My head feels remarkably fuzzy. So much so that I barely feel Peeta tighten his grip on my hand.
"But listen here, sweetheart, you think this through, OK?" Haymitch says, pinning me with a very long look that momentarily lifts me from my daze. "Don't go jumping up and volunteering for anything yet."
"She thinks you'll want to see Snow one last time."
I swallow thickly.
I never thought I would. I've been actively avoiding President Snow since my sister's name was pulled from the Reaping bowl a little over a year ago. I've been trying to figure out ways to remain hidden from his view. To just avoid him at all costs. It's been my absolute priority.
But now, with the end of this war drawing near and President Snow's head basically set atop the proverbial chopping block, I want nothing more than to see him burn. Even if the Capitol terrifies me. Even if leaving this District again terrifies me.
I never knew hate was more powerful than fear.
And I hate him. I hate him more than anything in the world, I know it. My hate for him has been slowly simmering, ever since my father was blown to bits in that mine because, even though Snow wasn't directly involved in that accident, he caused it. He perpetuated this country's obscenely dictatorial administration. He was the one sending my father into those dark depths every day. He was the one who killed him. He was the one who took my mother from me. He was the one who starved Prim and Gale and Rory and Vick and Posy.
And he was the one who pulled my sister's name from the Reaping bowl. He was the one who pulled Peeta's. He killed Glimmer and Marvel and Clove and Rue and Foxface and Thresh and Cato.
He gave me my nightmares. He showed me Peeta just to snatch him away because he could.
And then he made me watch the only boy I ever loved die.
He changed me forever. I will never be the same because of him. There will always be a significantly darker part of me that will live on in fear and loathing no matter what I do.
He ruined my life.
I can feel my limbs start to tremble with the rage that is flowing through me.
But not just my life, I think.
He ruined everyone's lives. It's so obvious that sometimes it's easy to forget that I am not the only one he's abused.
The Seam. The Hob. District 12.
Every single District we toured during the Victory Tour has shown me the varying degrees of torture put upon it by the Capitol. District 13, even – its mundane, robotic way of life. The withdrawn faces. Everyone is constantly exhausted. I saw the war tear through District 4. I've seen what the Capitol has done to Haymitch. I've seen what it's done to Annie Cresta. I saw the dejected faces of District 8.
I listened to Finnick's propo…
President Snow threw the world's gentlest, kindest boy – the one that gives love and hope freely – into this mess. I remember the way Peeta completely snapped in the presence of President Coin last night and the way he nearly destroyed his entire compartment in anger and frustration.
The baker's son would have never done that. The Victor? Yes.
He ruined a part of Peeta, too.
An icy cold resolve washes over me as I turn to look at Peeta's hand in mine, and then up to his face. I think he can see it in my eyes that I've already made my decision. His expression is stony. He's trying so hard to keep his emotions in check but we know each other far too well for that by now. He so obviously doesn't want me to go. For a second I wonder if he'll blow up and we'll have another screaming match like the one in the hospital last week. His expression may be lifeless, but I know his eyes and all I can see looking back at me is sadness. It's as though I can see his heart snapping in half.
But he doesn't say a thing. Instead, he turns his head to look at the wall. The way his shirt moves with the action allows me a view of the tips of the scars that cover his neck and map across his shoulder.
In disconnected flashes I remember watching the mutt cats rip him open. I remember his sobs when the jabberjays taunted him. I remember watching the color drain from his face while rocks rained down on him from above. I remember the way it felt when my heart was ripped from my chest and crushed into a paste.
Yes, I think. I've made my decision.
I tighten my grip on Peeta's hand and look decisively back at Haymitch, who is wise not to talk me out of this. Instead he turns his attention to Peeta, who is still staring at the wall and avoiding my eyes.
He's probably furious with me but I need to see an end to this. My need to finish this is so much greater than anything I've ever experienced. The painful clawing in the back of my mind – the one that has been telling me that I've failed, that I've sat by and watched and done nothing to help the rebellion – quiets at the thought of me going to the Capitol one last time. I remember the way I couldn't do anything afterward the Quell. Not one thing. I failed to do the one thing Peeta asked of me because I gave up.
But now I have the chance to make it up to him. If I go to the Capitol to physically see an end to President Snow, I might be able to walk with my head held high again.
I will go to the Capitol to end this. Finally. To repay a debt so massive I have trouble comprehending it.
Peeta has to understand that. He must.
"You keep it together, boy. I don't care what you have to do," Haymitch tells him. "Go to your happy place. You're one misstep away from being released from the Star Squad, you understand? You're gonna hear a lot of shit that you're not gonna like in this meeting but listen to me. Hold. It. Together."
Peeta nods curtly and swallows. I half expect him to take his hands out of mine and move away from me but he only holds on tighter. It's a confusing action when it's juxtaposed with the fact that he refuses to look at me.
I close my eyes.
"Do not put a toe out of line," Haymitch continues. "Do you know how hard I worked to keep you in these meetings so that you know what's going on?"
I feel Peeta's body deflate next to mine and, before I know it, a fierce protectiveness surges up my throat and out of my mouth.
"It's not his fault, Haymitch," I snap, baring my teeth like an animal. How dare he make Peeta feel inadequate, like this is his fault. It's Snow's fault. Snow made Peeta that way. Everything is Snow's fault. And I hate him, I hate him, I hate him.
"Sweetheart," Haymitch bites back. "You keep your mouth shut. You lost all credibility when you turned on your own rescue crew in Four."
I'm about to launch back into an argument when Haymitch cuts me off.
"I know why you did it. I do," he says, voice soft and eyes surprisingly gentle. It silences me. "They don't. And they never will."
He doesn't have to elaborate. 'They' – Coin, District 13, even Gale. Anyone who hasn't been through the horrors of the Games will never be able to truly understand why I acted the way I did. It's unwise to provoke an animal.
That's what we've all become. Victors are animals.
And it's his fault.
