Hi everyone, I just wanted to give a huge thank you to all of my faithful readers for your lovely support and enthusiasm. This has been a joy to write for all of you. This is the final chapter and, as a treat, it's about three times as long as usual. There was a lot to fit in. I hope you all enjoy it!
Chapter Eight: The Change
Nothing can ever change that.
When Peeta was six he stayed home from school with a fever that wouldn't break. Proust Parkinson had even come by to assess him and made a special herbal remedy that I knew I would never be able to replicate. We were told to let him rest, keep him cool in hopes that would aid in breaking it, and feed him what he could keep down.
"Is Peeta going to die?" Leaven had asked. He was eight and at a point where everything – from seeing the neighbor's cat to walking passed Rooba's porch – made him question us about death. Rye, at ten, was out of that stage and had flicked his brother so hard the boy started to bleed.
"Don't ask that," I heard, even though I didn't turn away from Peeta and Rye's voice was so quiet I was sure he didn't want me to hear.
"No, Leaven," I remember saying. "Peeta's not going to die."
My middle child had let out a breath and mumbled, "See I can ask," under his breath.
During those days, Delilah sat in the front and I would set Peeta on the far bench under a mound of blankets with a bag of ice on the back of his neck while I baked the bread. She hated it, saying we were going to infect the entire district with whatever he had picked up at school – no doubt from those mangy Seam kids. I knew keeping him in the hot oven room wasn't good, but I couldn't not keep my eye on him, making sure his little chest rose and fell, his forehead drenched in sweat, while he slept.
I woke up earlier than ever to start the bread for the day so I could finish early. I had Rye bring him down when the two left for school and hurried through everything so I could get him back upstairs. No one had bothered us for specialty items and I knew people in Town were gossiping about us. While Seam kids tended to starve, it was infection that took the Town kids, not nearly as often but at least once a year. Once I finished, I scooped my youngest in my arms and checked his forehead. Hot, as if his face was made of burning embers, and I would stick him in a cool bath.
"Papa?" he asked, his eyes glazed with fever on the third day.
"What is it, little guy?" I asked back. I didn't face him, instead readying the concoction Proust had given me the day before hoping this would work once and for all.
When I turned to him, the mix in my hand, he breathed through his mouth, loud and horrible gasps. "Why do we have the Hunger Games?"
It hadn't been what I was expecting at all but then I realized that the first grade was when they started learning about the Dark Days and the Rebellion. He had watched our neighbor Derry Hayward be reaped and killed in the previous Hunger Games. My mouth gaped open and closed not knowing what to say.
"Dad, we need you back here."
I shake my head of the memory and turn to Rye standing in the doorway that leads to the back. It's been dead all morning in the front, the rainstorm stopping most of our usual customers from making the trek outdoors. Rye's face is stricken as he bites his lip and turns around to rush back in.
Then I hear the scream.
I don't know what I had been expecting but my heart drops to my feet and my stomach leaps in my throat when I see him. He's curled on the floor in the fetal position, his hands covered in food dye as he stares at them, tears streaming down his face like the rain outside. I am no longer dealing with the delirious boy who asked why we have the Hunger Games. I am dealing with the delusional boy who went to the Hunger Games and taught me why we have them.
He's been home for three weeks. When he and Katniss had nearly eaten the berries I had fallen to my knees in the square and when Claudius Templesmith's voice shouted for them to stop I had cried. Bawled like a baby right in the square and I didn't care who saw because my boy was coming home. I barely saw him for the first week, when he and Katniss were shuffled from feast to feast, obligatory celebrations that ranged from high-profile parties at the mayor's house to a district-wide festival with free food and music for everyone in the town square. Peeta and Katniss had both looked so happy and in love and alive and beautiful together that it had never crossed my mind what would go on behind closed doors.
The first week, before their new homes in the Victor's Village were ready, we kept them in the homes of their childhoods. The first night back from the train, Peeta coming in way passed curfew and after we'd all been asleep for hours, I woke up to the first of the string of nightmares he'd had since his return.
And they only seem to get worse.
