I've long since given up trying to remind myself who I am. It doesn't matter that I survived the Hunger Games, or that I was the Mockingjay. District 12 is in ruins. So many people I love have been ripped from my life that I've lost all sense of identity. I never knew how much I depended on them to find my true north. Now that they're gone, I'm broken. The Mockingjay died with the end of the war, she died with Madge, with Finnick, and with Prim. She died when the person she trusted most escaped to District 2, to lick his wounds and wash the stain of her sisters' blood from his hands. It will never be gone. Not for me. No matter how much I miss him, I'll never look at him the way that I did before the Reaping. That Gale is gone forever. Without the people who gave me purpose, I don't want to be Katniss Everdeen anymore. I don't want to remember. But I do. I see their faces every night, hear their screams in every cell of my body. Sleep brings terror, but morning is unbearably worse. It isn't like after my first Games. Back then, I would jolt awake to find them safe and sound in their beds. Now, I open my eyes to the crushing, stifling, overwhelming weight of their absence.

My house is much too big, I realize as I sit, curled in a rocking chair. The emptiness of it permeates me like December chill. No matter how many blankets I bury myself in, or cups of scalding tea I drink, there is a pain in my chest like frostbite. I am alone, both literally and figuratively. Haymitch visited once or twice, but seeing me seemed to intensify his own pain. The ghosts behind his eyes grew more powerful with my demons so close. I can't really blame him for staying away. I'm not his tribute anymore, he's not obligated to save me. The only person I see is Sae, who tries to keep me alive as best she can. I can only imagine that she feels a sense of duty to my father's memory. I understand that feeling. I survived on it for years. Only now, there's no one to take care of. I have no family to feed, no friends to save, no mutts to slay. There is no one left to project my helplessness onto. I've served my purpose, so why am I still alive?

The answer is complicated. Part of it has to do with my mother. No matter how much hidden resentment I still have for the way she dealt with my father's death, I can't let her lose both of her children. More pressing, is the thing I could never say out loud. I'm starting to understand her. I've been physically and mentally destroyed. The Girl on Fire is nothing more than a charred ruin. Even as I hate myself for becoming the selfish, catatonic mess that she once was, I hate her less than I did when she was around. There's one last reason I keep breathing. After so much winter in my life, I need to see the spring. I need to know that it's possible for my few remaining loved ones to find their dandelions, to move on. I can't be a part of that. I'll never be able to justify being happy after all the pain I've caused. Even if I could, I'm not sure I'm capable of anything but this. Not anymore. But I need to know that they are.

Its months later, that I awake from my nightmares to the noise. It's a rough scratching, scraping sound. It blends horribly with the images that still flash in my mind. Masses of fur with glowing, hauntingly familiar human eyes. Huge claws dragging against shiny gold metal. The screams of a boy whose death was almost as horrifically tragic as his life. The scene changes to a gathering of the dead, of tributes, friends, and family members alike, scraping up ashes to throw at me. It takes a moment for me to become aware of my surroundings. I take in the smooth sheets, the soft nightgown against my skin. I'm safe, but I'm not relieved. I can still hear it. The claws, reaching for me. But they aren't as close as I remember, and the steady rhythm feels wrong. I tentatively move to the window, waiting for the next dream-monster to jump out. What I see confuses me. A figure with pale hair and broad shoulders stands in my front yard, pausing his work to lean against the shovel in his hand. I've had this dream. Where they bury me. Where everyone I've sacrificed holds me accountable. Usually I'm in the hole, looking up at them.

Deciding that my subconscious will punish me whether I stay inside or not, I walk from my room, descending the stairs slowly. The fear is overwhelming, and I suddenly understand why Haymitch sleeps with a knife in his hand. I would feel a lot better with an arrow notched and ready. When the cool air hits my face, I wonder for the first time if this might not be a dream after all. But, Peeta has resumed his inexplicable digging, and I can't seem to come up with a legitimate reason that this would be happening. Peeta hates me half of the time, so maybe he just wants to make my lawn look hideous, some small consolation for not succeeding in murdering me. I wait for him to notice me standing here, for his eyes to be dilated and wild. When he turns, I'm surprised to find them tired, but kind. His face is red from exertion, and there's something both intensely comforting and terrifying about the way he's looking at me. There's sorrow, and pity, and compassion. And something else, something I haven't seen since the Quell. It's something very much like tenderness.

