Author's Note: I actually started this fic LONG BEFORE When the Moon Fell in Love with the Sun. I had the first chapter and half of the second written, plus copious notes and dialogue for subsequent chapters, when the "East of the Sun" plot bunny hit and obliterated everything else on my radar.
Yielding to the (considerable) persuasive powers of DandelionSunset and Trisbriel, I recently dusted off that first chapter and have decided to post it here. It'll be ages before I can return to this fic, so, for now, let's call it a post-MJ oneshot, shall we? ;D
Also: The Sound of Music connection started out tongue-in-cheek in early plot treatments and has settled into a series of affectionate and (one hopes!) clever parallels that will become more evident in future chapters. There will be no song-and-dance numbers, but there may, at some point, be children. And a goat. :D
In the meantime, this chapter is serious and bittersweet with only the subtlest of TSoM connections. (I haven't been back to canon post-MJ Panem - or Peeta's POV! - since writing this, and I kind of miss it!) DO let me know what you think!
Chapter One: My day in the hills has come to an end
For the third time in my life – at least, the third that I remember – I linger on the roof of the Tribute Training Center. Today is not a punishment, though I am contained and carefully observed. Today is a treat. Dr. Aurelius arranged this "therapeutic outing" after I demonstrated "consistent, positive response" to memories of this place, and I was provided with paints, charcoal, and a ream of parchment sheets for the occasion. I'm easy enough to watch these days, but the two attending nurses are still equipped with enough hypodermic sedatives to bring down a pack of wild dogs.
I sit in the cool of this spring evening, watching the fiery pale gold sun deepen to orange as it dips slowly toward the horizon, gaining a cloud-cloak of rose and lavender with threads of midnight blue, and I know that Katniss spoke the truth. I love orange – sunset orange – every facet of it. I confirm my conviction on a scrap page, blending shades of red and yellow, even a hint of violet, as I recreate not the sunset before my eyes, but the sunset behind them. The most memorable sunset of my eighteen years. When black paint appears on the paper – unbound black hair, swirling amid the vibrance like a shadowy tangle of willow vines – I know something else for certain. On that perfect day and night a year ago – the evening of the sunset that my damaged mind still recalls in every subtle hue – Katniss Everdeen was with me. Katniss Everdeen made it perfect. I love Katniss Everdeen.
Snow and Coin fell on the eighteenth of December. Katniss and I have been apart 134 days.
One hundred and thirty-four days. In those 134 days I have seen just 72 sunsets. On some of the missing evenings I was sedated, on others imprisoned by an episode – or bed restraints, fearing injury to myself. Some evenings were simply overcast, snowy or stormy. Some evenings I was already asleep for not having slept more than an hour or two the night before. And on one evening I missed the sunset to see Katniss Everdeen. Just for a moment, on a screen – a hundred miles away from me – a brief, agonizing moment that cost another dearly.
My gaze falls to my left hand, with its unattractive assortment of burn scars tracing tendon and bone, and my eyes linger on the two uniquely crescent-shaped scars: the marks left by Katniss's teeth when I stopped her biting the nightlock pill and ending her life. I've won many scars and dozens more superficial wounds protecting Katniss, but this is the only one that matters.
I was wild when they brought me in. Screaming for Katniss, screaming to go to her, die with her, die for her. No one would tell me where she was, what was happening to her, even if she was still alive. They rushed treatment of the wound – the potential infection from a human bite in burn-damaged tissue was dire – but I objected, vehemently, to everything but antibiotic ointment and gauze wrap. No stitches, I told them. No cosmetic measures. When I refused to comply, they sedated me and stitched me up anyway. When I awoke from the sedation, I tore the stitches out – not easily, with a badly burned right hand and no accessible sharp object. Aghast, the nurse who discovered it called for stronger sedatives and tougher sutures. I tore them out as well and watched the blood slowly pool to the surface of my skin as I screamed again and again for Katniss.
Between the screaming and the stitches, I was sedated almost hourly those first days back at the clinic before the exhausted, exasperated staff finally summoned Dr. Aurelius. Too doddering for complicity, I hoped, he assured me that Katniss was alive – far from well, but alive. Confined in a secure place. It was likely my medical team had been honest when they claimed not to know where she was. An unorthodox prison, he admitted, with a twisted, mirthless smile, but not an uncomfortable one. I knew entirely too much about prisons already, about what happened behind closed doors in the Capitol. His assurances did nothing to ease my fears.
