Chapter 1- Starting All Over Again

In the study, where I had my tea with President Snow, I find a box with my father's hunting jacket, our plant book, my parents' wedding photo, the spile Haymitch sent in, and the locket Peeta gave me in the clock arena. The two bows and a sheath of arrows Gale rescued on the night of the firebombing lie on the desk. I put on the hunting jacket and leave the rest on the desk. I put on the hunting jacket and leave the rest of the stuff untouched. I fall asleep on the sofa in the formal living room. A terrible nightmare follows, where I'm lying at the bottom of a deep grave, and every dead person I know by name comes by and a throws a shovel full of ashes on me. It's quite a long dream, considering the list of people, and the deeper I'm buried, the harder it is to breathe. I try to call out, begging them to stop, but the ashes full my mouth and nose and I can't make any sound. Still the shovel scrapes on and on and on. . . .

I wake with a start. Pale morning light comes around the edges of the shutters. The scraping of the shovel continues. Still half in the nightmare, I run down the hall, out the front door, and around the side of the house, because now I'm pretty sure I can scream at the dead. When I see him, I pull up short. His face is flushed from digging up the ground under the windows. In a wheelbarrow are five scraggly bushes.

"You're back," I say.

"Dr. Aurelius wouldn't let me leave the Capitol until yesterday," Peeta says. "By the way, he said to tell you he can't keep pretending he's treating you forever. You have to pick up the phone."

He looks well. Thin and covered with burn scars like me, but his eyes have lost that clouded, tortured look. He's frowning slightly, though, as he takes me in. I make a half-hearted effort to push my hair out of my eyes and realize it's matted into clumps. I feel defensive. "What are you doing?"

"I went to the woods this morning and dug these up. For her," he says. "I thought we could plant them along the side of the house."

I look at the bushes, the clods of dirt hanging from their roots, and catch my breath as the word rose registers. I'm about to yell vicious things at Peeta when the full name comes to me. Not plain rose but evening primrose. The flower my sister was named for. I give Peeta a nod of assent. And hurry back into the house, locking the door behind me. But the evil thing is inside, not out. Trembling with weakness and anxiety, I run up the stairs. My foot catches on the last step and I crash onto the floor. I force myself to rise and enter my room. The smell's very faint but still laces the air. It's there. The white rose among the dried flowers in the vase. Shriveled and fragile but holding on to that unnatural perfection cultivated in Snow's greenhouse. I grab the vase, stumble down to the kitchen, and throw its contents into the embers. As the flowers flare up, a burst of blue flame envelops the rose and devours it. Fire beats roses again. I smash the vase on the floor for good measure.

Back upstairs, I throw open the bedroom windows to clear out the rest of Snow's stench. But it still lingers on my clothes and in my pores. I strip, and flakes of skin the size of playing cards cling to the garments. Avoiding the mirror, I step into the shower and scrub the roses from my hair, my body, my mouth. Bright pink and tingling, I find some thing clean to wear. It takes half an hour to comb out my hair. Greasy Sae unlocks the front door. While she makes breakfast, I feed the clothes I had shed to the fire. At her suggestion, I pare off my nails with a knife.

Over the eggs, I ask her, "Where did Gale go?"

"District two. Got some fancy job there. I see him now and again on the television," she says.

I dig around inside myself, trying to register anger, hatred, longing. I find only relief.

"I'm going hunting today," I say.

"Well, I wouldn't mind some fresh game at that," she answers.

I arm myself with a bow and arrows and head out, intending to exit 12 through the Meadow. Near the square are teams of masked and gloved people with horse-drawn carts. Sifting through what lay under the snow this winter. Gathering remains. A cart's parked in front of the mayor's house. I recognize

Thom, Gale's old crewmate, pausing a moment to wipe the sweat from his face with a rag. I remember seeing him in 13, but he must have come back. His greeting gives me the courage to ask, "Did they find anyone in there?"

"Whole family. And the two people who worked for them," Thom tells me.

