The Rites of Spring
(Le Sacre du Printemps)
By Pippi Blondestocking
Summary: How Peeta and Katniss find each other as winter wanes, Peeta rages, and Katniss tries to find the words to express her love for Peeta. Katniss is struggling to understand the meaning of unconditional love and Peeta needs her more than ever. This is how I see their “defining the relationship” (DTR) conversation going. Post-Mockingjay, pre-Epilogue. Angry Peeta Smash!
Rating: M for strong language, (implied) violence, emotional distress, and sexual situations.
Disclaimer: The Hunger Games trilogy belongs to Ms. Suzanne Collins, Scholastic, and Lionsgate. Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rites of Spring) was composed by Mr. Igor Stravinsky.
Thanks to my beta, SavannahHershey!
I knew something was wrong the moment I entered through my fence to the backyard. Peeta had been so quiet this morning, so very careful and deliberate. I had been my usual bull in a china shop, off to make a kill and scare all the birds away. Regardless, I stayed out a little bit longer than expected, fishing on the ice. Now my kitchen door was wide open, swinging in the cold late winter breeze. I grabbed an axe, and stepped inside cautiously. Nothing was disturbed, except a few fresh loaves of bread on the table. Peeta must have been by, I sighed, but where was he now? The kitchen wasn’t in disarray—rather, it was just as I had left it, but the air was pregnant with regret. PEETA! My brain screamed frantically, thoughts finding their way to words in my mouth. I find myself screaming in my kitchen for Peeta the same way I screamed for him in arena after Seneca Crane’s announcement. “PEETA! PEETA!” I shrieked as I ran through my backyard, finding myself bogged down in the deep snow, and frantically using the axe to hack a path to his backyard.
I jump the fence, and make a beeline for his kitchen. Peeta’s kitchen is usually so ordered, so neat, so clean, and now everything was out of place. A pile of broken dishes lies in the sink, as if he’d stood there and bashed them against the counter for hours, staring out the window as the snow fell. “PEETA! PEETA! WHERE ARE YOU?” I can’t see anything through my tears, and I feel my cheeks swelling with pain and fear and anxiety. There are neat rows of cookies and muffins and loaves of bread on the dining room table. In that moment I am impressed by Peeta’s obsessive-compulsive nature, even amidst a mental breakdown. “PEETA MELLARK, WHERE ARE YOU?” I sound pathetic, like a child who’s lost her parents in the crowd and everyone is closing in around her. Then I hear it. The crashing from the basement.
I’m always the one who acts rationally out of self-interest, I remind myself as I hurtle down the stairs, down to Peeta’s basement, down towards the sounds of destruction. I barely miss a brick thrown at my head as I duck at the bottom of the stairs. “Peeta, what are you doing?” I wail, pressing myself against the stairwell. He’s covered in a film of concrete dust and dirt and flour, and his eyes are clouded and blazing with the fiercest anger I’ve yet seen. His scars are pink and fresh on his exposed skin, and blood marks the new spots.
“WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE I’VE BEEN DOING?” Peeta rages at me.
“NOT REAL, NOT REAL, NOT REAL!” I plead, worried that it might be useless. He turns to me, his pupils fully dilated. I move away from the stairs and toward him, like a hunter would approach a wounded animal. “Not real,” I whisper. He moves toward me, his eyes glowing like bright blue coals. His entire body is trembling with rage. In one fell step, he’s next to me, his hot breath on my neck. And then he shoves me against the stonewall. I whimper as his body pins me to the cold wall, and his hand curls around my throat.
“So you’re back from the woods, back from reminiscing about Gale? And what, you thought you’d complete your compulsory community service? Come check on little old me?” he growls. I shake my head.
“No, no, no, not real, Peeta, not real,” I groan as his hand tightens around my neck. All I want to do is run as far away from him as I can, but I know I can’t leave him like this. “I was just walking in the woods and time got away from me,” I say into his ear, “It won’t happen again.” An empty promise, and we both know it. Peeta leans away from me for a moment and looks into my eyes. “I know you were having a bad day, so I just stayed out a little bit longer. Gave you some space.”
“The same way time got away from you in District 13, when you were playing in the woods while I was being tortured for you in the Capitol? While I was being hijacked and corrupted, and you were fucking Gale?” his words slither into my ears. I try to push him back with my hands, but his body has me pinned tight.
“NOT REAL, NOT REAL, THAT NEVER HAPPENED,” I cry out. Even in this moment, his smell is intoxicating.
“Which part, the hijacking or the fucking?” he hisses. I start to sob against his shoulder.
“I never did anything with Gale, I promise, not real. It’s always been you, always,” I beg. Recognition sweeps across his expression.
“BUT YOU KISSED HIM, ON MORE THAN ONE OCCASION. YOU WERE KISSING HIM AND PLAYING HOUSE WHILE THE CAPITOL WAS ROBBING ME OF MY HUMANITY,” Peeta roared, his free hand balling into a fist and slamming into the wall next to my cheek. “I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A PAWN IN THEIR GAMES, HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN ON IT?” The fresh blood from the cuts on his bruised hand is on my lips, intermingled with stone dust. I can still taste him.
“Not real, not real, not real,” I cry. Tears won’t stop him from ripping me from limb to limb, but they’re falling anyway. He won’t let me go.
“So what was it then, Katniss?” he mutters, “Why did you kiss him?” Suddenly he releases his body against mine. I crash to the floor from the wall. He roughly picks me up and shakes me by the shoulders. “SPEAK, KATNISS. SPEAK. SPEAK YOUR PIECE.” I’m shaking so hard I don’t think I can form coherent sentences.
