Over five years ago the war ended. Over five years ago my dear Prim, the very person I love most, the one that began everything with a slip of paper with her name on it got torn apart by an explosion, burned to ashes by flames. Gone-forever.
It's not like I'll ever forget and I will most certainly in my mind never have to pain cease from her loss, but I'm living life the best I can. I live with Peeta and have for a while, since he came back there wasn't really much of an excuse for me anymore to not have him there. The nightmares still haunted us both and I had no one left so it made sense after all. We're not married though he's brought it up multiple times; I just can't do it, probably never will. It's just not me. I know it would make him happy but since he would never force me to do something I don't want to do he tries not to show the disappointment; it's not like I'd leave him anyway.
I go hunting more to do something now than for any other reason though of course it's not the same as before and never will be. And though I could take Peeta with me into the woods when he's not baking or painting I don't for several reasons. For one, there's just no getting around the fact that he's too loud and would scare all the animals off, meaning hunting would be useless and near impossible. It's almost funny because he's still surprised when I can tell when he comes home at night even if I'm upstairs on the other side of the house with the door closed, even when he tries to be quiet. He's just that loud to my hunter's senses. Another reason is that while it's a haven for me, it reminds him too much of the arena in the first Games. He told me once it wasn't so much that it was the nightmares as it was the hijacking which left everything shiny in his mind from the arena and he thinks it might trigger something in him, meaning he doesn't even want to try. It doesn't happen often anymore but sometimes things can trigger it and he controls himself by immediately walking out of the house and going for a nice long walk until he doesn't feel the urge to hurt me anymore.
But more than anything, despite my excuses and his, we both know the real reason he can never come in the woods and never will. Because it's not his place. Because all the memories I have in those woods that are mostly good and a place where I was happy are not with him but a very different boy. He doesn't belong there because those woods belong to me and someone else. And though that someone else hasn't come back since the war and probably never will, it's still ingrained in me and all of us. It's almost strange and I know it's just my imagination and memories that flood my mind when I'm in there, but sometimes I swear I can sense his presence.
Like now, on this warm summer morning when the sun has just risen and the heat of the day is building, sitting in our spot on the rock that no matter how long it's been still feels empty without someone next to me. I honestly couldn't say why I still come here when there's no one to meet anymore. Maybe I just come out of habit, my feet taking me here without my permission because they did for so long without thinking. Maybe because it really is a beautiful place, the berries conveniently providing a good breakfast before the hunting begins. Or maybe though I hate to admit it to myself, just maybe I'm thinking of him. Sometimes before I leave I irrationally scold myself and say to wait for him to come before I realize that it's stupid and just shake my head and go on. It's probably a problem but I just can't help it.
And today seems to be one of those days. I can't stop thinking about him, mostly because somehow I sense his presence. But he's not here-I even double checked, walking around the perimeter of the place and feeling stupid as I softly called his name out loud. And then I feel ridiculous and slump down on the rock trying to fill up the space, scolding myself for being stupid. Maybe I should just stop coming here, there's too many memories and I'm starting to think it's making me go crazy.
Maybe I need to go somewhere that reminds me of something else. But the only other person aside from him that I've ever spent much time with is my father. Hmm…maybe the lake and that tiny cabin? It certainly has other memories attached to it now like him (of course), of Bonnie and Twill from District 8 and when we came to shoot the propos during the war and I sang the Hanging Tree for Pollux, but most of the memories of that place are with my father and they are definitely some of my fondest. Maybe they can drown out the other ones and I can take a dip in the lake on what is going to be a hot and humid day.
It's a good two hour walk to get there but I don't mind, as the exertion takes my mind off things. And once I do the lake looks invitingly cool and I eagerly take off my boots and socks, dipping my feet into the crisp water. But before I go swimming all together I decide to check out the cabin, planning on leaving my stuff in there since I shot a rabbit on the way here and I wouldn't want some stray animal to get any ideas and try and take it while I'm occupied. The soft grass fells nice under my wet feet on the way there but the concrete of the cabin gives them a shock as I watch them and shiver without permission. Glancing up from my feet, however, shocks me into a heated panic.
