Chapter 42 - And So I Stand (Part 1)

My love,

We have seen it all.

The endless confessions.

The rise and fall.

As fragile as a child.

But lately I'm sorry I can't hold a smile.

But I stand tall

To get by

No matter how hard,

I try to hide.

Did you know I'd take the time for you?

Did you know that I would see you through?

Did you know that I would play the part?

I must have made it clear right from the start.

- from My Love by Celine Dion

Author's Note at the end.

The worst thing a person could ask me was how I was doing. It took me at least ten seconds to answer because I had to sort through all the black, empty, nightmare-inducing reactions to get to the one people really wanted. I'm positive no one ever really wanted to know the truth, except perhaps for Greasy Sae and at times, Effie. But when a person wanted to know how I was actually feeling, they didn't have to waste time asking. If anyone knew me even a little bit, all they would have to do was look at me to know how I was in those days after Peeta's departure to the Capitol. They didn't need to ask to know that I was just barely keeping myself together by a frayed emotional thread, that any little thing in my day-to-day life could snip those tremulous bonds and cause me to fall apart in such a way that no one would be able to put me together again.

People wanted to hear that I was fine. Doing great, thank you. He'll be back. Went to the Capitol on government business - you know how that can go.

People didn't want to hear that I'd barely slept since Peeta had left. That I went to bed with a photo of him clipped from his old identification card last summer, when blooming love blinded us to the impossible. That we slept with the phone open between us because maybe he was just as lost without me as I was without him. People didn't want to hear that I didn't leave my bed those first bleak days and only got up when he made me promise to try, for his sake, to keep it together. That Greasy Sae was back to cooking for me. That Effie succeeded in getting me to bathe and dress in clean clothes that first week he was gone only through physical nagging and harassment. That her vanity was sorely tested each week afterwards until I stabilized from his absence and learned to cohabitate with the dull, aching void he'd left behind.

I had darker thoughts than I ever did before - thoughts that even a month ago, I would have never dreamed of entertaining - it was like the end of the war all over again. Losing, always losing. What was the point of surviving anyway? Why did we fight so hard and lose so much when post-war was as painful as the fighting itself? Why bother to love a person and nurse that love and make it grow - just so that when it was ripped away, the pain would be a thousand times worse than if no one had been there to love to begin with?

Because I hadn't chosen to love Prim - or at least, the circumstances were written in the stars. She was my sister. I defended and cared for her because my love for her was as old as she was. But Peeta was a choice. I chose to allow my feelings free reign. I chose to build a life with him. I chose to depend on him in a way I have never depended on anyone. And now I had no clue when he would return to me. I was afflicted with terminal heartsickness and I had no one to blame but myself.

The first night alone was a surreal excursion into nightmares and madness. Between hallucinations and night terrors, I devised schemes that would never survive the light of day. I toyed with the idea of not speaking to him at all while he was away. I was of the mind that all I needed was to wean myself from my dependence on him - to learn to harden my heart so that, whether he was in the Capitol or in my bed, I would not be so affected. I would be indifferent. Independent. Free. Who needed all that love stuff anyway, right?

I tried that very first day to find a way to be impassive again. I couldn't speak to him anyway; he was on that train to the Capitol so it was the perfect practice. I'd decided I would be unmoved by love until that love died off, withered by not being tended. He'd become just another person I knew. It happened all the time, didn't it?

It all sounded great in theory until I chanced to walk by the kitchen counter the very next morning and saw a stupid spatula standing like a guard over the other cooking utensils. I pulled out his still floury apron that I was unable to bring myself to wash because it preserved the perfect combination of his flavors - flour, vanilla, yeast, a hint of cinnamon and a manly scent that only belonged to him. I brought it up to my nose and took a long drag of him. My resolve shattered, melting like the tears that fell unrelenting down my face as I raced back to my bed. The clock became my adversary while I waited for the time to crawl by before I got news of him again. So ended my bold plan to tear him from my heart.

I also quickly realized going to our lake was completely out of the question. I regretted showing Peeta my spot, sharing it with him, and making it his also. No more solitary fishing trips - there was only so much pain I could stand. I'd look to the reeds and see him holding my plant in his hands, turgid green stalks and angry purple tubers. His heavy steps would fill my ears like a relentlessly pounding drum, magnifying the memory of his beating heart, so vibrant and virile beneath my cheek. I'd feel his water-cooled arms around my naked waist, the hard ground at my back, the sun just behind his head as he lowered his lips to mine...

