A/N: It took me a while to finish this one, so this goes out to all the fab people on tumblr that helped me along with it, and that encouraged me to continue. You know who you all are!
Warnings: Character death, distressing topics, potentially tiggering material, some references to sex.
Summary: Peeta runs ahead; Katniss falls behind.
District Four is more comfortable than most.
Perhaps it's the presence of the sea, or the fact that they've always been close to the Capitol without feeling the dark pressure that the career Districts felt to produce victors. Either way, the inhabitants carry a certain air of ease around with them like feather-light luggage. The sea rolls in the distance, and people smile. There's the smell of salt in the air and the food is always fresh and plenty because people have always been free to fish. And there's that irresistible feeling of freedom; an almost-freedom that comes with touching your toes to the edge of the world as you know it. That perhaps there is life beyond what we know.
I bury my face in the top of the tiny blonde head that sits just below my chin. Ray's hair has the same texture and smell as his father's, because Peeta always scoops great handfuls of shampoo from his own hair to lather into his son's thickening-by-the-day locks.
The sun is setting on a quiet day in the distance, and I turn to Peeta, who sits half asleep in the wooden-chair next to me, sand still halfway up his calves from where he played with the kids earlier. There's a strip of shiny red sunburn across his nose.
"Peeta," I whisper, and Ray stirs in my arms. I soothe him and he settles back against me.
Peeta's eyes open and find me. "Is it time to go inside?"
I frown and search for the two figures that stand side by side out near the impossibly distant sea. Annie and her son are just two specks of dust on the burning horizon, imprinted behind my eyes as though I've glance into the sun. Peeta's fingers through mine pull me back to the present.
"No, let's stay here a while longer," I ask, and there's a hint of pleading in my voice. I don't want to leave the day behind, because then I'll have to face what comes tomorrow, and then the day after that.
"Sure," he pulls my fingers up and brushes his lips against the back of my hand.
Pria sits a little further out than us, legs folded, deep in her own world. Perhaps it worries me a little that I can see my mother's unfocused eyes in the face of my daughter, and there are moments when I catch Pria so deep in her own mind that it scares me. She shouldn't have to be grave; she was born into a better world. While she inherited my family's penchant for emotional evasion, she also got Peeta's quiet resolve, and together these qualities form an extremely thoughtful little girl, whose voice seems to have been forgotten in the mix of her other precious qualities. She's always extremely honest, and protective of her little brother. Ray adores her, and would sit with her silky black hair in his fat little fingers all day if we'd let him.
"The air feels nice," Peeta remarks, his eyes falling shut for a moment. The breeze rustles his hair; blonde and still a good thickness. It needs cutting, but it feels wrong to bring it up now. It seems wrong to cut it at all, frivolous, unnecessary. "Tastes like salt, too. Reminds me of that stuff you had to drink when you were pregnant."
"It really wasn't mandatory for the father of the baby to drink it, you know."
"I think at the time, your words were; you drink it and see how good for you it tastes."
"But Ray came out with five fingers on each hand so it must have done something right."
"I don't think Sae's salty-vitamin mix had much to do with that, though," Peeta muses, a smile tickling his face. "More like out outstanding genetics."
In this blood-light, Peeta's hair could almost be red. His skin could be tanned, not pale, and his eyes could be on fire. Ray turns his head toward my breast and sighs, restless from being in the same place all day, where the air was so close and muggy, broken only by the occasional breeze. Peeta enjoys the heat; he likes to sweat out his problems. It took Ray far longer to stop feeding from my breast than Pria. Pria seemed to embrace her independence with relish. Ray continues to be a little troublesome, and still buries his face in my chest and cries, despite being almost three years old. I can see a future where the tiny boy is even more sensitive than his father. I can see him clinging to me for years, and I can see myself keeping him in the safety of my arms for as long as possible. I don't want my children to go. I didn't even want them to leave the safety of my womb.
We watch as Pria gathers sand and moulds it into shapes, piling and patting. "If Ray turns out as an artist too then I'm going to feel really left out," I mutter into my son's blonde scalp.
Ray wakes for good, and his owl-eyes turn upwards towards me, mouth open a little as though registering the world anew. "Mommy?"
Whatever my son wants to say, he doesn't, and he becomes so wriggly that I have to let him down. He scurries over to Peeta, who gathers him up with a faux cry of; oh, my back, my poor back, your daddy's getting old, and Ray giggles lightly. Two blonde heads pair up, little and large, and for a moment their hairs blow in the wind and kiss lightly off each other, like some greeting I'm not part of.
Ray reaches out a stubby hand and touches the sore patch of sunburn on Peeta's face, and Peeta winces and pulls away, smiling widely. "Daddy forgot to put on sun lotion."
"Because daddy's an idiot," I play.
Peeta throws me a look. "Daddy is not an idiot, he's just forgetful," he amends.
Ray is bored of us now, and we send him on his way to run out to his big sister on the warm sand. She seems to order him to sit down, because Ray does so with such speed and clarity that it could only be an order from Pria's mouth. Ray sits with his white little legs crossed, hands digging in the unfamiliar texture of the sand, while his older sister demonstrates the game she's playing.
In the distance, Annie and her son turn back.
They've been looking out to sea for so long that I forgot they aren't a permanent fixture. Finn is fast becoming a fully-fledged adult, and is so like his father in height and beauty that I wouldn't be surprised if Annie became confused and upset. But unlike his father, Finn has no playful glimmer, no hint that perhaps there is more within that beautiful head. Finn has only responsibility and the lost echo of a childhood lost, which I feel so familiar with. I always wish that I could travel back in time and give Finn the help he needed. Give him a life away from caring for his mother, who grew progressively worse over the years. It was – still is – painful to see Annie put her child through what I had to endure; a mother that was in arm's reach but frustratingly, cruelly, unceasingly just…not there. Annie's victor's wages – which the Capitol made good on despite the Games coming to a close – paid for a full time nanny and carer that coaxed them both through their lives. And then there was the widow's allowance.
It's one of my best kept secrets that the decision to have Ray was partly due to the fact that I didn't want Pria to grow up as an only child, after seeing how Finn struggled. And seeing my children play in the sand, I don't regret my choice on bit. In fact, I'm rather proud of it.
"Pria, don't throw sand!" Peeta calls to them.
Still, when there were problems birthing Ray, and the Doctor had to numb my body and cut the boy straight out of my stomach, she had given me the option to be free of the worry of conceiving again. Peeta wasn't happy when I told him, but he understood; we were done, this was our offering to the world, and it was precious, and two children was enough.
"They're perfect," Peeta mutters through a smile, eyes fixed on our children.
I sigh and sink a little lower in my chair, peeling the hem of my skirt off my sweaty thighs, trying to tempt a breeze. "I'm sure that's nothing short of a miracle, I mean, have you met their parents?"
"I hear they're crazy."
I laugh. Annie is close enough now that I can see her leaning heavily on Finn's arm. Her black hair is caught by the wind, an inky cloud that stretches out behind her with an energy that Annie herself could never muster. There's a thick pink sweater pulled tight around her shoulders, and Finn isn't looking at her, but seems to be talking to her in low tones that barely move his lips.
"I don't want you to be like that."
Peeta's words are so quiet I barely even notice them, but when I do they hit me like a slap in the face.
"Annie's our friend," I tell him, trying to mask my own discomfort.
"It doesn't mean I want you to end up like her, Katniss."
"I won't," I say.
"I'm not going to leave our children to fend for themselves," I tell him tersely.
"I know that, but when I'm gone…" Peeta says, and then pauses for a moment as though he needs to catch his breath.
"Shh," I tell him briskly, "they'll hear you."
I don't want to talk about it; don't even want to think about it. I want to squash it down until it's tiny and airless and insignificant, so that Peeta can stay by my side forever. But nothing lasts forever, I keep telling myself. Everything goes, rots, and moves on. One day very soon Peeta will run ahead of me, somewhere that I can't follow, and I'll be able to find my husband, my soul mate only in the top of my son's blonde head. I wonder if it will be painful, being able to feel Peeta's soft hair between my fingers even after he's gone. A part of my hopes that Ray's hair darkens, or hardens. Anything but the constant reminder of what was lost.
"It's going to be fine," Peeta mutters into the back of my hand.
Now that the sunset has melted off into a cool, grey light that barely reaches us, I can see just how ill Peeta really is. There are dark shadows under his eyes that the sun has been kind to all day, but left alone the hollows look more prevalent than ever, and his cheeks look gaunt. He has very little appetite these days, and it's a miracle if I can coax even a few bites of bread into him. My heart twinges, and I hold onto him a little tighter, wishing that we were a more publically affectionate couple, so that I could pick myself up out of my chair and curl into his lap. As it were, since the Games ended, we rarely do more than hold hands in public. Back home in Twelve, even that draws raised eyebrows and disbelieving stares. No one really believed that our affection was anything more than for the cameras. Granted, there were a few romantics, but the majority aired on the side of caution when watching anything pumped out from the Capitol; nothing was to be trusted. Our toasting ceremony and the birth of Pria turned people in our favour.
"All of that technology and they can't fix you," I whisper.
"They can build huge arenas that can send lightning down and make it snow and rain and they can build invisible shields that can hold people, and they can't fix you?"
