A good amount of time has passed since my assault on Coin, and now, two years and half after, though my mental stability is considered almost back to normal by Aurelius, I have never actually get rid of the guilt eating away my insides and the sense of void occupying most of my heart. So many has gone, never to be back, and the scars continue to mar even the slightest feeling of happiness I might have. Perhaps, without Peeta (who already remembers everything and back to his old self) I might have taken on Haymitch's road, relying on morphlings instead of booze (Where is Johanna now?).
The Capitol has gone. Both Snow and Coin have too. Still I don't feel freer than before (is that even a word?). Like a mockingjay hanging on a branch leading to outside world but afraid to fly, because that means it'd have to let go of the safety on the branch.
Two Hunger Games and a war take toll on me. Greasy Sae, Haymitch, Peeta. Had I been left alone I'd have shot myself to death with all those nightmares. I piece myself together, piecing a new life in progress, but I also learn to forget. Forgetting what used to matter most so I won't break down again.
Plutarch visits every now and then, but his appearances mostly reminding me of those painful days, so I stay away from him whenever he dropped by. His view on the war is the exact opposite from mine. After all, he was from the Capitol and his part in the war was so much different that ours. Keeping his precious Mockingjay alive to use. How difficult.
Peeta has seen through me, of course. He tries his best to comfort me, now constantly living on my house instead of his (no one else left, and he's not without nightmares too). He comes up with surprises every now and then, varying from a bucket of primroses (finally get it right this time) to full scaled painting of my mother now hanging on the living room. But nothing compares the surprise I get today.
He asks me to travel outside, to leave my comfort zone, my safe haven here in 12. I'm technically free all the time, doing hunting and all, and I can travel anywhere anytime. The only problem is I make sure that I never leave the district because I'm afraid of so many things awaiting me out there.
Peeta knows. And he asks me to face them straight.
"Come on, Katniss. It has been so long since you coop yourself here, and you've never visit your mother once since then. I'm sure she misses you, "he pleads.
I stutter, trying to get myself back to my room, hiding under my blanket."She's busy enough. I don't want to distract her from her work."
I don't know how long he has formulated this, but he's determined. And sharp. "The war is over and with resistance long gone, the hospital is not haunted by dying soldiers, rebels, anything other than daily patients with daily injuries. Katniss, please. You're rotting here, and that makes me sad. Where's the Katniss we all know and love?"
Gone, Peeta. Like everything else.
But his words sting at me. Painfully. I want to meet my mother. But then both of us will feel that something is lacking, the very existence of Prim, with her sunny personality, her witty comments, her will to fight. We'll feel guilty for enjoying the time together without her. Prim's death brought with her the last remnants of myself.
"You'll never let youself free. Katniss, Prim won't be happy if you know you cease all communication to your mother because you're afraid to be reminded of her." The Pleading tone has been replaced with a softer one, but demanding all the same. Peeta can be very persuasive with his command over words. And deep down, I know he's true. But this guilt is what I cling to, to prevent myself from falling apart.
The weaker side of me begins to falter."How long?"I whisper.
He looks at me firmly, eyes on eyes."Until you settle everything with yourself. We'll stop by 2 first."
I freeze. All muscles in me tense. He steps forward and hugs me tight. Highly possible this is the main reason he asks me to go. He doesn't say 'settle everything' lightly. Gale.
"Peeta, I..."I'm loss of words. They're rolling at the tip of my tongue, unable to get out. I feel like an Avox again. Just what is he thinking? Gale's away and that keeps me from thinking about him, confronting. I can act as if we never known each other instead of solving the tangled mess that is us. I'm running, and I'm okay with that now.
"It'll be unfair to both of you, Katniss," he starts, soft and unwavering that I wonder if he has rehearsed the whole scene, my reactions? "You loved him, and I think you still love him. Yes, deep down you still, "he repeats, voice lowers to a whisper."Face it. Had it not for the parachute bomb incident, maybe you're still torn between the two of us. I want you to be with me because you want to, not because the misunderstanding. No, misunderstanding is not the right term. But you have to face that he's not related, not guilty of your sister's death. Come to terms with your real feelings."
He backs away. The reason he hugged me so tightly is to hide his teary eyes behind his firm voice. It stabs me to the core. I want to search for something to retort, to find the rage welling in my heart, but instead there are longing and worry. I do want my friend back. But as my guilt with Prim, I keep the rage though I have known for a long time Gale has nothing to do with the bomb. Other than voicing the initial idea. To keep me from falling apart. To keep me for hoping the life I had. Because being with Gale brings so much memory it hurts.
"If you go with him, I'll accept. I know he'll do it too if you come with me. Anyway, you should clear things up, not abruptly sever the ties."
He severed the ties, I bitterly think.
"You're you when you make your own decision, Katniss," he adds. "No more Games. It's your own life now."
