of being allowed in.

"It's open," Cato called.

Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and found her husband sitting on the bed looking over some papers.

As his cold eyes trailed over to her with some surprise, she took a deep breath.

Beneath her dressing gown she wore the white negligee from their wedding night. Meeting his gaze, Katniss licked her lips, "When we went to the gardens, I said you were my husband. I want to prove that I meant that."

Her hands shook only a little as she untied the belt to her gown and let it fall to the floor.

To be Continued….

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