Pushing through the months of physical therapy have been difficult. There were times when I didn't think it would get better, even with the improvements I had been making. And while I'm far from finished, the milestones I've accomplished are more than I thought I could do at the beginning. I owe a lot to Katniss for being supportive of me as I went through this.
She doesn't have to. But she stays by me when I need it. I appreciate Katniss more now than we had started, than when I woke up. She visits me daily, and I fall in love each time. She's one of the few good things in my life—and one of the parts of my past to survive.
We sit outside in the forest, her body snuggled into my side. Sighing deeply, I play with her hair, tugging gently on the braid over her shoulder. Turning to look at me, she asks, "How did it go today?"
Pondering over the session, I say, "It went well, I think. I was able to move further and could even jog a little."
That part had definitely been excellent—any movement is a victory but jogging, to feel a heavier weight on my feet, after being immobile for years, that was great!
"That's wonderful! That's the second time you've managed it," Katniss tells me, grinning.
I lean in to rest my forehead on hers, thankful, "You encouraged me,"Her gaze lowers itself, fingers splayed on my chest, "I can only do so much. In the end, it all depends on you,"
"Right…" I murmur, moving closer, brushing my mouth on her ear, feeling her shudder from the contact. Wanting her to do that again, I skim my digits on the side of her face, holding her chin. She stares up at me, eyelids fluttering slightly. I glance down at her lips, touching them with mine.
They hold still for a moment before she pushes my mouth open, tongue slipping past my teeth. I sigh, feeling her hands dig into my hair, pressing closer into me. I slide one hand up her shirt, feeling the skin beneath, warm and soft.
She moans, beginning to burn, I push her down to the ground, gently nipping at her lower lip. Hovering over her, I dig my hips against hers, feeling her leg brush over mine, listening to the low hiss of breath. I pull back to kiss down her neck, gasping when she suddenly rolls her hips upwards, hands at my waist and tugging at the edge of my clothes. I grin into her shoulder—
Suddenly her phone disrupts us. My face falls. What rotten timing; it's for something important but still.
Katniss looks at me, apologetic, "I have to go to my appointment,"
"I understand," I say, even as I wrap my arms around her.
"Right now, I mean," she insists, giggling.
Hearing her laugh slightly dampens my surly mood, and I kiss her cheek. She's so cute when she's relaxed. Katniss holds her hand for me, grinning. Taking it, I slip my fingers with hers, starting to head back into town. The entire time is spent in silence, Katniss eyeing the destination while I take random peeks at her face.
We reach the town quicker than I'd like, standing amidst the shops. Katniss gives my hand a squeeze, "I'll see you later, okay?"
"Yeah, I'll be wandering around here," I nod. There is plenty of time to head back to the hospital.
She stands on her toes to kiss my cheek, and I turn to catch it with my lips. I'm about to grin when she suddenly pushes closer, mouth parting, tongue hot as it slips in; I groan as the air seems to leave my body, staring at her, feeling aroused.
Katniss winks before heading down the street. I blink, standing for several moments. I chuckle before turning around. The minutes go by peacefully, sun blazing above us. It'll start getting colder soon.
Finding myself about to walk into a dead end—forged by shops packed together—I decide to walk back, possibly actually go into a shop and find something I might want. There is a shop for hunting materials, which Katniss has stated she goes into frequently. Heading in there, I look around the place, making note of where certain things are located.
A collection of knives is displayed in the corner of the store. My mind flashes back to Clove. She would've loved the one with the spiraling handle. The grooves seem to allow a better grip for the fingers.
Shaking my head a bit, I remove myself from the case and head to the back. There's racks lined with various traps for prey, with crossbows decorating the wall. I reach out to take one from the wall, smoothing over the finishing.
"Ugh great," I hear someone mumble.
Grimacing, I glare at Gale, "Don't bother me."
"I am where I belong. I don't know what you're doing here,"
"With what money?"
"I didn't say I was purchasing anything. And no that doesn't mean I am stealing," I cut him off before he can twist my words.
Gale follows my steps, heading further into the racks of traps. Ignoring him, I pay attention only to the materials in the casings. Slowly, I grow irritated. Asshole. Sidestepping when he comes up to look at the same items, I pointedly avert my eyes, scanning the objects.
"Don't you have anything better to do?" I grunt.
"I'm off work right now," Gale replies, perusing over rifles.
"I wouldn't have taken you as a rifle person,"
"I'm not. Doesn't hurt to look,"
His body is relaxed, shoulders comfortably loose. His face suggests otherwise. The stance someone takes when they want to fight another person but have to stop themselves.
"If you have a problem with me, say it. Don't waste my time." I spit.
Gale regards me coldly, "I don't trust you."
"That's not my problem."
"It will be if you hurt her,"
I spin away from him, "I don't intend to do that."