"Do something for once and think before you do anything. Got it?" Haymitch asks me. "Think before you agree to anything," he repeats. His eyes are boring into mine but if there's an alternate message he wants to communicate to me I simply can't grasp it.
I don't say anything in response. I've already thought it through. I've already agreed.
I will go to the Capitol.
We follow Haymitch swiftly through the halls. There was no time to discuss what he told us before Coin's briefing so the three of us left the compartment together in a rush. Peeta has been silent. I've watched him closely, trying to anticipate a blowout, or something similar, but he's been tense and quiet.
It's unnerving. If it weren't for the way he is clutching my hand I would think he hadn't processed any of the information Haymitch told us. Or my reaction to that information. Still, he's worrying me.
I pull up short as we turn the corner to the corridor that will lead us to the briefing room and when Peeta feels me tug him back he comes to an abrupt halt.
"Peeta," I say, holding tight to his forearm. "I…"
My line of thought escapes me when he finally looks at my face. His eyes are glassy and his hair is still rumpled from this morning. It feels like ages ago that he kissed me awake.
"I just got you back," he whispers. The pain in his voice is so evident I can feel it in my bones. For a moment all other thoughts escape me and I think of the way his arms tightened around me last night on the floor of his compartment. He was scared – petrified, even. He just wanted me back. Safe.
Haymitch cocks his head down the hallway, urging us to keep moving. If we stand here any longer we will be late for the meeting.
"I know, but –" I start, shaking my head, but Peeta interrupts me with a tight shake of his.
"Please not now," he says, shutting his eyes tightly. "Not if I'm going to keep it together. I can't talk about this now. Please."
I frown, searching for the correct words to give him, but Peeta grabs hold of my hand again and begins to lead us down the length of the hallway before I can come up with an adequate response. I turn my attention to my feet and focus on the way my shoes slap against the tile of the hallway.
I'll make it right!, I want to scream at him. I will make it right for us both. I can do this. I'll end it!
I stay quiet instead.
Peeta's hand is sweaty in mine and it almost slips out of my grip a few times. I can feel a slight tremor running down his arm and through his fingers. I sneak glances at him the rest of the way, wondering if I've finally broken him. Just when I think we've successfully put ourselves back together, I go and break him again.
Perfect nights have always led to horrible mornings.
As we turn the corner to walk down the main hallway to the briefing room I pull Peeta to a stop once more. He won't look at me, instead choosing to focus on someplace over my shoulder. I grab his chin and force his eyes to lock on mine.
"I love you," I tell him loudly, uncaring of the people who can most likely hear us.
He has to know I mean it. I hope he understands. I really hope he can see why I need to do what I am going to do. I love him, so I need to end this. I love him, so I need to watch the man who ruined everything die. For us. I will do this for us.
Peeta stares at me for a long second before looking back over my shoulder. His nod is short and jerky. My stomach turns inside out. I don't have time to speak to him again because Haymitch waves us forward once again.
We never have enough time.
Just as we are about to walk into the briefing room, I feel a hand on my shoulder and I turn around sharply, startling Peeta in the process who, despite his rather icy behavior, pulls me protectively to his side.
It's Finnick and he looks tired, but content. He's exhausted but relieved.
I wish I felt the same way. I am completely on edge. When Peeta lets go of my hand Finnick surges forward, pulling me by the arm and straight into his chest. He hugs me so tightly I can barely breathe.
"Thank you," he whispers. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you," he repeats over and over again.
Last night, and the days before, I was scared and upset to be a part of the District 4 mission. Part of me didn't believe it was worth it as I sat trembling in corners of District 8. However, the way Finnick hugs me right now makes the fear and sacrifice completely worth it. He has Annie now. Finnick – who literally had almost everything taken from him – has Annie now.
Fear and sacrifice. It's what I'll be confronting in the Capitol.
When Finnick pulls away he grabs my face in his hands.
"You're an angel," he says. I flinch a little and my immediate reaction is to scoff at him but Finnick looks so honest that I cannot do anything but stare back. Finnick then looks over my shoulder, to Peeta, and says it again.
"You've got an angel, Peet," he says seriously, every ounce of playfulness gone from his voice. It's odd to hear Finnick speak like this, and he's making me a bit uncomfortable, so I try to nod and smile at him as I inch my way out of his grasp. In my haste I fall backwards into Peeta's chest.
Peeta rights me but doesn't step away. He looks at me carefully, frowning. Finnick must sense the thickness in the air because he tries to lighten the mood.
"Maybe it's time you retire, Katty," he smiles. "Let someone else do the heavy work now."
Peeta clenches his jaw and looks at the ground and, in a twisted effort to make things less awkward I nod pathetically and force a feeble smile.
Finnick frowns at my reaction, looking between the two of us, surely trying to piece together what's happening. He probably doesn't know anything considering he most likely hasn't left Annie's side since last night. He's been sitting in the blissful after effects a reunion can bring. I was basking in them last night as well.
Too much can change too quickly sometimes.
When it becomes obvious that we've been lingering, Finnick brushes past us awkwardly and I follow closely behind him, not wanting another uncomfortable confrontation with Peeta in front of an entire gaggle of people. He follows behind me, resting his hand on the small of my back and when we sit down at the large conference table, he moves his hand to my knee and turns his head in the opposite direction. I don't know if he realizes how tightly he's squeezing me. But it's the fact that he still has trouble meeting my eyes that makes me uncomfortable, not his grip on my leg.
I study the table, seeing the faces I've become familiar with because of the frequency of these meetings. I still don't remember most of their names. Haymitch, though, is staring at Peeta from across the table. Johanna sits next to him, scowling at me. Finnick is switching his eyes between us, trying to figure out what's going on.
Gale isn't here and neither is Madge. They're both probably in the hospital wing. Boggs isn't here, either.
Because of me.
Only seconds pass before President Coin sweeps into the room and sits down, shuffling a pile of papers on the table in front of her. I focus on her slim, pale fingers as they leaf through some of the sheets.
