They call it Remembrance Day, but it is the day I want most to forget.
A giant pit has opened in the place where my soul used to be. It's sucking away all that's lovely and pure from the world, not to mention the small bit of goodness that might have remained as a part of who I am. In its place is a crushing nothingness that threatens to overcome me, a yawning, terrible darkness that I can only escape through sleep. But sleep is full of the anguished faces of the dead. People who I killed. People who were caught up in the revolution that I started inadvertently. People that died to keep me alive. People who are dead for no other reason than they happened to know me. People I failed to protect. People I loved. I don't care how much I treasured them once. I don't want to see their faces. I don't want to see anyone. The pit is sucking up every bit of love I have left and twisting it into despair. I just want to melt into the room, become part of the beams and struts; disappear completely. Then I want the house to go up in flames. Nothing lasts. Everything burns, especially when you are The Girl on Fire.
Today is the day that Prim died.
Last year, Dr. Aurelius and I talked a lot about this day before it happened. More than anything else, I had been struggling with the completely unnecessary nature of her death from a bomb set off after the war was basically won. I desperately needed there to be some meaning, some kind of something attached to what had taken her away from me, so I decided that I would make the day a celebration of life, a day where I would live as much as I could, if only for her. So I did, starting off by doing what I had wanted to do for weeks, maybe even longer, and kissing Peeta for the first time in over a year. Then I went into the woods and shot squirrel after squirrel, all right in the eye. I swam in my father's lake, picked berries and sat on the rock, remembering the good times with Gale in a way I only allowed because I know that Prim would have insisted. I helped Sae cook, and played with her granddaughter, the first child I had so much as even touched since the war. After everything, it made me feel as though I had honored her somehow. If Prim had been there, she would have been happy to see me doing the things that made me feel alive.
But this year, that resolve is gone, replaced instead by a cold inescapable numbness. I have somehow survived while she is dead: the world has received the lesser end of the deal, regardless of how she would have felt about it. When I volunteered in her place I changed the entire course of my life, and maybe even the future of the nation, but it didn't matter in the end. She died anyway, and the more reprehensible part is that the universe continues to move forward without her. I have even done so myself. Part of me knows that scholars and historians will probably rank her, my sweet sister, as one of the most important people in the existence of our world: the small stone that started an avalanche that rocked the course of history. But I don't care about history, or the future, or anything else when I compare them to the thought of my little duck still alive.
On days like today, my survival feels like a living death.
I have been up for hours before Peeta finally wakes. In that time, I've rolled onto my back to put a lot of space between us, though all I'm doing is staring at the ceiling mindlessly. I feel him begin to stir, leaning back expecting me to be close behind him. When he discovers I'm not there, he wakes more fully and rolls over, propping himself up on his elbow to look down at me.
"Morning, beautiful," he says softly, sleepy concern evident in his voice. He knows what today is too. I've been quieter and quieter all week, spending longer and longer in the woods every day. Last night, I didn't come home until after dark, and when I opened the door, I found him sitting at the table, blue eyes wild with worry. Rory was at the back door ready to go into the woods and look for me. Thom was already there. Peeta had tried to get me to talk, but there was nothing to say. She was dead and I was alive; married, with responsibilities and a future, all things Prim would never get the chance to have.
Now I don't respond, or even look at him, though I can hear him sigh as he brushes the hair away from my forehead. I feel smothered by his comfort, his hope, his love. He is going to be so kind today, treating me as though I will shatter at the slightest touch, and I don't have the capacity to even try to reciprocate. As though it would really even matter if I did. I don't want to feel his goodness, can't open myself to it any further than I have already, only to have it go the way that Finnick's laugh and my father's voice and Prim's smile have all gone.
Peeta leans over and softly kisses my cheek, "Why don't you come take a shower with me?" It isn't a sexual suggestion. Bathing helps my moods sometimes, and he knows it.