Gale rushes in front of me. I am tempted to swiftly kick him from under his knees, but I continue to lack that level of mobility. All I can do is stand here and listen to him badger me about the same damn thing.
"I'm not going to hurt her," I whisper harshly, "What happened in the past—that was out of my control."
"I don't believe that at all."
"What was I supposed to do, nothing?"
"You could've sacrificed yourself for her if she mattered so much,"
We scowl at each other for several moments. Taking in his statement, I know that I could have…
"It was selfish of me," I answer finally.
"You're damn right it was. You don't know how difficult it was watching her go through this. The nights we've had to help her stop screaming, the therapy sessions that left her despondent for days… she lived hell because of you."
I imagine Katniss weeping in her bedroom, clawing at her hair, depressed beyond the point of recovery; alone in the world, unable to be consoled.
I clench my hands into fists, "I am well aware I didn't protect her the way I wanted—"
"And yet you come back to life while she continues to be the one to look after you."
"Our relationship is reciprocal and none of your business," I declare angrily.
"I know that it is—it took her years to get to this point! She's accepted you back so quickly. I don't want you hurting her again,"
"I won't. Because I'm here—the real me. I'm here to care for her, as she does for me."
Gale eyes me bitterly, stare as grey as hers, lacking her warmth. Then they falter.
"You love her."
"I do. As much as you do. If not more,"
There is no lie in my voice, the hint of a tremble.
It's the boldest truth I have.
Gale shoves his hands into his pockets, scrutinizing my expression and attitude. Deliberately, he moves from his place in front of me, allowing passage.
I keep down the urge to shove his shoulder with mine. Despite the intense dislike we have for each other, and likely always will, we are both protective of the people we love—Katniss and Hyacinth the only mutual connection we share. He has cared for them while I floated in dark spaces. For that, I cannot completely hate him.
He was a father to my son.
I can't deny that's important.
Even so, I walk out of the store with a strange sense of triumph, despite being mingled with a disheartened feeling.
I will win my son over.
There's nothing else I want to be able to earn. Katniss and I are close, but what would it mean for our son to keep rejecting me?
In the end, it might boil down to what he wants to do more—please his mother or hurt his father.
He has a lot of characteristics that are shared between Katniss and me.
I come to the end of my destination, walking through the automatic doors of the hospital. Admitting myself in, I am escorted to my room, my usual nurse attending to me. She asks how my outing was and I said it was great, which she can see on my face that it was.
Staring out the window, the sky burning red, I rest on my bed. Watching the sunset until it fades into black.
I think of Peeta.
He had so much to live for.
Lying on my bed, I think of him and what he'd tell me about Katniss, those times in the woods where I started learning about how different I really was compared to everyone back home.
The images of yellow light through green canopies hazes through my mind, the sounds of distant screaming vanishing into the melody of Katniss singing. My eyelids grow heavy, hoping there are no dreams.
Katniss is in it, sunlight flowing over dark hair, sitting close beside me. I reach out to stroke her cheek, and her hand is temperate on mine.
"Morning," she whispers.
Blinking, I yawn, my stare bleary, "It's morning? So I'm not dreaming?"
Katniss reaches out to brush her fingers across my forehead. She bends forward, face hovering over mine, mouth brushing carefully over my own before she presses against it, body comfortably warm. She deepens the kiss, her thumb stroking my cheek, my free hand lightly gripping her elbow.
She pulls back, smiling, "That feel like a dream?"
"It's nice like one," I answer, grinning back.
"Ready to come home?"
My heart thuds in my chest, "Yes."
We head out of the room together, with the clothes on my back and her hand in mine the only things I have and want.
The doctors tell me to visit if I have any concerns, as well as to continue therapy. I thank them for their help.
Then I'm outside in the bright morning sunlight, heading to her house. My new home. With her.
Prim is off today, having said a few days ago that her weekends alternate but she wanted to be here when I arrived officially. She grins at me and wraps me in a hug, "Welcome home!"
Her smile is always infectious, and mine spreads across my face, "Thanks, Prim,"
"You want anything to drink? Eat?"
"Water is fine, if that's alright,"
"Of course it is, you live here now," she says.
Katniss' mother enters from the backyard, hands coated with dirt. She nods her head, "Cato, you're finally here,"
"Thank you for taking me in,"
"Of course we would," she assures me, washing her hands. Wiping them off, she strides over, extending her hand for me to shake. I'm about to take it when she laughs, drawing me into her embrace, "We're family now, no need to be formal,"
Chuckling, I nod, "Right, Mrs. Everdeen,"
Prim hands me a glass of water, cool in my palm, with Katniss' warm on the small of my back, guiding me to the table. Comfortable, the three women take spots around me, their presence accepting. We chat for several hours together, discussing what has been transpiring with them. Prim and Mrs. Everdeen talk of their times helping people, nurturing souls that bleed for others; up close, Prim is a reflection of her mother, fascinating to watch, making me think of how much I contrast my own parents now. But I don't dwell on the past. I absorb what they tell me, Katniss' hand on my knee, serene.