"Thank you all for coming. Especially given the short notice," President Coin starts, addressing the table as a whole. It's strange to me how well groomed she always seems despite the chaos around us. Her pin-straight hair is never out of place, her perfectly tailored suit is never wrinkled. Nothing amiss. Ever.
"Welcome back to the members of the District 4 rescue squad," she continues. "Though the mission can only be deemed as partly successful, given the complications that arose when it came time to leave."
I don't cringe, despite the fact that I know it's what she'd want. I'm not sorry for my actions. The only thing I'm sorry for is hurting Boggs. Collateral damage.
Coin levels me with a razor sharp stare that I shoot back her way. Frankly, I'm surprised she hasn't already starting publically berating me.
"I will begin with a short briefing on what has recently transpired. Our technological and electrical efforts have been deemed a success. Districts 3, 5, and 6 are now under District 13 control. This means that the only Districts not publically under rebel control are Districts 1, 2 and 7."
Coin pauses and there is a collective murmuring of approval around the room. I chance a glance at Peeta, who is staring at the table, unmoved. He hasn't spoken or acknowledged any of the information we have been given. I give his hand a quick squeeze under the table and he turns his face away from me even more.
My stomach drops to my toes.
"We also have control over District 2, and have for a long time," she continues and my brow furrows in confusion. President Coin notices my confused expression and continues speaking.
"District 2 was actually one of the first Districts to revolt," she explains with a smirk. "After all, how much of the rebel activity would have been possible if the Peacekeepers sent from Two weren't in on the secret? Our covert control of District 2 and the fact that the Victor of the 75th Hunger Games is a spy for District 13, and has been acting as a double agent for the rebel forces, has given us unprecedented access to the Capitol. This is, of course, still under wraps. Tomorrow evening, we will launch a military strike against the Capital from District 2. We fully anticipate for this strike to end the war completely and successfully. There will be no Star Squad or Mockingjay involvement in this strike."
I shake my head a little, trying to clear my thoughts. This is all a lot of information to process and my mind is in a million different places already that it's having trouble focusing. District 2 has been under rebel control since the beginning? What Coin says makes sense but my mind is focused on Snow, as always. There won't be any Mockingjay involvement? It's the exact opposite of what Haymitch told me not an hour ago. I glance quickly at Haymitch, who shakes his head infinitesimally. Out of the corner of my vision I see Peeta close eyes.
"However, after the strike, we will require Star Squad and Mockingjay involvement," Coin explains.
"What are you saying? Be specific, please," Haymitch interjects. I stay quiet, like he told me to.
"We intend to publically execute President Snow after the military strike," Coin says.
I take a deep breath, refusing to look at Peeta.
Execute. 'Execute' as in 'kill'. District 13 wants to kill President Snow after tomorrow night's military strike.
"We would like for all surviving Victors of the Hunger Games to be present," she says, meeting each of our eyes. "Your presence is all we require."
Fine, I think. Fine. Just as long as I see it happen. Just as long as I'm there for his execution. I need to be there. To see it.
"However, the medical personnel have advised me against including Mr. Mellark in this plan," she adds.
I swallow the lump that has formed in my throat and look at Peeta. He's no longer staring at the table and instead is looking straight at President Coin with dead eyes. Ever since we entered this room, Peeta's been noticeably more on edge and it's clear to me that being around President Coin makes him upset, especially after his scene last night. His vacant expression is supremely disconcerting. I expect him to deflate a little bit, or show some sign of disappointment like he did when Haymitch told us this, but instead he shows no reaction at all.
Suddenly I feel incredibly sick.
"Your condition has made you far too volatile, and though we are completely aware that this is no fault of yours, you still remain a liability," Coin explains. My expression turns sour at the word 'liability'. I don't like them referring to him as such. Peeta's hand remains tight on my knee. I take it in mine and squeeze, hoping to get some reaction out of him, but he doesn't acknowledge it.
"However," Coin continues, "we have decided that your duty as one of the Mockingjays is still beneficial. We will be sending you to District 12 to do a propo there. Our film team has come up with some ideas and it will be good to get a few shots of you in 12 to coincide with the shots of the end of the war."
At this, Peeta finally reacts. The color from his face drains completely and his grip on my hand turns vice-like.
I know what he must be thinking: his family. He hasn't gone home yet. He hasn't seen District 12 since he left for the Victory Tour.
Town, the Bakery…everything. It's a giant gravesite.
It infuriates me how little respect Coin has for Peeta or his family. She thinks nothing of sending him to District 12 so she can film him wandering about the ashes of his family and friends. She's so unbelievable flippant. He's just a means to an end.
What's more is she can't send him anywhere. Peeta is supposed to stay here. Safe.
I want to yell this, but I keep quiet. Like Haymitch told me to. It's hard.
I squeeze Peeta's hand again but he turns his head away from me to look at the wall again. I have no idea how to help him right now because my own selfish mind can't focus on one thing. It's in a million different places, most of them involving Snow.
"Mr. Odair and Ms. Mason, as well as some of the other Victors who are not present right now because of more immediate concerns, are required to attend," Coin continues, as if nothing is amiss. "Ms. Cresta will not be present, as our medical team has advised me against it."
To his credit, Finnick doesn't react at all. Perhaps it's because he knows that Annie will be staying here, safe. If she were required to attend I know his reaction would be very different. I want Peeta to stay here, too. Peeta has to stay with Annie.
This was not how it was supposed to go.
President Coin then turns her attention to me. Her stare is cold.
"Ms. Everdeen. Though your recent performance in District 4 was both damaging and ill conceived, your role as one of the Mockingjays is imperative to the rebellion and war efforts. Having you present for the end of this war is of utmost importance."
I do not react, even though I want to defend my 'recent performance'. But I don't say anything, just like Haymitch told me. For once, I consistently follow directions.