Peeta must sense my sudden desire to flee, because he shifts his gaze to the hole at his feet. I'm grateful that he still reads me so easily, and I stay, although I'm afraid to dwell on the reappearance of this part of Peeta. I'd already said goodbye. He was gone, along with the rest of them. And, this is the Peeta I have missed so desperately. As much as my heart swells to see him, I'm as careful with him as he is with me. We're both wounded animals, he and I. We don't want to startle each other into flight. So I say what I'm feeling, but in a way that can easily be interpreted as casual.

"You're back." I say. It isn't just an acknowledgment of his reappearance in District 12, and I see by his expression that he realizes this. His words are as ambiguous as mine.

"Dr. Aurelius wouldn't let me leave the Capitol until yesterday," Peeta says. "By the way, he said to tell you he can't keep pretending he's treating you forever. You have to pick up the phone." I get the message behind his conversational pretense. That he's been trying to come back to me, that he's better than he was. But more importantly, he's saying that I'm out of excuses to hide from the world. He's lost everyone, his whole family, and he's here, fighting to keep living. He expects me to do the same. I sincerely want to do just that. But, I still know it can't happen. I've run out of strength to fight. I've let go of it all, so how can I go back?

Peeta's eyes have met mine again. Their gentleness is physically painful. He takes in my appearance, and I see the sadness hit him. I must look like hell, with my matted hair that I can't seem to keep off of my face and my patchwork of mismatched skin. Well, of course I look terrible. I'm abruptly irritated that he has the nerve to pity me. Here, in my yard, while he punches holes in my property. I still don't want him to leave, so I keep most of the anger out of my tone.

"What are you doing?"

"I went to the woods this morning and dug these up. For her," he says, gesturing to the wheelbarrow at his side. " I thought we could plant them along the side of the house." I look at the bushes, and fear and anger rise up in me. Roses. My stomach clenches uncomfortably until my fuzzy brain finishes the thought for me. Not just roses, but evening primroses. The flower Prim was named for. I feel my hands start to shake as the rage is replaced with a myriad of sweepingly powerful emotions, so many that I can't isolate just one. All I know is that I can't stay here any longer. I nod softly at Peeta, and walk as quickly as I can to the door. I lock it behind me, hoping whatever it is I'm feeling right now will stay on the other side of the door with Peeta and his beautiful, painful, shattering gesture. It doesn't, of course. It follows me as I try to run up the stairs, stumbling in my haste. The broken creature inside of me wants to stay like this, strewn uncomfortably on the stairs, for the rest of my life. But I'm not being driven by that thing anymore.

Whatever it is that took hold of me outside is now pushing me into my bedroom. I pause before the dresser. I can smell it. I don't know why I didn't get rid of it before. Withered and pathetic, though still unnaturally pungent, is the white rose that Snow left for me. His quiet little mockery of my weakness against his omnipotence. I scoop up the whole vase, holding it away from my body as if it might attack, and hurry back downstairs. I'm in the kitchen before I think about where I'm going. There's a fire going. I smile madly to myself. How fitting it is. I throw the flower into the fire, its still-fresh center emitting a shriek-like whistle. Oh, President Snow, what fun we two have together. I smash the vase as though it's cursed by its contact with the flower, and laugh. It's a rough, strangled sound. I can't remember the last time I did it. My throat is so unaccustomed to anything but sobs and screaming that it actually hurts to do anything else.