"It's just the way it is, sometimes."
"There must be something they're not thinking of," I protest, and my voice carries too far. The children look around, and we throw them reassuring smiles.
"No, Katniss there isn't anything-"
He leans forward and kisses me, and I don't realise I'm crying until I taste the salt. Now I've started, it takes great effort to stop. I'll go for months without crying, and when I finally do, it comes as ruthlessly as the tide. Sometimes I think the children softened my heart, and made it weak and vulnerable, but then I remember that my time in the darkness is over, and I don't have to hide behind layers of apathy.
"I'm going to call the City when we get home," I mutter into his cheek, and I hear him swallow whatever he's about to say. "See if the doctor's had any more ideas."
The City has become the new name for what used to be the Capitol; the decision to change its name was made by President Paylor in her first few years in the position. It was also decided that each President could serve a maximum of seven years, in order to sidestep the possibility of another power-hungry ruler. The City, as a title, held less power and stature than The Capitol; people needed to distance themselves, and forget what had happened there. If we would live in harmony, the Capitol citizens needed to be forgiven. Granted, there were rumours of Capitol uprisings, and the occasional whispers of elderly citizens who deeply resented the changes that had been made, but nothing ever came of it. The system dictated that those who made a great fortune in the entertainment industry would donate a portion of their wages to a pool of wealth, which would then be distributed to the Districts; this eventually became known simply as the pool. Strangely, it didn't feel like charity, more like an apology. Families who found it hard to work or had many children to support were given an allowance. It's the kind of thing that would have helped Gale's family, or mine, two decades ago.
When Peeta pulls away, I can see the dark veins peeking out from under the translucent skin below his eyes. They look dark, almost black. I will his body to carry on.
"I wanted to come here today, to see the sea," he admits.
"You'll see it again," I tell him firmly.
"How can you be so ready to leave us behind?" I demand.
Our children play in the distance, oblivious, happy. To them, their daddy will be here forever.
It's around this moment that I realize; I don't have the strength to do this alone. I can fight and hunt, but raising children into fully fledged adults takes a special kind of skill. A skill that I've always relied on Peeta to employ.
"It was a gorgeous sunset," he whispers, and his eyes shut over his rising tears.
Annie and Finn have reached us, and a faint smile plays around Annie's lips; a rare moment. I return it, but my heart feels flat. As fond as I've grown of Annie, I don't like the idea that I could be staring at my own future.
"They're real playful, huh?" says Finn, grinning in the direction of Pria and Ray.
"They get it from me, Finn," Peeta smiles, all traces of tears gone from his eyes.
"Such pretty children," Annie says, absentmindedly.
"Have you heard from Johanna, Annie?" asks Peeta, clearly eager to snap her out of her haze.
"Yes, she visited a few weeks ago, she's well. Still alone, but well. I think she prefers it that way. And she has her job, of course."
Johanna worked for a long time on rebuilding Panem, as one of the leading minds. Whatever she does now is a secret; one we're not privy to. All we know is that she lives in the City, and we assume the job is somewhat military related.
"Such a beautiful day," Annie trails off, and looks back at the sea.
I wonder, not for the first time, if she's waiting for Finnick. If she spends her days hoping that, like before the war, she'll see him sailing back to shore on his fishing boat. The thing about Annie is that she tends to deny the existence of anything that she cannot see or taste or touch. Finnick's death still doesn't seem real to her, because she was not there, and a body was never collected. No one is honest to Annie; we're all liars. The only person that she really trusted was Finnick, and he told her that he'd come back. And no amount of persuasion will snap her out of it; to her, the idea that Finnick would leave her to raise their baby alone is unthinkable, and so she waits, and waits.
"Come on, ma," Finn's mask of patience and calm is back, "let's go inside."
Their small cottage is alight with a welcoming glow, and they step inside. The breeze is cooler now, and the air is less close; goosebumps rise on my upper arms, and I think longingly of the warm embrace of the guest room in Annie's cottage.
I don't realize that our children have approached until Pria climbs up into my lap, her long, straight black hair tickling my collarbone. I wrap an arm around her, an old, protective habit that I'm sure I'll never grow out of. She sighs and closes her eyes; a content six year old if ever I saw one.
"Hey there, my man," Peeta says to Ray, holding out his arms to the little boy. "How was your first day at the sea, huh? Good?"
"The sea!" Ray enthuses, and then proceeds to repeat; the sea, the sea, the sea!
"Have you had a good day?" I ask my daughter, and run my fingers through her tangled hair, splitting it into three so that I can braid it.
"Yeah," Pria replies, her voice as light as the air has become with the onset of night, "can we come back?"
"I don't doubt that we will, Pri."
I've never wanted my daughter to be like me, but I'm grateful sometimes that she doesn't have corn silk blonde hair and blue eyes. I'm glad that I don't have to be reminded, every day of what was lost. When I gave birth to her, and they told me it was a girl, my first instinct was fear; fear that somehow my little sister had been reborn, only to be taken away from me again. As luck would have it, Pria is nothing like Prim was, and barely reminds me of her at all.
I look over to Peeta in time to see him kiss the top of his son's blonde head, catching his own tears behind his eyelids before they have a chance to fall.
We make quiet love in the last, pale blue light before the dawn, with the sound of the ocean distant yet somehow close. The sheets are unfamiliar and the bed is harder than we're used to, and we have to muffle the sounds we make into pillows and blankets, and for a few blissful moments it's so good for me that Peeta has to rest his hand over my mouth, lest the children or Annie hear us.
After, Peeta relaxes a little of his weight over me, and I bury my face in his damp hair.
"I love you," he whispers somewhere close to my ear.
It's not something we often say, but right now it's what we both need. "Me too," I clarify.
He slips his arms underneath my back and holds me tightly against him. He's a little softer now than he used to be; his shoulders had a break from heavy lifting when he developed a minor back spasm, but he's still warm and strong. His fingers have collected a multitude of scars over the years; burns, cuts, grazes from punching the wall when he has an episode. I have scars too; most noticeably the marks over my fingers where I developed a disturbing habit of dragging a knife absentmindedly over my knuckles while waiting for game to wander by. Peeta noticed and bandaged my fingers, making me promise to stop. At the time, in my post-war haze, the pain felt good; necessary.
Unexpectedly, he ruffles the top of my hair, grinning ear to ear; "Nice hair," he laughs, and I try to duck away from him. I forgot to braid it before bed, as I often do now that it's a little shorter.
"Don't worry, you look lovely too," I shoot back, casting a glance up at his unkempt mop of blonde hair. "You're heavy."
"Sorry," he sighs.
He shifts up, and then off me. When he holds out an arm, I fit myself under it obligingly.
"We should get some sleep," Peeta whispers, "our train is in four hours."
"I like it here," I whisper back.
"Me too, but we can't stay forever," Peeta reasons.
"I like the sea. I don't think the novelty of it has worn off."
"I was thinking, maybe we could find a house here? I mean, what do we have all that money saved up for if not to buy somewhere to live?"
"Twelve's our home," I say, suddenly alert.
Peeta looks a little shy, as though embarrassed by his suggestion. I rest my chin on his collarbone and stare up at him, waiting. "I know," he says, "I just thought maybe you'd like to be somewhere else, somewhere without all the memories, when-"
"I want to be in our home," I say, suddenly irrationally angry, "the home that we've made for ourselves. Where Pria goes to school. Where Haymitch is. Where they all are."
"Okay, I'm sorry," Peeta mutters, his eyes tight.
Suddenly I realise that it's rattled me to the core; Peeta's suggestion that after he's gone, I might want a fresh start away from the memory of him. It's rattled me because it sounds good, easy, and simple. To move away to the sea to grieve, and never have to crawl into the same bed where his arms wouldn't be waiting.
"Ah!" he cries suddenly, and clamps his eyes shut. At first, I think he's having an episode, but then he grits his teeth sharply and I realise that he's in pain.
"Peeta?" I soothe.
"My head," he gets out, and his head falls back onto the pillow restlessly.
I'm not sure what to do, so I kneel over him and brush the damp hair back from his forehead, whispering reassurances that have as much substance as smoke.
The diagnosis came nine weeks before we went to District Four to visit Annie and Finn. Peeta's head scans had been taken to the City to be examined, and his fate came back to our District sealed in a brown envelope. The envelope that held all of our worst nightmares.
"There are treatments," our doctor said gravely, "but none that can change the ultimate outcome, and none that can prolong your life substantially. Of course, the decision rests with you, but we advise that your quality of life will be far greater if you do not proceed with any of these treatments."
The rain hit the window pace, and I was cold. So cold.
"Do you understand?" the doctor asked.
"Yes," Peeta said. His palm was damp against mine. "I understand."
"Of course, we can't say for sure, but I would set your affairs in order with the time frame of six months in mind," he continued, and then his face lost some of the coldness, and a hint of regret crept into his voice. "It's always been a problematic disease. As our medicine grew, so did the cancer. It got clever. Always just out of reach; the cure. If there was any way-"
"I know," Peeta said, and his voice sounded far away.
"I don't…I don't understand," I say, and my voice is croaky with disuse.
