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The Soldier

Chapter Text

Around four-thirty, I realize that sleeping really isn’t going to work out. Every time I shut my eyes, I see either Gale being whipped, his blood covering the cobblestones of the square, or I see Katniss taking the lash across her face in a failed attempt to save her friend before falling to her knees from the pain. To see something so terrible over and over again hurts. I know that if I do end up falling asleep, I will only see these images in my dreams as well and that isn’t something I’m interested in experiencing.

            I push back my blankets and don’t bother putting on a shirt or a pair of shoes as I shuffle to my baking room near my bedroom. I don’t have any sleep to rub from my eyes, seeing as I never got close to what someone might define as sleep. Almost without knowing what I’m doing, I begin baking some bread. It’s only after I’ve put in the oven and am dragging my hand across my face, I realize it’s covered in flour. I get a bit of it in my eyes and mouth. I splutter as I stagger towards the sink to wash off my face and arms. Once I’m finished with that, I turn to look at the oven to make sure I know when to take my bread out.

            In all truth, I don’t need to stare at the oven. I’ve been baking for so long that I simply know when it’s done. I could go do something else while I’m waiting, but my vision doubles and I know I’m not going anywhere. I’ve too much on my mind and trying to do anything else would most likely end badly. When I lived back at the bakery and I was thinking about other things, I tended to ruin the bread I was supposed to be making that day or mess up the flowers I was trying to frost on the cakes. This always resulted in a beating from my mother. It was for this reason that I made sure I didn’t do anything that involved my complete concentration when I was too busy thinking about other things.

            A beep comes from the oven and I’m snapped out of my thoughts. After I take out the bread, I return to my room to get dressed. It’s nearly five thirty in the morning now and I’m sure that, by now, everyone at the Everdeen house is asleep in bed. However, once I get over there, the bread wrapped in a cloth napkin, I find Katniss is still sitting next to Gale in the kitchen. I shouldn’t be surprised that she’s still there. It’s really something I should have expected. Her hand is wrapped around his, the look on her face is not one of complete serenity, but she doesn’t seem to be upset either. She doesn’t need to say anything for me to know that she’s chosen him over me, that she isn’t going to run away anymore because she knows that he isn’t going to come with her now that he thinks there is a potential to start an uprising here in the district. She loves him. She always has and how I could ever think for a moment that we could be together after all that has happened since we got back from the Victory Tour is quite beyond me.

            Over and over, I tell myself to stop watching them. I tell myself that I should leave the bread and go back home, but I seem to be frozen in place. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to move forward or back. All I can do is stare at Katniss and Gale and listen to the sound of my heart as it slowly breaks.

            Finally, after about fifteen minutes, I am able to move towards Katniss. I take a shuddering breath before I shake her shoulder. She wakes up immediately and I can tell from the way she moves that she’s stiff. She needs to go upstairs and sleep. It takes her a minute to realize that I’m the one who woke her. I don’t know what the expression on my face is, but it must be one of sheer brokenness, since nothing but guilt registers on her features.

            “Go on up to bed, Katniss,” I say softly. “I’ll look after him now.”

            As suspected, she says, “Peeta. What I said yesterday, about running – ”

            My heart really could not handle hearing the rest of the sentence, so I cut her off by saying, “I know. There’s nothing to explain.”

            “Peeta – ”

            I know she’s going to try to reassure me, help me, make me feel better about what’s happening, but she can’t. There is nothing she can say that will help mend my tattered heart. “Just go to bed, okay?” I know my voice is slightly cool, but I don’t think she notices it. She simply makes her way up to her bedroom. Once I hear her door shut behind her, I collapse into the chair she was sitting in only moments before, rest my elbows on the table, and put my head in my hands, pulling at the ends of my hair.

It’s cruel of me to be thankful that I came in when I did because I know that had I waited any later, she could have been kissing him, but I can’t control my heart nor my jealousy. If I could, then I wouldn’t be sitting here like this right now. I would be smiling, happy for them, despite the fact that I loved her, but I’m not. I’m unhappy. I’m angry. And the thoughts that are floating through my mind currently are abhorrent. I can hardly believe I’m actually allowing them to go through my head, but I suppose I can’t control that either.

