Dedication: Gabbie, this is for you. Finally. I'm sorry.
Disclaimer: The Hunger Games Trilogy, The Book Thief and the fragment of song lyrics used for the title ("Putting Holes in Happiness" by Marilyn Manson) and a paraphrased fragments used later ("Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns 'n' Roses, "Child in Time" by Deep Purple) belong to their respective owners. Spoilers mostly for THG. The style + some references may not make sense if you haven't read TBT, but pretty much all you really need to know is that Death likes to obsess about the weight of souls and the colors of the sky (His favorite is dark chocolate).
(*shhh*… and He likes to complain when the humans give him too much work.)
FIRST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR:
this story is told by Death
Ellenka sends her regards & apologies. (Confidential information: she's a pain to hang around.)
But let us move onto another's story…
THE SKY WAS BLONDE LIKE HER
a sketchy little story about:
a human mockingjay
eyes bluer than skies
and way too many explosions
Many years and many miles away from the street named after heaven, there was a country named after bread.
Whatever their names may imply, Himmel Street was no earthly paradise even before the falling bombs turned it into an inferno of smoke and rubble, and the country called Panem supplied bread freely only to a select few.
The others were just working to provide it.
And true to a saying from yet another long-gone human culture that liked to keep me working overtime, there were games to go with the bread. Oh, how could I ever forget those games? They were called "Hunger Games", and even though that would have been much more fitting, I'm glad they haven't been called after me. Trust me, I participated just as unwillingly as most of the 'tributes'.
I've had enough work in the area before, carrying away the victims of plagues and natural catastrophes, and of course, wars. After the last conflict, the Dark Days they called it, the survivors who considered themselves winners came up with another 'improvement'. They turned my work into a spectacle.
I thought humanity was finally over that, but am I ever right?
I never really showed on the screens, but the forced spectators still called me ugly.
They had no idea I was just the result, the arms that carried weary little souls from broken bodies of their children who had to fight each other unto the… well, unto me, until a lone victor remained. But the causes, they were ugly, even I thought as much when I reached my insubstantial fingers into messes of blood and tissue to deliver the victims away from this life.
Counting is a daunting task, and I like to avoid it, but it's not that hard to put things into perspective.
PANEM IN NUMBERS:
One ruling city
Twenty-three annual child sacrifices
(and on one particular occasion, as many as forty-seven)
My work wasn't limited to said sacrifices, though, there were countless more that escaped the honor and humiliation of having their (un)timely departure from this world televised. I picked them all over the districts, careful not to look around too much.
There were almost always people around, little whirlwinds of everything and nothing; and despair, in my presence mostly despair.
When I looked at them too long and too closely, the pain-frayed threads of their souls wormed their way inside me. With their thoughts, their feelings, their stories. Sometimes, they took root inside me and grew, drawing me back to their living owners over and over again.
They haunted me more than the souls of the dead ever could. Them I couldn't help.
So I looked up at the sky instead, seeking whatever little solace death is entitled to.
The sky was both an impartial constant and ever-interesting variable, and I collected snippets of colorful vistas instead of memories. Or memorials, so to speak. One for every soul.
In the last, smallest, coal-encrusted district, though, even I was denied the simplest of luxuries. No dark-chocolate colored sky for me, ever.
During the cold predawn hours of winter, when I most often collected souls of poor miners too old or weak to work and too unfortunate to have anyone else take care of them, the sky was as gray as everything else. The washed-out gray of old newspaper ink.
ALL QUIET IN DISTRICT TWELVE
Nonetheless, my attention was up there as I traversed the dingy street drowned in dry gray shadows. I wasn't looking at anything but the one I came for, his body already limp on a cool deathbed of stone. But as I was freeing the ragged soul from the thin rattling ribcage, with the gentleness of a caressing mother and just as undivided attention, I felt the gaze of another human on me.
He couldn't see me, of course, but he was looking right through me, and I couldn't help but look right through him.