No, the lake was off-limits. So that left me with just hunting to cure the loneliness of his absence. I was back to where I'd started, and almost as bad off as in the beginning. Whenever the phone rang, my veneer of stoicism fell away like molten skin and I was off at a clip to answer it, that is, if I were not already waiting next to the phone to feed my need for him. Because I needed him. And trying to be indifferent to Peeta was like trying to be indifferent to breathing. I could do it for about thirty seconds. Then my chest would burn and ache, forcing me to gasp until I had no choice but to breathe again, in relief and hopeless surrender.

XXXXX

"Up, up, up, my dear! Time waits for no one!" Effie's high-pitched voice penetrated the fog of my half-sleep. I glanced over at the clock. It was 9:00 am on Sunday. Five days since he left. Our day, the day when we reconnected with each other. When I hung up the phone with Peeta earlier, I'd gone back to sleep with the plan of counting dust motes for the rest of the day.

Damned Effie.

I heard Effie move around my room, opening windows to clear out the smell of sleep from the bedroom. "Leave me alone," I moaned into the pillows.

"You know very well I can't. Now you promised you'd go with me to collect herbs and I have been waiting half the morning for you…" Her whining scraped the insides of my brain with each syllable she uttered.

"It's barely 9 o'clock…"

"You are the wife of a baker…"

"Fiancee'," I corrected, my heart all but crumbling at the sound of that word.

"A mere technicality," she sniffed as she pulled the duvet off of me. She could not have possibly appreciated the mortal danger she was in at that moment. "You are the fiancee' of a baker. By nine o'clock, half your day is over. I want you up and ready to go in fifteen minutes…"

"Effie…" I snarled dangerously.

"Don't Effie me! I will not be intimidated. I have to come here everyday to drag you out of bed and everyday it's the same routine. Now, I have a very full day planned and you will not disrupt my schedule by being…unpalatable."

I popped my head up from under the pillow. "Unpalatable, Effie? Really? You're worse than Dr. Aurelius! Bitch, Effie. How about that for a word?" She blanched but continued to pull the blankets down. "Is it really that hard for you to just use a good, strong word like bitch without sounding like a thesaurus?" But even as I complained, I sat up, rubbing the sleep from my face.

"You are fortunate, young lady, that I adore you and Peeta as much as I do because you have been behaving in a perfectly unbearable way since he left. You've only been to the bakery twice and when you are there, you are absolutely unpalatable." I grunted at this. "I am capable of using all the colorful language in the world but I am a lady and can accomplish the same thing without being vulgar."

"Whatever," I muttered, hugging myself to keep from shivering. I was wearing one of Peeta's t-shirts and his boxer shorts and though it comforted me,the thin coverings were not warm enough for the chilly mornings. But I couldn't bear not to wear them because they smelled like him and I needed that more than I needed to be warm. I stretched and made my way towards the bathroom.

"Heavens, Katniss! Where do you keep your blankets? These need to be changed," she complained as she shook out the sheets.

At her words, I whirled around and yanked the bed sheets from her hands. "Greasy Sae was told not to touch my bedclothes," I hissed ominously, every muscle in my body clenching as if readying for a physical fight. I was ready to unleash something in that moment and suddenly the idea of smashing everything in that bedroom filled me with giddy delight.

"But…" said Effie in confusion before understanding dawned on her. She took in my t-shirt, the over-sized boxers, her eyes sweeping the bed before her. When she brought them back up to look at me again, the crystalline blue had clouded over, softening her features. Taking the blankets carefully from my balled fists, she held them as if they would break. "Of course. What was I thinking?" she said almost to herself, straightening the blankets with an exaggerated air of gentleness. "You go wash up while I make the bed. How's that sound?" she said reassuringly. The change in her tone caused the rage to melt away, leaving me momentarily disoriented. I could only stand and watch her in dumb silence. "Go. I promise I won't change them. Okay?"

I nodded finally. I didn't know what had come over me in that moment but I suddenly got lost. I walked to the bathroom and closed the door behind me, knowing in my rational brain what I was there to do but having forgotten all the steps to do it. The day stretched before me like one long, empty wasteland of time needing to be filled with things to do, each action more worthless than the next. I desired my bed not only because it was a refuge from a confusing world in which Peeta was not physically present - but it was the only place where I could find him. I could cover my head with my sheets, phone in hand with his scent surrounding me and indulge the illusion that he was here with me. Was it no wonder that I didn't look forward to the world outside my bedroom?

Like I'd done on every preceding morning, I walked myself through the steps of preparing myself for the day. It was tedious - pick up toothbrush, turn on water, rinse bristles, apply toothpaste - a long litany of mundane instructions to root me, to keep me solid and sane. Because if I stopped my chant, I feared I might float away, dissolving into the air like an exhaled breath. Nothing mattered and more than ever, I was exercising Dr. Aurelius' admonishment to "fake it till you make it."