“I—I—was confused… it was all very confusing!” I finally manage to stammer.
“What part was confusing, mockingjay, the kissing or the deception?” Peeta hisses into my mouth. Now it’s my turn to push him away, and he stumbles back, tripping over a bench.
“ALL OF IT WAS CONFUSING,” I scream, “I NEVER WANTED TO DECEIVE YOU OR HURT YOU AND YOU KNOW WHAT? I WAS NEVER IN ON IT.”
Peeta sits, splayed out on the cold floor like a rag doll. “So what, mockingjay, you had no idea what was going on in District 13 while I was in the Capitol?” I shake my head.
“Half the time I was so fucked up I didn’t know what time of day it was, the rest of the time I was too drugged to feel anything. The only thing I knew for sure was that they had you when they wanted me and they were torturing you to get information about me. But mostly I was fucked up. All I wanted was YOU. And I couldn’t have YOU. And I was fucking worthless because all I could do was think about YOU.” His body stiffened at this admission.
“When you weren’t kissing Gale,” Peeta says softly.
“I ONLY KISSED HIM WHEN I COULDN’T HAVE YOU, YOU IDIOT!” Now it’s my turn to yell irrationally.
Peeta sits there, smirking at me. “What about the time you kissed him, after we came from the first Games, in the woods?”
I’m taken aback. “How did you know about that?” I swallow, hard.
Peeta shrugs. “Snow told me. And he was right, boy did it smart. So why did you kiss him then?”
I breathe hard. “Because I had missed him. Because he was my best friend. Because he was familiar. Because I wanted to touch him, to know that he was still mine. Because no one had ever paid attention to me, before you, and now suddenly my hunting partner was kissing me… because it felt good. But it’s not like I could kiss you, so he kissed me. Gale kissed me. I didn’t kiss him back,” I reply. I wait for the rage.
“You liked it?” Peeta muses quietly. I sigh.
“Not really. He took advantage of the moment. I let my guard down, I was so confused, and I just wanted things to be comfortable again… since I couldn’t have you… Gale always made me feel so guilty about you… He could never just let me… be happy in the moment…” my voice trailed off. I now had Peeta’s full attention. “Oh, come on, Peeta—how was I to know that you liked me? You never spoke a word to me. I thought you took pity on me, like everyone else. The only person who never took pity on me was Gale—”
“I NEVER PITIED YOU,” Peeta shouts, “I PUT EVERYTHING ON THE LINE FOR YOU, ALL OF MY EMOTIONS, ALL OF MY LOVE, MY LIFE—AND YOU THINK I PITIED YOU?”
I sink to my knees, in sheer tears. I nod.
“No one ever felt anything but pity for the little girls from the Seam, whose father died, whose mother abandoned them, who thought they might have to sell their bodies to survive. But Gale, he never pitied me. We were equals. We hunted together. Learned to take life together. He lost his father, he became the breadwinner of his family—he understood where I was coming from. He knew the forest, like me. His father knew my father. It was so easy. It made sense. And after being dealt such a shitty hand in life, I thought maybe it might be nice to have something easy and good, with someone who understood where I was coming from.”
Peeta has been silent. I realize that it’s going to be a long night, but I can’t stop talking. I crawl toward him, and he flinches away from me. His eyes are still dark.
“I never pitied you,” he repeats himself quietly, “All I ever wanted to do was help you, protect you, defend you—take you away from all the ugliness. To love you. To be worthy and deserving of your love.”
“But why?” Now it’s my turn to ask the questions, “Why did you ever bother with a bratty little girl from the Seam? I never even imagined a life outside of the Seam—how could I know that a merchant’s son would want a life with a piece of trash?”
“NOT REAL,” Peeta yells at me, “YOU’RE NOT TRASH, YOU NEVER HAVE BEEN.”
“WELL, WHY DID YOU LIKE ME TO BEGIN WITH? I’M NOTHING SPECIAL, PEETA.”
“YOU STILL HAVE NO FUCKING IDEA—THE EFFECT THAT YOU HAVE ON PEOPLE, DO YOU, KATNISS?” He’s sitting straighter now, prouder, and stronger. “I loved you the first moment I laid eyes on you in school, with your little red dress and long braids. I heard you sing and I just wanted to hear your words forever. You think I wasn’t confused? Why couldn’t the baker’s son love the miner’s daughter? Why couldn’t we be together? Why should we suffer separately, if we could overcome it together? Why didn’t someone help those poor little girls in the Seam after their father died? I couldn’t bear to watch you starve, because then I couldn’t see you or hear you. And if you had lost your sister, I knew you’d be gone forever… But I also knew that I couldn’t be with you because, well, what would everyone think…” Peeta stopped and paused. His eyes went kind of blank as he looked back in time to memories that may or may not exist.
“What was I supposed to do, huh? Walk up to you after school, hand you some flowers and cookies, and ask you out on a date? The boys would have endlessly mocked me; the girls would have thought I was rude for ignoring them in light of you. And oh yeah, your answer would probably have been ‘no’. Little wonder that I kept my fucking mouth shut. I couldn’t stand the chance that you would reject me.”
I was shocked—how could Peeta think that I would reject him, that he wouldn’t be good enough for me? He’d always been so confident and affable and popular at school. I would have been surprised that he was even acknowledging my existence, let alone taking an interest in me. It never occurred to me that Peeta Mellark struggled with low self-esteem, but I suppose it made sense with two older brothers and a cruel mother. And he was right on another count—I would’ve likely seen his advances as a sick, cruel schoolyard joke and rejected him on the spot. Just like I did before the Games. But Peeta wasn’t done talking yet, as if he could read my mind.