This is most definitely not the scene I left the last time I was here all those years ago, the empty cabin with just the stick broom my father made me to play house in here perched against the far left wall. My feet are frozen in place as I take it all in and try to wrap my mind around everything. There's a cot laying on the wall under the only window with glass still in it, a blanket haphazardly messed up on top of it and a small pillow at the head. A few utensils and a plate and bowl are neatly piled by the fireplace with a pot next to it, water just visible in it from where I'm standing. But that doesn't really concern me other than the fact that someone has invaded this space and they don't belong here; it's the hunting jacket in the corner of the room that makes me rise in panic, my heart racing and I have to fight to keep my breathing even. Because I'd know that jacket anywhere.
And before I even know what I'm doing or why, I'm bolting from the cabin, barely remembering to pick up my boots and socks as my swim in the lake is all but forgotten, racing barefoot to the tree line and not stopping until I'm a good quarter mile away before halting at a tree, gripping it's bark as if that would keep my unraveling mind together. Why is he here? Why am I running from him? Why didn't he come see me and came here instead? Is this why I could sense him here today even though he wasn't at our spot? Is our bond really that great even now after everything and all this time that I can just tell when he's near? Did something in me know he was here and that's why I had the sudden urge to come to the lake?
The worst thing is, I don't know what scares me more; the fact that he's actually here or the fact that I could feel him here. Honestly, both are terrifying in their own ways.
But that doesn't mean I want to really think on either of them, at least not now. And I have to be rational; just because I'm fairly certain that's his jacket doesn't mean he's here. It really could just be a similar jacket of a perfect stranger, someone that just happened upon this cabin and is staying here. Though it didn't seem like a permanent residence so maybe they're just traveling along. Maybe it's not even him.
So maybe it is a stranger after all and once I know for sure I can confront them, ask them what they are doing here. It's not the most logical plan but it works well enough for me. And so with that in mind I put on my socks on my now mostly dry feet and lace my boots back up, silently treading towards the treeline again and climbing up a tree that's branches hide me well enough but I can easily see the lake and cabin from my view. And when no one appears for half an hour I decide that apparently I'm going to be waiting for a while on my spy quest and sit down, twisting some of the leaves and stems from the branches into a sort of wreath as I wait, not really caring what I'm making. It's just to pass the time.
My stomach growls after a while and from the sun I can tell it's about lunchtime, but I hadn't brought anything to eat with me. Usually I would just hunt until around now and go back home where Peeta would have made us some lunch of bread and usually a stew, putting aside whatever I bring in from the woods to cook for dinner so I rarely bother bringing anything with me anymore. But I'm hours away from the district right now and I'm dead set on staying right here until I find out who this intruder is, so here I stay stubbornly. After all, it's not like I've never skipped a meal or two before; I'm not going to die from the hunger today.
I feel like I sit there for hours, waiting for someone to come in that tree. By the time the afternoon sun is well across the sky I begin to rethink what I saw. Did I actually see it or was that just my imagination? Could I have really just seen things there because I wanted to somewhere in my mind? No, they had to be there. I know they are, because if it really is him…why would I make that up? Even if he comes strolling over to that cabin I wouldn't know what to do.
My body is beginning to go numb from sitting still too long in that tree and with a heavy sigh I know I'm going to have to leave. If Peeta's not worried yet about me not being home he's sure to be at any moment, knowing I don't stay that long in the woods very often. Not unless something's wrong. And I guess something is wrong, but at the moment I'm suspecting it's more to do with my mind than anything. Maybe I really have gone crazy.
Shaking off that feeling, I give one last examining glance towards the cabin before slipping off my branch of the last many hours, beginning my precarious climb down. But when I get about ten feet down, my hunter's senses pick on something unnatural for the woods, and my head snaps towards the cabin.
And there he is, walking from the treeline across from the one I'm by with a turkey on his belt, a gamebag healthily filled slung over one shoulder. A bow I don't recognize as the one I gave him so many years ago is in his hand and the old hunting knife I do know well tucked into his belt. I damn near fall from the shock though I don't know why because I somehow knew anyway, even without his jacket in that cabin. Freezing in my awkward position where I am my wide eyes watch him intensely, catching his every move while my mind is flying with possibilities and options, my heart beating wildly.