The train journey is dull, unlike the last time we are on board. It's not exploding with gaudiness of Victory Tours, with decorations all over the corridors down to the shining tiled floor, shouting artificial all along. No, it's filled with minimalist furniture, much homey and warm. I don't talk much, holding Peeta's hand, sometimes grabbing it tightly as my heart churns and twists.
Peeta is sincere, as always. I envy his unchanging self, the same kind boy I met years ago. The Games and war has made him braver, more calculating, building him into a fighter, but not affecting him like they affected us. While almost all of us, the survivors, drown into a kind of mental instability, he keeps on. Despite the tracker jacker venom hacking into his brain, he manages to salvage himself. Perhaps, that's his strength. Unlike us who fights with weapons, he fights with his beliefs, able to cling with his purity. That way, he's stronger even than me. Even than Gale, Johanna, Haymitch, Finnick, and hundreds other. That way I fall for his charm.
It's not hard to locate the Hawthornes' home. Rory is playing with Posy outside a sturdy wooden house near the woods. My feet stiffen as I step down the train, and I'm no less than a statue in front of them. Peeta places his hands on my shoulders, infusing courage to me. I find it comforting enough.
Before I'm able to move, apparently Rory has seen me, recognizes me instantly.
"Katniss!" shouts Rory. He stands up, smiling brightly. I take it that he has gotten Gale's features over the past year. Now 15, I recall. Posy follows her brother, running into me."Katniss! Katniss!" I remember the hissing mutts calling me and close my eyes. Thankfully Posy's high pitched, innocent voice doesn't bother me after a while. She's not one of the mutts. The mutts are gone. With Finnick and the others.
In five minutes, Vick is joining the party as well. I feel less strain than before, as this is just his siblings and we've bonded like a family over the years. The children's welfare has improving to a whole new level. They're all fatter, cheeks pinker, Rory and Vick has grown some muscles. They were on their way to manhood, and I give up searching for the children I used to left at the Seam. Posy tugs on my jeans, pointing proudly to their house. I don't question why. This place's awesome compared to our houses back in 12. "Go greet mom! She misses you!" While I still place my sight on Posy, my mind wanders on its own, tracing back the time and cringing inwardly as I observe Rory. He was the closest one both in age and friendship with Prim. My Prim, one of the lost ones.
Katniss, I heave, calm down. Peeta's here. The children are safe.
Accompanied by the three children's cheers, Peeta and I make our way to the house. The door opens with a slight creak, revealing a neat living room donned with photographs of the family, some wild flowers and hunters' apparel. I notice my face is in some of the photographs as well. There is one with me and Gale, one with Hazelle, and one with me and the children, including Prim. Peeta sees them too, commenting that we're not so far from any real family. He says it good naturedly, quite indifferent in fact, and that makes me sad somehow.
Hazelle is knitting in the kitchen, observing a boiling pot of soup and stirs them every now and then. She doesn't notice me in the doorway until Vick announces, "Mom, look who's coming!"
She looks up at me, eyes widen in surprise. The knitting she holds falls down with a soft thud. "Katniss! Oh, Katniss!" and she hugs me, caressing my cheek, observing my haircut, and then finally looks at my eyes. "I'm so glad you're okay. How're you?" I hold his palms in mind. She is practically my mother too, especially in those years my mother spent in void.
"I'm fine, really." Her health condition is improving as well, but those eyes aren't as bright as before. Eyes of those victims of war. "Who take care of you? You're still living at...at 12,right?" I nod. "Greasy Sae lives at my home now, and Haymitch looks over me." When he's not drunk, I add silently. "Peeta helps me rebuild my life." She trembles, bowing at Peeta who is standing beside me. "Thank you for helping Katniss." Peeta smiles, replying that it's okay and he likes to do it anyway. Hazelle smiles back, now looking more like the patient mother I met six years ago. She gestures us to sit, signaling Posy to bring us water, which I politely refuse but she insists. "How's your mother?" she asks. I clasp my hand around the glass, averting her concerned gaze."Fine, I guess. We'll visit her after this." She observes my fidgeting figure, and then says,"You never visit your mother before." It's a statement, not question. I nod again. "Katniss, I'm so sorry of what happen. Send my greeting to your mother, okay?"
We both fall into long gap of silence. I observed my glass with too much interest while she gazes at somewhere faraway beyond the windowsill. "Do you have the nightmares too?"
I'm shocked, caught off guard by the question."How do you know?" beside me, I know Peeta is also shocked. "Gale suffers from it too. I guess every survivor of the last war suffers from it. The tragedy, the people we lost, the damage beyond repair. The war has ended, but we could never revert back to our old ways, don't you seem so?"
It hits me like a thousand needles, making its way into open wounds within me. That's what Peeta wants me to know, that I never suffer alone, that we never suffer alone. All of us, the ones who live, are scarred for a lifetime.
