Chapter 9: One, Five, Ten

One, five, ten years have passed since the Capital fell. Ten years. It seems like a lifetime. They are writing the history of those days, immortalizing events in words that most of us who lived through it have no words for. The wounds go too deep. They put labels on the passage of time to make it linear...to give it a story. That's what it is in the end-a story passed down to future generations determined not to repeat our mistakes but destined to follow the same path regardless. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and all roads lead to hell in the end. We are silly, stupid creatures bent on our own destruction. History, real and not real, has proven that fact over and over again.

The Dark Days, the Hunger Games, the Rebellion…how can we explain them to our children? How can we make them understand the cost that was paid to give them the possibility of a better life? Their history book is meant to explain it, lay it out in black and white so that the truth will be known. Truth…it's just a pretty word that they hide behind, a white wash to cover up the rubble that hell leaves behind when the fire goes out. It's Beauty Base Zero on a grand scale.

They tore down the Arenas and built memorials in their place. Seventy-five years of Tributes commemorated on the spot where they died. I suppose some would consider that fitting. I call it too little, too late. They deserve more than to have their name carved in a blank stone wall. They deserve to live. Rue and Finnick are the ones whose faces hurt the most, at least for me. I honor them as best I can by the simple act of breathing. To me, that's the least I can do. That and to remember.

The true history of those days is recorded in ways far more meaningful than the rose-colored view of their so-called history. I see it in the memory book that Peeta and I made in the first two years after the war. I see it in the bare foundations and pitted earth of my district. I see it in the ropy scars that trace white lines on my husband's pale flesh. I see it in the sadness that dulls my sister's china blue eyes when she glimpses the Hawthornes or passes through the square where the Memorial was dedicated just last week. I see it in my children's innocent faces…what we fought, bled and died for. I see it.

Gale Hawthorne is my best friend. He told me he loved me once and had to take a chance that I might just love him back. He knew it was hopeless but, as he said, he had to try. He knew before I did that Peeta held my heart and probably always would. That didn't change the fact that part of me was his just as part of him is and always will be mine. Peeta is my dandelion in spring, the hope that good will always follow. Gale is my foundation. He helped hold me together and picked me up when I was close to falling. He died saving my sister. I hate and love him for that.

The march into the Capital is shrouded in a haze of smoke and screams. Some memories stand out in Technicolor while others are hazy. I'll never get them back. Snow didn't give the Rebels the satisfaction of punishing him for his crimes. The President died as he lived-in front of a camera smiling as the poison leached its way into his veins and stopped his stone cold heart forever. I'm told that they did find the body, lying like an Emperor in his rose garden. It was dragged through the streets and strung up in the City Center where Tributes were once paraded about. His end was made where so many other endings began. Ironic, isn't it?

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We straggle into the City Center with the rest of the squad Coin hand-picked to go with us. Boggs fell when a pod deployed. He died right in front of me, his last words urging me to kill Peeta and to not trust Coin. I'm not sorry that I only followed half of that order. I never was a very good soldier. I was bitterly angry at both Coin and Snow for the selfish way they spent the lives of others. Peeta's words from the roof played in my head, I want to find a way to show them that I'm not just a piece in their Games. If I'm gonna die, I want to die as me. I thought he was so foolish at the time. Now I know that I was the fool. Peeta and Gale are far better rebels than I could ever be.

The corral of children surrounded by a wall of Peacekeepers is enough to shock us into stillness. My stomach roils at the thought of Snow using even more innocents to hide behind. More than anything, I wanted to keep my vow to be the one to end his life. He would leave this world knowing that the spark he once tried to contain had consumed him and his precious Panem. I wanted it like I had never wanted anything else in my life. My heart burned in my chest with the wish to see him fall. Like I said, we are silly, selfish creatures. Darkness recognizes its own. Snow knew me for what I was the moment I volunteered for Prim in the Reaping. The bastard was drenched in blood and my hands were far from clean.

The parachutes rain down, bringing with them thoughts of food, of warmth, of hope. No. Not this time. The first wave of bombs sends a shockwave through the crowd along with a shower of blood and flesh. Those that don't die right away stagger unseeing toward salvation, a silver token from a benevolent stranger. I see the terror in Gale's face, in the fathomless gray depths that are the first to register the true horror about to unfold. I see Peeta's stark white face, colorless and pale, as he stares at the arm lying on the paving stones just a few feet away…an arm that's too small to be anything but what it is. The screams roll in like thunder, the bodies churning like floodwaters as they run to and from the massacre unfolding within the barricades. I can't move.

