In a land that already exists, but in a place that has yet to come to fruition, lived a man. An evil man, with skin as brittle as aged, yellowed paper and hair as white as snow. A leader of men, who wished to change the course of history, and realign those who rebelled against his vision.
Down silver panelled hallways, to rooms filled with artificial light and tubes brimming with liquid the colour of rainbows, the man stood and watched as long slivers were injected into skin. Wrists strained and pulled against restraints as the colourful liquid fed into the captives' veins, until blood welled under skin and dripped onto pristine white tiles. And as he watched, he waited patiently, waited for the moaning to end, the thrashing to subside.
Eventually the liquid achieved its aim, and while the bruises faded, and the cuts healed, the subject was irrevocably changed. No longer was the person a rebel, someone who spoke against this leader. Now, they were submissive and tolerant, a perfect specimen. The man with hair as white as snow was pleased.
Time passed, and as time passed, incidents began to occur. Those who were changed grew mean, grew hateful, saw nothing but evil and could do nought but bad deeds. And in an attempt to prevent this happening further, the leader demanded more of the rainbow liquid to be made to 'fix' them, and in machines it was mixed and cured and spun until it shimmered like liquid sunlight on ice.
But the unexpected can happen, and on one unassuming day, the shimmering liquid became like glass. In wonder at this mystery, it was carried in delicate hands to be provided to the leader, but in haste was dropped, shattering and splintering into hundreds of millions of pieces. They were like shiny pieces of ice, as small as the smallest piece of dust.
The splinters carried over the wind, to the edges of the land. For most of the year, they lay dormant, unhindered by the wind, or the air, or the shuffling of feet. But in winter, as the lakes froze over and snow covered the fields, the pieces would dance to life, scattering through the air, spinning through the streets until they embedded themselves in the eye of unsuspecting victims.
They knew nothing different, only knew a blackness beginning to coat their heart and dim their view of the world. Gone was the richness and fulfilment in their life, and in its place hatred and a life empty of love.
The leader ignored this change in his people, as his heart was already darker than anyone else's, but elected to no longer use the shimmering liquid, instead choosing to punish or eradicate those against him by other means.
As years passed, and the son of his son took his place as leader of this country, many forgot about the tale of the shimmering glass. But the specks still appeared, still manifested itself every year as winter took hold, changing those in whose eyes they became embedded.
Until one day, a speck of dust-like ice landed in the eye of a selfless young man, and his heart was overtaken by hate and rage and fear. But it was the wrong heart to overtake, because it was loved just as selflessly, by a girl who would not let him go.
Katniss Everdeen opened the window, breathing in the cool afternoon air, watching as the sun slowly began its' descent towards the ridges of the mountains. She'd had to rush, quickly put away the game she'd already cleaned and prepared for the evening meal. But she was there before him, at least, and he would be along soon. It was their favourite time of day, and they always shared it together.
Humming under her breath, she leaned on the lower sill, fingers digging into the cool soil in the window box, studying the buds just beginning to form. The primroses had always been her mothers' favourite, and she knew her grandparents had planted them many years ago, even before she'd been born. They'd flowered, and flourished, every spring since then. Even when not in bloom, the thought of them always made Katniss think of spring, of family, of love. Of Peeta.
The shutters on the window across from her flew open, slamming against the wood work. His blonde hair was dishevelled, his face pink from exertion. "Sorry, Katniss," he apologised. "I had to close up the bakery. Aaran is sick, and father has been working on a wedding cake all day. I didn't want to take his attention away from that."
Katniss shrugged, flipping her braid over her shoulder. "It's fine," she replied. "You made it in time anyway. It's only just about to go down now." She tipped her head towards the low-lying sun, and his gaze followed hers. They watched in silence, both half propped out of their respective window, heads butting, as they watched the orange orb begin to dip below the top of the mountain, its rays shimmering in ribbons of gold and yellow and bronze across the deepening blue of the sky.
Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark had been neighbours for as long as they could remember. While the Mellarks owned the bakery that served most of the inhabitants of District 12, the Everdeens ran the apothecary, inherited when Alice Everdeens' parents had unexpectedly passed away 11 years before.
As a small child, Katniss had known many in the Merchant quarter had frowned upon James Everdeen, and the fact that a 'Seamer' was helping to run the apothecary. But none could deny the healing works administered successfully by Alice, assisted by the plant life they knew James was responsible for gathering, and as time moved on, acceptance by the Merchants of the small family grew.