What should I do? Should I go talk to him or should I just pretend that I was never here, never saw him or sensed him and get down quickly and quietly, go home to Peeta and pretend that nothing happened. Well somehow I can't seem to unglue myself from this tree so really both options seem to be out as contenders at the moment. Even if I could make coherent speech at the moment I already know I wouldn't be talking to him. No, it would be accusing and yelling and probably crying for my dear little sister, for all we lost, for losing us somewhere in the process of the Hunger Games and the war. But just maybe if I could get myself out of this tree I could forget.
But I don't move, not for a while anyway. I see him go into the cabin only to come back out a minute later, now shirtless and without his gamebag or weapons. I try not to look but I can't help but notice that even from here his body's changed from the last time I saw him shirtless, more muscles and toned. Nothing like the boy from the woods who was always lean from lack of food but slightly muscled from hunting all the time. And when he begins to unbutton his pants and take off his boots I manage to look away and don't look back until the faint splash of water, finding him doing a clean stroke to the middle of the lake and back just like I taught him all those years ago. And then he gets out quickly, putting his pants back on and going back inside the cabin.
Once he doesn't come back out for a good ten minutes I decide that I really should leave now, feeling somewhat stalkerish and strange. I glide down the tree and silently tread for a good twenty minutes before I deem myself too far away for even his hunter senses to hear me and break into a run all the way back to the fence, catching my breath once there. What the heck am I doing? What is he doing here? I have to find out no matter what I say.
Which leaves the option of just forgetting what I saw today out. Not that I think I actually could anyway. So going home I try to shake it off, feel somewhat normal again and at least try to not look like I'm lost in thought and questions. It takes me the whole walk home but once I open the door I'm pretty sure I'm ready to face Peeta.
Once the door opens the intoxicating scent of freshly baked bread and rabbit stew hit me and I breath it in deeply, the smell getting me back to my senses far better than any pep talk to myself on the way here. It smells like Peeta and home and the past many years. Nothing like that boy in the woods who I really need to start not caring about why he's here.
"There you are." Peeta's voice calls from the kitchen as soon as I close the door, the only indication to him that I'm home before walking right into the room. He comes out in an apron covered in flour as I drop my gamebag on the floor, putting his arms around my waist before kissing my lips.
"Sorry, I know I'm late." I apologize, praying that he doesn't ask why though I should tell him. Mostly because I don't know how he'd take it because I don't know how to take it myself. But of course that's too much to ask.
"Why were you? You're usually home hours before now." He questions me, voicing the obvious. It's one thing that I've never quite gotten used to, someone being worried about exactly when I come home from the woods. I was the breadwinner in my family for years and though Prim would check if I was late, like really late, neither her or my mother would really say anything about what time I came back. Not unless it was well past dark anyway. Peeta on the other hand, worries if I don't come home within a half an hour range of normal time. He tries to not panic and attempts to hide it but I know he does. It's a bit annoying but I deal with it for his sake; he only has bad memories of a forest, not feeling at home in them like I do. Even if he knows I'm a hunter he still worries.
And here's my chance to tell him about…well you know. Everything I was really doing today. But I can't seem to voice the words out loud, so I guiltily settle for a lie, knowing I'll apologize later and explain everything when I can figure it out myself. "Oh I just fell asleep. I was feeling really tired today and by the time I woke up it was late."
And it's really only a half lie to be honest, because my body did pretty much go numb and fall asleep on me today. But it is a lie, and I wait almost holding my breath for him to call me out on it. But all he does is chuckle and place a peck on my lips, leading me to dinner in the kitchen and serving me a hearty bowl of stew with fresh bread on the side. I inwardly sigh, guiltily grateful he bought it. Despite living with me and loving me for years he still can't read me most of the time. Not like him. I idly wonder even after all these years could he have picked up on that lie. Probably, but I'm not going to go find out.
And despite telling myself I'm not going to talk to him and I'm not going to find out, my feet automatically start going towards where my mind already is, back towards the cabin. Deciding that I'm going to follow that line 'look but don't touch' today, I climb up the same tree I was in yesterday and once settled, quietly eat the bread I actually thought to bring today so I don't starve myself.