Frankly, Peeta, there's no one to administer justice, even if they could agree on what it was – and no one wants the Mockingjay's blood on their hands. Coin's people would like her executed, of course, but they have little enough power to enforce their demand – and deep down, they don't want to be held responsible for it. Capitol citizens can't decide whether to fear her or idolize her. To everyone else, she's a folk hero. The sort of person who should've died valiantly in the last battle of the war.
I cried out at this, as at a physical blow. Who's in charge?
President Paylor. She knows Katniss, fought with her in Eight. It might not win her a pardon, but it should open up other options.
Options? I scoffed. Imprisonment would be no better than execution – worse, because she'd waste away, take her own life.
Under the circumstances, I believe that can be prevented.
Before he left me – still furious and terrified for Katniss but no longer raving and violent – he paused, frowning at the bloody gauze pad on the back of my left hand.
Peeta, the nurses tell me you've pulled your stitches out – twice. Do they bother you in some way?
I ignored him.
This tissue is fragile, Peeta. I doubt there's any further risk of infection, not with your current course of antibiotics, but you're impeding the healing process. The resulting scars will be more prominent.
I leveled my gaze with his. Good.
He nodded, resigned, and called to a nurse as he walked out. Bandage this as best you can. Apparently this is a scar he wants.
I wanted those scars forever.
Pausing in my painting, I rest my mouth over the outline of hers on my skin and smile. Katniss always kissed with her teeth. Both of us had, at first – we didn't know any better – but she got worse the more passionate she tried to be. She wanted so badly to project the girl in love. I remember holding her back once after she bit my lip. I think we might've laughed.
I suddenly recall another such kiss – at the start of the Victory Tour. We'd barely spoken in months, let alone kissed, and Katniss had come running out of her house in her bright scarf, earmuffs, and white fur coat and leapt at me.
One time, I spent three days mixing paint until I found the right shade for sunlight on white fur…
I caught her in my arms – inwardly euphoric that, for whatever reason, at this moment, she wanted this – and spun us around once before my prosthetic leg slid out from under me, sending us both sprawling into a shimmering drift of freshly fallen snow. Snowflakes and fur and lipstick and the warm weight of Katniss on top of me, assaulting my mouth with hard, eager kisses…it had been like kissing a beautiful, enthusiastic wolverine. I didn't laugh then. I would've let her tear my lips off – tear my throat out, even, if she'd wanted to.
I look up from the scars with a sudden hiss of breath at the thought of Katniss's lips on my neck, something I'm very nearly certain I've never experienced before.
It was harder to contour our lips to each other than our bodies. Our bodies simply melted together, cradling each other's bones while filling each other's hollows. Kissing was trickier – awkward and even a little painful sometimes, but glorious when it worked. When lips softened, when give and take were perfectly matched. I remember a dank night in the cave of the first arena, Katniss lying beside me as I propped myself on an elbow, bending down to reshape her mouth under mine…
I set aside my paintbrush and drift into the ornamental garden, enticed by wind chimes and delicate floral aromas and the most exquisite memory I've managed to retrieve yet.
The afternoon of the perfect sunset, Katniss lay with her head in my lap as I threaded my fingers through her hair. A sweet stolen pleasure, one that didn't fit the strange, complicated relationship we'd developed during the Victory Tour. In front of the cameras, we kissed and held hands – which, much as I longed for, I could never quite enjoy. It was a caricature of a relationship, a role we played – however genuine my part.
Away from the cameras, we shared a bed. Not as lovers, not even as friends, but as two weary and damaged young people fighting the same night terrors. I needed no excuse to hold Katniss, but I did need an invitation. Every night that she opened her door to me, I entered without hesitation and joined her in her bed, my arms shielding her from the nightmares and soothing her back to sleep when they inevitably managed to find her.
The afternoon on the roof was neither a public appearance requiring a romantic display nor a nightmare in need of comfort; it was, uniquely, an occasion we mutually chose to spend in each other's company. We began and ended the day in bed together, wrapped in each other's arms, fighting nightmares of past horrors and fears for each another in the imminent Quell, but that afternoon…That afternoon was a dream.