"Mrs Mellark," the doctor said, and his eyes fixed on mine, lined and light. I wonder if he used to be a doctor in the Capitol. "Your husband's tumor is inoperable and growing rapidly. We believe this to be a result of the brain trauma he received during the hijacking process. I'm very sorry."
"But, that was years ago, decades ago! There must be some way, something in the City that can-"
"As I said, the growth is inoperable-"
"Well, that's not good enough!" I shouted, and found myself on my feet. My blood burned with the kind of rage that I hadn't felt for years, my cheeks were hot, and I clenched my fists so tightly my nails made little half-moon cuts in my palm.
"I'm very sorry, but there's nothing-"
As it turned out, Peeta had to drag me from the clinic kicking and screaming, and the doctor walked around with a purple bruise under his eye for the next week and a half. When people asked, he said he walked into his office door. It took five punches to the wall, one to a window pane, and three hours of rage until I was spent, and I sank to the floor with my bloody palms over my face, sobbing great, huge sobs that came out dry and painful. Peeta prised them away from my face and got the glass out of my knuckles and feet, his own face wet with tears. But his were silent. The children had been taken by Haymitch when he heard the first few minutes of the commotion; he hobbled over to our house as quickly as his bad leg and walking stick would let him. Sober, after Pria asked him to stop drinking. It was hard for him, but he never faltered.
"They're wrong," I insisted, "they're wrong.
"Katniss," Peeta said gently.
"I'll try not to," he whispered.
The first hit came to his chest before I could stop it, and I was punching him, pushing him, and pulling him closer all at the same time. He held on until I stopped, and let me whisper damn you into his neck without complaint, without telling me how childish and selfish I was being about the whole thing.
It came to be a day I bitterly regretted. I play the event over and over in my mind, wishing that they'd gone a different way. I wish I'd been there as a shoulder for Peeta to cry on. Time moves us on, but nothing has changed. I was still the child I was twenty years ago.
And most importantly, I still needed him, more than I had ever realised.
"Daddy, why aren't you cooking dinner?" Pria's question is light and gifted with blissful ignorance.
Peeta sits on the couch, legs propped up, and eyes sunken in and tired. His face is a grey sort of pale, and a book sits open on his lap. A few days ago he came home with a whole stack of them. A dying man's reading list, he joked.
"I thought I'd give your mom a turn," Peeta smiles.
I smile from the kitchen counter, knife slicing through a green pepper, and if my kids would bother to look, they'd notice that the smile doesn't even approach my eyes. There's a rhythmic thud as the blade hits the chopping board. It's soothing, comforting; steady amongst the chaos.
Peeta became unable to move his legs early this morning. His artificial leg sits useless at his side in the vague hope to tease some feeling back into them. But I have a feeling that it's hopeless; the doctor did warn us about things like this.
I think Pria senses something, because she climbs up onto the sofa and into her father's lap, settling her grazed knees up against her chest and planting her head firmly on his shoulder. Peeta's face brightens a little, as it always does when Pria shows traces of being the sweet baby she used to be; the little girl that craved his protection and love. Those were his happiest days, when the cloud of joy that surrounded our first born all but cured his remaining episodes. She was like the missing link in his mind; the thread that held his sanity together in a way that I never could. A life to love that was precious and whole; someone for which we were solely responsible.
"Mommy can't cook, though!" Pria protests.
"Your mommy cooks a mean beef stew, Pri," Peeta contradicts. "And you know why?"
"Because I taught her well."
I snort and continue chopping vegetables to occupy myself. I'm almost grateful for the sting that the onion brings because it allows me to wipe my eyes on the back of my sleeve.
Ray is shuffling around my feet, impatient and craving attention, so I pick him up to sit on the kitchen table, and prise the first thing he grabs, out of his hands (a tin opener; maybe he is his mother's son – he always seems to go for the things that can do the most damage). I ruffle his light blonde hair and turn back to dinner, taking deep breaths as I go.
I shake my head to clear it and dump the ingredients in a pan, give them a stir and slide the whole thing carefully into the hot oven. Ray reaches out his tiny little fingers now that I'm no longer occupied, and I lift him into my arms impatiently. He nestles his head in my neck and I soften a little, as I always do when I carry him; even growing in my stomach, he was a soothing weight; something I had always found unsettling with Pria. He's still got his baby-smell; just about. The smell of his soft soap and new skin and cotton hair. He is something to steady me when the road gets rocky; a quality that he must have inherited from his father. One that I worry will pull me away from Ray after Peeta is gone.
It's almost incredible how Peeta and I have made these perfect creatures. We are so damaged ourselves.
And just for a second, with the late afternoon light streaming through the kitchen windows and gleams off the metal bolts on Peeta's prosthetic leg, which in turn glints off Pria's shiny black hair and reflects in Ray's large eyes; I am at peace.
It's gone before I can catch it, and the dread returns. The agonizing worry that somehow I'm not filling Peeta's last moments adequately. That we should be living in one of his watercolour paintings, walking eternally into the sunset as one happy unit (the type that we never were). Playing in meadows.
And there, like a precious stone glinting out from under the dust of the years, I remember the meadow where Gale and I would sit, just on the border of the District. Since the bombing wiped out the old fence, and a new one was built with sliding doors simply as a precaution to keep the wild dogs out of the District, I have not been to the meadow. I use the gates to leave the District and retreat to the woods to hunt, and I see many others too. My once lonely woods are not so lonely anymore.
The meadow has always been a blind spot; a blur of green as I walk past and try not to see the memories I've lost, and the friend whose voice I haven't heard in years.
But a meadow; another beautiful sunset, like the one on the beach in Four. As Peeta said a million sunsets ago; those who have limited time should cherish every day. Every sunset is precious, and each one we miss is a memory we could have made.
"Come on," I say suddenly, and grab Pria's coat from the stand. "We're going out."
"Dinner won't be ready for another few hours, come on!" I urge, and rush over to attach Peeta's leg.
"I can't go anywhere," Peeta reminds me gently, quietly, as Pria wriggles Ray into a coat.
"Yes, you can," I say firmly. "Haymitch has that wheelchair from when he had his hip operation."
"But they'll see that I can't move," he shoots back, clearly on edge at my impulsive suggestion. "They'll ask questions."
I rush over to Haymitch's house anyway, and ignore the broken snores that come from the kitchen, pushing my way through the clutter that has accumulated until I finally find the wheelchair folded in a dusty heap in the corner. I sigh and unfold it. The room is unnaturally quiet.
"You look old, sweetheart," Haymitch says, catching me by surprise. My heart jumps into my throat.
He's standing; leaning against the counter for support. The light of the window sits behind him, swallowing his face in shadow. His hair is gone now, and his head glints with the orange, sinking sun.
"That for the boy?" he asks, nodding towards the wheelchair.
My palms clench against the handles and I nod. It's almost silly; how Haymitch still refers to Peeta as the boy. It couldn't be further from the truth; I rarely see even a glimmer of the boy Peeta used to be. The boy with the bread. Each day he slips further from me.
"How's he doing?" Haymitch asks.
"He'll be fine," I say.
I feel Haymitch's eyes follow me out the kitchen, the wheelchair rattling against the wooden floors uncomfortably. I notice that the chair smells of liquor, and I feel a sting of hurt when I realise that Haymitch has been drinking despite his promise to Pria and Ray. I suppose that his period of recovery in the wheelchair was painful, and put the slip to the back of my mind as the late sunlight hits my face. As ever, I cannot condemn people for their actions whilst in pain.
They play in the meadow.
Ray's tiny little legs take him as fast as they dare, following the silky black sheet of Pria's hair that flies in the breeze. She flings her arms out as though she'll take flight, and for a second, I feel extremely ill. My hands tighten around the handles of the wheelchair, and I use the firmness of Peeta's weight to steady me.
"Are you OK?" Peeta asks.
I make sure the chair is steady in the long grass, and I step up beside him.
"It's gotten so beautiful here," I say, "I didn't even notice."
"You haven't been looking," Peeta says gently.
I bite my lip. He's right; about the meadow, and about everything. I have been so caught up with trying to find an answer that I haven't stopped to look around and consider the beauty of the things we have here. The things that might now be fleeting; as easily pulled from me as quickly as they pulled tribute's bodies from the arena. A giant hand that can stretch down from the heavens and take that which is precious to me.
I find Peeta's hand. He brings it up to his lips for a quick kiss and then gently tugs me down towards him. I hesitate, but he urges me forward firmly, until I'm sitting in his lap in the chair.
"Pria's just like you," he whispers in my ear.
"I don't think so," I smile, "she's better than me."
I feel Peeta's eyelashes graze my cheek, and he tightens his arms around me. The sun is a warm memory on our skin, while out children play in the tiny patch of light across the meadow, hairs glinting like black silk and gold wheat. A million miles away from the troubles in this wheelchair.
"Was it worth it?" Peeta asks quietly, "Staying with me? Do you regret it?"
I turn to face him. "How could you even say that?"
"Sometimes I worry that you just stayed with me because the darkness was too frightening to face alone," he continues, avoiding my eye.
"Peeta," I insist, "I stayed with you because I loved you. Because I love you. You know that."
"I know, I'm sorry," he amends quietly. "Go play with them? I'll be fine here."