I close my eyes and don't answer. Maybe if I ignore him long enough he will go away, leaving me with the selfish depression that I'm not strong enough to break free from. He squeezes my hand and scoots to the edge of the bed, putting on his leg in a fraction of a second and then walking into the bathroom, leaving me be. About six months ago, Beetee sent someone down to take measurements, and with them made Peeta a new prosthetic, since he had grown too tall for the original. The new one is as scientifically advanced as it is possible to be. It takes less time to put on, is more sturdy and balanced, and it generally pains him less. But it's still not his own natural leg, which he would still have if I hadn't been in his life. Or maybe he would be dead in that case, killed by the Careers. I don't know. I close my eyes and listen to the water as it runs, letting all of the other thoughts escape my head. It's mind-numbing and relaxes me, but the sound ends too soon.
Peeta steps back into the room, and I continue to ignore him until I feel myself lifted up into his arms. I don't want to talk. I don't want to do anything, so I just curl myself into his naked chest and let him do whatever he wants. He carries me into the bathroom, and then sits me on the edge of the tub, pulling off whatever it is that I'm wearing as pajamas, I don't even remember. I sit hunched over, head to my chest, like a shriveled-up, deformed creature. When my clothes are completely off, he lifts me up again, and then lowers me, very gently into warm bathwater that smells mildly of violets and lavender.
I still don't want to look at him, so I curl into the fetal position and face the wall. I feel his hands carefully unraveling my loose braid from the night before, and then he begins to wash my hair wordlessly, bits of leaves I never bothered to remove coming loose and floating on the skin of the water. His touch is tender, yet firm as he scrapes his nails across my scalp. It feels wonderful.
I can't take it anymore.
I stand up, splashing water all over him, my hair still full of soap.
"Stop it. Just stop, okay? I can't… it's too… no."
Finally making eye contact, I see that he is crouched on the balls of his feet, blinking to try to see through the water I splashed in his face. He looks anxious, and really, really hurt, although he's working hard to hide the latter from me. I don't want to look at him when he's making this face full of concern and love and all of the wonderful things that he brings into my life. I just want to be left alone. Is this what being married is about? Him trying to make me feel better when it's an absolute impossibility?
I don't know how to deal with this.
Not even bothering to dry myself, I leave the bathroom and throw myself back into bed, soapy hair slapping against the pillow. I don't want to admit that he's helped, but even the short time in the bath has done wonders. My muscles feel less tense, and an unexpected secondary benefit from my sudden outburst is that my mind is now so overwhelmed that it is just ready to shut down. I feel like I can sleep again, maybe in a way that will actually feel like real rest.
It may just be the beginning of another nightmare, but as nothingness takes me, I think I can I hear Peeta weeping softly, right where I left him.
When I wake up again, it is late afternoon, and Peeta is gone. Sitting on his side of the bed is an entire plate full of cheese buns. They're not even the typical ones he makes: the aroma indicates that he's used the most expensive cheese he has, the delicious aged kind from Ten that they used to only sell in the Capitol, and now since transportation is so difficult, it's incredibly dear. He only ever brings it out for special requests, and even then, only in small amounts. It looks like he used up an entire block to make these, though. Despite this, I ignore them, even over the sound of my stomach growling.
The phone rings, and I am forced to remember what seemed like hours and hours of dreams, all filled with the sound of ringing phones, Peeta's tears, and Prim's face covered in flames. Dreams where my father repeats Rue's words to me while standing in the bakery making bread.
I feel like I could sleep for another hundred years, but my bladder disagrees.
I swing my feet to the edge of the bed before I unsteadily walk to the bathroom. I realize that I never actually put on anything after I jumped out of the bath when I see my pajamas neatly folded next to the tub. This small reminder of Peeta's thoughtfulness pricks at my conscience, but I brush it away. Why didn't he just leave me alone? How can I make him understand that we are so tangled together that I just can't let myself rely on him any more than I already do. I step quickly into the shower to rinse the crusted soap scum from my hair before putting the pajamas back on and returning to our room. The phone has finally stopped ringing, and I've just curled back in bed, when I hear the downstairs door slam open. A familiar uneven tread begins to make its way through the living room, and then it pauses for a few moments. After that, it continues up the stairs.
Haymitch pushes the bedroom door open so hard that it slams against the wall. I turn my head away, so that I don't have to look at him. I don't want a lecture today, or ever again. Instead of the sounds of a mocking tirade, like I expect, I feel the bed next to me sink down, and then a reverberating thud, as something solid is thrown onto the mattress. My curiosity gets the best of me, and I turn my head to see.