"Is her presence really required, Alma?" Haymitch questions. "She is still 17. Still not an adult. Your rules state that she still is not required to do anything. Is she?"
For a moment I can't tell whether or not President Coin wants to roll her eyes or scream. It's the most reaction I've seen out of her to date. I want to slap Haymitch for bringing this up and lessening my chance of involvement.
"No," she says quietly, though through gritted teeth. "She is not required to come. Though she should know that her role as one of the Mockingjays is so crucial to –"
"The war is over, you said it yourself!" Haymitch yells. "Why the publicity? Why is she needed so much? Send her to 12 with the boy! And speaking of which – you can't require him to do that, either! They have to consent."
Haymitch crosses his arms over his chest and I relax a bit.
Good, I think. Good. Peeta can stay here. Safe.
President Coin ignores Haymitch completely, instead turning her attention to me once more.
"Do you want to see for yourself the fruits of your labor, Ms. Everdeen? I shouldn't even allow you the option, really, considering how detrimental your presence was to the last outing. I thought I'd be doing you a favor. President Snow has threatened the lives of everyone you know and love. He's taken some, too, if I'm not mistaken. I simply thought you might want to be there to see his reign finally come to an end."
She smiles when she finishes speaking and it takes every ounce of strength in me not to jump up from the table and agree on spot. Well…that and the fact that Peeta is still firmly holding onto my hand.
President Coin has perfectly verbalized what I've been feeling the past year, maybe even longer. I know what I want to do. What I need to do.
But I don't respond right away. I listen to Haymitch. I follow directions.
"When must this be decided?" I ask.
"Say something. You're scaring me," I whisper.
When Coin dismissed us, I pulled Peeta back to his compartment, not even bothering to react to the questioning glances that Finnick was throwing my way. Peeta was deadly quiet the whole way back to his quarters and I said a silent prayer of thanks that no cameras were around. I tried squeezing his hand but the farther away from the briefing room we got, the more unresponsive he became. It was like trying to hold onto a ghost. I've forced him to sit on the sofa but he's looking at the opposite wall and not at me. He's making me so nervous, I don't know what to do. I would take explosive, episode-crazed Peeta over the Peeta standing before me. I have no idea what to do with this Peeta.
I sit down next to him and touch his face, which finally seems to get his attention.
"You already know what I would say, don't you?" Peeta mumbles quietly, still staring at the wall.
His words are the first he's spoken to me since before the meeting. And no, I don't know what he would say. I have no idea.
"I need to see an end to this," I explain, leaning forward. His hand is still tightly holding mine but he won't look at me. "I hate him. I hate him more than anything," I continue, my voice becoming breathy with my desperation to make him understand. "I've hated him for so long. The people need to see me go to the Capitol. It's working – us as Mockingjays. And I hate him, Peeta."
My eyes burn as I finish speaking. Though I've tried not to, I've become worked up. Everything about this is because of him. Everything. All this confusion belongs to Snow.
Peeta finally meets my eyes and his hand goes to my cheek, smoothing away a piece of hair that's escaped the bird's nest that is currently my braid. I'm so ridiculously comforted by the gesture – that he's finally reached out to me – that I close my eyes at the contact, trying to absorb the moment. Trying to feel some semblance of the connection I know we share. We've been separated by an enormous wall these past few hours and I need to climb back over it to him. It's where I belong.
"That's exactly why they'd be expecting you. Don't you see?" he asks softly. He's trying to be patient with me but I can detect the strain in his voice. When I don't say anything, the inner strength that had been keeping Peeta quiet and controlled deserts him. He lets his head fall to my chest and I feel him release a shuttering breath against my shirt. It feels exactly like last night. My hands immediately move to his hair. "I don't have a good feeling about this," he says. His whisper sounds more like a hiss, if anything. "I really don't. I don't, Katniss."
Honestly, I haven't thought about that. I can't think about anything other than my hatred for this one particular person. It's all consuming and if I weren't so determined, the strength with which I feel it would probably terrify me. Peeta lifts his head and then looks intently at the door before locking eyes with me once more and lifting his palm to cup my jaw.
"You have so many people here who care about you that you would be leaving behind…risking never seeing again, Katniss," he says, beseechingly. "We can't assume that things will go OK anymore. They didn't go OK on the last mission. They didn't…things didn't go as planned." Peeta takes his other hand and snakes it under my shirt. Carefully, he rolls up the fabric until the gunshot bruise on my abdomen is exposed. His fingers gently trace the outline of it, and when he speaks again, his voice comes out cracked and desperate. "For me…it's just not worth the risk. It's not worth never seeing you again, please."
I frown and finally I am the one to look away. He's right. If it weren't for the fact that we rescued Annie, the mission to District 4 could be classified as a complete and total failure. Multiple people were injured, including myself. I could have died. What should have been a routine mission was most definitely not routine. We definitely cannot assume that things will go perfectly this time around but unfortunately I cannot be swayed. Peeta knows this now – that I will always do what I want.
Good, old, selfish Katniss.
"I just hate him," I answer back. "I hate him more than anything in the entire world," I say, looking up into Peeta's blue, blue eyes. They are filled to the brim, exploding with unspoken words. He pauses for a moment, most likely collecting his thoughts, and his fingers twitch against my face.
"More than anything?" Peeta asks quietly. The hand he has on my cheek falls away when I can't answer him. Peeta leans back and runs his hands roughly over his face before turning his attention to me once more.
"Think about us," he urges. "Prim and your mother. Gale and Madge. Your new friends, like Finnick. Me. Think about me. I can't go with you, they won't let me."
Again, I look away.
If I go, Peeta will have to watch me walk away from him again. It will be the same as the District 4 mission. He will have to wait, completely in the dark, while I go to the Capitol. My mouth starts to run of it's own accord, grasping at straws in a vain attempt to make him see reason.
"You don't understand, I—"
"I do!" he interrupts me, voice loud and biting. The change in his tone surprises me and I recoil. "What makes you think I don't? I understand because I hate him, too! Look what he did to me!"
