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Ashes and Flame (Every You and Every Me)

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"That's all?"

Dr. Aurelius folds his hands on his desk. "You're doing remarkably well," he says. It's patient, understanding, but he can't quite meet my eyes. "You're doing the best you can. That's all I dare expect of you. All I expect of any of us."

I blink, as if it will clear away more cobwebs, and he flips my file closed.

"Go home, Peeta."

Home. Full of lost souls, of death and decay. Home, to a drunken mentor and a mockingjay without a voice.

Somehow, it seems the only place for me.

-

I stand on the train platform until the cars have gone again. There's no one left to carry away from Twelve, and no one to leave behind but me. Haymitch should be waiting at the station, as assigned. My one-man welcoming committee.

For a moment, there's a flash of the last time. Of family and fanfare and Katniss, her hand warm and solid in mine and still not real at all.

After awhile, I walk it alone. I doubt even Haymitch could drink enough to welcome anyone to this.

-

The bakery is nothing but a husk, burned black and missing its middle, like a pastry shell with no filling. It looks just like everything else, gone grey with ash and bone and a cloud of coal dust.

Victors' Village stands untouched in the distance, the only thing still waiting for me here. But some bit of my brain needs to see it all, to build a picture of what is to replace what might have been, and soon my feet find familiar paths, map the streets from memory.

With both halved – my newest new leg is a gift from the Capitol, same as the shine-soaked pictures in my head – I only end up going in circles.

-

Everything in the house is covered in dust, screams of disuse, but I've spent too long retracing my steps to do anything about it before morning. The mattress needs to be stripped. That, too, can wait.

I peel off my boots and lie on my back, fully clothed and eyes wide open, until the shadows stretch and the walls close in. The doors are gaping mouths and the corners have claws, and even the air is some gruesome muttation, coming to steal my breath, the very blood in my veins. They're not real, but they were once.

The night's turned cold, but I fling back the drapes and throw the window wide. Breathe deep, and let the wind chase the ghosts away.

It helps.

-

The door is unlocked. That much hasn't changed. But when the water hits its mark and Haymitch comes up sputtering, for the first time, there's no knife to dodge.

"Right," he groans, sitting up and sweeping his eyes clear. "It's you."

"Well, that remains to be seen." I hand him the closest dry thing within reach. It's a sock. Only half of me hopes that it's clean.

Haymitch swishes a mouthful of white liquor and spits it down the sink, then scowls as if he's sorry for wasting a drop. His hands fumble through a tower of dirty dishes on the counter, pulling a kettle free that Hazelle must have left behind, and I raise an eyebrow.

"Not going to offer me any?"

He snorts. "Let's not kid ourselves. Your brain's not that broken."

The tea he sets in front of me is steaming, and he drops into a chair on the other side of the table, clutching his bottle close. We sit in silence for a long while, and all at once, I'm not sure why I came here.

Haymitch takes a drink and draws his brows together. "Was I supposed to meet you?"

"Sooner or later, you'll remember that I'm alive," I say, cupping my hands around the mug. "Or as close as I can be."

He doesn't seem to have an answer to that, but it's not the only first of the morning. With nothing else to be said, I take a sip. It's all wrong, like too many other things.

I make myself swallow, but the word slips free. "Sugar." I can see him stop short, the bottle an inch from a mouth turned mildly curious, but Katniss is a figment in front of me, a wisp of smoke and flame. The only ghost the wind can't catch.

"I... don't take sugar in tea."

Haymitch just shrugs and takes another long pull. "Guess some things can't be hijacked."

-

The fence is just a border now, a barrier between the forest and the dead. But I can see the life beyond it, in new spring leaves and beating wings and the glow of golden eyes in the brush. In a patch of stubborn primrose, fragrant and flowering, that blooms beneath the moon.

Mother had always warned us about the forest. About the dangers in the dark, ready to drag us away. This is where Katniss had spent her days, before. Inside the unknown. With her bow and snares and Gale, hunting all I'd ever feared.

After the arena, another, the forest seems a long-lost friend.

-

I dig until my arms ache and my palms are blistered and bloody, and suddenly she's there, less a wisp than a wraith. Real and not all at once.