It's the book.
We don't really have a name for it, but we've been working on it since pretty shortly after Peeta came home. We fill it with the things we needed to remember about the people we've lost, both images and words. Vick irreverently calls it "The Necronomicon," which I gather from his excited explanation, was the name of some mythical, terrifying book of the names of the dead. I guess the concept is a little bit morbid, but I think the kid is mostly kidding. He knows about it because he sat with me and Peeta and added a page for his father about a month ago. He barely remembered Jasper Hawthorne, only being five when he died, but apparently a memory had resurfaced sometime during the day, and Peeta had discovered him red-eyed and sniffling behind a stack of muffins. They had closed the bakery early and come back to the house to add the page. I know Vick will always miss his dad, but I think the real father he misses is Gale, who is very much alive, and not someone I ever want to think about for very long. Later that night, though, long after Vick went home, their mother had appeared at the door. She watched silently as Peeta sketched her husband, a man he only remembered from the trades at the bakery he had observed as a child. Hazelle has been practical, almost grim for as long as I can remember. It was the first time I've ever seen her cry.
I really have no idea why Haymitch has stormed into our room with this book. Maybe he was speaking to Peeta about what happened earlier? I hope not, because I don't relish the idea of having this whole scenario mediated.
"Violet Perkins was a few days past twelve when she was reaped for the fifty-first Games," he interrupts my thoughts as he begins, looking at the opposite wall and barely acknowledging my presence. "Was supposed to be her mentor, but I didn't even know how to be a person anymore."
I sit up, looking at him in confusion. Until now, he has refused to do this, even to discuss it when we bring it up.
Ignoring me completely, he continues. "She was the butcher's youngest girl, tiny little thing, had six older brothers. Oldest, not quite eighteen, was probably the strongest man that any of us had ever seen. Big as an ox, and the rest of 'em weren't much smaller." He clears his throat and shifts his body slightly, "Not a single one volunteered. First night on the train, found a bottle of liquor in my room. Didn't spend a minute after that sober."
I pick up a pen from the nightstand, and open the book to an empty page. Without a word, I begin to write.
When he finishes with Violet, who was cut down as she tripped and fell running away from the bloodbath, Haymitch moves on to her district partner, Nonny Carmichael, a sour, seventeen-year-old boy from the Seam whom he had not particularly liked before the Reaping and still wasn't fond of even after he was dead, but mourned all the same. Then there was Mirabelle Ericson, the beautiful oldest daughter of a foreman in the mines, who had been raped in a sandy cave by a Career from Four before he had slit her throat. The Capitol had screened that footage from the broadcasts, but since Haymitch was her mentor, he watched the live feed as it happened. By the time he gets to her district partner, fifteen-year-old Zeke Alberts, the uncle that Thom never met, his hands are shaking.
"That's about all I can do for today," he mutters after describing how Zeke died from dehydration in the desert arena. His trembling hand finds my shoulder and he grasps it hard, then stands up and makes to leave.
"Thanks for listening, sweetheart," he grunts as he goes. "Hope it gives you more peace than it does me."
The shock of it all has made the pit in my soul feel a little less demanding for attention, but the sorrow in my heart is almost unbearable as I finish writing the stories of all of these lost children. It hurts more than I thought it would (which was a huge amount to begin with), because they're not just the stories of senseless murders and the loss of innocence, they also tell the story of how Haymitch's life was gradually diminished, until it all fit into a bottle of white liquor. This was only two years of what he had to endure, with a murdered family and no other Victors to share the load. There were twenty-one more to go.
When I finally finish copying down what he has told me, I realize that the sky outside has gone dark. I look at the clock for the first time all day. What I see fills me with a terror that drives away the strange cocktail of numb emptiness and unbearable pain that I've spent the day wallowing in. My instincts kick in, doing what they always have, pushing my emotions away in a desperate effort to protect what I love. I jump out of bed, tripping down the stairs as I slide on my shoes. It doesn't matter what today was, or how badly I have been hurting. It doesn't matter if nothing lasts, and any happiness I feel will all be over before I am ready for it to end. I still cannot believe what I've done.