But even during those hard times, when people had turned their noses at them in the street and others had stubbornly refused their healing assistance, Katniss had always had a confidant in the small blond haired boy from next door. They'd grown up, their bedroom windows across from each other, close enough that if they stood on the sill and took a large step, they would be in the others room. Times played with wooden soldiers, drawing lessons that Katniss failed dismally at, Katniss teaching Peeta how to nock and aim an arrow at a target through both their windows and onto the back wall of her bedroom. They had grown up together, as close as two friends could be. And the one thing they always shared was the setting of the sun, every afternoon, through their windows.
In the last year, they had also begun sharing a love for the other, though it was something both kept as a closely guarded secret, for fear of scaring the other. Peeta was used to keeping this secret - he'd held it closely to him for a long time already. It had just taken Katniss quite a bit longer to catch up.
As the final light disappeared, and the sky began to shift into an inky black, both pulled themselves back into their bedrooms. Katniss felt herself blush as she watched Peeta study her, his blue eyes staring at her intently. It was times like these she wondered if he could ever feel same as she did, if he would ever dream of her at night as she dreamt of him. Peeta cursed himself for making her uncomfortable, knowing that he needed to stop staring at her so much. Not that he could help it. He sometimes wished she felt the same way he did, wished she dreamt of him at night the way he dreamt of her.
"Same time tomorrow?" he said softly. She nodded.
"Same time tomorrow."
And so spring continued, as did summer and fall. Their days were nothing other than ordinary, though as time passed, the feelings they felt for the other strengthened, deepened. Both wondered how much longer they could go on, knowing how they felt, and not knowing if the other felt the same.
The first cool winds of winter began to swirl through the streets, windows and doors closed to the wintry fingers that wound themselves around frail bones and shivering limbs. Katniss climbed into bed with her sister, pulling the cover up to Prim's chin, wrapping an arm across her chest.
"Ok, Little Duck, what story do you want to hear tonight?" Katniss asked softly.
"Tell me about the queen and the snowflakes," Prim said sleepily, snuggling into her sisters' warmth.
"Really? On a cool night like tonight? You don't wish for a story of District 4, or one of a princess from a long time ago?" Katniss hated the story, hated how her belly felt like it was coated in ice every time she told it, which, as for some reason it was one of Prim's favourites, inevitably happened every winter.
"Yes. I like the snowflakes, they're pretty."
So Katniss acquiesced, and told the story of the snowflakes. It was one that her mother had told her as a child, that her mother had told her, and her mother before that. Katniss knew once upon a time, it had been told as a warning to children not to stay out late during winter, to prevent the many deaths that occurred as a result of hypothermia, or simply freezing to death. But as years passed, it became simple and whimsical, and was now more a bedtime story than a warning tale for survival.
"Once upon a time, there lived a woman, a woman whose heart was as bitter as the frost that coated the air and as cold as the snowflakes that fell. After being expelled from the palace she had lived in with her father, she lived alone in a fortress made of ice, spears of icicles reaching to the sky, with smooth, slippery pathways the colour of frozen lakes. The snowflakes that surrounded her felt an affinity with the woman, took pleasure in the coldness that emanated from her, and soon she became their Queen. They did as she asked – protected her from harm, took retribution against those who tried, followed through on any and all of her requests.
Despite her bitterness, she was beautiful, this Queen born from snow, with hair as pale as early morning sunlight, and skin that glimmered like crystal. But regardless of her beauty, she was lonely, for she was estranged from her family and had no mate. And so every winter, with the help of her snowflakes, she would leave her fortress of ice to find someone to keep her company, to be her friend, to perhaps lie with her if they were to her liking. These companions she would always find as the sun ended the day and the moon began the night, and they were always those who had a heart as cold as hers.
And there they would disappear, and live with her forever."
Katniss looked down at Prim, her eyes now closed, and mouth slightly open as she softly snored. Extracting herself from Prim's grasp, Katniss pulled herself out of the bed, and quickly moved across the hall to her own room, wrapping her own comforter warmly around her, her teeth chattering almost involuntarily. She still had no idea how Prim could sleep after hearing that story. It had never done anything but unsettle her, made her cold down to her bones as she thought of someone simply disappearing to this wintry fortress. Sometimes she wondered if the story was actually true, but as no-one else thought so, she simply brushed off her childish thoughts. But she couldn't help the ache that settled around her heart when she thought of it.
She closed her eyes and wished for spring.
Katniss studied the small, meticulously wrapped box that sat on the edge of her windowsill, then looked up at the grinning face that was across from her. "Peeta, what is this?"
"It's a present, Katniss," he replied, his grin growing wider by the moment. "For Christmas."