Once I'd washed and dressed, though never to Effie's standard, I went downstairs to find a steaming cup of tea and shortbread cookies sitting at my spot at the table. My stomach turned sour when I saw the unwanted treat - she had likely taken it from the metal tin that held two dozen of those same cookies made by Peeta's hand. I wanted nothing more than to fling them against the floor but ended up playing with one instead, all the while staring hopelessly out the window. Effie discreetly watched me (or so she thought) from behind a newspaper she had brought to read. Finally, after I had crushed the corner of the cookie down into a fine, powdery dust, she set down her paper and took my hand. "You're as thin as a rail. Do you want anything else? Bread? Cheese? Eggs? You worry me so very much."

I shifted my gaze from the clear spring sky to her worried eyes. "I'm not very hungry." Standing suddenly to head off any further discussion on the matter of my eating, or lack thereof, I placed my untouched cookies back in the tin and made short work of the dishes before grabbing a sack and heading toward the door. I was in no mood to point out that food was repulsive to me at the moment - in fact, the whole enterprise of living lacked any real interest for me. Without another word, she followed me out to the fence.

XXXXX

Effie was much more agile in the woods than I would have expected. She dressed appropriately - jeans and boots with a medium sweater for the changing weather. Her hair was tied back in a perfect ponytail - a smooth, uninterrupted line of shiny gold so unlike the fly away nest that passed for my braid. She carried a leather sack with a liner - perfect for holding her herbs - and she didn't complain at all when she stumbled. Had I been in a more humane mood, I would have been impressed, except by the hair, which remained perfect despite the strenuous exertion of gathering in the forest. But I kept all comments to myself because the truth was, I could have cared less about that too.

Effie nattered on about the center and all the gossip to be had. She had transitioned from working for the Mayor's office to working on his campaign for one of the seats as Representative for District 12. She went on and on about Wesley and his school, how well he was doing and lamented his weaker than normal immune system, a condition he had inherited from her mother. She was thankful for the placement of Dr. Aguilar in District 12 for the strides she had made in identifying the child's ailment and procuring the various treatments to help the young boy.

At first, I found her continuous chatter to be grating on my nerves. I wanted nothing more than to ignore her and the whole entire living world. More than ignore her, I wanted to smash her bag of herbs against the ground. I had intoxicating visions of breaking trees and branches in my path. Even the tiny plants enraged me - how dare the world carry on while mine had essentially stopped?

But then I started paying attention to the content of her discussion and realized all the ways Effie had infiltrated the tiny world of District 12. She'd gone from impatiently tolerating the inability of the older ladies of the District to stand in a straight line to knowing most of the old folks and shopkeepers by first name.

It was clear she had a greater role in the Mayor's life than as just a chic employee and was not indifferent to his son, who was conceivably the most important person in Greenfield's life. After my flaring anger and irritation with her had passed, I felt a passive sort of comfort in listening to Effie. It did nothing to assuage the throbbing ache of loss I felt at Peeta's absence but her nonstop talking had actually extended the time I spent not thinking about him, which was no small feat.

By mid-day, I'd reached the limits of my productivity and begged off on a shared afternoon though Effie insisted on sitting besides me to make sure I at least ate a sandwich. It turned my stomach but I forced the bread and meat down just to get her out of my hair. When she left, I went upstairs and took up where I'd left off with the dust motes.

XXXXX

Dr. Aurelius set my calls closer together when he found out I was relapsing into my depressive episodes. It certainly wouldn't have taken a genius to figure out that I was going to be fairly miserable without Peeta.

So, when the phone rang, I was somewhat more annoyed than usual at having had to interrupt my study of dust not once but twice that day. What did a person have to do to get a little alone time? Dr. Aurelius did not respond to rudeness or my being obnoxious so that only left me with the option of cooperating with him until the damn hour passed. However, that didn't keep me from being unpleasant anyway.

"How are we feeling today?" he asked as soon as I answered.

"Irrationally angry. Hopeless and somewhat resentful," I answered truthfully, though I just wasn't really in the mood for him. "All in all, pretty much a normal day here in 12."

"Well, I certainly do appreciate your candor. There is nothing a person in any sort of relationship appreciates more than total honesty. Let us address your anger first. Can you describe why you are angry?"

I chuckled, which, for once, caught him off guard. "Please share your humor with me, Katniss. I do very much like to laugh," he said smoothly.

"I'm just laughing because I find it really entertaining that you would ask me something as open-ended as 'Can you describe why you are angry?' How about, 'What part of my life doesn't make me angry?' Everything makes me angry. Everyone gets on my nerves. I want to break things when I'm not hiding out in my bed or on the sofa. .Thing makes me feel furious."

"And why would that be, do you think?" he prompted.

"And now we are going to pretend we have no idea why Katniss Everdeen is extremely angry today," I spat.