INTRODUCING GALE HAWTHORNE
too tall for his age
too clever for his own good
and too fiery for streets choked by coaldust
a boy with eyes gray like his world and a heart much bigger than that
but hidden from most
behind a fence of steely thorns
(and pierced bleeding by a girl with arrowheads in her gaze and the softest down in her song)
He couldn't see me, of course, all he saw was the poor wretch dead on the street; all he saw was the misery, the poverty, the wrongness of the scene.
I could see him, enough of him to remember. Enough to be haunted for a while.
The memory might have faded, but didn't. We ended up in each other's presence too often, and felt it much too vividly.
Our next indirect meeting didn't occur after one life ending with a whimper, but after dozens ending in a bang.
I swept over the crowd gathering at the entrance to the mines and… the sky was gray and long-suffering as the earth belched vast clouds of darkness into its face. Waning embers of sunset dyed their bellies with fire.
It was beautiful in a way, but I wasn't there for the spectacle. Plenty of work awaited.
Hundreds of feet under, different flames were eating at the underbelly of the coal seam, and men were dying in that fire. I maneuvered them up and away, through hell and earth, and then through the black feathers of soot swirling around like snow. Despairing voices of the living below wove in-between them, and I took special care not to touch them, not to meet them, not to recognize them…
But of course, I was too familiar with this grave of a district.
I recognized one boy, for example, a recent acquaintance. At first, there was only an image of him, imprinted deep and raw in the soul of the man I was carrying. Compelled, I looked deeper, to find two smaller boys, and a woman expecting a child that could-should-would? finally be a girl. Plus freezing fear that they all might meet me too soon, and plenty of righteous anger.
The same was mirrored in the stubbornly dry eyes that followed me as if knowing whom I was taking in that particular moment. Bitten lips glistened with blood underneath, and empty fists clenched and unclenched as Gale tried to grasp a world that has just gone so completely and so personally wrong.
He was just a drop in a sea of despairing life, though, one of the dozens of faces looking up and down and around, only to meet the harsh reality of me.
I had to, I couldn't help but think. Don't you worry, children, they are free now.
I also had to come back for many of the bereaved before the first dandelions of that spring bloomed, but the steely-eyed boy wasn't among them.
The woods outside the fence were undeniably more agreeable than the district itself, but I've had only a handful of opportunities to visit them in the past three quarters of a century. Usually, I was led there by the unpleasant task of reaching between animal claws to retrieve some unfortunate who'd ventured there in search for sustenance and became food instead.
This occasion was different, though. My client hadn't died of such natural causes, no, there was a spear jutting from his stomach, his blood black in the shadow of a hovercraft.
The sky was a gray eye blinded with braids of wispy clouds; dull sunlight stole a bit of green on its way through the lush summer foliage.
More saw me, but three pairs of eyes truly watched me then: the terror-wide eyes of a girl trapped in a net and ascending upwards in her captured body just as I flew by with the freed soul of her brother, and two almost identical sets of sharp gray.
One belonged to the boy I remembered, the other to a girl – so similar and so haunted by the same mine explosion, yet so different.
INTRODUCING KATNISS EVERDEEN:
the human mockingjay
the girl who made birds stop to listen
and me stop to stare
and I wasn't the only one
she shot hearts like arrows
but she had no idea, the effect she could have
all was lost in the effect two pairs of blue eyes had on her
Her I met again sooner, in a place so similar yet so different. There were children dying in the shadows of trees, and hovercrafts swooping in my wake to lift their mortal remains. I was the uncredited star of the show, for the seventy-fourth time, and she was in the disposable cast of supporting characters. Little did I know that was soon to change...
I saw her even before we literally bumped into each other.
She was on fire, but not that kind only I could rescue people from.
An opportunity to watch the tribute parade presented itself every time, some human onlookers always succumbed to an overdose of alcohol, drugs or just plain excitement for death, and called me in. The sky above the Capitol was invisible, drowned in poison-bright neon and already dead without my assistance, so I couldn't help but catch a glimpse of those who'd need it soon.
They weren't clad in rags, dust and tears, and rode chariots instead of marching on sore feet, but their dazzling procession was no less doomed than the yellow-starred death marches I'd stalked all over Europe in Liesel Meminger's times.
Days later, I was already collecting their souls. Clad in rags, blood, tears, and less savory fluids too.
