He feels around for my hand. In what must be complete and permanent consuming darkness, he finds it and takes my hand like a child with a doll. Smiles. His eyes are on some dreary corner of the floor, but I do not mind.
He swallows. There are too many scars around his eyes. Long, curling streaks of pink mar his perfection. The left eye glints a still-alien green, less watery, more vibrant –I feel like I should recognise him more. Broken man, reassembled. He strokes my knuckles as if he's trying to tame a wild animal: as he was once tamed.
"It was silly of us to look for qualities in eachother that we never had," ...never had? It hurts. I swallow, but keep it in, wouldn't dream of telling him how numb I feel, how hateful I feel. Maybe he knows. His knowledge of suffering is existential. . His other hand feels on the table besides him. Knocks letters onto the floor like a white waterfall. His fingers clasp a box on the table. Unknown to me. A monsoon pours outside: it always rains like this here, and I guess I'll never be used to it. Blindly, he pulls the bow forward and offers it towards me. Even before I move, he speaks.
"Don't worry about the letters," The box is small and black. I despise him giving me gifts. Giving me anything, for all the wealth a man might have I know Cato only has one thing left in the world. He changed after the war. Changed during it, and now they call him a good man, now! It is only after he has lost everything that they would offer him respect. "Take it,"
I shift. The air tastes like acid and the bite of a bullet. "I don't want to," The words sound heartfelt, sure. Me and my heart: I'm sure he would have torn it apart years ago, had he have known it would put us all through hell.
"You don't have to be embarrassed because you didn't get me anything," He laughs. He jokes like always .I wonder how he can stand it, how he can wake everyday if he can see in his dreams. But he smiles. Looks pale. Turns his head and his eyes and looks right at me, through me. I laugh for him and take the box with heavy heart and high courage. I try to be ready for anything.
Inside is a cracked splint of wood. My splint. It is all of the things he is, intricate and dark and very broken, but somehow still proud. A messy, mud-stained scruff and a silken tongue more brown than pink, even more majestic than when I first received it.
My hands tremble. "I thought I'd lost it,"
He breathes in slowly. Very carefully says nothing. His eyes have shifted now, slightly beyond me. The green sparkles. The blue looks old. I can see all of the hurt rotting and falling away, and the gesture confuses me.
"How long have you been holding onto this?" he says nothing. Nothing at all, and I want to shout at him. I want to be angry with him, but I know for him it must be a piece of her, a means of preservation. But he cannot avoid the question forever.
"Cato."his head lifts. His expression swings shut. "Too long,"
"How did you-"
In from the rain, Kara appears. For such a young age, she is unusually serious and unamused. Has that look of solemnity that Clove had, with a closed mouth and eyes that notice everything. She walks in with confidence, looks so much like her mother that he would cry to see her. She even walks like Clove, but for his eyes, oh God, these two bright blues that refuse to close for what they might dream. Still so small and young.
Cato leans forward in his seat and a smile appears on his face, untested and free for her. Even as she reaches down and hands him the fallen letters. He puts a hand on her hair, both affectionately and confirming. "There's some food for you in the kitchen," he says. Kara looks at him. Her eyes are enormous and blue but she never smiles. Perhaps because Cato cannot see her.
She rises and hugs him childishly. Turns to me with serious eyes. "Thank-you, Surplus Peeta,"
I smile at her as she putters out. So small and young and callow.
Cato leans an arm on the table besides him and rests his chin on his hand. "She doesn't smile much," As he turns back to me, he knocks a frame from the table. He freezes in shock, and I kneel to pick it up. "Peeta," he says, quietly.
When I look up at him, he feels over my face with his hands. So gentle and precise, with an envious but somehow distant caress over my lips, I winder if he misses them. I wonder if he knows that they are his for the taking, that my pallor is a white flag and I have given up trying to fight, instead I want to love. He takes my hand and feels over my embedded time, with such regret.
I can't stand it. I get up from under his eyes and sit on the piano stool. I look at the lion in my hands. Today is hard. Especially hard. Cato isn't making it any easier. Very slowly, he gets up from the chair and walks over to me. He sits on the stool next to me and lifts the piano lid. He starts to play a strong, flawless melody. He has had years to learn.
He is a warrior. And a musician and the heart that I call home. He looks in my direction. "Do you remember your first parade? In the Capitol?"
I smile. "Yes," The music continues. "Just before you wiped the floor with me. I believe most of the crowd were looking at you,"
Cato smiles. He is caught in the softest kind of nostalgia. Grinning, he nods. "Yes, I did." A pause. "And yes, they were."
We laugh. It is good to hear him laugh. And to play. He skims a few incorrect notes but covers them gracefully. He was utterly graceless before. It's strange.