Eventually, they ask if I want to be given a tour. Obliged, Katniss takes me around the house, showing me the various rooms. When we go up the steps, it's with some difficulty, since my knees are not prone to moving this much. Katniss paces herself with me until we finally are there. My legs burn, and she knows that, but I tell her not to worry about it.
"I want to see what's up here,"
"Well… alright. Come then," she says, taking my hand.
She had told me of how little they used to have before in the Seam, nothing but a shabby house at the edge of forests, so this place is important and I will help to keep it orderly. Going through the passageway, she shows me whose rooms are which, Hyacinth's closed off. Looking at the doorknob, I am tempted to go in. Not that I will. Anyone would be curious. Still, it must show on my face because she lightly taps my behind, attempting to cheer me up; even with that information about her troubled life and our son's room out of reach, she'll lean up and give me kisses throughout, which leave us grinning at each other the whole time.
Finally, we head out into the garden, Katniss' sanctuary within her house. Flowers are spread around, plants of all sorts lined up in the ground, which her mother uses in the apothecary. She explains to me some facts about each.
"I'll show you my father's book sometime—he has a lot of information about flora in it,"
"I'd be happy to see it,"
The hours go by calmly until we return to inside the house. Katniss loops her arm through mine, pulling me into her side and resting her head on my shoulder. Kissing the top of her head, we go back into the kitchen, where the others are beginning to set out dinner. The smells are inviting. I find myself salivating, realizing I haven't had actual food in the longest time. Hospitals have decent enough meals but can hardly be described as the best; only time I would get food from outside would be when Katniss brought some.
I offer assistance, taking the plates from Prim and putting them in the proper areas. Suddenly there's the sound of heavier steps. I glance up, staring at my son in the middle of the doorway, his face resembling mine in all ways except in expression.
A stillness settles over us as he continues to watch me, his demeanor exactly similar to his mother's. Their shoulders fall the same way when they're getting ready to fight.
"How was school?" Katniss asks.
"Fine," he answers, putting his backpack on the floor, keeping his eyes on mine.
I nod my head, worried how I might sound.
"I'm going to go wash up," Hyacinth announces, backtracking out of the room, up the stairs, out of my sight.
He doesn't want me here.
I knew that he wouldn't.
It doesn't make it hurt less.
Katniss' hand folds over mine. I realize I was clenching the silverware tightly. There are red marks embedded in the skin. I continue setting them down, trying to ignore the rapid heartbeat threatening to choke me.
It's better than being numb… but I wish it didn't pain so much.
He returns a couple minutes later, having changed his clothes too. Hyacinth's face remains solemn. I observe the mannerisms he's showing—the slight scuffling his feet make when he steps around, the careful neutral expression he's put on. He doesn't want to be here. It's too nerve-wracking.
"Can I eat up in my room?" he questions.
My heart can't help but fall.
Mrs. Everdeen raises a brow, "You always eat with us,"
"I know…" he says, clearly uncomfortable.
"I'd rather you stay here," Katniss admonishes mildly.
I touch her shoulder, "Eh, let him eat upstairs."
They all gawk at me.
"You don't want to talk to him?" asks Katniss, her eyes narrowing slightly.
"We can talk later. He probably had a busy day and wants to relax by himself." I continue.
Hyacinth's gaze slightly widens in surprise before nodding, "I do want to be alone."
He doesn't want to be pushed. I understand that. I want him to trust me.
Katniss' mother shrugs, scooping a ladleful of stew into a bowl, "Well alright then, but mind the comforters."
Hyacinth passes by the rest of us mutely, returning to his room.
"I wanted you two to talk…" Katniss mutters.
I stroke the length of her arm, "He will talk to me sooner or later. Right now, I want him to know I won't push."
Despite wanting to talk to my son, there has to be consent on his part. I hope it'll be soon, but I can wait. For how long, I'm not sure. But I am willing.
The dinner manages to become lighthearted in spite of the awkward tension earlier, concluding with all of us putting the dishes away, settling into a restful atmosphere. Prim and her mother retire to bed before we do, since Katniss and I volunteered to make sure everything was in their location.
Mounting the steps, Katniss and I are on the second floor. Finally. Ugh, these stairs are going to be annoying for a while but it beats the hospital and I'm still happy to be here.
"Which room's mine?" I question. Nobody had said anything earlier.
She turns around, smirk tipping up the corner of her mouth, "Thought we would share one,"
I grin, surprised but pleased, "Couldn't keep me out of your sights huh?"
"More like we don't have space," she jokes.