He smirked at himself, and grimly licked his lips. “And oh, and the things my MOTHER would say to me. I was never good enough for her, Katniss. I was never a good enough son. I was never her daughter. I was never the athlete. Never the smart one. Just the baker. She would never be able to beat the underachiever out of me, but did she ever try. She never liked the Seam. What would she think—what would she SAY—if I brought you home? She’d tell you and me to our little faces that we were no better than trash, and that you’d never be good enough for me, and that I would never be good enough for her. My relationship to my so-called mother was tenuous, at best. I only loved her as much as I feared her. I was never good enough for her—how could I be good enough for you? And if that makes me selfish—so be it.”
Now it was my turn to think quietly. Peeta had been confused about me, about liking me, about loving me? I never thought about how our relationship would impact his world. As usual, I was the selfish one. Now Peeta was infected with word vomit.
“And at the Reaping, when my name was called, I finally had my opportunity to tell you—to tell EVERYONE—how much I loved you, how I would do anything for you. How I would lay down my life for you, to protect you, so that you could go back to your life with your sister. And even if you didn’t make it, I could at least die knowing that I tried to save you and sacrificed everything for you. You’re right—we’d never have been together if it weren’t for the Games. I was too afraid to make a move and jeopardize my position, and you were just trying to survive. I just wanted you to have more than that. And you made a fool out of me.”
I shake my head. How could I have been so blind? Gale might have been the easy choice, but he was the wrong choice—he would never have tried to give me the future Peeta was now describing.
“I—I think I meant every word I said in the Hunger Games. How much I loved you. How I would do anything for you, just so you could see the light of another day. I must have loved you a lot. I was so blinded by my own emotions that I didn’t understand that you were confused. I wanted so badly to believe that you were madly in love with me, that I just lost all sense of being. I didn’t want to believe that it was a game. How could you not see the sincerity, in everything that I did?” he continues.
Peeta is asking me a question. I swallow hard again, tasting his blood intermingled with my own from biting the inside of my cheek. “Because I never thought that anyone could have another reason to live aside from survival,” I whimper, “I never expected anything better, I never expected a higher existence—” I trail off, wringing my hands.
“Did you ever feel anything for me, other than survival?” he mutters. I nod.
“Peeta,” I breathe, crawling toward him again. I was a few precious feet from him. “Peeta, don’t you see why I was so confused? Boys never paid me any attention—especially not merchant boys—and suddenly you were professing your undying love for me on television, without even telling me! I didn’t think boys liked me, period, let alone loved me. And then on top of that, we’re in this game, where kids are killing each other and outsmarting and outlasting and out-bruiting one another, and MIND FUCKING each other, and I’m not supposed to see love as a strategy? I didn’t know if it was a game to you—I never knew if you were playing a game too, so I just went along with it. I thought you were doing it to get by. But then it became obvious that you weren’t, and it was too late for me to stop playing, because I’d started falling in love with you. And then I thought that was a part of the plan, of the game, but I was just so confused and overwhelmed, and all I knew was that both of us needed to survive, but that I was not going to survive without you… not during the Games, and not after— We’re in the middle of this terrible game, and you tell me that you love me, when no one has loved me before. I was sixteen—what the hell did you expect me to do? I’d never felt those feelings before.”
“So you were playing a game?”
“Real—but NOT REAL!” My voice rises in urgency. “YOU MADE ME FEEL FEELINGS, PEETA MELLARK. ON TOP OF EVERYTHING ELSE, NOW I WAS FEELING FEELINGS.”
“Sucks doesn’t it?” he smirks. But tears are streaming down his face, making wet trails across the flour and dust and sweat. “When did you first realize that you had feelings, Katniss?” Oh good, well, at least he’s back to calling me Katniss. I start making knots with my bootlaces.
“When you told Caesar that you loved me. On the rooftop, the night before the Games. The moment I heard there could be two victors. As soon as I saw you buried in the ground. The night in the cave when we kissed and you weren’t burning up with fever. The berries. When I nearly shattered the bulletproof glass trying to get to you on the hovercraft while they operated on your leg,” I say softly. I’ve never actually stopped and thought about the moment I fell in love with Peeta Mellark. I feel like I’ve fallen in love with him so many times that I can’t isolate one.
“I wanted so much more after that kiss, Peeta,” I cry. He’s looking at me with a dreadfully serious expression, and all I can think about is NAKED PEETA IN A SLEEPING BAG.
“What did you want, Katniss?” I shift uncomfortably at this question. Peeta and I have been intimate in so many ways, from holding hands to kisses to cuddling in the night to keep the terrors away, to keep our fears at bay, to make sure the other is still there. But we still haven’t been intimate in the most primal of ways.
“You light a fire in my belly, Peeta Mellark,” I say slowly, deliberately, “You make me hungry, and warm, and hot, and wet- and uncomfortable in the most comfortable way possible. I want to have you, all of you—and I want you to consume me, be one with me. I want you like I have never ever wanted another person in my life. I want you to touch me the way I touch myself in the shower, in my bed at night, when I think about you. I’m starving for you, for your words, for your touch, for your—” Before I can get it out, he’s swept me into his arms. “I want you to be inside of me, make me whole, complete me, Peeta,” I moan into his shoulder. “It’s not an act, it was never really an act…”
He’s rocking us back and forth now, and I know he’s thinking. I’m not sure what he’s thinking about. He’s forming words against my neck.
“So, why did Haymitch have to tell you what to say, how to act, on the Victory Tour, in the Quell?” he says hotly into my skin. I laugh.