I have Peeta. Who does Gale have? None in his family went into the war, seeing those who died. I banish the thought at once. I'm not going to place any sympathy on him.
"And you, young man, Mellark's son, isn't it? Be proud. Your eyes are glowing with hope. I wish you can share it with everyone else," Does it directed to me? She lowers her head and picks her fallen knitting needle and threads. "I should go buy something at the market. Gale will be home soon, so make yourselves at home while I go. Katniss, Posy asks about you all the time. You're her favorite sister; it's such a downer we live so faraway now. But..." the voice died down. I don't need her to say it out loud. But the destroyed districts bathed in ashes holds too much memory. It's the same as my mother.
She turns into the living room, leaving me with Peeta. "She says your eyes glow with hope. Hazelle has great knacks in judging people, you know." I can even vouch her. She has said the words I left hanging in my throat all this time. Peeta laughs dryly, throwing his hands in desperate attempt to cover his burning face. When we quiet down again, he faces me."You see Katniss? We may not be back to what we were before the Reaping. But we survive and life must go on. You're torturing yourself, and to put it into your terms, not really helpful to those who tries really hard to rebuild their lives."
Image of the photo Annie sent sometimes ago, her baby with Finnick, pushes to the frontline that is my mind. I choke. What's with these constant strikes to my self? Am I so vulnerable that everyone is able to read me that easily? As if answering my question, Peeta nods ever so slighly.
A minute later the front yard is full of noise and I realize it's time I decide to run away or not. Gale is home. The back door Hazelle left open is tempting. Peeta throws me a sour look upon trailing my gaze. "Don't make our travel a waste."
Footsteps approaching, light and calm. I guess the children don't say a thing about us being here, intending to keep it a surprise. A click and the door separating us swings.
The first impression I get is that I'm afraid to see his eyes. When I see him, I'm a mixed bag, pathetically hearing my suppressed self yelling every word I keep on the bay, unheard by anyone but me. Spasm of guilt crawling on my skin, Longing I buried under the wall of rage I build myself, while what I really want is to apologize for every unsaid word I was supposed to said that day, before Snow's execution.
On the other hand, he's equally surprised, dropping the game bag in instant. So he still hunts. That explains why he chose a house near the woods. After what seems like an eternity, a 'hi' escapes his lips. Peeta rises from his seat. "Hello, Gale. Long time no see."
I believe the last time they actually see each other was before we leave Tigris' house, before we launched the assault to Snow's mansion. No, wait, when I struggle to kill myself by yelling for Gale then reaching for the nightlock pills.
At last, getting his sound back and composing his mind, Gale takes a seat for him. "Hello, Katniss, Peeta. Long time no see. How're you?"
I'm taken aback by how calm he is after the initial surprise. It seems as the event has never happened and we're still as friendly as ever, if not for the icy edge at the end of his sentence, which I never fail to recognize. "Good enough, Gale. Seems like your family has been doing good, too." I keep my tone as neutral as possible. "Yeah, got myself a 'fancy job', as Greasy Sae puts it. Enough to keep my family around and get me few hours of hunting every week."
Pregnant pause. It is as if we're two strangers that just recently met instead of lifetime friends. Friends. Can we still use that word?
"Can we spend a night here? I'm sure there's a lot to catch up." There it is. Our Peeta, one that always drops the bomb on conversation when we least expect it. Gale glances at me only to find he's not the only one astonished. "Eh, sure, as long as you want." Then he softens a little."While you're here, play with the children, okay? They miss you."
He doesn't say he misses me. He's only doing that for his siblings, as they don't know what happened between I and Gale. And I refuse to let them know. They're still my siblings. Hazelle is not as uninformed, however. The fact that she doesn't try to tell me to forgive Gale earns my respect. She wants us to solve it ourselves.
"Of course. Posy has grown so much I barely recognize her." The plump girl with soft hair and decent clothes is not the same energetic, but otherwise poor, skinny girl I helped babysit at Seam. Gale's face lighten up, seems proud that he's now able to alleviate his family's circumstance. Had I been the Katniss he remembers, I'd be happy to see him. Too bad I'm not.
"You might want to look around. The Nut is functional again, "he smiles. This one is genuine and underlined with...fear? Can it be possible? That the reason he chose to live in 2 is to redeem what he did, the death trap I objected in attempt to get 2's cooperation? He says the Nut is rebuilt. Did he take part in it? Curiosity eats up my mind. Even if he does all that, those who were lost would not come back, yet somehow I feel embarrassed. While I use all the time I have dwelling in my mind, counting my sin, he sets out to atone them. I know I want a long chatter, fluid and friendly, not this kind of restrained, oddly polite conversation we have now.