Slowly, I drag my fingers down her spine, "You lie,"
"Just a tad," Katniss breathes, sauntering down to her bedroom.
"Your seduction is very blunt,"
"I thought you of all people would appreciate forthright flirting,"
"Always," I reply, stepping into the room. Its furnishings are simple and accommodating. It's very minimalist, with not much around in it aside from dressers, the clothes in a closet, and a bathroom, but the bed is large enough and a loveseat is in the corner.
"Snug," I say. I glance at her, finding her staring at me.
Stretching, I move to sit on the bed, "Gonna take a shower?"
"We can," she answers smoothly.
Heart skipping a beat, I smirk at her, "Together, I like it."
Katniss places a hand on my knee, "I like it too."
Meeting her eyes, I notice the way they darken when she glances down at my pants, flickering back up, trapping me in there. We lean in at the same time, lips softly brushing against each other's. I dig my fingers into her hair as Katniss' slip up the fabric of my shirt.
Slowly, she pushes me onto my back, molding me into the mattress, straddling my hips. My body tenses under her, gliding my hands along the ridge of her spine.
"You still want that shower?" I breathe.
She shakes her head, pulling back, kissing down my jaw, "Later,"
Angling my face, drawing her body against mine, our mouths touch, sensing hot damp breath ghost over my skin. She grinds her hips into mine, a sense of urgency with each motion that hadn't been there when we'd entered a true physical relationship. She's finally comfortable enough with me to do as she pleases without guilt.
A moan escaping me, clinging to her frame, feeling every bit of me want to pull her in closer, I hurriedly hook my fingers into the waistband of her pants, tugging it down her body, skin smooth in my hands. Yanking it down to her knees, she kicks them off while I remove the blouse over her head, tossing it aside. Eagerly, she presses her palms against my chest, skimming up the side of my face, holding me still. A soft mewl in the back of her throat causes me to rub harder into her hips, feeling the erection grow further.
Groaning into my shoulder, Katniss trails her mouth down the side of my neck, callused fingers urging me to take off my shirt. I tug it off, throwing it to the floor. Her lips kiss down my collarbone, a burning need spreading from the pit of my stomach. It descends, growing hard. But I want to take it slow, let the experience flow over us.
I focus on unclasping her bra, slowly removing it, letting the article slip down her arms. I take in the sight of her, palms fluttering over her abdomen, which twitches from my touch, yet she inches closer. Cupping her breasts, the pads of my thumbs rub over the nipples.
Her eyes close, giving into the roving of my hands around her frame. Slipping down her waist, they reach out to tightly grip the back of her thighs, rough, before shifting gently up her back. They settle at her neck, tugging through strands of hair, loosening in a cascade of ink.
"You're so beautiful," I mumble.
Katniss' gaze flutters open, staring down at me, grey eyes stormy, lustful. Her hand settles on my shoulder before she drags it down my bare chest, sending chills down with the movement. Slender fingers nestle at my pants, unbuttoning them. She bites her lip, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.
Encouraging, I lift myself enough for her to slip them off. Naked, with her equally bare before me, I lean in, kissing down her stomach, hands on her hips.
Katniss sighs, limbs folding behind my neck, fingers roving through my hair. Tenderly, with as much care as I can muster, feeling the ache in me pulse, I brush coarse hairs between her thighs. She trembles from the contact. Shuddering further when my thumb flits over the clit. Slowly, I circle my forefinger around the head.
Moaning, Katniss gravitates closer to me, head bowed as I continue going at a slow pace. Rubbing the clit between my fingers, her brows knit together, a rushed sigh fleeing her chest. She begins to rock her hips into my hand, groaning a little louder as she stoops over me.
With my thumb, I stroke the clit in calculated short movements, followed by a long, slow one, feeling dampness begin to coat my fingers. I continue with these motions, watching her expressions shift—from her teeth gnawing at her lower lip to her mouth opening, whimpering low. Her nails dig into my shoulder blades, causing me to hiss into her chest. I kiss around her left breast, settling my mouth over the nipple, licking it as I increase the speed of my touch. Katniss scratches down my back, causing me to seethe, tiny flames stinging in their place.
"Cato," she whispers, rolling her hips, "A bit… more in,"
My name sounding unbelievably hot from her mouth, I realize her request. With two fingers, I stroke down between her walls, pliable and wet. Grinning to myself, I nuzzle into her chest, letting my free hand begin to fondle the clit.
Her groan drowns my thoughts, kissing the space between her breasts, above them and below. Soon, she feels damp enough. My fingers glide through, and she gasps sharply, arching her back.
"You okay?" I ask, slowing my movements.