This isn't the first time he's started screaming in the bakery nor do I think it will be the last. Anything and everything can trigger him to set off and today it looks like he's been mixing the frosting because his hands are covered in red food dye which looks way too much like blood not to send him back to the arena.
Leaven's gotten him to sit up by the time I get to him with a wet cloth and begin to wipe his hands. I know it's useless, when we mix the frosting our hands are usually dyed for days, but I scrub until his hands are raw. He's stopped shaking and just sits there, his eyes focused on his hands.
"You can't wash it off," he says softly.
There are days when he comes into the bakery and I think for a minute that I've just had one huge nightmare. He looks normal and happy and bright and…he looks like Peeta, not this Capitol-creation that has taken over my lovable little boy. I like to pretend on these days that he's coming home from school when he sits beside me on the bench. Sometimes I pretend he's coming back from a date in the Seam with a beautiful girl that looks like her mother with her father's coloring, the same one who used to give me squirrels at the back door. Most of the time I pretend that he's coming down from his room with the twinkle in his eye which means he's up to something, like tricking Rye into eating a cupcake made of weeds or leaving the squirrel Gale Hawthorne brought out in the open for Leaven to see and nearly vomit over, paying his brothers back for the years of torment they put him through – that twinkle.
The twinkle I haven't seen since he's been back. The one I don't think I'll ever see again. The thing I think I may miss the most about him.
"I want to go home," he says, his voice no louder than a whisper getting caught in his throat.
Rye looks outside and shakes his head. "Later, when the storm ends."
When Peeta looks at me I can see in his face that he doesn't mean it literally. He wants to go back, back to before, back before he had blood on his hands that will never be washed clean. I know because I want it too. I wish every day that I could turn back time and change the names pulled at the reaping. Not Primrose Everdeen and, because of that, not Katniss. Not Peeta.
Most of the time, when he's having one of these moments, touching him isn't a good idea, which leaves me at a loss as to what to do. The only way I know how to comfort my boys is the way I've been doing it since the day Rye was born: take them in my arms and rock them back and forth, kissing their forehead when it gets really bad. But, when I tried that last time, Peeta started screaming and pushed me away to curl up in the corner, yelling at the top of his lungs, something about it being all for the Games. It had gotten so bad that Rye had gone to the apothecary and Proust had to pour some concoction down his throat to sedate him.
I don't know what to do to help him and it's the worst feeling in the world, to be a parent to a child that's hurting and not being able to fix it.
He's still thin from the arena despite all of the feasts he's been the main event at. Proust told me to let him work up to it because his stomach isn't prepared for all the food he's been giving it. Give it time to get back to normal. He'll be eating like an ox before you know it. He doesn't sleep well. When he slept at home he woke me up nearly every night and now that he's sleeping at the Victor's Village home I know he can't be sleeping much better. Rye usually spends the night there so he's not alone, breaking in after he's gone to sleep and leaving before he wakes up. That's one thing the Capitol didn't steal from my son – he still doesn't like people going out of their way for him. No matter how hard I begged him, no matter how firmly I put my foot down – I'm the parent around here – he wouldn't let me move in with him, claiming it was too far away from the bakery for me to walk to and fro in the early hours of the morning in order to start work when I can just roll out of bed at home.
Today I take a gamble and brush a lock of his blond hair away from his beautiful blue eyes that don't twinkle anymore with innocence. They stare at me as I do this, dead and hollow. He's seen innocent children die. He can never recover from that. And I feel so guilty when the thought runs through my head that perhaps it would have been better if he and Katniss had swallowed the berries before Claudius Templesmith told them to stop. They're dead either way.
At least Peeta is. I haven't seen Katniss for days.
Peeta closes his eyes but doesn't start to shake and seize. I take this as a good sign and put my hand on his cheek. He leans into it and chokes out a sob. "I killed her," he says softly, almost inaudible to my ears.