Peeta was supposed to come home over three hours ago.
He's never late.
I run down the hill to the bakery as fast as I can, key grasped tightly in my hand. The first door I come to is the one in the back, and I slam myself into it as I scramble with the lock. He's probably in there having an episode right now, maybe even hurting himself. As soon as I get the door open and see that he is not in the kitchen, I make my way into the front room, moving silently and cautiously, but as fast as I possibly can. If he is having an episode, loud noises will do nothing but make it worse. He's not in front room, either, so I take the stairs two at a time on my way to the loft, where he has made a studio to paint in.
As his studio comes into view, my heart breaks at what I see. He looks to be unconscious on the ground, surrounded by a floor full of ink drawings all done in an expressionistic, bold style with dark, earthy tones. He's used the inks that I gave him for his birthday. The drawings are spiraled out around him, as though he started by the stairs and worked inwards. The first picture is of his mother, and then his father, his older brothers. Delly's parents. Many other shopkeepers whose names I never knew. Finnick. The morphling from Six. Mags. The girl from the Games by the fire. Foxface. Brutus.
The last is Mitchell.
I realize that Peeta has drawn everyone he believes he has killed.
I want to rush to him, but I move forward carefully. If he is still in the throes of an episode, a sudden approach would make things much worse. Before we were ever married, I promised that I would kill him before I allowed him to do something to me that he can't live with, and I'm not about to risk that now. I try to calm myself, to be prepared for however he will react. I pick up the picture of his mother and look at it closely. At first glance, she seems to be full of rage, but upon careful inspection, there is a crushing sorrow in the woman's eyes, as though she is fighting an endless losing battle with circumstances beyond her control. It is so like Peeta to see the good in everything, in everyone, even the woman who beat him from the time he was a small child.
I don't have the emotional strength to look at any of the other pictures, so I take a deep breath and begin to walk towards the center of the room.
"Peeta?" I call out softly. When he doesn't respond, I repeat myself a little louder. He still doesn't answer, and I feel pretty certain that he's definitely unconscious, so I quickly close the distance between us, moving aside all of the pictures as I kneel next to him. He is lying on his side. Dripping across his cheek from his nose is a thin stream of blood that has dried completely. His nails are torn and damaged, and I can see scratches on the wooden floor. The smell of stale sweat fills the room and I am terrified that he has been lying here for a very long time.
I pull on his shoulder until he is on his back, and then I lay my head against his chest. His heart is beating steadily, and his body is warm. I should clean the blood from his face, or something, anything, but all I can do is wrap my arms around him and listen to the steady thumping of his heart. I cling to him for a long time.
"I'm sorry," I whisper after several minutes. "This is all my fault."
"Actually, I think the Capitol has that distinct honor," he answers back hoarsely, wrapping his arms around me.
I breathe out a shuddering sigh of relief that he is awake, then my head shoots up and I scan his face, trying to read him. He looks exhausted and uncomfortable which is normal for his post-flashback state, but there is more there, the same deep worry from this morning, and also a hint of guilt. I'm about to apologize again, to try to somehow explain my earlier mental state, but then he blurts out something completely strange, preventing me from doing so.
"I'm really sorry about this morning, Katniss. I was being pushy and…"
He's unable to finish what he's saying, because he can't hear his own voice over how loudly I have begun to laugh. His worried look grows more pronounced, and he pushes himself up onto his elbows unsteadily.
"Are you… okay?" he asks as delicately as he can, after gazing down at me for a moment, while I snicker, trying to calm down.
I attempt to lift myself up and respond, but I only succeed in rolling onto my back next to him and laughing even harder. I'm sure he thinks I've gone off the deep end, especially considering how utterly despondent I was only this morning and how completely terrified I was just the moment before, but he chuckles a little along with me, despite himself, just pleased to see me looking happy again. I am hardly even certain myself how I am able to laugh this much, but it feels as though all of the pain and strain has snapped something inside of me, and it's impossible to do anything else under these circumstances.
It takes a while to calm down enough to respond, and when I do, I have to wipe away tears of laughter and take big, gasping breaths in-between words. I don't have a lot of female friends, especially not those that would be considered typical, but I've heard enough gossip around the market to know just why this all is so hilarious to me.