The girl was there, of course, but we just brushed past each other, she presumably running to a few more moments of uncertain respite, me bearing my passenger to eternal certainty.
I could almost feel another pair of gray eyes willing me away from her, all the way from District Twelve.
We truly met only after she'd delivered one tribute boy into my arms, her arrow stuck in his neck. I pulled him out of the fountain of blood, and I would have gone away, I swear I would have. But the boy's spear was lodged in the stomach of a little girl, caught in a cruel net like a frail dark bird. The feathers of her soul were already tickling my laden fingertips, so I stayed for her.
The girl did too; her coal-gray eyes that looked right at me but stubbornly refused to see me were pearly with tears. The little one had asked her to sing; her life was hanging on the sweet words. While they lasted, I did the same.
Honestly, I never never wanted the song to end.
But of course it ended; everything human does.
Only as I tiptoed away from the silent tears of the living girl, I remembered to look up.
The sky was the color of her soul, of human voice and mockingjay wings, or was it mockingjay voice and human wings?
All tinged pale gold, like the braids of a sister she'd volunteered to save.
I have carried many more children from that arena, but I never really touched the singing girl.
She even prevented me from touching another.
He'd laid buried in a muddy riverbank for days, his life slowly bleeding out and poison from mutant stings bleeding in. I always slowed down when I made my way past him while getting someone else, just in case, just in case he needed to go.
INTRODUCING PEETA MELLARK:
he was a painter
he was a baker
he was another blonde little breadgiver punished for his kindness
he was a tribute, but he wasn't a piece in the games
something inside him was the color of the sun
and it shone through everything
I was sure his soul would have been feather-light, not much of an addition to whatever I was already carrying. (The souls of children sacrifices were never as heavy as you might think, even those who thought they'd come in willingly and killed by bloody sharp iron were somehow ready to fly when they died by it.)
I didn't take Peeta Mellark in those games, though.
The girl found him first, and chased me away for good. (She didn't have the eyes of the Everdeen healers, not at all, but she had something else of theirs she had no idea about.)
They made it out together in the end.
After I'd extricated their last opponent from shreds of armor and flesh - he received every wound he'd dealt hundredfold, the sight was nothing but horror and he went with nothing but relief, even his soul drained of blood – I hung around for one of them.
Those were the rules; I knew them as well as any willing or unwilling visitor of the arena, as well as any willing or unwilling spectator. I was standing over them like a priest of old – just invisible, of course – as they joined hands full of poisonous berries.
They spit them out, though, before my fingers reached from their hands to their throats.
I disappeared into the sky dawning with blood and gold, and they were retrieved by a hovercraft, body and soul (still) united.
Taking away twenty-two children instead of twenty-three seemed to be a small difference.
Significant, though, and I wholeheartedly welcomed it.
Oh, if I only knew what was coming next…
As far as I was concerned, Panem got even busier.
People died fighting for their lives, as they always did, but this time in a different sense too. I would know, I was there when their last thoughts echoed with higher hope and deeper despair than usual. They were no longer fighting to survive, some of them were fighting to live.
All they won was a date with me:
the would-be rioters, the protesters and strike-leaders, the suspects, and as always, the innocents too. The casualties and the executed, individually or en masse. Whatever the color the sky was, I could sense a sigil of Panem imprinted there, invisible but as present as in the arenas where the rulers pretended to pay homage to the killed.
At first, everything was hushed, tiny revolutions nipped in the bud before it as much as filled, but I knew.
I find out all secrets in the end, but (fortunately for humans, I guess?) they all remain buried in me.
Strangely enough, District Twelve wasn't much of a priority for a few months.
Deaths of starvation were fewer than usual, and not enough of the living had energy left to feed their hunger for justice. Which also meant none of them died for it yet, and I wasn't complaining, I had more than enough work as it was.
It changed one wintry day, as white and crisp as the uniformed troop that snowed out of an express train. I've been called into their midst almost as soon as they arrived, to retrieve the former Head Peacekeeper.
The dead – gritty with more than coaldust and his skin still slick with worse than the turkey fat stored under – looked over my shoulder once, with sadness in his leer.