“Because he’s our Mentor. Because he knew I was confused. Because he knew I was scared. Because you’ve always been better with words and feelings and expressing yourself. Hell, you started the rebellion with your sweet words of true love on live television. But I always knew that I needed you to survive, I needed you to protect me, to defend me from myself,” I reply shortly. “Haymitch never told me to take you to bed in the night. Haymitch never told me to press myself so tightly against you on the beach. Haymitch never told me to keep the pearl on my person at all times. It’s you, Peeta; it’s always been you. I can’t lose you. I’ve come too close, too many times. Please don’t leave me now.”
Peeta sighs gruffly. “I’ll never leave you, Katniss. I’ve had so many opportunities, and none of them have panned out…” I stop his self-loathing diatribe with a kiss, a soft kiss. I press our noses together.
“That night, when you were on the operating table, I thought if you died, I would die. That night, when you ran into the force field, when your heart stopped, my heart stopped. And then when Finnick resuscitated you, I wanted to kill him, because he was touching you, and you were mine. That night, in the tunnel—”
“When I tried to kill you?”
“When I begged you to stay with me. I couldn’t survive, couldn’t go on living without you. If you went and left me alone, I’d off myself. There’d be nothing left to live for.”
Peeta stroked my cheek thoughtfully. “Am I really worth living for, Katniss? In the state I’m in? Look at us. I’m a FUCKING MESS. LOOK AT THIS.” He gestures around the demolished shell of a basement. “Could the Peeta Mellark—whom you claim to love—do this? All of this destruction? My God, I AM SO FUCKING DISAPPOINTED IN MYSELF. WHAT WOULD MY PARENTS THINK? I AM SUPPOSED TO BE BETTER THAN THIS.” All I can do is nod and kiss him.
“Real, Peeta, real,” I say into his mouth, through our kisses. I have to bring him back.
“Why do you continue to love me, Katniss?” he says into our kiss, “How can you love me?” I wrap my arms around his neck, so tightly I think I might break.
“Because you are mine, Peeta. Because I need you the way I need water, the way I need air, the way I need sleep. I need you to live, I need you to survive. And I don’t care if I’m being selfish, because there is no me without you. Because you are my Peeta.” I’m kissing every inch of his face, tracing the contours of his face with my fingers. He’s so familiar, and yet so new. “Because no one has ever loved me the way you love me. And I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you.”
“You love me?”
“I love you.”
“We protect each other.”
“We survive because of one another.”
“Real.” Usually, I loathe this game, but sometimes we have to play it. There are worse games to play.
“Katniss, will you stay with me?”
“Always, Peeta. Always.” I bring him closer to me, tracing his spine with my fingers. He looks like a child who has just lost a parent, a look I know well.
“I can’t—I can’t—” he stutters, trying to heave out the words.
“You can, Peeta, you can. I’m here. Tell me,” I coo, trying to coax it out of him.
“Katniss, I can’t fight the demons alone anymore. I… I can’t. I need you. I need you to stay with me. To remind me…” he sobs. It’s all I can do to hold him, the way he used to hold me after my nightmares on the train, in my bed in the Victors’ Village, in my dreams. The way he held me in the cave. The way he held me on the beach. The way we clung to each other in the tunnels, because our lives depended on it.
“Peeta”, I murmur, “I don’t want to fight the demons alone anymore, either. We’ll be stronger if we fend them off together. Because we love each other. They can’t take that away from us.”
Peeta is crying into my loose hair, holding my face in his hands. He looks so empty, vulnerable, and afraid, a shell of the man of the boy who started a rebellion.
“That’s what they tried to take from me in the Capitol, Katniss,” he sobbed.
“What did they try to take, Peeta?” I say calmly, worried what the answer might be.
“My love, my unconditional love for you. They tried to wrench it from my hands, strip it from my body, drown it in the waters, and drain it from my blood. They told me you were a mutt, a Capitol creation. They showed me pictures of you from before the Games, and then after, and asked me why you looked so different. They told me that they made you a monster in their own image. That you were using me in your own Game. That you rigged and engineered everything, from the Reaping to Rue’s death, to the destruction of District 12. That you stabbed me, that you wanted me to lose my leg, that you laughed when my family burned to death. They told me you faked everything, that you could make your body respond to mine out of sheer hatred, that you raped me, that you lost our baby and laughed about it, that you never felt anything for me except a warm body. They told me that you never had any intention of saving me in the Quell, that you wanted me to get picked up by the Capitol so that you could go live your happy life in District 13 with Gale. They told me that you never cared about Prim. That you were just using our love for you against us for your own gain.”
Peeta had never talked to me about his torture in the Capitol. These were the first words he’d ever spoken to me about his suffering at their hands. Our tears are mixing together, running down our faces, combining with the blood and dust and sweat.
“But I wouldn’t give in. I loved you. They were going to have to kill me if they wanted to take it from me. So when the beatings didn’t work, and the psychological trauma didn’t work, and the sleep deprivation didn’t work, when the drugs didn’t work, when the starving didn’t work, when the solitary confinement and isolation didn’t work, when the shocks didn’t work—after all of that, I said that I loved you above all else, Katniss—then the tracker jacker venom started. It only worked when my blood ceased to be my own, and the shinny tinny loud memories replaced all of my own. And even then, I’d have moments when I’d come to, and I’d tell them to fuck themselves, because I loved you. And even if I didn’t know anything, I still loved you. They told me that we deserved each other because we were both mutts, both monsters. I’d be filled with such rage and anger and hatred against you during the day, and then at night, in my nightmares, I’d be filled with such a longing for you. My nightmares were still about losing you. They couldn’t get to my subconscious. But whenever I’d awake, you wouldn’t be there, and I’d think they were right—that you had used me, abused me, and abandoned me to the Capitol in pursuit of your own happiness. I hated myself even more, because I still loved you…”
I don’t know who was crying louder or harder, Peeta or me. I just wanted to hold him, to have him my arms, to feel his weight against me. They never got to the deepest, innermost part of his mind; to me, this was a blessing. He still loved me, unconditionally, in spite of everything.