I don't have time to think about it. I can still feel the putrid odor of the rose on my skin, in my hair. Rushing to my bathroom, I remove my filthy clothes and frantically begin to scrub down in the shower. I scour myself raw, and my skin burns when I'm finished. But I feel better. I have something to fight, an evil to eradicate. I dress in clean clothes and throw open my window. No trace of him can remain. Not in my house, not in my district.

I leave the house after eating the breakfast Sae makes for me. I need to hunt. I need to feel something familiar. I see the destruction, the bodies. I learn Madge's terrible fate. But still, I keep going. I don't end up hunting, really. The woods are full of memories. Of my father, of Gale. My body isn't used to exercise anymore, either. I feel the burst of life that ignited me this morning fading away. By the time I'm back at home, I collapse on the couch. I feel myself shutting down again, the hopelessness wriggling its way through the cracks of my fragile resolve.

My senses are so dulled that I don't notice another presence until its hissing at me. I whip around to find a face as unexpected as it is hideous. I'll never know how he found his way back from 13, but here he stands. His body shows the wear of the journey. He bolts upstairs, and I know where he's going. I scream at him as he searches the house. As the fresh tears erupt from my eyes, I sink to the floor, still swearing at the cat. He seems to understand at that moment, and our mutual grief outweighs our disdain for each other. We mourn her together, and I'm glad of his company for the first time. We reach an instinctive agreement. I'll keep him, and feed him scraps as I used to. He'll sleep at my feet at night. During the day, I won't try to drown him, and he won't claw my face off.

I actually call my mother. We cry over Prim, and laugh about Buttercup's impossible journey. I tell her that I'm sorry for my years of anger after she apologizes for leaving me to care for us all. It's the longest conversation we've ever had, although most of it is spent in silence or tears. I know that I should feel like I'm healing, but I don't yet. Peeta keeps bringing bread, and Sae keeps cooking. I'm both touched by their dedication to my recovery and angered by their persistence. Every fried egg, every freshly baked cheese bun, is a kindness that I don't know how to repay. And if I'm honest, I'm still afraid that Peeta will lose it again. I can't let him in this easily. I don't know if I'll ever be able to let him in at all. I've spent so much time convincing myself to be brave, to be stronger than everyone else, I'm not comfortable with the vulnerability it would require.

Even with my fears, when Peeta offers to help with the book, I let him. I can't say no. And the pictures he draws bring life to the dead. He shows them bathed in happiness and warmth, so vibrant and real that I expect them to walk off the page. They're so wonderfully joyful that I find I can't write my sadness. The book becomes a celebration of the people in it, without me ever meaning it to be. Peeta even gets Haymitch to help. He adds fifty entries, as many as Peeta and I can together. Twenty-three years of fallen tributes, each of whom he remembers in heart-breaking detail, despite his drunkenness. He writes about Maysilee, and about his mother. He writes about his sister, who I'm surprised to learn had long blond hair. When he's satisfied with Peeta's sketch, I glance at the paper. I think I understand why Haymitch didn't like to come over before the Rebellion, and why he couldn't be around me in the months following Prim's death. I don't read about the girl he loved. I make a point to avoid the page. Peeta might be right about our similarities. I can't handle his pain any better than he can handle mine. I do buy him a case of white liquor after his pages are finished. I walk into his kitchen and set it on the table without a word. He nods his thanks, but avoids my eye. I'm glad, because I don't want the connection. I'm eating and bathing and leaving the house, but I'm not ready to console anyone. I've never been much good at it anyway.

The nights get worse as the days get better. One night, I'm shaken awake, still screaming, by an exhausted-looking Peeta. Before I really know what I'm doing, I pull him down and wrap my arms around his neck. He doesn't hesitate to return the embrace. We fall into old patterns, protecting each other from the terror of our minds. His easel finds a home by the window in the kitchen, and he starts to paint things that aren't about the Games, or the Rebellion, or our dead loved ones. I pick up a new habit. I watch the rain, or rather, I watch as it stops. I squint at the thin arch of color that appears, memorizing the colors until I'm sure I have it right. Then I tell Peeta. I describe the way the red fades to yellow, then blue, ending in purple. I list the colors between. I can tell that he needs more than this, but he smiles sweetly at me. He kisses me on the cheek, and picks up his brushes, still smiling. He has me go through the progression again, mixing the paint to my specifications. When he's done, it still doesn't look like the real thing, but he swears it's perfect. I know he doesn't care if he ever paints a rainbow the way he's always wanted to. It means more that I want it for him, that I tried to give him something.