"You're back," she says, and it sounds as thin as she looks. As hollow.

"Dr. Aurelius wouldn't let me leave the Capitol until yesterday," I answer. It's mostly true, and managing to make it more is a small victory. One more thing they haven't taken. "By the way, he said to tell you he can't keep pretending he's treating you forever. You have to pick up the phone."

Her clothes are wrinkled and worn and her eyes are sunken shadows, the same dead grey as the ash over everything.

She shoves at her hair with shaking hands, but it's a nest of tangles and mats, and giving up the effort is the only moment she seems like herself.

"What are you doing?"

There's a knot in my throat that I don't want to name, so I settle for her sister's, instead. "I went to the woods this morning and dug these up. For her. I thought we could plant them along the side of the house."

She turns to the wheelbarrow, spotting the cluster of bushes. For a few long seconds she looks stricken, and something sparks, something I'd fallen for long ago and nearly forgotten.

For her, I'd said. For Prim, so old in her soul, with all the strength her sister had sworn to save but never truly seen.

For her, but not entirely. It's not Prim who would cry to see her like this. Cinna had known from the beginning. Glimpsed the source of that spark, all the embers he could coax into flame. The fire had always been Katniss, and he'd always had sense enough to wrap her in kindling and let it catch.

Not for her. For you.

She nods, and it's gone again. Then so is she.

I go back to digging.

-

My tea is steaming hot and sugarless, and the open window has seen me through another night. I look down at my shoes, double-knotted without a second thought, and consider the little I already have, bits and pieces she's told me before. And I make myself ask, just as Finnick said I should.

When Haymitch says he'll help, he seems offended by my surprise.

"I'm still your mentor," he says. "We'll sort it out." He upends his bottle, then pins me with a look. "Is that not good enough, or did you want me to sign in blood?"

I stare into my murky tea and can't see to the bottom, and it feels like seeing the inside of my own head.

"I don't know who I am," I say, turning the cup in my hands. "But sometimes I think maybe she does."

Haymitch yawns. I'm only slightly sure that it doesn't mean disinterest. "So what's the problem?"

The other times are the problem. The half of my brain hijacked to hate her, and all that came before, when I'd loved her for as long as I could remember and she'd loved me for the cameras and the Capitol.

I don't say any of it out loud, but Haymitch seems to hear it anyway.

"You taught your heart to lie to your head a long time ago." He gets up to fetch a fresh bottle, stopping to clap a hand on my shoulder. "It'll remember how one of these days."

-

My first loaf is bitter and hasn't risen enough. The forest birds don't seem to mind.

By the fourth time around the dough still feels a little foreign in my hands, but the bread it makes is flaky and golden and smells like all I remember of my father. Haymitch eats the whole loaf without a word and doesn't drink until even the crumbs are gone. I consider it high praise.

The cheese buns are perfect on the first try. I'm not sure what to make of that, but he just laughs and eats those, too.

-

He brings my old work, sent with the supplies on the last train, and the vivid pictures they paint make my head hurt. Killing fingers and faces full of blood, flowers blooming from Rue's broken body. All things I know to be real and had wished otherwise.

One hand cramps around the palette and the other is clumsy around the brush, but I've done this before. Even after. Frosted Finnick and Annie's wedding cake with surf and seafoam, spun sugar catching the ocean spray.

This, I remember.

I want it to be as it was. A purging of everything that haunts me, down to the smallest detail. But when I'm done, there's only space and shadow in living color, more abstract than anything that came before it. A fiery sunset over the Meadow grass, the shape of mockingjay wings. And two silhouettes on the horizon, together but separate, forever moving forward, and backward, and nowhere at all.

-

"You're not the same person you were," Haymitch says, playing the mentor with more care than he ever showed when my life was on the line. I suppose it still is, in a way, so he's better late than never.

I nod along, as if it's news to me. My tea is getting cold. "That, I do know."

He raises an eyebrow, tipping his bottle in my direction. "Ever stop to think that maybe she's not, either?"