"It's just… you… I mean… any other woman would be just be," I take an extra-long gasp, "over the moon with how… attentive and… completely… sweet you were this morning," I snort and almost lose it again, "But you… with me… you have to apologize for it!" It's no use. There's no way I can keep from laughing all over again. I wish Prim were here, because I know she would find this situation utterly hilarious. The thought, instead of breaking my heart, makes me laugh even harder when I imagine her reaction. I think about Finnick, too, and Boggs and Cinna, all of them would have gotten the joke and I can't help but feel good, just having known them to recognize this. I realize, with a jolt, that Gale would be laughing most of all. And my heart grows big with the understanding that even though he is gone, he is not dead and maybe someday I might be able to actually tell him about this moment, see his eyebrows lift up, and that big booming laugh, the one that makes my ribcage rattle, will echo across the woods. Anything seems possible right now.
Next to me, Peeta's face has broken into a crooked grin, and his confused chuckling has transformed into legitimate mirth. We've both rolled onto our sides now, knees bumping, when he says, "You know me. I love a challenge. Join the Careers. Win the Hunger Games. Start a rebellion. Get un-hijacked. Marry the most amazing woman in the world… all in a day's work."
I don't know what it is about what he has said, nothing, really, because he's just being silly and he's like this all the time, but somehow it has the unintended effect of pooling a huge amount of heat in my belly. The beach feeling, hunger, want, desire, it doesn't matter what I call it, I am overcome, and the end result is still the same no matter what name I use. In a beat, I've pressed our bodies together and rolled him so that he is once more on his back. The movement shocks him, but I can feel his reaction where our bodies are touching almost immediately. Before he can say anything, I've pressed my lips against his, kissing him with the desperate passion that seems to have grown out of thin air. It's gratitude, and relief, and the simple amazement that with this one person, I can be so utterly loved, no matter what it is that I've done.
Not to mention the fact that when Peeta laughs, he looks devastatingly handsome.
He wraps his arms around my waist in response, and I feel his hands slide into my back pockets, as he tries to pull me as close to him as he can. I let my feet drift apart so he is settled between my legs, and it is impossible not to notice his hardness pressing against me. I rock my hips against him as we kiss, and I am almost frantic to feel his skin against mine. Suddenly, he's rolled us over and pinned my arms above my head, still kissing me, but now he is the one who is grinding his hips against mine. I realize for the first time that I'm still only in my pajamas, and the rougher fabric of his trousers is causing a lot of friction. I wrap my legs around him, trying to get him to move faster, harder.
He pulls his head back and looks at me, his eyes dark with desire. "Slow down there," he grins wolfishly. "You do realize we're in the bakery, right? On the floor? Anyone could just walk in…"
"No they couldn't," I gasp as he bites down on the spot where my neck meets my collarbone, "I came in the back, and that door," I gasp again as he nibbles on my ear, "locks itself. Will you be alright? After the flashback, I mean."
"In that case," he leans back and lifts his shirt up and over his head, "by all means, don't slow down. Trust me, I'm pretty certain this is the best possible cure."
I struggle to get my shirt off, but it is difficult with him on top of me. He sees my efforts and grins again, murmuring, "Do you have any idea what those little pajamas do to me? You always end up in public with them on, too." He leans over and grabs my hands, pinning them down again and leaning heavily, but not painfully against my legs. I remember, in what seems like a lifetime ago, seeing him beat everyone but his brother at the wrestling competition at school, and realize that there's no escape from my current situation, not that I necessarily mind. He frees one of his hands and uses it to push my tank top up slowly, kissing my stomach in a smooth upward trail, until his lips are caressing the valley between my breasts.
He raises his eyebrows and looks into my eyes, mouth still softly touching my skin. "Tell me what you want me to do, Katniss."
His words make my stomach tighten, but I turn my head, embarrassed by the intensity of his gaze and what he wants me to do. "You know," I mutter. He does know. Since his birthday, we've been talking about it a lot more often. It's been all summer, really. He definitely does not need guidance at this point.