I was settled on our picnic blanket, finishing a detailed sketch of Katniss's face – relishing the strong lines of her neck, the curve of her jaw – when she came over to me, one hand full of improbably candy-colored daisies from the flower beds, and lay beside me, resting her head in my lap as her fingers turned idly to braiding the flowers into a crown. Startled but pleased, I abandoned the sketch, loosed the tie on her braid, and began slowly unplaiting her hair with my fingers. At her half-hearted sound of protest, I teased that I needed to practice my knots too; she chuckled and turned her head a little to give me ease of access, and, emboldened by the gesture, I gently finger-combed through the tangles till her Capitol-sleek hair draped my thighs like a blanket of black silk.
Her hands were braiding the stems by feel, her eyes closed from the warmth of the sun, the drowsiness of the hour, or maybe the brush of my fingers against her scalp. And I realized that – for all the kisses, the nights in her bed, the days back in Twelve working on her family's plant book – we'd never shared a moment quite so content, so restful, so…perfect.
My hands stilled in her hair, the absence of motion jarring her out of her reverie. Short, sooty lashes flickered open as she peered up at me. What?
It was far too late to hold anything back, not when I was likely to be dead in less than a week. I wish I could freeze this moment, right here, right now, and live in it forever.
She gave a small contented sigh, closing her eyes again. Okay.
My heart was suddenly weightless in my chest, and my lips curled of their own volition into a broad smile. Then you'll allow it?
A tiny answering smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. I'll allow it.
I buried my fingers in her hair, abandoning any pretense of knot practice as I combed the length of it over her shoulder, my fingertips skimming her earlobe, her cheek, her neck in their course. She was asleep in my lap within moments, but I continued in my caresses – for me? for her? I hardly knew – another ten minutes or more.
For an hour, I simply watched her sleep. After a little, like a restless child, she turned to lie on her side, facing away from me, her cheek pillowed on my thigh and both hands curling comfortably around my calf – the real one, made of flesh and nerve and blood and bone, not metal and plastic. It felt unimaginably good. Her hands slipped higher, cupping my knee and the tender hollow behind it, and I bit back a low moan.
Part of me considered shifting her off my lap and moving down to lie beside her on the blanket. To wrap her in my arms in the drowsy warmth of the sinking sun, to press my forehead to hers and feel her breath on my face. But I knew better. Whatever our audience had seen in the arena, on Capitol stages or the Victory Tour, this moment was too real. Too near what happened at night in her bedroom. Whether or not we were being recorded at this moment – and I had my suspicions – what I longed for was not mine to take and certainly not theirs to witness.
And yet, as I gazed down at the girl the Capitol had ordained as my fiancée – this stunning creature slumbering contentedly in my lap, her fierce features softened in sleep and half-veiled by her sleek fall of hair – I couldn't resist the slightest glow of pleasure. Until I drew my dying breath in the arena – sooner rather than later, I was certain – Katniss Everdeen, the girl I'd loved with all my being for the past twelve years, belonged to me. We would never be married – never have a toasting, well-wishes and a white dress, borrowed or Capitol-commissioned – but in this pose, in this moment, it was easy to pretend that we already were.
Not for the first time – although certainly the first I'd spoken it in her presence – I tried the words on my tongue: Katniss Mellark. The words resonated from my heart – I'd hidden them there for so long – and I dared to echo them back with my lips.
It was the merest whisper, a whim spoken for my ears alone, and when a reply came, I was nothing short of mortified.
It has a certain ring to it, you know.
I felt as much as heard the words in the vibration of her cheek, the movement of her jaw against my thigh. I caught and held my breath as she turned to her back again to look up at me, her lips curved in a slow, sleepy smile. I just… She hesitated, her smile fading.
Just what? I prompted softly.
She shook her head, groaning a little as she sat up. Nothing.
I gratefully let the subject lapse and brought my hands to her back and shoulders, gently massaging away the stiffness. She melted into the touch with a grateful moan and I allowed myself a kiss to the nape of her neck. I meant to wake you in a minute anyway – for the sunset. I didn't think you'd want to miss it.
She smiled at me over her shoulder. Thanks.
I allowed myself another kiss, this one to her temple. Come here.
I curled my legs around her and she scooted back a little to lean against my chest. We'd never sat in that position before, but our bodies were, as always, singularly intuitive at fitting together. Would it be that effortless if we ever made love?
I blushed crimson at the thought and tucked my chin into the curve of her neck, my left arm encircling her waist and right hand drifting wistfully to span the very slight curve of her belly.