I frown. Caesar Flickerman had pronounced Peeta the only victor to never purposefully kill anyone in the Games. At the time of the announcement, I had thought it showed how he hadn't lied to me in the holding room at the Justice Building after his reaping. He stayed him. It had broken my heart to watch him go back to the girl from District Eight while he was with the brutal tributes who hounded Katniss, thinking I had lost my boy to blood thirst. But when he sat beside her and held her hand I had let out a breath I didn't know I'd been holding.
"You know, dying is like falling asleep, except when you wake up you'll be in a beautiful place and not here. You don't have to be afraid anymore. Just close your eyes and relax. Most of us will be with you soon and maybe we can all be friends when we get there."
Once she had closed her eyes, Peeta convinced she'd bled out enough to not recover, he went back to the group of monsters as the cannon blew. He cannot possibly blame himself for her death, so there's only one more death he can blame himself for.
The girl from Five.
Nightlock berries, I learned, leave a red residue on your hands, like the dye covering Peeta's now. He's not looking at his hand and seeing blood like I had thought earlier. He's seeing the juice from the berries, the ones that killed the girl from Five, the ones he and Katniss nearly ate themselves. I look from my youngest to my two older boys, wondering whose brilliant idea it was to let him mix the frosting today.
It was Leaven. I can tell by the way his eyes look down and he starts mumbling about how he can't do anything right. In a way I know it's true. He didn't volunteer for Peeta at the reaping. He doesn't think about how much his brother has changed until he triggers some memory from the arena. I think Leaven had been even more excited to hear Peeta's name announced as a victor than I had been – it meant his brother hadn't died because he'd been a coward.
And I hate that I blame Leaven. I do. It makes my heart burn with guilt but my mind won't stop thinking about all the terror Peeta's been through that his older brother could've stopped and didn't.
"You didn't kill anyone," I whisper, hoping that it's the right thing to say. "You stayed you."
It's a lie. It's a lie because he did accidentally kill the girl from Five and despite his hardest attempts he didn't stay Peeta. He didn't willingly let the Capitol change him but they did, just as they change every kid that rises on that podium and manages to be the last one standing. The gamblers always say the victor is the biggest loser of all twenty-four tributes and I had never realized they were right until now.
Peeta shakes his head and lets a single tear fall from his eyes and race through the tracks of wetness already on his cheeks.
The door slams behind us and I realize just moments too late that Delilah's home.
"What is he doing here?"
There's been talk about Town, apparently, about the fact that Peeta's been seen in the bakery. Some of the folk that aren't close to us are gossiping that it isn't right for a victor to continue to work. They don't go to school; they should be allowed their rest for what they've done. What they don't realize is that it is the only semblance of normality he has left.
"Bran, get him out of here!"
"Mother!" Rye hisses. "It's storming."
"I don't care," she sneers. "He's no son of mine, prancing around with that Seam rat."
I watch Peeta's eyes as Leaven corrects her, saying that Katniss is no longer a Seam rat but a victor, and feel my heart drop. His eyes, which used to light up at the mere mention of her name, don't react at all. He just attempts to look everywhere but his mother. The windows. The doors.
He's not avoiding his mother. He's looking for an escape. Delilah has managed to pull him out of his guilt and torment, bringing him back from the horrors of the arena only to be faced with the horrors of his life before the reaping.
In the brief moment in which I turn to glare at my wife, he breaks out of my grasp and sprints out the door.
"Peeta!" Rye shouts but there's no stopping his brother, not even the clap of thunder that makes the bakery rumble. Without thinking, I run after him.
Despite him being sixteen and me being over the hill, I catch up quickly. He's still limping and that makes me slow, my stomach clenching. Most of the time, hidden by his clothes, I forget that he doesn't even have the body he left with, his leg replaced with a plastic and metal contraption that makes him limp. He trips in the road and I kneel down beside him, my heart breaking.
"I should have just died!" he shouts.
"I have nothing here!" he continues. "I don't even have the bakery anymore!"
No. He can't be thinking that. No. I love him, changes and all. His brothers have been so kind to him lately that it's hard to believe they ever teased him. Delilah's the same as she's always been, if not colder, but he should have expected that. He has so much here. Friends, like Delly and the Undersee girl who stop by to ask how he's doing. The Everdeens. Little Primrose has stopped by to check on him, asking if he's doing better than Katniss. Katniss who is attempting to forget everything and slept herself into some sort of stupor the week after their celebrations, Bevan apparently feeding her sleep syrup like candy.