-

It takes a week to work up the nerve, but I wrap a batch of cheese buns in the minutes before dawn and leave them on the doorstep. The bud I pluck to place on top is still wide open from the night.

Later, when I walk past the house, Prim's bedraggled cat is curled beneath a bush, alive and well against all odds. And the buns are gone.

Such a small thing, really, but it's something I can hold to, something that has not changed. It's something.

My smile is just as small. But here, in the aftermath, it's the first real one I can recall.

-

There's bread the next morning, wrapped and ready for its rose, finally perfect. I mean to leave it, but the old woman from the Hob shoots me a smile full of missing teeth and shoos me inside.

Katniss is in the kitchen, seated at the same table where Gale had howled his pain, and the scene hardly seems real. But she nods to an empty seat while the cat curls into her lap and the old woman fusses over the meat on my bones, so I hand her the bread and sit down to breakfast.

The cat purrs at me between bites of bacon and stretches to rub its head on my knee, making Katniss freeze and stare as if she's never seen me before.

She blinks it away and reaches for more bread, but for a moment, I see the spark.

-

Haymitch wonders where I was, then pretends he hadn't. When I ask if he'll join us the following morning, he looks put out. "One meal and my tea's not good enough for you?"

He's put out again when Buttercup hisses and Sae takes his bottle before breakfast, but he's back the next day bearing nothing but tea.

-

I bake for breakfasts with the rising sun, then paint the days away, until the pictures in my head start to dull at the edges, fading like photographs. Until the memories start to seem like they belong.

I'm cutting in a new canvas, splashed with the soft yellows and rich reds of her sister's flower in freeform, the first time Katniss comes to me, bow in hand and a game bag on her shoulder.

"You're painting again."

I nod, though her eyes are on the easel. "It's different now. But that's not necessarily a bad thing." Something flickers in her eyes like flint, and I hope she understands my meaning. "I see you've been hunting."

She nods, too, fingering the string of her bow. "Even with the rations, Sae still likes squirrel." She stops, seems to mull something over. "I'm going back out tomorrow. You could always come with me."

I force myself to smile, trying not to make it false, and she seems to know then. Hunting was her time with Gale, before she'd ever given me a thought. Gale, who's in Two with Johanna and smiling for the camera every night.

"I've hunted enough to last a lifetime," I say. It comes out a mumble, and I look down at my hands. The paint smeared there is like blood. "A few, if you count all the times I've nearly died doing it."

"Yeah." She shifts on her feet, bringing my eyes back, and I want to thank her for asking when she knew what the answer would be. "I should go."

I blurt words before my brain can catch up to my mouth, and they're not what I intended.

"Are you singing again?"

She stills, and the flint throws sparks. "The war is over, Peeta. No one needs the Mockingjay anymore."

Sometimes, when the shadows slip back, I think I do. Most days, I just need her.

"The Mockingjay may be gone, Katniss," I say, smiling a different smile now, feeling more than I have in forever, "but your voice was always yours."

-

A stray goose clears the fence and sets up camp in Haymitch's neglected yard. He's down to the last of his liquor, the train isn't due for another month, and the honking is so loud that he finally begs Katniss to shoot it.

There are three more before breakfast the next day. They huddle together, nesting in the overgrowth, and he drains the only bottle he has left and tells me to bake more bread.

-

Plutarch sends parchment paper with the next provisions, powdered pigments I can mix myself, and suddenly my nights are as full as my days. Spent huddling with Katniss over her kitchen table, chronicling all the things she wants the world to remember. Prim and Rue and Cinna and Boggs. Finnick's slipknots and Mags' smile, the shape of Venia's golden tattoos. Haymitch, flush with new stores, supplies years of notes on tributes past. The details he recalls, the little things, make me wonder how much more he'd hold onto sober.

Katniss writes all she can remember, and I paint what she can't. Every name, every place, from the hospital bombing in Eight to our picnic on the roof of the Training Center.

"You started this, you know," she says one night, matter-of-factly, flipping past Rue in the treetops to uncoil Beetee's wire in her own handwriting. "Saying you wanted to show the Capitol that we were more than just tributes. Rue, with the flowers. That was you, Peeta."