I'd wanted children with Katniss Everdeen since before I could tie my shoes or count to one hundred. Even then, baker's sons and miner's daughters didn't play house. Caught up in my daydream of marriage, with every inch of my body wrapped protectively, lovingly, around hers, I could imagine – almost feel – her belly rounding with our child, its tiny kicks against my palm. Tears prickled at the corners of my eyes and my breath caught in something like a sob.
It might've been a warning or a protest. I stammered an apology, but she caught my hand against her before I could pull away.
Peeta. Her voice was quiet but unyielding as iron, her hand cool and strong on mine on her belly. You're going to get through this – through these Games. You're going to have kids, and a wife who deserves you – who loves you like you deserve.
This was what she had meant to say earlier. She'd come near to saying it once or twice before: I just wish I came closer to deserving you. Well, I didn't deserve her; that much was certain. The Girl on Fire, with her bow and plant lore, her smoky eyes and proud chin and ferocious love for her own, was worth ten of me. And I didn't want anyone but her – never had and never would. In any case, I wasn't going to live long enough to father any children at all, let alone with mythical "deserving" women I didn't love. I shook my head against her shoulder. Katniss –
She turned in my arms and further protests died on my lips at the abject grief in her eyes. I didn't know what it meant or which of us it was for, but I knew it was an echo of my own.
Hold me? she whispered.
I didn't bother to mention that I was already holding her more completely than I ever had before. Curling one arm snugly across her back, I slipped the other under her knees, shifting her so that her legs draped my right thigh, then folded my legs beneath her – an awkward movement with my prosthesis – effectively cradling her with my body.
Always, I murmured into her hair, rocking her like a child.
I turn away from the garden, fists pressed to my streaming eyes. I'm doing better, really. The memory of the day on the roof first returned to me not long after Katniss's arrest; I was in bed restraints when it hit me with the force of a Capitol flashback. I cried so hard that I threw up and then lay, weeping and dry heaving, till my abdominal muscles were torn with pain and my limbs scored with red marks from pushing against the restraining straps. The hospital staff, having determined the relatively positive nature of the memory, were reluctant to sedate me until one of my restraints finally broke. I woke up the following afternoon, my face raw with tear stains, and cried myself sick again.
After Dr. Aurelius's visit – after he overrode the physician's order for stitches – I was transferred by hovercraft to the Abbey, Panem's finest extended care facility for severe mental patients. Located in the mountain range surrounding the Capitol, the strange stone building with its vaulted ceilings, arched diamond-pane windows, and hallways that smelled more of beeswax candles than antiseptic, predated the Dark Days by centuries. Dr. Aurelius told me that a thorough study of the architecture and grounds suggested that the Abbey had once served as a retreat of sorts for devout men. I wasn't sure what that meant, but the atmosphere was soothing, almost reverent. I could heal here, I thought.
And physically, of course, I needed all the healing I could get. The right side of my body had suffered extensive burn damage in the bombing, from the thin line snaking up my cheek and the rippled burn across my forehead (the flame had singed away my eyebrows; I sobbed with joy when they finally began to grow back in) to the mangled skin of my right shoulder, arm, hand, and hip. Half my chest, half my back were piecemeal – raised burns and flat, smooth grafts, both angry shades of pink and violently incongruous with my pale skin. I had laughed bitterly till I wept at the irony that the side of my body that had lost half its leg to the Games should now be uniformly lab-crafted and malformed, distorted by war.
My right knee, the underside of my right arm, my hair, most of my face were my own. The left side of my body, apart from minor burns on my hand and forearm from foolishly beating at the flames elsewhere on my body, bore primarily the marks of interrogation. Manipulation. Rage at my refusal to be biddable. Lacerations were minimal, but needlesticks were numerous – countless, really. (I tried to count them once, in my hospital room in Thirteen.) A smattering of electrical burns, the receiving of which came back to me in particularly brutal nightmares. Persistent pale rings around both wrists – the marks from my handcuffs, turned to scars by my own actions. When I feel myself slipping, I dig my wrists into them, and the pain helps me focus. I had needed that pain on the trek through the Capitol, as the resulting scars attested. Even the fire had not erased them.
I asked to see Katniss every morning. The nursing staff politely but firmly explained that this was impossible and would be detrimental to both my recovery and hers. I asked twice as often after that.