For another hour, I’m alone downstairs, staring at Gale, making sure he doesn’t wake and that, if he does, I can find some medicine to give him. As much as I hate him for being the one Katniss loves, I would never wish this kind of pain on anyone. Near seven, I hear footsteps making their way slowly down the stairs. I stand and move away from the table immediately. I know it can’t be Katniss already, but I don’t want to be seen near Gale anyway. The person that does walk into the kitchen is her mother. She immediately begins to tend to the boy on the table and ignores me completely. I haven’t really ever spoken to her exclusively, so her silence isn’t surprising. In a way, it’s welcome. I don’t know what I’d say to her anyway.

“I never was able to thank you properly for keeping Katniss alive during the Games,” she says softly without looking up.

It would appear that none of my wishes are coming true. However, unlike anything else she could have said, this I do have an answer to, since it’s nothing too complicated. “You’re welcome.” Katniss and Haymitch may say I’m good with words and I am, but that’s when I have to be. I never spoke to Katniss until the Games because I didn’t have to. I was afraid she would judge me or find me ridiculous otherwise. Now I am getting the same feeling as I stand here with her mother. If I don’t keep my words simple, I don’t know what nonsense will end up coming out of my mouth.

“I don’t think you understand, Peeta,” she adds, looking up this time. “After I lost Katniss’ father, I nearly let my children die because of how sad I was. It was horrible and I will never forgive myself for it. When Prim was called at the reaping and there was another chance that I could lose my daughters, I didn’t know if I would be able to keep myself alive this time.”

She pauses and I’m about to respond when she continues, “When you said you loved her, I didn’t think you meant it at first, but when I saw how you were keeping her alive, how you nearly sacrificed your life for hers, I knew that I was wrong to think that. You do love her and I didn’t understand how I could ever have once doubted the love you have for my daughter. You kept her alive through that love and I can’t control whom she cares for, but if I did have a choice, I can’t think of anyone who would be more deserving of my daughter than you.”

There really is nothing I can say in response to this and she knows it. I believe that I’m no more deserving of her daughter than President Snow is, but that isn’t what she thinks. She meant every word she said and I don’t know why. I’m not that great of a person. I’m jealous over whom she does love. I wish that she loved me instead of him. I’m not happy for them. I’m really not at all who she thinks I am. The boy she saw in the Games was not who I am in my own head and I wish she could see that. I wish she could understand how undeserving I am of love.

We sit in silence, until I hear stirring upstairs. I can tell from the strangled cry that comes before the rustle of sheets being pulled back that its Katniss getting up. I don’t want to be here when she comes downstairs, so, without a word to Mrs. Everdeen, I leave the kitchen and head for the door. Just before I open it, I hear her say, “Don’t you dare forget what I said, Peeta Mellark.” And I know I won’t.

The world outside is utter chaos. Snow flies in every direction and when I step out into the blizzard, I sink up to my knees into what has already fallen. Instantly, my pants are soaked and by the time I get back to my house, I’m shaking like a leaf, half frozen. I don’t hesitate to take a shower, before I head to my painting room, but I don’t do anything. I simply stare at the white canvas on the easel, thinking about Katniss and Gale. At least at first. Then, I paint them. I paint Katniss exactly as I saw her when I went over to her house this morning. The picture is painful to look at. I know I’m a good artist and the accuracy of what I’m seeing is too much. I won’t throw it away though. I don’t do that with any of my paintings. I keep all of them in case I have to remember how I made a certain color or certain shape. I learn from my own work. However, looking at the picture before me, I come the closest I ever have to doing so.

The canvas is set aside instead of being put up on the wall or hung on one of the hooks tacked to the ceiling. I don’t want to display it. If I do I’ll have to look at it every day when I walk into this room, but I’m sure even if I don’t put it up, I’ll still glance in its direction whenever I step through the door. I’m just about to head off to bed when I think that checking in on Haymitch might be a good idea. As per usual, he’s drunk, so he hardly notices I’m even there, though I don’t spend too much time in his home. I only build him a fire and leave him some bread on his filthy table before I head back home, tired beyond all belief, which is unsurprising seeing as I got no sleep the night before. Running a hand over my tired face, I head towards my bedroom with every intention of having a nice long nap, but before I’m even halfway down the hall my phone rings. I think about not picking up, but when I remember the only people that could be calling me are Haymitch, Katniss, or the Capitol I think better of it. The only reason Katniss or Haymitch would call me is if it were an emergency and if the Capitol is calling, then not picking up would be a very bad idea.

            The phone is just inside my kitchen downstairs, so I stagger down the steps. The phone has rung several times when I reach it. I yawn and pick up, but before I can say anything, Katniss says, “Hey. I just wanted to make sure you got home.”