I spend the day idling my mind and playing with the children. Vick and Rory pull me from one place to another, explaining the reconstruction currently taking place in jumbled, chopped sentences formed in excitement. Posy drags me to meet her new friends. I'm baffled when I learn that somehow my insane decision to kill Coin, unbeknownst to me, got quite a reception from the people. It was confusing at first, but they admit that they too afraid Coin would make 13 a new Capitol and oppression continues. So I'm still a hero here. There are too many sacrifices for political purpose. Paylor better behave rationally. Prim, my little girl whose blouse tucked out like a duck.
It is a pretty fun day. Heck, truthfully, one of the best I ever had since I was back to the war torn 12. Not that I'd admit it to Peeta. In summary, though I have acted my usual self with the rest of his family, I still try my best to avoid Gale. He's very disappointed (doesn't show it outright, but still easy to get), yes, but that, is not my concern. Peeta is not very happy with this, but I could care less this time. I still am unable to forgive him. I avoid some rooms just because they are near his room. I slip out every time I sense his presence. He does make it easier by not attempting any conversation with me, though I do understand how much he itches to. I'm not making this easy.
Spend a night. Right. Peeta plays along my game and he, dead serious with his idea, somehow able to convince me to stay. Days rolling into weeks. We already stay here for almost a month to my dismay. Hazelle is thrilled, so at least I have more reason to stay than Gale. Yes, I have not forgiven him. Call me stubborn, but I won't change my mind.
That night, soaked with sweat and feeling alive after such a long time, I take a bath and climb the bed I share with Posy. It's arranged that Hazelle sleeps on the other bed, while the boys at Gale's room. Gale and Peeta themselves will spent the night on the extra mattresses now laid in the living room. Odd choice, really, how they'd be together most of the night, but their hostility (more like Gale's jealousy) with each other has faded that night almost two years ago.
I fall into slumber quickly, but not for long. Sometime in the midnight I'm awaken from dream I don't really remember. Relief floods me after touching and feeling Posy's arm embracing me and hearing Hazelle's slow, steady heartbeats. A glass of water might help, so I creep down the bed and make my way to the door. What I don't expect is to hear muffled sounds outside.
I'm thrown into de javu. The sound is clearer from the door side. I keep silent and hold my intention to walk out. Instead, for the second time I eavesdrop Peeta and Gale.
"Can't sleep?" Gale. "I guess you understand, don't you?" they both laugh half heartedly. The nightmares. They understand each other more than I imagine before they meet each other. Rough start and jagged circumstances, but I think they could be friends if things hadn't gone they way it is.
"Thanks," Gale says, quietly, hands playing with Rory's misplaced marbles. Peeta straighten his posture, looking at the ceiling. "It's okay. Katniss misses you. You must understand that she does want to apologize after all. She needs friend, need you. Not just Greasy Sae and me and Haymitch. Only you understand her the most."
Why is the night so quiet? Where's the noisy village brimming with life some hours ago? Where's the usual sound of crickets, and more importantly, why there's nothing to block my hearings? I can just go back to sleep, pretending I never hears anything, and let them continue undisturbed. I'm pretty sure whatever they're talking about would involve me, and that makes me uneasy considering what I heard when I eavesdropped before.
One who eavesdrops never heard anything good, father once told me. He was right. But curiosity takes over me, and I lean on the door pane, praying I'll not regret this by morning.
"Hey,"Gale's playful tone, "Doesn't you afraid that I might steal Katniss from you?" he teases. Oh, Gale. So much for being modest. Yet he's serious. And Peeta is certainly serious too when he answers. He gives Gale the look he gave me that night with the locket. Now I'm shivering, knowing what it means. He's ready. "It'll hurts, but will be okay. Katniss has the every right to choose whoever she wants. I'm sure you'll do the same too."
"That's why you brought her here? To makes us equal?"
"Part of it. The other half, I've told you. Her guilt for you is eating her mind."
Smile fades from Gale's face; he forms a frown for a second. "Thank you, again." He leans to the wall behind him, relaxing himself, avoiding Peeta's scrutinizing looks. "I'm just kidding. I've come to terms with it, anyway. Like you said, it hurts, but it's best for Katniss."
Peeta shakily refutes."Katniss loves you." He folds his arms, leaning to his own side of wall. Stubborn boys. Gale shakes his head. "And you too. She loves us both, though maybe not on purpose. She's not the best when it comes to romance, "he chuckles, then his face darkens again, clearly visible under the pale moonlight."She might love me, and I love her, but we are never meant to be. The tragedy is just a convenient excuse, with that we can feign hatred to each other to hide whatever feelings we still have. What I'm trying to say, Peeta Mellark, she loves both of us, but she needs you. You're different than us. You're brimming with light we never be. You have enough sanity not to drown into madness the Capitol made us go through, even after what happened to you. If Katniss stays with me, I don't know how I pull her out of the madness I'm also in. we lost sight of who we were, but you weren't. I'll always remind her of the past. You can give her the chance to see the future. Just love is not enough, Peeta." He closes his eyes following his uncharacteristically long monologue.