Although I had been admitted as a mental patient, my physical recovery was carefully observed and attended to by a succession of stern, brisk nurses, one of whom remained just outside my room at all times, primarily to prevent – or, if necessary, treat – any injury resulting from a nightmare or violent episode. After four weeks without any such incident, my medical team was reduced to an overnight nurse, someone to observe and attend me during nightmares, administer minor medications, and so forth. Initially this was Nurse Varden, a gruff but efficient member of senior staff, but after two weeks on duty with me, she relegated my care to a junior nurse, freshly certified and newly arrived at the Abbey. I couldn't help wondering if, scarcely two months earlier, I would've been tended by an Avox.
Nurse Hammond was a precise, professional young woman, barely older than myself, with somber dark eyes and russet brown curls, pinned neatly to frame her starched cap. As ordinary as any district citizen, save for a delicate silver flower tattooed in the curve of her right earlobe, she reminded me ever so slightly of the red-haired tribute from my first Games – Foxface, we'd called her. The girl I'd killed with nightlock berries.
She was assigned to my room from 6:00 in the evening till 6:00 in the morning, during which time she was to observe and log full details of my mental and physical state, including the healing progress of my burns and any complications with my prosthesis. She was permitted to administer topical medications upon request (pills and injections required a supervisor) and bring me water and a light snack as needed. She was not (she clarified this with no little apology) to wake me from nightmares unless I was in danger of harming myself or disturbing other patients. Our conversations were to be recorded, especially those relating to the nightmares, memories, or my treatment; she was issued a small handheld voice recorder for this purpose. I was astonished at the suggestion that the room wasn't bugged and considered to myself whether it might not actually be, and the young nurse's device was intended as a mere secondary measure.
After a week on duty with me, she told me her name was Mira. She had come directly from the Capitol's prestigious nursing academy to the Abbey, wanting to help those worst damaged by the war. A thankless position, but she was well-equipped for it with reserves of patience and a gentle spirit.
I learned she'd been in training for the past two years – more particularly, during both of my Games. She and the other girls in her dormitory had flocked to watch my romance with Katniss, had laughed and sighed and wept for us. I still can't believe what they did to you, she confessed, the night she finally told me her name. Her recorder switched off, she glanced over her shoulder uneasily. All for loving that girl.
I never meant to manipulate her and still wonder if I did. I want to see her so badly, Mira, I pleaded. They won't even tell me where she is.
Like every other member of the Abbey's medical staff, Mira was well aware of the wounded, mentally unstable Mockingjay. Unlike them, she was willing to surrender a thread of her knowledge. She glanced left and right, then kept her eyes on the doorway as she leaned near me to whisper, She's bad, Peeta. So thin and ill and her burns – they gave her some medications to start with, but…they're not treating her at all now.
Please, I begged, my heart tearing slowly from top to bottom at this news. If I could just see her…?
A twenty-year-old junior nurse who had learned her craft while watching our "love story" unfold – it was inevitable, really, that she'd help me. Two nights later, just after the shift change, a nervous but determined Mira beckoned me out of my room. My prosthesis – overnight, an ill fit for my still-growing legs – was due for replacement, and I limped and hobbled most of the way, leaning heavily on Mira's arm. The stone hallways, as always, were freezing; I glimpsed the setting sun glinting on snow through the strange, diamond-paned windows and felt encouraged.
She took me to the office of Dr. Berthe, the Abbey's supervising physician. He had, she explained quickly, stepped out to attend Titus, a shell-shocked former Peacekeeper, a double-amputee I'd glimpsed now and again being grimly wheeled around in the courtyard. His wounds were extensive; he'd yet to be fitted for prosthetics of any kind, and a call from him was likely to occupy the doctor for no less than fifteen minutes.
Mira crouched behind Dr. Berthe's desk, frowning in concentration as she keyed in password after password on the touch-screen monitor. I peered over her shoulder, wondering how she'd obtained this information and what it had cost her. I realized that I had no idea why she had brought me here nor what it could possibly have to do with Katniss, and yet inexplicably, I began to tremble. Katniss, my heart whispered. Kat-niss, Kat-niss, Kat-niss, it beat.
Mira paused a moment, looking up from the monitor to me. I'm sorry, she whispered. This is the best I could do.