"I do," he nods thoughtfully, "but I would really like it if you told me. And frankly," he adds jokingly, "I've had kind of a hard day."
I know that he's just teasing, but I can't help but realize that it was my refusal to even attempt to communicate with him this morning that lead to his episode in the first place. If I wanted to be left alone, I needed to tell him in a way that made sense, instead of pushing him away when he's trying so sweetly to help. I have to be able to talk about what I need, when I need it, or the confusion and rejection is going to cause him even more pain than he's already been through.
And that has been more than enough for anyone.
"Touch them," I say shyly, not even certain how to ask.
"Like this?" he asks, gently trailing the pointer finger on his free hand over my breast in a slow spiral. It feels so good, his rough callouses dragging across the smooth skin, but I want more.
I feel my face heat up and my voice comes out in a pleading whisper, but I continue anyway, "With your mouth." He smiles happily and leans over, peppering my breasts with kisses, while he uses his free hand to continue to paint invisible spirals across my skin. I try not to, but I find myself moaning softly as he flattens his tongue against one of my nipples, and then sharply draws it into his mouth. He lets go with his other hand for a moment, just to pull my shirt off completely, and then my arms are pinned once more, while he showers my breasts with attention. He grinds his pelvis into me, and I feel like I might die if he doesn't touch my skin.
"Peeta," I gasp out, straining against his arms.
He stops what he's doing and lifts his head. "Yes?"
"But I am touching you. Or do you want something more specific?" he's being purposely difficult, but I am too wound up to care.
"Take off my shorts," I ask in a pleading voice. "And… and your pants too."
It's pretty amazing how quickly he manages to do so, especially with just one leg. He settles back down against me immediately, and I can feel how aroused he is as he presses against my thigh, twitching every so often. This knowledge emboldens me, and I find myself asking him the same question.
"What do you want, Peeta?"
Just like that, he blushes from collarbone to hairline, his pale skin a dull pink, his ears red. Somehow, I've managed to grab all of the power in this situation without even really trying.
"Yeah?" I'm not even attempting to tease him at this point. His reaction has made me so incredibly curious that I want to know for my own sake.
"I… uh… wantyoutotouchyourselfwhileI'minsideyou," he answers so quickly I can hardly catch it, but when I do, I feel my own face flush.
"Um… alright," I say, a little confused as to why he seems to want that, of all things, so badly he can hardly say it. "Do you want to… I mean… how...?"
He looks nervous enough to pass out, and I wonder if maybe we shouldn't be doing this so quickly after he's had an episode, but then he shakes his head a little and says with a bit more confidence, "Why don't you just… relax, and start and then, I'll… you know."
"Okay," I say, and lower my hand. It feels really awkward at first, but Peeta seems fascinated by the process, and he keeps saying sweet, encouraging things and kissing my neck, until I find myself wondering why exactly we've never done this before. I look down and realize his hand is wrapped around himself as he's watching me. When he recognizes I've seen, he blushes again.
"You don't have the slightest clue how lovely you are," he whispers huskily, lowering himself to me. With a little maneuvering and a sharp thrust, he's suddenly there, and it's a very different sort of sensation than when he's the one who is doing all the work. I feel more relaxed and open, and he's much, much deeper than he's ever been before. I'd be embarrassed thinking about the practicalities in any more detail, but it feels too good to mind. My thighs are trembling as we move together, his steady thrusts and the gentle circles of my finger against the hard bundle of nerves at the apex of my thighs.
His elbows are on both sides of my head, propping himself up, and he's cupping my face, kissing me over and over, gasping my name whenever he comes up for air. I'm beginning to feel dizzy as I realize that the precipice I'm running towards is actually coming at me from two entirely different directions, and I think I'm going to leap off of both of them at the same time. I realize that, based on the way his body is jerking, Peeta is not able to last much longer, but that doesn't matter, because an instant later, it feels like the entire lower half of my body has jumped out of the universe into a place beyond normal sensation. I squeeze my eyes closed so tightly that patterns of light explode into being behind my eyelids.
I moan his name into his mouth, and I feel him shudder and collapse while he twitches inside of me. He's heavy and the floor is hard, but I don't care.
I feel warm. I feel awake.
I feel alive.