She nods quickly, "Yes, don't stop,"
Not one to ever turn her down, I curl my fingers inside her, keeping the caresses nice and slow. She responds by matching the rhythm, her body growing slick with sweat and come, panting harshly. Her hands skate along my chest, down the side of my waist, settling at the tip of my erection—
Freezing momentarily, I shudder from the touch. Her hand fondles over the head, beginning to rub down the length. Gulping, I find myself moaning, kneading the clit as she maintains the speed she's building up. She settles down on my lap, staring at me as we touch each other, lighting ourselves on fire.
"You holding up okay?" she teases, sexy as she tosses back her hair.
"I always hold up," I gasp, her palm balmy in pre-come, rubbing the tip harder, stroking its sides. Hissing, I push my fingers in deeper.
"Ah...!" Katniss exhales, swaying her hips forward, each push sensuous, her hand snaking down her stomach, setting on my wrist.
Pulling her close, I place my lips on her skin, feeling her blaze, perspiration dripping down her form. Her breathing shallows, fingers clasping into my back, my own body shifting under her weight. She owns me in a way I won't allow myself to be possessed by anyone else. She's warm, and soft, supple.
"Can I?" she murmurs, voice gentle.
I realize what she's asking. She's ready for this, and I am too. I don't know how it'll feel—neither of us have experienced sex positively.
But it's with her. The woman I love more than anyone I've met.
I'm what she wants. I slide my hand up her waist, "Of course,"
She gives the slightest shove, easy, honest, and I drop onto my back. She crawls over me, the bed sinking from our combined weight. Katniss hovers over me, hair falling over her shoulder, the light in her eyes thawing me from the inside. I want her to be in control—to never have to fear being with me like this. Not like before.
We're both different.
Precariously, she lifts herself up. I lay my hands on her thighs, lightly caressing them.
I slip into her heat, burning.
It jolts me, this smoldering intensity. Gasping, my head tilts back, beginning to swing my hips up—
I pause before doing anything, noticing she's very still. Her face is marred by a frown, fingers splayed on my chest, harshly breathing.
"We don't have to—" I start.
She places a finger on my lips, "Wait…"
Katniss languidly inclines her body, shifting in smooth, estimated motions. Soon she's moaning, arching her back, "We can do this,"
"You're fine then?" I ask, entranced by the fluidity of her body, fondling her breast. But I want her to be okay, to always be comfortable.
"This feels… good," moans Katniss, her entire frame of mind lost in the sensation of being alive. She's so into it, her body on fire, scalding in the flames she's releasing. Mouth slack, she suddenly grits her teeth, angling her in one confident sweep forward, shifting back, and sweltering inside her figure—
"Shit…" I pant, speeding up with her, wanting to hold her closer. Everything is hot, feeling each throbbing pain, wanting it to last and wanting it to end, wrapped up in world that isn't sure what will be better—rebirth or death. There's so much happening in my head—there's the sense of connection that we're finally reciprocal, claiming back the love we lost, yet all I can do is concentrate on the wavering of her body, the way she feels and smells, heady scents overwhelming my senses as much as she does.
Katniss' frame rests easily on mine, her hands slapping down on my shoulders, rising her hips in quick successions, rapidly thrusting down onto me, skin chafing. I lose my voice for a moment, choked on the fervent gesture, how deep it feels, dipping in. Her body is hot and tight. I'm dying beneath her, scorched from the surface of our skin to where my essence might be, tumbling into a place that's safe and tepid.
Arching back, I feel tingles spread down my body, arms, legs, as my digits dig into her sides. Shoving upward, panting, she faintly murmurs to go faster; I push more, everything constricting, the ability to breathe lessening. My eyes take in the sight of her, sighing her name, dripping with sweat, a hand tugging through disheveled hair, whimpers tumbling in-between groans, beautiful and free and unafraid.
Our bodies tense, crying out as loud as we dare, completely engulfed in flames that are too blinding. Spine relaxing, I fall back, taking her with me. She collapses onto my chest, breathing ragged, heaving. Soon I feel an afterglow, winding my arm around her waist. I stare at Katniss, completely undone in my embrace, gorgeous and sensual all at once.
That was amazing.
"You got pretty into that," I joke.
Katniss gives a hoarse laugh, "Like you didn't enjoy that,"
"I don't know," I murmur, kissing her forehead, brushing aside damp hair, "Maybe if we went longer, than I could be sure,"
Turning in my arms, she nuzzles her nose against mine, "Funny, I thought the same thing."
"So we can always do that shower later," I whisper.
"We have all night," she says, sending a tingle down my body.
We don't sleep until the morning comes, painting the room in pale yellow.
It's around noon when we wake up, and I draw her into a hug, kissing her cheek several times. She giggles happily, standing up to head into the shower. I follow shortly after, slipping my hands around her frame, pleasing her again as she backs into the wall, slim fingers trailing down my stomach, and we're burning again.
Eventually, we dress ourselves to go downstairs, the house empty. We find a note from Katniss' mother saying that she went out to go grocery shopping and Prim is at work. Hyacinth is at school from what I know.