I don't have to wait very long before he makes an appearance. He doesn't do much today, just fishes mostly by the lake and lazily chewing on some pine as he does so, ringing in a fish every once in a while. I remember that we would always put our poles out as well as a net to catch fish while we gathered or hunted, and I can't help but wonder why he doesn't now. As far as I can tell though, he's alone so maybe he's just feeding himself and doesn't want to waste anything.
By the time he has four fish the sun is beating down and I'm glad for the cover of the tree but it's stifling, and I almost crack from my resolve just to jump in that cool crisp water. But going down there would not let me just go in the water and I know it. No, there would be talking and fighting and probably yelling first, for a long time, until I had no choice but to just leave because I didn't want to see him again.
But I do see him again, the next day. It seems to be that I can't help myself in these stalkerish ways because I continue it anyway. I don't tell Peeta though, I just made sure that I got home at a normal time yesterday even though every fiber of my being was wishing to stay. And so I told him last night more lies, that I wanted to go visit the cabin by the lake where my father used to take me. I told him that it was a four hour hike to get there though, not the real two or three it is. I only say this because it gives me an excuse to stay the night. He worries of course that it's not safe but I assure him I've done it before, that the cabin is safe enough. Doesn't he know that those woods are like my real home? I think he might, but he just doesn't quite understand.
Feeling guilty as I leave with a backpack full of food from Peeta and a sleeping bag, I make my way once again back to the tree and start setting up my place on a different branch that's wider, setting the sleeping bag down so I can sit on that instead of the rough bark. It's very reminiscent of my time in the arena where I spent my nights in trees before that cave when they made the rule change, but I try to push it away and think of how this is different to maybe keep some of those nightmares at bay later. For one this is not an arena, this is the forest I've been familiar with for most of my life. For two Snow is gone, there are no Hunger Games anymore, and there aren't any Gamemakers that are going to send a cruel joke of a wall of fire against me. And three…well, he wouldn't be here.
It's not like I didn't think more than once as a fleeting thought how I missed him nor how much easier the arena would have been with him by my side, but he wasn't there and I surprise myself even now by being glad about that fact. I tell myself it's because I wouldn't have had Peeta, but I know most of that is a lie. It may be true, but despite everything that's happened I have to grudgingly admit to myself now that it's because I didn't want him to die. It doesn't matter if we would have been the best team like we always were, the fact is that only one would be able to come out. It's not like the star-crossed lovers thing would have ever existed after all. Maybe there would have still been the rule change, but I doubt it.
So it's not an arena I have to tell myself, and seeing him come out of the cabin somehow makes me believe it more than anything. He takes his bow and goes into the woods that are on my side this time and I freeze in place, wishing more than anything he can't hear me breathe or my heartbeat racing fast. I could go check out the cabin but I'm not going to risk it this time, not when he could probably hear me going down the tree and I would run right into him if he came back too close to call for me to run back.
Instead, I wait a suitable amount of time and climb my tree precariously higher, trying in vain to see him though I don't know why I thought I could; it's only tree tops for miles after all. Going back down to my place I try to eat lunch but fail miserably, too caught up in what he's doing. Why did he go this way today? He's always gone the opposite way every other day so I just assumed that's where he had snares set up or something. Is he going to hunt our old hunting grounds, maybe on the off chance that he'll run into me? Is he going to our meeting place to wait for me to hopefully come?
I shake my head at the thoughts, telling myself no. If he really wanted to see me he would have gone to my house in Victor's Village or he would have gone to somehow find me in our hunting grounds sooner than this. So what is he doing? Just…reminiscing? Isn't that sort of what I'm doing?
Or maybe I'm just overanalyzing this.
He doesn't come back for hours and I'm about to just take a chance and go into that cool lake when I can sense something amiss behind me, a presence that shouldn't be in the forest but even after all this time is so familiar to me that I don't panic, just curse myself for not taking my chances earlier. Coming through the treeline to my left about five minutes later, he drops his gamebag on the ground and goes to the edge of the lake, splashing water on his face and through his hair. What could he have possibly been doing? We never got that sweaty before, not even on the hottest of days like today. But I'm not going down for answers which means I'll have to rely on observing and with that resolve I try to find every detail of the scene before me while he goes off into the other treeline again, coming back a few minutes later with kindling.