Peeta turns away from me and lets his head fall onto the back of the couch. He covers his face with his hands and laughs.
"Look what he did to me," he whispers again, broken.
No, I think. No, this isn't right.
I move closer to him, curling against his side – his bad side. I trail my fingers over his shoulder until both my arms are wrapped tightly around his neck and I'm sitting atop his lap. Peeta's head settles into the crook of my neck and I feel his breath warm my skin.
For a second, everything is peaceful. It's almost as though nothing has happened.
"That's exactly why I need to go," I whisper.
Peeta stiffens underneath me and pulls his face away from mine. We stare at one another for a long moment as I struggle to figure out what he is going to say. I know what he's thinking, though. It's obvious. He's sad. He's angry. He's concerned. All of his emotions play across his eyes like a silent film.
His words surprise me, though.
"I don't want to fight again," he half laughs, half cries. "I don't like fighting with you. But please…don't do this," he tells me, gripping my waist. His voice is soft and low – a tone reserved only for me. He's making this difficult because I don't like seeing him this way. I don't like knowing that I put that frown on his face. He's making this so hard.
But I can't change my mind. I won't do it. What I've wanted for so long is within reach. It's a low hanging fruit, tempting and ripe for the picking.
"I won't beg you because you'd never forgive me if I did," he continues. "If that ended up being the reason you couldn't go…" he trails off. He pauses, collecting his thoughts before continuing. "I know this is something you need to come to terms with on your own. But…please realize that I only want what's best for you. I know it's in your best interest to stay because I know you, Katniss. I know you."
Peeta looks to the corner of the room, deep in thought. I can tell he wants to say a million other things. I know he is thinking of different ways to convince me to stay. His words have me paralyzed. He does know me. He knows me in ways that no one else ever will yet even in this situation he won't manipulate me. He knows that I wouldn't like that. He knows how much I would detest him for guilting me into staying. I realize it's the reason he has remained quiet this whole time, even though it would be so easy to do.
It's destroying him I can tell.
"You can live off of hate for only so long until it implodes and destroys everything around you. I've seen it happen," Peeta continues quietly. He's taken my face in his hands again, running his thumbs underneath my chin. "If you let his hatred overtake you, he wins."
I don't want to hear this right now, so I slide off his lap and start to tug on my braid distractedly.
"I need to be there, Peeta," I tell him again. I don't know why I keep repeating the words since I've said them so many times. "It's so important because…because I've failed at almost everything else."
There, I think. I said it. Finally.
It's true. Everything I've attempted, I've failed at. I failed to keep Rue alive. I failed to save Peeta's leg. I failed to make President Snow happy. I failed to keep Peeta safe. I failed to fight for him after he was gone. I failed, I failed, I failed.
"I failed you, remember?" I remind him. Apparently it was the wrong thing to say because Peeta goes from confused to furious in less than one second.
"What are you talking about?" he asks angrily. I can't look at him. How can I possibly look at him when I failed to do the one thing he asked of me before he left for the Quell? I haven't forgotten. It's why I can't bear to talk about the time after the Quell and how horrible it was for me. Everything I felt – the sadness, the loneliness, the heartbreak – was riddled with guilt because I couldn't do anything. 'Not giving up' was the only thing he asked of me and I failed him.
Peeta tries to turn my face towards him with a gentle hand but I shake him off, fighting away tears.
"No," he says, voice firm. I think he might understand now because he doesn't sound angry anymore. "No. None of this is your fault. None of it – it's not your responsibility. It never was."
I bite the inside of my cheek, frustrated.
"I didn't fight when you asked me to. I gave up," I hiss, remembering his words to me the day before the Reaping in his attic.
"Don't let me die in vain. If there is a rebellion, Katniss. Follow it through. Make my life worth living."
"Oh, God. Oh no," Peeta balks. "No, that wasn't…I wasn't…"
Sensing my opportunity, I strike.
"See?" I ask him, voice shaky. "You know I did. I didn't fight. Now's my chance to make it up to you. To everyone."
"That's not what I meant, Katniss, please," he begs, tilting his head to meet my eyes. I look away because finally we are talking about this. We're talking about the time after the Quell. I almost want to laugh because this is the most inopportune time for this to happen. "Please don't think that, especially now. Oh God, if you think you need to do this because of me I'll never forgive myself."
"I owe you– "
"You don't owe me anything!" he shouts and it startles me. "Damn it! When will you understand that? Life can't be a constant tally of who owes who what. Especially with those you love."
His eyes bore into mine, even though I try to look away.
"This will end without you. You don't need to be there. You don't owe anyone anything anymore. You don't owe this country anything anymore. You've done enough for them. You've done so much. For everyone."
I haven't, though. I haven't done enough for him. He'll never understand, will he? He'll never understand why I need to see an end to this. Seeing President Snow come to an end is the resolution I need.
"But I know you," he continues quietly. "And I know you'll do what you need to do. No matter what," Peeta finishes sadly, like he's finally accepting something he never wanted to believe in the first place.
"I need to do this," I state dully.
"President Snow is not worth your time anymore. He's not worth anything. Other things matter more," he urges anyway, like he can't let the subject go.
It's true. Peeta matters more. Prim matters more. Other things do matter more, it's why I need to end this myself. So I can look people in the eyes without feeling absolutely useless. When I don't respond, Peeta asks me one more quiet question.
"Why are you going?"
I turn to look at him, confused. I thought it was obvious.
"To watch President Snow die? Is that it?" he asks. "Haven't you seen enough death?"
"This is different," I respond immediately. Peeta shakes his head.
"It's not. In the end, hate and death… it's all the same."
I'm stunned silent and Peeta slips me off of him gently as he gets up off of the couch. I don't realize he plans on leaving until he is at the door.
"Where are you going?" I asked, panicked and struggling to follow him.
"I don't know Katniss," he says quietly. "But I can't stay here, I need some air."