"What would Katniss have done if you died?" I ask, hoping the mention of his fellow victor will bring him back down to reality, make him realize he has so much left in him.
The reaction I get is not at all what I expect, but then again, I haven't expected much of what has happened recently. He gives off a laugh, cool and distant and not at all a laugh the old Peeta would've given even toward his mother.
"Katniss?" he asks, almost incredulously, mocking me. "She doesn't need me. She has Gale."
This confuses me because when they're together they look like they did in the cave – happy and in love. However, I suppose I haven't seen her since the celebrations, and in that time they could have had some sort of argument. A clap of thunder takes my mind off Katniss and I lift myself up, holding a hand out to help him. He doesn't take it and rolls on the ground, his face in his arms as his chest splashes into a puddle.
I don't even know what to do until I hear a laugh.
"Oh, kid, it only goes downhill from here," comes the gruff voice of Haymitch Abernathy, the man I have never had any interest in talking to but now feel as if I owe my life to for getting Peeta out of the arena. He stands, his hand clasped around the neck of a bottle of spirits, in a raincoat and I can't help but roll my eyes. Only the district drunk would brave the storm and I now know how Ripper has been able to stay in business. Between Abernathy and our Head Peacekeeper Cray that must be how she makes her living.
Peeta lifts his head. "Haymitch?"
He holds his arms out as if to say the one and only. For a brief moment I can see a former shadow of himself, sixteen and standing with Maysilee Donner in their chariot, Maysilee looking terrified and Abernathy looking bored. I had hated him for his arrogance because of Maysilee, who hadn't deserved to die. I had hated him even more when he came back and shut everyone out of his life, causing Bevan to run. I even hate him now, my blood boiling because he can coax Peeta to sit up and I can't even convince him not to want to disappear in the puddle.
"What are you doing outside in the rain?" Abernathy asks, not even acknowledging me as he reaches down to grab Peeta's shirt. Peeta scrambles to his feet as Abernathy lifts. "Can't let our newest victor get sick, now can we?"
Peeta's face drops and Abernathy pats his shoulder. "Come on," he says. "You going home? We'll talk."
I watch stunned as Peeta begins following after him. He doesn't say goodbye. He doesn't send me a look. It's like I've handed over the reigns of fatherhood to Haymitch Abernathy – of all the people I wouldn't choose to take over my role – and I can't do anything but stare.
Abernathy pokes Peeta's new leg with his bottle. "You better warn me next time it's gonna rain," he says, his version of a surly joke. "I don't want to have to visit Ripper in a storm again."
Peeta shoves his arm and the two walk away, leaving me standing in the rain in the middle of Town watching after them. I don't move until they're out of my sight and then I head back to the bakery, the lump so large in my throat I can barely breathe. When I walk in, Delilah looks behind me and smirks when Peeta doesn't follow. Rye and Leaven each give me looks but don't ask. I go upstairs and sit on the end of my bed, my head in my hands, thinking of the times when I would tell the boys stories before they went to sleep.
Times when I would sit for hours decorating with Peeta, the bakery filled with his innocent chatter.
Times when Rye and Leaven would tease him for his crush on Katniss, catcalling and snickering behind his back like older brothers are supposed to do.
Times that I'm never going to get back.
I want to go visit him but each time I get the nerve to walk out the door I don't know what to say. Am I angry that he chose Abernathy over me? No, not really, because I understand that Abernathy knows what he's going through better than I do. No longer is the main problem in his life a girl that doesn't reciprocate his feelings. That had been my territory, waters I knew well. But now we're both drowning and I don't know how to keep him at the surface. Abernathy does. He's been to the depths of that sea and back up again and he can bring Peeta there as well. No, I'm not angry, but I can't say it doesn't hurt.
So as the days I slip my boots on only to turn around become weeks, become months, I hope my son isn't turning into a drunken victor like his mentor. At this point I feel like I don't even know him. He hasn't been back to the bakery since Delilah told him to leave and I can't say I blame him.