“Peeta, I only became the mockingjay to save you!” I choke out, “The rebels, they had no intention of saving you, or saving Annie or Johanna. They knew that the longer they kept me from you, the more desperate I’d become, the more likely I’d be willing to become their mockingjay.” I hate admitting this to myself, to Peeta—but it’s true. The rebels just used me, and used Peeta as a way to get to me.
“You, desperate?” Peeta whispers, brushing hair off my forehead, “I don’t believe it.” I shake my head.
“Real. I was pathetic without you. You were all I could think about, talk about. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I was drugged. I was fucked up. The only person I could talk to was Finnick. Or Prim. Or I was asleep, lost to the outside world. I couldn’t fucking function. As long as you were away from me, I was going to try and get you back. It’s all I had to keep myself going—if I had thought that you were dead, I would have shut down completely. I would have killed myself—” My words catch in my throat, and I force myself to go on.
“The Capitol kept you alive to bring me to them, and the District rescued you only so that I would become their tool. They used us; everyone used us in their game. And when I got you back, I thought maybe you were better off dead—because they took your love from you. They made you into something that you’re not. They stripped you of your being, of your humanity, of your inherent goodness—” I can’t finish. I’m choking on my words and tears and bile. I feel his body tense next to mine, and I worry that I’ve triggered another episode. But he just rubs my back, like he’s comforting a sick baby.
“Hey, I’m still here,” he cooed, “They tried really hard to make me a piece in their game, to make me into something I’m not. But they didn’t succeed. They almost did, but you saved me. The way I saved you—”
“I almost didn’t save you,” I say curtly, “you were as good as dead to me when you came to District 13. Which meant that I was as good as dead. I didn’t have a reason to live without you, and since it seemed like you had been taken away from me forever, I just stopped giving a fuck. I lost the will to live. I figured it was better to die in battle against the Capitol than to live in a world without my Peeta. You hated me, you tried to kill me, and you said vile, foul, disgusting things about me. You weren’t my Peeta anymore. So I said fuck it, let me die as the mockingjay, because I don’t want to live on this planet anymore. You were dead, and I wanted to be dead, too.”
We’re curled up on the floor, the way we were curled up in the cave, his arms wrapped around me, my head on his shoulder. I wonder what his reaction is going to be.
“If I was such a monster, what changed your mind?” Peeta finally says quietly.
“Because you were trying so hard to come back to me, you were still fighting for me,” I sigh. “I was a coward. And everyone called me out on it. Gale. Haymitch. Finnick. Annie. Johanna. Prim.” I feel Peeta raise an eyebrow.
“I was so fucked up and confused by the Games, from the rebellion, from the war, from losing you. I was blind. I was selfish. When I went to District 2, I wanted to die. And Gale, he kissed me. And I kissed him back because I was hurt and angry and confused and upset, and I kissed him because I couldn’t have you. I only kissed him because he was in pain—Gale said so himself, that I only kissed him when he hurt. And vice versa. He took advantage of me, took advantage of the situation, and he used me. And I didn’t feel any hunger, but it was better than the great nothingness that had come to define my life. And then Gale stopped me, because he couldn’t comfort me. He said that he knew as long as you lived, I could never be his, because I’d always be thinking about you, always wanting to be with you. He was right, Peeta,” I say, my voice growing stronger.
I had felt a change in Gale—he wasn’t my best friend anymore. He changed. He’d always hated the Capitol, had wanted revenge. Gale’s anger and fire and hatred wanted to consume me. I just hadn’t seen how bloodthirsty and bitter he’d become. How little he cared for Peeta. How he only rescued Peeta so that I would agree to be their mockingjay. Gale—my Gale, my sweet friend and brother—had used me. The ends justified the means to him. I was a piece, a pawn in Gale and District 13’s rebellion, and they tried to use my Peeta—the only thing I had come to love unconditionally—against me. They never gave a fuck about me. Gale became a monster by choice, not circumstance. And that makes all the difference between Peeta and Gale.
Peeta must have heard my internal monologue, because he kissed the top of my head. “That’s the nicest thing I’ve heard about Gale in a long time,” he laughs. “Did he hurt you? Did he—did he force you to do anything you didn’t want to do?” Peeta, always worried about my safety. I shake my head.
“No, except he made me watch all these people suffocate to death in the Nut, and then slaughter one another,” I reply.
“So, no second date, then?” Peeta retorts. I giggle. I can’t believe I’m giggling. Peeta and I are down in his destroyed basement, having our huge defining-the-relationship talk, and he’s cracking jokes.
“So Gale told you to be with me,” Peeta muses. “You know, Haymitch came to me everyday and told me to cooperate and get my shit together before you lost it. I didn’t believe him at first. But then you started trying to be with me again, started playing nice.” I nod.
“Haymitch told me that if our places were reversed, that you would be doing everything in your power to move heaven and earth to help me. Haymitch said I was being selfish. He said I was the only person who mattered to you. That we would never be whole without one another. I felt so bad, I felt so guilty, I felt so indebted to you. I’ll always be in your debt, Peeta,” I say, running my hands across his chest.
“Haymitch guilted you into helping me?” Peeta murmured, grasping my fingers between his.
