The Hanging Tree

Prologue

My feet snagged on tree roots which seemed to grow bigger and bigger around me. The mossy floor began to change, into an empty black pit. I heard shouts, screams and cruel laughter following me but before I could do anything my feet gave way and I tumbled into darkness. All around me were faces. Prim's face, sneering at me blaming me for her death. Clove twirling a knife between her thin fingers, eyes filled with malice. Cato, Glimmer, Thresh, Marvel, Seneca, Plutarch, Finnick, Rue, Boggs, Legg 1, Legg 2. The list seems endless. Everyone who had died because of me, because of my stupid decisions, was standing there watching me falling. Suddenly a high pitched bark came from above me. I looked up, through the murky darkness, and saw a mutt. With Rue's dark eyes and her matted hair. I shut my eyes tight and shoved my hands over my ears.

'STOP, PLEASE STOP!' I screamed.

'Shh, Katniss, shush. It's going to be alright. It's a dream. That's all it is. Hush.' Peeta's soothing voice broke through my nightmares. He held me tight to his chest not letting me go. His strong arms wrapped around me as I sobbed. But for once it didn't make me feel better. It didn't comfort me or calm me down. It made feel trapped like a bird in a cage, trapped, vulnerable and scared.

'Mum?' A small voice asked from the doorway. There stood my little boy, his hair a match to Peeta's. I tried to stop crying for his sake but for once the nightmares had haunted me into the real world. The images kept playing in my head. The first Hunger Games, all the horrors of the arena, the deaths, the cruelty. Why had we survived? Rue, the little girl who had such a pure soul and was so young had her whole life ripped out under her with the quick flick of a wrist. Or Cato and Clove, no matter what anyone said I knew that they had loved each other. The way Clove had looked at Cato. It reminded me of how Annie looked at Finnick. Finnick, dear Finnick. He died following my idiotic plan, knowing it was false and yet still taking the risk. His life was finally turning around, with a beautiful, albeit, slightly dysfunctional wife who was pregnant with a beautiful baby boy, whom he never got to see. Finnick Odair was the bravest, cleverest, most charming young man I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and I hope that my own son will live up to his name.

'Move aside Finnick.' There was my beautiful daughter Prim. She looked just like me but she had Prim's personality. Prim's strength and it hurt me to see her. She came and sat on the edge of the bed looking at me with wide eyes. Prim was 13 and still so young. She understood more than she should, more than any child should. Just like my little sister. Finnick was 10 and had begun understanding why my past life haunted me.

'It's not your fault Mum. I know you can't forget, Uncle Haymitch explained why but please be strong. It hurts me when you cry.' She whispered in my ear. She sounded so much like Prim, so mature, like she had lived a thousand lifetimes but still managed to look young and vulnerable. A last sob racked my body and I looked up at my husband who let me go tenderly. I gestured for Finnick to come onto the bed but he seemed wary. Peeta got up and picked him up, struggling a little under his weight. He laid Finnick down on the large double bed and I tried to reach for the covers. When I couldn't find them I looked at the floor and realized that I had kicked them off. I decided to leave that idea and I hugged both my children.

'I'm sorry for scaring you.' I avoided looking at them and instead looked out of the window opposite the bed. The sun was streaming through the window but softly so I could tell it was early morning. The sunlight reflected of the startlingly white door of our bathroom. District 12 had been rebuilt with special instructions from President Paylor. Our house was simple but by far the largest. It had three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a living room, a dining room and a kitchen. Each of the rooms was fairly large but not echoing and empty. Not like my old house in the Victor's Village, which I had demanded be knocked down. I walked over to the window, untangling my arms from my children. I walked barefoot through the soft carpet and threw open the window. I needed some fresh air so I stuck my head out and sniffed. The sweet, sickly smell of roses filled my nose making me gag and making memories flood back to me.

Calm down Katniss. He's dead. He can't hurt you. He's gone, dead. Snow is dead. A frantic voice at the back of my mind squealed. I looked down at the street below and saw a cart full of roses. Someone was taunting me. But then I saw the owner of the cart whistling on the other side of the road. It was no one I knew.
'Katniss…' Peeta asked gently. I realized that I had been holding in my breath and I let it out in a long sigh.
'Get ready for school.' I told my children firmly. They both looked at me wondering how I could go from a crying, weak little girl to a strict mother but rushed of anyway.

