Chapter 1: Prologue
We are kneeling alone in the dark in front of a roaring fire.
I'm wearing Cinna's candlelight dress. He's dressed very much like the way he appeared at the Reaping three years ago. His shoulders are too broad. Nothing Portia made for him fits anymore.
He's holding the slice of bread in his hand, normally steady fingers shaking. As the fire flickers around the edges, he's supposed to be saying something, making promises. At least, that's what I think is supposed to happen, though I've never paid too much attention to an actual toasting ceremony before. But he's not. He's not saying anything, just gazing at me like I might disappear. As I see the crust begin to blacken, and the tongues of fire dance around his fingers, I realize what he's doing. He shouldn't even have to toast his piece. He did it already, seven years ago. But before I can stop him from burning himself further, he pulls the burnt bread from the fire.
"I would do this for you every day for the rest of my life, and it would be completely worth it," he whispers, pressing his forehead against mine. "I hope I don't have to, though," he adds conspiratorially. "You'd think I'd be used to burns by now, but my fingers really hurt." I laugh, but the tears running down my face betray me.
"Is it okay if I just love you every single second of every day for the rest of our lives?" he asks softly.
In response, I hold my own bread into the fire. I want to tell him how much he means to me, how I can't imagine life without him, how he is my best friend in the world. I want to tell him that he is the only other person I've ever known who is as beautiful as Prim was. I want to tell him about the hope he fills me with. But I don't know how to say these things.
Instead, I blurt out, "I love you. I promise to try to be a good wife."
He smiles so brightly the flames pale in comparison, and I know that somehow he's understood.
As he holds the bread to my mouth, I can feel the tremors that run through his entire body. His eyes are bright and clear. I am solid as an oak, but the tears stream down my face in an endless river. I press the bread against his lips and he opens his mouth. I do the same.
It tastes like charcoal and raisins.
It tastes like life.
Chapter 2: Birthday
I wake up to the sound of the phone ringing.
My head feels almost unbearably heavy. I'm curled up in a ball on my side, buried under a mountain of blankets that are covering everything, all the way to the top of my hair. It's making a warm little nest, but the comforting presence of Peeta wrapped tightly around me is missing. I reach out for him, to bury my head in his chest to make the sound go away, but the solid, warm mass that I'm used to is gone. It's then that my mind puts two and two together.
Today is his birthday, and somehow I've managed to sleep in. His first birthday with me as his wife and I've already managed to mess it up. He's already gone to the bakery for the day, completely destroying my plans for the entire morning. Of course, he didn't know about them. He doesn't even know that I know what today is. The thought makes me cringe. I am his wife, after all. It bothers me that everyone just assumes I don't know these things. I may be broken beyond repair, but at least I am trying.
Not well enough, though, apparently.
The phone continues to ring and ring, and I don't want to answer, but I have to because I planned for this call; I know who it is. If I don't pick up, she'll just keep on calling. With a violent push, I throw off the blankets and roll out of bed. I pull one of his shirts on and slowly head downstairs toward the phone, my head throbbing. With the exception of the nausea, the morning after a night of heavy crying feels surprisingly like my limited experience with the morning after a night of heavy drinking: absolutely terrible.
My dreams had been awful. I don't think either Peeta or I slept more than four hours. Since we got married, the nightmares had calmed somewhat, but last night they were back with a vengeance, and I woke sobbing in his arms as he repeated over and over again that it was just a dream. My mind still felt trapped, even though my body was awake. It took him almost an hour to calm me down, and even then, when I finally lost consciousness, it was to that heavy, terrible sleep that brings nothingness, but at a price. When I sleep like that, I usually don't get out of bed, sometimes for days. If I weren't so angry at myself I probably would still be there right now, locked in that place where once happy memories bind me like chains.
But I am up, and furious with myself because this morning I fully intended to be the one who woke first, to rouse him gently, and so slowly, with kisses and sweet words. He's always the one saying the right thing, being so… romantic. I just don't have the sense for things like that, but I wanted to, for him, on his birthday. So for weeks and weeks, every time I thought of something that I would have been embarrassed to say out loud, I've saved it for this morning. I was going to kiss his eyelids and whisper… well, it doesn't even matter because I slept through everything. I slept through his departure, and even past the time I would have normally been out hunting myself. And I had more plans, as the still-ringing phone reminds me.
"Morning, Brainless," Johanna says as soon as I pick up, smacking her lips as she talks. She's probably still eating breakfast, which irks me because it reminds me of how I was supposed to make breakfast for Peeta.
"Hello, Johanna," I answer heavily.
"Put him on the phone already! I've been practicing. I'm pretty certain once he hears my voice, he's gonna leave you for me." This was part of the plan. Not the part where he leaves me, obviously, but the call itself. They're really close, the two of them, and I knew how much hearing her sing to him would make him laugh, so I arranged for her to call right after our breakfast was supposed to be finished. Of course, he probably ate breakfast alone, and left some out for me.
One glance into the kitchen proves that I'm correct. There is a plate of fresh fruit next to some croissants and a two-word note in his neat script. The feelings of guilt make me angry at him, which I know is completely unfair, but I feel it anyway.
"He's not here," I sigh, pinching the bridge of my nose with my fingers, trying to will my headache away.
Johanna does not reply for a moment, and then all but hisses into the phone.
"What do you mean he's not there? Didn't you have a plan? You're telling me after spending most of the night up with Nick so Annie could get some sleep, I woke up early to sing to your husband and he's not there?"
I can't help but remember her face in the Quarter Quell, crusted with blood and contorted with rage, but thoughts like that will just send me back to bed, and so I push them away.
"I slept in. I'm not–"
She interrupts me, "–a very good wife."
I ignore the fact that this was exactly what I was going to say, and instead finish with "–sure what to do."
She sighs like I'm unbelievably dense, "Well, my sleep is lost forever, but you can make it up to him easy enough. He doesn't have any other birthdays with you to compare with at this point."
"Actually he does. Only I didn't know about them."
"Well, you weren't married. There weren't any expectations. Now though, there are." She pauses, and I'm worried she's going to yell again, but instead she just asks, "So what are you doing for him tonight?" Her voice sounds kind of weird, maybe menacing, which I guess makes sense, considering how much I've already messed this up.
"I made him some ink from berries and bark and things that I found in the woods," I say quickly, hoping my gift, at least, shows that I am somewhat thoughtful. "Well, Vick figured out how to make them properly, but I did nearly all of the work myself once he worked it out. And we're having a small surprise party. People from the Capitol are coming and–"
"No no no, you moron. I'm not talking about presents. Well, I am, but not that kind."
Oh. That low voice meant she was being suggestive, not that she wanted to beat me up.
"Did you get something special to wear…?" she asks leadingly, as though I am some sort of idiot child.
No. I didn't. I didn't even think to. "I… shaved my legs…" I say lamely.
I didn't realize there was this level of expectation involved. Of course I want him to feel good, especially on his birthday, but I don't ever plan for the sort of thing she's suggesting. Frankly, just the idea of deciding when and where I am going to kiss Peeta reminds me too much of the days when I thought about it every single moment because I was forced to. What we do now is far beyond kissing, but it is also completely untouched by the memory of cameras, and I don't want to do anything to taint it. Things happen, and they're great, but always very much in the moment, and other than the powerful and surprising feelings of… wanting, I guess you call it, which have been pretty inescapable, I don't make plans. It just happens.
Even more than that, the fact remains that, despite pretty extensive practice, I don't really know what I'm doing when it comes to…it. I don't even know what to call it in my head. "Sex" sounds so clinical. "Making love" is overly romantic. "Intimacy" reminds me of something that my therapist would say. He'd probably also read something in to the fact that I don't have a way to communicate about the physical side of my relationship. Regardless, Peeta and I get by well enough. It feels physically incredible and emotionally intense; sometimes even cathartic, but always generally wonderful, so I guess that means we get by even more than well enough. But we've been doing it for the better part of a year, and especially frequently for the past six months and I still am not quite sure of myself when I consider the cold practicalities of our sexual interactions in the light of day, outside of the walls of our bedroom or the haze of a fantasy. Should I be doing more? Is just letting things progress naturally to what always happens between us not right? Would he want me to wear some kind of costume?
"Okay, so forget about the outfit," Johanna sighs with frustration. "What are you going to do special? Just for him? You know… like…"
"He won't like that," I say, interrupting her. Peeta never wants me to do anything just for him. He won't even finish if I haven't, which happens sometimes. He just holds me and strokes my hair. His self-control is admirable, but it makes me feel bad, because sometimes I get trapped in my head and overthink things. In those situations, I can't feel good no matter how much he tries, but it's not his fault at all. Johanna doesn't know about any of this. We've never even talked like this before. I've never talked like this with anyone, actually. Not even Peeta. When we talk about sex, it's only ever the emotional aspects, or maybe a few shocked statements of amazement at how good it felt. That's it.
"Are you kidding me?" she scoffs. "He's a nineteen-year-old male. He can't not like it."
I'm blushing as I continue, even though she's hundreds of miles away, "I try sometimes… to just touch him, but he won't stop touching me back. And then I get distracted and the next thing I know…"
"Yes!" I burst out. "I don't… should I be doing this differently?"
At this, Johanna sighs unexpectedly, and instead of the unwanted flood of naughty advice I was expecting, all she says is, "Damned if I know. I'd say, just do what you feel okay with. I doubt he has any complaints." The wail of a child fills the background, and Johanna's voice becomes strained, "Alright, look. I gotta go. Call Annie's later, and hopefully I'll be around to sing to ol' Peg-leg."
"I will. Thanks for calling this morning, anyway."
"Any time. Oh… and Katniss?"
"Just because it can get better doesn't mean it isn't great."
And with that, she hangs up, leaving me feeling better and worse all at the same time.
I think about her words all the way through breakfast, and even as I begin the harrowing task of making Peeta a birthday cake. Vick Hawthorne, who helps in the bakery now, showed me how about two weeks ago. He really likes to make things, it doesn't matter what, but he's not necessarily the world's best teacher, especially at the age of fourteen. Being incredibly intelligent, Vick doesn't quite understand how it is possible for a person to not instantly absorb new information. Peeta would have done a much better job, but I didn't want him to suspect anything. Vick has promised to bring cupcakes and some other baked goods to the party tonight for everyone else, but I am Peeta's wife, and I'll be damned if I can't figure out how to make him one stupid cake.
It's nearly lunchtime when I finally finish. The end product is sloppy and pretty ugly, but it tastes better than I figured it would. I don't want to give myself too much credit, though. I think it's probably pretty tough to mess up a simple chocolate cake. I don't even try to write his name in the icing, but I do push one skinny, orange candle in the center before I hide it away in the cupboard. I've just finished cleaning the kitchen, proud of my success at this birthday tradition, at least, when Haymitch bursts through the back door.
"Happy birthday!" he yells, equal parts sarcasm and sincerity, before he realizes that Peeta is not here. He looks at me suspiciously, and I can tell that despite my earlier request, he is not completely sober. He is, however, carrying a bottle of what looks to be the bubbly wine we had in the Capitol during the Victory Tour.
"Where's the kid?" he demands, sitting the bottle heavily on the table. Tied around the neck is a sloppy bow made of twine. My throat feels tight. Even Haymitch managed to do this mostly right. He was supposed to distract Peeta this afternoon while I made the cake and got things ready for the party. I'm not sure how he was planning to do it, but he clearly showed up on time to take care of his end of the bargain.
"He's at the bakery." I say. His face is accusing, but he is silent, waiting for an explanation. "I slept in," I finally admit.
Of course he laughs for an inappropriately long time.
"You're an awful wife, sweetheart."
He's said worse, and so have I, but something about this, maybe the fact that this is the second time I've been told the same thing in one day makes me burst into tears. Perhaps I'm emotional because of how little sleep I've had. Probably, though, it's because lately I have been so worried that what he's said is true. I collapse into the kitchen chair and let myself cry, head in my hands. I'm an awful wife. I don't know how to be a good one. I didn't pay enough attention when I had people around to observe and now I am completely useless. It would be easier if I didn't care about what Peeta thinks, but I do, so much. He deserves so much better than the pathetic cake in the cupboard from a wife who can't even wake up for his birthday. I just want to go back to bed and turn off all the lights and hide from everything.
Haymitch does not know what to do. He knows how to deal with me when I lash out at him, or become catatonic, or even when I go hide in some sort of secret place, but weeping in the kitchen like a normal woman in a situation that does not involve life-or-death consequences is apparently such foreign behavior for me that he is completely taken aback.
"Are you pregnant?" he asks incredulously, voice laced with more than a little concern. It's not such a bizarre thing to wonder, considering how unlike myself I am acting, but the thought still makes my stomach lurch.
I shake my head, still holding it in my hands, trying to pull myself together but mostly failing.
"Do you think we got married too soon?" I ask suddenly, a hiccough punctuating every few words. I knew that I loved Peeta, that I didn't want to be with anyone else, ever. But maybe we should have waited. We were only eighteen.
Waited for what, exactly? A little voice in my head wonders. Till you got better? Cause that's never going to happen. It's more than a little disturbing that the my internal voice talks surprisingly like Haymitch.
The man himself falls heavily into a chair across from me, "Sweetheart, I'm only going to tell you this one time, so listen. Too much happened to the both of you. It was always going to be too soon, or too late, no matter what either of you did. No point in thinking that way." He pats me awkwardly on the head, "But it's only been three months, and this is the most normal problem I've ever heard you have. So no. I don't."
"I ruined his birthday," I say, sniffling, feeling completely humiliated for crying like this in front of him of all people.
He scoffs. "He woke up next to you and went off to a job he loves. I doubt it's ruined. It isn't even half over. Or is the entire party cancelled 'cause of your little nap?"
"I wanted it to be special. The whole day," I mutter, my pain and embarrassment easily transitioning into irritation at how lightly he is taking this. It's an emotion that is easier to deal with.
He laughs, "Yeah, you did. But who for? You didn't ask what he wanted, or even let on that you knew today was his birthday. Kid'd be happy with pretty much anything you did, but once things started going wrong, you managed to make this more about proving you're a good spouse than it is about celebrating him." The chair scrapes against the floor as he stands up.
"You're the one who said I didn't deserve him," I say in a low voice. I lift my head, tears gone, a look of fury in my eyes.
Haymitch can see it, and it makes him grin, as he heads toward the door. "You're taking this whole wife thing pretty seriously for someone who swore she'd never get married."
I throw an apple at him, but he ducks outside at the last moment, laughing to himself.
"You sure he didn't knock you up?" he yells loudly enough for the whole neighborhood to hear as he walks away.
"You're drunk!" I shout.
"See you at the party, sweetheart!" he calls back gleefully, right before tripping over one of his geese and cursing loudly. I slam the door as hard as I can. Serves him right.
He's only been gone about a minute, and I'm still standing by the door, hands squeezed into angry fists, when there is a knock. I yank the handle open, ready to give him a piece of my mind, but it's only Rory. Why I would assume Haymitch would knock is beyond me. Rory looks confused by the somewhat deranged look in my eyes, so I relax a bit and tip my head towards Haymitch's house. The boy gets it pretty quickly.
"I got the stuff you wanted," he says softly, handing me my game bag. "Three squirrels, and a turkey. Also a bunch of berries in there."
Rory's been indispensable lately. We hunt at the same time, though not together like I used to with his brother. We just check up on each other throughout the day. Now that the mines have been abandoned, sinkholes are beginning to open up around the area. With the glaring exception of no more whipping threats, it's actually become more dangerous to hunt than it ever was before. Rory doesn't really have Gale's skill for snares, but he is the best tracker I have ever met, and he can bring something in with almost any weapon. At the end of the day, he usually has almost as much game as I do.
"Thanks," I say. "I owe you one."
He nods, and is about to leave, when he turns and looks at me a bit longer than usual. "You alright, Katniss?" he questions. It's a bit shocking. Rory never asks how anyone is. I think it's because it's the one question he does not want to be asked. The answer would always be the same.
The reason that he is broken brings me back to reality. Even if I am a horrible wife, there are worst things. Much worse things. I wrap my arms around myself and take a deep breath.
"I'll be okay. Thanks. Will we see you tonight?"
He shrugs. Rory really doesn't like crowds. I'm not sure if he ever did. "Might stop by for a bit of turkey. Or maybe some of your cake," he flashes a rare smile.
"Vick told you," I say, voice dull with dread.
"He says you're hopeless," Rory actually chuckles as he opens the door, "but I have faith in you." His words are strangely inspiring.
I spend the rest of the afternoon preparing the game Rory brought with revived energy. I may have messed up this morning, but I can fix it. I know I can. There is a reason I got up this morning that was more than just about me trying to prove that I deserve my husband, and if I stop remembering that, then there's just no point in doing this at all. While the game is cooking, I go about decorating the house, despite having the aesthetic sensibilities of a dead squirrel. I'm standing on a chair, completely tangled in orange streamers, when there is rapid knock at the door. I can hear a chattering voice through the window. There's only one person this could be.
"Come in!" I call out.
Delly rushes inside, a giant smile on her face. "We made it from the station! He didn't see us!" She comes over to me and wraps her arms around my thighs, cheek pressed up against my stomach, almost knocking me off the chair.
"Darling, you're going to break her legs," a bemused voice says, as a tall, dark woman follows her into the house. She's carrying both their bags, and smiles at Delly indulgently. I try to get down from the chair, but the streamers are preventing me from doing so safely.
"Katniss, what are you doing up there?" Delly asks, seeing me struggle.
I shake my arm, trying to unravel the streamers that are wrapped around it. "Decorating," I answer through gritted teeth.
"Oh honey," Delly says. "You need help."
Unlike me, Delly and her somewhat intimidating girlfriend from the Capitol have more than a passing understanding of how a house can be attractively decorated. They hang banners across doorframes and tie unassuming bows to the corners. They fill vases with flowers from our garden and place them in tasteful little nooks, somehow not making anything look too feminine for a man's party. As early guests arrive, they arrange the food I have prepared and others have brought in a way that both makes sense, and looks nice. Peeta's friends (and mine, I suppose) begin to arrive in droves. I basically had to invite the entire district - he gets along with everyone, and there are so few people in Twelve nowadays. The guests are happy to be in our home, and tell me so over and over. I make small talk, despite how uncomfortable it makes me. Across the room, Haymitch laughs at my attempt to be a welcoming host.
Thom and his wife Susie are the last to arrive before the party is scheduled to begin; the time that Peeta comes home every single day without fail. As they look at what Julia and Delly have done with our home, Thom whistles, "Wow, Katniss. Didn't know you had it in ya."
Before I can correct him, Delly is by my side, grinning widely, "I know! Didn't she do a wonderful job?"
At this revelation, Effie appears out of nowhere, pulling a much drunker Haymitch behind her. "You did this, Katniss?" she asks amazed. "I would have never imagined! It's so tasteful! So perfectly artistic, yet sublimely masculine! It completely suits Peeta's personality. You have really honed your eye for beauty over the past year, my dear!" Behind her, Haymitch makes ridiculous sweeping gestures, mocking her every word.
"Don't you think, Haymitch?" she turns around, excitedly.
Caught in the act, he can do nothing but turn his mocking movements into an exaggerated, thoughtful nod, "Oh yeah. Very… sublime… and manly."
Effie pulls him away towards Hazelle, who has managed to keep him from complete and utter destitution since she moved back. I turn to Delly. We exchange confused looks.
"She brought an entire chest full of top-shelf alcohol for him on the train," Julia's confident voice rings out behind me, "but it's locked, and she won't let him have it until she leaves. I believe it's her guarantee that he will play nice. She's quite a bit cleverer than she looks."
Delly and I double over with laughter, and we can barely stop. We're beginning to make a scene. Without asking, Julia grabs one of each our arms and leads us into the living room, sitting me between the two of them on the couch. Delly hands each of us a glass of champagne, which I have discovered is the name of the bubbly wine in the bottle Haymitch brought. His is put away, waiting for Peeta, but Effie brought a whole case for everyone else. Apparently, she was a bit miffed when she found out her old tributes got married privately and without any celebration, so she's decided to make up for it now. The three of us each down a glass, and then take another. I feel a warm fuzzy sort of feeling in my arms and legs. It's much nicer than the one time I got drunk with Haymitch.
"Now, we're dying to know," Delly says conspiratorially, "what are you doing for his birthday?"
Not this again. Is this all people talk about once you're married?
"I don't know. Just… you know… regular stuff. He seems to like that. A lot." I take a deep breath and decide that if people are going to ask, I might as well do the same myself, "What else am I supposed to do?"
Delly smiles encouragingly, "Why don't you start by telling us what "regular stuff" is?" I turn and look to Julia, hoping for some sort of support, but she is giving me a level, clinical stare, waiting for me to continue. When I'm less than forthcoming, she adds, "Perhaps it would be easiest to talk about what body parts you use."
"Hands… and… um… the obvious?" I hope they understand what I mean. I take a large gulp of champagne. It's making it easier to talk about this.
"So masturbation and vaginal intercourse then," Julia translates bluntly. Somehow, I manage to choke on the champagne. Delly looks at me with concern, but Julia seems to want a response
"No, I mean, I touched him. Not myself," I clarify, still clearing my throat. "He's never seen me do that." I mutter.
"The terminology is the same, unfortunately," she says, unabashed.
Delly continues to smile encouragingly. It's a little unnerving, like we're discussing the best way to make a stew.
"So you've never… with your mouth" she begins, unsure of how to continue, and I know that's only because she doesn't want to upset me. I may be uninformed, but I still know what she's getting at.
"He asked me if he could do it to me once, but it seemed too… I wouldn't let him," I finish lamely. It had seemed like he would be too far away, frankly. I was worried that I would get stuck inside my own head without him close by to anchor me.
"LET HIM," they both say with a frightening level of intensity.
After a moment of awkward silence, Delly adds with a nervous laugh, "That is, if you are comfortable, of course."
"Obviously discomfort would completely ruin the experience," Julia continues.
"But if you can manage to work yourself up to being okay…" Delly trails off.
"You will not regret it," Julia finishes firmly.
My head feels just a tiny bit lighter than usual. It must be from the champagne. I feel like maybe it's okay to talk about this. Surprising even myself, I say, "Yeah, but that's not really about him. And he won't let me just do that to him if I don't want him to do it back. I know he won't. And even if he would… I'm not sure how." I'm not sure if they can follow me, since I'm too embarrassed to use specific words to describe what I'm talking about.
"I think you're overestimating his commitment to making certain things are always mutual," Delly shrugs. "As far as how is concerned, it's not that complicated."
"You mean, you've done it before?" I ask, trying not to look at Julia. I hope I'm not getting her in trouble.
Delly laughs, "Yeah, I have. People in Thirteen had a lot of different ideas about what to do with "Reflection" time. There were a few cute boys there, and it was pretty boring if you weren't training to be a soldier."
Julia chimes in, "Although I'm lacking any practical experience, I can tell you from a neurological perspective that there are a few areas in the region that will produce quite satisfying results, if focused on." Looking around, she picks up a breadstick from a nearby plate and holds it up. "Here. For example, if you envision this as the tip and this as the junction with the testicles–"
"Uh, 'Lia," Delly interrupts, tipping her head toward the owner of the plate, who had just recently sat down in the armchair. Poor Vick's jaw is hanging halfway to his knees. He stands awkwardly, and then runs into the kitchen, his olive skin the color of an overripe tomato.
Nonplussed, Julia continues.
"As I was saying…"
Before she can get too far, she is interrupted once again, this time by Posy, who has been peeking out of the front window the entire evening. Vibrating with excitement, the little girl calls out, "He's coming!" The word spreads through the house, and silence falls. Guests begin hiding behind various pieces of furniture, and many of them pile into the kitchen, which is not visible from the front door. I remain on the couch, glass of champagne in my hand.
The door opens slowly and Peeta comes in, covered in flour. "You won't believe the day I've had," he begins wearily, looking at nothing but me, as though I am the one thing that can make the day better. "Vick ran off an hour and a half before he was supposed to, and I had to clean up the mess that he left. No one came by the entire day, so I have a whole bakery full of bread that's going to be stale and useless tomorrow… Wait. Your hair is down. Why is your hair down?"
"Happy birthday, Peeta," I say.
"How did you know it was–?" he gasps in utter amazement, beginning to notice the decorations.
The sudden shout of "SURPRISE!" from our guests shocks him even further, and he trips backward over the door jamb and falls on to the porch.
"I didn't even know you knew it was my birthday," he says into my neck, wrapping his arms around my waist as he stands behind me. The party had gone perfectly. Peeta, who smiled a lot on average days, seemed to be unable to stop. I think he spent at least a half an hour talking one-on-one with every single guest, even Posy. He played three different outdoor games with a group of raucous men who had rebuilt the bakery. He ranted and raved about how charming and delicious my cake was. Overall he seemed almost deliriously thrilled, like a child who had never celebrated his own birthday before. Once the party began to draw to its conclusion, he stayed close to me, looking for every excuse to touch my hand, kiss my forehead, and pull me close. As our guests left, he pulled me even closer.
Our out of town visitors, well, maybe except for Effie, are staying in my old house. It's become sort of a guest home at this point. They always insist on giving us our privacy. The moment they bring it up, I always feel a bit uncomfortable, because I know what it implies. Right now, though, I'm grateful as Peeta's lips brush against my skin and I feel goosebumps rise everywhere. He smells like cinnamon and yeast.
"Give me some credit, Peeta," I huff in response to his earlier comment, trying not to let him sweep me under a wave of sensation.
He chuckles, "You are the best wife ever."
"I'm the only wife you've ever had, and it's only been three months. Don't give me that much credit."
His hands go from my waist to my shoulders, and he turns me around, so he can look into my eyes. "Katniss, I'm serious. This was amazing, all of it. The surprise party… seeing all my friends... those inks that you made… that delicious little cake… the decorations. It's perfect. I can't imagine what could possibly be better."
"Delly and Julia did all the decorating," I admit a little sheepishly.
He grins, "Oh, I know." The fact that he had already figured this out and doesn't mind in the slightest fills me with relief. I don't know why I expected him to care in the first place. He knew exactly what I was like when he married me. Home decorator was not high on the list of my accomplishments.
"Rory brought in all the game and Thom and Susie grew the greens for the salads," I continue, as he leans forward and pushes my hair back so he can kiss the skin behind my ear. I gasp a little.
"How else were you going to have time to bake that wonderful cake?" he mutters in-between kisses.
"Vick taught me how to bake it," I whisper. I need to make him stop doing this, or I'm going to completely forget what it is I'm planning on doing with the rest of the night.
He pulls back and looks at me with laughter in his eyes, "I bet you two both left that lesson a bit… put out."
I'm a little confused, "You don't care that I didn't do all of this by myself?"
He gazes at me with that incredulous, amused look that he gets when he thinks that I just don't get something obvious. "Katniss, I know how hard it is for you to ask for help. The fact that you did is more impressive than if you had done everything single-handedly," he wraps his arms around me and pulls me close, "Thank you so much for everything."
"It's not over yet…" I lean back, and raise my eyebrows, unable to keep a little smirk from creeping onto my face.
Just like that, the atmosphere in the room changes. A sort of electricity thrums through me, starting at every place where our bodies are touching. I can see his pupils dilate, and he clears his throat. "Oh?" he asks, in a gravelly voice, and his arms tighten around my waist. With firm hands, I push him backwards until he is sitting down in the armchair. He looks at me with arousal-tinged curiosity.
"Close your eyes," I tell him.
Ever compliant, he listens. I walk over to the phone, and call Annie's house.
"Odair Residence," Johanna answers in a bored voice after only a few rings. I hope she hasn't been waiting all night for this call.
"Start singing," is all I say. I put the phone up to Peeta's ear, making certain it is secure and his eyes are still closed before I walk across the room toward the light switch, dropping my clothes as I go. By the time I dim the lights, I'm only in my underwear. Johanna is singing "Happy Birthday," so loudly, and so horribly, that I'm pretty certain Peeta can't hear anything else. He's laughing, but I can tell that he's trying to sense where I am in the room, bewildered by this turn of events. I make a complete loop from where I've started, and drop to my knees on the other side of his chair. Johanna's almost finished with the song when I begin undoing his belt.