I held his callused hands between my own, hands that were separately scarred, but together made a map. His fingernails, neat and short; my own, ragged and bitten down to the bone. I let out a deep sigh. “Haymitch harshly reminded me that I could live a thousand lives and never deserve you, never ever be worthy of you. That I could never deserve your love, but that I had it anyway. And I needed that love and wanted that love and would do anything to have that love in my heart and arms again. That I needed to fight for you-” Peeta cuts me off as he flicks his tongue across my lips.
“Katniss—you’ve always been worthy of my love, you’ve always deserved it. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand different ways. Why don’t you see it in yourself? All of the ways you are amazing? You’re a survivor. A lover. A fighter. A sister. A leader. I had to add those to the list of words to remember you by. It was I that had to prove myself worthy of your love, so rarely given and expressed even less. How was I going to find a chink in your armor and worm my way into your walled heart? How lucky I was to have it, if even for only a brief moment,” he sighs as he peppers my cheeks with kisses, rubbing the small of my back with his steady baker’s hands.
“You have always been more than deserving of my love and praise and gratitude,” I say as I stumble over my words in my mouth. “I’ve always felt guilty because I never told you properly, and I did a piss-poor job showing you. I didn’t appreciate you enough. And when I abandoned you, I didn’t want to live with the overwhelming sense of guilt. But I didn’t have to. Everyone else did for me. And they took care to remind me. I still live with that guilt, the guilt of my actions, my words, my intent…” I fade off, dropping my chin down onto his collarbone.
“You weren’t the guilty one, sweet—” My turn to cut him off with a kiss, my turn to press my thighs against him.
“No—Annie and Johanna and Prim guilted me into saving you, you asshole,” I reply. “Oh, and Finnick, too. Finnick told me about how he loved Annie regardless of what anyone did to her, or what she did—because that’s just what they did, love each other. He didn’t know any other way. Every knot he tied, was for his Annie. That he couldn’t live without her. And Annie, sweet Annie, would always tell me in her mermaid-way how much better you were getting, how you were remembering more, how you didn’t hate me as much—” my words catch in my mouth, “—how she understood what it was like to lose everyone and everything. She told me to put myself in your shoes.” Peeta swallowed hard. “I couldn’t bear to see you become like Annie…”
“Annie suffered more than all of us,” he says after a moment, “they tried to make her confess about the baby. But she just played dumb.” The basement fell uncomfortably silent.
“Johanna told me that you cried out for me in your sleep, to try and understand you, because you weren’t the same person anymore,” I weep, “she told me that she knew what my name sounded like only when you were in pain. That’s how she knew how much you must have loved me.”
“And Prim?” Peeta whispers, “What did she say?” He looked so childlike and innocent—so very much like my dearly departed baby sister. My lover is childlike with thick eyelashes on soft skin.
My eyes well up with hot, fresh tears. “Prim told me that you loved me, deep down inside, just like you always had. And that I had to fight for you the way you fought for me, the way you kept fighting for me. She just kept telling me that you loved me, and that’s all that really mattered.” The tears spill onto Peeta’s already-drenched tee shirt. “I’m so sorry, Peeta, I’m so sorry. I owe you everything—when will I ever cease to be in your debt? I’m so sor—” Peeta cut of my words with his finger on my lips. He raised both of us up from the floor, and he cradled me in his arms. He must have loved Prim so much, like his own sister. I never had given much thought as to how much time they spent together in 13, but it must have been considerable.
“You don’t owe me anything, Katniss. Love is not a debt,” he says as he looks into my eyes. His eyes are wide and blue and clear, as beautiful as the first time I really looked at him on the roof of the Training Center. I take his face in my hands.
“But Peeta, I let you go. All I had to do during the Quarter Quell was protect you, and I failed, I let you go—” and my body is overtaken by the sobs. I’m wracked by sobs and guilt and relief- relief that he is there in my arms. He plays with my hair.
“Katniss, you had no way of knowing that the Quell was a part of the rebels’ plan. We didn’t know. No one told us. Not Finnick. Not Johanna. Not Beetee. Not Haymitch. It was the blind leading the blind. How were you to know? Are you psychic? Because if you’re psychic, then there is no excuse for not knowing I love you,” Peeta says, holding me fast. “We didn’t know. You didn’t let go out of malice; you let go because you had to protect me. You went to sacrifice yourself for me.”
“BUT I LET GO!” I’m hysterical. “ALL I SAID I WOULD DO WAS MAKE SURE YOU GOT HOME SAFE AND SOUND, AND I LET THE CAPITOL GET YOU! I FAILED YOU, PEETA! NO MATTER HOW MUCH I LOVED YOU, AT THE END OF THE DAY, I FAILED US. I LET YOU GO.” He shakes his head.
“Not real. Katniss, don’t be stupid. Do you really think the rebels were going to pick both of us up? Or that the Capitol was going to pick up the both of us? No fucking way. Coin might have preferred me because I was a more pliable, likeable grunt—but you were the mockingjay. They had to separate us, so they could drive us crazy, so they could use us for their own purposes, so that they could try to use us against each other. And it didn’t matter if we lived or died—either way, one of us would be a martyr for the cause. Star-crossed lovers, pitted against one another, trying to get back to one another. C’mon, Katniss, didn’t you pay attention in school? Those stories never end well,” and he ended with a kiss. A deep, hot, wet kiss—the kind that made my toes curl and think back to our nights under the pink sky.
I have a burning desire to say something, but I don’t want to break our kiss. I also have lost the desire to breathe. I could just stay like this, wrapped in his kisses, forever. Those stories always end really well. My father used to tell me fairy tales like that. Peeta breaks for air, but just barely.