Finnick had asked me once why I couldn't be like all the other Mum's at school. My answer? Nothing, of course. I was never any good at talking about myself or opening up and I couldn't even say anything to my children. For those nine months that they were in my stomach a pain had grown inside me, a bitter seed full of hate and despair. How come these two people whom I had never met where allowed to be born when so many of my friends and loved ones had died? I walked back to the bed my head bent low. I realized just how tidy the room was. Yesterday it was covered in dirty clothes and Finnick's toys and Prim's books. Now the floor was spotless.
'Are you ok?' Peeta asked concern etching his face. I gently stroked his cheek and he took that as a yes. He took my hand and kissed my fingers.
'I'll go check on Finnick and Prim. To see if they haven't killed each other yet.' I winced. Bad choice of words from me, way to go Katniss! I said mentally slapping myself. Peeta nodded. I walked out of the room and into the dark hallway. I flicked on the light and it blinked into existence, glancing at the mirror as I walked the short way to Prim's room. My eyes were blood-shot from tears and my face was filled with worry. My mouth was turned down in an unattractive pout. For a second I let myself remember a time when I had been carefree and happy. The only time I could remember was in the woods with Gale. Before the Games manipulated and twisted us. When Prim was alive. A single salty tear fell from my eye. And now I was haunted by nightmares and my children had to witness that. I was a terrible mother, tuning out every so often, remembering horrors that no child should had ever witnessed. It had been 25 years but not a single second went by when I didn't remember.

'Can you braid my hair like yours?' Prim asked when I entered her room. The soft pink wallpaper shone lightly from the reflected light and her single bed was messy, clothes littered the floor. When she came home from school I would nag her to clean it. For now, my nightmares and memory's had drained me.
'Sure thing sweetie,' I said grabbing her hairbrush from her hands and brushing her thick brown waves. Her hair felt soft under my fingertips and as I plaited it I could feel myself slipping into calm.
'Mum?'
'Uh huh,' I said not really listening.
'Well, Miss. Harkua was wondering whether you could come and talk to my class.' My daughter said all in a rush. I tied the end of her hair with a hair tie and turned her so she could face me. I had my hands on her shoulders but I wasn't looking at her,
'About what, darling?' But I already knew the answer,
'The Hunger Games.' Those three words were enough to make my heartbeat quicken. 'I said I doubted you would.' Prim whispered. I just continued to try keeping my heart under control while I gazed out behind her. 'Sorry I asked.' She exclaimed after a while and wriggled out from my grip. She ran downstairs and I wanted to call after her but I couldn't.
I looked up and saw a picture of my family. Little Prim had a framed photo of us on her bedside table. I picked it up and smiled a little. Prim and Finnick were sitting on a stone bench grinning into the camera with me in between then. Behind them is Peeta lying flat out so all you can see is his face peeking out from our kid's bodies. He's pulling a funny face with his tongue lolling out and his eyes crossed. Then there's me with my arms around my children laughing at my stupid husband. Behind I catch a glimpse of Annie's dark hair and Ollie her son. She said that she couldn't call her son Finnick. It would bring back so many painful memories. And so she gave me her blessing to name my second child Finnick. I remember that day perfectly. That was one of the days I was happy, one of the days where I never once asked myself if it was 'real or not real?'
We found a small park and played there all day, Finnick, Prim and Ollie playing a game of crazy cat with Buttercup, who, through everything, had survived and became quite a companion. Prim would never believe it if she saw Buttercup and I getting along. Haymitch had joined us. It was one of his rare visits out of that manky old flat of his. For once my mind was clear. But it didn't last long. I remember how fragile it was. And poor Annie couldn't help it. It wasn't her fault. She slipped into her own world like she had done so many times before but this time it was different. I knew immediately something was wrong when her dark green eyes turned a dark grey and screams escaped her lips. Screams that would run your blood cold.
I had started to shake her frantically and Haymitch and Peeta had to use their joined strength to push me of her. 'Annie! Stop screaming! STOP SCREAMING!' I had sobbed. At this time Ollie was about 16 and used to his Mother's little spells. He pushed us out the way and started whispering to his Mother. Soon enough Annie came to but the one word she said scared me more than anything. A single word.
'Katniss.' And it sounded so uncannily like the mutts that had killed her husband that I started to cry. I had become so fragile and broken.