"It's not my place to read your mind. I want to hear from you why you are so angry."

I sighed. I really wanted to argue. Scream perhaps. Break a few lamps. A tenuous self control kept me from actually acting on the impulse, but that didn't keep me from wanting my fix. "Let's see. I'm mad at the fact that I'm 19 and my life is a mess and people keep on going with theirs. Nobody seems to notice that I am essentially crazy and alone. I'm angry that my sister is dead because she shouldn't be dead but we've been over that one already, right?"

"Apparently not enough but that does not mean you're crazy. Please, continue." He sounded positively jovial and I imagined he would be in mortal danger also if he were here.

"I'm mad that Peeta is in the Capitol because I couldn't keep my door locked. It's is all my fault." My heart started pounding and my breath came in bursts. "I want him here, in one piece, like he was before all of this. I don't want him over there. I want to trade in this part of our story and make him whole so he can come home already!" I was close to tears and I forced myself to stop because I didn't want to cry.

"Are you angry at Peeta?"

"Why would I be angry at Peeta?" I snapped. "It's not his fault that he got hijacked! It's not his fault he was abandoned in the arena! It's not his fault he loves me, of all people!" I felt myself becoming hysterical and knew I would have a panic attack if I didn't calm down.

Dr. Aurelius sensed this and admonished me gently. "I must ask you to take a deep breath before you make yourself ill. There is a great deal here that I would like to work with but first use your breathing exercises to quiet your feelings." I did as I was told and closed my eyes, taking ten deep breaths. My facial muscles wanted to grimace in agony but I managed to relax though it only somewhat made me feel better. After Dr. Aurelius sensed my calm, he spoke,"I find your anger encouraging."

"Why?" I asked warily. There was nothing encouraging about the way that I'd been feeling most days.

"Because you have moved from depression to anger. Depression is passive anger and is a state that immobilizes progress because the subject, in essence, freezes in time and space. Depression is hatred turned inwards. But anger is active. Anger is kinetic. It is not pleasant and in excess is unhealthy in its own right but it is movement in a direction that can lead to growth."

He paused to let me mull over his words. When Prim died, she'd taken all the energy and life with her. I would have died from passivity. When I thought Peeta was being tortured or imagined he could be dead, I went into the same condition.

"This is different, isn't it?" I whispered, more to myself than to the doctor.

"How is that, Katniss? Share your thoughts with me," he asked gently.

"Peeta's not dead," I said, and something lifted out of my chest as I recalled the Capitol transmission, that moment of utter joy when I first learned that he was alive and whole. I was reacting as if he had died, as if he had been torn from me but it wasn't true, even if my mind would fool me into believing so. "We talk every day."

"And he will come home, Katniss. He is working very hard, as hard as anyone can. But this cannot be just about him. You have work to do also. Our goal is to move from anger to serenity and acceptance. Your anger is encouraging but you must not remain in this place of anger, for that energy also consumes as much as it fuels. You must learn to live with purpose and become an independent, functioning person."

"I am independent!" I snapped, my well of anger simmering again.

"I agree that you are capable of great independence. Let us do an activity. Do you have paper and a pencil nearby?"

I rolled my eyes and sighed. Not another dumb writing prompt. I repositioned myself in the chair behind the desk.

"You must promise to be very honest with me. Now, close your eyes and clear your mind." He paused to allow me to do this. "I will time you. For ten seconds, I would like you to envision yourself. Are you doing this?"

"Yes, Dr. Aurelius. I know what I look like," I said with irritation.

"Not just what you look like. I want you to think about yourself - who you think you are as a person. I'll give you a moment." He paused again and despite myself, I let the thought of me permeate my mind. I saw myself in various stages of my life and let each version of me drift before my mind's eye.

"Very good. Now, on my mark, you have ten seconds. Write every word that comes to mind when you think about yourself. No overthinking! Just write instinctively. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

"Very good. Begin."

I placed the phone on speaker and set it down to scribble furiously, writing without concern for direction or neatness, just letting the cacophony of words fall out of me. I wasn't thinking - not really. I was in a state of mind that my time with Dr. Aurelius had taught me to enter; a state where I was passive and letting thoughts and feelings move through me without pausing to catch them. I did not enjoy this meditative state because, more often than not, the things that moved through my mind were not always things I wanted to remember and this was no different. I became angrier and angrier as I wrote, the words becoming curses and insults that I flung at that vision of myself.

I did not feel the time pass, nor did I hear Dr. Aurelius call those ten seconds until my brain had emptied itself and I lifted my head.

"That was more than ten seconds," I told the doctor.

"You seemed to be productive and I did not wish to interrupt. Now, survey your words. In a moment, you will share them with me."

