It’s not like anything people have described before. There’s no bright light, he doesn’t hear anyone calling his name, it’s not even like falling asleep.
Dying is painful.
He can feel the hounds digging into him, ripping and tearing, teeth and claws, until the very end. And then, he feels nothing, as if he had never existed before, as if every previous ache and pain, trial and struggle and hardship, had been pointless.
He’s aware for a long time, but maybe dreaming. He doesn’t think he’ll wake up after the hounds got him, but it’s still nice to dream, he supposes. But lately, lately his dreams have been taking him nowhere but hell. They take him back to mere weeks ago, to days spent in a healer’s house, to days full of sickness and void of hope. To a rough, agony filled night.
To a funeral.
The weeks after that go by in a blurry mess of sweat, and blood, and a phantom pain rearing its head in his chest. He doesn’t cry. He can’t. So he throws himself into his training, vows to be better than anyone else, like it might change the strokes of fate. Like it might bring her back.
He’s never as strong as he is when he’s angry. And, now, he’s always angry. He’s angry at his parents for convincing him that it would be alright. He’s angry at his trainers for limiting his time with her. He’s angry with his siblings for teasing them, poking and prodding and making her last few months just that much more miserable. But mostly, mostly he’s angry with himself.
He’s angry with himself because he should have paid more attention, should have seen the signs. He should have been able to save her. But all he could do was s sit back and watch her die.
He remembers that she was beautiful, even dying. Even dead. She was strong and vibrant and why would he need another reason to live if he could have her? Why would he need anything else at all?
He remembers the way she used to smile at him, exasperated and fond all wrapped into one. He remembers teasing her about that smile, about the sharpness of her teeth and ‘why don’t you just bite the stone instead of carving it with chisel and hammer?’
He remembers the way she would laugh at him when he made a fool of himself, loud and musical and unafraid, so unlike the others their age.
He remembers the softness of her skin, how smooth and pliant it was under his hands, despite the years worth of muscle buildup. He remembers the way she used to smooth her hands over his back, even if she was the one who had had a bad day; she never stopped trying to take care of him. He remembers how he always took that for granted and when it came time to return the care, the nurturing, he didn’t know how. He remembers how, even after he got sick, she would roll her eyes when he fussed, agitated with her, with himself, with everyone because he didn’t know how to fix her.
He remembers how she never blamed him.
He remembers the sound of her voice, soft and sweet, but only for him. For everyone else, it was gruff, but polite, disinterest. Sometimes he thinks he still hears her voice, calling his name, making fun of his foolishness, whispering in his ear. He can hear her now, whispering his name, urging him to wake up, to abandon this dream world. To come back to her.
He resists, knows in his heart that if he leaves this dream he will never hear her voice again. So he holds onto that memory, grasps it in his hands and refuses to let go. But like every other thing he’s tried to hold onto, tried to keep safe, tucked under his heart, the memory slips through his fingers like sand. It falls away and he tries, wills it even, but he just can’t catch it.
And then he’s gasping, sucking in breath like a starving man would devour food, and it’s like someone punched him in the gut. His chest is burning and his heart is pounding and he can’t hear anything but the blood scraping through his veins. His skin is on fire, crackling and bursting with some kind of power. His fingers and toes are tingly and numb all at once and even laying on his back his knees feel like liquid cement, thick and grating, but all to unsupportive.
There’s lightning dancing under his skin, shocking bone and marrow alike. He tries to move, pulling on muscle and sinew and ligament, and the pain lacing through his body is like thunder rolling through the sky – loud and powerful and impossible to ignore.
But he’s done this before’ he’s pushed through pain and limitations and nothing is going to stop him from doing it again. A weight lands on his chest, but he can’t tell if it’s his hand or someone else’s. His eyelids feel like the weights he used to train with, and he can’t lift them like he wants to. There’s breath on his face that he knows is not his own, and he can hear a whisper just louder than the blood in his veins, but he can’t understand a word.
The voice is soft and feminine and fills him with a sense of longing and hope and, for some reason, sorrow. But he pushes the sadness away and clings to the longing and the hope and they renew his fight to open his eyes.