'Mum?' A voice said from the doorway. There was Finny looking at me staring intently at a photo frame. "Are you ok?"
'Just fine Fin, just fine. Come on let's get breakfast." I said holding out my hand, quickly brushing away any stray tears. He took it and together we walked down the stairs and into the kitchen. Prim and Peeta were already sitting at the small table laughing at some unknown joke. Prim had a bowl of cereal in front of her and Peeta was sipping a cup of coffee. I sat Finnick down at the table and put some toast in the toaster. I leaned back against the counter listening to my family talk.
'-Yeah but if school never existed nobody would be clever so I wouldn't matter.' Prim said glaring at her Dad.
'But if there was no school you wouldn't know anything at all! You'd be like that girl you don't like. The blonde, Ciara isn't it? You said she was as thick as a house and she had nothing in her head.' Peeta replied.
'Dad! I wouldn't turn out like that. I have my good looks and my charm to get me through life.' Prim said flipping her hair and batting her eyelashes. I rolled my eyes.
'I don't like school either!' Finnick butted in, trying to join in the conversation that his older sister was having.
'Finn, you and me should stop school. Then we can prove that we don't need education.' Prim said her eyes glinting evilly; knowing her little brother will take that seriously.
'YAY,' Finnick cried and started to dance around the kitchen. Peeta chuckled and sipped his coffee. I rolled my eyes, again, but couldn't help suppressing a grin.
'Here's your toast crazy boy.' I said laying down a plate on the table stacked with toast. Peeta pulled me towards him just as I turned and he kissed me firmly on the lips. His lips were soft and a tingle went down my spine.
'Jeez guys! Save it for the bedroom.' Prim cried. We broke apart and I grabbed a tea towel that was drying on the stove.
'Shush you!' I said whipping her with the tea towel. It hit her gently but Prim had a tendency to overreact. She began rolling on the floor pretending she was in agony. Finnick was still dancing around but Peeta caught him and made him eat his breakfast. He and Peeta started to get into an animated conversation about bread. Trust Peeta, forever a baker. I smiled at the chaos in my kitchen. It felt as if this morning was completely forgotten and for that at least, I was incredibly glad. I glanced at the clock that was mounted onto the far wall. 8:43. School started at nine but the teachers wanted the kids there early.
'SCHOOL! LET'S GO! Prim up of the floor, put your stuff in the dishwasher and get your shoes on.' I hollered at my daughter who was still on the floor. She groaned but did as she was told stomping out of the kitchen sarcastically. Finnick quickly gobbled up the last of his toast and rushed off to find his sister.
'Can you clean up?' I asked Peeta.
'Sure.' He said draining his cup and getting up.
'Thanks.' I said before giving him a quick kiss.
'LET ME GO!' Finnick's voice echoed through the house. I rolled my eyes putting on my strictest face. I walked into the hallway to find Prim sitting on top Finnick.
'Prim.' I cried exasperated. 'Get of your brother. And get ready! You're going to be late!' She bobbed up and down once just to make Finnick cry for help a bit more.
'PRIM!' I yelled. She got off rolling her eyes. Her shoes were already on and she grabbed her bag all ready to leave. 'Wait for your brother!' I cried. She had been taking Finnick to school for 6 years and still she forgot. She sighed loudly but quickly shut up when I glared at her. Finnick got his shoes and stuff on and rushed out of the house his bag hitting against his scrawny knees. Prim had rushed on ahead laughing hysterically and shouting,
'CATCH ME IF YOU CAN!' Which meant Finnick went charging after her. A small chuckle behind me made me turn around.
'They are very… What's the word?' Peeta laughed.
'Crazy?' I suggested.
'Yeah, crazy.' Peeta laughed pulling me into a hug. He hugged me fiercely and I hugged back just as hard. Suddenly I felt his smile fall from his face. He whispered something in my ear,
'I love you Katniss, you know that, you know that, right?'
'Well, yeah… Obviously, what-'
'Turn around.'
I turned and saw a young man, virtually unchanged. My breath caught in my throat.
'Gale?'