I cry, sobbing silently, both wanting to get the lost times back and thanking Peeta for convincing me to come. Gale hasn't lost his touch, always him who knows what's in my mind. He's terribly right. The reason I choose Peeta is because of his sincerity, his lack of fear to the future, the dandelion in the spring.
Peeta is unable to say anything. He never realizes his own worth."Th-thanks." That's all he could muster.
"Take a good care of her."
"I will," another silent before he adds," But you keep in contact with her. It'll do me, you, and her a favor. She still needs her best friend."
Do I? I want to rebuke it badly, to tell my hopeful side (stubborn?) that I no longer need him in my life. Yet, cowardly, what little left of Catnip inside nods. Yes, I do. There's a hole in my life that Peeta can never fill. He's there, tackling problems next to me, but there's still a void where Gale used to belong. I can never talk Peeta my problems. He has way too much already. I can never share half of my mind because he will then worry.
Another chuckle, this one deeper, lined with mock laugh and sorrow."Best friend," he weights the phrase, "The biggest honor I can achieve."
Then, "I never imagine we could talk like this." He beams a sincere smile, replied with Peeta's own smile."Me neither. But all we done are the same. For her, for Katniss."
That's the last thing I hear before dragging my frozen limbs to the bed, hair disheveled and face wet with tears. Perhaps I'm the luckiest girl in the world, being loved by two most wonderful men that should deserve better girl.
That morning, a bright Sunday morning which is our favorite, I run for him before he makes his way to the woods. I hug him tightly, crying on his shoulders. "Gale, I'm sorry. I should have apologized earlier. It's not your fault."
He caresses my hair."Me too, Katniss. Let's forget that, and start over, okay? You can talk with me whenever you want. Phone me. Write a letter. Drop by. Remember, my family is yours too."
I nod, inwardly praising myself for not destroying that phone months ago in one of my tantrums. "Besides, I'm supposed to be your cousin, yes?"
We both give sad smiles. This is a goodbye to all romantic attachment. We'll be friends again after this. Much better than losing the link we try so hard to preserve. That aside, it'll be much more comfortable if we stay friends, not lovers.
"G'morning,"Peeta fumbles from across the room. He has changed his pajamas to shirt and long pants. "Morning," we both greet. Peeta smiles a little seeing how we're not like a pair of strangers we were yesterday.
"You deserve better girl." Someone patient and kind, who's not involved with fightings, a more domestic girl. Girl like Madge. My heart aches again. I've never had the chance to ask him about Madge, and now it's too painful to be brought up. I decide to end it as is.
"Maybe, someday, but for now I'm getting myself away from romance." Then he bent down, kissing me. Completely unexpected, but I kiss back. He tastes of reminiscence, of woods and the wild-the pine trees, berries, and hint of sadness. That only last for a second. Gale turns to the shocked Peeta, wearing a grin.
"I gotta do that for the last time. Last. Time. Ever. Promise. "He emphasizes every word.
Recovering from the shock, Peeta stutters,"Eh, sure." I laugh. Maybe he reconsiders the benefits of bringing me here? Either way, his expression is hilarious. Meanwhile, Gale picks his foraging bag and his set of bow. "Wanna go hunting? For old time's sake? No worry, you can come too, Peeta,"he offers, still with the mischievous smile. Now that he has his confidence back, Peeta shakes his head. "You two can go. I want to see the Nut."
Extremely sweet. Gale doesn't tease him for this kindness, instead giving me my bow in silence. We're just going to do what we used to do. Hunting together, exchanging stories, no more. Peeta knows he can trust both of us.
District 2's woods only vary slightly than the one we used to sneak to. Gale takes me to his own vantage point half an hour through the trees and bushes. I shoot a wandering goose, proudly presenting it as our lunch. With decent job, Gale's doing the hunt partly for the fun, and partly to busy himself. Not unlike me after my return from the 74th Games.
When the sun stands majestically above our heads, we call a break, sitting cross legged against each other in the clearing. I shut my eyes, savoring the arboreal scent I miss so much. I've began to hunt again some months ago, only without consciousness. I only do what my body seems to want. Mockingjays circle a lone tree stump, and for once my fingers don't reach my bow in the sight of a hopping bunny. Let this one loose, I'm in my break.
As I've come to know years ago, the forest not only provides foods. It's an effective painkiller, here in the woods. I take a glance at the game bag. In the woods, they're in our game. We're the hunter. Faint smile creep to my lips, and I shudder. The game we play here is so addictive that we continue to do that to ease our mind. Isn't that… the way Panem view The Hunger Games? Suddenly all I want is to channel my mind into something else and not thinking about this anymore.
"Catnip-I mean, Katniss... I've been dreading to say this ever since that day. I'm sorry. I hate myself because I'm unable to hold the responsibility of killing...Killing Prim. I swear it's not me who planned that attack, but that's exactly my design. I lost sight of what important, the real enemy. I slaughtered the Nuts. I developed empathy traps. I regret the days I decided to use my skill in weaponry. That should've never happened."