It's my job to go to him. And I can't. Because I'm a horrible father.
On his seventeenth birthday I make a cake but I don't make the trek to the Victor's Village to give it to him. I sit at my table deep into the night looking at it. I've covered it in primroses and katniss flowers. I've even put some berries on the top. The frosting color is red. It's around two in the morning that I realize that this cake is not a cake that represents my Peeta. It's a cake for the new Peeta. That's the only thing I know about him anymore. I don't know what he does for fun now that he doesn't work here. I don't know if he's eating right – for all I know he's gorging himself on Capitol food and doesn't fit through a door anymore. All I know is that he's still madly in love with Katniss Everdeen – Cleat says he's seen them once or twice walking through Town together, both looking uncomfortable while being followed by reporters that don't know the meaning of hidden cameras – and he's hounded by the terrible experiences that stole his innocence.
I'm still there when Rye comes in, hanging his coat on the rack ready to start the morning.
"Oh, Dad," he says, shaking his head and lifting the cake from the table. He puts it in the trash. "He'll come around. It's Peeta."
"Yeah, but it's not our Peeta," I hiss, something I've started to do more now that he's been gone. Rye and Leaven both tell me they don't like it but I don't care. I'm mourning my son because he is gone even though his body is right down the road.
We're forced to watch the Victory Tour and it makes me feel even worse because he hasn't even said goodbye. I'm hollow as I stand in the crowd, watching as Katniss and my son step out on the stage in Eleven. He looks like Peeta, filled out again in his fine suit. He speaks like Peeta, using his eloquent skill to address the crowd while Katniss watches. He even acts like Peeta, giving some of his winnings to the families of the tributes.
But, he's not my Peeta. My Peeta would have said goodbye. He would have a twinkle in his eye as he spoke. Its something only a parent would notice, the slight differences in his gait or the way his eyes stare, which remind me that he's seen more horror than I will in the rest of my life.
I suppose I'm not even surprised when he proposes to Katniss during Caesar Flickerman's interview because to be honest I don't know him anymore. This isn't the little boy who would have asked me if he was ready. He isn't the kid who would know he's too young to marry her. He's not Peeta, who would have asked my permission because he's still a minor and still under my roof.
Because he's not. He's not under my roof. He's not a kid anymore but an adult in every way but age.
I am surprised, however, when he comes to the bakery.
It's a Wednesday. Delilah is where she usually is, at the Cartwrights, probably gossiping about the son she no longer thinks of as her flesh and blood getting married at seventeen to a Seam rat that doesn't deserve him. Rye and Leaven are working in the back and I'm manning the front. It's a bright day in March, his Victory Tour a few weeks over, and it's the first I've seen of him in person for months.
We stare at each other for what could have been hours.
"Hi," he says.
"Hi," I repeat.
Peeta's jaw tenses and he looks down at his feet. "I," he says and then lets out a breath. My son, who could get the entire country to follow him into a war with a simple let's go, is stuck on his words. "I'm sorry."
And when he looks up at me I almost expect his eyes to twinkle. They don't, but they're not quite as dead as they had been the last time we spoke. In fact, they almost look alive again.
"How are you?" I ask.
Peeta's shoulders drop and I feel as if he must think I was going to converse as readily with him as I did before the reaping. A wave of understanding passes over his face and he nods. "Fine," he says. He thinks for a second before adding, "better."
My mind, heart, and mouth are not connected. My mind is telling me to stop being so terse. My heart is telling me to run and embrace him. My mouth, however, isn't letting him off for running away, for leaving me to be comforted by the district drunk instead of his own father.
I want to scream. Father. I think, when I didn't attempt to stop him from shutting me out, I lost that title.
"I, uh," he says, not moving from the door. "I wanted…I need you to know that I didn't leave because…it's because…"
"I know," I say, my heart finally connecting with my mouth because I can't stand to see him fighting for his words. It was always the thing he was so good at and to see that we can't even carry a conversation hurts me more than I could imagine. I had never been one for words but Peeta had been my little chatterbox and I could listen to him for hours, hanging on every word.