Her brows narrowed, confused. "What is…what is Christmas?" she asked hesitantly.
As if spurred by her question, he dusted off the layer of snow on his windowsill and hopped up, a slim leather book clutched in his hand; he stepped across onto the edge of her window. Dropping to the floor, he moved over to the worn rug in the centre of her room and plopped down cross-legged, his winter jacket falling open, revealing the blue sweater he wore underneath. He waved her over. "Sit with me, and I'll show you." She slowly lowered herself to the ground, crossing her legs in front of her. He opened the book, laying it on the ground between them. Its pages were yellow; its edges tattered and bent. "I found this last week, in an old trunk that belonged to my grandmother. It's from before the Dark Days, Katniss," he said softly, as if worried someone would hear them.
She raised an eyebrow, suitably impressed. "Wow. What does it say?"
He turned it so she could see the words, see the pictures. And listened as he told her a story about one day a year, where people gave each other gifts and shared times together, warming themselves by fires and singing songs and drinking something called Eggnog. And it seemed so foreign to her, so alien, that it was hard to imagine that once, long ago, it had actually happened. She wondered if it just disappeared, along with everything else from before the Dark Days. Or if it had slowly stopped happening before then, before the world as it was ended, and it became something different.
"So," Peeta finished, breaking her out of her reverie, "I thought how wonderful it sounded, and I wanted to get you something. A present."
"But why? We're friends, Peeta, but we don't need to buy each other gifts. It's not even my birthday." She glanced up at him, felt her heart drop at the way he was looking at her. With eyes so blue, and warm and friendly and…just staring at her.
He took a deep breath, and bit his lip. "You have no idea, do you?" he said gently.
"No idea about what?" she whispered.
"The effect you can have," Peeta replied, just as softly.
"I d-don't know what y-you mean," she stammered. She froze as his hand reached out, tucking a loose strand of hair from her braid behind her ear.
"I wanted to give you a gift, Katniss, to show you how much you mean to me. Open it once I've gone downstairs for dinner, after we've watched the sunset." He dropped his hand, grasping hers in his and dragging her to her feet. He left the book on the ground as they moved back to the window, and then climbed up onto the sill. He crouched, turning back towards her, his eyes shy. Before she could think, and before he could second guess himself, he leant forward pressing his lips softly to her cheek; then leapt nimbly from her sill to his. He leant back out, glancing over at Katniss to see her standing there still, lips slightly parted and eyes wide. He blushed, then smiled, and tipped his head towards the sun. But she didn't look at it, couldn't look at it. She was too busy watching Peeta watch the sun go down, watching how content he looked. How wonderful he looked.
And because she was too busy looking at him, too busy wondering if maybe, just maybe he felt the same way she felt, she didn't notice the woman at the edge of the woods, her hair a cloud of spun sugar, her smile beautiful and her eyes beckoning.
The winter winds everyone feared blew through the town the following day. It caused branches to fall, windows to crack, and the onset of a contagious illness that infected both child and adult alike. People became irritable, became mad, became frustrated and had the district longing for a summer that felt light years away.
It was a week later that Katniss waited at her windowsill, her heart heavy as the sun sunk below the ridges, dropping the sky into darkness. A darkness as dark as the shutters that remained closed across from her. She ran her fingers across the pin that was attached to the lapel of her jacket, the pin Peeta had gifted to her. She'd asked him about it the day after she had opened it, and he'd simply blushed, saying that as well as the book, the pin had been his grandmothers, and he'd immediately thought of her when he'd seen the representation of a bird in mid-flight. Katniss had told him it was beautiful, that she loved it, and the blush that had formed on his cheeks had been so sweet she had still been thinking of it for days afterwards. They hadn't mentioned the kiss, had danced around it like fallen leaves whipped up by the wind.
Now he wasn't even here. He'd never come. He never missed a sunset, not even when he was ill.
Leaning out of her window slightly, she trained her ear toward his room as she heard a noise, wondering if he had fallen asleep, or was sick, or-
Her thoughts cut off abruptly as the shutters across from her slammed open. Peeta stood there, hands gripping the sill, his breathing heavy. Sweat dripped down his forehead, caused his shirt to stick wetly to his chest.
"Peeta, are you ok? Are you alright? You missed the sunset!" She couldn't help but exclaim. Then he glared up at her, and she visibly shrunk back. This wasn't Peeta. Who was this? What was happening? "P-Peeta?" she whispered hesitantly.