"You and me today," she says, heading over to the coffeepot.
"What are we going to do?" I ask.
Pouring two cups, she places one in my hands, "I'm going to work too in a little while. I told my class I would start later today because I was getting you,"
"Oh," I don't want to be domineering or anything, but it would've been nice to be around her.
She kisses my cheek, "I'm bringing you with me, silly,"
I perk up. I can't help it, "I'm your assistant today?"
"The best kind—tall and gorgeous."
"I thought the best kind was competent,"
"You're sure to be that too—know your way around handling weapons, right?"
"That's one thing I'm definitely good at,"
The woods are slowly beginning to show the signs of autumn. It's not cold outside, but there's a slight chill when the winds blow. Finally, we come to an open clearing, finding a group of people gathered in the middle, with several from the Capitol that she's told me about. It's still shocking to find them here among ordinary folk.
Katniss begins the lesson immediately, trekking to the front. Leading us all into the forest, she instructs them all to find plants that might be edible. The majority of them are able to pinpoint which are deadly. When it's time to practice their archery, everyone becomes more excited—this is clearly their favorite part, with the children showing the most enthusiasm.
I step forward when I feel that one of the younger ones need help to steady their arms or tighten their grip. They ask if I'm her helper, to which I say yes.
"You going to help her from now on?" asks a girl with pink hair.
I glance over at Katniss, who is walking over to check on the child.
"Yes, Aris, he's going to be helping me for a long time,"
We look at each other for a moment, smiling.
The end of the day comes and I'm feeling very satisfied with the way everything is turning out. The next several days go by in the same routine. My past self always needed something different, new, and exciting. I'm comfortable in this humble custom, rising each morning with Katniss, helping with her classes, and she teaches me too. I take it seriously, wanting to be of use. The day full of nice things I've never let myself enjoy, with the night slipping around the two of us in sweltering shadow.
Hyacinth, too, hasn't changed around me. That's the only downside.
Soon, it's his birthday. Even though I know he doesn't feel different, I help with the preparations around the house. It's nothing flashy, but the women care about everything looking pleasant. I do too, and manage to be of good use around them.
Friends come to the house around the late afternoon. Gale and I lock stares, stiffly nodding at one another. Madge, who I'm not too well-acquainted with, shakes my hand and is actually courteous towards me, not a fake sense about her. How Gale married someone like her is beyond me, but I suppose the same can be said about Katniss' choice in men when I marry her.
Their younger children, who end school before their brother, are energetic and bubbly. They say hello to me before running into the backyard. They clearly like it here too. Others file in, several of them I recognize from our past. Haymitch and Effie, as I recall, were two people who helped her during sponsorships. They are cordial in their own way, with Effie, apparently, having taken in the rustic life fairly easily.
Cinna is the one Katniss mentions fondly often, and his grip is firm when we shake hands too. But there's no hostility from him either. He trusts Katniss, and, in lieu, trusts me because of that.
Anticipating the arrival of Hyacinth puts me slightly on edge, since I'm the company he doesn't want present. And there's nothing that I have to give him either.
"He actually doesn't care whether people get him gifts or not," Prim informs me.
"It's true," Madge says, "He mostly likes it when we're around is all."
I smile at them, though it's a half-hearted one. Katniss' hand suddenly touches my shoulder, squeezing gently.
Hyacinth comes home when the sky is beginning to darken in hue. He says hello to everyone warmly, hugging all the people that he knows. He peers over his shoulder at me, hesitation dawning in his face.
Before it can get too awkward, I wave at him, smiling slightly, "Happy Birthday,"
"Thanks," he says, matching my tone, though he keeps his distance.
Katniss follows him into the kitchen where dinner is ready, glancing at my apologetically. I shake my head in understanding. He'll come to me soon.
For the most part, the party occurs smoothly. I sit in the backyard alone, breathing in the fragrant flowers. Gale's daughters burst through the door, hopping around and tossing a ball to and fro. When they throw it haphazardly in my direction, I catch it, managing to keep a grip on it before pitching it back. They laugh merrily, thanking me.
I watch them play for a while, a bereaved loss swelling in my chest. This is what I could've had with him had I been around.
Footsteps catch my attention, though I don't look at the walker. Cinna takes a place beside me, sighing contently. He nods at the girls, observing them affectionately, "When they were born, we were all excited to see them,"
Nodding, I respond, "Completely identical too. That's remarkable to see,"
"The girls are well-behaved too. Rowdy, but they don't cause problems."
"Yeah, they seem like good kids. Kind of weird they got that ass for a father," I can't help but add.
Cinna only laughs, "Children don't always take after their parents in every way,"
"No I guess not." I utter, bending over on my knees.