Peeta is too polite to tell her to stop, or even interrupt, but I can hear his sudden intake of breath.
"Keep your eyes closed, Peeta," I say in a serious voice, pulling down his zipper. I'm still a little warm and fuzzy from the champagne, but I am realizing that this, the idea of doing something only to make him feel good, is actually making me feel very, very good myself. I don't feel nervous. Maybe, in the future, he and I can talk about sex. Not how it makes us feel emotionally, we've talked about that plenty of times, but… more practical matters.
Johanna's raucous laughter is echoing through the room when I pull him out of his shorts. In the brief time it took to undo his pants, he's grown completely hard. I softly run my fingers up and down the length of him, taking my time to really observe in low light of the room. Normally, things are either so frantically passionate or intensely emotional that I don't really have the space to do this. But with his eyes closed, I don't have to worry about how he will react to my inquisitiveness. His skin is so soft, it feels like flower petals covering a stone. Johanna chatters on, oblivious. Or maybe not so oblivious, because Peeta's definitely making muted strangled sounds as he says, "Uh-huh. Yeah. Sure," and tries to pay attention to whatever it is she is talking about.
I can hear her laugh as she says, "Alright, Breadboy, I'll leave you to your evening. Hope it's a memorable one." Her laughter is cut off as she hangs up. A beat later there is a crash, as Peeta drops the phone onto the floor. Then there is a tense silence. I know he is waiting to see what I will do. It's either now or never. Without a word, I lean forward and wrap my lips around the tip of him running my tongue over the head a moment later. He tastes salty. It's a little strange, but not bad. He moans at the contact, and I feel his hips thrust forward just a bit in an instinctual movement.
"Katniss?" he asks weakly, eyes still closed just like I asked. I lean forward and take even more of him into my mouth. He's not exactly small, and my mouth isn't exactly large, so I'm not sure how this is supposed to work, but I'll do my best. "Hey… what… is that your…?" he tries to ask, failing miserably.
I pull away for him for just a moment to say, "Open your eyes."
His blue eyes flash open just in time to see my mouth descend again, taking even more of him than before. He makes a sound that might be some kind of an attempt at words, but it's certainly not in any language I've ever heard. I keep my eyes locked on his as I bob my head up and down slowly. His thighs are trembling underneath me and his hands are gripping the arms of the chair like he is desperately trying to hold himself down.
"This isn't… you're not…"
I open my mouth again to respond, running my tongue up and down the side of him. He whimpers.
"I like this, Peeta," I reassure him, before taking all of him again. It's blatantly obvious that he likes it too.
He gasps and moans while I play. I suckle gently on his tip, and then run my tongue around it in rapid circles. I kiss his thighs while I use my hand to pleasure him. I experiment with different types of pressure and speed. All the while, he's watching me in awe, whispering bits of near nonsense that I can barely hear. His hips are steadily rocking back and forth. The longer I go, the more I see his hands trembling against the armrests, until finally he can't take it, and gently buries his fingers in my hair. He softly but firmly guides my head downwards while his hips thrust upwards, pushing himself into my mouth deeper than I thought it was possible for him to go. It makes me gag a little bit, and somehow, amazingly, he stops all movement completely, grasping the chair again until his knuckles are white.
"I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry," he mutters over and over. "I just… I can't… feels too good."
I take one of his hands and put it back on my head, "Just relax, okay? I can handle it."
"I love you so much," he says with frantic desperation, and then begins to thrust again, but this time he's slower and more deliberate, giving me more time to adjust. His entire body is shaking, and I know it's only going to take a few more moments. I feel his cock begin to twitch in my mouth, and for an instant, I wonder whether it's the wine or the arousal, or what exactly that made me refer to him like that. Either way, it doesn't feel weird. Just… appropriate. He feebly pushes at my shoulder in warning, but I stay put. I feel his body stiffen, then watch as he he throws his head back and gasps out my name, thrusting sharply forward, a gesture I don't think he can even control. At the same time, several surges of hot liquid hit the back of my throat. I swallow instinctively and then stand up to get feeling back into my legs, wiping my mouth with my hand. My knees hurt a bit, but I'm not about to complain.
His body seems to be melting into the chair, completely and utterly sated, a look of shock and wonder fixed on his features. He holds a limp hand out to me, and when I grasp it, he yanks hard and I fall forward into his lap.
"You didn't have to do that," he manages to say, looking into my eyes with so much gentleness and gratitude I can hardly bear it. I smooth his damp hair back from his forehead several times and kiss him softly. For a long moment, we are just quiet. My own body is buzzing with want, but I just let it slowly dissipate as he holds me.
"I know," I finally murmur in response. "I wanted to." Before I realize it, I'm telling him the whole story, "I wanted to wake you up this morning and just… cuddle," the word feels weird in my mouth, but I don't know what else to call it, "but after last night, I didn't wake up until so long after you were gone. There were so many plans I had for the whole day. No one came to the bakery because I told them you'd be closed. Vick thought he was going to be there all by himself. Haymitch was going to do something with you this afternoon, I don't know what. I was going to make you breakfast. But you had to eat all by yourself on your birthday, and–"
"Katniss, I hate my birthday," he interrupts me, sitting up and looking serious instead of spent. I didn't expect this at all. He runs his fingers through my hair distractedly as he continues, "My mother was not nice to me on that day specifically. Not ever. It also didn't help that it was so close to the Reaping. Once Will turned twelve, we stopped even acknowledging it until the day after, when everyone was safe for another year. Even then, it was just dad and my brothers. They'd sneak me a few cookies in the bakery when my mother was still asleep, and sometimes give me a half-used sketchbook or something. That was it. The few memories of my real birthday that I can actually even remember are just of general anxiety, or…" he trails off.
"I'm sorry," I whisper, wrapping my arms around him tightly.
He chuckles softly, "Why are you sorry? This has been the best birthday ever."
"Yeah, well, I want to be a good wife… like I promised."
"But, Katniss, you are, even without any of this," he gently nuzzles my cheek.
I don't want to ruin the moment, because it is his birthday, but I also can't keep this inside any longer. "Not like you. You always know what to do and what to say and how to talk about your feelings, and I don't. On top of that, I hurt you for so long before all of this."
"I lied to you twice, both times pretty significantly, Katniss," he responds matter-of-factly, "Also, there's the instances where I've literally hurt you, almost killed you."
"That was not you." It frustrates me when he talks about the hijacking like this, like its something he could control. I wish we could go a month maybe without him bringing it up. "And I… misled you in the arena too, but you didn't care. You kept coming back to me, even when I was… confused, even in the Quell when you should have just wanted to live, even in the Capitol when your own mind was fighting against you." He tries to interrupt, telling me that we've both been through a lot, but I shake my head angrily. I feel uncomfortable, saying this much at once, but I want to drive the point home somehow, so I repeat to him the phrase that lately has been running through my mind several times a day.
"I could live a thousand lifetimes and never deserve you."
He sits up and gives me a sideways glance, "That has got to be the most ridiculously melodramatic thing I have ever heard you say. What's gotten into you? Have you been watching Plutarch's daytime broadcasts while I'm at the bakery?"
"No," I bite my lip in frustration. He's supposed to be taking this more seriously. It's true, after all.
"Then where on earth are you getting ideas like that?" he keeps trying get me to look him in the eye, but I won't. I don't want to tell him, because I know how he'll react. "Come on, Katniss. You know we have to talk about things like this."
"Haymitch," I mutter at last.
His face grows hard, "Why in the hell is he telling you something like that? Of course you deserve me! I'm a one-legged mental patient! If anyone got the raw end of the deal, it's you."
"He said it a long time ago. Before the Quell, even."
Peeta sighs, "Katniss, things were different then. You can't feel guilty for that all the time, or this… it isn't going to work."
His wording makes my blood run cold. This not work? What does that mean? Does it mean he's going to leave if it gets to be too hard? That he'll give up just like Gale? Just like my mother? I try to stand up, to get away. If that's the way this is, then I have to run.
Sensing my fear, he tightens his arms around my waist, "Sorry. That came out wrong. I'm not going anywhere, Katniss. Ever," he soothes me. " But I don't want you to feel like you constantly have to make up for the past either. I need our life together to be more than a constant atonement for things that happened before."
I try to relax, feeling guilty for even assuming that he would ever leave me. Much as I hate it, it's the crux of the problem, "I feel guilty all the time. Not just about you. I've done so many horrible things. I've failed to protect so many people, and you're one of them."
"The war is over, Katniss. We can't live there anymore. Prim," I tense up at the mention of her name, but he keeps on going, "Prim died doing what she believed was right. I know it was senseless and horrible, but it meant something to her. So did Finnick, and Boggs, and Cinna and everyone else. I wouldn't have been willing to die for you if it didn't mean something to me. We wouldn't letyou protect us. It wouldn't have been right for you to try. You can't protect people so much that you don't allow them to live. And sometimes, that means that they won't always come back."
It's a testament to how far I've come that I'm not screaming and pounding my fists against his chest right now. I don't know what to say. I don't want him to be right, but at the same time, the only person that has tried to protect me in the way he's referring is Peeta himself, and I was prepared multiple times to completely disregard his protection. Thinking about it too much makes my heart feel so heavy, and part of me just wants to run and hide. The world we lived in was so dangerous and horrible, but the things that made it so, the fact that those you love can be lost, have not gone away with the fall of the Capitol. How am I supposed to function in a world like this? A world where I can lose the one person left that I love?
I don't have a choice. It's the only world I've got.
"I don't want to talk about this anymore, Peeta," I say quietly. He begins to argue, but I stop him and continue. "I don't mean forever, but I'm tired, and it's your birthday. I just want the day to end happily. Is that okay?"
Oh Dr. Aurelius, you will be so proud when I tell you about this next week.
Peeta smiles softly and he nods, "Okay." Without warning, he stands, lifting me up as though I weigh next to nothing. I push away against his chest, but he's holding on too tightly, and my push does literally nothing. Instead I stop fighting and scowl at him. He grins widely in response, and leans down to kiss my cheek.
"I do have one birthday request," he says casually, as he carries me up the stairs and kicks the door to our room open with his foot.
"I suppose I can accommodate you this one time," I sigh dramatically as he gently sits me down on the bed. I realize that I'm still only wearing my underwear, and he's completely dressed, although his belt is undone. The way he is looking at me makes my heart race. He looks like he wants to devour me, and I find myself pretty comfortable with the idea.
His eyes are dark and hungry as he speaks.
"Close your eyes."
Chapter 3: Remembrance
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.
Chapter 4: Mothers
Everyone is against me today. They're all just prancing around with their secret plans behind my back as though it's the Quell all over again. Only this time it's not Haymitch and Plutarch. This time it's my husband.
Today had been such a good day before I realized this. One of the best days in a long time. A long anticipated visit from my mother meant that tonight I would not only see her for the first time in two years, but Annie with her young son for the first time ever. When I left the house that morning, I was actually singing to myself, I was in such a good mood. I brought down a pretty large doe by the lake fifteen minutes after I settled in, and then spent a lazy morning fishing, swimming, looking for late berries while waiting for Rory to pop up like he usually does. Normally I'd just carry the doe in myself, but this one was a lot heavier than usual, and I've been having a lot of pain in my shoulder lately. An archer with a messed up shoulder is pretty worthless, so I've been trying to be careful. Peeta says I should go to the doctor, but I don't like doctors after all the time I've spent in their care.
Plus, if he is worried so much about my well-being he should have thought about that before he started sneaking around behind my back.
Anyway, things had been looking pretty pleasant. Once Rory showed up, he lifted up the doe like it was just a rabbit, and we headed to the butcher, my arms full of hare, grouse, and even some fall wildflowers to put on the table. Peeta really likes it when we have fresh flowers in the house, and since we had guests, I figured that was a good excuse to bring some home. I don't care that much – I see flowers outside all day – but it makes him happy. Really, it takes so little to make him happy it makes me feel guilty that I am often so difficult to please.
But I don't feel guilty right now. Not at all.
After we dropped off the doe at the butcher, I decided that I would take some of the rabbits home and start a stew that Greasy Sae taught me how to make a few weeks ago. Peeta really likes it, but it takes a few hours of attention, which I normally don't have when I'm out in the woods, and he never has lately because business at the bakery has been increasing exponentially since he built it. Now that the summer is over, Vick has school, though he does a lot of it long distance over the television connection with a tutor in the Capitol somehow. The school here leaves a lot to be desired, really, which isn't surprising considering how few of us there are. I'm not supposed to know, but Rory told me that his brother is applying for a prestigious program through the Ministry of Science, and, if he gets in, he will be moving to Three and going to school there for the next seven years, or something ridiculous like that.
Needless to say, I keep urging Peeta to hire someone new but, of course, he doesn't want to take anyone away from the rebuilding efforts, or any of the other businesses that are just getting their feet off the ground, so he hasn't done anything yet, other than attempting to work himself to death. I'd help myself, but if his birthday proved anything, I'm hopeless when it comes to baking, not to mention Rory and I are pretty much one of the only sources of meat in the District.
Because of how busy Peeta is, I was particularly surprised when I came in the back door to hear him sitting in the living room, talking on the phone. I didn't mean to sneak in, I really didn't, but I probably could have been a lot louder, and he still wouldn't have realized I was there. Instead of coming in and making him aware of my presence, like I should have, I gently sat the rabbit, flowers, and berries on the table and crept forward, trying to figure out why he was at home instead of working.
"Look, I know you're scared. It's terrifying, but like I told you last week, you have control over this. Whatever you want to do, I'll support you," he said in a calm, reassuring voice, one that is normally reserved for me. I instantly felt a wave of jealousy and suspicion, one that made no sense because it was Peeta and he is loyal and trustworthy and what could he possibly have been talking about? Who had he even seen lately, other than Johanna, who surprised us by stopping by for an afternoon on her way back to Two about a month and a half ago?
As if to answer my question, he said, "Johanna, it's okay. No one has to know. It's your decision."
I had to grab onto a chair in order to keep from falling down. It felt like the entire room had suddenly started spinning. Something was very wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was, and I felt dread so intense it was seeping through my pores. What on earth was going on?
He pauses, and I can hear Johanna basically screaming on the other end, although I can't tell what it is that she is saying.
"Okay, I get it. You're keeping it. That's fine, it is. It's wonderful, actually," at this, I can tell by the sound of his voice that he is smiling that enormous smile he reserves for things that are really, really wonderful, "and you can count on me being behind you every step of the way…" he pauses again. I can hear her yell something else, a question, then he sounds really worried, "I don't really knowhow I'm going to tell her, but don't worry, I'll take care of it. You need to focus on staying healthy for the two of you right now."
I didn't need to hear anything else. I staggered out of the back door like I'd just been punched in the kidney. How could he possibly? How could she? I thought I knew them. I trusted them. Trusted them with my life in some situations. It didn't make sense. No sense at all. It was so completely out of nowhere, so utterly unexpected, that I didn't have any idea how to react. I expected illness and explosions and war and death.
Not for a second.
It suddenly made sense just how it had happened. Last month, she had arrived "unexpectedly" and gone to the bakery first, while I was in the woods. I had been out hunting, doing a decent day's work, while they had been messing around in the back room or something. Just imagining the practicalities of the situation made me feel so sick that I vomited up the contents of my stomach into the flower bed on the side of the house. Haymitch heard me, and came out of his front door, looking at me like I'd lost my mind.
"Rough morning, sweetheart?" he asks, but I ran away from him as fast as I could.
I ended up wandering around town in a daze. I didn't even have the sense to head for the woods. People in the street looked at me like I had gone crazy, but I didn't care. Nothing, absolutely nothing, made sense anymore, so what did it matter what they thought? I found myself standing in front of the bakery about a half hour after leaving the house. Through the big front display window, I saw Peeta handing a cookie out to a small, brown-haired child and grinning at her mother. A pang of guilt flooded my already overtaxed heart. Of course he would have a child with someone who was willing. Peeta deserved to have children. Children that I refused to give to him, despite the fact that he never actually asked. But he knew how I felt when he married me, so this was all his fault anyway. The mother and her daughter exited the shop a moment later, and then, out of my mind with rage, I stormed inside, thankful there were no more customers.
When I burst in, Peeta looked up startled, and then smiled, as though he was just thrilled to see me. The expression alone was enough to set me off. How dare he smile like that, after what he'd done? Without a word, I grabbed him by the collar and pulled him after me into the back room, past a stunned Vick, who had been cleaning the display cases.
I threw Peeta against the counter as hard as I could, and scowled at him. He looked incredibly confused, more than anything else, and in the back of my mind I worried that maybe this might push him into an episode, but just in case, I pulled an enormous butcher's knife from a nearby block and then jammed it into the wooden counter, right where I could grab it easily.
Peeta gulped as I stared him down.
"How could you?" I demanded. My voice sounded foreign: low and menacing and broken and hysterical.
His eyes gazed back at me, innocent and completely bewildered, "I… don't know what you're talking about?"
"You damn well know," I snarl.
He takes a deep, rattling breath and wraps his fingers tightly around the counter top, "Katniss… love… I'm feeling really anxious right now. Please tell me what you're talking about, because this," he looked down nervously at the knife, "is not a great situation for me, as you can probably imagine…"
Being this angry and heartbroken all at once was almost impossible to sustain with any sort of personal dignity, and my voice broke as I shouted, "I heard you on the phone! Talking to Johanna. If you didn't want me anymore, you could have just said! How could you go behind my back and get her pregnant?" I rub the back of my hand hard across my eyes, because I don't want him to ever see that this is making me cry.
The fear in his eyes dissipated and his grip on the counter relaxed as he let out an enormous sigh of relief, "Oh, no, that's… ohKatniss, you misunderstood the conversation…" He didn't even seem to care that I had been eavesdropping.
"I know what I heard," I said in a quavering voice that was supposed to be stern and merciless, but didn't come out that way. "You were talking about how you would have to figure out how to tell me. Why on earth would it matter if I knew, unless the baby is yours?"
Peeta looked at me for a moment, and his eyes were filled with not just the knowing look he gets when he thinks I'm being naive, but also a specific type of sadness that I hadn't seen in over a year.
"Because Katniss, the baby… it's Gale's."
My jaw dropped nearly to the ground as his words hung in the air. Neither of us said anything as I tried to process his revelation and he tried to gauge my reaction. But neither of us really got a chance.
"WHAT?" from behind the swinging door, Vick's voice shattered the silence. Apparently I wasn't the only one eavesdropping today.
Peeta spun around at the sound, and by the time he turned back around, I was long gone, running as fast as I could toward the woods.
And now I'm, seething with rage in what is an otherwise tranquil setting, surrounded by leaves that are just starting to change.
I'm not certain what makes me angrier, the fact that Peeta didn't tell me that Johanna is pregnant with Gale's baby, the fact that Johanna is pregnant with Gale's baby, or the fact that I was paranoid and generally crazy enough to imagine that Peeta could have possibly betrayed me like that. I don't even know why the actual pregnancy would upset me. I don't want kids. I realized a while ago that don't want Gale. And I sure don't want Johanna. But despite these things, it gets to me on a deep, visceral level that I don't understand. So here I am, fuming twenty feet up a tree in a place where no one but Rory could possibly find me, and I know he won't even try. We have a code, and he's not about to break it. Rory understands that sometimes a person needs space. A lot of it.
I don't know what to do now. My mother, Annie, and her baby, Finnick's baby, are supposed to arrive on the late train, and I hear the echo of the whistle as it pulls away from the station. They're probably standing on the platform right now, confused that neither Peeta nor I are there to bring them to the house. Peeta is likely worried sick, and there is a very real possibility that I've brought on an episode by my dramatic scene. Luckily Vick was there, and I know he knows how to handle them.
Of course, Vick was there and now he knows about Johanna's pregnancy. The only other thing that I know about Peeta's phone conversation is, at this point, Johanna hasn't told many people. Maybe Gale himself doesn't know yet. I do not want to think about him. I especially do not want to think about him being… intimate with my closest female friend. Maybe even my best friend. Past and present are not allowed to mix together like this. It's too confusing.
I'm so distracted by trying my hardest not to think about it, and failing miserably, that I don't realize I've been joined by just about the last person I could possibly imagine being out in the woods until I hear him calling up to me.
"Get the hell down, sweetheart."
I look down, and there he is, squinting into the tree, bottle of white liquor in hand. He's wearing a quilted flannel jacket over his stained shirt, and I wish I had a jacked too, because it's starting to get dark and I'm feeling cold.
"No," I say. "How did you find me, anyway? Get lost and stumble out here by accident?"
"Rory found you. Took him about five minutes. Kid's good."
Rory steps forward from just about out of nowhere. I scowl at him, "I thought we had an understanding, Hawthorne."
He shrugs, "Sorry, Katniss. Couldn't help it."
"Peeta told him he'd give him free peach cupcakes whenever he wanted for the rest of his life if he came out here. You can't really compete with that," Haymitch explains.
I sigh angrily. Of course I can't compete with peach cupcakes. We don't even grow peaches here. Peeta's going to have to freeze what he does get to keep a constant supply on hand if he wants to keep his end of the bargain. Which he will, of course. "What'd he offer you?" I sneer.
Haymitch coughs. "I'm here out of the kindness of my heart."
I'd believe that when I see it. "What he threaten you with?" I correct myself.
"Told me he'd tell Effie I was looking a little yellow if I didn't bring you back." Of course. That would stop any liquor shipments pretty much in their tracks. My husband sure knows how to manipulate people when he wants to.
"Why didn't he just come himself?"
Haymitch is irritated. I can tell he doesn't like being out here, and he's panting from the exertion of the hike. "Because, sweetheart, your mother is currently standing at the train station with Annie and the last scion of the Odairs, waiting for you to pick them up. Someone has to be there to meet them. So the boy is enjoying the lovely experience of entertaining his mother-in-law for the first time after your secret wedding without the benefit of his wife. He gets to explain to her why exactly you got married when you did, and why you decided not to include her in your toasting."
"We didn't include anyone," I mutter.
He guffaws and takes a swig from his bottle. "Oh, I know. And I was grateful. Damn things are boring as hell. But mothers seem to like being involved."
"Not my mother. Or didn't you notice that she's been gone for the past two years?"
"Sure I have. But your husband's got enough mamma issues of his own. He shouldn't have to get all involved in yours. Least not on his own like that."
"He didn't tell me that Johanna is pregnant with Gale's baby," I snarl in justification.
"What." Rory mutters. With a dazed look in his eyes, he begins to walk away.
Haymitch sighs in exasperation. "Way to go, sweetheart. This is why no one tells you any secrets. Get the hell out of this tree and see if you can't convince that kid not to tell his mother."
There's no arguing with this. I begin to slither down, holding on to the trunk, when I feel something pull in my shoulder, and then there is a sharp pain. I fall to the ground, crying out and cradling my arm. The noise brings Rory back to reality, and he begins to walk back toward us. Drunk as he is, Haymitch looks concerned, "You alright?" he asks gruffly, pulling me up with my good hand.
"Think I pulled something in my shoulder," I grimace. "Guess I might as well go see my mother."
He chuckles, "Want a drink to hold you over?"
"I hurt my arm, not my sense of taste."
We slowly trudge through the woods. It takes longer to get back as the darkness begins to fall. Luckily, Haymitch brought a flashlight. I'm surprised he even has one. Most people in Twelve use lanterns. I forget sometimes that despite the way he dresses and behaves, he's still insanely rich. It's hard to even consider the wealth we have as worth much, because it doesn't really buy us anything other than luxury items. While the infrastructure is being built, staples like food are pretty highly regulated. Not Thirteen-style regulation, mind you, but just so that no one starves. Capitol goods are pretty easy to come by. It's everything else that's difficult.
By the time we reach the house, Haymitch and I have convinced Rory to keep silent on the baby issue. I hope that Peeta managed to get Vick to do the same. I see that the lights in my home are shining brightly and I take a deep breath, nervous to see my mother, and nervous to see Peeta again as well. I still feel furious with both him, and myself. I carefully open the front door, and he is there immediately. I can hear Annie and my mother talking softly in the kitchen over the cooing of a young child. Peeta looks stressed, but okay; he doesn't have the crazed flashback gleam in his eyes, or the exhausted post-episode drain on his lips. His eyes are questioning, and I know he wants to make sure everything is alright.
"We'll talk later," I mutter angrily.
He squeezes my hand, and I let him lead me into the kitchen. I've barely even stepped through the door when I feel Annie's willowy arms around me, squeezing me surprisingly hard for someone with such an ethereal presence most of the time.
"Oh Katniss, I'm so happy to see you!" she cries. Her voice sounds more grounded than I've ever heard it. The last time I saw her, at the voting for the Capitol Games, she had looked like someone had drained all of the color out of her skin and sucked all of the life out of her face, which had been especially terrifying when you could also see of the roundness of her baby bump. Now she looks bright and healthy again, green eyes sparkling, skin tanned, cheeks pink and full. Other than a slightly more curvy figure, she hardly looks like she's had a baby at all.
"Hello honey," I turn at the voice, and look into the eyes of my mother, who has been standing by the table, holding a chubby baby. She hands him over to Peeta, who takes him easily, as though he has been carrying children around his entire life, and walks towards me, arms outstretched. Her skin is freckled and her hair has been bleached almost completely platinum, all from the sun, I guess, but her eyes still look haunted. It is hard to look into them, because I see my sister in the physical resemblance as well as in the pain, but I cannot deny that the sight makes my heart swell with love anyway. A love that I had almost forgotten, that I had tried to kill when she abandoned me all of those years ago.
Annie lets go of me, and I rush into my mother's arms. I squeeze her so tightly I feel the pain in my shoulder again and cry out.
"Katniss, what's the matter?" my mother asks, pulling back. I see her begin to slip into no-nonsense healer mode before my eyes. I don't want this right now; she can look at it some other time. Right now I need her here, not some doctor.
I shake my head and hug her again, "I think I need you to look at it later. Eight years of using a bow every day is starting to wear on my shoulder, I think. It pulled funny when I climbed down from a tree tonight."
She nods as though she knows the exact injury I'm describing. "I have a salve that should help with the muscle strain," she smiles. "Also, I've been working with a physical therapist at the hospital. I can call him tomorrow, and I think he should know some exercises you can do to keep this from happening." She smiles and kisses my forehead.
For the first time in years, I feel more than just marginally cared for by my mother instead of excessively cared for by the healer that just happens to have given birth to me. The experience is strange, but not bad. I look over at Peeta, who is playing with Finnick's copper-haired son. He turns to look at me while the baby pulls at his shaggy curls. His eyes are bright, and I know that he has some inkling of what I am feeling right now. I remember that his entire family is dead, and even if they weren't, his mother was lost to him before he was even really born.
I feel a great deal of my earlier anger towards him dissipate.
He insists on cooking dinner with little Finnick Odair (called "Nick" by basically everyone) strapped to his chest, while my mother, Annie, and I sit around the table and talk. The green-eyed baby, I guess he's actually just over a year old now, wants to get down and tries to get into everything, but Peeta seems to manage well enough, chatting with him as though he is an actual person and leaving him pretty content where he is. Annie doesn't seem to mind at all that her son is held within easy reach of knives, the stove, and all of the other dangerous cooking implements. I would come to learn later that this had more to do with her complete trust in Peeta than some sort of mothering defect.
They tell me about Four, about the new hospital, about Nick's birth and Johanna's subsequent stay. Apparently she passed out the moment the baby was born, which is going to end up being interesting in the future, especially since I know that Gale actually delivered his sister. I don't let on what I know, and they don't imply anything, and I wish Haymitch were here so I could prove to him that I am actually somewhat capable of keeping a secret. Nick begins to fuss, and Annie starts nursing him at the table, his chubby fingers tangled in her hair. Peeta doesn't bat an eye, but I feel uncomfortable, not necessarily because of the nudity, but more because everyone is just so natural around this child, while I feel like if I touch him he will break.