She rapidly tapped a sequence of squares on the screen, selected one of the resulting sea of images, and suddenly I was staring at the girl I loved – even in my half-witted state – more than my own life. Mira tapped the image once more to zoom in and the breath froze in my lungs. Katniss was sitting on a bare, dirty mattress in her bedroom at the Tribute Training Center, almost skeletally thin, her lank, fire-thinned hair hanging in a matted braid. Her eyes were hollow and unfocused…and she was singing. A haunting, lilting air I'd never heard before, sung in the sweet, clear voice I'd fallen in love with as a five-year-old child:
I'll twine 'mid the ringlets of my raven black hair,
The lilies so pale and the roses so fair,
The myrtle so bright with an emerald hue,
And the pale oleander and violets of blue.I'll sing and I'll dance, my laugh shall be gay;
I'll cease this wild weeping - drive sorrow away,
Though my heart is now breaking, he never shall know
That his name made me tremble and my pale cheeks glow.
I pressed my cheek against the screen and wept. Wept for grief, wept for love, wept for loss. Wept for the tragedy of this fierce, broken songbird, who had more fortitude and courage than anyone else in this country. Who had truly ended the war – the tyranny that would've begun all over again, albeit with a new face and new rules. Whose lips had anchored me, that bloody night in the Capitol. Stay with me, I begged her in my mind – or, at least, I thought it was in my mind till I heard the words leave my lips.
Katniss looked up, not toward the screen, not at me, but in that moment I needed, however ridiculously, to believe that she knew I was watching her. That I was with her, still protecting her, caring for her. I whispered her name – once, twice – and then screamed it.
Mira squeezed my arm, pleading with me to be quiet, but it was hopeless: my mania at Katniss's arrest had returned in full force. I sobbed violently, whimpering her name, my hand pressed to her image on the screen. I barely heard Mira's abrupt, stifled shriek of dismay when the burn of a needle – a pain I will never in all my life be able to forget – pierced the side of my neck. The last thing I heard as I crumpled to the floor was Dr. Berthe shouting in rage and Mira sobbing an apology.
I woke in my bed the following morning to Nurse Varden delivering my breakfast tray. At 6:00 that evening, she returned to resume my overnight observation. I waited for a reprimand, transfer, seclusion, punishment of any kind; instead, everyone quietly pretended that nothing had happened. Everyone, that is, but Dr. Aurelius, who expressed disappointment but very little surprise when I told him what Mira had done and what I had seen.
Peeta, do you understand why this was kept from you?
Did I? In a way. It was cruel to tell me nothing, but perhaps I would have been even more frantic had I known the particulars.
Do you understand that you can never un-see what you saw? Never un-know it?
Of course. I wouldn't want to.
Do you understand that stricter security measures will shortly be enforced? You know where she is now, Peeta. As impossible as it would be for you to reach her – the Abbey is accessible only by hovercraft, and winter in these mountains is merciless – none of us put it past you to try.
The thought had already crossed my mind. With or without a new prosthesis.
In any case, it won't be for much longer. Her trial starts next week. After that, I think it unlikely that she will remain in that facility.
I didn't ask for clarification. For the first time, I was afraid to.
I never saw Mira again. I told myself she'd been dismissed, not executed or mutilated – Dr. Aurelius had assured me of this – but I would never be sure. Never quite trust Capitol justice, whoever headed the country.
With a nod to the nearest attending nurse, I leave the roof through the tiny domed room and descend the stairs to Twelve's floor. I pass my former quarters without a second's thought and walk into Katniss's bedroom.
We had spent three precious nights here, wrapped in each other's arms, very nearly lovers, before the Quell. And she had spent two terrible months here at the end of the war, damaged beyond imagining and wasting away by her own will. As prisons go, it would have been a particularly cruel one.
The bedroom has been stripped of all furnishings, but the former location of the bed is obvious from the wear of the carpet. I lower myself to the patch of floor where her bed used to be and lie on my side, resting my head on my arm.
The idea of a secret toasting and pregnancy hadn't fully formed in my mind till the morning before the interview – when Octavia wept at finding Katniss and I asleep in each other's arms – but the seeds of it had come from those perfect moments on the roof. Katniss as an object of unrequited love, a "star-crossed lover," had been rousing indeed. Katniss as a doomed new wife and mother-to-be…would it be enough to save her in an unthinkable second arena?
We left the chaos on Caesar's stage, a Capitol groom and a Mockingjay bride. The irony of us entering her bedroom that final night in wedding finery, however parodied, was not lost on me – nor, I'm certain, on Katniss. It had required very little time or effort on the part of Snow's "technicians" to discover that my mind held emotional, suggestive memories of that night – and even less to exploit them.