Gale is shaking his head, lips moving but no sound escaping. He stares in shocked disbelief at Peeta sprawled on the ground with his head in his hands. He looks at me and I know something has irretrievably broken. We don't know what to do so we do what we can. I bend down and take Peeta's face in my hands, whispering his name. Gale shoulders his gun and rips into a duffle lying forgotten on the ground. He pulls out a shirt that's a hideously vibrant shade of pink and tears it to shreds. A hysterical bark of laughter escapes me as I picture Effie Trinket's dismayed expression. Gale shoves a scrap of fabric into my hands and gestures wordlessly toward Peeta's wrists. The cuffs are gone but the wounds they left still bleed. His hands dig into mangled flesh, fingers taking the place of steel. "Not real. Not real," he chants incessantly under his breath. "Not real. Not real. Not real."

"Peeta," I whisper. "Stay with me. Please, Peeta. Don't let them take you. Not now."

His red-rimmed and glassy eyes focus on my face. The look has depth, substance, texture. I can feel it moving over me like a fingertip,. "You love me?" he rasps. His eyes are more black than blue but I can see it is him behind them and not the mindless Capital creation programmed to kill me. He lifts a hand to my face and cups my cheek. Despite the blood riming his fingers, I don't move away. I lean into him, twine us together until nothing and nobody can take him from me again.

"Real," I whisper back. I feel him shudder as the tension and venom subside. "Real, Peeta." I repeat too many times to count over the next several minutes. Finally, I see Peeta looking back at me…my Peeta. His eyes flicker to the butchery rendered by the bombs. I can see the questions piling up behind them, but there are no answers to be found amid the walls of the injured and dying.

"Is he going to be alright?" Gale questions. "We need to get out of here. This place will be a graveyard before nightfall. The Peacekeepers won't let it go easily."

"It's already a graveyard," Peeta breathes. "There's more than mortar holding those walls up."

Gale doesn't comment, but his eyes say everything. Despair, disbelief, and defeat are in plain sight. My best friend has seen more than his share of killing, has spilled blood with his own two hands. This kind of wholesale slaughter is different. Watching the Games isn't the same as playing them. It's yet another brick in the wall that separates us from the boy and girl we used to be.

Footsteps, like thunder, ring across the courtyard. Too many Rebels to count flood into the open area and overflow into the arteries and veins of the city, sweeping the few remaining Peacekeepers back. The wails of the injured are lost in the escalating noise. A flurry of white uniforms swarms the barrier and pushes the rubble aside to reach the children. A blonde ponytail and the ducktail flipping behind her marks Prim out. I'm on my feet, screaming her name before another second passes.

Gale grabs my arm in an iron grip, shrugging off my feeble attempts to get free. "I'll get her. Get out of here. Go on, Katniss. You can't stay here." He drops my arm and sprints toward the barricade without another word. I stand in dumbfounded silence as I watch him race toward her, calling to her with every step. His urgency freezes her in her tracks as twin impulses war. I can see the struggle on her face from where I'm standing. There are still injured kids that need help, but Gale doesn't panic and Gale would never ever tell her to go without a good reason. She hesitates for one moment too long.

I don't realize that Peeta is no longer beside me until I see a mop of curly blonde hair throw itself into the maelstrom. "Pe...Ga...Pri…" their names lock in my throat, choked off by the knot that wedges itself somewhere between my chin and collarbone. Gale is the first one to reach her, wrapping her in a bear hug despite her wiggling protests. He shoves her into Peeta's arms and gives him a push to hurry them along. His lips move and I read the words as if they were printed on a page…"Take her and go." Peeta doesn't ask questions, just wheels and runs with my sister sputtering furiously over his shoulder. Gale trails behind, stopping only to grab a girl in a lemon yellow coat that wanders into his path. "Go, go, go." He yells frantically. They manage two more steps before the second wave of bombs ignite

Seconds swell and expand as I watch the fireball engulf them. Gale disappears in an instant, swallowed up by orange-laced red. My last glimpse of him was the lemon hued coat being stitched up with fiery threads. His name fell from my lips like a prayer that I knew would never be answered. My best friend was gone.

Peeta took the brunt of the blow, tucking Prim into the curve of his body as the flames swirled around them. I heard them scream, first him then her. I couldn't see them, couldn't move. The ground shook under my boots, groaning as if the earth itself heaved in protest.

If the first bombs were designed to cause chaos, the second had no other purpose than to wipe the slate clean. Behind the barricade, there was nothing left. The blast radius leveled everything in its path. The few that managed to get out, like Prim and Peeta, would bear scars. Of Gale, there was no trace. Nothing. I couldn't stop the sobs that shook me, ripped at my throat and hollowed out my heart. He saved her. He saved them both…for me. He died so the ones I loved most in the world could live. How could he not know he was on that list too? How could he leave me here? How could I ever repay such a gift?