I looked at my paper and was not surprised by the words I saw there. It was me, reduced to a jumble of vocabulary words without corporeal form. I became a concept and it was a terrible one.

"Please read them, if you don't mind," asked the Dr.

I took a deep breath.

Sister

Murderer

Daughter

Lost

Hunter

Evil

Fiancee'

Mutt

Dead

Ash

Burning

Monster

Mutt

Traitor

Faithless

Evil

Manipulator

There were a collection of curses and insults that, toward the end, had me blushing with embarrassment as I read them. To Dr. Aurelius' credit, he did not appear shocked. I, however, was heaving from the experience.

"There is a great deal of self-loathing that I would like to address..."

"What's the point?" I shouted, giving into the blackness inside of me. "What is the point of even trying? People are dead! Children were murdered! Innocent people were destroyed and the ones who are left are insane! Why do we even bother to do what we do?" I started to cry and hated myself even more for my weakness. "Peeta should be here! He shouldn't be in some padded room drawing with fingerpaints because his mind was destroyed. Prim should be alive! Finnick should be playing with his baby! Why are we even having this conversation?"

"We are having this conversation because despite all these losses, despite Peeta's setback, this is the most important work you can do. Surviving is what our species does and surviving - no, thriving - is your greatest and most solemn duty. Precisely because those losses demand respect. The dead have earned their right to be honored by our continued prosperity." Dr. Aurelius paused to allow the statement to sink in. I felt myself deflate, the heat of the moment having passed like a horrific shadow and I was back to empty again.

"Now, Katniss, I am very concerned about your self-image. Tell me, how did you feel about the way Peeta treated you during his most recent episodes?"

I blushed furiously at that question. He had been unlike himself - dominant, selfish and dangerous - I didn't want to tell the Doctor that I found it arousing, that there was a part of me that felt I deserved to be treated in that way.

"It's complicated," I said sullenly.

"Do tell! I enjoy complicated very much," he said. I could almost visualize him sitting back in his chair, steepling his hands as he watched me speak.

I really didn't want to have this conversation. I had thought about that night endlessly, the decision I made out of pure need and selfishness. If I got hurt, it was fine...

"I deserved to get hurt," I said with a blush of shame creeping across my neck and face. "I enjoyed it because I deserve for Peeta to hurt me."

"Why Peeta? Why not me or Haymitch or the cobbler? Why don't you let everyone throw stones at you?" Dr. Aurelius asked very seriously.

"Because he suffered so much because of me…" I choked at the end and covered it with a cough.

"What exactly are the sufferings he experienced for which you are responsible?"

"Everything!" I gasped. It hurt me to say it and I felt the pain of it all grip my chest. "His leg, having to return to the Games a second time, his family, District 12, his mind…" I felt my delayed panic attack come on and began to hyperventilate. "I killed her! She's dead because of me! I couldn't save her, I couldn't…"

"Katniss!" I hear my name through the phone and it is the first time he has ever sounded panicked. But I lose control at that moment - Peeta's absence, my loneliness, the depression - all converged on me and all I could do was wail - wail for my sister, for Peeta, for everyone who had died because of me. I was alone, after all, except for my doctor who was nothing more than a voice full of fear calling out for me over a telephone line. I should have been somewhat proud of myself for finally breaking through his veneer of professionalism and disconcerting him in that way. But I could barely breathe and it hurt. Everything in my head, my heart and my soul hurt. And Peeta wasn't here to comfort me.

"Katniss!" he called again as I knelt to put my head down to the floor, waiting for my lungs to open up, gasping for air that would not go deeply enough into my chest. I heard him calling to me from very far away as my name swam in my head but it wasn't the doctor I heard any longer. It was a voice that broke my struggling heart and brought up the choking suffocation of tears.

"Katniss…" the voice said softly and I wasn't in my study any longer. I wasn't on that horrible, scorched earth where all my nightmares and losses lived.

I was in the forest, in a time before the ashes of the dead were buried among the roots and soil. The voice I heard was my father's and the music was the lilting melody of my youth. He sang as my chest collapsed and burned but fire held no sway over me any longer. Pain meant nothing to me. How does pain matter when I have lived with flames in my very veins? When I'd been turned into a fire mutt with painstaking slowness, floating in an ocean of heat? His calling became music and it enveloped me, not in destruction but in peace. It was a special cocoon of safety that I never ever felt in my life after his death, nothing even Peeta could give me because it was a primitive accord between fathers and their children. As such, I gave myself up to it. I stopped struggling and followed the sound his voice through the woods, letting his song carry me away.