Annie seems to sense this, and when the baby has finished feeding, she pushes him into my arms. He's sleepy and happy, full of milk, and he grabs my braid with a strong hand. We size each other up, and I remember looking at Finnick in just the same way, wondering if he could be trusted. Nick seems to believe me trustworthy enough because he turns into me, cuddling into my chest and falling asleep, fingers still pulling on my hair. He snores, just like his father. I can't help but smile.
I look up and Peeta is watching me across the kitchen. His eyes glow with pure, unadulterated longing and the softest smile plays on his lips. When he realizes I'm looking at him, he clears his throat and announces that dinner is ready.
He's made a risotto – something I didn't even know existed before we went to the Capitol – with wild mushrooms and the rabbit that Rory brought in today. Right as we're about to eat, there's a knock at the door. It's Haymitch and Hazelle.
"Peeta invited us," Hazelle says in her low voice. "Sorry we're a bit late. The boys decided to stay home with Posy at the last minute. It's good to see you, Ruth." My mother stands and the two women embrace. Haymitch doesn't say anything, but he's put on a clean shirt, and he isn't carrying any alcohol on him that I can see. My mother turns and hugs him too, whispering something his ear as he twitches awkwardly.
"Wasn't any trouble," he mumbles in response to whatever she has said.
Once more, we gather around the table, and it feels like a real meal, with a real family. Nick is still sleeping in my arms. I'm not sure what to do with him, but I don't feel ready to put him down quite yet, despite the dull pain in my shoulder. I manage to free my sore arm and slowly feed myself, ignoring the complaints of the muscles. Peeta sits beside me and gently strokes my back with his left hand. He tries not to look at me, and I suspect it's because he thinks I'm still angry and especially doesn't want me to see the yearning in his face. I try not to look at Hazelle. Haymitch kicks me under the table every time he sees me glance at her, grinning when I scowl at him. Eventually, I give Nick to Peeta, and then he seems unable to pay attention to anything else.
After dinner, Haymitch claims to need to feed his geese, but I am certain that he just wants to go home and get drunk. Annie heads to my old house, saying that it's time to put Nick to bed. Peeta offers to walk her there, but I think it's just an excuse to hold the baby for a bit longer. He doesn't come back right away. My mother and Hazelle clean the dishes, speaking quietly with each other as I sit on the back porch and listen to the crickets. When they've finished, Hazelle heads out the back door to her own home, thanking me softly for the meal. My mother goes to follow Annie to the guest house, but I stop her.
"Can we talk for a bit?" I ask.
She looks shocked, but pleased. "I would really like that," she murmurs.
I'm not sure what she's expecting, so I try to make things clear right away, "Not about her. I can't do that right now."
My mother nods. "I don't think I can either."
We sit in the living room quietly for several minutes. My mother may have abandoned me, but I have come to realize that we're more like than unlike. Prim was always the one who was like my father; friendly, a lively little chatterbox who brought light into a room. My mother and I are the ones who sit in the corner quietly, waiting for someone to come to us. The nice thing is, she doesn't need me to talk to her, and I don't need her to fill the silence. While we sit, Buttercup curls up beside her and she gasps, then begins to gently stroke his fur.
When I do speak, I get right to the point.
"Gale's having a baby."
She looks up at me, her clear eyes unreadable. "Did he tell you that?"
"Peeta did. Well… actually I overheard Peeta talking to the mother about it. Johanna, you remember her right?"
Of course she remembers. Johanna and I lived together in Thirteen, after all.
She doesn't say anything at first, and I collapse into the couch behind me, feeling unbearably weary.
"I never told you about Peeta's father," she finally begins.
I turn and look at her. I didn't expect this. Of course she hadn't told me about him. She hadn't told me about a lot of more adult type things. She kind of disappeared at the point in time when she should have started.
"We grew up together. All the Merchant children did, really. But we were particularly close, especially after Maysilee…" she trails off. "He made me laugh a great deal, and was always doing little things to try to make my days brighter when life seemed unbearably dark. But I was very shy, and I didn't understand how he felt about me until he confessed it one day walking home from school just before we turned eighteen. He was too late, though – I'd already met your father and fallen very deeply in love. When I married him, well, I didn't go back to town unless I had to for the same reason you never knew your grandparents, so I hardly ever saw Peeta's father at all for the first year, though I heard he married a somewhat older girl. Your father did most of the trading with the game he brought in anyway, so it just wasn't necessary."
I nod, and listen. Her side of the story is interesting, but I'm not sure where she's going with it.
"When your father told me they were expecting a child, I went into the Meadow and cried for a long time."
"But you didn't love him," I blurt out. I feel angry, as though she is tarnishing my father's perfect memory.
She looks at me with calm wisdom in her eyes and I see Prim, "I wasn't in love with him, Katniss. I knew he wasn't what I wanted, what I needed, but it didn't mean I didn't love him, that he hadn't been hugely important in my life. It didn't mean there wasn't a lost possible future attached to his name. It didn't mean I didn't mourn the loss of my dearest friend. I made my choice, and I would make the same one over and over again if I had to live forever, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't confusing and difficult. That doesn't mean it didn't hurt when I saw him with someone else. I can't even imagine what it would have been like if his wife had been a dear friend."
"Did it get easier?"
She nods gently, "More quickly than I imagined after the initial shock was over. I could even come into the bakery and see him again. When I saw how she treated those boys, I grew to pity, and even care for them too, though they hardly knew me. I used to bring medicines for their cuts and bruises and slip them under the bakery door. Well, until your father… until we lost him. Then it hardly seemed to matter."
"Did Dad know?" I almost whisper.
"It is a credit to your father that he did, and never once did he treat Mr. Mellark any differently. He seemed to understand that my choosing him wouldn't have been much of a choice if his competition hadn't meant something to me."
We sit quietly once more, until the sound of the door opening alerts us to Peeta's return.
"Well, I suppose I should go to bed now," my mother stands. "The train ride was very taxing."
"Are you sure you will be okay in the old house?" I ask unexpectedly.
She sighs sadly, "Katniss, these houses all look the same. What haunts me is in the very ground. I can't escape it here, no matter where I sleep. At least I can help Annie with the baby. She may seem stable now, but she does not do very well at night." She hugs me tightly, and then stops to embrace Peeta before she opens the front door and leaves.
"I'm not going to apologize for not telling you," he says firmly, as he sits down beside me and takes my hands. "She told me in confidence. She was terrified, and she didn't have anyone else to tell."
"She has me," I say bitterly.
He tilts his head and smiles a little, "Katniss, you know why she couldn't tell you. You're half the reason she's terrified." I can't really argue with this. I'm not actually angry with her, though. Maybe it's because at first, I thought she had actually been having an affair with my husband, so this seems like nothing in comparison.
"How did it happen?"
"I'd imagine in the regular way," he can't help but make a joke. I smack his shoulder, and then wince as the pain reverberates up my sore arm. He gently turns me, and begins rubbing my back as he continues, "I'm not completely sure of the whole situation. I know she wants to tell you, that she plans on it. I'm going to let her do that, okay? It's her story. Not mine."
He continues to massage my shoulder quietly until I break the silence. "It bothers me."
"I know it does," he says sadly. I want to try to explain why, to make the sadness go away but I just don't think I can yet. I wish I knew how to make him see that it's not what he fears, but that means I have to talk about Gale, to think about him, and that means I have to think about how my best friend killed my little sister. It's the last thing I want to think about, but it seems to come up more and more and more every day.
I turn and grab Peeta's jaw, making certain he's looking into my eyes, "I chose you. I love you. Okay?" It's not much, but it's the best I can do.
He kisses me softly and holds me close, "Okay." We stay like this for a long moment.
"I'm sorry I can't give you a baby," I say as I pull away and look down at the floor.
"Why are you saying that?" he lifts my chin.
I don't want to look at him while I say this, so I turn my entire body forward. "When I… misunderstood you today, I felt like…well, that it wouldn't be too surprising if you'd rather be with someone who wanted to have a child. Someone whole. You deserve that much."
He laughs mirthlessly, and he sounds almost angry, "Katniss, every once and awhile I wonder if you even know me at all."
I turn to look at him just as he catches my lips in a fierce kiss. I fall backwards into the couch, and he pulls me under him, devouring my mouth with his own. "What else can I possibly do to prove that you're the only one I want, that I'll ever want?" he asks as he kisses me. He's insistent, dominating. He sucks on my collarbone, punctuating his sentences with bites that hurt just enough to send shudders of desire coursing through my body. "I want you. Not just any woman who will give me a baby. If you want us to have a child someday together, then that will be amazing. But it will be something we do together. It's not the sort of thing you just reluctantly give. Children need to be wanted." His voice breaks as he says this.
I still him, and push him away until he's gazing down at me, propped up on his elbows. His eyes are full of pain. I press my finger gently on his lips. "Shhhh… no. I didn't mean it like that. Oh, Peeta, I'm so sorry."
He collapses onto me, burying his face in my neck, and I can feel the hot tears that are soaking into my shirt. "She didn't want me," he murmurs as I stroke his back. The position we're in is making my shoulder hurt terribly, but I will continue to do this until it falls off if it will bring him some sort of comfort.
"I want you," I whisper softly. He wraps his arms around me even tighter, but doesn't respond. I am utterly helpless. I don't know how to make this better. I don't know how to take the things that I feel and sort them into manageable packets of information that I can hand to him so he understands. I'm afraid that if I even allow myself to think about Gale and Prim, the reason that I was so upset at the news of Johanna's pregnancy, the reason I can't… won't have children, the yawning pit inside me will open back up, and I will be sucked inside again. But he is hurting so much I can hardly bear it, so I reach deep inside myself and pull out the one truth I can offer.
"If I were ever brave enough to want a baby, it would be yours. And I would love it, Peeta. I would love it so much more than anything else in the world."
Chapter 5: Whatever We Want
I had been tossing and turning for hours, roused for once not from nightmares, but just from my own embarrassment and contrition. The night before, Peeta and I had gone to bed without really talking about my initial reaction to the whole… situation, mostly because he had fallen asleep on top of me as I tried to soothe him, completely exhausted from the stress of the day. When I woke him up to lead him to bed, I'm not even certain if he had been actually conscious. I didn't have the heart to fully wake him just to have a serious and possibly upsetting conversation. But clearly, I needed to get it out, or I was going to end up spending Sunday, the one day of the week we can sleep in, tossing and turning for hours before dawn broke. Normally, such nocturnal unease would wake Peeta up, but I think he was just too exhausted to even move.
I couldn't take it anymore. Rolling away onto my back, I groaned heavily and then cried out, "I'm sorry, okay?" After my outburst, I sat up dizzily, and then fell back down, covering my eyes with my hands. "I can't believe I thought you would do something like that. With Johanna of all people. I feel so idiotic…"
Peeta, who had been shocked out of a deep sleep, lifted his head and squinted at me with confused, bleary eyes for a long moment as his brain tried to catch up. Once he realized what was going on, he breathed out a soft laugh, "Yeah… I was surprised myself. Of course, you never were that great at figuring out anyone's intentions. 'Cept maybe Haymitch…" his voice was sticky with sleep and he yawned before falling back onto the pillows.
"I'm really sorry," realizing he was only half-awake left me feeling less defensive than usual, and this apology, a more sincere one, came a bit easier. "It probably didn't feel too great."
"It didn't," he heaved a long, exhausted sigh and then yawned loudly, "but then when I finally felt convinced that you weren't going to castrate me, it was just a tiny bit funny how clueless you were." I don't think he quite realized he was picking on me out loud, because he normally knows better. But at the time, I was too tired to be irritated, and the fact that he was making a joke was a bit of a relief. He wasn't wrong. The actual idea of him being unfaithful to me after everything that's happened is so absurd as to be completely ridiculous. But sometimes, I don't think about things. I just react. And sometimes I end up looking like a fool, and hurting people in the process.
Still… I'm not clueless.
With one arm, I smacked him in the face with a pillow, then finally close my eyes to sleep, feeling a lot better.
Several hours later, the sun was streaming in the windows as I opened my eyes again, this time feeling well-rested. My body was warm and generally comfortable, but my shoulder felt stiff, and I needed to move. It was really going to ache after falling asleep on that couch.
"How are you so good at this?" I asked sleepily, turning my back to Peeta and knocking his chin off of my shoulder in the process. We'd been drifting in and out of consciousness for some time, his fingers tracing patterns on my wrists had appeared in my dreams many times, which mean he had to be doing it in real life.
"Good at what?" he responded drowsily, rolling over and wrapping me in his arms again.
At not assuming things and reacting like a maniac, I thought, but didn't say it. "At just being married, I guess," I sighed as he nuzzled my neck.
I could feel him shrug behind me he chuckled, "Maybe it's because I planned for it for thirteen years?" He curled his body over mine and kissed my cheek. Sunday had become a wonderful day, just as wonderful as it had been before the Quell and the War and everything else, but for entirely different reasons.
The thought of him as a little boy attempting to figure out how to deal with a shell-shocked revolutionary icon made me laugh a little. "I'm not sure how useful the thoughts of a five-year-old are to our current situation."
He chuckled to himself and shook his head, lips brushing against my back. "I don't know, Katniss. I had a really good plan. You were going to live in the bakery with me and my family. Once we got married, my brothers would have to finally let me have the bunk beds, and they'd be stuck sharing the double. You were going to get the top bunk, of course, because it's the best. And then we'd play outside all day, make blanket forts when it rained, and eat icing for dinner, because, according to my mother, when I grew up and got married I'd be able to do whatever I wanted."
I rolled over and look at him. He couldn't be serious.
"Oh, you don't think that's true? It was. When I was about six, I started to vaguely realize that there was some kind of barrier to Seam-Merchant marriages, so I decided that the only solution was to run away and be a coal miner. I'd go out and practice hitting rocks with a stick in the yard, since I didn't know where to get a pick. I wanted to be ready, in case there was some sort of miners' entrance exam. Dad thought I had lost my mind until I ended up telling him."
He was not lying. I could tell. He was also remembering a lot of very specific details, something that's hard for him sometimes, so I humored him. It's hard for us to talk about our families in any sort of normal way, unless we're working on the book, but he seemed happy to be remembering them and in comparison to how he had been feeling last night, this was a vast to improvement. I have to admit, I was also bit curious myself, "Seven was a rough year for planning," he went on. "I finally couldn't take keeping it a secret anymore. I told Delly but that was maybe a mistake because she made me play house with her in exchange for silence. She claimed that it'd make me good at being married, but mostly she just made me change her doll's pretend diapers and tell her she looked pretty. Eventually she got sick of it, and said I'd make a better brother than a husband. By the time I was nine, I started playing sports, mostly because I liked being with my friends, but also because I thought that maybe I'd get good at them and you'd notice and be impressed or something."
I tried to swallow my laughter, because obviously this tactic hadn't worked at all. Well, actually maybe a little. I certainly had noticed that he nearly won the wrestling competition, but that had been years after…
"Yeah, we both know how well that worked out," he reached over to poke my side, interrupting my thoughts. I grabbed his hands and held them down, glaring at him.
His eyes got a distant look when he realized what came next, and he spoke very quietly "When I was eleven, I didn't really think about us getting married very much. I used to wonder if maybe, somehow..." he trailed off, realizing he probably shouldn't talk about this. But the thought of, my father's death isn't so raw all the time, not when compared with other things. Despite how dangerous life in Twelve had been, somehow I had made it eleven years without a clear idea of how it had to have felt to watch another child experience something like that. I guess I just hadn't noticed. So I wanted to know.
"You used to wonder what?" I asked quietly.
There was a long pause before he answered. "I hoped that maybe it was a mistake. That the accident turned out to be just a cave-in, not an explosion, and the foreman would come running in to school and pull you out of class with the news and then you would smile again." The scenario was heartbreakingly familiar. I had imagined it hundreds of times. I bit my lip, and he tried to press forward, to focus on something other than such a painful memory. He freed his hand to caress my cheek, and I leaned into his touch.
"When you started looking so skinny, I kept trying to steal bread and bring it to you, but I wasn't exactly the world's most talented thief, so my mother caught on immediately. Thought I was being greedy. She'd search my bags and even my pockets before I left for the day. Kept telling me that no kid of hers was going to end up like one of the Cartwrights, which was extra nasty, considering they were our friends. She said it once when Delly was on the other side of the door, about to knock. Obviously it upset her a lot, but I wasn't very supportive at the time. I was too distracted with trying to come up with elaborate schemes to feed you."
"You figured it out, eventually," I reached forward and gently brushed his hair out of his eyes, my hand lingering on the spot where his mother had hit him. Somehow, when we talk about things together like this, it doesn't hurt so badly.
"Was the only bruise that I wasn't embarrassed to show in school," he said proudly, wrapping his hands around my waist and pulling me close to him. "At thirteen, I tried to have girlfriends. I figured if I couldn't talk to you, I could at least practice talking to them. But other than getting really good at hand-holding, and making a few girls cry, nothing ever came of it."
We lay there quietly for a few moments before he spoke again, his voice husky, "By the time I was fifteen... well, I thought about us getting married a lot." His face turned a little pink at the admission.
I pulled back and raised my eyebrows, pretending I didn't understand what he was suggesting. "Oh? The specifics of the toasting? What kind of dishes we would have?"
He chortled, and his face turned a little pinker. "You'd be surprised. But I'd say a pretty significant portion of my thoughts was spent wondering about what kind of noises you would make if I did this." Without warning, he danced the tips of his fingers across my shirt-covered nipple, and I gasped involuntarily, then scowled at him for surprising me. It didn't quite make it to my eyes though, and his twinkled as he looked at me.
"Yep," he nodded, "that'd be it. I wondered about those sorts of noises for a pretty embarrassing amount of time. Also what this skin here felt like," he kissed the spot behind my ear, "or just how soft these were," he ran his finger across my lips, "or how your hair smelled," he pulled me to him again and breathed in deeply.
My body was beginning to buzz with anticipation, and I found myself teasing him, "That seems pretty tame for a teenage boy. Are you certain there wasn't anything else?" Peeta's pupils grew so large so quickly that if we had been in any other situation, I'd have thought he was fighting off a flashback. But he wasn't. Talking like that, or, well, asking him to talk like that certainly wasn't something I did on a regular basis, but maybe I should start, because he seemed to enjoy it.
He tried to act affronted, but I could see the edges of his lips twitching as he held back his grin. "I was respectful when I thought about you. You weren't just anyone. You were Katniss Everdeen. My future wife."
I rolled onto my back, and pretended to be put out, "That's too bad."
He leaned close to me his voice was deep as he spoke. "I couldn't control the dreams, though."
The buzz that rumbled through my body grew louder as his breath tickled my neck. "They were pretty…" he paused, searching for the right term, "…libidinous." The word rolled off his tongue like honey. I found myself beginning to tremble just the tiniest bit at the sound, even though I wasn't completely certain of its definition.
"What does that mean?" I asked, even though I was pretty sure I had figured it out without his help.
As he responded, he gently worried my earlobe, and I could feel it in my toes, "Um… I don't know… I don't even remember where I learned it. I think it means lustful… primal…"
I didn't reply, just tried to control my breathing as he grazed his lips down my neck to rest at the hollow of my throat, "There was one that I'd have pretty much once a week. We'd be at school, just like normal, sitting at our desks in math class. You know, the one where you sat in front of me?"
It was difficult to respond, so I just nodded as he resumed his recollection, "Something normal would happen, like you'd drop your pencil, or a piece of paper, and then everyone else in the room would just vanish. We'd be completely alone," his mouth moved from my throat to my collarbone, and he began gently biting the skin there as he spoke. "And then the pencil would be gone too. And your clothes. You'd just be sitting on the top of the desk, completely naked, smiling at me. Don't know how you got up there so quick, but then, a bunch of people had just disappeared so I guess I didn't question it."
"You never said anything, but somehow in the dream I knew I was allowed to touch you, so I did," he sat up and gazed down at me, eyes burning with arousal and amusement and a distinctly different sort of enjoyment not connected with sex: pride that he could recall all of these things at once. Sometimes he has a lot of trouble with his memory, and I know it bothers him a lot, even though he never complains. The days that he can remember lots of things, especially things that no one else but him could possibly know, make him feel normal… less broken, I think; sort of the way I am when I wake up from a night of dreamless sleep.
On days when he feels like this, he tends to be more aggressive, and I can't say I mind.
With firm hands, he lifted my head off of the pillow and slipped off my shirt. "I'd start here," he cupped my breasts lightly. "I can't remember what they looked like in my dreams, but I can't imagine it could possibly have compared with reality." As he spoke, he rubbed his thumbs over my nipples in slow, light circles. "They felt perfect in my hands, though, which turned out to be accurate." As he touched me, I felt my feet involuntarily pushing down towards the bottom of the bed one after another, trying to somehow make him go faster without asking.
His normally soft eyes were almost feral as he asked, "You like this. Real or not real?"
"Real." My voice was breathless.
"You seemed to like it a lot in the dream too. I'd also kiss them," he did, and I squirmed uncontrollably at the soft touch of his full lips, lifting myself to meet him, but then he sat up suddenly, with that look on his face. I closed my eyes because I had a sneaking suspicion I knew what he was going to do, and even though I'd let him, it was still too embarrassing to watch. Unfortunately, that meant I couldn't see him, and a lot of times not seeing him ended up leaving me trapped in my own stupid head.
I felt him pull down my shorts, hands pushing my thighs apart as he continues speaking in a conversational tone, "Usually that's when I'd wake up a mess. But sometimes, I'd get to do this," his fingers were touching me, gently spreading the folds, and it felt so good if only I could just make myself relax enough to enjoy it completely. I could feel the way he was holding his weight on the mattress, and it was obvious that he was gazing at what he was doing, gazing at me, which, when I considered it, made shivers run down my spine. I lifted my eyelids just a bit, to peek, and there he was staring intensely at his hand as he slowly moved his index finger in little circles through my wetness. His face had that same expression that he has when he's surveying a painting that's halfway done. I clamped my eyes shut again, because it was all just too much.
"You watched me in the dream," he chided me with amusement. "But it's okay. You don't have to watch now. Just listen."
I clenched my stomach in anticipation and he noticed, chuckling to himself, "You think this isn't going to work, don't you?" I knew he was aware of how it can be difficult for me sometimes, but I didn't expect him to really bring it up, especially not in the heat of the moment. He leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially into my ear, "You're wrong, though."
Something about how confident he sounded made my heart begin to race. And then, as he started to speak again in a low, rumbling voice, it felt like it might actually burst out of my chest.
"You're so wet already, Katniss. So wet and hot and every second that I touch you you're getting wetter. I can feel it," it was true, and thinking about it, thinking about what he was actually doing, instead of how I was reacting to it, made my whole body start to shake. "I want you so bad it hurts," he continued, "I want to bury myself inside you and feel you so tight around me I can't tell us apart. I want to feel you squeeze me so hard when you come that I see stars. And we're going to do that, but not yet…"
"Why?" I gasped out, thrashing my head back and forth against the pillow as his fingers ever so slowly increased in speed.
"Because I'm going to make you come with my hands first. And then with my mouth. And then I'm going to take you the way I want. The way you seem to want too, I think."
I opened my eyes and looked at him in complete shock. He'd never, ever spoken to me like this before, and I could tell by the blush that covered his entire body that he hadn't expected to do it himself. His eyes gazed back at me dark with lust, but also kind, as though he was waiting to see if I wanted him to stop. I realized that I really didn't, and fell back onto the pillow. His fingers sped up, while he continued to tell me how much he wanted me, how gorgeous and sexy I was, how amazing I looked when I came. It felt like my blood was boiling as he circled his finger faster and faster. Everything felt still and fast and out of control as my muscles began to lock in anticipation of what was about to happen.
"Do you know how good you taste?" he whispered into my ear, and then thrust two fingers inside me hard.
My back arched all the way off the mattress as I cried out.
He kept his promise. Hardly giving me a moment to recover, he spread my legs again and settled between them, using his tongue to bring me to absolute insanity. When I collapsed once more, this time into a screaming, shuddering heap, I was briefly worried that maybe I had snapped his neck with my thighs. He didn't give me any time to rest, and lifted my legs to his shoulders when he finally entered me, hard as steel, and even larger than normal, probably because he had delayed his own gratification for so long. I really have no concept of how long it took, or much of anything other than the waves of ecstasy that rolled over me again and again until he shuddered inside me, and then collapsed on his side, a self-satisfied, if exhausted, grin on his flushed face.
"Ready to go make breakfast for your mother?" he asked smugly.
The rest of the day was significantly less satisfying.
"You're kidding me. You thought he was the father? Peeta? Your husband? The man who… oh for the love of all that is holy, Katniss…" Johanna's eyebrows were raised, her head tipped forward. She looked like she felt pretty good about herself at the current moment, which was, of course, because I appeared an absolute moron. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
I was in the Hawthorne's living room, sitting in front of their television and having a conversation with Johanna, who was hundreds of miles away in Two. Hazelle had taken my mother on a tour of the new town. Annie was playing with Nick and Posy right outside, ostensibly watching over them, but also watching out for me, to make certain that Hazelle didn't come back before I was finished. Rory was probably in the woods somewhere, and Peeta was off with Vick and Thom, doing something, I wasn't quite sure what, but I was glad for it, whatever it was. This was the sort of conversation I did not want him to overhear.
I bit my lip as I tried to answer Johanna's very legitimate question. We had barely even said hello before she had started tearing into me.
"I didn't really think about it. I just reacted. He kept talking to you like…" I wanted to say "like he talks to me" but I held my tongue and tried a different approach. "I'm not… very good at reading people sometimes. I didn't even know you and Gale were friends," I added, looking at her face displayed on the screen. I wasn't sure where to direct my gaze. There was a small box in the bottom corner with my face reflected back at me. My eyes looked weird, like they were focusing in the wrong direction. It was hard to understand how Vick used this thing for school every day.
"I don't know that "friends" is really the right word at this point. Plus, you should be good at reading Peeta by this point. He's your fucking husband, brainless. I could slap you right now."
I sighed heavily. "I know. I was just… confused… and my mind filled in the blanks. Johanna, I still don't even understand what he gets out of this half the time. He's just so… open and I'm… not. When I heard your conversation, it just… it felt like the other shoe had dropped. That I was finally getting what I deserved after what I put him through." I didn't mention the part about him wanting children so, so badly. It felt too private to share.
"Yeah, well, you gotta get over that if you want this to work out. Next time, you barge into the living room and you ask him what the hell is going on, point blank, no accusations. And then he'll tell you he can't tell you, because I told him not to and he's one of maybe three decent people left in the world and I'll pitch a fit because I don't want you to know yet, but I don't want him to be all self-sacrificing. And then everything will be fine."
"Yeah, that sounds like a perfect situation."
She rolled her eyes. "Look, I know why you instantly assumed what you did. But I don't think you do."
"So tell me then."
"He's your whole world, you idiot!" Johanna cried in exasperation. "Of course you assume that if anyone was going to get down to business with anyone else it'd be with him, because you don't realize it, but you literally cannot imagine another man in existence that anyone would possibly want to be with. And you're so paranoid that you're going to lose everything, which hey, I understand, trust me, that… well… that was that. Done deal. Clearly, he had to be cheating on you because everything you love is going to leave, and he doesn't seem to be dying."
I felt humiliated, which was awful enough on its own, but what's more, I was certain I deserved it. "I don't like feeling like this," I muttered.
"Feeling like what?" she asked? "Embarrassed? Yeah, well, get used to it. I'm pretty certain marriage is just a string of embarrassments, one after another. You're the one who signed up for it."
"No, not just that. The… the part that goes along with what you said. About him being so important."
"What, vulnerable?" she scoffed. "Try having some weird little creature growing inside you, one that you know you're going to end up loving when it comes out, even if you'd theoretically rather get your eyelids stapled together. I don't even like babies. Speaking of which, how's Nicky?"