"No, you don't. And that's why I left," he says. His lifts his eyes to meet mine and I can see a bit of fire in them that I've never seen before. "You don't understand what it's like to…to go through what I went through and I didn't want you to. I didn't want you to bear my burden. You've done enough of that through the years. You can't fix me this time and I didn't want you to try…I just want to say that I'm sorry and I know it's probably – no, it's not enough, but it's a start."
I nod my head and take in his words. I'm not immune to his powers of speech. I never have been and I never will be. My mouth lets out a sigh and I open it but no words come out. Although my heart has forgiven him, my mind has accepted it, I can't say the words I need to say to him because part of me knows I need to say that I'm sorry as well.
The words that come out of my mouth instead are, "so, you're engaged?"
For a minute his eye flash with disappointment and then he smiles. "Yeah," he says. "I should have warned you. It was probably a shock."
I shrug. "Eh," I say. He knows the truth though because I've told all three of them for years what I think of marrying too young, never wanting them to end up in my situation. I stare at him, not knowing how long it will be before he goes out my door and leaves again, uncertain about when he'll come back. "Are you happy? With Katniss?"
It's not what he had been expecting, I can tell because he looks like he's searching for the right words. "She keeps me on my toes," he says and I can't help think that there's something hidden in his words that goes right through me like the nippy winter's chill. "I don't know if I can ever be happy," he adds softly. "But, I'm okay, the way I'm living."
We stand staring at each other for another minute before he excuses himself and walks out the door.
Soon the entire district is forced to watch Caesar Flickerman interview Katniss's stylist Cinna and view her possible wedding dresses. They're stunning and while watching I can picture Peeta and Katniss's beautiful wedding in a huge Capitol ballroom surrounded by Panem's high and mighty. Two kids from Twelve, of all places, captivating the richest and most powerful among us. It's then that President Snow comes on and reads the card for the Quarter Quell. The entire time he's reading it I'm thinking of the last time he read a similar card and the consequences of it. Maysilee. Abernathy. Two kids from the Seam that I never knew and can't even bring to mind their names.
I don't even realize what he's said until Rye and Leaven drop their jaws, looking up at the screen we have in the bakery.
"He can't do that, can he?" Leaven asks, looking around.
"He can do whatever the hell he wants," Rye hisses.
The rules for the third Quarter Quell are highlighted on the screen and I feel my heart start to break all over again. It's then that I realize there will be no wedding. With that single announcement I have lost whatever remains of my son. Katniss is going back, there's no question since she's the only female victor for our district. The odds have never been in Peeta's favor. Not once. Never never never been in my son's favor, not since the day he as born and Delilah wouldn't even hold him. I was stuck with a wife who didn't care, two boys that crawled all over me, and a newborn that didn't understand that even the slightest cry he made upset the woman who never really wanted him in the first place.
So, when the time comes, I'm not surprised when Peeta volunteers for the district drunk at the reaping for the Quarter Quell because – well, the only time the odds are in his favor they really aren't. He loves Katniss and is willing to die for her and nothing will ever change that. I don't go to say goodbye. I had my chances and I never went to see him, not once, after he made the effort to see me. Again, I've lost my right to fatherhood and concede it to Haymitch Abernathy.
We have to watch their interviews in the public square as always and I'm sure I see Bevan nearly faint when Peeta announces there is a baby involved. People start squealing about a victor baby – hoping, perhaps, that it will bring more fortune onto our district for producing these two lovesick fools who will never be happy because of the Games. Part of me doesn't believe it. I'd like to think I raised him better than that. The other part of me doesn't know whether to believe it or not because I have to remind myself that I've lost my son.
I watch everything almost impassively. I know Peeta is waiting to jump in front of Katniss the minute one of the brutes from One or Two try to kill her. They wander around with the young and handsome Finnick Odair and his elderly district partner. So, it's my surprise when my heart starts racing and Peeta dies. It wasn't what I had been expecting, Peeta to not fling his body in front of Katniss as an arrow or an ax, some crazy mutt perhaps, is flung toward her.