He pulls me close for a deep kiss and I notice that his breath sounds harsh. His mouth is soft and warm, but his lips are dry.
I feel as though it's a request, and so I get to my feet and jog over to the children on shaky legs. Time has taken some of my speed and strength, and so it takes me a little while to reach them. In the half-light of memories gone, everything seems to be moving in slow motion; my mind is stuck in the past, when everything was quick and agile. My body can't keep up, and my heart is heavy with Peeta. I catch Ray around his tiny waist and heave him up onto my shoulders; something that Peeta does. He squeals and takes hold of my hair, clinging on for dear life as I straighten up. My smile is painted on, and I can't feel it anywhere but my face. My thumb rests on a tiny, scabbed knee. Pria wraps her arms around my waist.
I can feel that Peeta's eyes don't leave us.
His legs don't come back.
It becomes apparent after a few days that his walking days are over. He gets frustrated. I find him in the bedroom with his blonde head in his hands, tears running down his forearms, and his pain medication next to him on the bed.
"Peeta?" I ask gently, and rush over to him.
"I can't open the bottle. My hands feel numb. They feel weak, I can't, Katniss, I can't-"
"Shh, it's OK," I soothe, feeling useless. "I'll do it."
I twist open the bottle and shake two pills into his trembling hands. They disintegrate a little in the salty tears that sit in the creases of his palms.
"I can't paint, I can't bake for the kids," he says.
He swallows his tears and looks at me, and for the first time it really registers how ill he looks. How sunken his eyes are. How thin he's become. His muscles have lost a lot of their mass, and he moves slowly. I knew that it would be hard, but I was never prepared for this; the physical presence of Peeta disappearing before my very eyes. I think Pria has noticed that her father looks ill, because she keeps asking him if he's OK.
"Lie down with me?" he asks quietly, a tremble running through his voice.
He pops the painkillers in his mouth and swallows them dry, and I nod and scoot over him to the other side of the bed. He sighs heavily and lifts his leg onto the bed, letting the missing calf follow. He settles back against the pillows and I move closer, until I can feel the warmth of him through my clothes; right over my heart.
Peeta tilts his forehead against mine, so that I can feel the brush of his thick hair against my forehead. Illness can't steal away the comfort he brings to everything; the steadiness that is there through everything.
"I've wanted to talk to you," he mumbles.
The kids sleep soundly in their bedrooms, and the sun has long since disappeared, despite how long the days have become. I'm glad of the light, because winter makes my heart sink, and it's already touching the floor.
"I don't want you to shut off," he says.
"Listen to me this time, please?"
It's a subject he's broached before; always with incredible caution. For the first time, I let him have his say.
"Seeing you play with them today, in the sun," he whispers, "I want you to stay like that. I want you to keep their hearts alive. Kids had a hard time in our day. We had a hard time. And I know how you can get, Katniss. You can shut down. I don't mean hunting, I mean your heart. You need to be there for our kids, in every way that they need. We both had mothers that were less than ideal, growing up. And I know that you'd give anything to stop our kids feeling like that."
"I won't shut down," I say.
Peeta nods, and presses a light kiss against my cheek. I feel a tear slide under my eyelashes before I can stop it.
"I'm still angry at you, you know," I continue, "for leaving us."
"I'd do anything to stay," Peeta whispers back.
I nod furiously, trying to scare away the tears, "I know. I know. I'm sorry."
He shifts until his head rests over my heart. I wind my hands into his hair.
"I think Ray will be a baker, like me," he muses, speaking half-into my stomach like he did when I was pregnant. It's a comforting, familiar gesture. "And Pria can paint. She's a beautiful painter. And who knows, maybe one day they'll learn to hunt."
"I don't want them to." I frown. "They shouldn't have to learn."
"I know," Peeta says.
We both know that I'll teach them one day; I'm too wary that the power will shift again and once more we'll be plunged into poverty. Our large house can be snatched from us at any moment, because technically we still do not own it. It's still the Capitol's design; under District Thirteen's jurisdiction. But still, I trust District Thirteen as far as I can throw Peeta.
Peeta wraps an arm around me and squeezes gently, and soon I feel the soothing warmth of his lips over mine.
He pulls away, and whispers teasingly in my ear; "we're so old now."
"We are not old," I scowl.
"Pria will be grown up in a flash," he laughs, and it sounds a little hollow.
"Well, you're not the one that's going to have to deal with her first boyfriend," I remind him, and then, like a wave crashing over me – enveloping me – I can't breathe. Not even a little.
"It's OK," Peeta sooths, and runs a finger down my face, "I'm sure that you'll be infinitely more intimidating anyway."
I laugh, and it eases the tightness behind my ribs a little. "I mean," he continues, "imagine showing up at your date's house and her mom is the famous Mockingjay."
"Isn't she mad as a wild dog these days, anyway?"
"Oh, I've heard rumours," Peeta mutters against my neck.
"Maybe I should answer the door wearing one of my old dresses, bow and arrow in one hand-"
"I'm sure fifteen armed units would be dispatched from Thirteen within the hour."
"True," I sigh, feeling his tongue graze my jaw. "How do you feel?"
Peeta pulls back. "Tired, sore, you name it."
I smooth out the creases under his eyes with the pad of my thumb, and then realise that they're there as a result of years of laughter – and grief – rather than any illness he may suffer with now. The soft, golden light from the lamp casts everything in half-shadow. It looks better; less grey than it does during the day. Daylight gives everything such a medical feel; like those lights in the hospital in the City that we had to visit, that are meant to simulate sunlight. All that technology, and they couldn't help Peeta.
He pulls away and sinks back into the bed, his eyes drooping a little. "There go the pain meds," he mutters contently.
I remember my own time spent on pain medication; the agonizing period where my skin fused back together. Perhaps it was the drugs, or the grief, but when I think of the time it appears in my memory like a shiny haze of smoke. I wonder what those memories are like for Peeta, when everything was already so muddled from the hijacking.
He reaches out for the bottle again, and I stop him, "No; no more. Just take what they told you to."
Peeta closes his eyes and frowns deeply, but nods. His nightshirt has ridden up, and I can see the light hair leading down into his pants. I almost feel bad for wanting him; we haven't made love since we visited Annie. But I know that he feels too weak, too vulnerable, and that his illness makes him prone to episodes. My heart clenches at the thought that the time in District Four could be the last time for us. All hurried and quick and not in our own bed.
He catches me looking and pulls me down against him, hands running down my side almost soothingly. I think he knows what I'm thinking. My chest aches for a time eight months ago, before his headaches started, when forever and always was just that.
I'm still in the clothes that I hunted in, and my hems of my trousers are caked in dark brown mud. My hair smells like wood and grass, and fresh air. But I don't care. The last few months have put things into clear perspective; sorted the things that matter from the things that can wait.
I tug my trousers off, pull my shirt up over my head, and settle back against him in my underwear. His fingers tug the tie from my braid and gently loosen the strands of hair free, tangling in the soft hair at the base of my neck; it's an old gesture.
"Oh," Peeta feigns dread, "I think I see a grey hair."
"Shut up," I say.
"No, there it is, right there!" I beat him away playfully.
Five years ago, I had –memorably – made a big deal about finding one stray grey hair amongst the black. I had taken everyone; myself included by surprise when I realised how upset I was by this. My appearance had never really been important to me. I put it down to how long it took to grow my hair back when it had been damaged in the war, and the worry that that luxury was suddenly being pulled from under me. Since then, Peeta has teased me about it, despite the fact that I only acquired a handful of grey hairs since then, if that.
He stills and smiles at me for a moment. I rest my head over his heart, and realise how fast my own is beating.
"I'm sorry that we can't-"
"Shh," I cut across him, "don't even think about it."
"Easier said than done."
"True," I laugh.
"I just feel…I don't know. Blank. Tired. There's no fire in me anymore."
I prop my chin up on his shoulder and meet his gaze. "I'm not a huge fan of fire, anyway."
"Right now I'd be happy to see it," Peeta tells me solemnly.
I notice a book half-open on the side table. I pick it up, and feel the weight of it in my hand. It's old; very old. "What's this?" I ask.
"Oh, it's called The Great Gatsby. Only a few copies survived the first war, and they were stacked away in the Capitol so no one could get any ideas from old literature. Effie sent me a copy. It's original."
"You stopped reading it?" I ask, noticing that there's no bookmark.
Peeta looks uncomfortable. "Well, reading was making my head hurt, so I gave up."
The thought makes me sad; Peeta had been so enthusiastic about reading all of those books. I think of the pile downstairs, and suddenly it seems like a terrible waste.
"Where did you get to?" I ask.
Peeta takes the book from me and thumbs the pages until he's a third of the way through, frowning deeply at the words before him. He nods and hands it back to me. I look at the words; they're so delicate in their form, so intricately beautiful that for a moment – just like standing in front of that autocue in Thirteen – I'm not sure if I can do them justice.
I settle back against him, and hold the book comfortably. "What?" he asks.
"I'm going to read it to you," I say.
"You don't have to do that-"
"I want to," I say. "I want to know the story."
Peeta sighs, and shifts to sit against to headboard, pulling me back so that I rest against him. I prop the book against my knees, pull the covers up a little, and begin to read. At first my voice sounds static and hollow in the large bedroom, but soon I become engulfed in the story, and I don't realise how absorbed I've become.
