Thank you, everyone for your reviews of chapter 16! The response has been really overwhelming - I was a bit scared when I posted that chapter, I wasn't sure if you'd like their toasting. I was afraid it would come across as too sudden, perhaps even out of character. I'm glad you seem to think that's not the case!
Some people have asked me who the other mockingjay really is? There have been several suggestions. I'll leave that up to your imagination, but I know who the other Mockingjay is - who do you think it is? :) Perhaps it's open to interpretation. I have mine, but I'd love you hear yours!
The title of this chapter, and one line, is shamelessly stolen from Game of Thrones.
Chapter 17: Winter is coming
"Perhaps we shouldn't have done it this way," I whisper to him on what is actually our second wedding night, the true one. There are no passionate embraces now, however, neither enforced nor voluntary. We are both too scared, as well as too exhilarated. We just lie there, both naked, skin touching skin, comforting each other. Having sex is the last thing on our minds.
He shakes his head. "It was right." I can feel that he's kissing the top of my head, his arms holding me even closer. I know that he'll never let me go. "We'll be okay."
I remember how Snow looked at us after, and I know that we'll pay for this. Dearly.
The night is dark and full of terrors.
We're going home before the victor interviews. I thought we were supposed to stay to watch them, but I guess Snow couldn't get rid of us fast enough after our little performance last night. I don't know if we're running or if we're being thrown out, but it doesn't matter - we're going home.
We do watch Kora's interview on TV, though - it is mandatory for all citizens of Panem, even if you're a victor on a train. It's pretty much what I would've expected - she's beautiful, charming, funny, deadly. I have a hard time separating the killer from the victim, because I know she is both. Have her nightmares started already? Have they sold her for the first time? Has she realized just what her future is going to be like? She is too beautiful and young for her own good. She is also a symbol for Snow, like me - although a symbol of a different kind. To him, she is a symbol of how he crushed us, but above all how he crushed me. She is the anti-Mockingjay. I'm glad if that means attention will be attracted to her instead of to me, but I'm afraid to hope.
But then they show the three-hour recap of the 76th Annual Hunger Games, and watching it is like being in a nightmare, only I'm awake. They revisit every single murder, dwelling on every gory detail. They flash in front of my eyes. Den. Bendy's rabid mutt eyes. Connor's torture. Rhona and Zenta. The meaningless murders of nameless tributes by the Cornucopia. Sarr. Twitch and Mend being buried under tons of rubble. And finally, Emilia's passing, the way her body is changed from a living, breathing girl to a bleeding, shapeless form on the square in a matter of seconds. As the first bullets tear through her in slow motion, Peeta's kiss on my forehead is the only thing keeping me from passing out.
No one mentions the Victor Banquet with one single word, and I know that's not a coincidence. Snow has most likely forbidden all talk of our toasting.
We're lying in the bed in our compartment, it's narrower than we're used to from home and from the Capitol, but we always end up sleeping lying so close to each other anyway, skin touching skin, that it doesn't matter. I'm exhausted from too many nights with too little sleep, but still I fight to stay awake.
"What do we do when we come home?" I ask him in the darkness.
"We give their bodies to their families, grieve with them. Then we try to live," he answers. He's brought up, for the first time, a terror of a new and different kind - Emilia and Den's coffins are on the last car of the train. This is a new tradition, we're told. We mentored our tributes, and as victors, failed. Now we are to give their bodies, such as they are, back to their families. I don't know if the other mentors from other districts have to do the same, perhaps they do, but I still know that this new tradition is in our dubious honor only.
It is punishment for the Banquet - but I don't believe for one second that it will be our only punishment.
How, then, do you live your life as if nothing's happened?
I don't. I can't.
I discover that although Peeta's arms are no longer enough on their own, sex actually helps somewhat. Having an orgasm just before going to sleep won't keep me free of nightmares, but it usually means I'll get at least a couple of hours of rest before they kick in. As a result, our activities in the bedroom are frequent, passionate, sometimes frantic and quite often something close to desperate. While our embraces are still first and foremost full of love, there is an element of darkness there that I wish we could be without, but I just can't ignore how this is the one thing that truly makes me feel alive.
Once a month, when it is time for my moon cycle, our activities in bed stop. I dread the five days it lasts, the nightmares treatening to consume me, even though I know that the alternative - missing a cycle due to pregnancy - is infinitely worse. My pills are hidden behind a loose brick by the fireplace, and I take one, every Saturday morning, silently thanking my mother every time. Peeta has a strange look of confusion mixed with relief every month, when I reject his advances and he understands why.