Words stinging me so hard I'm numb. Part of me want to yell at him. Told you earlier. It's too late. On the contrary, I'm struggling to calm my inner turmoil, preparing to confront my self. When my voice is loud enough to be heard, it's half strangled and I choke.
"Call me Catnip. It's okay. Listen, I'd be lying if I say I didn't hate you. I did blame you. But then I realized there was nothing to condemn. You're not the one to hate. It's the war. The rebellion itself and Snow. You're right about losing yourself bit, though. I was afraid you were gone, the Gale I knew."It's clear as the day. I'm in no right to condemn what he did. I did the same, killing people ruthlessly, the one in the way of my revenge to Snow. I even got so far as in killing civilians. Those eyes. Shocked and terrified, unsure, trembling in hollowness. She looks at me in nights where Dad and Prim don't explode. I hated him because it's related to my family. My sister. The one I'm certain I love in this world. I wonder, ponder, all the time, what that woman's family thinks of me. Is it the same as I to Gale?
It's unfair. We stop being fair since the Reaping. I didn't kill him. He didn't kill me. So much for the promise.
"I'm sorry about Prim, "he's desperate.
"Please, forget this. Don't ever bring this up anymore, promise me, "I plead, both hands covering my ears frantically. I don't want my inner malice interfere what I've already get back. My best friend. We are silent for time being, listening to the rustling of wind and occasional whistle of Mockingjay, the faint footsteps of rabbits and muffled splashes by the stream, letting time ease our haunting guilt.
When we're able to put the taboo behind, the facades are piecing back, forming ourselves without the freshly opened wounds. Trying to be what we were instead of the broken souls we are.
"Gale?" I bit my lips, recalling one question that bugs me for a long time.
"I should say this earlier, but I unintentionally eavesdrop you and Peeta at Tigris'. When you said I'll choose the one I can't survive with, did you mean I'm that cold?"
Gale's somewhere between concern, confusion, and laughter, echoing vaguely. Lucky for me the Mockingjays can't copy his sound. His eyes meet mine, cloudy and melancholic, but also expressing amusement. "That? No, Katniss, I didn't mean that at all. I don't mean you're cold nor calculating, whatever you thought. We're all broken, so having someone that can keep us on is what we need, yes? It's not something you should feel shameful about. Maybe it's kind of selfish... I know, you're capable of living by your own, but that's all. Living, the state which is not death. But...you know what I meant. You're alive, but not even an inch of yourself is conscious. The void."
Damn. He has seen it through me again. "You make me afraid of myself."
"I don't deny you have your share of coldness, but that's the same for me. Unafraid of death, placing survival above feelings. We merely act the way we need to survive. It's essential. I'm not that good with words, but I hope you understand. That, catnip, is one reason of why you shouldn't eavesdrop." The playful tone is back again, half mockingly. Now I have suspicion that somehow he also know about last night. Please prove me wrong.
"Come to think of it, we never actually had time to talk, yes? Not after the reaping. Not when you were coming back and expected to do Victory Tour, not when the Peacekeepers went ruthless, and especially not when we were not ourselves, soldier Katniss and soldier Gale instead of plain Katniss and Gale."
"I'm glad that now, we can sort everything out."
"We have all the time in the world. Now, what do you want to talk about? I have so many questions to you, many things I wanted to tell since your first games."
"I too, have quite a lot. Let's see..."
That day is one of the best in my life. We bring home a pack full of game, Hazelle cooks special soup with all the meats, and Peeta bakes some cookies. For once it seems like we're back to normal days like before, though the lack of one person prevents me to think so. That's when I become aware of the presence of primrose bouquets hung majestically on the wall, adorning the corridor. I cast a fleeting look at Gale, who is observing me the whole time. He breaks the eye contact, sinking into his bowl."You don't think I can forget her anytime soon, do you? It wasn't my fault. But the base idea's clearly mine."
I'm not the only one punishing myself for crime I don't conduct.
We decide the next day is suitable for leaving.
Hazelle, of course, offers me to spend some more time. The children try to stale me too, but now with things cleared with Gale, I can visit anytime. The phone would be more useful than collecting dust too. I miss mother, I admit, now that I'm just two districts from her. And I hear Annie and her son have returned to 4, it's better for us to continue the journey.
"Take care of yourself."
I changed. Gale changed. Peeta changed. We changed and alive and know well that who we're now is just a piece we manage to salvage from who we were. The girl who volunteered for her sister three years ago is gone. There's no turning back and as long as we don't lose ourselves completely, we'll never be alone. I learnt the hard way that keeping the last of 'Katniss' intact is better than mourning for the lost 'Katniss'.