"I'm glad that you're not what I thought you were." Cinna proclaims, peering at me sidelong.
"Is that so?" I ask, turning a bit to look at him.
"Yes. You're a good person. I see that now—I see that when you look at Katniss…"
I fall silent, folding my hands together.
"Hyacinth takes after you more than I ever thought,"
I let the statement fill me up, a beat of hope coming to the surface.
My heart skips a beat, glancing up at my son, standing behind us.
"I'd like to talk with him for a minute," Hyacinth asserts, the shuffling of his feet the only suggestion of his nerviness.
Cinna nods, patting Hyacinth's shoulder. But he looks over at me one final time, wishing me luck.
For a several breathless moments, I simply stare at my son. He resembles me so much it's uncanny. At first glance. Then you take into account the rest of him—he has my broad shoulders, but he's not as wide as I had been. He takes after Katniss' slimness. And then there's her eyes, the part I love about her most, examining me from his face: cold, standoffish, but the barest hint of curiosity tinges them.
Hyacinth takes Cinna's seat, a swiftness in his movement that I can't help but be proud of. He's as agile as we were. A while passes where we simply sit, not communicating, watching the girls play. Then they get tired of being outside, heading in just as their mother calls them.
Then it's only us. My son, who I fought so hard to protect, keeping his distance. A strange who shares my blood, my flesh. I want to be a part of the remainder of his life.
I wait, letting him gather his thoughts. His eyes had clouded over the way Katniss' does when she's contemplating something complicated.
He sighs, "I don't know how to feel about you."
Tensing, I nod, "It's understandable."
"Is it?" he mumbles, mimicking my posture, a mirror image of myself, "You're my… father. And yet I can't look you in the eye."
"Do you want to look me in the eye?" the question is out before I realize I'm not ready for the answer.
"Truthfully… I do."
My chest stirs, wanting him to do just that—look at me.
"But I don't know how."
The old Cato would've demanded that he turn, forced people into doing as he willed. That's no longer me. Patiently, I wait for him to say something else, wanting to know what he thinks about everything.
His breathing slows, relaxing beside me. His frame wavers a little. He doesn't want to talk right now.
"You like having birthday parties," I state tentatively.
"Never met a kid who enjoyed them,"
"Things were different back in your day," he answers simply.
I can't help but chuckle, "Back in my day… damn I feel old."
He doesn't laugh, but I catch the corner of his mouth curving.
"It's good that you enjoy your birthdays though. You're surrounded by great people,"
"Yeah. I'm happy having them all around."
Swallowing the lump in my throat, I sense my limbs tighten from the announcement, painfully stinging. All the time that has passed, with him beside me, there's a chance of fixing this—or of taking the pieces and forming something new.
But part of me wonders it that'll really happen, despite him talking to me in this moment.
Hyacinth sighs, sweeping back his hair, "When I was little, I would hope you'd wake up."
My blood freezes.
"But you never did."
My heart stops.
Hyacinth's hands, large, unusual, contrast the tiny pale ones that would grip onto my shirt, trapped in prison.
"I'm sorry I wasn't around,"
He grumbles suddenly, gripping his hair and standing with a huff. He paces in front of me, "I know that you're sorry!"
I find myself gawking up at him, surprised by the outburst. Of all the things I was expecting him to say, that was not it.
He looks down at me, eye narrowing, "There's so much about you that I don't know. There's so much about you that I want to ask."
"What do you want to know first?" I question, voice coming out lower than I wanted.
Hyacinth takes a shuddering breath, hand scraping down his face. He turns around, not facing me, shoulders hunching forward. Slowly he rotates, staring at my feet before meeting my eyes, "What happened to you back then?"
Another lump in my throat swells, sensing orange patches at the edge of my vision, darkness filling the center of my mind's eye—
I snap back to reality, catching the footstep my son makes toward me.
"Sorry," I grumble.
Hyacinth steps away from me, keeping his distance. Think of where to begin—there are so many places where I could start: the images of long narrow pathways, pitch black in intensity before blinding me with illuminations; the moments where my heart lurched into my throat as I was strapped down to a table, struggling against the binds... What happened to me back then?
The statement comes out in a sigh, "I fell in love with your mother,"
Hyacinth's arms settle at his sides, noiselessly watching me.
Licking my lips, I speak, "When we were in the arena, it was to fight for our lives. And the time we spent together in there, it changed my outlook on the world."
"How?" he asks, tone softer.
I stare at my palms, clenching, unclenching, blood staining them in memory, "I killed less. I was less violent. I cared more. I cared more for her."
My son steps back and forth, frown deepening, "And when you had mom with you, that was trying to protect her too?"
There's a bitterness in his voice that hurts me, though I can't blame him, "Yes I had asked to… have her, in a sense. To keep her out of danger."
"But that didn't happen. Instead she suffered."