When my voice grows scratchy, Peeta presses a kiss against my temple and prised the book from my fingers.
"It seems like another world. It sounds like the Capitol," I sigh, "all those people with money and fancy houses while real life happens around them. Before Panem even existed. Maybe we've always been evil."
"I don't think we're evil," Peeta whispers into my hair, brushing it back from my face; "I think we're just greedy. All of us. We want things. And it doesn't make us evil, it makes us human."
"I guess you've always had a higher opinion of the human race than me."
He pulls the covers over us, and I turn so that I can rest my cheek against his chest. I feel his nose brush my temple, and he says what he does every night before we let sleep claim us; "kiss me in case it's my last?"
And I say – as I do every night; "It won't be."
I kiss him anyway. Deeply and sweetly, letting our time together fill me until I'm satisfied that if it has to be goodbye, it was a decent one.
"Uncle Haymitch!" Pria rushes over to the door and establishes her arms around Haymitch's paunchy belly. Haymitch leans heavily on his walking stick and gruffly pats her on the back, looking a little embarrassed, as ever. Pria is not fazed.
"I think you get that from your dad, kid," He says, and prises her off him.
I glance up from the bread dough and smile briefly. Peeta sits next to me in the wheelchair, instructing me on what to do. Ray sits on the workbench next to me, sinking his little fingers into the cream-coloured dough with delight on his cherub face. Morning light streams through the window.
"I came to warn you that you might get a few unwanted visitors," Haymitch says. "Seems like the major broadcasting companies are getting bored and restless and they might stop by for a fun catch up. You know what to do."
"Are you going to chase the camera men away with a rake again, Uncle Haymitch?" Pria sounds almost hopeful.
"If you're lucky, sweetheart."
"You wouldn't get five steps with that hip," I remind him.
"Maybe. How's the grey hair doing?"
"I wouldn't know," I purse my lips and flick flour in his direction. It lands in his beard and he sneezes. Pria laughs heartily, and Ray squeals in delight, clapping his little hands together.
I absent-mindedly pull the icing sugar from Ray's fingers just as he begins to tip it onto the dough. "No, Ray, we're making bread, remember? Not a sweetie."
"Ray! Put that down, right now! I said, put it down!" Peeta shouts suddenly, his voice loud enough to make everyone in the room jolt.
Ray's eyes well up at the unexpected noise and anger, and I'm too numb to reach for him. Haymitch gets there first, lifting Ray into his arms and ruffling his light blonde hair with an old hand, his walking stick propped against the counter. "Come on, little man, nothing was ever accomplished with tears."
"Peeta?" I ask, tentatively.
His eyes are still soaked in anger. I approach him as I would an episode, although this seems different; more malicious somehow. I place a hand on either side of his face and make him look at me. Pria stands by my side, and I can feel the tension radiating from her small form. Peeta tries to bat my hand away. "Does no one in this house understand that baking needs precision?" he rants, his face reddening. He shifts uncomfortably in his wheelchair, as though he's irritated by it.
"Come back, Peeta," I whisper.
He looks at me suspiciously. "Stop that. I am back. Stop that. Stop that."
Haymitch leads the kids out of the room and I crouch down in front of my husband, searching for a way to find him through the thick ivy branches that seemed to have formed around his soul in a matter of seconds.
Peeta suddenly looks upset. "What's happening? Where's Ray? Ray!"
"He's just…just gone for a while, Peeta."
"But he knows I didn't mean it. I didn't…"
"He knows," I lie.
"Katniss?" he asks, as though seeing me for the first time.
I take his hands firmly and nod. I stand until I'm leaning close to his mouth. His breath is shaky against my skin. "Don't let it take you from me."
"I don't want-"
"Stay with me."
He doesn't answer.
"You don't understand. I'm going to book a train for first thing tomorrow morning and you're going to perform every procedure possible to get that thing out of his brain, do you hear me? You said there were treatments. There are fifty-two new hospitals that have just been built in Panem. You're telling me that not one of them can help us?"
The phone feels warm and sweaty against my ear; that's how long I've been using it. My voice is hoarse, and my anger is almost worn out.
"I'm sorry, Mrs Mellark, it's just not possible without seriously impairing your husband's brain functionality. He would be essentially brain-dead."
"It's Everdeen. It's Katniss Everdeen."
"I'm sorry, Mrs Everdeen."
"You don't understand, he shouted at our son, our three-year old son! He…he's different. He's confused, he can't walk, and he's in pain. I just…I don't know what to do. Tell me what to do, please!"
"Behavioural changes are to be expected, I'm afraid. As well as the mobility problems. We can send more pain medication to keep him comfortable."
"Well, that's not good enough! You're not good enough! If you can't help him, then let me speak to someone who can."
"I'm sorry; all you can do is to make him comfortable."
"He is comfortable," I say, and I feel a tear press against the back of my eyelids, aching for release. "He's with his family."
I hang up the phone, but I barely hear it click back into place. I double over in pain, the feeling of helplessness; of falling with nothing to catch me. My palms feel the cool wooden floor, and my knees sting with the impact. But here, at least, I don't need to move; don't need to keep myself standing. I shouldn't allow myself this luxury, but for a second, I curl up into myself and think of nothing but my own pain. Peeta was right; we're greedy.
"Come on, sweetheart."
I see the base of Haymitch's wooden walking stick barely miss my foot, and almost scold him. But then he's tugging me to my feet with a heavy groan of discomfort.
"On your feet," he whispers into my hair, rubbing my back soothingly.
I pull back, realising my lapse. "Get off me. I'm fine. Are the kids OK?" I ask.
"They're playing in the garden," Haymitch says. "Are you ever going to tell them?"
"I thought it would just upset them," I say, unsure all of a sudden. "Or they wouldn't understand."
"They're going to find out, one way or another."
"Peeta doesn't want these last days filled with tears," I remind him (and myself too, just a little).
Haymitch nods and adjusts his weight on the stick, looking uncomfortable. He leaves soon after, and I find Peeta sleeping on the couch, knocked out with the powerful sedative Dr Aurelius gave me years ago in the event of a serious episode. Of course, he wasn't violent, but I became so overwhelmed by the idea that Peeta was somehow becoming someone else that I'd hastened to administer it. It seems to me that if Peeta can sleep, when he wakes up he'll be mine again. As though the events of what started out as this perfect morning can be rewritten into something sweet. I hear Pria laugh outside and long to be a child again. Before I leave the room, I press a kiss against Peeta's temple.
Pria is pushing Ray in a small wheelbarrow, the smile on her face wide and genuine as her brother squeals with joy. I make a mental note to scold Haymitch for putting Ray in the wheelbarrow in the first place.
"Kids," I call, and they stop.
I sigh and cross the garden. The grass is damp against the bare soles of my feet. I pick ray up and sit down in his place, balancing him on my knee as I hold out an arm to wrap around Pria. There's a tiny crease between her eyebrows, like she's searching for a thought that she just can't quite reach. Peeta always says she gets that look from me. I hadn't even noticed it was a habit of mine until it became apparent that it was one my daughter shared.
"Is daddy still angry?" Pria asks quietly.
"Daddy's not angry," I contradict gently, "he's not very well. You know that, don't you? That he's been sick? You understand?"
Ray nods his little head in agreement.
"Well, he's got a little worse, and now he's got head sick. You know like when he has a bad day? When he just needs to sleep it off and then he'll stop being angry at mommy? Well, it's a little bit like that, only, because he's sick it makes it a little worse, and a little different. And that's why he shouted at you, Ray."
"So when he's better, he won't shout anymore?" Pria whispers.
I close my eyes and I lie. I nod. I agree; because anything is better than the truth. Anything is better than seeing the bright eyes of my children cloud over with what I had to endure through my youth.
The sun crawls up the sky, setting District Twelve ablaze with light. I walk into the woods with my bow and quiver, and not for the first time, wish that the soft footsteps of my old hunting partner were there to guide me home.
Peeta's anger towards Ray is short lived, but it quickly turns into anger towards everyone else. He props his little son up in his lap everywhere he goes, arm slung around Ray's pudgy belly protectively, as though he's Peeta's last grip on reality. Ray enjoys the attention, but becomes upset when he reaches out for me and Peeta won't let him go. Peeta withdraws from me, becoming confused and often upset in my presence. His face seems slack now, the skin loose from the weight he's shed. Often, I sit down for hours at a time and try to grasp at memories from when he was healthy and hopeful and mine. It's like the work we did to get him back from the hijacking is coming undone; the threads unravelling day by day until I can see all of my hard work lain out before me in ruins.
I know that I'll have to take my baby son away from Peeta soon.
"Peeta?" I try. It's been a good day. He's been distant, but not aggressive or emotional.
"Hmm?" he answers quietly.
"Can I have Ray?"
"Sure, Katniss," he mutters, eyes not moving, and I almost weep with joy at the sound of something like a rational Peeta.
I heave Ray out of his father's lap and he flings his arms around my neck. "Mommy," he mutters peacefully, and closes his eyes against the crook of my neck. My body relaxes a little.
Peeta sits up, looking around as though he's lost something. "Ray?" he asks, panicked.