“The rebels—District 13—they are no better than the Capitol,” I get out quickly, then press my lips back to his. He nods into my lips.
“They’re not,” he said, “I figured that out pretty quickly. The doctors tried to help me—that Hippocratic oath and such—but the leadership just wanted to use me the way they’d been using you. It was better for them to keep my anger going, to keep us hating each other, so that you would only become more determined to destroy Snow and the Capitol. They needed to keep both of us half-broken. If you couldn’t have me, you wouldn’t have anything. They turned you into a kamikaze, Katniss. They didn’t care if you destroyed yourself, as long as it was in the name of their rebellion,” Peeta breathed. “Katniss—I understood exactly why you voted for the new Hunger Games the moment you spoke. You had to trick Coin into thinking you were on her side, that you were still her fucked-up little mockingjay, so that you could get close enough to finish her. Living under Coin’s Panem would be no better than Snow’s. You weren’t going to let them destroy any more lives. You were very noble.” I scoff. Me? Noble? Has hell frozen over?
I’d never heard someone summarize the motives of the Capitol and District 13 so succinctly. Peeta must have had a lot of time to think about that one, I surmised.
“Katniss, I know that you went to the Capitol for me, to sacrifice and destroy yourself for me, because you thought I was already gone. You thought you had no reason to keep living. But you were still protecting me, defending me, sacrificing yourself for me. When Coin ordered me to 451 and the Capitol, I thought she was crazy. Off her rocker, fucking crazy. But then I thought about it. Coin sent me, knowing full well that I could have an episode and try to kill you. I think she wanted me to kill you, so that the rebellion would have both a martyr and a victim. You, the martyred-mockingjay, killed by the perversion of the Capitol by the one she loved the most. And me, the victim of the Capitol’s torture, forced to kill his true love. Or, what if you had killed me? The martyr taking her lover’s life for the good of the nation. Me, the corrupted victim of the Capitol, silenced by his lover to end the bloodshed. Sacrificing everything in the name of love. It’s so poetic. It would have made great headlines, huh?” He kissed my cheek. He kissed my nose. He kissed my chin and my earlobe.
“Peeta, that’s fucking sick. Apt, but sick,” I say, giving into his sweet kisses.
“But it’s true,” he says, stopping his lips long enough to get out the most painful confession. “That night in the tunnel when I had an episode—everything was too much. It was just like being in the arena again, only trapped with my worst enemy—myself. I couldn’t keep track of what was real and what was wrong, and I couldn’t see or smell or feel or hear anything—just blurs, just sounds, just the venom coursing through my veins. Coin had me right where she wanted me—and right where she needed you. In that moment, I really did want to kill you and destroy you, because to me, you were everything the Capitol represented. But it wasn’t me thinking… it was the venom… but I was so confused, I just gave in. I couldn’t live with myself anymore. I wanted to be selfish. I was tired of being so fucked up, of tormenting you, of living in pain, so I was going to end it for both of us. Put us out of our misery. I was going to end it all, everything that had started with the Reaping…” Peeta cries, wrapping his arms around me, crushing me to him. In this moment, all I can is stroke his hair and whisper, “not real, baby, not real” as his body convulses with sobs and he howls like a wolf.
“Katniss, I completely lost everything in that moment—I lost you, I lost myself. And then when I came to and realize that I tried to fucking kill you, I didn’t want to live with myself. And I didn’t even have time to think about it, because Mitchell had stopped me, and you know what I thought? I thought he was attacking you, and all I could do was try to save you and protect you, so I fucking raged and killed him. I killed him, because I thought I was protecting you. I took a life—the life of a friend—because I thought you were in danger. When he was trapped in the barbed wire, I felt everything he was feeling, because that’s how my heart felt at that very moment. I thought… I thought… that I’d lost you forever. I was the monster. I took a life, and for that, I can never forgive myself. I didn’t think I could live with myself without you-” His tears were showering me, and I could care less.
That was the sweetest thing he’d said to me in a long time. It was fucking twisted, and sick, and terrible, but it was real. Peeta was always thinking about me, the way I was always thinking about him. His heart beat against mine, his fair hair was laced with my dark across our foreheads, and the blood pulsed between our loins with increasing fervor and fire, igniting every nerve.
“I couldn’t live with myself without after the hijacking because I loved you even more. I didn’t know it was possible. But after the hijacking, after the rehabilitation, and after the training—I loved you even more. I loved you for the person you were—the person I was remembering; I love you for the person you became, flaws and scars and burns and all. Despite all of the obstacles in our way, I saw you come back to me, the way I came back to you. Our love must have terrified them, Katniss, our love is stronger than the Capitol, stronger than District 13—stronger than anything they can try to do with us or throw at us. They tried to destroy us and we survived. We stay with each other, always. We protect each other, always. I love you even more, and I’m never ever letting you go, ever again.” Peeta is almost dead silent as he finishes. I feel his words more than I hear them. I feel everything now, more than ever.
“Because you love me,” I stammered.
“Real,” he cries.
“Because I love you.”
“Because you were protecting me.”
“Real. Above all else, real.”
“Oh, Peeta,” I wail, wrapping my legs around his waist and burying my face in his chest.
“Sometimes, I don’t think I can live with myself, with the things I’ve done, with the people I’ve killed on my conscience, with the way I’ve treated you,” Peeta says, holding me tightly, “But when I’m with you, none of it matters. Just like the way it was before. As long as I’m with you, I’m okay. You saved me that night, in the tunnel. When you held me, when you kissed me, when you stayed with me. When you stopped giving a fuck about what other people think.”