I'm taken aback. It's not true in the slightest, but she seems to think it is. "Even if there weren't video evidence that says otherwise, I'm fairly sure that I was at death's door for that, doing my best impression of a mud pie."

Her laughter, when it comes, sounds strange to my ears. It's been far too long since I've heard it.

Searching for the exact shade of Effie Trinket's crooked wig, I'm struck by how easy it is to rebuild memories that aren’t mine alone.

-

There are nine geese now, getting comfortable and growing fatter by the day. Though he denies it, I suspect that Haymitch is slipping them my cheese buns.

-

Sae tries to recreate the lamb stew for Katniss' birthday, but it's not the same with squirrel. We hardly notice, too busy celebrating the fact that Katniss agrees to celebrate at all.

Haymitch has unearthed Cinna's talent sketchbook from somewhere unfathomable, filled with dozens of designs created in her name that don't even scratch the surface. She balances it on one open palm, traces a finger over the features painted on the inside cover, and can only nod her gratitude.

There's a single candle on her cake, one for the birth of this new life. For her rebirth. She puts it out on a breath and is still glowing when it's gone, brighter than the little flame could ever be.

I lean in to kiss her – out of habit, out of instinct – and it feels like the most natural thing in the world. Then she leans in return, cutting the distance, meeting me halfway, and it's a gift all on its own.

-

Her book is more full than not, though the initial rush has slowed to a trickle. The party. A fallen feather. Buttercup's pawprints in ground charcoal. Annie sends a picture with a date on the back, and we add it to a page covered in waves.

Only days old, little Atlas Odair has a face I already know well.

I paint a tiny portrait of father and son, with matching tails of shimmering scales and trident crowns made of gold. Every brushstroke coats bad memories in the shades of something better, dims the sound of Annie's screams between my ears and all the echoes they've left behind.

Katniss answers when she calls, because I can't. I hear the tears all the way from the table.

-

The train is overdue, and the geese are breeding. Haymitch fawns through the fog of withdrawal, watching the eggs like a hawk.

"It's all the grain we have," I say. "Until the train arrives, we need to ration."

"Then stop feeding that furry demon all the bacon." He snorts, throws his hand in the air. "We fed Katniss better than this, and she was having a fake baby."

My eyes slide closed, and I try to choose words carefully. "I don't think you're being entirely rational here, Haymitch."

He gives my last tea leaves to the geese, and I don't say anything else.

-

Katniss puts in a picture of the second family to return to Twelve. Adds their names, their ages, their story. Then the next, and the next, and the one after that, until the train is full again and the book nearly is as well.

She says we were the first.

There's a page saved for us, and we pose for the camera's ticking timer – Haymitch, looking surly but satisfied, Sae grinning toothlessly. Buttercup and a mother goose and half a dozen downy goslings. Me, with a smile I can't forget now or ever. Katniss, with an air of new peace and a primrose in her hair.

The Capitol sends machines to erase the ash and seal the mine forever. They meet with doctors, chemists. Katniss' mother. We're to make medicine.

Twelve. The district of healing.

-

The Meadow returns on its own, a blazing green blanket scattered with weeds and wildflowers. Smaller now, but fiercely alive.

-

Screams reach into my open window, clutching at my chest with desperate fingers, and I'm down the street and in her bed before she's fully woken.

"You don't paint me anymore."

Her voice makes me stop, the hand curling her braid around a fist stilling on her back. The words aren't an accusation. Aren't wounded, would never be vanity. This is her curiosity talking.

There had been handfuls of her in my talent showing. Hunting, bleeding, flying through the arena like a tiny, fierce tornado. Discounting her life for mine on the lips of the Capitol's lie.

"I hadn't thought about it," I say, and am surprised to find that it's true.

I do now.

-

The geese go grazing in the Meadow, beaks rooting for seeds and leaving bald spots behind while Buttercup stalks from the brush, and Haymitch lets them roam.

Then Katniss threatens to eat the latest batch of eggs, and he scowls and sends for a roll of chicken wire.

-

There's no wiring the sky unless you're a Gamemaker, and they find their way back to the Meadow before long. Katniss brings her bow this time, until I ease it away and steer her back to the Village.