"You're leaving?" I ask, mildly hysterical. The irony is not lost on me. I plan on leaving yet here I am, crazed at the thought of him leaving the room. Peeta walks back to me and takes my hand limply between his.
"I will never, ever leave you. Ever," he says. "But I can't cling onto you anymore right now. I need some air," he finishes.
I nod pathetically, fighting off tears. I'm so confused now. Confused and worried. But how can I possibly ask that he stay and cling to me, even if it's what I want, when I plan on doing what I'm doing?
"Kay," I whisper back, dropping his hand.
Peeta walks toward the door again and just as he is about to turn the knob he pivots to look at me.
"Katniss?" he asks softly. I raise my head to look at him. He doesn't smile and the little wrinkles above his brow mock me all the way from across the room.
"I love you more than anything," he says.
With that, he leaves me.
Despite our morning briefing, it is expected that the day transpire as it usually does. I don't get the day off, even though I just got back from a mission. Coin wants everyone in the best shape possible.
Even though you won't be fighting?
The little voice in the back of my head irritates me in the same way that Peeta's words do. This voice sounds like that Paylor woman in District 8.
I train but I'm distracted. Peeta's logic follows me around like a nasty little pest. His words are there – in the back of mind – whenever I pick up the bow. Whenever I shoot an arrow. Whenever I move. Whenever I breathe.
"You don't owe them anything anymore."
I string arrow after arrow, trying to clear my brain, but it's useless.
"You've done enough for them."
I want to bang my head against a wall.
"You've done so much."
It's not true. None of it is. I've failed.
"In the end, hate and death… it's all the same."
The day passes tortuously slow.
I consider visiting Gale in the hospital but I chicken out at the last minute, knowing that someone's probably told him about the mission tomorrow and my involvement. I don't want to hear what he has to say. I don't want any more distractions. I don't want any more opinions on the matter.
I do see Prim, though. I spend my free time with her when it's clear to me that Peeta still needs 'air'.
Prim is noticeably less chipper than normal. It's apparent that she knows what will happen tomorrow as well, and it eats at me that she knows my decision, even though I technically haven't told anyone yet. I don't know why it upsets me that she already knows that I will go to the Capitol one last time, but it upsets me nonetheless.
Peeta's words invade my mind until they're all I can think about. I'll be leaving Prim. Just like I left her so many times before. The Games, the Tour…and then when I thought Peeta died… I left her.
I guess that's what I do. I leave.
It's minutes before we are supposed to be at dinner. Prim sits on the worn sofa in our family's compartment, using her nail to pick at the arm of the couch. Her blonde hair looks dull and ratty. She hasn't spoken much to me, and it's clear that she doesn't want to bring up this new mission. For once, I am the bigger person.
"You don't understand, Prim," I whisper gently. It's not the best place to start but it's definitely somewhere. When she looks up I realize she's been crying and it blows me away. Prim has rarely shown this type of emotion since the Quell, probably because she knew I was always seconds from my own breakdown and seeing her upset would send me off the edge. She's become so resilient that seeing her lose it has an unparalleled effect on me.
Prim sniffs and wipes at her wet cheeks.
"You're right," she huffs. "I don't. But maybe you don't understand either, Katniss. It's scary for me to keep seeing you like this."
"Like what?" I snap angrily. She doesn't understand what I'm going through. I love her but she can't possibly understand, and when she sees how angry her words have made me, she looks remorseful.
"Nothing," she whispers back, defeated.
I think back to what Peeta said, about how there are more important things than President Snow. About how he thinks it's not worth risking my safety.
"I know you probably think it's dangerous and you don't want to see me leave, just like Peeta but –"
"This isn't about me or Peeta or anyone!" Prim interrupts, exasperated. "It's about you. Don't think about us. Think about you. For once, think about you."
"It's not that easy, Prim. And I do want to go–" I start to explain but Prim interrupts me once more.
"Do you? Do you really, Katniss?" she asks, her voice becoming quiet. "Because I don't think you do."
Prim and I eat dinner in silence. Mother isn't here, and I realize she's probably helping in the hospital. Maybe she's tending to Boggs.
I pick at my food, not hungry. Finnick's not here. Not Johanna or Madge or Rye. Not even Delly.
Peeta didn't come to dinner.
I drop Prim off at her compartment and head back to Peeta's because frankly I don't really know where else to go. The last time we fought I avoided him for days but I don't have the strength for that tonight. Maybe not ever again.
I stop dead in my tracks, shocked momentarily at hearing Rye's voice. Did Peeta tell him to try and appeal to me? Did he involve his brother? I'm suddenly furious, and about to round the corner and face Rye, when I hear the voice of someone I was least expecting.
"Don't touch me. And don't tell me what to do. Ever."
Johanna's voice has me backtracking against the wall. If there is someone I don't want to see right now, or ever, really, it's her.
"Don't go, please," Rye continues. "I have a bad feeling…"
"I don't care about your feelings. I've told you that before. Or do you need reminding?" Johanna snaps.
"Yeah, well I told you before that doesn't change how I feel," Rye says back. "Or do you need reminding?" he challenges.
The corridor falls silent with Rye's question and my mind swims with the reasons these two are alone together. Is this where Rye has been going in the middle of the night this whole time? When Peeta and I have nightmares, and need to be soothed back to sleep, Rye leaves to find Johanna Mason? It doesn't make any sense. They barely speak to each other in public yet now, under the cover of nightfall while everyone else is supposed to be getting ready for sleep…
"What do you want from me," Johanna asks, frustrated.
"To stay," Rye pleads. "That's all."
"Why?" Johanna asks. Her voice is cold and detached. Numb.
"You know why," Rye whispers back meaningfully. I can almost see the desperation in his eyes. He probably looks exactly like Peeta.
"Well that's cute," Johanna says, voice leaking sarcasm. "And even if I wanted to stay, which I don't, I can't. I don't have a choice. I'm over 18 and this is required of me."