Madge. Quiet and kind and brave. The girl who gave me the pin that gave me a name. I swallow hard. Wonder if she'll be joining the cast of my nightmares tonight. Shoveling the ashes into my mouth.

"I thought maybe, since he was the mayor…"

"I don't think being the mayor of Twelve put the odds in his favor," says Thom. I nod and keep moving, careful not to look in the back of the cart. All through the town and the Seam, it's the same. The reaping of the dead. As I near the ruins of my old house, the road becomes thick with carts. The Meadow's gone, or at least dramatically altered. A deep pit has been dug, and they're lining it with bones, a mass grave for my people. I skirt around the hole and enter the woods at my usual place. It doesn't matter, though. The fence isn't charged anymore and has been propped up with long branches to keep out the predators. But old habits die hard. I think about going to the lake, but I'm so weak that I barely make it to my meeting place with Gale. I sit on the rock where Cressida filmed us, but it's too wide without his body beside me. Several times I close my eyes and count to ten, thinking that when I open them, he will have materialized without a sound as he so often did. I have to remind myself that Gale's in Two with a fancy job, probably kissing another pair of lips.

I return home later that night and slump on the couch. The pile of mail is still building up on my kitchen table. The next couple of days are uneventful. But a few days after my first hunting trip, there's a knock on the door, and in steps Peeta, for the past couple days he had come with Greasy Sae, but never alone. In his hands are the cheese buns I enjoy so much.

"These are your favourites, real or not real?" He asks me.

"Real," I respond.

I spend the rest of the day with Peeta, talking about cheese buns, paintings, district 12. But we don't mention the Games, the war, anything that could trigger unwelcome memories for either of us. That night, we sit on the couch and watch Plutarch's new singing show. It doesn't seem as interesting as I thought it would be. Halfway through, Peeta gets bored and walks over to my kitchen table and starts sorting through my mail, putting them in stacks organized by who sent them.

"You should really read these, they might be important," He hands me a stack of letters addressed in large, angry handwriting. The name on the return address gives me a headache just thinking about him. I thought he was out of my life, that I had concluded that he's kissing someone else now.

"I don't want to read anything from Gale, Peeta," Even though the pressure of having to marry Peeta is off my shoulders now, and Gale is off in District Two, I still don't feel like their names even belong in the same sentence.

"Fine then," he says, and puts all of the letters on the coffee table. We sit there watching the show until it finally finishes around midnight. When it's done, Peeta pats my shoulder and tells me I should get some rest, then goes back to his own home for the night.

The first thing I do when he leaves is pick up the stack of letters from Gale. I start to toss them into the fire, but then decide that he's been my best friend before, and open the first letter. It is dated as the day I left for Twelve.

Katniss-

I wanted to tell you that I was going off to Two to help rebuild, but they wouldn't let me in to see you. I know you hate me now, after what happened with Prim. But I wanted to let you know that I swear that I had nothing to do with it, even if it was my bomb I didn't know they were using it. I'm not that cruel, Katniss. But I can understand if you never want to speak to me again. Either way, I still love you.

-Gale

Yuck, I think. I don't want to think about loving anyone right now. The only thing Gale's letter has accomplished is to make me utterly depressed about Prim. I sit there on the couch crying for a few minutes. Then decide that I don't want to handle this alone, and grab Buttercup. But that isn't enough, so Buttercup and I head over to Peeta's house. He opens the door and I immediately begin crying again. He doesn't even know why I'm crying, but he wraps me in his arm and starts whispering in my ear.

"It's OK. It's OK, Katniss," I lay my head on his shoulder. I hear someone coming up from behind and instinctively turn and take on a defensive position. But it's only Haymitch.

"So, you two in love again?" he says. I scowl and storm into Peeta's house. Peeta stays outside and talks to Haymitch a while. But later comes to join me on his couch.

"Katniss, I could help you a lot more if I knew what happened," Peeta says.

All I say is "I read Gale's letter," Peeta then wraps his arm around me again. After so many weeks of being without him, this feels almost alien, whereas months ago, this would've only felt natural. After a while, I give into my fatigue, and fall asleep wrapped in his arms.