But life in District 12 goes on. I don't see much of Gale, who's working in the mines six days a week, and apparently he's very busy on Sundays, too. It takes a while for me to understand why - actually, Prim is the one who tells me that he's dating Madge.
"Madge?" I ask her, astonished. How could I not know?
She rolls her eyes. "She's been in love with him for ages. You never see people around you, do you?" I can't believe I'm having this discussion with my 14-year-old sister, who suddenly seems so much older than me.
It turns out their affair is secret - to everyone but her parents and me. The mayor's daughter being in a relationship with a miner is not going to go down well with her parents, and I'm sure Snow already knows, even if her father doesn't. I hope this isn't yet another thing he will use against me, although Gale and I haven't had much to do with each other these last two years. There is too much between us now. Too many memories, too many dead people, too many experiences he can't understand.
On the few occasions when I do see him, I'm surprised by the intensity in his eyes - an intensity that has nothing to do with me, and neither, I think, with Madge. He is almost glowing, but darkly. He won't talk about work, he won't talk about the unrest I hear hushed whispers of, the dissatisfaction among the miners. How one day, no one showed up for the day shift. They were punished severely, and no one in the district got their tesserae food that month. He won't talk to me about it, and I quickly give up asking. I'm being watched, constantly, and I'm a possible threat to him just by having him in my life.
But I know that somehow, Gale is involved in the rebellion. He's in deep.
So I hold my tongue, and stay away.
Winter is hard on District 12, even harder than usual. There is little food production in the district, as virtually everyone either works in the mines or belong to the merchant class - very few actually produce any food. The food, in insufficient amounts in any year, is mainly transported in from other districts.
This year, though, there is noticeably less food than usual. Peeta, Haymitch and I have more than enough, and as a result, so do our families, including Gale's family. I don't forget my promise from the woods, of providing for his family if he was reaped. I ended up being the one to go, but I still accept the responsibility.
But all around me, I see the starving children. The hollow eyes of their mothers, the lean, drawn faces of the miners, covered in coal dust. Peeta is still baking, but there is less flour available, even to a victor. He bakes as much as he can, the children in the orphanage and some of the worst-off Seam families are probably alive only thanks to him, but still there are days when he simply can't bake, because he doesn't have any flour or sugar.
On these days, he's like caged tiger.
My mother also notices the change.
"I've never had this many children dying from starvation coming for my help," she cries one night, after sending yet another child home with a prescription that she knows her parents just can't fulfill: More food. We sent some bread, powdered milk and meat home with them, but we know it won't last long. We also know that there are six other children at home, too, who are probably only marginally further away from death than their youngest, the two-year-old girl with the enormous, gray eyes.
This is yet another sign that Panem is in trouble. Districts 9, 10 and 11 produce the vast majority of the food that is consumed in Panem, and the near universal shortage of any kind of food tells me that they are all involved in the rebellion somehow. District 12 was too insignificant and poor to get supplies of fish and other seafood in the past anyway, but I already know that District four is deeply involved in the rebellion as well.
It's a difficult, dark, gloomy winter.
Even Peeta and I grow thinner, as we try to share as much of our still generous supplies as possible. I haven't been hungry since the Hunger Games, and it's hard to get used to going to bed hungry again.
The number of Peacekeepers increases, and their grip on the day-to-day lives of District 12 is tightening. There are whippings on a weekly basis in front of the Justice Building. Miners are imprisoned for even slight trespasses.
Winter makes the isolation even more frustrating. I know something is going on, but there are no sources of information available to me. I wonder if Haymitch might have some lines of communication out of the district, but I can't know for sure - and I know that if I try asking anyone, however discreetly, I'm placing them in danger.
If District 12 is dark and gloomy this winter, Haymitch is even gloomier. I've never seen him drink this much. I'm somewhat surprised that his supply of white liquor is this constant and reliable, when no other goods are, but I guess he's pulling some victor strings.
It's starting to feel as if Peeta and I are looking after Haymitch, not the other way around. Prim helps, too. This winter, I realize that she is almost an adult, she's no longer just my baby sister, who I have to protect. She has seen far too much in her young life, and this winter is making her grow up even faster. She helps my mother with her patients. She delivers food to the Seam from Peeta and me. She seems to be everywhere, comforting everyone with her blue, loving eyes and warm, soft hands. She always knows just what to say to help everyone feel better, even if they are still hungry. She is a born healer, and I know she'll follow in our mother's footsteps.