"He's here, Peeta, I have him," I soothe.
I set Ray down in his chair and move my fingers over Peeta's shoulders, rubbing out the tension that I find there. It's the first time in a number of days that he's let me touch him, and it soothes some distant ache I hadn't even realised was there. I let myself flip back the years, when suffering made me run, made me hide. And now, here, when the man I've grown to love is in pain, it hurts me when I can't help him. Maybe that's been the problem all along. That sometimes I can't alleviate pain. Sometimes I cause it. Sometimes it's just out of my control.
He holds a shaky hand up to me and I take it, holding on tightly and crouching next to him. His eyes are familiar; a welcome fracture in the behavioural changes and a glimpse back into the man behind the ever-thickening glass. He is not lost.
"Katniss," he mutters. "I want more morphling."
I look at my muddy boots, and the floor underneath. It needs mopping. "You can't, Peeta. You've had your dose. More than, in fact."
"But I hurt," he whispers.
I walk back to Ray and hand him a bottle of orange juice. He takes it and fiddles, procrastinating. I sigh, and feel the tension rising in my back. That hot sweep of anger that will never really leave me. I am hot tempered, and no amount of medicine can ever really change that. I bite my tongue so that I won't say something I regret. Through the open back door, I can hear the rustle of soil as Pria plants her strawberry plants. I didn't have the heart to tell her that it's too late; the strawberries won't grow in this weather. They need summer, and summer is just about to turn dull.
"I can't!" I scream.
I don't shout; I really scream. So loud that Ray doesn't cry; he just stares, in complete and utter shock. But I know the tears are on their way, and so we wait in silence for their arrival. Peeta is silent too, but I hear his head fall back onto the soft fabric of the wheelchair.
If I don't move, I'll cry. And I can't cry.
So I find my bag and rummage until I find the morphling. Peeta watches me quietly, and by the time I reach him, I'm crying. I sniff back the upset and give him another dose of morphling, watching as his face relaxes in relief. He takes my hand and presses a kiss against the back of it in gratitude.
Ray's tears join my own. The sound of Pria gardening outside stops and I hear the back door pulled back, and her soft footsteps as she re-enters the house, oblivious.
"You really need to hire a cleaner," I tell Haymitch, exasperated as I throw a dirty rag into the sink. Before Peeta became ill, he would do this. I always took that fact for granted; never really understood how much mess Haymitch would inevitably make.
"Sweetheart, you don't have to do that," he grumbled, sounding a little peeved at the sight of me in his house.
"Who'll do it if I don't?" I shoot back sharply.
"Well, I can try-"
"You know you won't. Just stop talking. In fact, can you just leave the room? You're putting me off."
"It's my house."
I sigh and set to work on a pan that's grown several layers of green, furry mould. I wrinkle my nose, and shift it to the sink, pouring hot water into the bowl and setting it down to soak. I hold my breath and take action against a pile of dirty laundry on the floor next to my feet. "And really, can't you wash your own disgusting-"
A bottle clinks to the floor, chipping slightly on the hard wood.
"What's this?" I demand.
"You know I'm not teetotal, Katniss."
"Hmm," I consider, and take the bottle in my hand. There's no trace of the liquor that once filled it, but the label is fancy and soaked in some brown-coloured liquid. Now that stronger alcohol is legally sold in the Districts, they have special companies that make it for taste as well as substance. I check the content; it's strong. Very strong.
I throw the bottle against the opposite wall. Haymitch barely even flinches in his armchair.
"Feel better now?" he asks.
"Much better, thanks," I say.
"I'll be sure to save them up for you."
"You promised Pria that you'd stop drinking, that time you had the kidney scare."
"I know," he sighs.
"And doesn't that mean anything to you? That you made a promise to my little girl?"
"I seem to remember that you night you found out about your little girl you were round here begging me for a drink."
"How dare you?" I say thunderously.
"Don't be so high and mighty, sweetheart."
"Don't call me that-"
I find the pan and brush under the sink and cross over to the pile of broken glass. I can feel pieces dig into my knees but I don't care. The pain is a welcome distraction. It all seems such a shame; the broken shards of glass on the floor. Something with at least some beauty smashed to pieces. My fault. Always, my fault.
"Why can't you just be here?" I demand of him, suddenly so angry.
"What d'you mean-"
"Why can't you just help me?"
Haymitch pauses, and there's so much room for thought that I wish I hadn't said anything at all. But he knows that I'm not talking about the glass.
"I called the Capitol, you know," Haymitch says gruffly. "More times than I can count. Tried to get them to fix the boy. Thought they must've been holding something back. Must have been punishing you. Punishing us. Because we're never forgiven you know. For as long as we live, they'll watch. Don't think for a second we're free."
"I know that."
"But this time, Katniss. I don't know. I don't think they can do anything."
"Maybe they can't," I sigh. "But I won't stop trying."
Haymitch is silent.
"You want me to stop trying?" I demand.
"I don't want you to miss things. I don't want you to blink and he's gone. Time goes by so fast, Katniss. And if you don't say a proper goodbye you'll never forgive yourself. Trust me."
"We do say goodbye. Every night. Well, we did."
"It's not enough," Haymitch dismisses. "As long as you're clinging to the hope that he'll live, you're not really accepting the fact that he won't, and it's not a real goodbye."
"When did you get so damn sensitive?" I sniff.
"It's among my many alluring qualities, sweetheart," and he burps.
I laugh, just for a moment.
"For what it's worth, I won't let you bring up the kids on your own. You know that."
I cover my face with my hands, and hear Haymitch heave himself up from his chair. I hear the rhythmic thump of his walking stick on the wooden floor, and when his arm comes around me, and the faint scent of soap – not liquor – fills my nostrils, I let my head fall against his shoulder. There's no tears, but there's a faint, dull ache in my chest; an old feeling that I haven't encountered in years. It's the same ache I used to feel when I thought about how much I missed my father. When I wished he was there.
And now, through unlikely alliances, I won't have to take this walk alone.
"Open your next present, Pri," Peeta urges, propped up against his firm pillow. He's been lucid today; calm. And I'm glad. I didn't want Pria's birthday to be tainted with bad feeling.
Pria takes a large handful of the brown wrapping paper and tugs, revealing a new picture book that Effie Trinket sent. It's a vibrant pink, and the elephant on the front is layered over with pink velvet. Shinier than anything she's ever seen; I can see the way she runs her little hands over it as though she's scared to open it. At my request, Effie stopped sending expensive presents (well, expensive to her). The things she used to send when the kids were babies were just too much; I couldn't bear the generosity. But she refused to send nothing, and so this was the compromise.
Pria bounces a little in excitement, the bed moving with her, shaking us all and bringing smiles to our faces. Ray sucks contentedly on a pacifier; he woke up a little upset at the change in routine and it was the only way to calm him down. He's supposed to be trying to survive without it, but he loves it so much that I find it hard to keep it away from him. I can't stand the sight of his tears, especially if I know I can do something to stop them.
He tugs himself away from me and settles down against his daddy's side. Peeta rests a large hand on Ray's tiny head.
Pria is already diving into her next gift; a new stuffed toy from Peeta and I. Her face lights up when she sees it, and she hugs it close to her chest. It's a goat; she's always been fond of them. I swallow the lump in my throat. I could never buy her a real one.
Ray moves away from Peeta (his boredom is ever-shifting and unpredictable, something which I've always thought he got from me). Peeta looks a little sad, his arm empty now. I try to put myself in Peeta's shoes; my days numbered, and my children oblivious. Sometimes I wonder if we should tell them, but then I see that Ray can barely last two days without his pacifier; he's a creature of comfort, just as Peeta is. He's breakable. And I don't want to change him; when I was younger, I'd considered people who were too sensitive to be a liability. My mother. Even myself, to some extent. But Ray signals a new sort of hope in Panem; children that don't have to be strong before their time. It's in Ray's blood to be tough, but at his own pace.
Pria folds her discarded wrapping paper gently, and sets it to one side, her face hard with concentration. I see myself. I see Prim. I see my mother. And I see Peeta. All in that one look; that one expression of strength, tenderness, innocence and goodness.
I watch her arrange her gifts, and think of the loss that is yet to come.
I see Pria's head snap up from her selection of cookies. She sets her milk down as though she doesn't trust her hands. Ray continues to play with her black hair, but she bats him away impatiently. No one says anything. I feel my own hands slow in the bread dough; it was a bad mix, anyway.
All of my fears about the kids not knowing; all of them have been handled in one, cruel swoop.
Peeta is frowning slightly, as he does when he's in his new-sort of episodes. I don't know how it works, but the timing and consistency of them is similar to after the hijacking. Sometimes he's OK, and sometimes…
"Maybe we should go out for some air, huh?"
He looks around as if seeing us all for the first time, and then begins to mutter to himself so quietly we can barely hear him. He looks pale; so pale. His face has acquired more lines in the past few months than it had in the past five years. The lines from his smiles have all but smoothed out completely.
I grab the handles of his chair and wheel him from the room, not feeling strong enough to look at Pria.
Once he's outside, I step on the brake and move to close the back door, but a small voice stops me.
"Is daddy dying?"