            I almost laugh, before revealing how truly tired I am by saying, “Katniss, I live three houses away from you.” That isn’t true. I live next door to her. I’ve lived next door to her for close to a year now, but for some reason my tired mind came up with something that isn’t even remotely accurate.

            “I know,” she says, “but what with the weather and all.”

            “Well, I’m fine,” I respond. “Thank you for checking.” Neither of us say anything for a while, then, because I feel I must, I ask, “How’s Gale?”

            “All right,” she says. “My mother and Prim are giving him snow coat now.”

            “And your face?” I ask, assuming snow coat is something to help the pain from the lash the whip left.

“I’ve got some, too,” she says. “Have you seen Haymitch today?”

“I checked in on him,” I reply. “Dead drunk. But I built up his fire and left him some bread.”

“I wanted to talk to – to both of you,” she says. I know she desperately wants to say it now, but I also know she’s smarter than that. After all that’s recently happened, the Capitol, no doubt, is tapping our phones.

“Probably have to wait until after the weather calms down,” I say, glancing out the window. “Nothing much will happen before that, anyway.”

“No, nothing much,” she agrees.

I go to bed after that, but when I wake up the storm is still going. It continues on for two days and when it finally stops, when the paths from the Victor’s Village to the city square have been cleared, lining the street with ten foot walls of snow, Katniss calls, asking me to go into town with her. I say yes and, somehow, we convince Haymitch to come along. We all know we have to talk about something, but only Katniss is the one that truly knows what. However, none of us speak. It isn’t until the village is a good ways behind us that Haymitch finally breaks the silence by asking, “So we’re all heading off into the great unknown, are we?”

“No,” Katniss responds, though I’m hardly surprised. “Not anymore.”

“Worked through the flaws in that plan, did you sweetheart?” he asks. “Any new ideas?”

“I want to start an uprising,” she says.

Haymitch starts laughing. “Well, I want a drink. You let me know how that works out for you, though.” His tone isn’t cruel in any way. He just doesn’t think there is any way we could start such a thing here and I don’t have to wonder why. The people of District 12 are not like the people of the other districts we saw on our tour. They are afraid. They hide behind their doors, almost too terrified to leave, even if they know they may starve to death. They would much rather die in a way such as that than to be whipped as they saw Gale was. Frankly, there are so many rules in this country that it’s hard to know when you’re breaking one. There are some that are firmly put in place and others that some people forget until they are punished for their crimes. However, this rarely happens in this district. The security is lax. We are treated with far more kindness than the citizens of District 11 are.

“Then what’s your plan?” Katniss hisses.

“My plan is to make sure everything is just perfect for your wedding,” he responds. “I called and rescheduled the photo shoot without giving too many details.

“You don’t even have a phone,” she reminds him.

“Effie had that fixed,” he says. “Do you know she asked me if I’d like to give you away? I told her the sooner the better.”

“Haymitch.” Her tone is bordering on desperate now.

“Katniss,” he mimics. “It won’t work.”

A group of men with shovels passes us and we stop talking. By the time they’re out of earshot, we’re too close to the square to continue our conversation and we’re so shocked by what we see that we couldn’t even if we tried. The square is not at all like it was before Gale was whipped. It has been turned into something I can barely take in. The Panem flag hangs from the Justice Building, Peacekeepers march through the streets, there are machine gun nests on the roofs of the buildings around us, and in the center of the square is an official whipping post, several stockades, and a gallows.

“Thread’s a quick worker,” Haymitch says.

There’s a flickering glow behind some of the buildings in the square and none of say it, but we know it’s the Hob. I know Katniss has friends there and though they were never mine, I’m still concerned as to whether or not they got out before the blaze began.

“Haymitch, you don’t think everyone was still in –” Katniss starts, before Haymitch says.

“Nah, they’re smarter than that. You’d be, too, if you’d been around longer.” His words calm me as well as Katniss. There’s a short pause before he adds, “Well, I better go see how much rubbing alcohol the apothecary can spare.”

As he walks away, Katniss turns to me, saying, “What’s he want that for?” I am about to give her a look that shows just how clueless she is when she adds, “We can’t let him drink it. He’ll kill himself, or at the very least go blind. I’ve got some white liquor put away at home.”

“Me, too,” I say. “Maybe that will hold him until Ripper finds a way to be back in business.” Glancing around the square, I swallow anxiously and add, “I need to check on my family.” I really just mean my father and my brothers, but I’m sure Katniss understands that. She’s seen how cruel my mother can be. She knows how hard it is for me to love her.

