Note: This is the sequel to Dark Moon Rising. Although I appreciate your interest in the story, it is impossible to read and understand the plot and characters if you haven't read Dark Moon Rising. So make sure you read it first before starting on this one ;)
To all the others, who are familiar with the saga: I hope you continue to enjoy :)
"Oh, you men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack! She's gone forever!
I know when one is dead and when one lives.
She's dead as earth! Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives!"
King Lear (V . III)
The Sound of Trees
The faltering winter breeze drifted into the open windows, piling sparkling snow on the sill. A fine layer of white dusting coated the sawdust floors. It was cold, but it didn't seem to affect her. To spite it all she was wearing a simple white sweater that casually hung off one of her shoulders. The ridges of her boots pressed into the grove of a nearby chair. Dusty tools, logs of timber, and a scent reminiscent of her childhood filled the small room. With every gust of wind, the floors and walls creaked.
Her eyes briefly turned to the window.
The sun was trying to peer out of the clouds. It would be evening soon.
She ignored the falling sun, however, puckering her lips in concentration as she wiggled the knife against the wood. Loose pieces of bark fell into a pile of shavings underneath her chair.
In the distance she could hear children playing on the street and heavy footsteps travel into town from the forest. District 7. Her home. Even after she had returned it had felt foreign and distant. As if she never truly came home.
Before the arena, before all the terror had happened, Pandora Sullivan rarely ventured to her father's old workshop, afraid to face the memories, but now it seemed to be the only place she could find refuge. The sawdust floor was imprinted with her scattered footprints, footprints that had accumulated into a haphazard charting of her months at home. For hours she would sit in the shop, whittling boxes and figures out of the bones of District 7. The forest no longer held the same magic it once did for her. Now more than ever she desired solitude, afraid to accept whatever smiles and words her old friends would give.
It had been a year since her Hunger Games, but the memories clung to her like a disease. She was haunted. Upon her return, days turned into months in the blink of an eye. Each morning she awoke to the sound of sawmills and quiet pattering of footsteps beyond her door, and each morning she wished that it could all stop. Somewhere in the Capitol President Snow was waiting for Pandora, his special candidate…his toy in a much larger game.
Her fingers skillfully moved for a smaller knife as she kicked her legs onto the table and slouched back. There was no pressure when she was alone to let the darkness in, to let the memories run their course. Out there, in the reality of District 7, it was much harsher. Smiles cloaked with caution stared back at her, reminding her that she was dangerous. A killer. In every sense of the word a killer. Moments of clarity only harshened the truth of what would happen to her. In the depths of her soul she knew that darkness lay on the horizon.
A chunk of wood peeled off the core of wood in her hand and dropped to the ground as a soft noise buzzed in her ears. Her hands stopped working. It was a rasping different from the wind. Her eyes lifted and the hilt of her knife rolled in her palms.
She had to remind herself that she was back home, away from the horrors of the Hunger Games, but her body reacted otherwise. When she felt the hand on her shoulder, surprise overtook her.
A shout unforgivingly roared from her lungs as she leapt to her feet and raised the knife in the air.
The shadow shuffled back. Instantly she identified the face behind the voice.
Her brow furrowed as she lowered her knife and shook her head. "Why are you sneaking up on me?"
"I thought you heard me. I didn't mean to scare you."
Her eyes blinked to the ground. "What are you doing here? I didn't tell anyone where I was going."
August darted his eyes around the room, casually poking at the pile of wood shavings with his boot, "It's not like we don't know where you go. I came here to get you."
Pandora straightened her back before walking past him and taking a seat. She snatched the piece of wood and continued whittling, "I'm busy."
For months now August had tried to get his sister back. She was different, from the moment Pandora had arrived at the platform of District 7 he had seen that something inside her had changed. At first he accepted it, but now all he wanted was his younger sister again.
"We missed you this morning on our hunting trip. You should have seen it. Dash bagged a quail and a rabbit. He's getting good, but don't tell him that. I think it's all going to his head."
The blade of the knife kept peeling away the bark. Her eyes remained on her hands.
"That's nice," her tone was vacant.
In disappointment August pursed his lips and shifted his weight, "The sun will set soon."
"I can light a candle."
Suddenly her hands stopped working. When she lifted her eyes to August's face she looked agitated, even angry. "What?!"
"How long are you going to do this?"
"I should be done by tonight," she whispered.
His eyebrow arched, "You know what I mean, Pandora."