I try to explain it, as much as there is explanation where Haymitch is concerned. Haymitch, who lost his family, who had no children, who's spent two decades with nothing but tributes and war and white liquor and Effie Trinket's chirpy voice. I watch him in the yard sometimes, scattering bits of bread without a bottle in his hand, and think the geese are the only things he'll let himself hold on to.

"He has us," she says.

"Fine," I answer. "They're all he has that he's never sent away to die."

I don't know if it makes her understand, but she doesn't mention the eggs again.

-

Katniss is hunting and Sae has her own shop now, business always bustling on a Sunday, so it's just Haymitch and me for breakfast. I sip my tea and watch the cheese buns closely.

He's having tea as well, with so much sugar his spoon nearly stands. The hen with the lame leg has a clutch of four, eggs that need turning by hand. I don't think he's been to sleep.

"You're not half bad at this," I say, catching him off guard and myself right along with him.

He shrugs, hunched over his mug. "They're just birds," he mumbles. "Doesn't take much."

"I'm still here." I lean forward on my elbows. "Suppose that makes me a chicken."

I expect a laugh, a joke, agreement at the least, but his eyes are serious and shockingly sober.

"Not even close, kid."

He goes back to his tea, and it's the first time I want to ask and don't. There's no telling what I am now, and I doubt even he'd have an answer.

Besides, we both know what Katniss had been.

-

There's a blank canvas on my easel, stretched and ready, and I am at a loss.

Grasping for inspiration, I think of the girl in braids and a summer dress, singing so sweetly the birds stopped to listen. Of the girl in her father's hunting hand-me-downs, inherited too early, heading to the Hob with a wild turkey and a smile. Of the girl in mockingjay armor and the hopes of a nation, who will never be black and white again.

Then she's in front of me, peeking her head around the door, calling out my name. I reach out to kiss her, and the spark ignites, and it's all the inspiration I need.

Katniss. The girl who was on fire.

I paint her in a palette of burnt orange and evergreen, frosting feathers over her patchwork skin with my fingers until she is some kind of firebird. She squeezes a tube of cadmium into my hand and swipes her stomach with gold, and I cling to her until the flames swallow me whole.

After, when we're smeared with color and slick with sweat and her fingers on my hip are leaving trails behind, there's fear I haven't felt in months. And I have to ask, though I'm not sure the answer will make a difference.

"You love me," I whisper. "Real or not real?"

She moves her hand to my heart, marking the spot with the swirls of her fingerprints.

"Real."

-

Everything is packed, what little I have, but one of Portia's hand-stitched tour stop suits, and it still fits like a glove, like everything else she spun. District Four. That fits, too.

I wind the pearl in wire and choose a single cheese bun, just big enough to share.

Haymitch has a horrible voice. No one mentions it.

-

Annie brings Atlas to visit. Sae grills the fish she's brought from Four, and we have a picnic, playing games my brothers taught me, marveling at how quickly he's grown in to Finnick's face. He soon grows bored of Buttercup's hissing and takes to the Meadow, laughing while the geese flee from his chubby fists.

I catch Katniss watching me watch him, and the fire in her eyes says she knows what I'm thinking. That this is why we survived, the two of us, when there could only be one. To ensure that there are more.

-

The goslings have goslings. They honk through the night and terrorize Buttercup in his old age, and Katniss sits in the grass and lets them peck bread from her palm.

Somewhere beneath the wind, I'd swear she's singing.

Haymitch crosses his arms and grins like a proud papa, and I'm not sure who he's proudest of.

-

When the baby comes, I have waited so long that it feels as if I've dreamed her up.

Her grandmother's healing hands slide her free, all dark hair and olive skin, and my vision blurs at the edges, making everything gloss and shine until I'm sure it's all a venomous fantasy.

Then her cries ring out like birdsong and her eyes are cornflower blue, and the world is suddenly crystal clear again. Built of all we have created after such destruction, of paint and dough and the wriggling bundle in Katniss' arms, half of both of us made whole.

She names our daughter Phoenix, with a question in her eyes that I don't need to answer.

This is real. Always.