“I have to go see Hazelle,” she says, worry filling her voice as well. I can understand why she’d be worried about Gale’s mother. I think all of us expected her to be the first person that would be on her doorstep the minute the weather cleared, but none of us have seen her. That’s why, when a nightmarish amount of equally horrid scenarios of what could have happened to her begin rushing through my mind, I say, “I’ll go, too. Drop by the bakery on my way home.”

“Thanks,” she says. The fear is obvious in both our voices, but neither of us comment on it. In fact, the only thing that’s on my mind as we make our way towards the Seam is how afraid everyone is of us. When they see is walking by, they shut their windows and lock their doors. Whatever possessed Katniss to believe we could start an uprising here is beyond me. The people aren’t ready to break the law. She’s been doing it her whole life, but most of them have probably never once considered it.

Hazelle is in her home, keeping her ill daughter company. I only catch a glimpse of her, but I can see the measles spots covering her body like polka dots. “I couldn’t leave her,” her mother explains, clarifying why she hadn’t come to see her son as of yet. “I knew Gale’d be in the best possible hands.”

“Of course,” Katniss responds. “He’s much better. My mother says he’ll be back in the mines in a couple of weeks.”

“May not be open until then anyway,” Hazelle says. “Word is they’re closed until further notice.” She glances towards her empty washbin, but I don’t know why until Katniss asks, “You closed down, too?”

“Not officially,” the woman says. “But everyone’s afraid to use me now.”

“Maybe it’s the snow,” I say, trying to give her hope, though I know that isn’t true at all.

“No,” she says. “Rory made a quick round this morning. Nothing to wash, apparently.”

The boy in question wraps his arms around Hazelle from behind. “We’ll be all right.”

Katniss sets a generous handful of money on the table, saying, “My mother will send something for Posy.”

We leave and the moment we’re outside, she says, “You go on back. I want to walk by the Hob.”

“I’ll go with you,” I say automatically.

“No,” she says just as quickly. “I’ve dragged you into enough trouble.”

“And avoiding a stroll by the Hob…that’s going to fix things for me?” I ask, smiling. She doesn’t respond, so I take her hand as we walk through the streets to the burning building. There aren’t any Peacekeepers around it, but that’s because no one would be dumb enough to try to save it to begin with. Not that they could. The place was covered in coal from top to bottom and even if this had been an accident, not something intentional, no amount of water or snow could save the place where so many got their food for so long. The coal has turned to liquid and is running through the cracks in the road and over our shoes, blackening them. “It’s all that coal dust, from the old days,” Katniss says, though she doesn’t have to. I’ve been to the Hob plenty of times myself. I know just as much about it as she does. When she looks up, she adds, “I want to go see Greasy Sae.”

“Not today, Katniss,” I tell her. “I don’t think we’d be helping anyone by dropping in one them.” I’m hoping she listens to me. Not only would it not be good for them, but it wouldn’t be good for either. The last thing I want to see is her tied to the whipping post.

We go to the bakery where Katniss buys some cakes and I have a quick talk with my father about how the family is.

“They’re fine,” he reassures me. “Your brothers are staying inside for now. It’s too cold and wet outside for them to go to the mines anyway.”

“They’re closed,” I tell him. “And they work here.”

It seems he’s so distraught over what’s happened that he isn’t thinking clearly. This has happened before. Every time my mother has hurt me severely, so instead of talking about the state of things, I ask him what he thinks of the weather, until I decide it’s time to leave. When we leave, I glance around the square one last time and notice at the same time Katniss does that none of the Peacekeepers are ones we’ve seen before.

As time goes on, the state of things declines rapidly. People are punished regularly for crimes we’ve long since forgotten existed. By the time the mines are reopened, half of District 12 is starving. Children signing up for a tesserae skyrockets and whenever Katniss or I walk through the streets everyone gives us a wide berth. The only good thing that comes out of all of this is Hazelle becomes Haymitch’s housekeeper. This gives her extra money for her family and a better living space for Haymitch. Now whenever I walk into his house, it doesn’t smell like he left something to die in the basement.

I notice Katniss hasn’t returned to the woods and I completely understand why, considering how many people have been whipped, put in the stockades, or hanged. However, one morning when I get up, I notice her rushing out of the Victor’s Village in the direction of her old home in the Seam. I only have to wonder for a few moments why she’s decided to make the foolish decision of going back to her old wooded sanctuary now because when I look over towards her house I see a crate sitting on her porch. There is only one thing that crate could be.

Her wedding dresses.