My heart sunk to the bottom of my stomach. Why was Gale here? I was certain he had forgotten me and all of our past. I was suddenly back in the woods, free and happy with my best friend and hunting partner at my side, telling me all about snares and pointing out that the only time he had ever seen me smile was with Prim or in the woods. Of course the Games changed even that. I had been so sure that our friendship ran deep and strong but how wrong could I be. I knew after a while that the Games had changed everything, including me, especially me. I would never admit it to anyone but after the Games, my heart hardened, my temper boiled high and I swore never to love anyone again. Peeta had changed that but he had changed just as much as me, if not more. The Capitol made sure of that. He would have his spells just like Annie, where he seemed to forget where he was and the hate the Capitol had planted inside him would come rushing out. I had to play 'Real or not real?' with him for about an hour before he'd cool down and become himself again. Those times scared me like no other. His eyes would become diluted and his face scrunched up. More than once he would call me cruel names and mock and taunt me. My heart was filled with pain whenever he did.
I looked up at the young man before me, his handsome features standing out. He looked like he had come fresh from the seam. But the seam was no longer. The Capitol had destroyed the only connection I had with my little sister and the rest of my district.
'Can I come inside?' Gale asked quietly.
'Yeah, sorry, sure,' I mumbled looking past him. Haymitch stood there, a bottle of liquor in his hand and geese swarming around his feet. His face was troubled. But I ignored it, just like he ignored me. I shut the door behind Gale and walked into the kitchen as if in a trance. Peeta was sitting there after having left the moment he saw Gale.
'Hello Peeta.' Gale whispered.
'Gale.' Peeta said nodding at him. I could feel the tension between them.
'Peeta can you please grab my dressing gown from the bedroom?' I asked him sweetly.
'I'd rather stay here, thank you darling.' Peeta said emphasizing the last word. I sighed inwardly; this was going to be a long visit.
'What's the matter Gale? Why are you here?' Peeta asked him and I saw his face grow angry. Keep your cool Peeta, keep you cool, I prayed.
'Katniss, I have some bad news.' Gale turned to me completely ignoring Peeta's questions.
'What bad news?' I asked my heart quickening. I've had enough bad news to last a lifetime, I didn't need anymore.
'Maybe now isn't the right time.' Gale said studying my face. That was one thing the Capitol hadn't managed to change, the ability to read the others emotions, and for once I hated that. Gale had betrayed me, left me; he doesn't deserve to know me better than I know myself.
I walked towards Gale with my finger outstretched and I began to speak to him like I spoke to Finnick when he was in trouble.
'Gale Hawthrone, tell me right now.' I demanded.
I was now nose to nose with Gale and I was looking straight into his stormy grey eyes which bought back so many memories. He caught my gaze but looked away and walked back, away from me.
'Your mother died Katniss.' Gale's voice was soft and slow and for a second I didn't comprehend what he was telling me. 'She told me to give you this.' Gale handed me an envelope. On the front in sloppy blue handwriting was,
My darling daughter Katniss Everdeen.
District 12

'I'm very sorry Katniss.' Gale said walking out of the house leaving me holding a letter in my hand and no tears coming out of my eyes. Why wasn't I crying? Why wasn't I grieving? My mother had just died and I felt… nothing. Peeta must have thought differently because he came up behind me and hugged me tight.
'It's going to be alright.' He whispered into my hair.
'I know.' My answer surprised him, as it should.
'Come sit.' He took my hand and led me to the table. I looked down at the envelope in my hand and I gently opened it. Inside was a folded piece of paper. When I unfolded the paper two things feel out, a Katniss root and a yellow Primrose. A small smile crept onto my lips. Then I looked at the paper and began to read.

Dear my darling eldest daughter Katniss,

I'm so sorry, for everything. For making you look after Primrose because I feel into a cruel happiness that ripped me away from my beautiful daughter's. It should have been me. I should have been the one to look after Prim, to feed her, to bathe her, to do everything you did. I understand if you still have hate inside you but that moment when Primrose's name was called out, I knew that nothing was ever going to be the same. When you volunteered and I couldn't do anything. Do you know how that felt? How terrible it was. I felt so useless and I knew that you could so easily die hating me and hating what I did. The weeks went by seeing you survive and I was so proud and yet sickened by the Capitol. How could they throw in a 24 kids and force them to kill each other? But my darling Katniss you survived and I let out a breath that had been catching in my throat since you called out those 4 words at the reaping. The dead tributes that could have easily been you but that it wasn't and I thank God every night that it wasn't you.
I hope you know how happy I am to leave this world. It may sound awful but I need to see your Father again and Primrose. But I am also sorry how I just left without a second thought to you. You are now alone but I never meant that to happen.
I heard you have two beautiful children, Prim and Finnick. Is that right? I wish I could have been a better grandmother to them. I wish I could have been a better Mother to you. That is my one regret.
Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire, the Mockingjay. You are all mine. And I am so proud of you for everything you have done. You are my daughter and I will never forget you. Goodbye for now my dear. I hope we can meet again but in a long time. I love you.
Your Mother

a smile played across my face and a single happy tear slid down my cheek. I had been waiting for this letter all my life, for my Mother to apologize. And now I understood her reasons. When Prim died I fell into depression. You find that it's easier than facing the world that they can no longer live in. I understand and I forgive her.
;I love you too Mum. I always did. I'm sorry I argued and shouted. I should have known better. Tell Prim and Daddy how much we missed them. Tell them how much I love them. Tell them how I wish they had stayed but that I hope they are happy.' I whispered into the sky. I pray she heard me because I meant it. Every single word.