It’s bright, and that’s the only thing he can perceive at the moment, but then the glossy smoke fades away and he can see the glimmer of sunlight slip through patches of a roof. But then it’s not a roof, it’s branches growing off of a tree and the sunlight is filtering through the gaps in the leaves. He blinks once, twice, and it’s as if everything rights itself. There’s no more confusion, no more sorrow buried in the spot where his heart was supposed to be. He knows what happened up until the moment.
He lets that knowledge consume him, bowl him over, and when the realization finally sinks in, he’s relieved. He had nothing left to live for; everything precious had been ripped from him. He was done with that life. It’s why he volunteered for the Games, because he had no intention of winning.
There is a hand brushing over the top of his head, through his hair, scratching at his scalp with blunted fingernails. It reminds him of her, of how she always comforted him. He sits up, tired already of laying around in this new world, this new life after death, and pulls away from the hand scritching at his head.
He’s in a field, which he finds sort of strange, but then a melody floats into his ears, a song about a meadow and a pillow of grass under the willow tree.
Huh, he thinks to himself. Looks like the Valley Song got it right.
The meadow around him is beautiful, lush and green and flowering. It’s everything and nothing he imagined death would be like. It’s more beautiful, more peaceful than anything he could have dreamt. It’s warm enough to be comfortable but cool and breezy enough to avoid sweating. The air smells like warm vanilla and brown sugar and for just a moment he regrets not seeing his family one more time, that they will never share this with him, but then he remembers that, eventually, they will join him.
“Whatcha thinkin’ ‘bout, Career boy?” a soft voice drawls.
He is, all at once, surprised, relieved, joyous, expectant. He turns his head and she’s sitting there, feet tucked up under her, as comfortable as she could be, leaned up against the bark of the tree. Her long, dark hair is thrown over her shoulder and her dark green eyes crinkle as she grins just a bit wider.
“Adalay,” he breaths, and she laughs, as if she can’t quite believe his presence either. He turns his body, and he’s still a bit achy, but he finds it in himself to go to her. He gets his feet under him, but they aren’t strong enough to carry him yet, so he resigns to crawl.
When he’s in reach of her, he hesitates. His mind throws doubts at him: what if she’s not real? What if she disappears again? What if she’s some kind of trap? He watches as the smile on her face saddens, as if the same thoughts had run rampant through her own head.
“I know the feeling,” she says softly. “It’s like a dream in here.”
“Where’s everybody else?” he finds himself asking. “The other tributes?”
She shrugs, “It’s my guess that everyone wakes up somewhere different. I’ve seen a few other people, but they’ve all moved on pretty quickly.”
“Are you real?”
She shrugs again, “I don’t know. Are you? I died, Cato. I guess that means you did too.”
He nods slowly, absentmindedly, as he reaches out a hand to brush the skin of her legs. It’s a jubilant shock, the warm flesh under his fingers, the goose bumps his touch raises; she doesn’t feel dead. She smiles again, and reaches out to cup his face, taking him in like she hasn’t seen him in years. It feels like years. She grasps his shoulders and pulls him into her so that they are both leaning against the tree, curled around each other. He leans into her as much as he can. He takes in the sight of her, the smell of her, the small pattern of freckles under her right eye, the way she doesn’t look at anything but him.
“Why are you here?” she asks, and the question fill him with dread.
He frowns, can’t help himself, and she says, “You volunteered, didn’t you? You volunteered as tribute! You promised you wouldn’t!”
“I know,” he agrees.
“Then why did you?”
She isn’t angry with him; only vague disappointment laces her voice. He did break a promise after all.
“I didn’t have anything left to live for,” he says truthfully. “So I decided to stick it to the Capitol before I left.”
“Oh?” she says into his hair. “Tell me about it.”
And he does. He tells her about the plan he began hatching before the Reapings were even through, about how the District 12 tributes were perfect. About how he made sure someone worthy won, someone brave, who cared about people, someone who would do anything to protect everyone. He told her about Katniss and Peeta and how they would pass his message on: that life wasn’t worth living if you didn’t have anyone to live for.