I feel much lighter than before. That put Peeta at ease too. Now that I too experience it, I suddenly think I should give my mother more credit. I too had fallen into the same void she was trapped years ago. Instead of helping her to live on like Prim and Peeta, I blame all my hatred on her. Now it sounds very unfair and all I want is to apologize.
Peeta assures me she'd accept the apology, and the train travel seems much more bearable than before. I lean on his shoulders on nights I couldn't force myself to sleep, and we catch up things we missed during my soulless days and his hijacked brain. Maybe this journey is not bad at all. Maybe this is what I need.
In passing mention of his name, Haymitch appears on my mind. We left him at the care of Greasy Sae, under careful instruction to let him drink but not enough to cause another delirium. I was tempted to drag him along, so I have someone to confide other than Peeta, but he will not be that comfortable with either mother or Gale. Even I'm not so sure they'll be too thrilled either.
Just as Peeta said, the hospital looks almost empty. I have collections of bad memories concerning hospital, and this halts me on spot for about ten minutes. Peeta patiently waits, and when he thinks it's too long a time, he grabs my hand and guides me in.
No screaming, no dying patients, and for that I give my gratitude. It still doesn't erase my bad affinity with the building, but significantly improve my view. I affiliates hospital with the stench of death, the weight of a life I always running from back in my home. Prim must be very strong to be able to withstand the suffocating air.
What will I do after I meet mom? She tried to contact me numerous times. I was either away or letting Peeta or Sae to handle her. The last time we actually talked was when we cried over Prim, about three months after I recover my sanity.
My eyes are glued to the memorial sculpture across the receptionist booth, depicting names of people died in the revolution. I think I see Finnick and Mags, but decide not to read the names. Under the numerous listings, written, no, carved in ornate letters was the sentence etched deep in my head. May all odds ever be with you. Who chose it? Whoever it was, it'd be whether a total Capitol fanboy or a grim well wisher. Can be read either way.
Peeta lowers his head to read the letters over my head. We look at each other, then back to the sculpture. Now this is useless. I should be searching for my mother.
"The apothecary? No immediate patient present at the moment, so she's likely to be there."
Funny enough, the hospital is without any guard. It's spooky in other way around, where you can only able to see brief passes of doctors and nurses in white uniforms sometimes in a while in the big building. Fortunate that in some way it means not so many people needs treatment, and they're pretty nice to talk to. My mother is at the apothecary, and we have missed the turn that lead there.
Hesitation haunts me again, which I quickly back away and shoo. I'm eager to walk, to close the distance I've been keeping for years. Before I could walk further anyway, crease formed on my face, eyebrows raised. Even here, a few meters and a layer or two of wall, I hear her. She sings. All the songs father used to sing is sung in a medley. What's left with her now? With her husband passed away, one of her daughters murdered, and the other one running away from her?
I request Peeta to wait for me at the corridor.
"Mrs. Everdeen, are you there? Someone is calling for you."
I lean to the nearby wall by reflex when the owner of the sound passes by me. He doesn't ask what I'm doing there, so I assume it's a common practice to let visitors wander around. It is a good chance, however, for me to take a look at my mother before she sees me. Feeling once again like a hunter looking at its prey, I'm welcomed with pang of sadness which has nothing to do with my secrecy. She's at least ten years older than last time I saw her. Wrinkles formed rapidly, and I compare them with Hazelle's. while Hazelle's are naturally there, in this mother I now see I can hardly make the image of an apothecary daughter with fair skin and gentle look. Instead she's strong and determined and her eyes are radiated with longing.
I cut my thoughts short. Hair held back with a flower shaped brooch, lean build and a ghost of smile. Annie Cresta, no, rather Annie Odair, is walking towards me. So that's who she sings for. In a minute, I'm trapped between my mother and Annie. Exposed like a deer caught on track, I close my eyes in discomfort.
The next second a pair of arms are thrown to my direction, embracing me. My mother sobs in my ear, trembling. I return the embrace and greet Annie. She smiles back.
Explanation can wait. For now, I bury myself in mother's tears.
Annie is more stable in my eyes. Much more like the girl who was Reaped almost 9 years ago rather than the mad girl I first saw her. Perhaps the shock of the last war affected her in different way than us? But she can fool no one. I recognize the look I take for granted. Mentally crushed, physically tortured, eyes sign of survivor. How much more face like this I will meet?
Unlike what I expect, mother tells me in brief explanation that Annie, in a way, has both been better and worse. In her good days, she helps people around the town to get some money to take care her son. On her worse days, she'd wake up screaming from the days in the Games, calling for Finnick in desperate attempt to calm herself.
Mother helps her a lot, and Annie usually comes for a chat. She's afraid that in her condition she can't raise her son well enough, that he'll come to be embarrassed to have such a mad mother. A son whose eyes resemble Finnick's, absorbing everyone into the swirling ocean of sea green hue.