“Peeta,” I take a deep breath, “how many people have I killed? By my own hand, or indirectly? How many people have I hurt? How poorly have I treated you? How do I live with myself? Sometimes I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if I am even living. But when I’m with you, everything is okay. Why is that?” I kiss him, just to feel something. That fire is trying to consume me from the loins up.
He shrugs. “I don’t know, Katniss. I just do, I just love you. I always have, and I always will. They tried to steal that from me, and they couldn’t. They made my love for you ever stronger,” Peeta replies, planting kisses all over my forehead. “It’s not rational, but it’s in my self-interest to love you, because I can’t live without you, and I just can’t afford to think like that right now. Not ever.”
“What is it, Peeta?” I say, pressing my lips to his forehead as he kisses my neck. “Why do you love me? HOW COULD ANYONE LOVE ME?” He looks terrified, like someone just clubbed a puppy to death in front of him.
“HOW COULD I NOT LOVE YOU, KATNISS? THAT’S JUST HOW LOVE WORKS. IT ISN’T ALWAYS RATIONAL OR CALCULATED OR PREDICTABLE. IT JUST IS. LOVE IS WHAT IT IS. UNCONDITIONAL, UNWAVERING, ALWAYS. I’VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU. I LOVE YOU. ALWAYS.”
Now it is my turn to be terrified. No one has ever told me that they loved me, unconditionally, no matter what. Except… my father. The way he loved me, the way a parent should love their child. And Prim, the way she loved me, the way a sister should love their sibling. But it’s not like my father or Prim had a choice—by blood, they had to love me. But that love, those bonds were special. I loved them unconditionally, too. Then my mind turns unfortunately to my mother.
She doesn’t love me in that way, I think sadly. She let me go, she let me suffer—and worst of all, she let Prim suffer. She let me raise Prim. She let her child raise her baby. She chose not to love us after our father died. She chose not to love me. Even now, she chose to be far away, on the other side of Panem in District 4. I need my mother now more than ever, and she chooses not to be with me. Her love is conditional, as evidenced by her recent departure. By the way she acted when my father died. How she let Prim go into battle. My mother’s love is conditional. Do I love her? Always. Unconditionally. But that doesn’t mean I have to live like her. I’m devastated, because everyone I have ever loved has been lost to me. It’s like when I let someone in, let my guard down, let the walls down, they leave me. I don’t want to live like that anymore. Peeta senses my distress.
“What’s wrong?” he softly murmurs. I raise my eyes to his. Here comes my confession.
“Peeta, I’ve been confused. I love you, I really do—” he cuts off my words with his mouth, kissing me like he’s never kissed me before. I pull away, reluctantly, and he looks hurt. “Peeta, I love you, and I have always loved you. And I was confused, because I never understood how someone could just love me unconditionally, without knowing me, without rhyme or reason. And I was scared, because everyone that I let into my life and love unconditionally leaves. My father, Prim, Gale, my mother… and I can’t bear to lose you. I was afraid to admit to myself that I love you—because I love you so much that I couldn’t stand to lose you. And I thought it was better to never love at all, than love and lose. And I was afraid to admit to you that I love you, because I was so scared that you would leave—or get taken from me. And you almost did. And I kept loving you anyway. And you kept loving me. And you came back. No one has ever come back before.” I’m sobbing into his shoulders, wiping my face with his shirt.
Peeta kisses the tears away from my eyelashes, and he’s crying, too. “I love you, Peeta, and I’m not afraid to admit it or embrace it. I love you—and I always have, and I always will. I love you for you, just because. You are the only man who understands me, who knows where I am coming from, and where I’m going. And it’s not just because of the Hunger Games. I’ve always chosen you, I’ve just been afraid say it. I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I just want to be with you. I just want to love you, and be loved by you. Nothing more, nothing less,” I cry, but now they are tears of happiness and relief. For once, Peeta is speechless.
“I love you, Katniss,” he says slowly, tasting the words on his mouth, on my mouth. “I want nothing more than to wake up with you every morning and fall asleep with you every night. I’ll never be away from you. I just want to live my life—our life—with you. And we’ll make the most of it. Because we’re together.” We’re breathing as one.
“I hope so,” I say, weaving my hands through his hair. “Peeta—” I say desperately, gazing into his eyes. He kisses the words out of me. “Peeta,” I moan, “I chose hope. I chose you because I chose hope, because that’s how I want to live our life. You complete me, you make me a better person. You make me hopeful for a better tomorrow. Every day that I get to be with you, by your side, is better. I love you. Unconditionally. No strings attached.”
He smiles wryly. “Oh, Katniss, I never had a choice—it was you, always you. I’d never have it any other way. I love you, here and now, now and forever—and nothing can change that. Real.”
I don’t know how long we were in his basement, wrapped in one another’s embrace. All I know is eventually we disentangle ourselves from one another, survey the damage, and decide to deal with it later. We take a hot shower, shyly exploring each other’s bodies for the first time, our scars obscured by the steam. Then we crawl into bed, into our soft, warm bed that smells faintly of bread and cinnamon and dill, and gave in to the overwhelming urge to sleep next to one another. I don’t know how long we stay in bed, but night turns into day, day fades into dusk, winter fades into spring. We just lay there for days on end, whispering sweet nothings and “I love you.” It’s all I want, it’s all Peeta wants—it’s what we need. We don’t make love—we’ll have plenty of time for that later—but we take simple pleasure in our bodies being so close to one another with no walls—no cameras, no audience. I knew eventually Peeta and I will have to face the outside world, but for now, this is enough. Happy enough for now.
So when he whispers, “You love me. Real or not real,” I only have one answer.
“Real. I love you.”