There it was, described in the crudest possible language. Basically the reason that I would never, ever have children. Loving Peeta made me vulnerable enough.
Plus, she mentioned it outright, so I could finally ask, "So… it was an accident then?"
"Not an accident. It was Thirteen. They told him they gave him a five year shot. Standard procedure for young officers. Course, they wanted him to knock up one of their own – figured he would hook up with one eventually, handsome guy like him, boring place like that. It was their way of insuring he'd stick around, and as a side benefit, they'd get a nice injection of new, robust genetic material. He just happened to be a bit distracted during the war, and then when it was over, they neglected to mention that the shot was a dud."
"Oh." I didn't ask how they worked themselves up to the point where birth control would matter. It had been two years, after all. Anything could happen in that time. I was curious, and maybe if I could just pretend it was someone else, not Gale, I could have managed alright, but Johanna seemed aware of the fact that I wasn't prepared to handle this information, and she didn't offer any details.
"And he knows now?" I asked.
She chuckled, "Yeah. He knows. We're coming into Twelve in two weeks so he can tell his mother."
"Yeah, Katniss. He wants to talk to you, if you'll listen."
"I don't know about that…" I began.
Johanna stood up and the camera focused on her slightly rounded belly, "Yeah, well, I don't care what you know. I think you two have some unfinished business, and I'd rather have my kid born without that hanging over his head."
"That's a pretty selfish way to put it," I responded bitterly.
"Oh? How's that feeling working out? Maybe you should remember it the next time you pointlessly accuse the one person who unconditionally loves you of stabbing you in the back. Oh, and when you're so focused on your own shit that you ignore the fact that your…" she paused, trying to find the right word to describe our relationship, and it hurt a bit that she couldn't come up with anything better than, "your old roommate is maybe not in the best place ever."
The screen went black.
I guess that meant the conversation was over. That had been thirteen days ago.
They're coming tomorrow.
"Peeta, I don't want to talk about this," I push my chair away from the table and begin to storm out the back door, leaving the meal he's cooked for me. Just before I'm out, he catches up to me, grabbing my wrist and not letting go.
"Katniss, I'm sorry, and normally I don't push you, you know that, but I can't help but think that this would be good for you. You've been screaming his name in your sleep."
He sounds weary, and I notice the dark circles under his eyes, realizing, not for the first time, that these past two weeks haven't just been difficult on me. My nightmares have been full of blonde braids and explosions and Gale making speeches with President Coin's voice, and I guess there was no hiding that from the person who wakes me from them every few hours.
"It's not like that," I begin to say, trying, for what seems like the thousandth time, to convince him without the proper tools that what I am feeling is not because of some latent longing for Gale or regret over our marriage. Why doesn't he get this yet? What can I do to make him get this? Maybe if I actually had the words to talk about it.
He pulls me forward by my wrist and wraps his arms around me. I find myself falling into his solid, steady warmth, despite the fact that he's trying to make me talk about something I don't want to discuss. What he says next surprises me, probably because of how guilty I still feel over the day before – when I said the pregnancy bothered me. I guess after speaking with my mother, it bothers me less, but something still wrings at my heart whenever I think about it. I know it's not really jealousy nearly so much, though. It's something else. Something worse.
"I know, Katniss. I do. I trust you, okay? But this is eating you up inside. This isn't the two of you growing apart after a tragedy. Something about what happened is ripping you to pieces the longer you keep it in, and the only person you can talk to about it is Gale. I can't help you. I can't make this better, or even just help you ride it out. It's getting worse."
"Of course it's getting worse. He's coming here. I'll be better once he leaves."
"Katniss, our dear friend is carrying his child, his entire family lives next-door, and the way things are going with his career this early in his life, I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up president. He's not just going away forever after this."
I lean into him heavily and he strokes my hair, "Why can't he just disappear?"
He laughs unexpectedly, "If it were possible to make Gale Hawthorne disappear by sheer force of will, I would have figured it out about five years ago." We are quiet at this. I realize once again, just how good of a man Peeta really is. How quickly he pushes aside any issues he might have in order to do what he thinks will help me heal.
"You really think I should talk to him?"
"I'm still angry at you," I murmur, pressing my face into his arm, which he tightens around me.
"You're getting a lot better at it. I don't feel like I'm going to be eviscerated," he jokes, and then leads me to the door, "Why don't you go take a little walk? Clear your head. When you come back, dessert will be ready. You don't even have to finish your dinner," he winks.
I walk out of the door without a word. Without his soothing presence, the anger I feel bursts into a roaring inferno. I need to talk to someone, someone who understands that certain things are just not forgivable. Before I realize what I'm doing, I'm at his door.
"He killed her, Haymitch," I spit out the instant I burst into his house, sick of dancing around the issue any longer. My mentor is sitting at his kitchen table, playing a game of chess against himself. He's sober. This must be Peeta's doing. He must have known I would have come here. The thought is somehow irritating and endearing all at the same time. "He killed her and I'm supposed to talk to him."
"Just like Peeta killed Mitchell?" Haymitch asks calmly, taking his own pawn. "Well, actually, no. Gale wasn't physically involved in her death in any way, unlike your mild-mannered husband, who threw a man into a ball of razor wire that ripped him to pieces."
Of course he would be like this, trying to make comparisons that don't work, and using unfair examples and brutal to prove his point. I don't know why I came here at all. "He didn't kill him! The Capitol made him into a weapon! He wasn't even the same person!"
Haymitch frowns at the chessboard, and then takes his own knight. "Course you're right. But maybe if you had paid a little more attention in Thirteen you would have seen just what Coin was doing to your "cousin." She wanted a weapon of her own. Kid didn't have a clue what was going on," he takes his own rook.
"He killed Prim."
"Mitchell's wife had just given birth to their second kid back in Thirteen. Was one of the few who could still have 'em. Maddie and Kirk, their names are, I think."
"Peeta didn't kill Mitchell!" I scream. "It was the Capitol!"
"Gale didn't kill Primrose, sweetheart. President Coin did, and you took care of her after that. Whatever Hawthorne is or was, he would have stepped in front of that bomb in a second if he'd known. But he didn't, and not only did he lose the woman he loved over it, or well... maybe not over it - frankly, I don't think you two would have worked out very well," he took another one of his own pawns. "Anyway I don't think living with the loss of your pleasant company is quite as bad as living with the knowledge that his weapon killed, I dunno, like three hundred children. That's twelve and a half Hunger Games. Not to mention the irony of who one of them just happened to be."
"It was ruthless. It was a horrible, brutal weapon, and he invented it," I feel dizzy and sick.
"And I imagine he hasn't slept in about two years."
"He doesn't deserve to be happy," I whisper, thinking about the child that he will soon have.
"No one ever said he was."
Haymitch took his own queen.
I come home to Peeta, refusing his offer of gooey, freshly-baked chocolate-chip cookies, and just cling to him as we stand in the dark kitchen.
"I love you," I say over and over into his neck, not even giving him a chance to respond. He just holds me, and strokes my back. Finally, after a long time, I look up into his eyes.
"I'll talk to him. But I can't promise I won't break his nose."
"Fair enough," he says seriously.
We go to bed, leaving the cookies for breakfast.
We're married. We can do whatever we want.
Chapter 6: Door
Stomping into the house, I throw down my game bag and let my bow clatter to the floor. I'm being a lot less gentle than I should, considering its sentimental value, but I'm frustrated, and I need some sort of outlet. After being in the woods for only an hour this morning, it was obvious that I shouldn't be there – it was doing the opposite of calming me down. I decided that I would come home to drop off my gear and then find Peeta in the bakery. I hoped that he would let me grind up some spices or something to relieve some of my nervous tension. Anything mindless and repetitive to keep my mind from dwelling on the mid-morning train that is now set to arrive any minute.
Unfortunately it looks like that won't really be an option, because he is home, sitting at the kitchen table and writing frantically, his neat flowing hand looking a little less put-together in his agitation. Sheets of paper are scattered across the table in no particular order. His blonde waves are sticking up all over the place, and there is a thin line of sweat on his upper lip, despite the fact that it is November and quite chilly.
He's making lists.
I feel as though I've stumbled upon something incredibly intimate and personal, and I don't know what to do. I know Dr. Aurelius has him do this as his therapy, but beyond that, I've only ever seen one list, the original one, and that was kind of a big deal in and of itself. Peeta's really open about everything nearly always. It's not that he hides the other lists he makes from me specifically, it's just that he does this when he's trying to deal with his episodes. When they come on, he usually wants to be alone because he's afraid he'll hurt me. I know he won't, but he's so insistent that I give him his space most of the time, unless the situation seems really severe. He's gotten a lot better at fighting them off while he's alone. They're actually happening less and less frequently as time goes on so I'm not as worried that he'll hurt himself. Sometimes, though, I wish he would be a little more open to my comfort in these situations, because it's one of the few times that I really feel certain how to help. He just needs to be taken care of, and I really, really want to be able to do that. He takes care of me all of the time.
At the drop of my bow, he looks up and smiles, despite the fact that it's clear he's still very anxious. "Hey," he says. "I thought you were going to hunt until lunch."
"Yeah, well, I couldn't do much hunting," I shrug. "Shouldn't you be baking?"
He looks a little embarrassed, "Vick sent me home."
After working with him for over a year, Vick has developed a pretty good sense of Peeta's limits. He isn't afraid to speak up when he thinks his boss is having a bad day. Of course, he manages to do it in the most irritatingly precocious way possible, citing a checklist of his own and being obnoxiously precise in his description of "early warnings," as he likes to call the subtle indicators of Peeta's anxiety. He's also usually right, and Peeta, being a lot more easy-going than I am, just takes it in stride. There's always enough dough stored away for Vick to be able to at least run the bakery for half a day at minimum capacity without him so people can eat.
As much as the kid gets on my nerves, I don't know what we're going to do when he moves to Three this winter. It's strange to think of the bakery as something that I have ownership in, since I'm hardly ever there during business hours, but somehow, it being Peeta's makes it mine too. I guess that's what the legal definition of marriage is anyway, but it goes deeper than that. I feel invested.
I hang up my jacket and approach the table, trying not to read any of his lists as I do so.
"Well, I'm glad you're here," I say, leaning down to wrap my arms around him.
I mean it, too.
"Are you okay?" I ask, gesturing to the mess of paper on the table.
"I'll be alright. Just reminding myself of some things," he gathers the scattered papers and puts them into a neat stack, not trying to hide them, but not offering to share them either. He hesitates a moment, and then continues, "I'm feeling… not great about seeing Gale, to be honest."
"We could just barricade ourselves in the bakery until they leave," I suggest. He barks out a laugh that echoes in the otherwise quiet room. He's usually the one coming up with the ridiculous ideas to alleviate stressful situations. It makes me feel good to do it for once. To hear his laugh.
"Just because I'm not looking forward to it doesn't mean it doesn't need to happen," he leans back into my arms, rubbing his head against my shoulder like a cat, "although I appreciate your proposition–"
The long whistle of the train cuts him off. I wrap my arms around him even more tightly, and bury my face in his neck.
"Kiss me until I have to go," I plead.
I'm waiting at the rock, my father's jacket pulled tightly around me against the chill.
It doesn't take Gale long to show. I don't know how he knows I'm there. Maybe Peeta told Johanna. Maybe he just hoped I'd be here. I don't really care how. I just want to get this over with. Just like before, I don't hear his approach until his boots scuff the rock as he climbs it. He sits next to me, but not too close. He's wearing a grey wool coat and dark blue pants. His hair is cut shorter, in a conservative but fashionable style. Though he is still lean, he has put on a lot of muscle. I guess that comes from living in a situation where there is always food. Objectively, I realize he is more handsome now than he ever was, unless, of course, you look at his eyes. They look haunted, and there are dark circles above the hollows of his cheeks. His face is gaunt, as though his body is well-fed but his spirit is starving.
"I brought you this," he says gruffly, pulling out a piece of expensive Capitol paper sealed on a trifold. As he holds it out to me, the sleeve of his well-made military coat catches on the brambles of an overhanging blackberry cane, exposing a long ugly scar that runs all the way down his wrist. Echoes of war, I guess. I take the paper cautiously, but don't look at it. I'm certain my face is full of distrust. Since I won't open it, he has to explain.
"I know you had a toasting, but there isn't any sort of justice office in Twelve yet, so your marriage isn't officially recognized," he looks down at the ground and reaches out his leg to kick a stone. "I'm sure you don't trust the government, don't blame you, but I had this drawn up for you two to sign, if you want. Then no one can say it's not real."
I carefully unfold the document and scan the wording. At the bottom is my name. And Peeta's.
It's a marriage license.
"It will give you two more legal protection, if anything happens. Things look stable now, and I'm not anticipating any upheavals, but…" he's starting to ramble, which isn't really like him at all, but it speaks to how much he wants me to accept this, maybe the only peace offering he is able to give.
"Thank you," I say bluntly, interrupting him.
He nods in response, and then looks out across the expanse of woods and mountains into the valley. The last leaves cling to the stark branches of the trees, and most of the birds are gone. "It's still just the same," he states.
But he's not. He's not the same wild, half-man, half-boy that I used to know, standing here now talking about governments and legal documents. Suggesting that those things can protect us somehow, when we both know that they can't. The wind whips around us, cold and hard. Five years ago, we would have leaned into each other on the rock, sharing our warmth and thinking nothing of it because we were partners, anticipating the needs of the other. Now we sit awkwardly an arm's length apart, letting the chill cut through our bones, the position of our bodies screaming out into the hush of the autumn day the melancholy story of all that has changed. We are silent for a long time, as we gaze over the woods that were our domain, our refuge. Time passes. Hours, even.
I don't think either of us really knows how to say what needs to be said, or even what exactly that it is.
"Beetee figured it out in the end," his voice breaks into the quiet just as I'm about to stand up and go home in defeat. His words are cold. Rehearsed. As though there is no way to get this right other than to just speak the harshest of truths. "It was ours. Coin took the prototype from the lab while he was working on something else we had thought up, something that would have been a lot less lethal. He didn't even notice it was missing until after she used it."
He pauses, as though he's not certain or not if this part is something he should share. "Had a stroke the day after he worked it out for certain, few weeks after you came back to Twelve. Almost died."
The pain at hearing this is searing – raw, and confused, as though the horror of Capitol Circle was just yesterday and at the same time I'm watching Beetee's nearly bloodless body languish in the Arena all over again. What am I supposed to say? What does he expect from me? Does he want me to sympathize with the old man whose genius spawned the weapon that killed my sister? Does Gale want me to commiserate with himself, the one person who knew me, who knew how far I would go, had gone, to protect her? I say nothing, but it says enough.
Silence falls again and reigns for long enough for the roaring of angry blood in my ears to slowly drain away. Gale doesn't try to defend himself, or Beetee. He sit as still as a stone.
"Do you know why I fell in love with you?" he changes the subject drastically, radically venturing into something so irrelevant that I consider bolting. But as my hands are poised to thrust my body forward off the rock and into the trees, I remember why I am here in the first place, despite how much I would rather be anywhere else. Peeta, my husband, thinks this talk needs to happen, even though the thought of it is causing him severe emotional stress and if he was being selfish, I would never speak to Gale again. I realize that I have come to trust him to know what is best for me on the days that I can't. He would never leave me in a position he didn't think I could handle. He would never suggest I do something so painful unless the alternative was even worse. So I just hold firm, and shake my head in response to his question. I don't have a clue how people fall in love, or why. The only person I ever understood on the subject was a beautiful redhead who claimed it just crept up on him.
"I didn't understand it while it was happening. It just seemed… right," he begins. "I thought we could be free. You and I. I thought together we could escape. I tried to tell you on the day of the Reaping. But you didn't care about it, not the way I did."
"And what do you think now?" I ask bitterly. How can he be talking like this, about romance, when my sister is dead?
"I found out that freedom at any cost isn't worth the price."
I realize he isn't just talking about us.
He turns and looks at me, looks in my eyes for the first time since he's arrived. They're almost maniacally desperate for something, anything from me, but his voice is leaden, repressed. "I'm sorry, Katniss. I know that's not enough, that it's not really anything. Nothing will bring them, bring her,back," he makes a strange sound between a choke and a gasp. "But I'm sorry. And it doesn't matter, because I deserve it, but know, at least, that I see their faces whenever I close my eyes." He leans forward , pulling his knees to his chest, and jams his fists into his eye sockets. Small spasms, sobs maybe, wrack his body, but he is silent. I have never seen Gale cry like this. He is so utterly broken that I am struck with the terrible thought that the scar on his wrist may not be from the war after all. At least, not from battle with anyone but himself.
"Everyone says you're a hero," I say dully.
"They're all wrong," he lifts his face up and growls, sounding like himself for the first time.
"They say you've disarmed the Capitol, given us power, closed down the mines," I press him.
"Doing the smart thing doesn't make you a hero," he turns his back to me.
I goad him further, almost brutally, because my sister is dead, and he is alive. "You're the hopeful face of the new nation."
"Someone had to do it," he mutters. "I wasn't about to let Plutarch come after the two of you."
I hadn't anticipated this, and it shocks me into silence. Despite everything, this was a gift I had not expected. Under the watch of the cameras, Peeta and I would have languished, possibly to our complete ruin. More than anything else, we had needed to be left alone. I hadn't realized that Gale had volunteered himself as poster boy to keep them away. No one had ever said, and I had never made the connection.
"Thank you," I choke out.
He grimaces, as though my gratitude burns him. "You deserved your privacy," is all he says. It strikes me that from the moment he arrived, whenever he spoke of me in the present, he spoke of Peeta and I together, as a single unit. To protect Peeta, is to protect me. The thought unnerves me a little bit, because once again it shows plain and simple how tangled up in the life of one person I have once more allowed myself to become. But it also shows how much has changed in Gale's own mind. Peeta is no longer "Mellark," or "that baker," or just "him," like he was before.
He is a part of me.
I realize Gale deserves, at least, for me to extend the same courtesy to the mother of his child.
"How did… with Johanna?" I struggle to find the words. Maybe I shouldn't ask, just acknowledge, but really, I need to know, and I can't ask her. I want to be able to salvage our friendship and I don't trust either her or I to keep calm enough to be sure that will happen.
He doesn't answer right away, but slowly uncurls himself from his guarded position. "She forced me to survive," he eventually states in a matter-of-fact voice. "I forced her to keep living. It just ended up being something… unexpected."
"Do you love her?" I ask.
"Yes," he says simply and without hesitation. "As much as I know how to anymore."
I find myself saying the words, "Do you still love me?" before I can stop. I tell myself I want to know for Johanna's sake, not my own. To be able to warn her if he has been using her only for comfort, nothing more. But that's a lie and pretty egotistical on top of everything else. The truth is I want to know. It still feels like there is a door cracked open in my heart somewhere, not wide enough to let in anything other than a mournful draft, but I need it to be shut and locked for good. This is the only way I know how to make that happen.
Gale turns to me with surprise. An emotion that I don't understand flickers over his face, but his eyes are soft. His voice is level, the same way it was when he told me Twelve had been destroyed, as he answers.
"When I think about you, all I feel is guilt and pain. I can barely even remember what it was like to love you like that anymore."
Relief like I have never known rushes over me. It is so much more than when I found out he was staying in Two. This relief says that this, whatever it was, is finally, without question, over. He doesn't ask if I ever loved him, and for that I am grateful. Something between us has changed; a chain has been broken. I feel free. Gale shifts his body. I know he can feel it too. I want to run and find Peeta. I want to tell him he was right, as long as he promises not to let Haymitch know. I want to hear him laugh.
"You're going to be a dad," I whisper to Gale.
"Yeah…" for the first time, he smiles, as though he can't really believe it himself. "Yeah, Catnip, I am."
Unexpectedly, I find that I can't begrudge him this small bit of happiness.
We leave the woods together and walk through the Meadow in silence. I know he is remembering. As we pass the spot where the Hob used to be, he asks if coal dust still settles on everything. When I tell him no, he wonders a bit sardonically what people are going to do now that there is a point in painting their houses. We walk through town, and I point out the bakery. He asks a bit mockingly if I've baked anything yet, and I tell him that, yes actually, I made Peeta's birthday cake all by myself. He looks at me incredulously, and I scowl. Then we pass where the Mayor's house once was, and he falls completely silent. The closer we get to Victor's Village, the more exhausted I feel. My body has started to shake a bit. Gale himself looks like he hasn't slept in days. I realize that his eyes are swollen from crying.
When we open the door to the house, trying once more to make conversation about coal dust, Peeta and Johanna are in the kitchen. Peeta doesn't sound like himself and it's clear that something is wrong. Gale and I creep warily inside, trying to see what exactly has gone on in the hours that we were gone. I'm both relieved and stunned at what we discover. Seeing the state of the kitchen, Johanna, and Peeta – all covered in baking ingredients from some kind of food fight – I hardly know what to do. Part of me is irritated because they've wasted so much food and, after nearly starving to death, I can't abide such excess. Another part of me wants to laugh because they look absolutely ridiculous, and just… happy, while Gale and I are so drawn out and distressed. So I do neither, and just stand there in surprise.
"We got bored," Peeta tries to explain while Johanna rolls around on the flour-covered floor. She's laughing hysterically.
Gale is as shocked as I am, but he strides over to Johanna and tries to help her up. She leans against him, still laughing, and puts a flour-covered hand on his chest, leaving a perfect white print when she pulls it away. For a moment, Gale smiles too, and then it is gone, and the heavy burden is back.
"How are we supposed to meet my mother like this?" he asks, looking concerned as he begins to dust her off. It's obvious how nervous he is about it. "And you were on the floor. Did you fall? That can't be…"
Johanna stops laughing pretty quickly and brushes his hands away in annoyance, "The kid's fine. Stop worrying. Your mom's about to find out that she's gonna to have a bastard grandchild. A bunch of flour in my hair isn't gonna matter."
"You can use my shower," I volunteer, trying to be nice, and of course, forgetting completely that she doesn't shower. She turns and looks at me with suspicion and anger. I had hoped that maybe she was just acting crazy from hormones or something two weeks ago, but I'm not sure why I even thought that, because she had just been acting pretty much normal.
"Why don't you do that, Johanna?" Peeta joins in. I know he is a lot more aware of her issues than I am, so maybe he knows something about her fear of water that I don't. "Gale and I will clean up this mess while Katniss shows you where everything is." Johanna and I look at each other. We both know him well enough to know what's happening. He's going to manipulate us into talking, and there's nothing we can do about it.
Gale walks over to the door and picks up a broom. "Think you can keep up?" he taunts Peeta as he begins to sweep the floor with reckless abandon.
Peeta chuckles as he grabs the side of the cabinet and uses one hand to lift his entire body up to a position on the counter. He takes a rag and begins wiping egg yolk from the ceiling. "I can go all night, Hawthorne. Can you?"
"Well this is one pissing contest I'd rather miss," Johanna mutters, pulling me out of the room and yanking me up the stairs. We end up in the master bathroom and she shoves me inside, closing the door after us. She pushes me backwards until my knees buckle and I find myself sitting on the toilet.
"How did you know where this was?" I ask.
She grabs the hem of her shirt and pulls it over her head. "My house in Seven looked exactly the same, Brainless. Just had logs on the outside." She unbuttons her trousers and drops them without batting an eye. When we shared a room in Thirteen, she had kind of stopped with the whole naked thing, since she never really bathed. But now it is apparently back.
"I'll just get some towels…" I try to stand up. Immediately, she pushes me back down with her foot, which she's holding up at a ninety-degree angle to her body. She may be pregnant, but she's still a Victor.
"Sit the hell down, Mockingjay," she spits, taking off her bra and underwear. If I weren't so angry, this situation would be absolutely ridiculous, sitting in my bathroom with my naked, pregnant, ex-roommate. But she just crossed a line
"Don't call me that," I say threateningly, standing up.
She pulls back the curtain and turns on the shower. Light sprinkles of water fall everywhere, including on me.
"Hold my hand," she orders.
She sighs with frustration and something else, embarrassment maybe? But Johanna is never, ever embarrassed.
"I said hold my damn hand. It helps. Or maybe I should just have Peeta do it, you know, since we're so into each other."
I take her hand.
It had been uncomfortable in the first arena, when I had to strip Peeta down, and even in the Quell, when we had to take off the blood-encrusted jumpsuits from the tributes from Three. But that discomfort was nothing compared to what I'm feeling now. Johanna squeezes my hand, and her grip is like iron. I feel the hard lines of the callouses in her fingers and palm dig into me. Vibrations run down her arm as she shakes. I turn my head away and stare at the wall as she stands in the water, trembling like a leaf the entire time. I don't feel like this is something I should see, but she won't let me leave, she seems to need me here. I wonder why she won't just have Gale do this. Clearly he's seen her naked before. But this seems, maybe, more intimate than that. Not sexually. Maybe the exact opposite of sexually. This is horrible, raw exposure to the pain she has been through.
It does not take long before she shuts off the water, but it seems like an eternity. I turn slightly and then realize she is leaning forward, glaring at me.
"This," she hisses, holding up our joined hands and pointing to hundreds of thin scars all across her ribs, "is what I have in common with Peeta." She finally let go and steps out of the tub, pulling a towel off the door and drying herself as fast as she possibly can, never breaking eye contact. "If you ever accuse us of sleeping together again, I am going to beat you until you can't walk."
If we're going to have it out, we might as well just do it now. I'm not going to stand here and feel bad for her. That's the last thing she'd want. "You should have told me about Gale. Before you were pregnant," I burst out.
She arches her eyebrows and looks at me with disbelief. "You're confronting me? About feelings? With words?"
I ignore her and press on. "You're… I mean… I…" Just spit it out, I tell myself. "I don't have many friends who are girls. You're pretty much the best one. The only one, maybe. Both, I guess."
For once, she's speechless.
"I don't know what the rules are for friends. But Gale wasn't… I never…" How am I supposed to tell her how I feel? I don't know how to talk about something like this. "You knew how complicated everything was. And you just did what you wanted anyway."
She's staring at me. She's still naked. This is weird, but I can't really do anything about it.
"For a long time, there wasn't anything to tell. He and I… we just ended up in the same place, doing the same thing."
"So? What changed?"
"He took me for a walk in the rain," she says softly.
I don't say anything. The room is quiet except for the slow dripping of the showerhead.
"And then," she sighs, "I got knocked up."
"I don't think that's how that works," I say, and instantly regret it.
She smirks, "Peeta's rubbing off on you, brainless."
I stand up and head for the door. Neither of us may be great at this, but I think we understand each other well enough.
"Put some clothes on already," I tell her as I leave.
Once, Johanna and Gale left, I made Peeta and Haymitch dinner. Afterwards, we sat behind the house and ate pastries in front of a fire. Peeta had nervously baked an entire weeks worth of baked goods in one sitting, and we needed to eat them before they went stale. We had just settled in, Haymitch on an old rocker, and Peeta and I on a blanket on the ground, when Hazelle pushed Gale out of her front door and began to berate him furiously, normally placid exterior ablaze with fury. Johanna and Vick just watched and snickered on the porch. Posy was jumping around the garden, trembling with the excitement that she was going to be an aunt. I felt a pang of jealousy. For the nephews and nieces I would never have. Prim would have been the world's best mother.
Rory was missing. I don't think he really wanted to talk to his brother. Or see him. Or acknowledge his existence.
"We shouldn't be doing this," Peeta said through a mouthful of cookie as we watched the scene unfold.
Haymitch took a swig from his flask, and then put an entire doughnut in his mouth. "You gonna miss out on this? It's prime entertainment."
"He's not in a good place, and we're watching his mother chew him out."
"Kid, this is probably the most normal he's felt in two years. Let her yell."
So we did.
"What do you put in your lists?" I ask as we're preparing for bed. He's walking back from the bathroom after brushing his teeth. I'm in bed already, leaning against the headboard.
He stops in his tracks. "A lot of things…" he says cautiously.