Although she had looked away, he could see the glimmer of understanding in her eyes. Her lips rubbed together in awkward silence. It was true, she knew exactly what he meant. If only she could make him understand why it was so hard to go back to the way it was. It wasn't just that she had seen death in it's truest form, or even that she killed people, it was that there was no tomorrow for her. She had signed a contract. A contract that symbolized her captivity, but she couldn't divulge that to anyone, especially not her family.
"It's been a year—I'm not saying you need to be your old self. But—can't you try?"
What he was asking was selfish but he didn't care. He tilted his head from left to right, trying to see any response on Pandora's lips. She kept her head lowered and her gaze on the whittling knife. After several heartbeats of silence he knelt on the floor and craned his head so he could look her in the eyes. As he placed his hand on her knees she felt her muscles tightened. Every time someone she loved touched her, she had the instinct to move away.
"I know you think it helps to shut us out, Pan, but it doesn't."
Her eyes moved to his. "Please don't touch me."
His brow creased in confusion as he drew back. "Pandora—"
"I'm really busy, August, I don't know what you're going on about, but I'm busy!"
Abruptly she slammed her knife on the table and narrowed her eyes. "I don't need you lecturing me on how to act!"
"I'm your older brother."
"And so what?!"
"I'm not telling you what to do. I'm just trying to get anything from you, Pandora. You lifelessly walk around, constantly hiding in this workshop! I understand that you went through hell and back, but please—tell me, let me be there for!"
Her jaw clenched as she rose to her feet and grabbed her coat. "You want me to leave this dingy old workshop? Fine then…" her arms wiggled in to the sleeves of the black coat, "Goodbye, August."
She shoved past him. Within only a few strides she reached for the rattling handle and threw open in the door.
But she didn't stop.
Angrily she shuffled through the snow, not pausing to look back, though she was sure that August was close behind. Truthfully it was all her fault. All year she had been playing a cat and mouse game, where she was the mouse. She wished that it were easier. She wished that when she looked into the faces of her family members she didn't feel gut wrenching guilt and shame, but she did.
Lux Halstead had once told her that some Tributes never come back from the game. Now she understood it all, now it seemed like the only truth in her life. Maybe she hadn't gone mad, but she still hadn't returned from the arena. All dreams had turned to nightmares. Food tasted like ash. Even the breeze from the forest somehow smelt foul.
The flames of lantern lights flickered in the approaching night, lighting her path home. From where Pandora walked, she could see various members of the Mayor's office setting up for the festival on a hillside just a few blocks away.
In despair her hand rubbed the side of her face. The Northern Lights Festival, it was tomorrow. Had it really been that long?
"One year," she whispered, swallowing the anxiety in her throat. She stopped walking when the realization set in.
Time had passed. Too much time. Only a couple days till the Victory Tour. Mere glimpses before District 7 would be a fleeting memory in the back of her mind.
A puff of her breath rose towards the sky in misery.
It wasn't until she finally turned her eyes away, that she recognized where her feet had taken her. Instantly her heart began to race. Her eyes widened. Only a few paces away was Marius's home—his family's home.
It was a small shanty with a caving roof and billowing chimney. Pandora had only seen it a few times since she had returned. Each time it was harder then the next. She took a step forward, trying to hold back the sorrow. Through the frosted window she could see his mother lighting a candle. In the short-lived light Pandora could see how sad the woman looked, only adding to the salt in her wounds. Pandora wanted to look away, to run, but she couldn't find the courage. She was frozen in place.
August was running after her.
Her eyes filled with sadness as she continued to watch Marius's mother stare into the flame. She wondered what she must be thinking. Pandora had taken her only son away from her. By all rights, his mother had every right to hunt her down and slaughter her, and Pandora would have let her. A grimace traveled from her lips to her eyes. It was unbearable to watch. She could feel the grief from where she stood in the snow.
And then, suddenly and frightfully, the woman looked up.
Pandora gasped as his mother looked straight at her. At first she looked confused, but then Pandora saw it—the bitterness, the hate...the recognition. His mother was staring daggers at her.
"Look, Pandora, I'm sorry—I didn't mean to upset you," August began to breathlessly ramble as he reached her side, quickly noticing the strange expression on her face. "What's the matter? What are you looking at—"
His eyes widened as he followed Pandora's horrified stare, to the window. The mother was still standing there, refusing to look away.
"We should go."
Pandora blinked her eyes, feeling the coldness of the mother's gaze. "I should say something—"
"I should, I killed him. I should—I should say something. She deserves that."
She tried to walk but August quickly grabbed her arm and shook his head, "It's been a year. You think it's going to help? He's gone, Pandora."
"Let go of me!"