Pria is silhouetted against the hall window, her frame slight, her hands clasped tightly in front of her. I can't speak. Can't move. And then, like window through time, I see myself standing in front of my own mother; is daddy dead, mom? I had received no answer, and it had burned confusion and hurt and abandonment into me. I can't do that to Pria. I have to give her an answer. Something to guide her through the dark days to come; she doesn't have the luxury of youth that Ray has.
I hold out my arms and she steps into them. I feel her shoulders shake with tears. She presses her face into my stomach. "Why?" she asks.
I crouch down. "Do you remember the story about Aunt Prim? About how she was the best little girl, but she died, because sometimes the world isn't kind?"
Pria nods. "It's the same now? Daddy didn't do anything wrong?"
"No, love. He saved Panem, remember?"
"And you. You said he saved you."
"He did. More times than I can count."
"So daddy's still a hero?" she sniffs.
"Still a hero," I confirm. "He's our hero, forever. Remember? Remember when you fell and hurt your knee and he carried you all the way home, even though his back was hurting him?"
Pria nods. "But he says horrible things."
"It's like he's dreaming, Pria. He doesn't know. He can't tell."
"Can we sit with daddy outside?" Pria asks.
I hesitate. I don't know if she can handle it; if her heart is ready for Peeta in the knowledge that her daddy won't be around forever. She's got an old head everyone always says about Pria. She's grown up fast. Perhaps it was something in her blood. Perhaps it was my own unrelenting sadness, or Peeta's occasional episodes. "Of course you can," I smile, and she lets me pick her up. She's heavier than I remember, but I'm still strong.
I fetch Ray, and take them both outside, placing Pria on Peeta's lap. He seems to jolt from his stupor of confusion, and smiles down at his daughter, humming out a soft tune against her forehead like he used to when she was a baby. Pria tucks her head under her father's chin and holds onto him tightly. He splits her long hair into three and braids it down her back gently, the same way I taught him to when I broke my wrist and couldn't brush or braid Pria's – or my own – hair. This little act of remembrance gives me hope.
Ray squirms in my lap. I think he senses that something is wrong. I hold him tightly and stroke his hair back from his face.
The autumn sun is high in the sky, and I think I hear the doorbell ring a few times from inside the house, but I make no move to answer it. Today is private. Today is ours.
"A reliable source tells The City Today of the terminal illness that has befallen life-partner of the former Mockingjay, Katniss Everdeen. Peeta Mellark, one of the Hunger Games survivors, and Panem's favourite Victor, is said to be in a grave condition. Reports are indicating that no treatments are being implemented to extend the life of the war veteran. No reports as yet reveal how family and friends are taking this news, only that Ms Everdeen is said to be stricken with grief. The couple live in District Twelve with their two children. More news will be available as we-"
I mute the television, holding my head in my hands and trying not to breathe in the pungent smell of Haymitch's house as he makes tea – or some form of it – behind me. Peeta sighs and pinches the skin between his eyebrows, deepening the lines there. The kids have been sent off to the Cartwright's to play with their kids. We need the break from being strong.
Luckily, Peeta has been good today; almost normal. Weary, but normal.
"Wasn't me," Haymitch grunts from behind us, mugs clattering.
"Of course it wasn't you, don't say stupid things," I brush away.
"Just making sure," he counters, limping over to us and offering us the tea. I shift uncomfortably and pull rogue silver spoons from the crease of my chair before accepting the tea and settling back down. Haymitch sinks back down into a chair that's so used to his presence the stuffing has shifted to accommodate the size of his backside. I watch to make sure he doesn't put anything in his tea, but when I sip my own; I find it foul-tasting and stinking of liquor.
"You didn't think I was going to offer you tea after that, did you?" he nods towards the television, where the headline; 'THE MOCKINGJAY SOON TO LAMENT?' still swoops across the screen.
"You don't think Effie…?" I begin to wonder.
"Don't think so," Haymitch says.
"Then who?" Peeta asks, sounding frustrated and betrayed, and almost a little suspicious of us.
"My money's on one of the nurses in the Capitol. You know they don't get paid much. A story like that would earn them a nice little fortune if they played their cards right. Think of how many nurses and doctors we've all spoken to over the last few months."
A lot. Desperate phone calls, visits to the doctor here, being redirected to unhelpful office workers. Any one of them could have given our story to the press. In fact, I'm surprised it hasn't happened before now.
We're generally recognised as the most private of the war veterans. Gale went onto be in the public eye a lot, as the no-nonsense-yet-charming spokesperson of post-war Panem. A military voice to command authority and yet the hearts of young girls racing too, I don't doubt. My heart used to race when I saw him on the television, but not for the same reason.
I think sometimes about what Panem would have turned out like if Gale had been the Mockingjay; the heart. And I realise that we would've burnt; all of us, in flames more deadly than any of us had realised at the time. Gale was an inferno, all filled with blood and fire and rage and the kind of love that drives people to kill. Some of that love was for me.
It still scares me. But I can never not love him.
"What are we going to do?" I sigh.
"Nothing," Peeta replies, "there's nothing we can do. They can't come here for interviews; we got that order signed by Thirteen. Reporters can't come within ten yards of the Victor's Village."
I nod, feeling uneasy. If Peeta has to go to hospital in the Capit- the City, then we'll be ambushed for sure. That means limited medical access for when Peeta gets even worse. No extra-strength morphling to ease the passing. No one to give me a few extra days with him. Unless we want to answer to Panem. Unless we want our children's faces broadcast across the nation; something we've avoided since their births.
The most they ever got was a shot of me carrying Pria out of the clinic; the shot was taken with a heavy zoom, and all you could see of Pria was the white blanket that peeked out from the crook of my arm.
My children will not be a spectator sport.
"Katniss, can I have some-"
"Oh, yeah, I've got it," I take his morphling out of my bag and cross over to him. I see Haymitch turn away out of the corner of my eye. Peeta's face is pinched with pain until I sink the syringe into his arm and ease the plug down.
I'm grateful that he's with me, today. His fluctuating behaviour has even the doctors baffled; they concluded that his previous mental-trauma is making his progress less-than-textbook, and I can hear them itching to get their hands on him to study. I refuse to take him into the City if we can manage here, especially now our names are flashing red on the screens of Panem. I wish for a moment that my mother was still alive; that I had a soul in the medical industry as a friend.
The portable phone in my pocket rings, taking me by surprise; it never rings. No one ever calls it, except.
"Hi, Katniss," the grave voice greets me.
"Hey, Johanna," I sigh. As fond as I am of her, she has the ability to be remarkably crass about situations like the one I'm in.
"How you doing?" she asks, her voice almost quivering in-
"It's just absolutely fucking obscene! I went to the broadcasting tower and they wouldn't take the story off the goddamn screens and so I tried to fight my way in and they had me forcedly removed…"
Anger. Definitely anger.
I can't help but smirk. "Thanks."
"It's the least I could do; you let me be second-guardian to your squirmy little kids."
"Can you get in touch with Effie Trinket? She's pretty high up the broadcasting ladder. Maybe she can pull a few strings."
"Already tried. Went round her house, actually. She wouldn't let me in. Told me she couldn't do anything about it. I told her that I knew things about her that could ruin her."
"Really?" I ask, confused.
"No, but she didn't seem ready to doubt it, and I got a free cup of coffee and a good show out of it. Anyway, she still didn't want to play," Johanna sighs, and then pauses. "Do you want me to come there?"
"You'll risk being on the news."
"Good; give them something else to talk about, won't it?"
"Maybe sometime soon, Jo. The kids would be glad to see you."
"Pria hates me," Johanna says abruptly. "Anyway, I need to go. See what else I can do. Give my love to Peeta."
She hangs up abruptly; I think she's scared to talk to Peeta. Scared to say the wrong thing to her friend who's dying. Always, running away.
"Johanna?" Peeta asks. I nod, and tell him what she did; what she's still trying to do.
"Haymitch, is there, urghh, is there liquor in this?"
"Sure," Haymitch says, "drink up."
"I can't drink this while I'm on medication," Peeta sighs, exasperated.
I watch the headline shift from 'SOON TO LAMENT?' to 'BREAKING NEWS; SOURCE REVEALS NEW INFORMATION ABOUT THE MOCKINGJAY FAMILY'
"Give it here," I ask thickly, and take Peeta's cool tea, strong with the smell of liquor, and drink it down in one go.
"But I want to go to school!" Pria says indignantly.
She stands defiantly, hands on her hips, school uniform neat, wearing my scowl. I turn away and tell her that it's not up for discussion; she's staying home, just like Peeta, Ray and me. My muscles are tense as I let the ice clatter into the bowl and fill it up with water, setting a cloth in there to cool. I don't have time for this discussion; Peeta has a fever upstairs. Tears prick at my eyes. Ray is getting impatient and wriggly in his chair, playing with his food.
"I want to-"
"Pria!" I whip around, furious. "I am not having this discussion with you. Go to your room. None of us is leaving the house, understand? I'd love to go out and hunt, but I'm not going to. Ray would love to go and play in the meadow, but he's not. Now; Go. To. Your. Room!"
Pria flings her lunchbox away and I watch as the sandwich Peeta made for her the night before spills out in a buttery mess. I steal away my tears, make sure Ray is settled, and go up to Peeta. Haymitch should be here any moment to keep an eye on the kids.