The melody takes a turn fro the solemn. Cato's smile falls slightly. "Clove was there." Falls completely. "Watching."
My face burns. "Yes, I remember,"
He looks up. "You should. You were the only one she looked for." I try to remember, but it has been buried deep underneath everything. I was a cold boy and now I am warmer and older. Cato laughs, bitterly. "I've never been so jealous,"
The minor key is piercing. Cato looks in front of him but addresses me most intimately. "I wanted to prove to her that I was the better man, you know?"
I laugh in defeat and resignation, to try and forget this conversation and memory. "You always were, Cato,"
He remains deadpan and continues playing. "Of course," And then he laughs, a real glimmer of a smile in his grin. But he swallows it all too fast. I try not to look him in the eyes as the melody winds and ties me to him.
"She was the first person I saw. I was looking for her." He clears his throat. "And she was staring at you." The bitterness colours his voice. "Everybody else was cheering for me, but she was staring at you,"
"No," I say, uselessly. He stops playing altogether, staring intently at nothing with blazing eyes. He'll never love me like he loved her, and I never asked him to. "When we were parked up, she was looking at you. We all were."
He swallows. "I didn't see,"
I start to play the other half of his song. 'Perfectly contented', in it's bright and bouncy key and waltz-like tempo. I look at him. "Maybe you weren't looking hard enough."
Cato looks at me. "Maybe,"
And he might kiss me here. He could, in the violet hours of this rainy day, all he would have to do is lean and then we'd be kissing, honouring her memory because to dance on graves is not to dishonour the dead and I love him, I've always loved him. It's only now after he has lost Clove and his sight and even some of his mind that he has started to look hard enough-
"Surplus?" Kara calls me from the kitchen. Probably furious, because she does not remember Clove, why should she? Only slightly a year old when Clove slipped away. I try not to talk about her in Kara's presence, but sometimes she overhears.
Maybe it's hope, but Cato looks slightly crestfallen. Hie eyes do not move when he calls back to her. "What's wrong, sweetheart?"
It's always like this.
There is an urban legend about a man who walked all the way across Panem, from the Capitol right to the outline Districts for his love. That he was attacked by muttations and tracker jackers and soliders and soldiers, but he survived all of it. The story goes that he kept on walking, through a winter as hard as nails and the vast forests and deserts.
In the story, he finds his love in the midst of an epidemic. He finds her on her deathbed. She does not recognise him. He sits with her in her last hour.
She asks him where he has been. He tells her he has been looking for her.
She is delirious with fever. She asks him why he is so sad. If he is going anywhere. So he tells her that he is. Somewhere she can't follow.
She strokes his knuckles like she is trying to tame a wild animal. She tells him he is gorgeous. Turns away and looks out the window, forgetting his name, she turns back and tells him he is gorgeous once more.
His love asks 'when I go, will you miss me?'.
And Cato had said 'Till the end of my days, Clover'.
Cato keeps one hand on my shoulder and his other in Kara's hand. We walk down into town. I don't know what District this used to be. We don't have them anymore. Our revolution ended with victory. But winning a war is only half the melancholy of losing one. We have businesses. They're working on extending the the transcontinental railroad, to more
places across the country.
We have towns and cities now. It's different. We lost a lot. Technology and medicine and, in a way, stability. And today is when we celebrate this sacrifice, and all those we lost to our cause. I like to think that nobody remembers me. Our city is one of the largest and most beautiful, which helps me disappear. But they still ask me to speak.
Cato's speaking, too. Even after losing his sight, he hasn't lost his unhealthy love of being outdoors. He loves the city centre, with all of the sounds and smells. It is beautiful, too, but that wouldn't matter much to him. He hold onto me tightly as we cross the town square. It is beautiful here, but on days like these, when everybody is staring at him, and at
me, with such intent, it makes me wish I didn't have to see. That sounds insensitive.
We both wear mockingjays. I couldn't remember Katniss' face or voice, or even her laugh if you asked me. I guess you could say I've been preoccupied. After Clove died, he was done with life, world-weary and shaken. Had the little white pill in his mouth, they told me.
Nightlock pills. Potassium cyanide. Back on the front of three, he found a quiet spot and chased the pills with whiskey. He waited for the sweet release, but none came. Life clung to him like a disease, and his insides burned for hours. His sight diminished into darkness. But still he did not die.
They found him caught in a barbed-wire fence, screaming hysterically for Clove, eyes wide open, but seeing nothing. The public call him a war hero.
Cato leans into me and says quietly, "They're all looking at us, aren't they?" I make a noise in response and a smile comes over his face. "I believe your wisdom shall save us all," He goads. I laugh and elbow him.