That last night in her bedroom had been breathless and silent, characterized by tender, halting gestures. Katniss moved behind me to pull my tuxedo jacket from my shoulders but paused with it at my elbows, her hands tight around my arms, her cheek pressed to my back. She lingered in that position for nearly five minutes, matching the slow, even pace of my breath, before coming around me again, leaving my jacket at my elbows, to unbutton my waistcoat with unsteady fingers. Shadowy gray eyes held mine for a moment as she reached up to loosen my collar, her fingers light and cool against my neck, then her hands dropped, limp and purposeless, to her sides.
I pulled off my jacket and set it aside, then carefully eased the black veil free of her intricate hairstyle. It fell to pool just below her shoulders; as I moved around her, I saw that it formed a cowl at the back of her gown. Somehow, unbinding her hair seemed too intimate a task, and so I brought my fingers instead to the stream of tiny buttons that traced her spine, encasing her in the black feather bodice. There was no one else to help her, after all.
Grief and fear far superseded desire that night, but still I moaned with longing at the sight of her back – smooth olive skin, bare to the waist – as the unbuttoned bodice gaped open. I bent and pressed my face against her shoulder – the only indulgence I permitted myself that night – and my breath was shallow against her skin. I'll be back in a few minutes, I whispered, then disappeared into her bathroom.
I needed to shower, needed to wash away the Capitol trappings of paint and powder and pomade – to be Peeta-the-baker's-son again, with my own fair skin and pale eyelashes and unruly thick hair, for whatever little time was left to me. I'd foolishly imagined I'd need the shower to cool down after being so near her body, but in fact, I spent almost the entire time crying, my face pressed to the cool tiled wall to muffle the sound. I rubbed a hand across my eyes and it came away smudged, bruiselike, with the black and dark blue of my eye makeup.
I dried off with towels that smelled of her: the warm, soft scent of her skin so often buried beneath Capitol cosmetics, the scent I breathed in greedily whenever my face was pressed to her neck. I dressed in my undershirt and shorts and returned to the bedroom to find my Mockingjay bride in pajamas, perched at the head of the bed, waiting for me like any other night. Her hair had been unpinned and braided simply over one shoulder.
She slipped off the bed at once and came to me, taking my face in her hands. I'd managed to stop crying before leaving the shower but knew my eyes were still red and my cheeks flushed from the salt of my tears. Do you wish it was true? she asked softly. Even with everything?
I knew what she was referring to – our toasting, secret marriage, the baby – and I didn't need words to answer her. The silence between us – the intensity of grief-laden gazes – was eloquent enough. She knew I had been thinking about this on the roof as my lips formed the name Katniss Mellark. As my hand cradled her belly, aching for the swell of a fetus inside her, the kicks of its tiny foot. My elaborate, passionate lie before all of Panem was yet another sweeping gesture to save her life while granting myself an imaginary slice of happiness.
She kissed me, hard and lingering, on the lips. Peeta…I'm so sorry…
I shushed her with a kiss in return and gathered her against me. She still wore her delicate bridal makeup, and her hair was pungent with Capitol sprays and glosses, but the time in which I could leave her – let her leave me, even for a minute or two – was long past.
I just want to spend every possible minute of the rest of my life with you, I'd told her two nights remaining minutes were suddenly few indeed.
Lie down with me? I whispered.
She nodded against my shoulder and tugged me over to the bed. As always, we fitted together with ease. My arms came around her, curling her in to my chest, and her warm breath fanned my skin through the thin undershirt as her arms held tightly to my back. This we knew, and did often, but instead of the tantalizing pressure of her leg over mine, I brought mine over hers, pulling her tighter against me, enveloping her body with the warmth and bulk of my own.
This was how I would die, I imagined. Sheltering her with my body. With my love.
A gentle hand touches my shoulder, jarring me from my reverie. I blink back tears to look up at Nurse Nixon, the pleasanter of the two who accompanied me today, crouched beside me and wearing a sympathetic expression. "The hovercraft is here," she tells me.
I nod in understanding, accepting her proffered hand and shoulder to get to my feet, and follow her up to the roof.
Author's Note: The song Katniss sings is "I'll Twine 'Mid the Ringlets" (better known as "Wildwood Flower"), written in 1860 by Maud Irving. There are myriad different versions of the song in circulation, but I opted to use the original lyrics, save for the line "The pale oleander and violets so blue" at the end of the first stanza. There's an absurd amount of variation in the lyrics for that particular line, but as the oleander and violets version was mentioned in a reference to Appalachian folk music, I duly swapped them in for the "pale aronatus." :D