On the other hand, though we try so hard not to mention her, I see Prim in mom. She does too, in me. No words are exchanged concerning this topic. We spend time having silent conversation through looking and gesturing, not unlike what I did with Gale.
She helps taking care of Annie's son in her bad days, which I believe is another way to soothe her mind over Prim. I selfishly jealous of that. Still, Annie needs mom more than me. I already have Peeta while Annie has no one else.
The meeting ends with a lighter note. I make note to call her at least once a month. Our last contact is when Haymitch forced me to tell her about my wellbeing, insisting that at least I still have her. That ends up with us crying all day long for Prim.
Some scars are just too deep to heal, too much to bear, and can never really get away. Even now I'm still begging father to run from the mine every now and then, alternating with Cato's plea, Glimmer's dead body, and much more. So what did we fight for then? All the sacrifices, the lives lost. At the end, we're pretty much the same, if not worse.
They console me, giving me hope. They keep insisting that though those scars would never left, we'll somehow get to terms with it, forgiving ourselves? Isn't it selfish? I don't know. I don't understand. My heart, however, changes.
How far I can get, challenging myself? Determination will only get me so far, right? Once again, Peeta assures me. With things sorted enough I let myself think I'm myself again, the one before the Games, who hunt with Gale to provide daily games to home, who traded with Greasy Sae, even if it's just a blatant lie. Unreal, but soothing, as if I finally have a hold on my life again. Regaining my freedom I've confided from myself. Peeta's right. Now, no one is holding me from anything. No one except myself and I must learn to loosen up. Yes, to forgive.
I learn to let go, to move on. It is difficult, given everything that happened in my hectic years. But life becomes so much easier after that, as if something big has been lift up from my heart. Once we get home, Gale and I send letters back and forth, reverting to our platonic way. I'm her sister and he's my brother. Mom, unsurprisingly, is the one who phones me first. She keeps me updated with things. Telling me Annie's condition and asking how I fare. Perhaps I was wrong. It's nice to have someone caring about me other than Peeta (Greasy Sae and Haymitch do deserve some credits too)-I feel like having my family back, though the hole left by Prim is still too big to patch, and I'll be content to leave it as is.
I quickly conclude that I know what I need to do next. Peeta is surprised when I ask him to accompany me to places. Visiting Johanna, who interestingly has given up morphlings and began helping Paylor in the Capitol, the 74th Games memorial site, tracing back the friendship and bonds I make during the bloody weeks, visiting Rue's dying place and going to 11 to meet her family once again, now without fear of Peacekeepers. Touring the districts, getting closer to the people who also trying to rebuild their lives. It makes me stronger. I believe so.
I even make it to families of everyone in our Star Squad. They welcome me with varying degree of warmth, but overall, it's one of the best decision I ever made.
The hardest of all is to face the place I avoid ever since I came back. Prim's graveyard. Deep in the meadow, under the willow, just like the lullaby father used to sing. Surrounded with primroses, all blooming majestically, a stone slab standing. A name is carved on the surface, the name of the person I love the most in this entire world. Who begins this all and ends it.
They honor her, the people. Making this elaborate graveyard for the girl who nursed them back to health, who gave them entertainment while it lasts. She is able to make people love her, regardless of time and place. Even when I was in such a state, they tend her and arranged her burial appropriately. Thinking back to thousands nameless, makeshift tombs they had in the war, Prim was so lucky.
I place a bouquet of Primrose and pray. I don't believe in any deity, but if someone deserves prayer, it's Prim. I tell her everything. Peeta's recovery, Haymitch's geese, Mom's struggle, I and Gale's reconciliation. For a short while, I see her smiling back. Then I go back to Victor's Village, finally accepting her death and allowing her to rest. She shouldn't worry about me anymore. The little angel has ascended to her place.
I don't expect Peeta to give me a leatherbound package once we're home. Opening it with curiosity, I find some notebooks, all self-made from Capitol's paper supply.
I always want to do something like it. A book of memoirs, to write down all important details that are too precious to be forgotten in time. We help the rebuild of 12, and at the same time populating the book. Peeta is always there for me. Gale is right. He is my source of light, the one who supports my wings when I'm too weak to do so. I let myself melt into his rhythm, letting him filling my heart.
When one day he proposes, now I can genuinely say yes.
I still don't want any child. The blown children and Prim still echoing in my mind. I will be too scared to have my own. Yes, the scars haven't leave. I know better than to wish it will leave. Peeta assures me, maybe not for us, but we have freed thousand children, thousand parents from our horrible fate. "Finnick's son. Gale's, ours. They will be living in a different world than ours, a world without Hunger Games."
Realizing his implication, Peeta takes back his words. "If you don't want it, fine. I won't force you. Sorry."
I'm setting that aside for now. Maybe,maybe, with no more death threat hanging over and every district is now treated equally, with Peeta, I might want to make an exception.