He was the last to be executed clandestinely there. From then on, this level of the games became public display, no screen necessary.
No need to introduce the first volunteer, he'd introduced himself, right at the door of the new enforcer of order. Of course, he didn't know what he was volunteering for, and wouldn't have done it if he knew. His mind was in turmoil, full of clashing gray eyes, anger and heartbreak, and spark-bright hope that things could finally get better if he'd only stay and fight.
Thus the hunter who wanted to secure freedom for all walked straight into a trap, and became the first one to be punished in order to quell all said hope.
So much I learned when I looked right through him.
(I may have arrived a split of a second early, how presumptuous of me. Or perhaps just curious.)
Gale Hawthorne wasn't conscious to look through me anymore.
I was already stretching my hand for him, a helping hand to free him from all bonds like nobody else could, but the human mockingjay flew into its path, screaming "NO!"
More importantly, she flew into the path of the whip, letting it lick her face with hellhound brutality and protecting her torn friend from the final blow.
My hand fell, and so did the first snowflakes, only to drown in the rivulets of blood snaking their way through crevices between worn flagstones.
The sky was a white slate, reflecting the crooked red Capitol emblem, more eloquent than any headline.
That wasn't a new occurrence in District Twelve either, but it's been a time.
My visits became more frequent after that, mostly directed to the gallows right next to the whipping post. After that first time, I always got to complete my business , the mockingjay wasn't there to interfere.
After all, she wasn't me, she couldn't be everywhere for everyone.
The games of hunger and demise were playing out all over Panem, but the televised spectacle was obviously still deemed necessary.
With a special twist.
THE RULE OF THE QUELL:
they reaped children who have already escaped me once
whole but for the slivers of their souls stuck in the mortal wounds of the less(more?) fortunate
(and some of them were older than many parents in Panem at that time
but that doesn't matter to me
I deliver you all, you are all my children)
Point is: They were haunting the crevices of my mind, and I was haunting them, and we were dreading our second date together. No butterflies in the stomachs, only gnawing icy fear.
When the hour struck, though, some of them were all too eager to send each other into my arms. Capitol-instilled manners, I presume.
I worked around the clock.
The unnatural sky changed little; it was the pink of mutant flamingo feathers whenever there was light.
(I remembered the color from a quell ago, and the memory never faded. It kept playing in my heart in a continuous loop, along with the memory of a boy with dark curls kneeling over a girl golden-haired and golden-pinned. I have taken the feathery soul of that mockingjay, and the boy escaped me, but in the years to come, he longed for my embrace more than her did for hers.)
Blood clashed horribly with that pink, but it was usually there for my arrival, strewn in patterns I tried to notice instead.
As an exception to prove the rule, there was none when I held the sunny soul of the boy who's been raised from the arena alive just the year before.
This year, I got to hold it, but it slipped right through my fingers.
The girl-mockingjay only watched and despaired, the arrowheads of her eyes corroded by the salt of tears, but there was another to interfere:
Finnick Odair had called me in with a fisherman's trident more than once in his first arena, this time he banished me with a lifeguard's breath.
I was happy to go empty-handed, and the garish color of the sky suddenly seemed a bit more muted, almost as if one took a certain shade of sunset and spread it all over the firmament.
Then there was darkness.
A rain of blood coming out of it, thick and hot like soup.
Or mist, pale and wispy like the promise of snow. I retrieved an old lady from that, and in my care to save her soul from the poison that destroyed her body, I rolled it to resemble a pearl. She liked it a lot.
Once the sky was the colors of a rainbow, painted with words only, but it still was the most beautiful one I've ever seen. (And there were blood patterns too, plenty of claw marks, and one flower painted on a cheek.)
And once the sky was electric canvas stitched with a golden thread, midnight lightning harnessed to an explosion of light and sound.
It blinded anyone but me as I carried away two old acquaintances.
The rest of tribute-victors left in their bodies, divided equally: three to the Capitol to be buried in interrogation cells, three to a district that had long ago buried itself in order not to be interrogated. Or worse.
I had to hurry in a third direction.
I needed no hovercraft, but I might have spared myself little exertion had I just sat aboard one of the many hurrying twelvewards.