She is also the one who finds Haymitch one day, passed out on the floor.
In retrospect, I'm glad she was the one who came by. If it had been me, I might have just assumed he'd had too much to drink as usual, left the bread on the kitchen table and left. Prim, however, has been trained by my mother. She checks up on him, just to be sure he's okay, and finds out he's not. She quickly gets help from my mother, who in turn calls the Dr Antonius - the only formally trained doctor in the district. He's from the Capitol, and I don't know what he did wrong (or who he pissed off) to be posted here, but it must've been bad. He's not actually a bad doctor, I think, but his services are only available to a select group of prominent people in the district - fortunately, victors are of course among them.
Together with my mother, Dr Antonius saves Haymitch's life, but only just. He's been drinking all his life, and I find it hard to believe that he doesn't know better - surely he knows how much his battered liver can take? The wounds on his arms, however shallow, make me even more suspicious. He's clearly inflicted them on himself, not to kill, but to harm himself.
Has the pain finally become too much to bear, even for Haymitch?
After this horrible night, when for the first time I truly realize that one day, we will lose him, Peeta and I come up with a plan. We go through every single corner of the house, including all the known places where he stashes away liquor, confiscate everything we find, and ration it to him. We know we can never sober him up, but we can make sure he'll never have lethal amounts of liquor available. We make deals with the people working at the train station, bribing them with ham and bread, making sure that all Haymitch's liquor supplies from the Capitol will go via us, never directly to him. He curses, throws things at us and is terribly rude, but sometimes he breaks down and cries because he's happy we're helping him, that we care.
Spring comes late, but in April, we can finally say that winter is over. The population of District 12 has suffered greatly. As soon as the ground finally starts to thaw, they dig a mass grave at the cemetary for everyone, children and old people mainly, who didn't make it through winter. They weren't able to bury anyone until now. Everyone in District 12 attends the ceremony. There aren't even enough coffins, and the horror of seeing all the little, light bodies swathed in cheap, dirty, beige linen cloth being buried side by side is unimaginable. Even the mines close for a few hours so the miners, many of them fathers and sons of one or more of the dead, can attend the funeral.
The next day, life must go on.
Spring is often the hardest time of the year when you're starving, when the stores are completely depleted yet it's still too early to find any food in the forest or to harvest anything from your garden or field. Fortunately, our food shipments from the other districts come in somewhat more frequently now, and I'm hopeful that we'll avoid any more mass funerals this year.
The electric fence, my prison, is powered 24 hours a day. I long to go to the forest to hunt, but I have to learn to be content roaming the areas inside the fence. It's better than nothing, and I even get a squirrel or two from time to time.
On a particularly nice spring day, when the last of the snow is finally gone, I come home with three squirrels and one rabbit. The sun is shining and warms my pale, nearly translucent skin, making me feel alive and almost happy for the first time in months. I'm proud of the result of my day hunting inside the fence, and I think that we have to invite Haymitch over for dinner, he loves rabbit, and he needs some company.
The front door is wide open, and for a second I think that Peeta must have come home early - but why would he leave the door open?
Yet there is no smell of bread or food. It smells of...
I drop my killings and instinctively find an arrow, entering very quietly the house, like the hunter that I am. After going through all the rooms, I conclude that no one is here - at least no one's here anymore. The house reeks of roses, and I open every single window to try to get rid of the smell, even though the air outside is still cold, but it doesn't feel like it helps. I open the kitchen windows last, and I have to hold on to the windowsill to keep myself steady, I'm feeling so dizzy and sick. Finally, I turn around - and see that there's something on the kitchen table.
As if in a trance, I walk over to the table, and pick up the envelope with shaking hands.
"Katniss," it says, handwritten in black ink. My bow drops to the floor. I open the envelope, and the suddenly intensified synthetic rose scent is making me gag.
I've been patient for quite some time now, but as the 77th Hunger Games are drawing closer, it's time to throw away the pills.
May the odds be ever in your favor."
There is no signature, but there is no need to.
I hear a terrible scream, I think it may be mine.
Then I run.
I just want you to know that I am working on this story, but you might have to wait for a while for the next update. I'm currently working on chapters 18-20, and they are just so difficult to write. I guess the last sentences of this chapter tells you why. Plus I've been so busy with the Prompts in Panem challenge, I haven't really had time to write as much on this story as I'd like. I'm working on it, though. Please review! Reading your reviews is so inspiring!