As he makes a fire by the lake outside, he opens his hunting bag and I see a rabbit and two squirrels come out of it. Hmm, not much exertion in that. I mean he's never been as good of a shot as I am but he's not terrible. Actually he's pretty good, he was only second to me back then and it actually seems like his skills have improved by the fact that the rabbit is shot cleanly though the eye as well as one of the squirrels. What's he do with his time? How is he better? It's not like I never thought about it before, I just pushed it aside and told myself that I didn't want to know. Now though, I'm more curious than ever.
He brings out a few dozen strawberries next and I'd guess that's part of the reason he went the old way today, because our patch is that way. I don't venture there much because it reminds me of Madge and the mayor who loved those strawberries and I still feel somewhat responsible for being dead, and because I spent so many good times picking and eating them with him that I could never stay too long. I didn't want to feel all the guilt or remember. But the net he put on there so long ago is still there, and I idly wonder if he wonders if I ever go there. Probably.
But it's not until he surprisingly brings out a honeycomb with a small triumphant smile that I have to stifle a laugh much to my surprise. Well that could have been the explanation for why he was so sweaty; what did he do, steal the honey from a bear? It's not like it would have been out of character for him to do, especially back when we hunted together, but I'm surprised he does it now. Honey isn't exactly as hard to come by anymore, as in District 10 they have bee farms now where people have suits to protect them while they take the honey. Maybe he was just feeling daring today though, and like usual, gets the prize.
It's starting to get darker as he lights the fire outside and begins cooking the rabbit with some of the honey covering it as a sort of glaze. I can't smell it of course from where I am in my tree, but just watching it cook makes my mouth water. It has to be better than the sandwich I'm eating after all, and as he eats it quickly I become almost envious over his meal though it seems ridiculous.
He surprises me by staying outside with the fire for a while after he eats, sitting down watching the fire for a while before laying down a good five feet from it, looking up at the stars. I glance up with him and see nothing out of the ordinary, but I suppose that it does look pretty with how many you can see out here with virtually no lights and the moon shining brightly. I find myself wondering what he's thinking and push it aside, knowing I shouldn't. I don't even know why I'm here anymore, why I keep coming back. I'm clearly not talking to him but somehow I'm still looking for answers to unspoken and unknown questions. Maybe that's what he's doing here because it's not like he's gone looking to talk to me either.
I wake up in the morning to the birds chirping and the silent sounds of the forest, somehow feeling refreshed despite sleeping in a tree and all my horrors about the nightmares I'd have because it was like the arena. But then I just shrug to myself, remembering now that it wasn't until much later in the arena that I had nightmares. When I was sleeping in trees I hadn't killed anyone yet after all.
I silently laugh at myself with the realization that I sleep better in a tree than anywhere else; what have I come to?
The sun has just risen when I do and I stretch as best I can, my eyes automatically going towards the cabin. The fire is out which is no surprise, as I saw him put it out before I fell asleep. But he's nowhere to be seen and I don't sense him either. It could just mean that he's on the other side of the forest hunting or checking snares though, so I wait. And wait.
It's by the time that the sun is high in the sky that I finally give up on watching and daringly climb down my tree and sneak over silently to one of the windows of the cabin, being careful in case he's incredulously in there still. But he's not; in fact, the place looks almost bare. Vacated.
Frowning to myself I silently walk around the corner to the doorframe, looking into the cabin and finding it as empty as I did through the window. His scent, his presence is everywhere, and yet it's somehow not. His jacket is gone as well as the dishes and the small cot, the only thing left being the stick broom by the hearth.
It's not until I sit where his cot used to be, however, that I truly accept the fact that he's left. That I never got the chance to talk to him because I was too much a coward to do so.
I idly wonder if I just made the whole thing up and I'm just crazy, but I know I'm not. He was here, and now he's gone. He's left it looking like he was never here, but I know. Even if I didn't know I could sense it and feel it, his lingering presence fading with time. I can just let this pass and pretend that he's never been here like he clearly left it to look like.
But it doesn't change the fact that he's gone or the feeling that it has left me with. He's gone and now I don't know what to do.