"Hey," Cato looks ahead, his eyes remaining always distant. Even his smile has changed. It's more honest. Less smug, I don't know- I saw the way he'd look at Clove, he knew he was her biggest mistake and it only made his grin more sinister. Even now, even though he doesn't look at her, the way he smiles when Kara says something profound or does something new: it's the incorruptible kind of good.
We feel for our seats and wait as the town mayor, elected in a vote-based, unbiased system, opens the celebrations with a few words. The crowd is enormous, completely swollen in numbers since last I looked. Cato leans heavy on my arm, but does the talking.
"Should I be nervous?" He murmurs. I have never gotten used to him looking ahead when he speaks to me. My silence prompts more from him. "The crowd, I mean,"
I shrug. And then speak. "They'll play nice," I assure him. "You're a war hero, y'know,"
He laughs. "Jesus, Peeta," He sighs. "I thought we weren't using those words," Kara looks up at him with very serious and demanding eyes. She always wants answers, and she asks them with the intensity to wipe out an army.
"Why not?" She asks him. "You are a war hero,"
He winces, visibly, and would explain, he would attempt to tell her about the nightlock, or the Games. They mayor has finished his introduction. Saved by the bell.
At first, they cheer. Cato stands, and I lead him very slowly to the lectern, if that's what you call it. Not a word is spoken. I guess most of them don't recognise him. It has been seven long years.
His voice is invincible when he starts. The melancholy of a war lost is only half that of a war won," He closes his eyes.
"We do not remember this day to talk about the evils of the past. Or of the Games, or the Capitol." I watch him and fall
in love once more.
"Neither of this is a day of mourning the dead, and being thankful to them," I disagree and pull back a little. But I make no assumptions. "That day is everyday," He places three fingers to his lips and extends them. The crowd follow him in the action. "Restoring balance to the world has never been done before," He sighs, and leans heavy again. Face so pale, eyes so stark, the one green, the one blue. "You have done the impossible, and that is why we remember,"
He straightens and keeps it together. "They would be proud of you. All of those that went under, we have surely arrived in the future they hoped for."
Cato swallows. "To Panem!" And the crowd chorus it back 'to Panem'. "And all of the others we left behind."
They cheer for him. I cheer, too, rising, I help him back to his seat and then go to the lectern. I have no speech. No genius, and contrary to some beliefs, I don't have this magical way with words. I'm just a man, plain and simple. Cato nods to me, and mimes 'Pariah King'. I keep it in mind.
I hold my wrist up. "When the war ended, I went back to Surplus for my patron." I sigh. I try to sound convincing. "So many old friends ask me why. I remember the station when I left home that first time." Silence. Napalm quiet. "Surpluses lacked the status of the servant, and the tragedy of the avox, and we were not as much fun as employées. Nobody wanted to be there,"
"I used to play chess with my brothers in 12. Dannyl asked me what my favourite piece was, and told me his was the pawn simply because he's the underdog and the odds are against him," I tap my component. "I identify with the pawn, too, but I see nobility in their struggle and the fact that they are always moving forward."
"For seven years I have had laughter and roses and I have been happiness. Because of our revolution. It makes me think that the reason pawns can't move backwards is if they could, they would kill their own kings in a heartbeat,"
The reaction is wonderful. It strikes a chord. I just hope it makes sense when I communicate my thoughts. "We were forced to keep moving forward, the promise of royalty if we got to the other side meaning we most likely would have died on the way –I wish you all horses, and castles." I sigh. "We have our freedom because you kept moving forward, because we –we earned it."
Again, silence. "When people ask me why I chose to Surplus, I can't say exactly. I think it's-..." I think about Cato. Sitting there in his own darkness. "I think it's because we once lived in a time where we did not choose our roles, but resigned to them."
In custom, I raise my hand. "For Panem!" and they chorus back to me.
Early the next morning, I find the house empty. With reckless abandon, I search but cannot find Kara or Cato. It's pretty unwise to lose a blind man, so I search the house piece-by-piece. The clock chimes. Sunday. Sunday?
I head to the cemetery.
The smell of tulips and violet perfume comforts me. I see Kara sitting by her father. He has one hand on the cool marble of her tombstone. No body here. Scarlet fever and cholera meant that both sufferers shared a mass grave in nine. Or what was once nine.
Cato hears me and says, "Peeta,"
He can see nothing.
He turns back around and looks at me. Looks at me and I know from that how hard and true he loved her. For a long time I'm sure he wanted me buried there, and not her, but that seems to have changed. I can see her ghost perched on the grave. Clove looks at me with cool eyes and she laughs. Gives me a single nod, and fades. Her last light.
At first, I don't believe it. Dismiss it as superstition. That's why Cato's next five words change everything.
"This is me letting go," And he stands up, slowly, leaning heavy on her grave. He takes my shoulder and leans into me.
"What are we doing for breakfast, dearest?"