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want," I feel a little embarrassed for even asking.
Approaching the bed, he shakes his head, "No, it's not that. I just didn't know why you were asking, that's all."
"I don't know," I say. And I don't. I'm curious, I guess.
He smiles a little bit, and walks across the room, pulling open his top dresser drawer. "There's a lot of them, and sometimes they don't make a lot of sense. But… they help me keep track of what's real. What's important, even when I feel anxious and overwhelmed." He pulls out a few sheets of paper and then walks back. He's a little unsteady on his feet.
"Is your leg okay?"
"I may have strained it a little trying to clean up in the most manly way possible," he grimaces. "But, don't worry, I'm still king of the kitchen." He holds out the paper, "Here. Read this one. I made it today."
I take the smooth sheets in my hands and look down at what he's written.
"Reasons to Trust Katniss," it's titled. It's two and a half pages long. I don't know if I'm ready to read what it says.
"You were right," I say instead.
He lowers himself to the bed, and takes off his leg. "Yeah?"
"I needed to talk to Gale." I'm still holding his list in my hands, clenching it tightly. He gently pries it from my fingers then sits it on the nightstand and turns off the light. I feel him slide into bed next to me and then he wraps me in his arms. I feel my body begin to relax. This is where I have wanted to be all day.
"Do you feel better?" he asks softly.
I open my mouth to answer, and then find that I don't know what the answer is. I feel the same sense of relief that I felt before. I even feel a tiny bit of myself forgive him for what he has done. But behind that is a sense of guilt. Prim is dead, and Gale is partially responsible. How can I forgive him? If I do, does that mean I no longer miss her? That I'll forget her someday? I can't allow that to happen.
"Yes...? No…?" I try to say.
He kisses my cheek softly, "You don't have to have an answer, Katniss. It's okay to not know how you feel."
"I know parts of it. I feel like I finally closed something that should have been shut a long time ago."
I feel his arms tighten, and a wave of security rolls over me. The exhaustion of the day is pressing down on both of us, I can tell.
"Peeta?" I call out, feeling him begin to drift off.
He nuzzles my neck sleepily. "Hm?"
"Remind me to have you sign something tomorrow, okay?"
"Sure. What is it?"
"Oh, nothing big. Just Gale's wedding present."
Chapter 7: Brothers and Sisters
After Gale and Johanna went back to Two, there was a period of about three weeks when life seemed just about as good as it was possible to get. I can't say that I know whether or not I had forgiven Gale for his part in my sister's death, but I do know that it no longer haunted me in the same way. The actual event, the horror of the situation, became muted, and, for a time, I found my nightmares decreasing in frequency.
We kept busy, but enjoyably so. Since Vick was going away to school, his Capitol tutoring had let up, and he began helping Peeta in the bakery more regularly, lightening his workload. Hunting in the late fall, though it is colder, often is the best time to find game that is nice and fattened up for the winter, so that's what I did, bringing in as much as possible so it could be salted and stored in the pantries and cellars of everyone in the district. Our routine was seamless and mutually gratifying. We had a purpose. Even Haymitch seemed to be drinking less, and socializing a bit more, but maybe that was because we kept inadvertently cooking his favorite meals all the time.
One particularly great day, after dividing a buck, four turkeys, eleven pheasant, and six squirrels between Sae's and the butcher's, I went to the bakery to surprise Peeta. I don't really come to the bakery as much as he might like. Usually when I finish hunting for the day I tend to spend some time alone. If you asked me what I do with this time, it would be difficult to explain. It changes from day to day. But it is so crucial, so desperately important, because it is the one thing in my life that is utterly and completely mine. I don't mind the fact that I am sharing my life with Peeta, in fact, I don't think I'd trade it for anything. But solitude, time spent not in a depressed haze, but just… recharging, is something I've discovered I really need.
Sometimes, though, I also really need my husband. Or just really want him. That day it was a little of both.
I approached the bakery in hungry anticipation, smile on my face, trying to keep from swinging my empty game bag like an overeager child when I stopped short in the middle of the green. Even from fifty feet away, I could see her through the window, leaning over the counter wearing a bright pink dress, her honey-colored hair twisted up into a messy bun.
Jane Hemmigs. Thom's sister-in-law.
She came to Twelve for her sister's wedding and then just never left. I wish she would, because she has a crush on Peeta that everyone seems to know about but him. She comes to the bakery every single day to buy more bread than their household needs, then she leans over the counter, trying to push her breasts in my husband's face. Peeta never responds to her advances, or even really notices. I know, because I trust him, but also because Vick told me once, absolutely incredulous that any man could not notice. When I brought it up awkwardly, not wanting a repeat of the Johanna debacle, Peeta had looked at me like I had three heads. I realize logically that he is completely innocent in the situation, and nothing will ever come of her pathetic attempts to catch his eye, but my blood boils when I think about her throwing herself at what's mine.
Maybe it was because I was already feeling a little… interested before I saw her, but for whatever reason, I decided that afternoon was the moment to stake a claim.
The door jingled as I opened it, striding forward with one single goal in mind. Peeta looked up when he saw me and smiled an entirely different smile than the mild one he had been pleasantly wearing before.
The smile that is just for me.
The counter was pretty high, but I vaulted over it effortlessly, brushing past Jane as I did so. She made a little huffing noise, and I felt extremely pleased with myself as I stood up straight and looked at the object of her misguided affections. He was wearing a dark green shirt, tan pants, and an apron. There was flour on his elbows, cheek, and just a tiny little bit on his left ear.
I backed him against the wall wordlessly and raised my lips to his in a possessive kiss. For a moment, he was surprised, shocked even, but then I felt his arms wrap around my waist, and he began to kiss me back hungrily. After the Games, I never, ever kiss him in public, especially not like this, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Behind us, Jane made an indignant squeak and dropped all of her purchases on the floor. I heard a scuffling noise as Vick ran around the counter, probably to help her pick everything up. Then the door jingled, and she was gone, hopefully getting the message. It was horrible customer service, but since Peeta is the only baker in town, it wasn't likely to affect his business much.
He broke away from me gasping. "Hi," he managed to get out. The front room was deserted. Vick must have made a tactical retreat to the kitchen.
"Don't you think it's time you close for the day?" I asked with a rare suggestive hint in my voice. His body stiffened, and then he pulled me even closer.
"Vick! Go home!" he called out in way of response before I pulled his head back down to mine.
Loud protests came from the back room, "But I've just started an experiment! Why do I have to go?"
"Because I want to make love to my wife!" Peeta shouted back. I took the opportunity to begin peppering his neck with kisses, too aroused to be embarrassed. It was just Vick, after all.
"What is wrong with you?" the kid cried. "I am fifteen! Of all the possible things I do not want to hear, that is probably the first!"
"Go home, Vick! And lock the front door behind you!" and then Peeta was kissing me again, turning us so I was the one being pressed against the wall. His mouth was hot and he tasted like sugar.
The door between the kitchen and the display room slammed open as Vick stomped to the front door, throwing down his apron as he went. "I swear, if you copulate on the counter, I'm going to find out… and quit."
"Go home, Vick!" Peeta stopped kissing me long enough for both of us to shout.
The front door jingled violently as Vick slammed it shut, then I heard the click of the deadbolt. I spun Peeta away from the wall and began to slowly back him towards the kitchen.
"What's gotten into you?" he asked in amazement as I began untucking his shirt.
I looked up at him, feeling wild, "Do you want me to stop? I'll stop."
He shook his head, eyes wide, and then I pulled his shirt off over his head right before we barreled through the swinging door separating the kitchen from the front room. Before I even realized what was happening, my shirt and bra were lying on the floor and Peeta was attacking my breasts, sucking and licking them as though he had never had the chance to do so ever before. I reached down and began scrambling to unbuckle his belt as I grasped him through his pants with the other hand. He moaned, a deep guttural sound, and fell back against the counter heavily. "Where is this coming from?" he gasped.
Finishing with his belt, I let his pants slide to the floor and then dropped to my knees. "I don't like the way she throws herself at you," I said just before taking him in my mouth.
"Yeah… okay… well… this is kind of a… ahhhhhh…" I could feel him slide down the counter a little, "mixed message… that you're…. uhhgh… sending…"
I stood up and unbuttoned my own pants as he leaned against the counter, trying to hold himself up. Letting them fall to the ground, I stepped forward and pressed my body to his. His hardness pushed insistently against my stomach. Wrapping my arms around his neck I lifted myself up, bracing my knees against the counter one on either side, climbing him like a tree.
"This can't be real," he gulped as I sunk down onto him.
Using my upper body to leverage myself, I began to bounce up and down. "Trust me, Peeta. It's real."
He lasted about thirty seconds.
But I wasn't finished, and with a little bit of coaxing, we went again. And again. And then once more. I only came once, at the very end, but that was okay, because I didn't even think it was possible for a man to experience this kind of repeat performance the way Peeta had. I felt pretty proud of myself. We had basically used every flat surface and wall in the kitchen. No one was going to be able to bake in there until it was cleaned.
"If this is what you do when you're jealous, I'm going to make you jealous all the time," he said weakly as he lifted his head up to look at me, lying on the floor in a dazed heap, his apron somehow the only thing he was still wearing.
"Do that, and I'll make you sanitize this kitchen by yourself," I said as I pulled my pants back on.
His head fell back to the ground as he groaned, "Worth it."
That was a good day, an amazing day even, but now Vick is leaving tomorrow, something that I instinctually dread. Peeta has yet to find anyone to replace him. I think it's because he is so unhappy to see him leave. I know that Peeta misses his own brothers desperately, and the relationship that has grown up between himself and the second-youngest Hawthorne has, in a small way, filled that void, not just for him, but for Vick too. Gale who is six years older, had been the breadwinner in their family for almost as long as the kid could remember and he isn't around anymore anyway. Rory, though a lot closer in age, recently began the construction of a cabin in an isolated area in the middle of the woods. He doesn't want to live near people anymore. "People" includes his family. So Vick, in his own way, has lost two brothers as well.
We've all gathered in the Hawthorne's home to say goodbye, and I feel incredibly uncomfortable. Unlike the last party I attended, Delly and Julia are not here to make things any easier on me. The first person we saw when we came in the door was Jane, who gave me a dark look before heading into the kitchen. Shortly afterwards, we were accosted by Thom and his wife Susie, a sweet, if a little clueless, young woman from Thirteen who is still sort of in awe of all of the things living aboveground without a constant schedule affords.
Thom and Peeta are good friends at this point, and they are discussing something about the next phase of development for the district. I have never involved myself in this kind of planning – I don't want to feel responsible for the larger decisions of any group of people ever again – but Peeta has taken it on himself to do what he can to see that the quality of life here, especially when it comes to food distribution, steadily improves. Thom has gone beyond that, and almost single-handedly organized the reconstruction of the entire district. He is a good man, and I respect him a lot.
Susie leads me away from our husbands toward a quiet corner of the room, asking if she can talk to me. It is a strange request, since we've never been close before, but at these sorts of things I try to at least be personable. When we're settled and sitting down, she leans forward and with downcast eyes, asks something that floors me.
"I was wondering what you knew about conceiving a child…" she begins, her voice thick with embarrassment. If she didn't sound so low, I'd be certain she was trying to make a fool out of me. I know nothing about what she's asking, other than the very obvious. I'm five months shy of twenty, and Peeta and I are never, ever going to have children. I'm so shocked that I don't know what to say, and she takes my silence as a question of her motives, and continues to explain.
"Thom told me that your mother was a healer. I thought… maybe you knew of some plants or something that could help. We are trying so hard, but I don't know. I think that I might be… broken." Her words are so heavy, so sadly desperate, that I wish I knew what to tell her. She's from Thirteen. Likely, she's barren, along with most of her people. I try to think back, to remember what my mother gave to women with similar predicaments. There weren't many. Most women in the Seam wanted as few children as possible, but every now and again, a Merchant woman would come by late at night when no one else could see. They typically wanted one of two things. I could remember what the first one was, the type of bark you needed to grind up and drink to make an unwanted baby go away. I always felt weird about that, not necessarily opposed, but certainly not happy with the situation either. But the other… that was something I couldn't remember.
"What are you eating?" I ask, trying to stall for time.
She looks up at me, her light hazel eyes a little confused.
"It's important that you eat a lot of green things," I say. "Make sure your diet is healthy." This sort of advice can never hurt anyone, so I know I'm safe.
She the corners of her lips raise just a little, "Oh, we've been growing a lot of different plants this year. Thom is so happy to farm. We cleared a big area of old mining equipment next to the woods, pretty near the Meadow. Now it's a field. Next year, we're going to grow even more there. Also, we buy some of the game that you and Rory bring to the butchers… maybe three times a week?" She pauses, as if she's not sure she should continue. "Also… lots of bread… too much, I'd say," she finishes ruefully.
It's nice to hear she doesn't support her sister's ridiculous behavior.
I nod, as though I know what I'm talking about, and then it hits me. The mention of the field is what does it. "You need to make a tea out of red clover blossoms," I say. "I can't promise it will do anything, but it might help. It might also take a while, if it does. Thom should know where to find it, though you'll have to wait for spring. I wouldn't expect any results till late summer, if at all, though." This district desperately needs some kind of medical professionals, because I cannot be the person people come for this sort of information.
Susie's face lights up. "Oh Katniss, thank you so much. I'm sure you understand how hard it is to want a baby so badly, especially after your loss. I hope you and Peeta are blessed soon as well. You'll be such wonderful parents. Maybe someday our little ones can play together," she reaches forward and squeezes my hand hopefully, thinking that the two of us are somehow in the same situation.
Without noticing my reaction, she rushes back to Thom and happily takes his hand. Peeta glances back at me in the middle of a sentence, and then he stops talking altogether, looking concerned. I shake my head at him and try to smile, really hoping that he doesn't come over and try to talk to me about this. I had thought that everyone in Twelve, even Thirteen, had known that the pregnancy had been a ruse. Apparently not.
Getting married as young as we did was one thing. Most people in Twelve had always married young (although never before eighteen and the threat of being reaped was gone). Before the war we typically didn't manage to live past our sixties if we were really lucky, so it made sense. Merchant families were eager to make alliances as quickly as they could, and Seam families, typically strained to begin with, looked forward to having one less mouth to feed. Every miner was given one house in the Seam, so it made sense to get out as soon as possible, if only for space concerns.
But the thought that people were already expecting us to have children is overwhelming. I suppose children always came pretty quickly after marriage, but Peeta and I were only nineteen. Even if I had felt able to want a child, no one in their right mind would consider us capable of caring for one at this point in our lives. Or did they? Was Susie's ignorance on the subject shared by more people around me? Now that it's commonly known that Gale, their other local hero, is expecting a child, are they all expecting me to end up pregnant any day now? If a mild, uncertain woman is saying this sort of thing to me, what are the men saying to Peeta when I'm not around?
My frantic worrying is interrupted by a loud belch as Haymitch collapses into the seat where Susie had been a moment before.
"Worrying that the whole district is waiting for you to get knocked up?"
I stare at him slack-jawed. How on earth did he know this?
"Those two've been trying to have a kid since last winter. Effie told me," he explains before taking a swig of whatever is in his flask today. "Figured Susie was consulting the only woman that she thought was in the same situation. You're not exactly the sort of person people approach unless they have a reason."
"Effie doesn't even live here. How does she know?" I try to change the subject.
He shrugs, "Effie knows everything. Well, when it comes to gossip, that is. Bet if we called her right now, she could tell you what Johanna's wearing. But we're not talking about Effie right now, sweetheart."
"People should keep that stuff to themselves," I scowl and look out the window. "It's private."
Haymitch chuckles, "No, it's private for you. Lots of women are plenty eager to reveal the inner workings of their reproductive systems, regardless of the receptiveness of the audience."
"Did I hear someone say reproductive systems?" Peeta asks, having snuck up on us for once. The concern was still in his eyes, and my body went visibly rigid.
Sensing the tension, Haymitch stands quickly. "You two talk. I'm staying the hell out of this one."
"Katniss, what's wrong?" Peeta takes the vacant seat and reaches out for my hand.
"It doesn't matter," I mutter, holding wrapping my arms around my body.
Undaunted, Peeta lays his hand on my knee and leans forward with troubled smile, "You don't actually expect me to believe that, do you?"
"Just, please, enjoy the party. Vick's going away, and I don't want to ruin your evening."
Peeta sighs with frustration, "Katniss, I'm not going to be able to do that if I'm worrying about you all night."
He just doesn't get it. I sigh angrily, "Look, Peeta. Maybe there are just some things that I don't want to talk about with you, okay?"
I've done it. He drops his hand, shock and hurt and anger in his eyes. His own chair creaks as he stands.
"I'll just let you alone then."
He does, his anger exaggerating his limp as he tromps into the kitchen.
I find Hazelle, excuse myself with complaints of a headache, and then open the door, preparing to walk back to our house, feeling overwhelmed, maybe even a bit scared, that I've managed to make him angry with me. Maybe he's finally realized that my closed-off reactions to his efforts to reach out to me are actually not worth the effort. In my head, I can hear Haymitch's smug voice saying, "'Bout time," at this. The thought is simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating.
As I step onto the porch, I run smack into Vick sitting on the steps, head in his hands. He looks not exactly the way you want someone to look at his own celebration.
"You okay?" I ask, momentarily distracted from my own misery. He shakes his head and continues to look at the ground. His glasses have slid down almost to the end of his nose, making him look absolutely pathetic. I experience a rush of feeling that can only be described as maternal, and the realization of this makes me feel sick after my previous interchange with Susie.
The words fall from my lips of their own volition. "What's wrong?"
"I'm not certain I'm prepared to leave just yet," he mutters. "There are comforts here, things to which I've grown accustomed. In the past hour and ten minutes, I've become rapidly aware that I'm not prepared for their absence."
Why in the world does this kid insist on talking like this?
"You'll make new friends, Vick."
"The only intimate friend I currently possess is your husband, Katniss. As your regular irritation with me has revealed, I don't exactly make a habit of ingratiating myself to people. My own brothers don't even enjoy my companionship."
"That's not true."
"Evidence suggests otherwise."
"Sometimes people leave for reasons that have nothing to do with you, Vick," my words come out somewhat more bitter than I'd like.
He turns to look at me. "An example being the case of your mother?"
"Yeah. Like my mother," I feel uncomfortable in this discussion, like someone else is better equipped to handle this. Also more willing to chat about things that hit so close to home. "Why don't you talk to Peeta? He'll make you feel better."
Vick shakes his head. "I don't wish to cause him any sort of discomfort. It's not reasonable for me to long for fraternal companionship when his brothers are dead and mine are very much alive. Additionally, I don't think he can personally relate to how problematic the process of developing new intimate acquaintances can be."
I can understand where he's coming from. Peeta, if he needs someone to talk to, can pretty much find anyone who he can turn into a friend eventually. He's so open, so guileless and charming, that he always manages to make people understand what he experiences, so that they can relate. It's one of the most wonderful things about him, one of so many. Only… the rest of us don't always have the same luxury.
Vick nods. "I esteem him more highly than anyone I have ever known, even Gale," he pauses, as though trying to find the words. "But he… doesn't get it. He will be sympathetic and supportive, and even give worthy advice. But he doesn't know what it's like."
I decide that if I can give the kid a bit of comfort before he leaves, I might as well try.
"I'm awful at making friends, always have been. At school, I only ever sat with one person at lunch, and we hardly talked. But… well… you can find friends in the most surprising places," I don't have to say it. He knows what I'm referring to. "I think you can do it in a place full of kids who are just as smart as you are. They probably have a lot of the same problems you have." I stand up and give him my hand. "So why don't you go and enjoy the end of your party, hm? Jane Hemmigs isn't going to gaze longingly at herself."
Well, actually she just might, I think. But Vick gets the picture.
"Thank you, Katniss," he tells me before going back inside.
I walk the rest of the way home slowly in the dark, trying to decide why exactly I pushed Peeta away like that. All I keep thinking over and over again is how much I want someone to talk to, someone who will take me as I am and love me no matter how awful I can be. I realize that on almost every level, Peeta is that person, with one small caveat that occasionally becomes huge. There are sometimes things that I need to talk about that will cause him pain to discuss, things that I cannot actually address in conversation with him.
"He's your whole world, you idiot!" Johanna had said. Now I'm starting to realize that not only does this make me vulnerable, but emotionally, it's downright dangerous. With no one to talk to but Peeta, since Haymitch clearly does not count, I've put myself in a situation where there are certain topics that though I may need to talk to someone about them, I have no one to whom I can. There are things that I can't even tell Johanna, or would have been able to tell Gale before the world grew up between us. Things that if I bring them up I sound so completely horrible that I can hardly stand myself. Things that Peeta would listen to, be understanding about, even, but things I would never want him to have to hear.
Tears are streaming down my face as I realize the only person who I could ever tell these things to.
I rush into the house and slam the door behind me, trembling as I do. With the resolution of the manner of her death, the horror of it having finally ebbed a little, the fact that I just miss her has suddenly risen to the forefront. This was a feeling I hadn't even been able to experience before. Now that I have, on some small level, accepted that Prim is gone, all of the little ways that she is missing in my life are becoming noticeable. Peeta is a wonderful man, the most wonderful of men, but tonight, I didn't need my husband.
I needed my sister. I need my sister.
I curl up on the couch and begin to weep. I miss her so badly.
Now I need my husband too.
A knock on the door wakes me. Somehow I managed to cry myself to sleep on the couch. I look at the clock and it is well past midnight. I don't understand who could be knocking at this hour. I lift myself up, feeling the strain of the uncomfortable position in every muscle in my body, and rush to the door. Peeta is not home, I realize, and my stomach feels sick with worry.
I open the door to find Thom on the other side. Behind him is Haymitch, who is trying, and barely succeeding, to hold Peeta upright. He's leaning on Haymitch's shoulder with a dazed, sleepy grin on his face. I can smell him already.
My husband is drunk.
Thom begins to speak, but I don't even notice, I am too busy tearing into Haymitch, "What did you do?" I bellow. "You know he isn't supposed to drink! Remember what happened when we drank some of the champagne you bought him for his birthday? He had four episodes that night! Remember, he made you tie him to a chair in the kitchen? How could you do something like this!"
Peeta is shocked by the noise and lifts his head to look at me. He smiles for a moment, and then drops his head back down.
Haymitch heaves Peeta forward, and Thom catches him before he topples to the ground.
"Sweetheart, I had nothing to do with this. Apparently, the kid was really upset when you wouldn't tell him what was wrong, and then, well… some idiot girl slipped him a drink,"
"We're sendin' Jane back ta Thirteen tomorrow," Thom interjects. "Katniss, I'm so damn sorry for this."
My mind is nearly black with rage, so dark, I can't even speak. It's a good thing she's going, because otherwise I'd be dragging her into the woods and holding her over the edge of a sinkhole until she begs for me to throw her in. I've seen enough death, far too much, but that doesn't mean I can't mess someone up.
"So she gave him a drink, which she later admitted was spiked, and I don't know what the hell was in it, but it messed him up pretty good. He forgot that he wasn't supposed to have anything, and she gave him another one, and another, until started getting them for himself. I can't figure why there was so much liquor at a party for a fifteen-year-old, but they found it, somehow. Apparently, he kept tellin' her how he fell in love with you, and how wonderful you were, and how worried he was that you were mad at him, all of which managed to disappoint her pretty significantly, I think. By the time I found out what was goin' on, he was in the backyard with Vick, crying on his shoulder, tellin' him how good of a kid he was over and over." As Haymitch is relaying the story, he's been trying harder and harder not to laugh, but clearly this final detail is too hilarious for him to restrain himself a moment longer. He makes eye contact with Thom and the two of them burst out laughing.
I exhale heavily through my nose, but Haymitch doesn't seem to care. He continues, stopping every few words to cackle with unbridled restraint.
"He had somehow managed to get the genius a single drink too, which got the skinny thing drunk," he almost loses it at this, but contains himself, "in pretty much a minute. They were singing songs while we tried to sober 'em up. Your husband is literally theworst singer I have ever heard in my life, and I've heard Johanna Mason."
Thom takes a deep breath and then interjects, "Ya might wanna get Hazelle some flowers or somethin', Katniss. Wasn't too happy about Vick bein' drunk an all. Plus, they made a hell of a mess."
"Maybe a whole garden," Haymitch adds.
"Was a pretty big mess," Thom agrees then they are laughing once more.
"I'm glad you two think this is so funny," I say in a brittle voice. "Can you please help me put him to bed, and then GET THE HELL OUT OF MY HOUSE?"
I don't think I've ever managed to strike Haymitch speechless before this moment.
"Sure thing, sweetheart," he mutters, completely cowed for maybe the first time in his life. Thom says nothing, just looks terrified. He grabs Peeta behind the arms while my mentor grasps his feet, swinging him through the door and up the stairs. Halfway up, Peeta regains a bit of sense and begins to call out for me.
"Wha… why'm I on the stepsss, Haymisssh? Where's Katn'ss? Want Katn'ss."
"Right behind us, kid," Haymitch mutters, and then continues in a low voice. "I don't think you wanna see her just yet, though. Not if you ever want to have sex again."
"I heard that."
At the sound of my voice, Peeta perks up, "Oh, Katn'ss, beautiful, my lovely, wonderful, beautiful, perfect wife…"
"He's a reeeeeal amicable drunk," Haymitch says over his shoulder as they reach the top of the stairs.
"…'ve got something to say to you, Katn'ss."
"Think you might just wanna save it for tomorrow morning, boy." Haymitch advises as Thom backs into our bedroom. They lower Peeta to the bed, but he is insistent.
"No, s'important! Don wanna go to bed angry, or her angry at me. Just love her so much, Haymissssssh. 'M not even havin' a flashback. I know I've had some drinkssss," he seems to really enjoy the sound of the letter s, by the sounds of it, "but I'm not even havin' a flashback. Where's Katn'ss, Thom? We should tell her that'm not havin' a flashback."
"Get out," I say dangerously. Haymitch and Thom don't have to be told twice. I hear them running down the steps, and then the door slams.
"Katn'ss?" Peeta calls out.
"I'm right here," I say dully. I don't know if it's okay for me to be angry at him, but the thought sure is tempting.
"M sorry I got mad," he squints up at me. "jusss'… it hurtsss when you don' wanna talk to me and I can tell you're sad. Don' know what to do."
This apology would be a whole lot more moving if it weren't for the ridiculous "s" thing. But there is something achingly sincere about his drunken ramblings.
"We need to talk about it tomorrow, Peeta," I say, beginning to undress for bed. This is a mistake, because when he sees me take off my shirt, he sits upright.
"You're jussss' so pretty," he struggles to stand.
"Peeta, I don't feel well," it's not a lie. I feel sad and sick and terrible, and all I wanted was for him to comfort me, which is maybe unfair, because I am the one who pushed him away in the first place, but either way he can't do anything about it because he's too out of his mind to be of any use to anyone, except maybe Vick.
This information stops him in his tracks, "'M sorry, Katn'ss. Such an idiot. So dizzy… can't help you right." He falls backwards onto the pillows. I turn off the lights
"You're going to hate yourself in the morning," I mumble, climbing in to bed beside him. He's snoring already. I leave him completely dressed, prosthetic still attached. He can deal with the pain in the morning. He has it coming.
Two hours later, I finally cave and take it off.
His sudden bolt to the bathroom in the morning wakes me up. I hear him vomiting for what seems like a really long time. Part of me wants to let him deal with it alone, but in the end, I kneel by his side, brushing a wet washcloth across his forehead.
"I can't believe I did that," he mutters, voice thick with self-loathing. "I could have hurt someone. I could have hurt you…"
He heaves again, this time nothing comes out.
"Yeah, well, you didn't hurt anybody, and it wasn't really your fault," I brush his hair back from his forehead as his body shakes. "You're certainly paying for it now."
"Why wouldn't you talk to me?" he asks in a terribly quiet voice.
