Sorry, it's been an unspeakably long time. Life gets in the way.
When Peeta came home, my smile was back. A false one, albeit, but nevertheless – it was there to greet him.
His arms enveloped me and then I smiled honestly. He smelled like bread, and warmth, and sunshine. He smelled just like I'd remembered him smelling when we were in the arena, though in reality he'd smelled nothing like it. It was like my dream on top of the Cornucopia had been realised. We give memories a golden glow after the event, where content moments are heightened into euphoria and frightening moments become a nightmare to drag you back to the pit.
But then I looked up from his shoulder and thought that it was likely President Snow or his cronies were watching, and the experience was soured.
We spent our time together in the evenings. The day was spent in the bakery on his part. I spent mine in and around the district, feeding hungry mouths either by handing out food in the Seam, or by using my unspeakably large Victor's pay packet to increase sales in the Merchant Quarter and the Hob.
I was never greeted kindly. Greasy Sae would occasionally smile as I handed her a fat pouch of coins, but the majority of the Hob had decided I was no longer fit to be seen in their midst.
Gale would not take even a cracker from me, let alone money. I settled my guilt by sending Prim to school with extra food for the children, and letting Hazell know that should they need food, I was more than happy to oblige.
Eventually, the Capitol cameras left, having had so little footage of myself and Peeta together – and even less of me alone – that their audiences were beginning to tire. There were other festivities and persons of interest to film.
And that was my freedom.
The first padlock on my cell had swung open, and even though Snow's guards no doubt were always watching, I began to make myself invisible again.
Seeking my invisibility was a wearing process. I held my badge of dishonour wherever I walked, kicking stones through the dark streets behind the Hob, collecting dandelions in the meadow.
Hubris' home was now occupied by the new Head Peacekeeper, and it was unfortunately often in the way of my travels. There were no tired women, starving for food more than affection by his door. The women of District Twelve now starved in a more painful way; not even their jutting ribs or grey skin could entice the Peacekeeper into tossing a coin their way. They had nothing to sell any more.
Peeta's arms cloaked me in warmth at night, his smile a ray of sunshine at day. But when I lay awake beside him, pondering the events in my life that had led me to him, nothing could warm the chill in my heart. It spread through my body quickly every time that I left and saw the fuming eyes that followed my movement throughout the district. The whispers were quiet, conspiring, and I never heard one word more than my own name. But in the nights I heard them.
That girl, that Katniss, the one who was so discontented with being just the Head Peacekeeper's girl, feeding her greedy belly with his money while others starved, that she sought fame in the Capitol's arena. Do you know why my children are starving? Do you know why, some day soon, there will be no roof above our heads? That girl.
I no longer felt like a girl. I'd thought that I lost my childhood innocence when my father lost his heartbeat in the mines. When I walked through Cray's door, I felt then that I had lost every happy thought, every feeling of warmth. When I was shot up through the glass tube into the blinding light of the arena, I knew that there was no semblance of kindness in me any longer, no semblance of good will. The people of the district called me a killer, and when I looked at myself in the mirror, the only thing I could recognise was murderer.
I longed for the kill again. The chance to end a life in the knowledge it would save mine. Not a human life, but a hunt. I was a huntress in the woods beyond the fence, I was free to burn throughout the woods like wildfire, wreaking havoc with each step and each whistle of my arrow. I longed like a starving child at the sight of a feast through a window. I longed like I had longed for the bread in the bakery on that day that stood so plainly in my memory.
Eventually, I gained the courage to venture over the fence once more.
I filled my game bag each day with all kinds of meat, destroying everything that dared cross my path.
I did this for three weeks without being noticed by the Peacekeepers, but only two without bumping into Gale.
I tried to sneak up on him, the first time – but of course he heard my steps. We'd trained together; when his hunter's senses were active, I was just an extension of him. He felt me there before he even heard me, most likely.
He swung around, letting his crudely made bow and arrow drop. "What the hell are you doing here? Do you know how much danger you're putting us both in?"
I began to interrupt, to explain the extent I'd gone to in order make myself unnoticeable, but he was stepping closer, and cut me off.
"Get away from me. Get out of here. Don't you know what they'll do to you, for poaching off the Capitol's land?" I opened my mouth to answer, but he wasn't finished. "20 lashings in Cray's day. It's 50 lashings, now, with a new Capitol whip. They won't care who you are, you idiot. They won't care you're a Victor. They'll flay you until you can't stand."