This time a whole district was being reaped, to send a message to the others.
When my time came, the sky was a spark grown into an inferno, and so was the earth. Fires were raging everywhere, fed by coaldust, thatch, and an endless stream of explosions. In them, in their smoke and their crushing debris, little flames of human lives sputtered and died, all obliterated by the all-consuming vengeance of the Capitol.
I tried my best to free everyone from their personal little hell; nobody could save them but me.
Few tried, though.
There was that boy I knew, sweat and anger stinging his steely eyes. They blazed with more than reflected fire, and more than his home burned in them that night.
We bumped into each other a few times, and he almost literally elbowed me out of the way on more than one occasion. Apology never came, and neither of us expected one. In his effort to save as many from me as possible, he was running so fast I almost thought he'd spit his soul out right there onto the crackling pavement, but he never did.
Good, I had plenty of others to collect. The rich and the poor, the old and the young, the healthy and the sick.
All equal before me, from the most wretched miners of the Seam to the most wretched Mayor family of Panem.
Speaking of which…
Madge Undersee (very recently orphaned, but she was to meet her parents again soon enough) wasn't a pearl cradled under the soft waves of fleeting privilege, not anymore. Her porcelain shell was crushed under cruel concrete, cracked like an egg with the wings of her soul spilling out.
(Like a mockingjay that never hatched?)
The hovercrafts had already departed, but one shadow was still crouching over her, a living boy.
Gale Hawthorne was seeing her for the last and somehow also for the first time: the yellow of her hair, the clear - now empty- sky of her eyes, the white of her dress, of her skin, of the walls trapping her in… everything screaming yes they shouldn't (have). Everything was ashes now, and embers – just like the sky – yes, I looked, even as I held her lover-like in my arms, and turned to leave.
The boy perhaps would have held her lover-like as well, if only he could. If only he'd allowed himself to, if only the odds had been in their favor, if only the human mockingjay hadn't been singing possessive denial in his imagination even as she kissed another pair of lips beyond a screen.
Too bad it was too late, and all he could do was glare daggers of pained jealousy into my back as l took this girl as well.
I had to.
I'm not too fond of the nickname, but I must admit the humans don't call me the reaper for nothing.
I can see their point.
I could also see the single iridescent drop that fell from a coal-boy's eye, onto the vacant body of a pearly girl.
(So much like quarter a century ago, when another Seam boy held her bloodied aunt, an ally he believed he had to abandon.)
A SAD OBSERVATION:
some girls on fire fare better than others
(and that goes for people in general, the heroes and the bystanders)
Perhaps one from ten citizens of District Twelve managed to disappear into the woods, with a major help from a boy broken beyond repair who still did his best to make the world around him whole - even if he was just making do with the scraps fortune's dealt him.
The rest remained for me, and I couldn't complain about shortage.
I completed the last great slave labor in the district alone and silent, as always.
Meanwhile, the burned out sky slowly cooled above, the night of fire giving way to the ashen dawn of a stillborn day.
The ones to follow were only dark, as dark as seventy-five years ago. (Not dark chocolate, though. None for poor old busy death.)
But why am I even complaining?
I have to come for everyone in their end, that's a fact as unavoidable for the humans as it is for me. Every creature has to die, that's the law of nature. It gets haunting, though, when the ways they die defy most other laws of nature, and when they have to die for something that should have been their undeniable right.
Or die trying to prevent others from getting the aforementioned.
My heart's not in it then, but job is a job, and I have to be there, dancing to the whistling of their bullets and the bass drumming of their bombs.
The bombs were coming from above, dropped from hovercraft that mostly escaped unscathed.
I followed them skywards after, mostly-unscathed souls of their victims in my arms, but the same couldn't be said about the scraps of bodies left in the smoldering rubble.
In-between fighting, I dutifully visited the hospitals; the relief from pain I brought was always eternal but not always welcome.
Once, in District Eight, I think, I met a pair of old acquaintances, a steely-eyed boy and an arrow-eyed girl – both had their edges dulled, she with pity and he with grim apprehension.
Both had a fair point.