XXXXX

I flitted my eyes open and stared into the warmest brown eyes I'd ever seen. It reminded me of a silly ditty my father sang to me when I was younger…

Do you remember when we used to sing

Sha la la la la la la la la la la dee dah

Just like that

Sha la la la la la la la la la la dee dah

La dee dah.

Brown eyed girl

He'd changed the lyrics and made the girl a grey-eyed or blue-eyed girl, depending on whether he was singing to me or…

I bat my eyes furiously, trying to clear the memory and calm my suddenly pounding heart. It was Dr. Aguilar who stared down at me with concern. Soft pillows pressed into my back and I recognized the ceiling of the room as my own.

"Are you okay?" she asked quietly, brushing the hair that had become matted to my forehead.

"I think so," I answered, everything from my neck to my chest aching as if a boulder had landed on me. I made to get up but she shushed me and gently pressed me down.

"Stay there. Just rest a little."

Her examination bag lay open on the floor as she rummaged inside, pulling out a small pen-light that she shined directly into my eyes. Satisfied with what she saw there, she sat back on her haunches and scribbled a note on her pad.

"What happened to me?" I asked, my voice dry and raspy.

"You hyperventilated and then fainted. Dr. Aurelius called me right away to check on you." Dr. Aguilar chuckled. "You gave him a good scare. I don't think he's gotten excited like that about anything in a long time." She sat carefully next to me on the sofa, checking my pulse. "He'll be happy to know you didn't knock yourself into a concussion."

The rage that had swept through me earlier had left only embers of melancholy burning within. I was going numb again and felt the shadow of my unhappiness like a heavy weight settling on me. I'd barely done anything and yet I was so exhausted, I thought I could sleep for a week. I recalled my father, his beautiful voice as he sang to me and couldn't hold back the tears. Turning my face into the pillows, I let them roll down my cheeks until the cushion I reclined against was drenched in them. I didn't want Dr. Aguilar to notice my misery but I didn't have it in me anymore to hold the tears back.

"Oh, hey, it's okay…" said Dr. Aguilar softly, rubbing the skin of my forearm to my fingers and moving upwards again, seeking out the skin exposed from the sleeves of my shirt. She grasped my other hand and did the same thing, rubbing the spaces between my fingers and gently moved up my hands. Under other circumstances, the contact would have been invasive but whatever she was doing was calming to me and after a few minutes, I came to myself and the tears stopped. When I was sufficiently in control, I turned towards her, embarrassment radiating from me.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"Don't be." She smiled and for the first time, I sensed that there was a tempest behind her calm eyes and pretty features, an vortex of wind so unlike her serene, composed exterior that it jarred me to look at her.

"These are hard times, Katniss. I visit so many people - one woman appears to have the flu, another girl has stomach difficulties and can't stop feeling sick, this man has chronic headaches, that boy can't stop getting dizzy and falling down. Everyone calls me for different symptoms but we all suffering from the same disease." She shook her head sadly. "Don't apologize when it becomes too much. It's too much for everyone. We are all grieving and it will be a long time until we stop, if we ever do."

"I hate being alone," I whispered, as if admitting a dirty secret.

Dr. Aguilar looked up at the ceiling, taking a deep breath. "I hate it too. In District 13, there always seemed to be someone around. You weren't alone except at night and then there was your family with you in your compartments. When I came to District 12, the first thing I had to get used to was being so alone." Dr. Aguilar smiled sadly. "My son is in District 4, helping with the rebuilding. He's not much older than you. I understand why he's there because you have to get on with the business of living, no matter what the losses. It helps me to get out and heal people, make them feel a little better. I don't go back home feeling so...empty...all the time. You know what I mean?"

A fact about Dr. Aguilar entered my mind and I couldn't help acknowledge it. "Your husband died, didn't he?"

Dr. Aguilar nodded. "The Siege of the Nut. It was instantaneous or so I was told. I was not part of triage on that particular mission."

I thought of Peeta, how he'd disappeared in the Arena, how I thought him dead when I'd first arrived in District 13, how it almost destroyed me.

"How do you…?" I started but caught myself.

"Survive that?" She took a deep breath to steady the storm I sensed was raging beneath the surface. "You don't. Not right away. You eventually decide to do something drastic, like volunteer to go to a District that you know needs you the most and try to get on with it. I don't forget but knowing that I make a small difference keeps the sadness away. There's nothing else for it. We need each other." She set my hand carefully onto the sofa. "It's too big for any one person to carry alone. So don't try to do it." She smiled and the tempest was suddenly tucked away, perhaps to be taken out when she was alone and able to lose herself in it.

"Thank you," I said sincerely.

"Thank you for letting me talk to you. Now I feel better again. I should call Dr. Aurelius and let him know you're okay. He'll get sick from worrying otherwise."