"What?" he snarled, fingers tensing against the woodwork. "So boo fucking hoo, I missed sunset." Her head jerked back in surprise at his voice. It was bitter and hard, sharp and lifeless. Like his eyes. What had happened to his eyes? They were still the blue she'd always known them to be, but they were glacial, icy. Cold.
"What's wrong?" She demanded, though she couldn't hide the quiver in her voice.
"What's wrong? Like you care," he snapped. His chest heaved, his lip curled. His hair stood on end, the blond waves a dishevelled mess, as if he'd been ripping and tearing at it for hours.
"Of course I do! Peeta what's going on?" She leant forward, as if to reach out to him. She blinked as he suddenly reached forward through both their windows, yanking on her braid, not playfully, but hard, strands ripping from her scalp, and she let out a yelp of pain. "I don't understand," she mumbled, trying desperately to dislodge the lump in her throat, to will back the tears that were forming in her eyes.
"Of course you don't," Peeta hissed. He pulled on her hair again, drawing her a little closer so that their noses were almost touching. "Katniss 'too good for anyone and everything' Everdeen. Well, I don't care anymore. I hate you, Katniss Everdeen. If I never see you for as long as I live, it will be too soon. You and your stupid hunting, and your stupid braids," he yanked on it again for good measure, "And your stupid sunsets and your stupid singing. And your stupid fucking roses." He let go of her hair and she stumbled back, almost falling to the floor of her room, and watched as he reached across into her window box, tearing at the dirt, ripping the small rosebushes out by their roots, throwing them to the ground below. Dirt swirled up into their eyes, into their hair, though neither noticed or cared. Katniss, because her heart was breaking at whatever was happening to her best friend.
Peeta, because nothing mattered anymore.
With one final swipe at the dirt, he pulled himself back into his room and stared at her. His jaw flexed and shifted from how tightly he was clenching it. "Look at your roses now, you mutt," he spat. He clasped a hand on the edge of each shutter, clutching them so tightly the knuckles were white, and yanked them closed.
She stood staring at a closed set of shutters until seconds became minutes, minutes became hours, and the sunset became a distant memory.
The shutters remained closed to her. As the week went on, she would wait patiently, watching the sun go down alone. She would hear sounds of someone moving about angrily in his room, the occasional thud, or curse. But Peeta had cut himself off from her, from everyone. And she had no idea why.
Lying on her bed, fingers tightly woven around the pin she clutched in her hand, she remembered a winter many years ago. It had been cold, and brittle, and not even the pretty dusting of snow covering eaves could snap anyone out of their melancholy. Especially Mrs Mellark.
Katniss could never remember her being particularly friendly, or warm, but at one stage in her life, Katniss could remember Delia Mellark being at the very least nice. Until that winter. And after that winter, she'd changed. A bitterness had emanated from her towards everyone – but especially Peeta. Nothing her youngest son did or said was ever right, and by proxy, neither did Katniss. And now Katniss' heart lay heavy, for she was terrified that whatever illness befell his mother had also infected Peeta.
But still, she waited for him to come back, would wait at the window and listen to him as he stomped around his room. Would listen late into the night as he alternated between yelling and mumbling to himself in heated whispers. And wished, for the first time in her life, that their homes were not as close as they were.
Until one sunset, his room was quiet, was still.
And the only sound she heard was the demanding call of his name, over and over again, by his mother.
Katniss curled into a ball, wrapping her arms around her legs, fingers digging into her skin. It didn't matter how many times she heard the whispers around town, how many times they repeated the same words – they still hadn't sunk in.
He must have wandered into the woods.
They found his jacket by the river.
He hadn't been right, hadn't been the same.
Became just like his mother, that one. I knew it would happen.
She remembered the red-rimmed eyes of Mr Mellark, the way his shoulders hunched like the gnarled roots of a tree, the way his hands shook uncontrollably as he told her, while his wife remained impassive, her eyes boring through Katniss as though she was invisible. She'd sat, immobile in shock, as Prim sobbed beside her, as her parents reached out to comfort her. But she couldn't think, or feel. All she could hear was Peeta's fathers' words tumbling in her head, rolling over and over each other until they became a meaningless blur.
I'm so sorry to tell you this.
He's been missing for 3 days.
They've determined that he drowned, Katniss.
Her heart slammed into her throat as she thought about it, as she tried to wrap her mind around what they had told her. Her arms trembled as she thought about a life without the friend who had been by her side almost her entire life. A lone tear tracked down her cheek as she realised she'd never told him how he felt. How much she hadn't realised she had felt until he was gone. Peeta Mellark had been it for her, and now it was nothing but a distant dream that would never come true.