Autumn is creeping up when Johanna calls about the dedication of the memorial for those who died for the "cause". Of course we're expected to be there. We, who started it all. The star-crossed lovers, back in the spotlight. Peeta agrees immediately, selfless as always. I hate the thought of another stage, of cameras, of people wanting my heartfelt thanks. I just want to stay here in my kitchen, eating cheese buns and cleaning squirrels for supper, talking about rainbows. I know I'll have to go. If I started the war, then right or wrong, I'm responsible for every life lost. I owe them this much.

Even as much as I was dreading this, I wasn't prepared for the assault of wracking sobs that escape me once we find our seats among the crowd. We've given our speeches, poured out our hearts to the grieving widows and mothers of Panem. It's awful, seeing the others get up to pay respects to the dead, whose images are projected on a large screen behind the stage. Halfway through the program, I find myself forgiving Gale enough to not turn away at his very public, very teary apology for his part in the deaths of so many innocents. He meets my eye as he says it, and I know he's talking about one in particular. I watch as Annie is led to the stage by Johanna. She holds her little boy, no more than a few months old, as she says her goodbyes to Finnick. Annie doesn't cry, she keeps her eyes down, and her voice steady. She tells us how he would hate to see people mourning him, how he hated sadness. She's so much braver than I thought, so much more than me, who recoils at the thought of dealing with emotions. I think I know why Finnick loved her so much.

It isn't until Mitchell's picture appears that I see Peeta lose composure. We're near the back, so I take his hand and lead him out. I'm afraid the memory might trigger an episode, but I don't tell him that. I just keep walking, holding tightly to his hand as we go. When I finally find a room far enough from the auditorium, I sit Peeta down on an overstuffed sofa and pull his head onto my shoulder. His voice is so weak that I barely hear it.

" I killed him, Katniss. It was my fault." I feel the things I always feel in these moments-pain, panic, the urge to run as far and as fast as I can. But I don't. I squash down the urge, stroking Peeta's hair.

"No you didn't. Don't say things like that. Snow killed him. The Capitol killed him. Coin killed him. You didn't put that pod there." Peeta snorts in disbelief and self-loathing.

"But I'm the one who kicked him into it. For defending you. He was protecting you from me, Katniss. I saw the clip, I know what happened." I force him to look at me, keeping his face trapped in my palms.

"And I know that that wasn't you. Snow hijacked you, and Coin sent you into battle, knowing the stress would cause an attack. It's like blaming my bow for Coin's assassination. You were used." Peeta doesn't respond, just cries into the crook of my neck. We sit there for what seems like hours, and before I know I'm doing it, I'm singing. And it's the only song I think might comfort him, the one he says linked us thirteen years ago.

I've heard of a valley

O'er mountains far away

It's a place we could run

Where happiness stays

The winter can't touch it

The sun's always bright

And there I will cradle you

All through the night

Let's go to the valley

The place we can live

Where joy won't forsake us

It's all I can give

In the sweet summer

The clover grows wild

The water runs clear

And the birdsong is mild

Come home to the valley,

I'm waiting for you

You'll never be lonely

I'll always, ever be true

Peeta's sobs quiet halfway through, and he laces his shaky fingers through mine. When the song runs out, he looks up at me. It's the look he wore while he planted the primroses outside my window, the look he wore when he made me promise not to go to the feast in our first Games. So I'm not surprised when he kisses me, and I'm not surprised when I kiss him back. I know this would have happened anyway. That what I need to survive is not Gale's fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that.

So after, when he whispers, "You love me. Real or not real?"

I tell him, "Real."