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It was Peeta that showed me the only way to be worthy of what Gale gave us that day. It was Peeta who pushed aside his breathing mask and demanded the right to tell Hazelle himself what had happened. He said it was the right thing to do. I couldn't argue with him. I couldn't find the words.

Prim's bruises healed and the scars faded except for one above her eye that looped along the brow bone before arcing into her hairline. That and the guilt that swathes her like a blanket are her only visible marks. There is a slump to her shoulders that wasn't there before. I recognize it and curse because I know it all too well. Not allowed to be a child but, as a child, bearing the responsibility of an adult. I had hoped to spare her that but, as I had in so many ways, I'd failed.

The first two years were the hardest. We held tightly to each other, watching and waiting for the world to heal itself or fall apart again. Coin died, not by my hand, but as punishment for her crimes. A tribunal was set up at Commander Paylor's behest to look into allegations that Coin abused her power during the last days and months before the Capital fell. They asked Peeta and me to testify but we refused. We took to the cameras one last time as the star-crossed lovers and told our tale. The video was played during the trial. Haymitch said there wasn't a dry eye in the room except for Coin. She watched as Peeta and I laid her deeds bare before the world and didn't blink. She and Snow really were two of a kind.

The revelation of her plan to hold a Hunger Games with Capital children caused uproar in the districts that paid lip service to the Rebels. She was sentenced to death by the citizens of her own District. They put a bullet in her head the day my family came back to Twelve. Mother left for District Four a few months later. There were too many bad memories and she couldn't stay. She asked Prim and I to come with her but both of us refused. Twelve was in ruins but it was still home. Peeta left the decision up to me. Still, he couldn't hide his relief when I told him that we were staying. I knew it made him happy.

Our daughter came the third year. I had disavowed children at an early age but Peeta wanted them. Deep down, so did I. It was fear of the Games, fear of starvation, and fear of having someone else I loved taken away that held me back. When I felt her move for the first time, fear took hold again. Peeta held me as I sobbed into his shirt, whispering that he loved me and everything was going to be alright. I believed him because he didn't make promises that he couldn't keep. The night she was born was both the happiest and most terrifying of my life. Looking into her pale blue eyes, I could finally breathe again. Her tufts of hair darkened as the weeks wore on but those blue eyes didn't waiver. I wanted to call her Maysilee, after the girl who was my mother's best friend and the first to wear the Mockingjay pin in the Arena. It seemed to fit. Peeta wanted to call her Gale. I didn't ask why. Some things are best left unsaid. I simply said yes and let the rest of it go. The reasons weren't important.

May, as she insists on being called, lives in absolute certainty that she is loved. To her, the world is one wide wonderland to be explored at her leisure and safety isn't counted in Reaping slips. She has never known what it is like to do without simple things. She has never known the deadliness of dread nor the gray depths of despair. To her, the words of her lullaby are the only truth she knows.

Her brother came six years later. It was a bit easier the second time, but not much. I guess I'll never get used to taking the good things in life for granted. They are so easily lost and so hard to do without. Sometimes, it's simpler to look for the bad because you aren't surprised when it shows up. Peeta tells me I'm a pessimist. I tell him it's his job to make me see that things can and will be good again. It's a job he takes seriously.

Asher Mellark was born on the day Gale Hawthorne died. I took one look at my son's gray eyes and felt something come full circle. All the pieces of my life were once again in place. We struggled long and hard to find him a good name. It was Hazelle who suggested Asher. "It means blessed," she said in a strong, clear voice that belied the sheen of tears in her eyes. "He would want to see you happy, Katniss. That's all he wanted. It's what he died for…to give us all the chance to make what we can of this life. Don't waste it."

I owed it to Gale to make the most of every day, good or bad. I owed it to myself. Hazelle comes by often to see her godson. She takes him for walks, teaches him funny songs, and laughs at his constant chatter and smiles. Ash has my eyes and watching manner but he's clearly his father's son. I watch them in the garden as Peeta lets him hold a brush and daub paint on a fresh canvas. Their laughter is the sweetest sound I've ever heard. Even the birds stop to listen when my boys laugh.

We take each day as it comes. Prim starts to smile again, more often when Rory Hawthorne walks her home from the apothecary. Peeta built the shop and gave Prim the key on her eighteenth birthday. She cried for two days after, saying she didn't deserve it. Peeta told me to leave her alone, that she needed to get it straight in her own mind. Nothing I could say or do would make it easier.

Someday, I'll have to tell May and Ash the real story. It's not a fairy tale where the prince and princess live happily ever. Sometimes, there are monsters to fight and dragons to slay and sometimes, the good guy doesn't win. I'll tell them that it's okay to be afraid, and that it's okay to cry. I'll tell them that they are loved. After all, in the end that's the only thing that matters.

FINIS THIRTEEN