"I wouldn't want that," I said wryly. Most of the time, after he put me through the emotional ringer, I did not feel particularly generous towards him but he was doing his job, after all. It was unfair to take my anger out on him.

As Dr. Aguilar made her phone call, I toyed with the pearl on my ring finger. At least Peeta was alive. He wasn't here but he was alive. At one point in my life, it was more than I could have ever hoped for. I suddenly missed him so much, my bones ached with the rawness of it. I didn't want to do any of this alone. Not anymore. I pushed away that dark thing that always seemed to hover at the edge of my existence. He'd come home one day and this was not what I wanted him to find.

I sat up, slowly, casting a glance outside the large window of the study. The day was far from over and suddenly, my mental to-do list began to multiply. If Peeta were not in the Capitol, we would be busy with a myriad of things to accomplish. We would have already planned our garden. It was time to de-winterize the home. I had to put my cold-weather clothes away. There was the bakery and the Community Home. I suddenly became breathless with the things I needed to do. When Dr. Aguilar packed up her things, her eyes twinkled.

"Somebody feeling better?" she said as I walked her to the door.

I nodded. "A little. Thank you."

Dr. Aguilar chuckled. "Just don't wear yourself out. Call me if you feel like you are going to have an episode, okay? Dr. Aurelius will call you in a bit and I'll check in on you again tomorrow."

"Okay," I said as I shut the door behind her, taking in a lung-full of the fragrant, afternoon air. I went to our kitchen and fished out meat from the freezer, setting it in a bowl full of water to defrost and returned to the office phone to dial Effie's number.

"Hey. I set out meat for a stew. What are you doing tonight?"

XXXXX

Peeta's voice came over the phone line, warm and expressive as he read the fairy tale to me. He'd taken up reading from the hospital library to pass the time in the evening and I'd begged him to read to me, since I did not have the patience at this stage of my life to lose myself in a book. It became our nightly routine as, over the course of his stay, he read many things to me. The sound of his voice soothed me as I lay on his pillow, listening to him pronounce each word and phrase with precision and feeling.

"There sat the two grown-up persons; grown-up, and yet children; children at least in heart; and it was summer-time; summer, glorious summer!" he finished in his warm, gentle voice.

I considered the story in the intervening silence as Peeta set the book aside, most likely on his bedside table.

"Do you think the shards of ice in Kai's heart represent all the bad things that can happen to a person?" I asked, reveling in Peeta's company and the lingering sound of his reading voice.

Peeta considered my question for a moment before answering. "I think so. The ice ruined his perception of the world - no matter how beautiful or good things were, he saw only the bad. He may have learned jealousy or disappointment. Maybe it was just a phase of his life that he needed to grow out of."

"Maybe. But he kept writing the word 'love' in the ice. It's like he knew, even in that frozen state, what would free him but he couldn't do it alone. He knew he needed Gerda and he was just waiting for her to get there." I shuffled deeper under the covers as I said this.

"And when they finally return to their village, they're grown up but in their hearts, they are still children because they never got to be young. When Gerda took the ice from Kai's heart, he became like a child again," he said as I listened to him shuffling on the bed and desired more than anything to be wrapped around him. It was a pure desire, without any of the trepidation that our situation had created in me until that moment.

"Gerda's goodness was so powerful, she was able to overcome the darkness and take it from Kai." I said, suddenly overwhelmed with love for Peeta, and could barely keep myself from leaping out of bed and taking a train to where he was at that moment. "I am so lucky, Peeta," I said abruptly.

The surprise in his voice was evident. "How so?"

"Because I have you. Because you're like that little girl, going through four seasons of suffering to get to me, while I was frozen." My voice dropped to a whisper and I could imagine his curls brushing against the receiver as he tried to capture every word. A black envy reared up in me, overcoming me with a powerful wish to take the place of that hard plastic pressed against his chin. "Somehow, I knew you were coming because I knew you were what I needed."

Peeta was silent for a moment before he finally said "You're not lucky, Katniss. I hurt you and I'll never stop being sorry for that."

I could hear the dejection and self-blame because it was the way I felt about myself most times. Except that I couldn't stand it if he felt that way. "Should I apologize for my nightmares or my depression?" I asked angrily.

"No!" he exclaimed. "You should never apologize for that!"

"Then neither should you. You couldn't help yourself and I... I could have made things easier for you." Peeta fell silent again. I realized he was struggling with his emotions but I pushed on. "I could have done so much to make things easier and I didn't. I could have just kept my side of the bargain and left my door closed. But I didn't and now, here we are."

I could imagine Peeta shaking his head as I said this. "You shouldn't have to lock your door against me to feel safe."

"And you shouldn't have to wake up fifty times a night to comfort me while I have a nightmare but there you have it. You have nothing to feel sorry about!"