I kiss his smelly cheek gently, feeling more sympathetic by the minute, "Because Susie Alberts made it sound like everyone expected you and I to have children any day now. I didn't know how to talk about how much that upset me without hurting you. I know how much you want kids."
He heaves again, and then lays his head against the porcelain. "But I've never even asked…"
"You don't have to ask. I can tell. And I didn't want you to have to try to comfort me over the thing that you want so badly."
He lifts his head and looks me in the eyes. His are bleary and blood-shot, but earnest. "I don't even want kids now, Katniss. Just someday."
"Someday isn't a possibility, Peeta. I just… can't."
"I know," he moves his head to my shoulder and wraps his arms around me, gently caressing my back. We hold each other while his body trembles from what has to be an absolutely terrible hangover.
"It made me miss Prim. Like really miss her, for the first time. Made me think about the hole in my life that exists because she isn't here. There's just some things that I can't always…"
"…mention to me?" he asks softly. "I do actually know what that's like. Sometimes, when you're sad, I just don't know what to do, and I can't talk to Haymitch about it."
"He doesn't count," I mutter.
"I know I have a lot of friends, but just because I can talk about things doesn't mean I trust them with things about you. I just… I miss my brothers. They would have been able to listen to what I have to say, even if I described a situation that made you look…"
"Stand-offish? Cold and closed off? Antagonistic?" I smirk.
"Less than ideal," he corrects diplomatically. "Even if I said something that made you seem less than ideal, I know that in the end they'd always assume the best about you. Other than maybe Delly, I don't think there are many people I trust to do that. I guess that's why I always feel like she's my sister, because that's what brothers and sisters do."
"I didn't think you'd understand," I whisper.
He chuckles, "Katniss, haven't you figured out yet that I am an endless fountain of empathy and understanding?" His mirth is cut short and he makes a face, looking a little green. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go downstairs and eat an enormous amount of food so that I have something in my stomach to throw up before I see Vick off at the station."
"What were you two singing last night, by the way?"
His face blanches, "Wait… what? We were singing?"
"Take a shower, Peeta. I'll make you breakfast and tell you on the way."
Chapter 8: Winter
There are two types of misery that I have experience with. The first is traumatic, abrupt. It's the sort of anguish that comes from loss, from suffering that has a direct, obvious cause. It's the kind that makes sense. The kind that is acceptable, allowed, within reason. It is what I felt after my sister's death. It was even what my mother experienced after my father's death, at least, at first.
The other kind is more insidious.
I'm not certain how it happened. After Vick left, winter came suddenly and with more fervor than I can remember since the accident that killed my father. The temperature was always bitterly cold. The snowfall piled up, and many days the snow itself was covered with a thick layer of ice. Hunting became dangerous, on many days impossible. On those days that I made it into the woods, I typically brought in nothing. Rory's luck wasn't much better.
The days grew short and the sun seemed to disappear completely.
For a convergence of reasons, Peeta began working almost all of the time. Without someone to help in the bakery, he had almost twice as much work as before, and that was difficult under normal circumstances. But these circumstances were not normal. The snowfall meant that many weeks, no supply trains could make it through. Rory and I could not hunt. The crops that Thom had grown, unless they had been canned or otherwise preserved, were no longer a source of food.
Essentially, the bakery, with its stockpile of flour, was single-handedly feeding the entire district.
Though he still wasn't ready to replace Vick, Peeta attempted to find someone to help him, but it was difficult. Few people wanted to leave their homes and trudge through the deep snow to help someone bake bread as the sun rose. Even fewer wanted to chop wood in the freezing cold to feed the ovens. Instead of hiring one individual to help him regularly, Peeta had to bring on a slew of mediocre workers who regularly gave notice by simply not showing up. He typically left the house before dawn, and often not did not return for a full fifteen hours, six days a week.
I tried to join him, I really did, but I just managed to mess things up. When I tried to help, even if I was only out back chopping wood, the bread wouldn't rise and the few cakes we made fell flat. It may have just been coincidence, in fact, I'm sure it was, but the days that I spent in the bakery Peeta just ended up with more work. Even though I knew he didn't care, that he liked me there, I eventually stopped coming because it always just made practical things more difficult for him. I managed to convince Rory to split timber in my place. It actually didn't take that much convincing, as he was as uncomfortable being house-bound as I was.
There was nothing for me to do. At least, nothing that felt productive. I was never meant to sit at home and have someone else provide for me. I needed activity, something to fill my mind, otherwise the nightmares and empty pit that lurked inside me threatened to take over.
At first I fixed everything that was broken in our home. Living so long with such little money had made me incredibly handy, and even in the fall when I was out hunting every day, I was the one who repaired the leak in the sink, mended the screen door, or stopped the wobbly chair from wobbling. Peeta as a painter and a baker was obviously quite skilled with his hands, but not when it came to any sort of home repair. After a week, though, there was nothing left to fix. I then decided that I would keep the house clean, since I was there all the time. But Prim had been the one who had cleaned the house as soon as she was able, and Peeta was typically the one who cleaned it now. I did my best, but often things ended up worse off than they had been before, so I grew frustrated and gave up on it pretty quickly.
I spent a lot of time on the phone with Johanna, despite the fact that neither of us liked using it very much. We would play stupid games, both watching the same mindless television shows and predicting what would happen. It was actually pretty fun, and since she had been put on bed rest and I had nothing to do, I think it kept us sane. But one day, I picked up the phone and turned on the television was greeted by a dead line from one and static from the other. The snow had brought down the comm lines, and they weren't about to be fixed any time soon.
In a more desperate effort to keep from going crazy, I began using my free time to keep in touch with those people that I knew who were far away. I composed letters to Delly, Julia, Vick, Effie, Cressida, Pollux, Beetee, Dalton, literally everyone I could think of except for Plutarch, who couldn't stay far enough away, and Gale, because I really didn't know what I would say. They were absolutely pointless, most of the time, though they made me feel less isolated. But when my efforts went unanswered, I stopped. I later realized their silence was due to the complete disarray of the postal system. Many of the letters or their replies had been stuck in snow-stranded trains, or misplaced in central processing units. By the late spring, I received a response to every single one.
But that was too late to prevent what ended up happening.
With was nothing else left to do, I began going to Haymitch's house in the early afternoons, the one time I figured he'd be awake. But something about the winter had exponentially increased the frequency and volume of his drinking. Most of the time he was so far gone he barely even registered I was there, shut up in his house with his geese as they sheltered themselves from the cold. It was only in this, his absence, that I began to realize how grounding his presence had always been, not just as a mentor in my dealings with the Capitol, but as a mentor in my dealings with life. It was unpleasantly apparent how much I needed his snarling one-liners and sardonic observations to make sense of the world around me.
But Haymitch was broken, and nothing anyone ever did could completely cure that.
"Sorry, sweetheart," he muttered one day, his voice almost regretful as he slipped in and out of consciousness. "Jus'… can't right now. Where's the boy? Go find the boy."
I didn't tell him that the boy was working, doing something that I could not in good conscience distract from. I didn't tell him that the boy came home at night a shadow of himself with dark circles under his eyes while I all but hand-fed him the stew that I had made. I didn't tell him that the boy and I hadn't made love in almost a month because he was just so utterly exhausted.
"It's okay…" I muttered, kicking a nosy goose out of the way, then shutting the door behind me as I left.
The loneliness that followed was unlike anything that I have ever known. It filled my heart and soul, and the pit in my heart yawned open, evoking the second type of misery. The senseless type. The type that no one accepts, the type that destroys, the type that had almost starved my sister and I in the wake of my father's death.
Like so many women, I became what I always dreaded.
I became my mother.
It started with just sleeping an extra hour in the morning. Then an extra hour became two. Then three. Then four. Eventually, I only drug myself out of bed to cook Peeta dinner, and afterwards we both collapsed in bed once more. A day finally came when he came home and I hadn't gotten out of bed at all. He climbed the stairs, the exhaustion in his eyes almost pushed away completely by apprehension.
"Katniss," he stroked my hair, "I didn't know. Why didn't you tell me?" I could hear the bitter regret in his voice, upset that he had been so caught up in trying to feed the district that he hadn't noticed my depression. The thought made me feel unbearably selfish, and pushed me even deeper inside myself.
"What's there to tell?" I said into the pillow. He left the room for some time, only to return with dinner – a delicious soup that I refused to eat.
Since then, he leaves in the morning only after forcing me to eat something for breakfast, and then comes home in the evening to cook me dinner, despite his fatigue. When he brings up the meal, I sometimes see him open the top drawer of his dresser and filling it with more sheets of paper. He is making more lists. More lists because of me. Because I cannot, will not get up.
I worry and hope that soon he will realize how futile this is and leave me completely.
It has been, well, I do not know, maybe four days since I have gotten out of bed for any reason other than the bathroom. I lean against the headboard like a throne of darkness, surrounded by blinds pulled tight that enhance the bleakness of the season. I stare at the wall. I stare at the memory book. I sleep. Mostly I sleep. The nightmares come every few hours, and I wake in terror, only to sleep again. It is a vicious cycle. Sometimes Peeta comes and says words to me that I will not hear. Sometimes he cries. Every night he forces me to eat a small amount of stew. A slice of bread.
Yesterday he took the memory book away. He said that I was using it in a way that was hurting me even more, that it wasn't intended for this.
Now I wake from a nightmare to hear the door open. The dream was awful, but I do not have the energy to even bring myself to cry. The steps below me grab my attention. It is too early for Peeta, I think. Or perhaps I have completely lost track of what time of day it is. It is always dark in our room now.
The footsteps are not ones that I readily recognize, not Peeta's loud uneven tread, or Haymitch's drunken lurching, or Rory's soft footfalls. They climb the stairs and I feel a pang of fear which is almost entirely muted by the deadness of my sorrow. If anyone is here to hurt me, hopefully it will be done quickly and without a lot of mess.
My door is pushed open, and someone I do not expect at all steps inside.
"You're not doin' this" a grim female voice declares.
She picks me up like I weigh nothing and slings me over her shoulder as though I'm Posy. Without a word, she carries me into the bathroom, stands me fully clothed under the shower, and turns the water on cold.
"Saw Peeta this mornin'. Then I called your mother." Apparently the comm lines were back up again. Maybe the phone had even been ringing and I had been too catatonic to notice. "You need medicine," she says, holding me under the freezing stream, preventing my feeble attempts to escape.
"Why are you doing this?" I whisper through chattering teeth.
"Because if you don't stop, our baker loses his mind, and then we all starve," she says matter-of-factly. Her practicality is comforting. "Someone's gotta do somethin'."
I say nothing more, and just let her do what she will.
It's not much different than being treated by my prep team. Hazelle strips me of my clothes, ones that I don't think I've changed in a week, and scrubs me down with the caring disinterest that only a single mother of four can know. She bites off the worst of my jagged nails with her teeth and leaves the rest for me to deal with. Then she dresses me, and puts my hair in two braids down my back like a child.
Finally, we're sitting at the kitchen table. She sits a mug of hot tea in front of me, and insists I drink it. I attempt to, and then gag. It tastes terrible. Before I can spit it out, she covers my mouth with her hand.
"Don't even think about it, girl. You drink every last drop, and then another cup when Peeta comes home, and then another in the mornin'. You drink this damn tea every day until you start to feel good again when you wake up. On days when you feel the darkness comin' back, you drink it again. Sent Rory out into the woods to find the roots your mother said I needed to make it. Had to dig up the frozen ground under three feet of snow. It's not safe out there, and he had to risk his neck sos you could feel better."
I nod obediently, completely intimidated.
"Your mother says you're sick like she was. That winter makes it worse, that you need more sun. So you gotta learn to take care of it with things like this. Can't expect your man to always be at your beck and call to make you feel better. Sometimes life means we have to do hard things and just keep on when it feels like we can't."
No one would know about this better than Hazelle. Or me, I suppose, though I seem to have forgotten. My eleven-year-old self, were she here, would be absolutely revolted by my behavior right now.
"How did you do it?" I croak.
"Dunno. Just did," she says gruffly.
"It's so lonely," I murmur. So many of those I loved are dead, or so heavily damaged as to be essentially gone anyway.
"You wanna know what lonely is, girl? You realize you're pregnant the day after your man gets his head blown off in the damn mines. You watch your sweet, brilliant baby boy grow weak and sickly till he can't hardly see, and stay that way his whole life because no matter how hard you work, you can't make enough to feed him and his big brothers, and you're too worn out for ol' Cray to take notice. You watch your oldest, the fierce one with eyes like his pa, put his name in the damn Reaping ball forty-two times jus' sos your little girl don't starve. You watch war take your sons away and leave strangers behind."
I don't respond, even though Hazelle's saying more than I've ever heard her say. The guilt she is making me feel is crushing. I just want to go back to bed.
"Know talkin' like that won't help you none, though. It's dark, and I ain't seen a winter this hard since I lost Jasper. We're all feelin' low. First year of marriage, even in the best of times, it ain't easy. You've been through enough. Nothin' ain't ever gonna be that easy for you. But that don't mean I'm jus' gonna sit by and watch you stress that boy out so much the district suffers."
This, more than anything else, gets through to me. So much of my emptiness and depression had grown from this feeling of listlessness, of having no purpose, nothing to do. But all this time there had been something, I just hadn't realized it. Peeta neededme to stay sane. He had said as much. Maybe it wasn't exactly normal, but after what they had done to him, what else could I expect?
"I'm sorry," I muttered before forcing myself to take another drink of the tea.
Hazelle shakes her head, "None of that. I know before, we didn't really act neighborly much, other than you kids playin' together. Too busy tryin' to survive. But now, if we ain't all near death all the time, I s'pose it's time we took more of an interest." She stood, pushing her chair back, "Guess I'd better be getting' home to Posy now. She'll be wonderin' where I've got to."
She's almost to the door when I stop her, "Wait."
"Could she maybe… come over here? I need to make dinner, and I'm not…" sure if I will stay awake if you leave.
Hazelle seems to understand, "Guess I can shout over to her. Not like we live so far away. We can sit with you a bit."
And they do. Posy talks and talks, so much, really, that it's difficult to understand what exactly she's talking about most of the time. She shows me little plans she's made for things to do with the baby once it's born, claiming that being an aunt is basically the biggest responsibility a girl can possibly have, except being a parent. Then, just as I've put the finishing touches on the salted venison before it goes in the oven, she suddenly changes the subject, though I'd imagine that in her mind it's hardly a jump at all.
"Ma, tell me about Pa."
Before I can stop myself, I've turned to look at both of them. I don't actually know much of anything about this man. Gale never spoke about him, other than to show me his snare techniques.
"Well, babygirl," Hazelle begins, "Your Pa… he was… well… imagine if there was a man smart as Vick, brave as Gale, loyal as Rory, funny as Mr. Mellark, and beautiful as you."
"Wow…" Posy smiles, but Hazelle continues.
"Then take all that, and you multiply it by as many stars as there are in the sky," Hazelle says softly. As she speaks, years of strain and hard labor fall away, and I see a glimpse of what once was one of the most beautiful girls the Seam had ever produced.
"That'd be only half the man that your Pa was."
Peeta finds me that night sitting at the table, holding on as well as I can while another cup of tea brews.
"You're up," he stops in the doorway, filled with excited trepidation, as though he had just been given a gift that defied words but could be taken away at any moment.
I nod. "Hazelle brought me some tea to make me feel better. I have to drink it every morning," I pause, fighting with my pride for a moment. "Please… make sure I do."
He leans over and kisses my forehead, looking less tired than I've seen since this terrible winter began, "Of course. Should I have some too?"
"It's disgusting. I wouldn't."
He smells the air and a ghost of a smile twitches on his lips, "Did you make dinner?"
I nod, and feel like I need to explain for all of the dinners I have not made "I'm sorry, Peeta. It's been… hard."
I feel his strong arms around me, "No. It's not your responsibility to always make dinner, and I know I haven't been around. You don't know how much it's been killing me. But… there's no one else to run the bakery and..."
"It wasn't your fault," I shake my head.
"Okay," I breathe. "Let's eat."
We do, but quietly. Even after Hazelle and the shower and the tea, I still feel heavy-hearted. I know that waking up from this hibernation is not going to be easy. Peeta watches me as we eat, but his eyes waver. At one point, his grasp on his fork becomes tight as iron, and his hand trembles a little. I know how vulnerable he is to having a flashback in this exhausted state. I take his hand and lead him up the stairs and onto the bed. He tries so hard to keep his eyes open, to stay awake, as if sleeping will somehow break the spell and I will withdraw into myself again.
"You need to rest," I reproach him gently.
"Are we okay, Katniss?" he asks desperately.
I don't know how to answer this. I think we are. I'm not even certain what's happened to us to begin with, "I… don't know. I think so. I want us to be."
This seems to be enough for him, at least for now. He falls back onto his pillow and in moments he's snoring softly, still in his clothes. I slip off his pants and take off his leg, then I curl up beside him, leeching away his warmth. In no time at all, I am sleeping as well.
In the morning, I am awakened by the small of the terrible tea, which Peeta is holding under my nose. I must make a face, because he chuckles, "You made me promise." I sit up in bed and drink it while he showers. The pit in my heart is yawning open again. I want nothing more than to pull the covers back over my head and go to sleep. Instead, I stand up and unsteadily walk down the stairs. I fry eggs and bacon, Peeta's favorite, and try to hold myself together long enough to see him off for the day. The sun hasn't even risen yet, but I know that he has stayed longer than he should just to make certain that I'm okay.
His footsteps are heavy as he runs down the stairs, realizing, I guess, that I'm no longer in bed.
"You made breakfast?" he asks, kissing my temple. "You didn't have to do that."
I just smile weakly. Only a few more minutes and I can go back to sleep.
He eats voraciously then informs me, "Thom came in yesterday, told me I look like hell. He said if I do the baking this morning, he and Susie will close up the shop for me. I'll be home early tonight."
My smile feels a little less weak, but when he leaves, I still head up the stairs, unable to face the day any longer. I'm just about to slide into bed when I see it, a crumpled up collection of papers that has fallen between his nightstand and the bed. Curious, I pick the top one up and gently unfold it.
"Reasons to Trust Katniss" it says.
This time, I begin reading.
Most of the items are things that Peeta tells me all the time, a lot of assumptions about my personality and character which I don't believe myself, but he always has. Some of them make me blush, and I feel a bit confused as to why he thinks that those things make me a trustworthy person. Maybe because I only do them with him, and he must somehow feel certain of that fact which is, of course true, but also irrelevant. Frankly, I'm not sure where his mind is with that. But it isn't until I reach the last item on the last page that I am really floored.
"Because what else can I even do?"
I sit the list down on the bed, and stand up.
With a sweeping tug, I pull back all of the curtains in the room, and let the weak, but existent, midwinter sun stream in the windows. It catches on the tiny flecks of dust that are scattered through the air, making them sparkle. Disgusted by this, I pull them down completely, and then pull all of the linens off the bed. The room looks completely bare, with its sad white walls.
This won't do at all.
I carry the linens and curtains through the snow to Hazelle, knowing she has a better idea than I do how to clean them. She takes them without a word, but the corners of her lips are fighting off a smile. Her daughter is sitting on the floor, reading a book, looking terribly bored, when I call out.
"Hey Posy, want to help me with a surprise for Peeta?"
A surprise means secrets, and there are few things more thrilling than that to such a young girl. Posy jumps to her feet and agrees excitedly.
"Well come on then, little flower," as soon as the diminutive is out of my mouth, I have to swallow hard, but I make it through. Posy trails me through the snow, feet basically drowning in a pair of Vick's old boots. I open the door of my old house, and she follows me down to the basement. I take rapid shallow breaths at what lies before us. Rack and racks of clothing, all in airtight bags that I have not looked at since my toasting.
The wardrobe Cinna designed.
Posy is in awe of all of the beautiful colors that she can see through the clear plastic, but she also notices my strained reaction, and keeps her excitement to herself. We head into an empty corner where dozens of cans of house paint are neatly stacked, and I begin scouring through them, looking for a specific collection of cans.
When we first moved to Victor's Village, Prim had been unhappy with the neutral colors of the house. She insisted that we repaint, but hadn't been able to decide which colors would be best, so when Effie caught wind of this, she had sent us literally every color she knew of. It was a complete waste of resources, but it would have cost enough money to feed a family for a month just to send them all back, so we had kept them. Prim had regularly begged me to paint with her, but after the Games, it had been difficult to motivate myself to do something that seemed so frivolous.
I would give anything to go back and paint the walls with her now.
But there is no time for this sort of recollection.
"Posy, find all of the oranges you can, okay?" I say with determination.
"Hello?" I hear Peeta call out the moment he opens the door. He's trying to hide it, but I can tell that he's worried.
"I'm up here!"
His footfalls up the stairs are slower than I'd expect. I have a feeling he is dreading what he will discover, likely me back in my semi-comatose state. "Katniss, I know it's hard," he begins as he pushes open the bedroom door. "But you can't just... stay... in...bed..."
I turn and smile at him before pushing his dresser back against the wall. The final piece of the room is put back together.
"It's…" he walks into the center of the room and slowly turns around. "Did you paint this?" he asks softly.
I feel embarrassed by his awe. "Yeah. I thought… well… Hazelle said I needed to get more sun."
"I didn't even think you knew how to paint," he muses, still staring at the walls.
"I don't. Posy helped. We just sort of smeared it around till the colors blended together."
He's still staring upwards, "It's beautiful, Katniss. It looks just like a sunset. The whole room… it just looks so warm and inviting."
While his gaze is occupied, I slip off my shirt and pants. Though sheltered from the outside, the air in our room is still cold. I feel my nipples pebble with the change in temperature.
"That's the idea," I murmur.
When his eyes meet mine, it's as though I'm watching a complete transformation. His beleaguered look falls away, replaced by astonishment, arousal, and more than anything else, love. His back straightens, he lifts his head high, and he takes a deep ragged breath.
"Will you please make love to me, Peeta?" I ask in a small voice.
He crosses the room in two steps, and his desperate kisses answer my question.
"I'm so sorry I couldn't be here with you," he whispers into my mouth, my neck, my hair.
I pull his shirt over his head, and then kiss my reply into his chest, "No. I was the one who went away. That wasn't your fault. Not your fault."
Putting his hands on my shoulders, he guides me to the bed, then realizes that our old comforter has been dyed a dark green, like the floor of the forest. "You really were busy today," he chuckles, sweeping me off my feet and tossing me on the mattress in one smooth motion. He unbuttons his pants and lets them fall to the floor, then crawls after me, his irises dark blue with lust, but his gaze tender and loving.
I reach out and pull him down to me, kissing his shoulders, his chest, his arms, every part of him I can reach. My body is desperate for him, like it has been desperate for the light of the sun. He peels away the rest of our clothing, and then presses his body to mine. The feeling of skin is dizzyingly wonderful.
"Promise me you'll never leave," I beg him, as he kisses a trail down my stomach. "Even when I go away. I can't say that it will never happen again. I'm terrified it will."
His eyes flick up to mine, "You already know I won't."
"I want to hear it," I gasp, as he begins to delicately graze his tongue against the most intimate part of my body.
His words are punctuated by flicks of his tongue, "Katniss, I will never, ever leave you."
I am drunk on his words, on his touch, and I writhe into the mattress.
"Tell me you love me," he lifts his head and kisses back up my stomach.
My fingernails draw long red lines down his back. "You already know I do."
"I want to hear it," he almost growls, hovering over me, poised insistently at my entrance.
"I love you more than anything," I whisper, and at my words, he thrusts himself inside me.
We move slowly, gently, building our passion with sweet words and soft caresses. Our bodies rock together, slick with sweat despite the chill in the room. When I finally reach my peak, Peeta is whispering a string of almost nonsensical words filled with love and devotion into my ear. As the shocks of pleasure ebb away, I bring my lips to his and beg him to let go himself. He increases his speed, and his moan of release is so free, so delicious, I find my toes curling again, falling over the edge with him a second time.
After, we bury ourselves under the freshly dyed blanket and hold each other while gazing at the freshly painted walls. The late afternoon sun reflects off of them, filling the room with a warm glow.
"You are the most amazing woman in the world," Peeta softly says.
I raise my eyebrow in disbelief. "I just spent almost two weeks in bed for no reason. That seems more pathetic than amazing."
He smiles and shakes his head, "Don't you see, Katniss? Don't you realize how irrepressible you are?"
I shake my head, still not sure what he's getting at.
"You needed the sun, so you filled our room with it."
"It's a sunset actually," I correct him.
His nose softly rubs against mine, "Even better."
Chapter 9: Keepsakes
"Katniss, none of these shoes fit me anymore. We have to throw them out."
"But someone else can use them. Maybe Thom? His feet are smaller than yours."
We are sitting on the floor inside our closet trying to clear out some of the unnecessary items that have accumulated over the year and a half of our cohabitation. Peeta is enthusiastic about getting rid of things that we don't need. I, on the other hand, am not.
"One of my feet is not real," he tries again. "All of these shoes are specially made to work with my leg – they're not actually the same size and won't fit anyone else. If Thom needs shoes, I'll buy him a pair."
Of the enormous closet that we share, he is the one who has to get rid of the most, because many of the things that he owns no longer fit. Since the war, he's gotten maybe an inch and a half taller, increased by a shoe size and a half, and his shoulders have filled out even more than they had been before. I hope, although I have no real way of knowing, that it's finally stopped. It felt a little weird to be married to someone who was still growing. Somewhat inappropriate.
"It's such a waste," I argue. "Shoes are shoes. I wore plenty of things that didn't fit me right when I was a kid."
"Katniss, I will buy brand new shoes for everyone in the District, if you will just let me throw these out. I don't want people I see every day to find out how much my feet, well… foot smells."
I can't really argue with that, so I try to soften the blow, "You're standing all day next to hot ovens! And it's not that bad."
He shakes his head, "No. They're going, or I am just going to keep wearing them."
"But they hurt your feet!" somehow, throwing them out is not really an option in my mind.
"Yes, and I'm not about to let them hurt someone else's," he's adamant. I'm not going to win this. At least not the way I want. But the thought of him getting rid of these shoes, and really, almost anything in this closet makes me feel anxious in a way I can't really understand. As though if they're no longer here, any of the things that happened while they were in use will somehow disappear or at least be disrespected.
"You wore them to Thom's wedding, though. Don't you remember?"
He looks at me, understanding dawning in his eyes. I can tell he's touched that I've remembered. "Katniss, that memory is not going to go away just because I get rid of these smelly old shoes."
I squirm uncomfortably. "I know that! It's just…"
"Love, if you're not ready to get rid of your things, that's okay. But I can't justify taking up space with things I can't even wear myself, when what we're trying to make space for is really important. So I'm either going to wear them, squashed toes and all, or get rid of them. That's that."
"You can't just get rid of them. Someone could use them," I insist.
"No one needs shoes like this!" he laughs, but it's more with incredulity than actual mirth.
I hold the shoe up and shake it. "I'm sure there are people who have made due with worse!"
"I'd love to meet them," is he being sarcastic?
"I guess growing up in town you never had to worry about shoes," I snap back bad-naturedly.
For a moment, he says nothing, just looks at me, stunned. Then his lips curl back with thinly veiled irritation, and when he opens his mouth, his voice is low and full of resentment, "Katniss, the foot I no longer have only ever experienced any sort of comfort in the Capitol and in the Games. Until then, I had never worn a pair of shoes that actually fit in my life, and then after that, it got cut off."
As soon as he's said it, my mouth drops open in shock. I've somehow managed to make him angry, really angry, after years of patience in the most trying circumstances possible. Is he blaming me for his leg? There is a long, heavy pause as we glare at each other. I'm preparing some sort of scathing response, fueled more by defensive guilt than anything else, when his eyebrows knit together, the way they do when he has suddenly realized something.
"We're having a fight, real or not real?" he asks in an entirely different tone.
The corners of my mouth begin to twitch upwards of their own accord, "Real."