"That's ridiculous. If you wanted to stay, you should be able to! You shouldn't be forced – " Rye begins again. He is starting to sound a bit beside himself. I know I should leave. I know this is a conversation meant to be had in private, but I'm so shocked that I can't make my feet move beneath me.
"No one's forcing me. I'm leaving of my own volition. I want to see the fucker burn," Johanna says again. Her words hit me like a punch to the chest, probably because I thought them not 12 hours ago. Coming out of her mouth they seem harsher. They don't make sense the way I thought they would.
"You've been trained to fight back. I understand that. But who wins, in the end? If you can't let go…the Capitol wins in the end," Rye explains.
The pregnant pause that follows seems to last hours.
"Fuck you," Johanna spits.
I trip over my feet as I try to round the corner faster than Johanna. By some stroke of luck, there is a storage closet immediately around the corner and I throw myself inside just as Johanna turns the corner behind me.
I don't breathe until I hear their footsteps fade away. When all is quiet, I shove my hand into the pants of my pocket, searching for…searching…
It's not there. My sea glass is gone.
I throw the door to Peeta's compartment wide open and run to the corner of the room where I last remember having it.
"Where is it?" I ask frantically, pawing at the ground where I dropped it last night. I have no idea if Peeta's even here but I need to ask the question aloud. Thankfully, I hear Peeta's footsteps behind me. My composure is rapidly dissolving and I can tell just how panic-stricken I must look. It doesn't matter. I don't care what I look like. I can't find it.
"Where is my sea glass? Peeta, I think I lost it, I –"
"I have it," he says quickly from his place by the bedroom door. My neck cracks when I swivel my head to look at him. Peeta looks worried and he scrambles for his pocket before pulling out the piece of glass. The bright ceiling light glints off its blue surface. It's winking at me.
I slump against the wall, all of my adrenaline leaving me in a whoosh. Peeta rushes over to me. I know he wanted space but seeing me like this probably has the opposite affect on him.
"I'm sorry, I should have told you," he says softly, reaching out for me. "I guess you must have dropped on the floor last night when we, um– " he stammers, turning pink. "When we started kissing and um..."
I lift myself gingerly off the floor and crawl to meet him. Peeta holds out the sea glass and I take it gingerly between my fingers before bringing it to my chest. I cradle it against my heart, relieved and thankful and calmed. When I look back at him, his face is so close to mine that I can see the teeny tiny flecks of green in the blue that surrounds his iris.
"You had it?" I ask dumbly, weakly. Peeta nods.
"Yes. I know you said you wanted it back but I told you I'd look after it when you couldn't and you were… distracted today," he swallows. "It's right here," he says softly. "I've had it the whole time."
He looks down at me so gently that I think I might cry. He's had it this whole time. Through everything, he's had it. When I was too distracted to remember, too blinded by hate, he's had it. Of course he's had it.
"You had it. It's right here," I whisper, voice wobbly. Peeta reaches out and pushes a stray piece of hair behind my ear. He keeps his palm on my cheek. I wonder if he thinks I'll run away again.
Stupid, Katniss. You're so stupid.
"Of course," he says. "I can protect it, you know. At least I'm good for that."
I feel utterly humiliated.
Snow did not ruin Peeta. He's here, he's been here this whole time. The baker's son is right in front of me and I'm completely ashamed that I thought differently. Peeta is exactly the same. He has not changed one bit.
Stupid, Katniss. You're so stupid. Blind and stupid.
How did I not realize this before? When Peeta had refused to manipulate me into staying. Even now, he doesn't try to twist the situation to his advantage. He'll let me make my own decisions. He's here – always steady, always. I stow the sea glass it in my pocket and then take Peeta's hand between my own. I flip it over and in the process get a glimpse of the white scars that decorate my own palm.
Another souvenir from this whole mess. Another result of my brash actions. Another result of my own hatred.
I'm no better than Snow, am I? I'm just as cold and bitter. Just as angry. Just as full of hate.
Peeta looks down at me, worried. There's a little wrinkle in between his eyes. His lips are turned down into a frown. His hair is damp from the shower and somehow, ridiculously, I can still smell sugar and vanilla on him.
I bracket my fingers together behind his neck and bring his forehead down to touch mine.
No, I think. I can't be like Snow, I won't allow it. I can love. I can love more than I can hate.
"You're so good," I whisper back to Peeta. He pulls me into a hug but doesn't say anything back. I'm not sure he even knows what to say to me anymore.
I feel as though I never know what to say. My actions have always spoken louder than my words.
I spend the rest of the evening deep in thought. At some point Peeta forces me into bed and he holds me from behind, his chest pressing tightly to my back.
Rye hasn't come back.
My mind is swimming, filled with thousands of thoughts that were blind to me before.
What do you want? I ask myself. I take the sea glass out of my pocket and roll it between my fingers, imagining I'm on the beach in District 4 when we were on our way back from the Victory Tour. When everything was simple.
I want sunny days and starry nights. I want to braid Prim's hair at the kitchen table. I want to live above the bakery and to eat cheese buns and peanut butter and drink hot chocolate. I want to go hunting with Gale again. I want to make up with my Mother. I want Peeta's moonlight smiles. I want to feel him inside me every morning and every night. I want his perfect world.
I want to make hundreds of thousands of millions of happy memories.
Prim is right. I don't want to go. Not really. Do I feel obligated to go? Absolutely. But do I really want to? No.
Peeta is right. No more 'owing.'
My hatred was the only one manipulating me in this scenario.
Again, I have been bested. Hate may be stronger than fear, but I guess love is stronger than anything. I wouldn't have guessed it, especially during those months after the Quell when love was what had nearly killed me. It made me weak. Where was its strength when I was on the floor of the closet, paralyzed with grief? When my heavy heart had me shackled to my bed?
I didn't know how to summon all the strength that love can give, I guess. I still don't know how. And I still don't understand why this strength wasn't there when I needed it then.