Katniss's screams echo out of our screens and through our square. She's bawling so hard I being to wonder if this pregnancy isn't a farce to get pity sponsors because this isn't her personality to cry. Perhaps her hormones are getting the best of her. And if it isn't fake, if she really is pregnant, then I really don't know who this boy is who has taken over my son's body. I understand that he's a teenage boy, but my Peeta…well, he's gone now.
It doesn't ease my mind about the whole pregnancy issue when I see them on the beach. It's a kiss that's not worried about what the cameras are catching. They're wearing next to nothing after their suits were destroyed and Peeta's hands are on her bare waist and Katniss's hands run through his dirty blond locks until they're on his neck, his shoulders, his chest. It's passionate, that's for sure.
We go back to calling them soulmates. Even Gale, when asked about seeing his cousin kissing so passionately on television by a woman who's dyed her skin neon green, says he's never seen anyone more in love than Katniss and Peeta. He says he's happy for them, but the tone of his voice suggests otherwise and the Capitol reporter says something about him being overprotective of his beautiful cousin causing him to walk away.
It's Delly who gives the answer the Capitol reporters keep repeating.
"There's nothing stopping that fire," she says with a smile, pointing to the screen where they've stopped kissing each other but are still in each other's arms, Katniss's legs wrapped around his waist as she sits in his lap her chest flat up against his, her head buried in the crook of his neck. I sit and watch them caught up in their love for each other, not a care in the world aside from the fact that the other is still alive, their hearts beating in tandem, together, as one.
But, later, when Katniss sends an arrow flying, Peeta's screen showing his footsteps are just not fast enough to get to her in time, our screens turn off leaving our district in a cascade of darkness. The odds are never in Peeta's favor. I bow my head and walk toward the bakery, avoiding everyone's hurried gossip about why our screens went black. Instead I sit at my bench and decorate a few blank cookies I had left this morning with purple primroses, the frosting flowers never as good as Peeta's.
My mind is spinning. Peeta killed Brutus. Not by accident. Not sitting beside him and holding his hand. He had killed him in full blood, in a fit of rage. My hands can barely keep the decorator's bag still knowing that the boy who could barely kill a spider had morphed into this crazed…monster, lost from me completely because of a stupid reaping and a Capitol that insisted upon killing twenty-three innocent children and destroying the twenty-fourth each year to show their power over us.
It's when I finish frosting the primroses that I realize I started losing my son long before his reaping. When I close my eyes I see his entire life flash before me.
Peeta running to me, five years old, pointing to Katniss. She sings like her papa.
Peeta begging to bring her bread when her father was injured, burning bread for her nearly six years later upon his death.
The primrose decorations. The stolen glances. She's coming back if it's either of us. Her name screamed in his nightmares. Will you marry me? The pearl on the beach. His anguished screams of her name when he realized he was too late to do the one thing he had volunteered to do.
Die for her.
I snap my eyes open. My son has been waiting his entire life to die for Katniss Everdeen and he doesn't even realize that he already has, his little innocent heart gone to protect her in the first Games, the last bits of his life gone in a vain attempt to save her in the Quell. He's gone. Not just his innocence, but his life this time because the arena is gone and with it all the tributes. But, as I take a cookie in my hand, I swallow back tears. There is one part of him that will never die and the Capitol can never take that away. They can program him to kill as I had seen with Brutus, taking away his innocence. They can give him horrible nightmares where he can't even sleep, taking away his mind. They can take him away from me, severing the bond I thought would never break. There's only one thing they can't take and it's not his body, not his soul, not his spirit. It's his heart.
His heart belongs to the girl on fire. Nothing can ever change that.
Again, thank you from the bottom of my heart for anyone who left a review or kept up with this story. It has been a joy to hear your reactions and a pleasure to write it for you. I'll be posting another story again soon, I'm currently debating between a few story lines I have floating in my head right now. If any of you decide to read that I would be overjoyed.
Thank you so much for being such great readers and reviewers. So, one last time...for the audience?