"Like a real, normal, no-one-is-escaping-into-the-woods-or-suffering-from-severe-psychological-damage fight?" He's not angry anymore. In fact, his smile is enormous.
I nod, finding myself unable to keep from grinning as well, "Seems so."
He looks down at the pile we're sorting and then back at me. Leaning forward, the devil in his eyes, he asks in a fake whisper, "Can we just skip to the making up part?"
In a beat we're devouring each other in the closet, right on top of his smelly old shoes. It only takes a matter of seconds and both our shirts are gone. His strong arms pull me against him so tightly that it's difficult to even move. He's holding me down, showering my neck with kisses. Fed by our previous argument, I feel as though I need to assert myself a bit. Wrapping my legs around his body, I roll as hard as I can, pinning him under me, clothes on hangers dangling over us, tickling my back.
"Only if it means I win," I murmur into his ear, holding down his hands.
His intense blue eyes stare into mine, and he's breathing heavily, "I surrender. Just, I have one question."
"Oh, and what's that?" I ask, pretending to be disinterested while I kiss down his chest.
"Now that you've got me, what are you going to do with me?"
I decide that it's probably better if I just show him.
He doesn't object.
I take my time with him, teasing, slowly plying his lust with lingering kisses, caresses, and flicks of my tongue. When I'm finally riding him excruciatingly slowly as he begs me to go faster, there is a moment when I am drawn into my own head, pulled outside of the physical experience. But instead of feeling guilt or worry or fear as I usually do, I can feel nothing but pure, unadulterated happiness. I float there, weightless for an instant before I crash back into reality, my body reacting explosively, shuddering around him. After teasing him for so long, the change in pressure alone is enough to send him over the edge, and I am flooded with his warmth.
I collapse onto him and roll to my side, head resting on his chest. We lie there boneless, wordlessly watching the sun from the skylight catch the dust mites that float in the air, everything on the floor digging into our backs.
Everything is beautiful in these moments. Even dust.
"So that's all of it," he heaves the last bag to the bottom of the stairs quite a bit later than we had originally intended. Even through the afterglow of our earlier encounter, I feel a clenching in my heart as I see the stacks of things we plan on giving or throwing away. I can hardly believe that we ever even had this many possessions to purge and not feel the loss. There are more things in these bags than there were in my entire childhood home. Of course, most of it is Peeta's wardrobe from Portia. We have to clear space so that my enormous collection of clothes from Cinna, which I cannot bring myself to wear but also refuse to throw away, do not rot in the basement of my old house, a location that is growing more damp each season.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" I ask for the fiftieth time, looking up the stairs at him.
He shakes his head with amused exasperation, "Yes, Katniss. I've saved a few important things. But none of them fit anymore. At least if we give them away they'll be seen by someone."
A sudden thought strikes me, and I've almost said it before I catch myself, "But what if–"
"What if what?"
But the answer to the question, "What if you have a son someday?" is not something I want to think about, because the answer is that he won't. As long as he is with me, anyway. I don't understand what could have possibly put the thought in my head.
"You lose weight," I finish lamely. As if he has any to lose.
He chuckles, "I think I'd have to lose an arm to fit in any of these jackets again. And that would just be cruel." I know he knows that I intended to say something else, but he doesn't press me.
Peeta doesn't care about material goods. Neither do I, really. Until it comes to getting rid of them. I don't know what it is that is making me so anxious at the thought of throwing things away. Maybe it's the way life was before, when everything had to be used for something. We really didn't throw things away. It was never something I had ever even had to think about doing. Maybe it's the fact that everything I have, every little bit of paper, each scrap of fabric, carries a story, a memory. I'm afraid of letting those things go. I don't know why he doesn't feel the same way when so much of his own childhood was blown to smithereens during the firebombing. But it's something we're beginning to come into conflict over with some regularity, as winter draws to a close and he insists on clearing the house out for spring. Earlier today, though, was the first time it's escalated into an actual argument. Our first argument, I guess. At least the normal kind that you would expect from a married couple.
I cross my arms and sigh quietly, turning my back on the stairs and him. He's right, I know he's right. I don't want to make a big deal out of this. I don't think having sex can diffuse the situation quite so easily a second time. At least not in the same day.
"Don't worry, I went through the bags three times," after a loud descent, he is right behind me, lips close to my ear, "Not a single thing of hers is there."
The her, in this case, is not Portia. Peeta won't force me to get rid of anything, although he helps, when I'm ready. I don't know if I'll ever be ready for that, though. Part of the reason that we have to get rid of his things is because I am unwilling to get rid of the closets full of pretty dresses that I bought for Prim after the Games.
Most of them were hardly ever worn.
"Thank you," I say quietly, pulling my arms even tighter. He draws me close.
"No, thank you. It's really nice to clean the house like this. Start fresh for another year. You do remember what tomorrow is, right?" he gently kisses the spot behind my ear. I nod my head and lean into him, just enjoying his solid, steady presence behind me.
I don't want to ask, but I find myself doing so anyway, completely ruining the moment.
"How can you get rid of things she made for you?"
He lets go of me and pulls away. His eyes are distant, and he is angry, although I can tell at this point that the anger is not directed at me, but instead at a memory. It takes a long time for him to answer. We've never talked about Portia before. Something about her death rankles him in a way that is different from everyone else's. Maybe it's because he was hijacked when it happened. I'm really not sure.
"They forced her to make suits for me when I was being tortured, and then when I was taken, they killed her. It wasn't… I don't like to remember it." I want to tell him that it's okay, I understand, even though I only do so in theory but he continues before I get the chance. He's much less articulate than usual. "Even before that, most of the clothes from the interviews and things… I was just youraccessory, Katniss," he's not being vindictive, just stating it as though it's a fact. "She and Cinna both knew you were the one who was going to make the biggest impression out of the two of us. I was just, well; I had to match for dramatic effect. She even said once that if she were designing things just for me, there'd have been a lot more blue, to bring out my eyes." I've never thought of it this way. Certainly no one had gone on about Peeta's fire-jacket, or his tuxedo, or anything else he had ever worn, but I had always just assumed it was due to the gender difference. He laughs quietly, bitterly. "She'd probably be out back burning them, if she hadn't been murdered." I'm about to embrace him, but he speaks again, effectively stopping me.
"Portia was," he closes his eyes tightly, as though he can't bear to face the recollection with them open, "my only friend when I really needed one. That's what I need to keep. Not the clothes." I want to reach out to him, to try to take his pain away, but he's put so much space between us I don't know how to cross it.
Without waiting for me to respond, he grabs two enormous bags and grunts as he swings them over his shoulders, as though the conversation is over. "I'm going to take this to town," he mutters, kissing me on the cheek. And then he's gone.
This is a first.
Unless he is worried that he's going to have a flashback, Peeta never wants to be alone. He never leaves in the middle of some sort of emotional crisis. He never seeks time for himself to cope with turmoil. I'm not entirely certain what to do. I'm the one who needs chasing after, and this often ends up being from Haymitch because Peeta almost always gives me my space. In this situation, I have no idea what he wants from me. Does he want me to follow him? Leave him alone? Send Haymitch after him? How did the atmosphere change from jovial and sweet to cold and distant so rapidly?
With nothing else to do, I take a deep breath and try to decide the best course of action. He was not on the verge of a flashback, that much is obvious, and also what makes his behavior so out of the ordinary. When I leave like he just has, it's because I need my space; because I feel overwhelmed and I'm not ready to calm down. Maybe he's feeling the same thing, but why hasn't he done it before? Is he sick of me?
No, of course not. He's Peeta. There's no point in even questioning his commitment anymore. I know he's not going to leave me. At least not voluntarily. The possibility of losing him to the cruelty of our world fills me with such intense dread that I don't even allow myself an instant to think about it.
Is his sudden departure suggestive of something strangely complimentary, that he finally trusts me, us, enough to get upset and storm away, not worrying that I will be gone or damaged when he comes back? If so, that's great, I guess, but I don't like being left behind. It feels awful. I realize with no small amount of shame that this confusion and pain is something that I have forced Peeta to experience with pretty staggering regularity over the past three hundred and sixty four days of our marriage.
Just as I think that I've figured out how to do this, how to be a good wife, the rules seem to be changing. How am I supposed to keep up? I feel defensive and bewildered. In the absence of any sure path, instinct is kicking in. If he's going to run off, then so am I. After putting on my gear, I'm about to open the back door when I realize I can't just leave like this, without a word, without anything. I write a brief note and sit it on the kitchen table, letting him know where I am, promising to be back around dinner. A pang of guilt strikes me. I should be sitting here, waiting for him to return. That's what he'd do.
But I'm not him.
If I stay, I'm going to look at the remaining possessions we are throwing out, and get lost in my own head, worrying that we are losing a part of Portia by getting rid of them, even though Portia was never really mine to be concerned over. Her execution was a monstrosity, but my relationship with her was limited at best. Not like Peeta's. But despite this, from Portia, I'll move on to Cinna, and then everyone else that we've lost, and then dig myself deeper still, to the most terrifying thought of all: how very much I have left to lose. To the desperate awareness that even Peeta can be taken away from me, suddenly, in any number of ways that neither of us has any control over. Before I know it, I'll be back in bed, overcome with the knowledge that so many are dead while I am somehow still alive, and crippled by the fear of losing my husband.
No, I can't wait. I have to move, to do something.
The back door slams behind me as I stomp across the yard, through mud puddles and small piles of melting snow. Even though it is a Sunday, I need to go hunting. Posy answers the Hawthorne's door when I knock, and her face glows with excitement when she sees me. "Katniss! Can we paint again?" she eagerly asks.
"Maybe in a few weeks or something," I respond as neutrally as I can. "I don't want to paint any more rooms without asking what Peeta wants." He wouldn't be angry, of course, but I do think that he would enjoy being part of the process.
The seven-year-old is not so easily dissuaded, "I saw him walking down the hill. He looked sad. Can't we surprise him again? He'll be happy then!"
Oh, if only it were that easy, little one.
"Is your brother home? I want to go hunting today," I change the subject.
It seems that redirection is the way to go, because at the mention of her brother, Posy seems struck with an entirely new idea. "He is, but he's sad too. Hunting will cheer him up, though, and while he's gone, I can make him something! I'll get him."
In a flash, she is running up the stairs, calling Rory's name at the top of her lungs. After a few murmured words, I hear three long strides down the hall, then he is descending the stairs two at a time. Posy has already disappeared, plans to surprise her brother set in motion.
"You want to go out then?" he says in way of greeting.
I nod, "Think it's safe?"
He ponders this for a minute, "It's never safe. But we'll be alright if we stay together. Snow should be melted enough that we can see the ground, and there's no more ice."
We swiftly and unobtrusively make our way through town. From a distance, I see Peeta talking to the owner of the new general store, bags full of clothing on the ground around them. Maybe someday we'll have enough people to have a real store where only clothing is sold, or even a tailor, again, but for now, we have to make do with a single location that sells fabric, clothing, shoes, tools, and other general supplies. I'm sure Peeta is trying to convince the middle-aged woman to just take what he's trying to give her to sell to the District at very low prices, but she's from the Seam, and that sort of charity rankles.
He never turns around to see us pass. I'm strongly tempted to sneak up behind him and snake my arms around his waist, to feel him jump for a quick second before he recognizes that it's me and hums in that soft, contented way that makes me feel happy and wanted. But he's busy and this is one of the first times I have gone out to hunt in months. It's just not convenient to stop. I also must admit that I am unsure how he is feeling, and a cowardly part of me wants him to be the first that approaches. I know I didn't do anything wrong, exactly, unless you count pressing him for information that he was dismayed to recall, but I still feel responsible for his pain.
The mud in the woods is thick, and the going is difficult for both Rory and I. We decide to stick together, lay new snares for the season since we had to abandon all of our previous ones when the winter turned so bitterly cold. We work smoothly, silently, staying clear of the areas that we recognize as having underground streams and completely avoiding the woods closest to the mines. All the time we venture deeper and deeper into a region where neither of us has been before. This is mostly Rory's doing. He enjoys exploring much more than I do. I find comfort in the sameness of familiar haunts.
We don't speak, other than what's necessary. We have nothing to talk about, which is, I guess, a relief for both of us. I don't think anyone in town really understands it. Peeta has certainly implied that I have more in common with the middle Hawthorne boy than I don't, and that is certainly true. The fact is, though, that I don't want to talk to Rory, and I'm certain he doesn't want to talk to me. It's not out of dislike, in fact, I care deeply for the boy and I suspect it's mutual. But most of the things that he and I share are bound up in so much pain that it is just better to ignore them. So in some ways, we also ignore each other. We hunt together out of necessity and, I suppose, the mild pleasure that comes from having a colleague, a companion to solve problems with.
I try not to think about Peeta as we hunt, but available game to distract me is few and far between. The few animals we do see notice us first, and I am left shooting arrows into the ground. Rory barely seems to mind. Although I wouldn't call him happy, being out of town has rejuvenated him. The winter turned him into a shadow of himself almost as much as it did me.
"You're noisy today," he says without malice after I miss yet another hare.
He's right. I'm working so hard trying not to think about Peeta, that I'm not paying attention the way I should. But it's really difficult not to. In addition to worrying that I've upset him, I feel he's changing, he's not the same man that I married, not quite, and he's definitely not the same boy from the Games. Already, he's reacting in ways that are sometimes different than I expect him to react. It's not that they're bad, necessarily. I, more than anyone else can understand the need for someone to leave a situation when it gets too overwhelming. But I've only just learned how to be a somewhat decent spouse to the him that I know. Is he going to slowly change like this for our entire lives? I don't know how this new manifestation of Peeta wants me to react.
The thought of keeping up is exhausting. It's not that I don't want to, but I am unsure if I'm up to the task. So many things are difficult for me. So many things will always be difficult.
"Sorry," I mutter. "Things on my mind."
Rory grunts. He doesn't seem too concerned. Now that the trains are running, it's not as though people will suffer if we don't bring anything in today. I think he's just grateful to be outside. So am I really, but the fact is, I'd rather be with Peeta today. I need to go back to him, whether he wants to be alone or not. I have to at least try.
I've just begun to tell Rory this, when the ground collapses beneath us.
My stomach churns with the sudden drop, and an instant later my jaws slam together as I crash into the ground.
Stars explode before my eyes and then I fall into oblivion.
My eyes open slowly, driven to do so by pain that shoots through my entire body. I see, as though through a great distance, that the sun has shifted dramatically in the sky. My head is unsteady and there is a ringing in my ears. I'm on my back, and rocks are digging into my spine. A very large one is underneath my head. I try to sit up and find that I can't do so without some difficulty. Reaching to the back of my head, I feel sticky, drying blood. I don't know where I am, or really how I got there. I remember falling. My head must have hit the rock when I landed, though.
Trying to get my bearings, and also because I am unable to sit up without vomiting, I lay still. My clothing is soaked because the entire area where I have fallen seems to be one giant puddle. The walls are the flaky black rock that you often see near the mines, the ones that are ground into culm and left on the slag heap. It burns, but not well. Useless, mostly. What's more, it's brittle, and won't hold weight. Looking up the walls of the sinkhole that I'm assuming opened as I walked over it, I see that they're made of nothing but the stuff. There's no possible way I will be able to climb out.
As more of my senses return, I realize that a tree has fallen across the edge, its exposed roots dangling down the side, but not far enough for me to reach even if I jumped as high as I possibly could, which, in my current condition, is not high. The hole must have opened up underneath the tree and brought it down.
Down on what, exactly…
"Rory!" I call out hoarsely, blood thudding violently in my ears. I know if he were okay, I wouldn't still be in this hole.
I hear a pained gasp from the surface, and then he calls out with disbelief, "Katniss? You're okay?"
"I don't know. I hit my head pretty hard. I think it's stopped bleeding, though. Can you go get help?"
The tree rustles and snaps, and then Rory hisses as though in a great deal of pain, "Been callin' for you on and off for nearly an hour, 'fore I got so tired. Tree fell on me, right on my back. Can't get out."
My heart is in my throat, "Can you feel your toes?"
"Yeah, spine's not broken. Just trapped. Somethin' really hurts in my belly, though. Think somethin's bleedin' inside. Getting' colder by the minute."
I am freezing myself, but I'm lying in the dark, soaked to the bone. Up in the late but existent sunlight Rory has no reason to be this cold, unless his body is going into shock. He needs help now. I realize with no little amount of dread that the note I left Peeta instructs him not to expect me until dinner. Until after darkness has fallen.
I don't know if we have that long. I also know that the only other person whom I'm confident could find us happens to be hundreds of miles away, coordinating the military.
"Rory?" I try to keep the fear out of my voice.
He takes longer to respond than the first time, and when he does, his voice is heavier, sleepier.
"Can't get you out, Katniss. Stuck under the damn tree…"
"Rory, you have to stay awake. Keep talking."
"'M so tired…"
He's going to fall asleep and die, here, now in the relative safety of our home, two years after the war is over. He's going to die because I'd rather run away from my problems than chase them down, and I managed to bring him along with me for the ride. I cannot let this happen. Not another one. Not again.
There's only one way I know to get him to talk.
"Prim never mentioned you," I begin, clenching and unclenching my fists over and over.
It's a sign of just how far gone Rory is that, instead of the sullen reply I expected, he begins to chuckle. He almost sounds like the boy I knew before Prim was reaped. "Well, now Katniss, if you were her would you've done it?" His voice is a little wobbly, like he's been drinking.
Confused as he may be, he has a point, "No, probably not. I'd have thrown a fit."
"Wasn't an'thing ta w'rry ov'r…" he starts, speech slurring further as he slides into unconsciousness, but I shout his name and he gathers himself together, "never did more than kiss her. We were jus' kids."
I choke back a sob, and I feel a strange, desperate sort of gratefulness for this boy.
"Didn't even sort of start till you were gone a second time, anyway," he continues. "And in Thirteen, you were too busy worryin' over Mr... eh… Peeta."
"I would have appreciated the distraction," I admit, beginning to shiver as the cold from my clothes creeps into my bones.
Rory chuckles again, "I'd not have 'preciated an arrowhead in my eye."
We fall into another silence. There are only certain times I can talk about Prim, and only ever with Peeta. They're safe, regulated, when I know that he is there to hold me close and chase away the nightmares. It isn't supposed to happen like this, while I'm freezing in a ditch trying to survive.
I bite my lip hard, forcing myself to continue, "But how did it all happen? Last I noticed, you treated her more like a little sister than anything."
"You didn't see her when you went into the Games. Grew up in about a day. Then, well, the rest of her started to match pretty quick, and I noticed she weren't no little girl no more. Never did need a pretty face, though she was one. Wanted someone who knew who she was, not like the silly girls at school. You'd think growin' up in the Seam, or Twelve in general'd make a person sensible, but you'd never know it, way they acted. But not Prim. She could be funny and sweet but still make so much damn sense. And we were just kids. Figured she'd only get smarter as we grew up. Knew she was the one for me."
There is a heartrending romance in his practical words. It takes everything I have not to weep. I dig my fingernails into the palms of my hands. I don't want to be hearing this from him. I want to hear it from my little sister, when she runs home from school and tells me that quiet, serious Rory Hawthorne, of all people, kissed her on the walk home.
"She was so damn brave in the bombing. Refused to leave. Insisted we care for the wounded, even though Gale tried to make her and your mom go. Worked all through the night healin' people. Never saw a thing like it. Figured I had to work up the courage to hold her hand 'fore somebody else did," even at the bottom of the soggy hole, I can hear the smile in his voice.
"But in Thirteen, I never even…"
"Don't think you're aware of just how much of a mess you were then, Katniss. With Peeta gone and nothin' to do but make propos, you were as near to crazy as anyone I'd ever seen. Course, we were all half-crazy then. Nearly everyone had lost someone, 'cept us, and we weren't much better off. Vick wanted school and Gale… he wanted you, I guess, and I… I never wanted to kill no one but they made me learn how…" he drifts off.
Thirteen, just as bad as the Capitol, with children and death.
This time it takes several shouts before he responds. The sun is beginning to dip below the curve of the earth, but it is already dark in the woods. I hear the steady drip of water in the hole. I try to sit up, to find a drier spot, but I can only crawl a few feet before my head spins and I am forced to lie down again. My clothes are useless, their thick weave holding more of the freezing water against my body. At my back, a sharp edge is jabbing into me.
I realize that my bow has been snapped in half from the fall.
The keen of grief that rises from my heart is cut short by Rory, as he picks up where he left off. I bite down on my cheek to distract myself from the loss of one of the few items left that my father's hands had touched. But I can't help it, I have to know. Memories are more important than things. Any ember of her bright spirit that remains, I have to have, to pull close even if it burns.
"Had to leave my grandpa's fiddle in the house when the bombs came. Got burnt up. But Prim, she found me a new one in Thirteen somehow. Think she convinced Plutarch that I could use it for propos or somethin'. Guess I ended up doin' in that weddin'. Used to play jus' for her when Vick was gone. She'd mostly sit real quiet. Sometimes she'd sing. Didn't have your voice, though. Just a sweet little one, made people wanna sing along 'stead of fallin' silent."
I clutch the broken pieces of my bow to my chest as silent sobs pulse through my body. I need to get his attention, to make him keep talking, but all that escapes is a strangled sound that could have come from an animal. He sighs, and the Rory I have known for the past two years is back. The resigned, crushed, shadow of a boy.
"Can't stay awake anymore, Katniss. Don't wanna remember the rest."
No matter how much more I call to him after that, he won't respond. But I try, again and again, shaking in the cold and trying to stand. Even when I do, there is no way out of my situation. I vomit once more, and black out again.
When I wake, darkness has fallen completely. In the pit, no stars are visible. Rory is unconscious. He may be dead. My muscles have lost the ability to shiver. I can't feel my toes or fingers. I lie on my side, curled into a ball, the pieces of my bow clutched to my chest. I think that I am weeping, but I'm not certain anymore. My body is too busy trying not to die to spare the effort. The wet cold is relentlessly creeping through my blood.
I'm being extinguished.
I close my eyes and try to remember everything I can about Peeta's face. His eyelashes, the flicker of humor that's always present in his eyes, the kindness in his mouth, his strong jaw. I find that I can't even visualize those things. My brain must be shutting down. There's no time even to feel bitterness over the last things we said to each other. There's no time for anything.
Thinking impossible, I just whisper his name into the darkness over and over.
The hope that he will find me is desperate, insane even, but I cling to it anyway.
Chapter 10: Give Up
"So this is how The Girl on Fire goes out, hm? Hypothermia in a shuddering little heap at the bottom of a sinkhole. Pretty anticlimactic, don't you think?"
His familiar voice draws me out of my drifting, semi-conscious state. I turn my head slowly and look at him. Standing about five feet away, he's wearing his hospital gown. Still no pants. Still handsome as ever.
"You're dead," I croak out. "And poorly dressed."
"You're dying," he retorts. "And you look a sight doing it."
I'm just going to ignore him, and maybe he'll go away. This can't be real anyway, obviously. With hands that feel like lead, I fumble with the fastenings on my coat. It's somehow become uncomfortably warm. I have to get out of these clothes. My fingers don't want to move properly, or really even at all, so I'm mostly just pawing at my chest in slow-motion frustration.
"Stop me if this is crazy, but I think you should probably keep those on," I can hear the cocky smirk expressed in his voice, and I find myself smiling just a little. "You know, freezing to death and all?" I can't seem to muster the hand-eye coordination that I need anyway, so I take his advice and give up. My hands fall to my lap, the wetness of my clothes coating my fingertips.
It's not going to take much longer.
"What's it like to die?" Since I'm going to be doing so any minute now, I might as well be prepared.
I turn to see his lips pull into a wry smile, "You should probably ask Peeta. He's done it twice more than I have."
This isn't helpful at all. Why is he here, if not to lead me into the embrace of death? I guess I never even expected that this is what happens when you die, so I don't have any kind of baseline knowledge of this sort of thing.
As though he knows exactly what's in my head, he offers, "I'm here because your higher brain function is shutting down. Gotta save that warmth for the things that really matter like hearts and lungs. Pretty certain you're just hallucinating. So everything I'm saying, well, it's basically stuff you already know on some level. I'm going to have to assume that your pal Julia mentioned something about this once. Otherwise I wouldn't have a clue why I'm here."
He snorts, "Your guess is as good as mine. You'd think that, out of all the people you've lost, the last face you'd want to see would be your sister, or someone like Cinna." His eyes twinkle as he continues, "I'm going to chalk up the fact that I'm here to your desperate, if unrequited, love for me."
I scoff, a weak, pathetic sound. "I'm more in love with Haymitch."
He crouches down next to me. He looks like he did in the hospital, hair mused and untended, gown, bare feet, but with one major difference: instead of stressed, and almost insane, his eyes are sparkling and happy.
"How's my boy?" The pride in his voice brings a lump to my throat.
"Looks like you."
Finnick crosses his arms and shifts his weight from the balls of his feet to his heels. "That's it? I'd think my progeny would be a little more memorable than 'he looks like the guy who made him.'"
I try to remember the things about Nick that I know. "He really likes Peeta. And my braid. He seems smart, but I don't know because he's a baby. After he eats he gets really snuggly. He flirts with Posy a lot, I think. If babies can flirt, that is." It isn't about his son, necessarily, but I add, "Johanna passed out when he was born," in there for good measure.
He throws back his head and laughs, long and free. "Course she did, my JoJo. Can't believe she's having a kid of her own. And withStoneface of all people."
"Stoneface?" I think he means Gale, and I guess the nickname is pretty applicable. He wasn't exactly a wealth of emotion when Finnick knew him.
"Oh, just my little nickname for him. You must have overheard it once and completely forgotten about it till now. Funny how brains work. How're you dealing with that?"
It's pretty obvious how my brain is dealing with all of this. "Well, I think I'm dying, so…"
He rolls his eyes as though my death is not really that big of a deal, "No, about them. Having a kid together."
"I don't like thinking about babies, but otherwise, it's fine. Great, even, as long as they're happy about it." There's no longer any question of this. In death I'm entirely certain of it.
Finnick kicks out his feet, sitting down heavily. "Who doesn't like thinking about babies? What's wrong with you?"
I don't answer.
He leans forward and whispers confidently, "You want one, deep down in a secret place that you won't even talk about, that's what's wrong with you."
I shake my head, the motion slow and drawn out. "No. Peeta wants one. I never want kids." I glare at him for even suggesting such a thing. It's worse because if he is what he says, a manifestation of my own mind, then no one would know better what it is that I really think. And this is an issue I thought my mind had settled on a long time ago.
He backs off and holds up his hands in surrender. "Look, I'm not saying you'll ever decide that it's a good idea to go for it, but you don't like thinking about them because you're afraid. And people are only afraid when things matter to them. So… keep that in mind."
"I will, for the short time left I have to live," I mutter. It's a lot easier to hear any of this with the knowledge that soon I will be dead.
His face looks contrite, "Awh, Katniss, don't be like that. You're not dead yet. Just dying. There's a difference."
"Maybe it's better like this," I choke out.
"How could this be better? You're dying in a hole the night before your first wedding anniversary after a life of pain, starvation, and extremely hard-won victories. I think on a scale of one to tragic, you're definitely more on the side of the latter. But what would I know? I'm just a symbolically heavy-handed hallucination that has access to your subconscious."
I ignore his last comment. "If I die like this, Peeta can move on, have the life that he deserves. Find a wife who will give him children, someone who isn't scared of him growing and changing. Someone who can sleep through the night, someone who he doesn't have to fight off thoughts of killing. Someone who is better at all this than me." I know this has to be true. If Peeta and I had never grown back together, he probably would have spent the rest of his life alone. I certainly would have, maybe joining my mentor trapped in the bottom of a bottle. So of course what happened was preferable, but to go on like this for the rest of our lives? Though I think I'd be perfectly content, happy even, there is so much that Peeta will miss out on if he stays with me. If I die, he can move on. It won't leave him wondering what might have been, like Rory does, but it will give him the chance to do what he's always wanted. And I will go having caught a glimpse, however short, into a life of staggering beauty, amid the pain.