Maybe that's just how these things work, though. Maybe they aren't meant to be understood. Lessons are born out of pain and sacrifice and I've had my fair share of both. We can't choose when lessons will make themselves know. Maybe it's just important to acknowledge them when they do.
I've spent too much time hating. I've spent too little time appreciating what I still have.
We are never given enough time.
"Are you awake?" I ask Peeta. My voice is deafening in the quiet of the room.
"Yes," he whispers back immediately, tightening his arms around me. His nose rubs against the back of my neck. I pull his hands away from my middle and bring them up to my mouth, shutting my eyes tightly against the tears I can feel coming.
"I'm going to stay with you," I whisper into his fingers. "If you go to 12, I'll go to 12. With you. I'm not going to the Capitol."
I feel Peeta swallow behind me and I grip his fingers tighter in mine before I press them to my lips. In the process, I transfer the sea glass into his palm.
"Really?" he breathes. His voice is tight and high, like he couldn't possibly believe me. Like he's gearing himself up for a letdown.
I'm not positive I have the strength to speak so I nod jerkily instead. How stupid of me, to risk these things that I've worked so hard to keep. To risk never seeing Prim and Mother again. Gale and Madge. Finnick and Rye and even Johanna Mason.
To risk Peeta, I think, as he breathes heavily behind me.
"Why?" he whispers. His breath moves the hairs at the nape of my neck. I don't shiver, though. It's warm.
I kiss his fingers again just because they're there.
Because I want to be better than Snow. Because I have a choice. Because I don't want to leave you. Because I love you more than I hate him. Because I want more time. Because risking everything for him simply doesn't make sense anymore. I want to be better.
"Because you were right. About all of it," I tell him quietly.
Of course Peeta was right. Death is death. Killing is killing, no matter who is doing it. I don't want to be a part of this anymore. My hate and anger blinded me for a very short, very scary amount of time. Peeta brought me back, though. He always does.
"I don't want to be a piece in their games", he had once said.
I don't want to either. I'm taking myself out completely. I'm forfeiting, because if I don't do it now, it will never truly end. If I don't end this behavior now, I will feed off of it for the rest of my life. I would turn into Johanna Mason. I don't want to live off of hate anymore. I won't survive very long that way.
Selfishly, I know my decision to stay away from the end of this war would infuriate Snow, and that brings me a small amount of satisfaction. Saying away from him – not being present for his execution – is the best revenge because it simply means he isn't worth it. He is not worth my time anymore. At one point he demanded everything but now he has no more control. He is unimportant.
"Other things matter more."
That fact will kill him, if anything.
Peeta breathes deeply and I can feel him press his lips to the back of my neck.
"You're sure?" he asks quietly and it takes me a few moments, but I nod.
Snow tried to take this away from me, too. This feeling – of being warm and comforted and loved – Snow tried to take it away when he tried to take Peeta away.
I have it now and I'm not letting it go. I won't risk that. I was stupid to even think about it before.
"Thank you," he sighs. "Thank you, Katniss."
No, I think. Thank you.
We're both quiet for a moment and I count the beats of Peeta's heart that I feel thumping against my back until I can't distinguish which are his and which are mine. I don't know if I can meet his eyes just yet, so I turn over in his arms and press my face into his neck.
"We always cause the most trouble when we're together," I whisper back. I mean for it to lighten the moment but instead my voice comes out sounding cracked and feeble. I'm exhausted. I'm satisfied with my decision, but that doesn't mean it wasn't an incredibly difficult one. I still have to confront my issues with guilt and heartbreak. But I will have time for that now. I won't risk that time anymore.
Pain and sacrifice. That's how lessons are learned.
I'm sure Peeta can sense this. He pulls back and dips his head to stare at me. I watch the corner of his mouth and when I've summoned the courage, I meet his eyes.
I can see everything looking back at me. I was lost and he found me.
"I'll always find you," he'd said to me once… on the floor of a storage closet when everything seemed like it was falling apart. He wasn't lying. We don't do that to each other.
Peeta moves his hand to my cheek and I love how heavy it feels. He's so warm, and when he kisses me, pressing his lips carefully over my eyes and cheeks and nose and mouth – President Snow disappears altogether.
"I'll take care of you," he says quietly against my lips. "We'll be alright, now. I promise."
"Don't– " I start but Peeta silences me with a finger to my lips.
"No," he says, meaningfully. "I promise."
I frown. He shouldn't do such a thing. But even now I can't find it in me to doubt him. He has never led me astray. He's always brought me back to what matters. He found me when I couldn't find myself. If he promises that things will be all right now, I believe him. I trust him.
"Yeah?" I ask anyway. Peeta smiles in the dark.
When I fall asleep I dream of a dandelion field and a blissful nothing else.
A/N: I know I sound like a broken record, but again I'm so sorry for the long wait. These past two months have been insane (I just moved and the process was horrendous). And then I got the flu and was incapacitated (literally could not function) for 2 weeks. And then, when I planned on updating on Sunday, I got food poisoning. Fun stuff.
To the guest reviewer who said they can't read anymore because I take too long to update – sorry? Though your review made me sad, it also made me laugh out loud…so…thanks for reading while you did.
Anyway, to the rest of you: thank you so much for being patient. As a fan of fanfiction, I know how frustrating it is when authors don't update as frequently, trust me! But frankly, writing it myself has made me a lot more empathetic because I can understand the sacrifices that are made to put aside time to write.
This chapter in particular took a ridiculous amount of time to edit because I had a hard time bringing it together. Obviously, it's a big turning point for Katniss and it was challenging to make that come to life on paper. I hope it worked.
ANYWAY, only two chapters left and an epilogue before this story is complete. I can't believe it! If it makes anyone feel better, though, I probably won't abandon this universe completely so if anyone has any suggestions or ideas for outtakes let me know and I just might write them :)
Patience = Happiness
Reviews = More Happiness