She ventured among the injured alone, spreading her arms like mockingjay wings, with faith in a better life (or any life at all) lingering in their wake.
I slunk away, blown away by the current of hopeful air, but not for long.
This time, the hovercraft bearing bombs hadn't arrived unscathed, the duo of hunters was there to intercept them, with me as a silent ally.
There was no Rudy Steiner to lay teddybears next to the dead pilots, and there weren't enough bodies left for piety under the bent and burning Capitol seals anyway.
I picked them up quickly, all cauterized by the bitter taste of their own medicine, and hurried to their target. The hospital was an inferno, its flickering flames reflected in twin pairs of helpless gray eyes. Their owners couldn't go in, and had no reason to, everyone there was beyond their saving.
I almost wish I could say I volunteered to go in, but that's not what I did, I was just fulfilling my duty.
The sky above was the color of hope still, burning bright but turning ashen at the edges.
Even grayer than all the eyes and all the ashes were the corridors of District Thirteen. Hope wandered them less often than I did, and we both tended to get lost.
The residents were entombed to save their lives, and when it didn't work out for them, I was always there to exhume them. They were good survivors, though, and managed just as well after the escapees from Twelve swelled their ranks.
Even when the Capitol rained its most powerful bombs on them, they saved themselves by retreating deeper into the earth. There were only a few stragglers I had to extricate from under firmaments of molten metal.
(I almost had to carry away a certain tall boy who carried a blue-eyed girl who was carrying a grumpy cat, but they escaped at the last second – a door opened for them, and closed right in front of my nose.)
Not long after that, I unofficially accompanied a secret mission to a high-security prison in the Capitol.
I carried off a few soldiers who came in to free three victors - champions escaping me for the third time already:
a girl who often managed to outswim me, whether in water or in tears.
a girl who could cut with an axe as well as with words, but who refused to be cut away from this life with the ferocity of roots breaking through stone.
a boy considered too good for me by everyone but himself - his soul was the color of faded sunset then, a reddish glare left on a dark horizon.
(The sun also rises, though.)
But inside the boy who literally dragged Peeta Mellark away from my grip and received a few-inches-from-fatal wound for his trouble, something set deeper than ever.
Gale buried himself in blueprints, as blue as the bruises left by hijacked fingers on the neck of his Mockingjay.
He just wanted to lighten the load. For his girl, for his family, for his comrades in arms, for the war-torn country, for himself and, I daresay, also for me.
Naturally, by vice of an error as inhuman as it was human, he achieved the opposite.
Every time I had business in the depths of Thirteen, I stopped for a moment in the weaponry room to peer over his shoulder, and selfishly calculated the threat of extra workload.
ONE SMALL FACT ABOUT HIS NEWEST DESIGN:
It was supposed to explode twice.
As if one time wasn't too much.
The mountain fortress the people nicknamed 'the Nut' didn't even need to explode once, at least not whole. Only a few tons of rock at the very top did, sending up a dark cloud of dust to blind the waning red eye of the sun. Avalanches hurried downward under its shadow, first creeping in stony trickles, and then thundering as they gained strength, marching like stone-shod feet of a conquering army.
I'd been around, down in the city under the mountain, always in more places at once, snatching souls through bullet-holes in the bodies. Then I hurried over to extricate them through cracks between stones, through clogged ventilation shafts, through pores in the pained rock.
As always, I was the only one who could reach those unable to escape.
I glimpsed the steely-eyed boy on the surface again, my arms heavy with weightless burdens, his surprisingly light with an army-issue gun. His heart was heavier than the tons of rock that lured me here, though, and a single thought was clogging his mind, burying it under its weight.
I had to do it.
I freed many souls from under the mountain that night, but not his.
(Next spring, the rubble bloomed with posies.)
But don't let me skip ahead.
I was most busy in the Capitol the winter before that.
The Games became much too real for those who'd watched them for entertainment before, as ingrained as it was depraved. Their own city became a giant Gamemaker trap for the final round. The snow-white sky has never seen such colorful chaos on the streets, and neither had I.