August pulled her away, "He's gone. Please, let's just go home."
She panted for air, wishing that she could make it all right. The snow gently fell around them.
"Look at me."
Her lips trembled as she moved away from him and stumbled backward. It took all her strength to look away from the window at August. When she did, she instantly saw the desperation in his eyes.
"It's time to go home, Pandora."
Her head nodded in agreement, but just as he started pulling her down the road her eyes sadly looked back. Her heart felt like it would break. No longer was the mother in the window. She had left, leaving only the flame of the candle burning through the glass.
They trudged through the snow, surrounded by garlands and lights that looked absurd against the run down houses and mills.
The image of Marius's mother was singed into Pandora's brain. Just another face to add to the nightmares. Even after they had arrived at the gates to the Victor's Village she could see every single line of hate in the woman's face, ever curve of rage.
"August—" she finally whispered, grabbing the sleeve of his coat as they sprinted up the steps of the porch. He turned around, scanning her face in concentration. "—I didn't mean to yell at you. I'm sorry, I know you're only trying to help."
"I'm not trying to help you, I'm trying to make you remember."
Her arm fell to her side and her brow furrowed. "Remember what?"
"You're alive. It's a miracle, not a curse."
She wanted to object. To tell him that he didn't know what he was talking about. She was cursed, and nothing could change that. But all these thoughts remained bottled up inside. Instead her lips parted in frustration. To him it was a miracle to have his sister back safely, but Pandora knew better.
"I'm trying, August. I'm really trying."
Without warning he wrapped his arms around her, hugging her close. "You don't have to be perfect. You're my sister—I'll love you all the same."
A wave of emotions swirled in her stomach and head. The hug made her feel nauseous. Something inside her cried out. She didn't deserve it, the affection or the understanding. She didn't deserve any of it. But in spite of it all, she reciprocated the hug.
"I know—" she whispered. "I know."
"August is that you! Come inside before you catch a cold!" Their mother's voice suddenly rang out from somewhere inside.
Immediately, August released Pandora. A smile reached his eyes and laugh blew past his lips. "Enough of this. It's freezing out here."
Pandora corner-eyed the nearest window, surprised that her mother had heard them.
"Yea," She managed a smile, "It really is."
He shot her one last grin before turning to the door and pushing it open.
She could feel the blood rushing back into her fingers as she peeled off her coat and boots. From the adjoining room, music melodically sang. A sweet scent wafted through the house, the smell of pie. Now that Pandora was a Victor it was easier to acquire food rarities, something that was hard to get used to.
The squeal was so familiar and heart warming that she couldn't help the laugh that erupted from her. Dash flew out of the living room and slammed his body into her. Over the past year he had grown quite a bit and it took her a minute to brace herself for the bear hug.
She shifted her eyes to the hall and smiled, her mother was wearing a green apron and carrying her baby sister. Chestnut curls crowned her sisters head and a warm smile light up her face as she saw Pandora.
"Of course," she laughed, "Of course I am."
Dash stumbled back. He was at the awkward stage of adolescence where your limbs suddenly grow but everything else stays the same. "We didn't think you'd make it."
Pandora crossed her arms and smile, uncomfortably pressing her back against the wall. "I heard you caught a quail and a rabbit today."
He straightened his back and raised his eyebrows, "Why yes I did."
August chuckled, playfully punching his brother in the arm, "Don't get too arrogant, little brother."
"Mom's making the quail for dinner," Dash continued with a youthful smile, "She said it's the biggest one she's seen. August wasn't so lucky—I think he picked a few berries."
"Oh yea?" August quipped through a laugh as he put Dash in a headlock. Quickly they started wrestling.
"Boys…be careful now."
Pandora yelped as they moved the playful fighting to the living room, almost taking her out with them.
Her smile tensed as her mother walked closer.
Her hands still had flour on them as she affectionately brushed her Pandora's hair away from her face.
"You look tired."
Pandora tried to smile. "I didn't realize how long I had been in the workshop till August came to get me," she lied.
"Well—I'm glad your home."
She quietly glanced between her sister and mother, "Me too."
"Merry Christmas, Pandora."
For a moment, Pandora scanned the large house. Her mother had made it so warm and comforting. It was hard to believe that the Sullivan's had ever lived in another house, but they had. The fire roaring in the other room caused her wrestling brothers to look like shadows. Everything was just as it used to be on the surface. But underneath all of it, nothing was the same. Nothing would ever be the same.
As she looked back at her mother, sadness filled her eyes. Sadness that no one could see or feel but Pandora.
"Merry Christmas," she softly whispered.