When I open the door, he's in a bad way; gasping for breath, face pale and clammy. I swallow the lump in my throat, and press the ice-cloth to his forehead, wanting nothing more than my mother to take care of this for me.
"Katniss," he gasps, his eyes full of delirium.
"I'm here," I say.
"You have to get out. Go and save yourself. They're coming. They're coming to kill you. Cato, Clove. All of them. They'll come back. They'll find me. My leg; I can't walk with my leg like this. I won't let them hurt you. Just run. Just run. Just run. Don't look back."
"Shhh," I soothe. "You're just dreaming. Just a dream. That was years ago, remember?"
"Will you kiss me? Please?" he whimpers.
I lean down to do so, my lips brushing his softly. His shaking hand comes up to hold the back of my head, and he deepens to kiss, pushing his lips against mine as hard as we can stand. His skin is slippery and feverish, and I almost can't stand to kiss his any longer, and so I pull away, and press a quick kiss to his forehead. "You just need to get through this fever, Peeta, and you'll be fine."
I hear Haymitch open the front door and slip inside, and the sound of Ray's squeal of excitement at seeing his favourite uncle calms me a little.
"Even if I make it through this, only one of us can come out alive, Katniss, those are the rules."
"Peeta, listen to me," I whisper. "We're not in the Games."
"They cut my leg," he whimpers, his statement stretched over the pain. He arches up off the bed. "I'm bleeding out."
"Please; I know you're not real, but can I hold you? Will you come here; just for a little while?"
I cry. Hot tears roll down my face, and I tuck my legs up on the bed so that I can curl into his over-heated body, my head cradled on his chest and my tears running down over my cheeks; my nose, my lips, onto his shirt. This might be all I'm afforded; the love he had for me in the Games as our final goodbye. All those goodbye kisses and I'm forced to leave him with one born in blood and murder and fear. He leaves me the same way we began; we can never be free of this.
He brushes my hair back from my face. "Love you," he mumbles from a far off place. "Ever since you sang in music assembly. The teacher asked; who knows the valley song and your hand went straight up. I loved you then. I was just a little kid but you were all I ever wanted; everything I wanted my life to be. Do you think we'll ever get out of here, Katniss?"
"I…" I don't know what to say; how to respond to him. "Yes. I think we will."
"But how? There can only be one Victor."
"Can I tell you a secret, Peeta?" I whisper through my years.
"Sure," he pants, weary.
"I think there will be two Victors this year. I think Panem's going to fall in love with us."
"Then what?" he urges.
"Then we'll fall in love ourselves and have babies. The most beautiful babies in Panem. And the Games will end. No more death. No more suffering. And our children will grow up free."
"What will we call them?" Peeta mutters, lips brushing the top of my head.
"Pria and Ray," I whisper through my tears.
"They sound nice," he says lightly, vaguely.
"They will be. They'll be perfect."
"You're perfect," he whispers back. "So they're bound to be. S'a pity you're a dream."
"I'm not, Peeta," I prop myself up and put my mouth close to my ear. "You love me, real or not real?"
His feverish brow furrows, and he blinks a few times. "I recognise that game," he says. "Where from?"
I press my lips against his jaw. "Try to remember, Peeta, for me?"
It's a struggle, and it takes a few hours, but I coax him back to coherence. Still, I think I part of him is still in the Games; he still believes he's lying in the mud, dreaming up this whole scenario. A life with me. To him, the real me is out there, fighting for her life, forgetting about him.
I bring the kids in to see him. Ray doesn't seem to realise anything is wrong, bouncing enthusiastically on the bed. Pria stands by the door, close to Haymitch, wary. "Come on, Pri," I urge. Pria shuffles forward an inch at a time, until she's finally standing next to her sick father. And the sight of her seems to jolt him out of it; like her presence as a baby did all those years ago. The thread stitching his sanity back together.
Ray is tired of bouncing and curls up on the pillow next to Peeta, sucking his tiny thumb, eyes closed contentedly; oblivious.
"Hey, Pri," Peeta whispers, rubbing the end of her braid between his trembling fingers.
"Daddy?" her voice trembles.
"I'm OK, love," he says. "Love you."
"Love you too," Pria says. She perches herself on the edge of the bed, and I'm so captivated by the scene before me that I don't notice Haymitch's hand on my back, supporting me.
"Come on, kids, how about we fail spectacularly at baking those cakes?" Haymitch says. Peeta holds Ray in his arms for a brief moment, and presses a kiss against his soft cheek.
I'm grateful once we're alone again, because Peeta seems a little more aware of the present. I sit down at his side.
"Will you read to me?" he indicates the almost-finished Great Gatsby on the side-table. A classic, they call it. I don't like it.
"Of course," I say, and I try to read without my voice trembling. But I don't want to finish. If I finish, it feels as though Peeta will be finished with too. Somehow the end of this book marks the end of his life. And when he's done listening to my voice, he'll drift away and never come back again. I interrupt myself. "I don't want to read any more."
"I hate this book. I…I don't want to read any more."
"OK," he agrees, "can you just speak to me, then? I just want to hear your voice."
"What do you want me to say?"
"I love you."
He holds my gaze. "I love you too, Katniss; forever. Where am I?"
"You're home," I tell him, gripping his hand.
We spend the rest of the day in bed, and when night comes, I am exhausted. I help Peeta into his wheelchair so he can use the bathroom. I put the children to bed and try to put Pria's mind at rest; her daddy will be fine in the morning. Because she already knows what's to come, and all through my childhood I'd wished for a caring pair of arms to gently ease me through the grief of losing a parent; to shelter me from reality. I make up my mind in that moment that Pria won't lose me.
In the tiny hours of the morning, I see the first leaves of fall begin to float from their snug, safe trees, and Peeta's ragged breathing stops completely.
I lift my head from the pillow, and look at the time. A few more hours until sunrise. I settle back down, shifting towards him, and close my eyes to stop the tears. I don't want to break this peace. This last moment with him. In some distant, far off place, Peeta walks out ahead of me, and I fall behind; left in the mud as he floats off and leaves me. All this time spent walking in step, and now he's gone where I can't follow.
And then I see his almost-full bottle of pills on the bedside table, and just for a brief moment, I consider running to catch up with him.
But I can't; I can almost hear Ray's soft breathing in the room next door. My children need me whole.
I close my eyes but sleep doesn't grace me; I can't sleep without the soft comfort of Peeta next to me. He's gone.
But still, I don't pray for morning.
Before I know it, there's snow on the ground.
Time has moved so slowly that I half expected it to be years later, but only three months have passed. Three months without him. Three months and forever counting. Because it won't stop. And although we buried Peeta, he'll never be lost from us.
For the first few days we all slept in the same bed, huddled up against the grief, united. Pria was quiet then; thoughtful, and would cry occasionally. Ray didn't understand; all he knew was that his daddy was gone and his answer to that was to cry – cry his little heart out and hope for his father's response. It wouldn't come. As predicted, in the tiny hours of the morning I'd wake and in the half-light, would mistake Ray's golden blonde curls for Peeta – just for a fraction of a second. My heart would leap into my throat and I'd have to face the truth a few moments later.
But as I also predicted, I survive. I miss him so much my heart aches, but I survive.
I raged too; oh, how I raged. Usually to Haymitch, and to his credit, he humoured me. Let me break things. Let me cry. Let me be all the selfish people I couldn't be around my kids.
And now I sit in the snow, bow and arrow in hand – I haven't hunted in what feels like forever – and imagine that he sits beside me in the snow, with both legs, happy and healthy. I imagine that he's still here to watch his children grow.
I wonder if he ever really made peace with the fact that he wouldn't see Ray and Pria grow up properly. I knew it upset him; I could see it whenever he held them. I could see it when he cried in my arms at night. But it was something he never voiced; never raged about. Perhaps I should have asked him; should have encouraged him to open up more.
I think of that last time we made love in District Four. I close my eyes.
The truth is that with the first snow, I came out here to bury Peeta in the soft, cold fall. Because it's been months, and I need to make the pain less immediate. I need to let him go; to tuck him away safely somewhere so that I can find him if I need him. Tomorrow can't be kinder unless I let it be.
The kids are back at school; Ray has just started his kindergarten year. He's talking more, now. He doesn't use the word daddy anymore. Pria is closed off, but I'm determined to reach her somehow. Gale gave me a call to make sure I was OK. Johanna stayed with us for a month, but work called her back. She really helped. She helped keep me alive and kicking.
I find a mockingjay in the trees. Here is my chance.
My voice cold with grief, I sing the valley song, and the tiny bird catches onto it, signing it back to me and it only takes a few moments until the trees are alive with it, carrying Peeta away from me; freeing him into the woods. My chest aches desperately, but no tears come. And as the song dies away; I catch him in my heart and push him down. Right down, until I can only feel the surface of him. Waiting, steady, ready to help me when I need it.
And then, unexpectedly, a few hours later a mockingjay takes up the tune again; just once. Quietly, and no other birds answer its call. It's just for me. Like a secret.
It's his answer; his goodbye. And his thanks.
A/N: Thanks for reading! It was an emotional one to write, so I'd love it if you'd stop by and leave a review!