Finnick doesn't like this answer. "So you're giving up then. After I, and everybody else, sacrificed our lives for you, you're giving up."
"It's not like I wanted this to happen!" I burst out. It's true. The thought of dying is painful only because of losing Peeta. He's all I have left, but that doesn't make him insignificant. He is perhaps more significant than anyone has ever been.
"I love him! I never thought I'd love anyone, even before she died, but especially not after. I never wanted to! But he just… I couldn't help it. He makes this awful, lonely world a place where I can live, and he doesn't even realize he's doing it. He's too sweet and kind and decent. I can't give him the one thing I know he wants, and, even if I could, I'm just not any good at this, no matter how hard I try. This will be better for him in the end." I want Peeta to be happy so much more than I want happiness for myself. Even if I weren't trapped in this pit, it is hard for me to imagine the two occurring simultaneously for the rest of our lives. I don't have faith in my ability to maintain his happiness for any length of time without collapsing in on my broken self. I've managed to be a moderately okay wife for almost a year, and already the tactics I've developed in this time are starting to become ineffective as he changes, as I change. Who's to say I'll learn how to develop new ones?
"So you're giving up?" he asks again.
"Stop saying that! Of course I'm not. There's just nothing to give up! There's no way out! Rory's up there unconscious, or maybe even dead, and, other than Gale, he's the only one who could find me out here. This is it. I have to resign myself to it. No one is going to save me, Finnick."
"If no one's here to save you, you need to just do what you've always done."
I look up at him in confusion.
"Save yourself," he says with a little shrug, as though it's the most obvious thing in the world.
"How am I supposed to do that?" I sputter.
"Just do what you do best," his voice grows soft, soothing, like the sea. The lines of his face are beginning to blur. I must be on the very edge of death.
"My bow is broken! I can hardly move! My fingers don't even work anymore."
He shakes his head. The voice that he uses bleeds into someone else's, someone familiar but the distortion is too great for me to recognize. "I'm not talking about shooting, Katniss. Do what you've been taught to do since the day you were born."
I still don't have any idea what he's talking about. I don't know what he means, what could possibly help me at this point. I stare at him, waiting for an answer, when his blurring face begins to solidify. His hair darkens, and his eyes soften, and the tint of his skin turns from burnished gold to a soft olive. I find myself gazing into a face I have not seen for eight years.
"Sing, little robin…" my father whispers. I reach out my hand, to try to touch him, my fingers almost brushing his cheek.
Then he evaporates into thin air.
The pit is dark, otherworldly, in his absence. The darkness crouches before me, ready to spring, to pull me down into the forgetfulness of unconsciousness, and then to drag my senseless body into death. A good death even. One where I have lived, just a little. Enough, perhaps. I can leave Peeta with the warm memory of our brief love. I can let him go and allow the sweet arms of death to take me before time makes me cold and unlovable.
But I will not resign myself to this fate.
My lips are crusted and dry as I force them open one more time, croaking out the only song I can remember. My voice grows in strength born of despair. This is all I have left.
"Deep in the meadow, under the willow…"
The black shale and culm that surrounds me has one more property. One that I didn't recognize until this moment.
It reflects sound better than a polished wooden floor.
My voice explodes out of the pit into the night like a beacon.
I am still singing, though my voice had diminished into nothing more than a harsh whisper, when I hear the voices. There are shouts, and scrambling noises. The tree is shifted, and I am covered in a shower of dirt from the edge of the pit. The dirt fills my mouth, and I cough weakly, a pathetic, feeble sound.
But it is enough.
"Sweetheart?" Haymitch calls over the edge in disbelief.
I realize as I lose consciousness, maybe for the last time, that never in my life have I heard him so happy and relieved.
The feeling of warmth is so blissful I never want to get up, but not for my typical reasons. After the cold, nothing feels better than the heat that radiates out to the very tips of my fingers and toes. But I wake, slowly, steadily, nuzzling into the body that is wrapped around me so tightly. I'm naked, skin pressing against warm skin. How did I get here? Is this my bed? Did I ever really leave? I'm not certain of what's real. My eyes open slowly, wincing from the bright light that seems to be everywhere in the room. As the world comes in to focus, I see Peeta leaning over me, his tousled curls glowing like gold in the light of the sun.
Tears are brimming over his eyes.
"You didn't come back for dinner," he chokes, and then buries his head in my neck, clinging to me like he's never going to let go.
I try to lift my arms, to wrap them around him but they feel slow and heavy, so I just whisper "Sorry," hoarsely instead. We lie there for a long time. I absorb his warmth. It is a blissful extravagance that I am never, ever going to take for granted again.
"How did you find me?" I finally ask. I weakly lift up my hand and brush the hair from his forehead. He does the same, and I realize that my head is wrapped in a thick bandage. The events of last night are drawing into more focus.
"Where is Rory?" I shoot up, before he can answer. My head pounds with the sudden loss of blood and I feel incredibly dizzy.
Peeta firmly grasps my shoulders and urges me back down onto the pillow. "He's pretty seriously injured, but alive. Gale sent a hovercraft. They're on the way to Thirteen for surgery. The doctor thinks he's going to make it."
The sudden relief breaks a floodgate inside of me. The tears rush out, and I gulp back sobs.
"I didn't… I just… I thought we could…"
"Shhh, Katniss," he strokes my hair. "It's alright. Everything's alright now."
"I'm sorry I made you talk about Portia..." I gasp out weakly, as though it is of huge significance in comparison to the fact that Rory and I nearly died. I don't care at all about the grander scheme of things. In my mind, it is.
"No, Katniss, no," he pulls me tightly against him. "I wasn't upset with you. She's just really hard to talk about. Shhhh… It wasn't you, love, it wasn't you."
I sniffle into his shoulder and ask again, "How did you find us?"
His words are full of bitter regret when he finally responds. "I wasn't with them when they found you. I was cuffed to the porch."
My sniffles turn back into full-fledged tears and I mumble apologies into his skin.
He shakes his head, "It's okay, really." But the look I give must tell him that I demand the entire story, because he continues, "I mean, thinking you were hurt? I guess there isn't much that could make me more anxious. When I had an episode, though, it wasn't the normal kind. I guess it started when it got really dark and you two still weren't home. I started raving, breaking things, desperate to find you. Most of our plates are gone now, so... sorry." It's hard not to smile at the sheepish look in his eyes. "I was ready to rush off into the woods by myself, but Haymitch tricked me, handcuffed me to the porch, then sent Thom and anyone else who could…" he stops for a moment, forcing down whatever bile has come up at the recollection, "act like a normal person to look for you. They searched for hours, and couldn't find anything."
This doesn't make any sense. "So who found us?"
"The mockingjays," he says simply. This isn't making the situation any clearer.
"Posy was sitting with me. Everyone else was in the woods searching for you, and she was looking after me, or I was looking after her. Either way it wasn't a great solution, but it was all anyone could do because literally every adult in the district went into that woods. While we sat, I think I was pretty near pulling my hair out, arguing with him about whether or not you had run away."
"Run away with Rory?" I ask incredulously, laughing through my tears.
He shakes his head, "Yeah, I don't get it either, but that's what he thought. Posy, she yelled at me quite a bit whenever he would mention it. I think she's furious at me – she doesn't really understand the flashbacks at all or why I was arguing with myself, and she was so worried about her brother, and in her mind, I wasn't exactly referring to him in a positive way. But then in the middle of all that, the young mockingjays, you know those unpaired males that keep us up all night?"
"They started singing the valley song."
His words spill out more quickly. "For once, the monster and I agreed on something, and both of us alternately started telling Posy that we knew where you were, that they just had to follow the birds. I don't know how much sense it made, but she ran off like a shot, and told Susie, who sent it through the search parties till the news finally got to Haymitch, and more importantly Thom. Took them almost an hour to find the song and follow it. By that time, you were…" he takes a deep breath and fists the blanket in his hands. "It was almost too late. For both of you."
The slight waver in his voice has grown to an all-out tremor. Part of me wants to tell him to stop, to insist he tells me later, when he hasn't just spent an entire evening in the grips of an episode. But I have to know what happened.
"Thom said the minute they got you out, Haymitch stripped down to his pants and wrapped you up in his shirt and jacket. He carried you the whole way back, running mostly, while everyone else was trying to get Rory out from under the tree. Don't know how he manged," I can almost reach out and grasp the gratitude in his words. "Wouldn't even stop to let me see you when he came to the house; just ran upstairs past Susie, threw you in a lukewarm bath, and then left you there for her to take care of, like the whole situation was just not a big deal, despite the fact that he had run miles through the woods in the dark."
Whatever I feel at this news, it's not surprise. I would have to be a fool not to realize how deeply Haymitch cares for me, and how little he is interested in displaying that fact.
"When he unlocked me on his way out he said that he was sticking to geese, that we were far too much trouble. Then he went to his house and got drunk out of his mind. At least, that's what Susie told me. I was too busy trying to get you warm again." At this point, I no longer care, but these last minor details seem to calm the tremor in his voice. He releases the blankets and once more begins to stroke my hair. I am alive. I am alive because of Peeta, and Haymitch, and basically everyone else. I have a chance now. A chance to have a real life with my husband. I don't have to give him up. All thanks to them.
"You saved me," I whisper after several minutes.
Peeta shakes his head.
"No, Katniss. You saved yourself. If you hadn't started singing, we wouldn't have…" he won't finish the thought, just clings to me, muttering my name into my hair. After some time, I realize what day it is.
"Some anniversary, hm?" I announce.
He looks down at me in shock and then a small laugh shakes his shoulders. Then another. Then another, until he is all but vibrating with joy and relief.
It's sort of difficult to know how to relax into a day when you've brushed so closely to death. But I am more used to near-death in many ways than I am with life. What's more, much like our fight from the day before, the events in the woods were so much more… normal than the Games, or the war, or any of the other terrible situations I had endured. Like a real problem, a barely-escaped tragedy, even. But it was a tragedy that typical people would occasionally have.
Peeta and I sleep most of the day away, wrapped tightly in each other's arms. When I slip into waking, I spend the time memorizing every single inch of his scarred skin as he drifts in and out of dreams I shamelessly explore everything so that if someday I am once again faced with my imminent death, there is nothing to keep me from recalling him in perfect detail. Things are so different than they were a year ago. I feel so comfortable with his body now, as though it is almost an extension of my own.
A really gorgeous extension, I should add.
When I finally kiss him awake, we make love slowly, with infinite tenderness, our purpose not so much pleasure, but beyond that, to be as physically and emotionally close as it is possible to be. As he moves inside me, I tell him all of the precious, sweet things that I never did get to say on his birthday, or any of the days that followed. I add many more that I have realized over the year of our marriage. I murmur that he is a beacon in my darkness, the light that breaks into my soul. He doesn't speak, just listens, and kisses me over and over until I have said all I have to say. We stop and start, drawing it out as long as possible, our whispered I love yous ringing out in the sacred hush of our glowing bedroom.
After, we fall asleep once more, still joined, my dark hair mingling with his gold against the white of the pillow.
At twilight, a crashing noise downstairs wakes us. As he struggles to put on his leg and dress, I wrap myself in a robe and noiselessly descend the stairs. I have to clutch the banister to hold myself up, muscles still confused and weak. The sound is unexpected, but I am fearless, even in my enfeebled state. And for good reason. I catch her at the bottom, just as she is trying to sneak out the front door.
"Posy, what are you doing here?"
She swings her dark hair around, and grins. I feel Peeta's presence on the stairs behind me before I hear his loud footfalls.
"Surprise!" the little girl shouts, and then skitters out onto the porch and into the glimmering dusk.
I turn to look at Peeta, who still stands at the top of the stairs, clad only in his sleep pants. His hair is mused and sticking up in places. "What was that about?" he asks as he follows me down.
"I'm not sure." I say, as I head into the kitchen for a glass of water. "She just ran out… the… door…?" My words trail off, too shocked by what I see to continue.
"Katniss?" Peeta calls nervously, rushing into the room behind me.
We stand in silence as we survey the scene.
A sign that proclaims, "Happy Anniversary, Mellarks!" hangs from the cabinets. There are drawings, all made by Posy I would guess, plastered all over the walls. Pictures of many of the district's inhabitants. Under the drawings, in her neat child's handwriting are various words. Things like, "plates," "blanket," "flowers," and so on and so on. They don't make much sense until I look at the table.
It is covered in gifts.
They are mostly small, affordable, practical items. The sort of things that people would receive at their toasting reception. The sort of things we never really needed, and, since our wedding was not announced, never got. Although now, since Peeta has broken all of our plates and generally shattered a lot of the kitchen, they could not have come at a more appropriate time. He passes me in the doorway and slowly walks to the table, eyes alight as he picks up a card, clearly another of Posy's creations. The drawing on the cover is obviously of the two of us. Peeta's hair looks almost as big as his head, and my braid goes down to the ground, but otherwise it's a pretty fair representation.
"Your wedding was a secret, but we know what day it was now, so here are your presents. Love, Posy and District Twelve," he reads. He looks up and his eyes are glistening.
The back door opens, and in stumbles Haymitch. He's drunk again, or maybe still. It's hard to be sure. Either way, I catch his eye, and we exchange a nod that says about a million things.
"Sorry I'm late," he grunts. "Forgot this."
On the table, he sits a framed photograph. I don't know who took it, but I remember the day it depicts, the day that Peeta tried to teach me to bake bread. It wasn't exactly a success, and the picture suggests this. I'm leaning over a piece of dough, trying to knead it, a look of such intense frustration on my face that it is comical. Peeta stands behind me, arms crossed, and the faint amusement in his face is overshadowed by the look of utter love and devotion in his eyes. We have flour on our cheeks and in our hair, and the light of a summer afternoon filters in the windows.
"Thank you…" I begin, lifting my gaze from the picture. It's perfect, not only because of what it shows of our relationship, but because of how clearly it describes how Haymitch himself sees us.
But he is already gone.
Still stunned, Peeta and I both collapse into chairs, and reach across the table for each other's hand. He strokes his thumb across my palm, and the gesture is so familiar that in some ways it is more intimate than the first time we made love.
"I didn't expect this," he shakes his head, nearly in shock, but his eyes are full of mirth.
I nod in agreement, "Posy really likes surprises."
"Guess this means we're stuck with each other. Now that we have presents and all," he squeezes my hand. He's implying more than he's said. Do I still want this? Do I still want him?
I look into his eyes across the table. Eyes that I could never grow tired of seeing in any light, at any age, in any situation.
"Guess so," I murmur. We smile softly at each other, and I realize that this smile, more than anything else, is my home now. A home I never want to leave, despite how much work it takes to maintain.
Perhaps being a good wife is hard, but then, I'm not the sort who gives up.
O what to me the little room
That was brimmed up with prayer and rest;
He bade me out into the gloom,
And my breast lies upon his breast.
O what to me my mother's care,
The house where I was safe and warm;
The shadowy blossom of my hair
Will hide us from the bitter storm.
O hiding hair and dewy eyes,
I am no more with life and death,
My heart upon his warm heart lies,
My breath is mixed into his breath. - W.B. Yeats
Chapter 11: Epilogue
spoilery trigger warnings in a note at the end of the chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Before the War, seventy-five years was an extraordinarily long time to stay alive. Even the most robust miner eventually succumbed to the black lung or worse after working underground for thirty years. Merchants tended to live a little longer, but not by much. Sixty was incredibly old. Greasy Sae herself had been eighty when she finally passed, and she was the oldest person from Twelve I had ever met.
But I was eighty years old over a decade ago.
If seventy-five years alive is a challenge in our world, seventy-five years married to the same man is not just an accomplishment; it's a near impossibility. Maybe, as time carries everyone forward, people will continue to live longer and longer, and have more of a chance for such a milestone, but I can see already that longer lives and more opportunity means that young people are generally getting married later and later. It's probably for the best. The first year of marriage is especially difficult, and I would not recommend the typical couple attempting it without some baseline of maturity.
Not to say that anything Peeta and I ever did was typical. So I suppose, in our atypical way, we have managed to stay husband and wife for seventy-five years. I guess after surviving two death matches and a war, fate decided to be kind and grant us extraordinarily long life. With no radical body reconstruction from any sort of doctor (save what happened after the Games and the war), we have both lived significantly longer than the Hunger Games existed. Our marriage itself has lasted as long as they did. Many patriotic historians are beginning to push this fact as a kind of symbolic victory over tyranny, attempting to build confidence in a government that, without people like Paylor and Gale running it, is already showing glimpses of the centralized domination that was the signature of the Capitol. I think Peeta and I were just very, very lucky.
But he's dying now, my steady, sweet man.
The neurologists who tried so hard to heal his brain completely told us this would eventually happen, that the walls in his mind would break down with age. They expected it about thirty years ago, and were stunned that it took so long to develop. It shouldn't even be a problem. Most elderly people get it. Dementia, it's called. Mostly, it's curable.
For Peeta, it isn't.
For the past five years, he has had an episode every single day. They aren't like they used to be, though. Instead of being overcome with a violent swirl of confusing memories, it's like someone wipes his mind blank. He can't remember anything at all, and he's terrified, like a small boy. I try my best to calm him, but my eyes are so bad now and my hips move so slowly that nothing comes easy. He will be lost somewhere in the house, and I just can't get to him. Sometimes, I can't even make out where he is, or what he is saying. It's a living nightmare, so much worse than the terrible dreams that have plagued me for most of my life.
Since this began, the episodes have gotten longer and longer, sometimes lasting for hours. Doctors from the Applethorpe Institute in the Capitol have come and gone. There's nothing they can do but leave us with a bottle of pills. One pill will keep away episodes for half a day, but make the next one that follows last a great deal longer. They told us that we can probably expect results from one bottle, but after that, they won't work anymore. We have been rationing them, trying to prepare for the most important moments: our great grandchildren's birthdays, district celebrations, and days like today, our wedding anniversary. Eventually, there will come a day where an episode will start, and then never end.
This morning, he took the last two pills at once before I could stop him.
The cruel thing is that even at ninety-three Peeta is hale and hearty in every other possibly way, while my body is the one that is steadily wearing out, holding on to life through sheer stubborn tenacity. Almost every morning, Mitch, our oldest great grandson, is at the door waiting to walk him to the bakery, and when he isn't, Peeta goes alone, rain or shine. He makes cakes and hands out cookies, just as he always has, while I stay at home, puttering around in the house, occasionally gardening, trying to ignore the fact that I can hardly see and can only walk at a snail's pace. Every other morning Hope comes to read to me, or just to talk. After lunch, I always take a nap. When Peeta comes home, we go for a long, slow walk to the Meadow. It is a schedule that I find as comforting now in my old age as I found our routines at the beginning of our marriage.
"Well, Prim," I say, as I slowly begin clearing the dead leaves from our flower beds as I do every year on this day. "I never thought it would be like this, coping so long without you. And all married to the baker's son, too. But we managed well enough. Two children, five grandchildren, and even great grandbabies now, all from the girl who swore she'd never have kids. Wish you could see them, Prim. The newest one has your name, even. I hope you don't mind, especially since she looks like Johanna already."
I look down the line of the house. Even though I can't make out any details, the bright yellows of all the primroses that Peeta planted so long ago wink back at me. It feels good to be here, even though crouching down into this position took an absurd amount of time. "Of course you don't mind, little duck. You'd never mind something like that. I was the one who minded, and Peeta kissed minding out of me about thirty-five years ago. He's been a good husband, Prim, even after all of these years. The best, really. I hope I've managed to be an acceptable wife."
"I suppose I'll keep you around," a deep, if somewhat wavering, voice answers me. I smile into the flowers so he can't see. Only now that I'm half-deaf can he sneak up on me, and he takes advantage of it often.
"You always come up on my rotten natural ear," I chide him, trying to scowl. It's a bit amusing that the one the Capitol fixed is now the only one that works properly. "You're going to surprise me one of these days and end up with a broken nose."
He reaches down and pulls me up to him slowly, gently. I can feel my bones creaking. "I've had worse," he confesses conspiratorially, as if I don't know.
I wipe my dirty hands on my trousers and lean into him. "How was the bakery?"
Pulling his other hand from behind his back, he reveals a single cheese bun. "You tell me."
I eat it, dirty fingers and all (because at this age, who really cares about a little dirt?) while we begin to slowly make our way through the yard toward the town and eventually the Meadow, as we have done every day, regardless of weather, for the past ten years. "I think I gave a cookie to every single child in the District today," he chuckles. "Fletcher was pulling his hair out. Says he doesn't understand how I managed to stay in business for forty years without him keeping me in line."
"He gives them out when he thinks you're not looking," I share my son's secret.
"Oh, I know all about that," he grins. "Thinks I don't notice."
We pass the bakery and Peeta reaches out to graze his fingers across the back wall. "Long life's more genetic than anything else, Vick told me the other day. I wonder how long he'd have lived…"
I lift his large, scarred, age-spotted, beautiful hand to my lips and kiss it in response. I often wonder the same thing about my father.
At the edge of town, I feel a small tremor run through his body, an episode that the medication is suppressing. "I don't want to go like this, Katniss," he says after a long silence.
I squeeze his hand. "I know."
In the Meadow, we're surprised by a large crowd. This March is so unlike the one when we were married – it's bright and warm and all of the violets are coming out early. The trees are in flower, and the woods are aflame with golds and reds that outline the branches. The field is completely full of dandelions. For the first time I can remember, it is warm enough on this day for the first spring picnic. Hope has arranged it all, blankets scattered in what I think is a messy circle surrounding two unfamiliar chairs. They're probably so I don't have to lower myself to the ground. A little piece of me is offended by this, but then I smile when I get close enough to realize that based on what I know of my family and friends, these chairs were made as a gift. Everyone is already sitting on the blankets, eating and talking, and they cheer when we arrive. I feel Peeta's grasp on my hand tighten before my daughter wraps her arms around me firmly, burying her face in my neck. I kiss the top of her silvered dark hair.
"Tell me what those chairs look like," I tell her.
"Jasper carved them out of oak," she begins. "They're different, but the same. Dad's has grain and bread and cookies and dandelions on it. Yours has trees, and plants, and deer and a bow. They interlock with each other, sort of lean into each other in a way. They're like thrones, I guess. I told him it was a little much, but he's pretty heavy-handed with the symbolism. He said that anyone who manages to stay married for this long deserves something ostentatious. I asked what he was insinuating, exactly."
I run my hand across the smooth wood, wordlessly appreciating the craftsmanship of Gale's youngest son, using touch to experience the small details that I can't really make out. I wish he and Johanna were still here to see it. Gale went first out of all of us, about twenty-five years ago. Something in his heart just exploded, a time bomb that had developed over years of stress. Johanna was never really the same. When she found out she had cancer, she didn't fight the way she could have. Doctors might have been able to cure it, but she didn't seek help. Didn't even tell us until it was too far along to hide. They never did get married. I think she only refused to get on his nerves.
"They're beautiful," Peeta insists. "Don't listen to her, Katniss, she's just being modest. She also didn't mention the mockingjays on yours."
"Well, sometimes she gets embarrassed about that, Dad," Hope replies, and I can vaguely see the blush on her cheeks, so much like her father's. "Why don't you sit down, and I'll bring you some food."
"We can get our own food," I insist.
"Momma, I want to, okay? Let me take care of you for a while."
We sit and immediately, Peeta is ambushed by three curly heads of hair, a blonde and two brunettes. The little ones love him best, but I don't mind. The mother of one of them, my son's daughter, comes to my side and squeezes my shoulder in wordless congratulations.
The day is flawless.
As dusk is falling, Juniper Hawthorne emerges from the woods and silently approaches me. Everyone else is distracted by a story Peeta is telling, interrupted every few sentences by cries of disbelief and argued corrections from Vick who is sitting on a folding chair about ten feet away from him. They do this all the time, arguing like… well… like two old men, which I guess finally makes sense since that's what they are. When no one is looking, Johanna's only daughter slips a small, knotted cloth bag into my hands, and then grasps my wrist with her strong, worn fingers. Though she is past sixty, she carries the unblemished, peerless beauty that I've been told came from Johanna's mother's mother. Her short auburn hair is untouched by gray, but she has her father's unwavering silvery eyes. The eyes of a hunter. When her uncle died quietly in his sleep about ten years ago, she moved into his cabin, and has stayed there ever since.
"I want you to know, it has been more than an honor," she murmurs. Without another word, she turns and strides back into the woods, swinging her bow over her shoulder.
I feel my daughter behind me before she speaks. I guess everyone hadn't been distracted after all. "What was that about?" she asks suspiciously.
I draw her close and show her the contents of the bag, "Tell me how many will make it certain."
Her kind eyes are filled with a mixture of outrage and sorrow. "Momma, I–"
"He took the last pill today," I interrupt her.
The outrage is not gone, but it is joined by understanding. Despite having my sister's personality and my husband's kindness, my daughter still has a great deal of my fire. She bites her lip hard, as though trying to make a choice, and then answers, "Four. Probably less, but four will be plenty." Her embrace is fierce, long, desperate and wordless, before she returns to her husband's side, burying her head in his shoulder.
We leave before everyone else, claiming to be tired and old, but really, wanting to spend the last hours of our anniversary alone. As we say our goodbyes, I hug everyone a little longer, a little tighter, looking each one in the eyes that I can't quite see. My oldest grandson starts a small bonfire, and everyone gathers together. As Peeta and I walk to the edge of the Meadow, I hear my son begin to sing "The Hanging Tree."
The mockingjays in the wood fall silent.
It's hard to believe the world that has grown out of the ashes of what used to be District Twelve.
"What did Juniper give you?" Peeta asks. Nothing escapes him.
"An anniversary present for us to share," I whisper.
He squeezes my hand.
Before we enter the house, we stop at Haymitch's grave and stand for a moment. I still chuckle at the ostentatious marker that Effie insisted we erect. I had readily agreed with her, despite Peeta's protest for something more aesthetically pleasing. But I knew how much Effie's monstrosity would have both annoyed and touched the old drunk. That alone was a fitting memorial to the man who, in his way, had been mentor, father, savior to us both, maybe even to our world, but hadn't really been able to save himself from the demons that haunted him.
When we enter the house, Peeta carries me up the stairs, still strong and steady enough to do so. He sits me gently on the bed, and then kneels beside me, stroking my hand. I feel him beginning to shake. The medication is wearing off. "I love you so much, Katniss," he whispers in a rare moment of sadness, tears gathering in his eyes, "but I'm going to die not remembering." He's right. Like this, he's going to die in terror, completely alone. I have no idea how long it will take, or if I'll last long enough to take care of him until then.
It's time, I realize.
I pull out the small satchel full of berries, while slowly sitting up.
"I don't want to live without you," I whisper back.
His eyes are unreadable, as though he is fighting with himself. What about the children? The grandchildren? Our friends? I'm certain he is wondering, but I am still, after all of these years, not certain what his answer will be. The truth is that we have been in the world long enough that, though they will mourn us, no one will be irreparably damaged if we are gone. But Peeta, for all his open, easy manner, is still sometimes a mystery to me.
"Trust me," I say.
"I always wondered how they actually tasted," he jokes in way of response, though the tears swim in his pools of blue. He's right. We never got much of a taste the first go round. I pour half of the nightlock berries into his hand, squinting to see that they are well more than four. Then I struggle to my knees, accepting the help he gives me. I spill the berries that remain into my own palm, feeling the weight of every single one. I move in closer so that I can look into the beautiful eyes of the gentle man that has walked beside me for three quarters of a century longer than I deserved.
"On the count of three?" I ask.
He leans forward and kisses me with a lifetime full of tenderness.
"On the count of three," he murmurs.
Our free hands find each other and we grasp them tightly.
This is so very much more than I ever expected from my life.
They taste sharp, tart with a tiny edge of sweetness that grows once I swallow.
"I love you, boy with the bread," I whisper.
He smiles a smile that fills the entire universe.
this chapter contains two elderly people ending their lives with dignity.