"They wouldn't, Gale. They know the cameras may come back any day, they couldn't risk it. And I wouldn't let them hurt you, you know that."
"You're so self important. You think Victor status will make you exempt? You don't hold any power over the Capitol's enforcers, Katniss. Not unless you decide to turn your other talents to them, though I doubt they'd want to suffer Cray's fate, no matter how good you are in the sack," he spat.
"Gale!" I gasped. "How dare you say that? You don't know – you don't know how things were for me, I never went willingly, I- I don't offer those things to anyone-" I spluttered.
"You went willingly. First to Cray's bed, probably for a paltry sum I'd wager, and now to Peeta's. What's he offering you, fresh cheese buns? Your standards have dropped."
I turned my head from him, an unfamiliar burn of anger towards my friend in my chest. My bow was drawn, arrow pointed at his throat before I even realised. "Shut your mouth," I ordered.
He didn't even flinch. "You're not in the Games, Katniss. You can't just kill anyone who speaks an unpleasant truth." He toed the dirt. "You changed more than I thought in those Games. Whore to killer, who would've thought it?"
Though I'd long felt the sting of the word killer as I addressed myself in the mirror, realisation hit me like a punch to the chest that it hurt a great deal more to hear Gale's words. I had my arrow ready to fly into his throat. Was it the surroundings, the trees towering around us? The uncomfortable Capitol clothes so reminiscent of the Games? Or was he right that the Games had warped me to the point that a simple insult from his tongue set me ready to kill him?
I lowered my bow. "I'm sorry Gale, I don't know what I was thinking – all of this, the anger, it's so new-"
"I don't need your reasons. Run back to your new home and new man before the Capitol finds you here and uses this as the perfect excuse to slice out your tongue." He chuckled darkly. "Girl on Fire. Run like there's fire licking at your heels."
I balked, and did just that. I came back the next day, knowing he'd be at work in the mines. But of course, my luck was beginning to run out, like an hourglass approaching empty.
The next Sunday, he was there again, just as I'd known he'd be. I'd had a long time to think, during sleepless nights in bed with Peeta – a bed I hadn't gone to in the way that Gale suggested – all I thought of were the things he said, and the way he'd said them.
His words all melded into one, until I crawled under the fence with an almost tangible anger screaming from every pore of my body. I didn't attempt to hide my approach once I spotted him. My bag was heavy with game – many creatures had come to a quick and precise end under the point of my arrow – and I trudged up to him, dragging it along behind me.
"I can't believe you'd think those things of me, Gale. I thought we were friends. I thought we'd built a friendship over the years, I thought after you'd confessed your feelings we could go back to how we were. But it seems we can't, because you've poisoned it all with your... your… your anger!" Jealousy had been the word on my lips, but I wasn't a bitter or hurtful person, even in my angry state.
"I think only things that are true, Katniss! I offered you a way out, you could've taken it! Damn it, even that baker's boy offered you a way out and you didn't take it! You went back time and time again, thinking only of the money-
"To feed my family!" I shouted. "We were starving! You know we were starving, you watched us starving!"
"It stopped being about that for a long time, Katniss. By the time the games came around – even when we stood in this forest, and I poured my heart out to you, even then you weren't starving! You had plenty of food, I helped you catch it! What was it about? The money, or his affection? You played it as though he dragged you into his bed screaming and kicking. I bet you moaned into his sweaty shoulder every time, didn't you? I bet you loved him. Loved the way he took you to his fancy balls, dressed in borrowed dresses, I'd put everything I own on you enjoying being his. The only reason you wanted to come home was to come back to him. Not to Peeta, and most certainly not to me."
"It wasn't about the money by that time, you're right, but that's the only thing you are right about!" I stabbed back. "How did you expect me to break a contract with the Head Peacekeeper, and then poach from the Capitol's land? He would have killed me! He would have killed me if I'd come back from the Games alive – he told me that. The only way he wanted me back here was in a box ready to be buried. You watched me coming back from him, bruised and beaten down… How ever could I love him? How could I love a man that took the last thing I had, made me feel worthless? Made me feel like property?"
I frowned at him. "I'm no-one's property."
"No-one's property?" He howled in anger, then whooped, his laughter harsh, biting. "You may as well have a stamp on your rump, 'PROPERTY OF PRESIDENT SNOW'! He's got you wrapped around his little finger. You think when the time comes, he won't want you to lie down and think of Panem while you repay the debt you owe to him the way you did for Cray? You won't get a fat pouch of coins then, Katniss. You'll just be paying a debt."