"All I can think about now is how much I miss you," he said in a whisper. "I miss everything about you, I miss our life together."

I smiled to myself. "I know. I miss touching you. I miss your hair and the way the sun hits your eyelashes." I imaged his deep blue eyes at that very moment peering into mine, the look so intense, I would not be able to hold his gaze. "I miss watching your hands while you cook or paint; I miss all the noise you make in the morning when you wake up…"

"Katniss," he groaned.

"I miss walking to the bakery before dawn with you, how it seems we are the only people in the world who are awake at that time. I miss the lake and swimming with you. I miss your mouth." I whispered this, shuddering with desire. I hadn't allowed myself to think of that aspect because of the last time we were together. But at the thought of him in that way, my body reacted instantly and my heart began to pound. "I miss kissing you, having you naked, taking as long as I want with you because I can, because you're mine…"

"What else?" he asked thickly and I could hear it in his voice too, that he missed me in that way, that he wanted me in that way also.

"I miss my hands around you, playing with you. I miss…" my breath came quickly and without understanding quite how, I was touching myself as I closed my eyes and imagined myself hovering over him, panting and breathless over his need for me. I felt myself sink down on him. "I miss the way you feel inside of me. I love being on top of you while you hold me and...and I ride you. You can't keep your eyes open because it makes you fall apart too quickly and then you come and I feel you shaking between my thighs…" I couldn't go on because at that moment, I really did fall apart and all I could hear were my moans lost in the rushing of blood in my ears as my body did exactly as it pleased - arching, swelling and then cresting into waves, so much more powerful for the abstinence. I dropped the phone as his name became tangled in my gasps, the waves subsiding, leaving in its place me - small, sated and somewhat confused in the middle of small puddles of pleasure.

I regained my breath and as quickly as I was able to form a thought, I felt a furious blush of shame creep over my neck and face. I grabbed the phone and listened into it for a moment.

"Peeta?" I called gently.

I heard shuffling and a muffled sound before his strangled voice came over the phone. "Hey."

"I..ah..shit!" I blurted out.

On his side, all I heard was a tired chuckle. "That was...unexpected."

"I'm sorry!" I exclaimed. "We were having a really important conversation and then...I don't know…I just...I needed…"

"I got worked up too," he said and it occurred to me, from the sound of his voice, the disoriented way he was speaking…

"Did you…?" I asked cautiously.

He cleared his throat. "I...yeah. I got a visual and I was a goner."

I threw my free arm out, away from me on the mattress, the laughter welling up from my stomach and pushing its way up my throat. "I want to apologize…" I laughed again, "And yet I don't."

Peeta chuckled. "Don't. It was nice. Different, but nice. I feel close to you."

"Me too." I said breathlessly. "Come home, Peeta. I want that again. I want you here in that way, to do those things to you..."

"Are you trying to get me excited again?" he quipped and I heard the smile in his voice. I could imagine his tired face, the flush of satisfaction on his skin, the twinkle in his eyes.

"No more for you tonight. But you need to know that I miss you like that too, no matter what happened before." I was serious now because I could only imagine what he was thinking.

He was quiet for a moment. "You aren't afraid of me?"

"No! That wasn't you! I still want that with you! I'm not afraid of you. Just come home safe and whole, okay? We'll work it all out." I paused, overcome with the longing to have him right at that moment. "I'm waiting."

"Okay," he whispered and I knew he was close to drifting off.

"I love you…" I said quietly, sure that he was sleeping. So when I heard it returned to me on his breathless lips, I lost myself in a blissful state of satisfaction and fell into a dreamless sleep.

XXXXX

The fairy tale Peeta reads to Katniss is The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson. I thought the story of Gerda and Kai was a good parallel to Katniss and Peeta. You can learn everything you need to know about life from fairy tales!

Thank you so much for reading! I look forward to your comments. I am working on GA43 and am pretty excited about it. I hope you like it!

HG Fanfic Rec:

Prompts in Panem (promptsinpanem dot tumblr dot com) – if you haven't had a chance to head over there and read, do so! The prompts were based on color and the fandom's talent was on full display!

Everlark Drabble Challenge (tumblr dot everlarkdrabblechallenge dot com). A wonderful, spontaneous challenge, it is well worth reading.

If you have a chance, hop over on tumblr. My friend, Alexis-Bleu is working on some illustrations for Good Again. I have linked one here ( .com(/)post(/)97711551581(/)peeta-was-the-first-to-look-over-at-me-as-he ; Please remove parenthesis!) I'm pretty excited that she is doing that! She's such a talented artist!

Many thanks to my friends and betas, bubblegum1425 and peetabreadgirl. They are the best! And, of course, a special thanks to my dear friend nightlockinthecave for the banner!