Monochrome chaos with splatters of blood was going on underneath: white peacekeepers and whiter mutts were hunting a diminishing gray-uniformed troop through dark tunnels. The stars of the Star Squad that has come to burn the Capitol were burning out one by one instead. I would have given them medals, but I had none to give, so I just doffed my hood for them.
The heroes weren't afraid to look into my face after all.
I was almost afraid to look into theirs.
There was always too much to hope for, too much to live for. Finnick Odair was the last to go underground, just because he hadn't automatically taken place at the back of the Mockingjay, just because of a single second that haunted the one who did that for the rest of his life. His soul was more beautiful than his praised body had ever been, and I saw so much there: something about a trident, an old woman laughing, and a girl in a green dress, and all that through a salty haze of my own tears.
Even Death has a heart, you know.
Only five stars emerged from the sewer, and divided up the next morning.
I was there to clear a path for the Mockingjay and her hunting partner as they fought on, together against the world.
(For the last time, though they couldn't have known that for certain yet.)
An abyss opening in the ground divided them at last. He fell and she didn't, by a twist in the odds or more?
When he asked her to deliver him to me, she didn't hear him, and the Peacekepers weren't good enough messengers. Instinctive will to live burst from every cell in his body and tore him from their grasp, and Gale zigzagged between their bullets to avoid me.
Little did he know I had no time for him then, though I can't help but wonder why. He'd spent hours huddled over blueprints, sketching my next appointment.
White and black and blue on paper, the parachutes looked harmless.
They were sleek and silver in the air, floating gracefully amid the snowflakes. They looked like salvation. Children who tasted cold and hunger for the first and the last time in their little lives grabbed at them with soft, freezing hands. Like so many children before them, trapped in the arenas.
(Victims of these innocent tyrants? Perhaps.)
They stretched their hands for nourishment, and touched my fingertips in liquid fire instead.
The sky above them was blond like the pigtails rushing to their rescue. Deadened with snow and glowing with reflected fire. Choked by smoke.
(FINALLY) INTRODUCING PRIMROSE EVERDEEN:
she had eyes of the bluest sky
but I often saw thunder in them
when she tried to chase me away from her patients
and I always hated having to drown her pure lightning
in a tearstorm
(and I'm somehow relieved she never found out that I once took one life off her cat -
right under her nose)
She was crouching when I found her for the last time, by the side of a wounded child. I took them both together a moment later. The coldness of my touch must have been offset by the scorching heat from the explosion of the remaining parachutes, but she hardly seemed to notice.
Something beyond the ragged enclosure had captured her attention.
ONE SPECIAL NOTE ON THE AFOREMENTIONED:
she was the first and so far only human ever to slip from my grasp
even when dead for good
(or was she? how could creature like her ever be dead for good?)
She flew to her sister, with me at her heels.
I would have loved to carry them away together, as close in death as they used to be in life. But my business was only with one of them, and I had to tear the bond they shared.
It was wider and deeper than the sky, leaving no room for anything else. I was torn in turn, crushed under the immaterial weight, and a tear slid down my cheek as I reached for the little escapee.
She was still holding on.
"Prim, let go!" came a silent scream from Katniss, the living girl drowning flames.
That Prim obeyed, and went back into my arms.
There I read her like a tiny picture book, splendid with all the beauty humanity has to offer but marred by shrewdly perceived horrors between the lines. There was a little about a strong, steel-eyed boy who sometimes carried her in his arms (most notably that one time in a full town square). A lot about sun glinting off a goat's fur, a cat named after a flower, stewed squirrels and iced cakes glimpsed through a window. More about pain and fear and desperate attempts to chase me away from others.
This time, it was me who carried her away, free but with tiny fragments of her sister's soul stuck under her nails. Away from life, but also away from the reaping and the fire. To safety.
Or so I like to think.
I didn't turn when I felt a glare on my back. The points of the daggers were digging inwards anyway, and Gale's soul was bleeding through, bleeding onto the incinerated snow, but not through the twin bullet wounds marring his body. A part of him followed us, dark smoke particles dissolving forever in our wake.
A QUOTE FROM KATNISS EVERDEEN:
If we burn, you burn with us.