"I won't be selling myself to Snow, Gale! How dare you say that?"
"I dare to tell the truth, Katniss! You're still a whore, but a Capitol whore now. You think it went unnoticed that you and Peeta left the Games unscathed? Sure, the baker's boy lost a leg, but I highly doubt that was the payment. No, it was all your idea, and your debt is still outstanding. No more District Twelve for you, no more romps in a modest cottage. You'll be bent over a mahogany desk in the President's private quarters!"
"I owe him no debt! It's been paid in full, Gale! And my body was not sold!" I screamed.
Gale was finally silenced. His voice was quieter when he finally spoke. "What have you done, Katniss?"
"I sold my life, you imbecile." I hissed. "I'll never have peace; I'll never live my life without being under surveillance by all of Panem. Every breath I take, one day soon will be televised. I'm not a Capitol whore, Gale; I'm the Capitol's puppet." Suddenly, the vitriol in me subsided. My voice was quieter, calmer, resigned, when I continued. "They all think I've started a rebellion; I didn't mean to. It wasn't some big stand, some rebellion to the Games and the concept of them. I just wanted Peeta to go home, but I was too selfish to be alone. He never realised how it would look, even if I did. Snow knew that, which is why he came to me. And I owed him, just like you said. Two options, whore or puppet. I chose the latter." My eyes watered and I rubbed at them angrily. "Peeta's leg didn't count as his debt…I haggled for him, and he'll stand beside me. He'll be moved by strings without even realising it. You think my life is so perfect, Gale, you think I enjoy everything thrust upon me. I have no choice in my life. Peeta and I will be married, we will have children, and they will be controlled just as we are. All that you believe, you've never been further from the truth."
His arms surrounded me before I'd finished my sentence. "I'm so sorry, Catnip. I didn't know…I thought that you wanted to be with Peeta. I've just been so bitter since you've been gone." He pulled back and his face was full of resolve. "We'll start it. The rebellion. District Thirteen want you to be the face of it, they're just waiting for the right time. You and I will start it and then you can be with who you want. Cray is gone now, you don't need to follow Snow's orders, you don't have to be with Peeta."
My eyes narrowed. "You know I chose Peeta. I chose him before the games. You said you understood."
"I thought you chose him before the games, yes… But you just said, your life has been chosen for you. I thought that meant that if you had the chance to choose-" he looked in my eyes expectantly. "You'd choose differently."
I didn't have the burn of anger in my chest any longer. "I wouldn't choose differently, Gale. I'd just like to choose the…course of mine and Peeta's lives with him, rather than Snow.
He swallowed loudly. "I see. I misunderstood." He paused, turning around as though he couldn't face me, and we stood in silence for a minute. "Please leave."
And so I left.
I walked brazenly out of the thick forest, forgetting the need for stealth. I didn't think of the hourglass of luck, nor the dwindling grains of sand.
I was a foot from the fence when the last grain of sand fell.
"Stop right there!" A Peacekeeper shouted, his voice carrying on the wind as he began running towards the fence. I had nowhere to go. He was headed straight for me, and I was heading straight for the whipping post.
"Stop! On the authority of the Capitol, I bid you to stop right there!"
Stop I did. I realised immediately as I struggled with my flight or fight syndrome that they didn't recognise me – and I was unsure whether to make my identity known, or whether to play dumb.
If I went back into the woods, they would follow, and might find Gale. I had no option.
I crawled back under the fence under the Peacekeeper's watchful eye, and I heard him call in enforcements.
Their hands were on my arms, pulling them behind my back and into a much more advanced pair of handcuffs than their predecessors had owned, by the time I'd gotten to my feet.
I balked. "Do you realise who I am? You can't do this!"
"Your identity is of no consequence. You are a citizen of District Twelve, subject to the laws of your District and the laws of Panem. You have attempted to leave your District. You will now come with us to face punishment."
"You can't punish me!" I howled, kicking at their ankles as they began to escort me to the Hall of Justice. "I'm Katniss Everdeen! I wasn't doing anything wrong! I wasn't attempting to leave the District!"
"Your identity is of no consequence. You are a citizen of District Twelve, subject to the laws of your District and the laws of Panem."
Gale's words of warning now felt a great deal more real now that I was in just the situation he'd described.