Tears dampened her pillow as they flowed freely. She didn't jolt as she felt Prim lay beside her, as she began to stroke her hair, murmuring empty words of comfort. She closed her eyes, and remembered all the times she imagined Peeta's fingers trailing through her hair, whispering against the nape of her neck. Imagined his lips brushing against her cheek as he'd done so just a few short weeks ago.
"It's ok, Katniss," Prim said softly. "I'm sure he's in a better place now."
Katniss reached up to wipe at the tears sliding down her cheek. "How can you say that?" She muttered desperately. "What happens when we die, Prim? Where do we go? How do you know he's in a better place?" Her breath caught as she forced her next words out. "Why did he have to go, and leave me here?" She turned her face up to look at Prim, her eyes searching. But the pretty cornflower blue irises that looked back at her gave no answer. They showed her compassion and sadness, yes. Answers? As Katniss turned back to the wall, closing her eyes, she realised answers were something she may never receive.
They held a funeral two days later, an empty casket lowered into ground hard packed and frozen. Katniss stood, her mother and Prim on either side of her, James Everdeen standing behind them, his arms wrapped around the shoulders of his wife and children. Through her grief she could see Delly Cartwright on the other side of the gaping hole - clutching desperately to the hand of Madge Undersee - low, keening sobs escaping from her. Madge stood straight and still, and if Katniss hadn't known how composed the Mayor's daughter was under any situation, she would think her unaffected. But the shaking of the hand that covered Delly's said more than words could.
Snow fell gently, the snowflakes swirling about them merrily, making a mockery of the grief that permeated the air. The frigid wind curled around them, sneaking under collars and threading through hair.
Katniss felt none of it, saw none of it. Heard nought of the words spoken, nor the sobs, or the query directed to her, asking if she wished to speak. Didn't see the glances full of sympathy that her blank look and unresponsiveness received.
She glanced blindly around the small cemetery as she watched people began to depart. She watched as Mr Mellark, and Peeta's brothers, glanced one more time towards the final resting place for a body that didn't exist, before turning towards the centre of town, their heads and shoulders bowed. Mrs Mellark was already a good 50 yards in front of them, her step determined and unhindered.
She shrugged off the hands of her parents as they tried to turn her away, silently begging for them to leave her be. She could sense their internal debate, wanting to comfort her, to take her home, but to also allow her to grieve, to come to terms with what had happened. So they left her, sitting on the icy ground, her body slowly numbing from the cold, as she looked down at the simple casket. She clutched a handful of roses from home, trying to block out the last memory she had of Peeta with her window box, instead remembering the times Peeta had bowed his head towards the blooms, taking in their sweet scent, a smile on his face as he plucked one from its stem and handed it to her.
Why hadn't she told him? Why had she left it, so that he would never know how she felt? Why had she left it until it was too late?
Tears froze on her cheeks, shining like diamonds in the icy sunlight. She wondered how people survived this, knowing they would never see someone again. How did her mother ever overcome the grief of her own parents' death? How did anyone ever recover from someone disappearing from their life? How-
Her heart leapt into her throat, her heart racing, pounding, her pulse skittering beneath her skin.
Disappeared. Almost into thin air…
Why did people just assume Peeta was dead?
She scrambled to her feet, almost carelessly throwing the flowers on top of the casket, slipping and skidding on ice-slicked pathways towards her home. Pulling on the front door, she ignored the concerned calls from her family, rushing to her room, and frantically scanning the slim volumes she had on her shelf. She didn't have many, but those she did, she held dear. Her father's plant book from when he was young, a slim volume of poetry that had been her mother's….the book Peeta had so carelessly left here only a few weeks before. But it was none of those she sought. It was the book of her great-grandmothers stories. She knew the story inside out and back to front, could recite it in her sleep. But she needed to read it, needed the words to form in front of her eyes to make it real.
And as Katniss' heart beat out of time, her finger traced across the page, following the words she echoed in her head:
"And so every winter, with the help of her snowflakes, she would leave her fortress of ice to find people to keep her company, to be her friend, to perhaps lie with her. These companions she would always find as the sun ended the day and the moon began the night, and they were always those who had a heart as cold as hers.
And there they would disappear, and live with her forever."
Recognition set in, settling across her shoulders. She wondered why she hadn't realised it earlier. Without a shadow of a doubt, she knew.
It was real.
She knew Peeta was alive. And she had to bring him home.
A/N - With many thanks to Jeeno2, MalTease, Porchwood/Mejhiren and Salanderjade for their feedback and support.