He had no idea yet who'd burned and who was still smoldering in the slush, but he saw a line blazed clear, and saw himself on the side he never never expected to be standing on.
He bowed his head and closed his eyes as the whole city around crumbled in the ricochet.
In the months to come, I had plenty of work as it was. Among others, I had to take care of two presidents, and thoroughly clean my hands afterwards.
Gale Hawthorne wanted me to take him too, oh how he wanted it. He made many appointments, but never made the final step. Perhaps he knew he had much more important ones here.
There were many more years when I brushed past him only occasionally, and many more plans, mostly to keep me safely away from the souls I hadn't carried away from the ashes of Panem.
I appreciated the consideration.
Unfortunately, I had no consolation to offer the times we brushed the closest. First time with me leading the soul of Hazelle Hawthorne by a strong but finally worn out arm. I led her through the tight circle of her grown children and the first few grandchildren, older and grayer and happier, so much happier than she would have been if three souls on fire hadn't sparked a rebellion and seen it through.
(Just like everyone in their country, the parents children of the revolution and their children too, their lives more prosperous and free, their souls in my arms clean of a Capitol seal.)
The sky was forget-me-not-blue then, shadowed by uncrumbled mountains beyond the hospital window, their outline reflected in the dark eyes of her oldest son as they followed us on our way.
By his side were no children, just a woman who called him gorgeous and always had an ax stashed under her side of the bed. Johanna Mason, an old acquaintance of mine, a new hard-won love of his.
The second time was when I came for her, her body strong like a the tree she'd been dressed as twice, but succumbing prematurely to old overdoses of voltage and newer of morphling, and it wasn't fucking fair, I'd be the first to admit that.
Gale hadn't told her up you go, he hadn't had the chance, but if he did, there would have been more quiet anger in the words than years ago, when he'd choked them out for another girl.
It was also one of those times when I really hated being the reaper.
I couldn't even look at the sky then, I would have shaken a fist at it along with my passenger.
When I finally came to collect his soul, Gale greeted me upright.
Alone and gently swinging in midair, a memory of silver parachutes woven into the string still tightening around his neck.
He came and went with the name of a girl on his lips, her soft song humming in his last thoughts. Something about a tree, a murderer, a necklace of rope, and freedom.
He lasted as many years as the slips he used to have in the reaping bowl where he'd offered his life over and over for the sake of his loved ones -
"Just one more," I'd heard him mutter to himself every year when I happened by on the anniversary of the day when it snowed silver death, and peered over his shoulder onto a tiny black frame housing the image of a sun-haired girl under blue-eyed sky. "Still a lot to do."
- and didn't go with a bang, not even a whimper.
He slipped out unnoticed, like he used to arrive so long ago, with wind-quiet feet stealing into a greater, lusher life beyond the fence. With thoughts of catnip and of forgiveness.
The boy who grew into a man haunted by explosions welcomed the final silence, and we greeted each other like old friends, needing no words to communicate.
The midnight sky was not blond, but coal-braided like the memory of the human mockingjay that had just sang him to sleep, sprinkled with burning shards of stars. Moon winked from behind a ghostly cloud, illuminating its gossamer threads into a pallid, circular rainbow.
It was shining onto his forehead when we faced each other for the real and for the last time, lending a coat of warm silver to the now-sightless steel of his eyes. His soul was heavy and light, dark and transparent, all at once. Not to forget frayed and torn – with pieces scattered all over the country, everywhere he'd poured it out to leave a good imprint or to wipe the bad ones, and the rest firmly wrapped around a barbed-wire of guilt that had held him rigid and upright all those years.
Now that he called me to himself at last, I could unravel his soul from the thorns to free it, and Gale Hawthorne (finally) gazed at me with long-sought peace.
I put my arm around his shoulders, and off we went.
LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR:
his story is heavier than his soul ever was
and few would tell it because he had to do things few would do
I can understand that best, trust me
so I tried, at least the tidbits I'd gathered
about him, about his world, about everything that formed him
I don't even know why
perhaps I just needed to break one little loop
in my vicious circle of a heart
but the odds were not my favor
and I can't say that the boy who thought so for most of his life
is not haunting me anymore