"That was out of my control," I start, adding quickly as he opens his mouth, "But I accept it as my fault. I should've known better than to trust the Capitol, to trust Snow."
"And when she screamed… you knew," it's another bitter sentence, but this one carries less spite.
"The way that the venom worked… it seeps into the mind, making it hallucinate, causing people to vision things that aren't really there. For me, they used it as a means to control how I acted, operating from within my core to get me to do the worst things…"
I look down, recalling every moment she yelled into the dark, screaming until I felt her collapse under my weight, bleeding and scared, that there was no one else in the world she hated as much as myself.
"I was aware of what I was doing. The venom would override my actions. But they let me eventually let me know what I was committing. They wanted me to watch… nothing was as sickening as being forced to rape someone."
Carefully, he crosses the porch back to the chair, sitting down. For a moment, he's quiet. I think of the times that I wanted to talk with him, about the ways our conversations would go. There's so much about him that I want to understand, that I want to learn. But I owe it to him to know me for who I am—not only the boy that became a monster, but me, the man who said he would change for the woman he loved.
It all weighs me down, waiting for his response.
He sighs, not looking at me, "It was hard for you,"
I don't glance at him either, "It was hard, yes. For your mother and I."
Hyacinth's tone drops, ice, "They were monsters."
"Many people are."
"It's a large reason why you love her."
"It is… there's no one like her."
A shaky breath is exhaled to my left. In the outside edge of my vision, I watch his hands tightly grip onto his knees.
"When she had me… what did you think?"
I look up at the sky, the moon luminous, "How much I loved you too."
His silence is heavy between us, but I continue, "When you were born, I was terrified for your safety. Wanting to protect you. But I couldn't always do that. I worried about what they could do to you when you weren't with either of us. Another kid caught up in an adult's political game."
"When um…" he says, "When they rescued us, they said it didn't look like I was hurt."
"That's good… admittedly, I can't remember the details about that right now. But I think… I negotiated well enough that they kept from hurting you to get to me."
"I was your leverage,"
"If I couldn't protect Katniss, it had to be you. And, looking back, that was one of the few choices she felt she had. Even if it wasn't real. Having you, in that dark room… it kept both of us sane."
He was the one link to humanity, to life, and we clung to him together.
"I'm sorry you went through that," he says, sounding strained.
I finally risk looking at him, stiffening in place. Tears slips down his cheeks, sniffling quietly.
"Hey," I begin, hand outstretching, fingers fidgeting, wanting to hold him close, in the way I never could, "I— I survived. Don't cry…"
Hyacinth wipes his eyes, shifting in his seat, his appearance haggard, like he's attempting to hold it in.
The word is on my tongue. I let it slip, "Son…"
He suddenly buries his face in his hands, speech rough, a harsh whisper, "I don't know how you can call me that!"
Finally, I let my hand descend, settling on his back. He twists his face to stare at me, grey eyes watery, pleading, and sad, "You're my son. I'll always think of you that way,"
"I've been so distant all this time," he murmurs, sitting up slightly, "Because…"
I watch his appearance falter, showing me a child who wanted to understand things, yearning to know. He shuts his eyes tightly, tears falling onto his hands, curling into himself.
"I was scared to know about you," says Hyacinth, "I was scared to hear your side. Because, when I was little, I wanted to talk to you…"
I say nothing, immersed inside his world.
He laughs, a short breath under his nose, "When I was little, sometimes I'd talk to you anyway. I'd sit in the chair at stare at you, asking if you were ready to wake up. I'd ask you if you liked the dark—you slept for so long, I assumed that you did. I wanted to know what you sounded like. I'd ask if it was okay to see your eye color…"
My entire frame is congealed in time, standing motionless, listening to my son say he wanted badly to communicate with me. For so long—he wanted to know me.
"But you were also this stranger. This man I didn't know who hurt my mother. I was warned not to get attached to you because, at some point, I was told coma patients don't always make it. They sleep until they finally really die. And… as time passed, I wanted to move on. Guess that's pretty selfish."
"It's not," I assure him, "There's nothing wrong with wanting to look after yourself."
Hyacinth hands his head, "Yeah… then you woke up. Everything changed. I was wondering about all the things as a child that I wanted to ask. The things as an adult that I didn't think I could bring up… And while she loved you, I didn't know if I could. And disappointing her is something I hate doing."
"You love your mother very much. It's difficult disappointing your parents,"
"Did you ever feel like that?" he asks, a genuine question about the life I truly had.
"I loved my parents, even though I know now that what we stood for was wrong. But when I disappointed them, I did feel the same way."
"You do anything to set it straight," he adds.
Smiling at him, I agree.
"But you're here now…" murmurs my son.
"Yes. I don't plan on leaving."
"That's good… 'cause I got a lot to ask," he replies, facing me openly, smiling a bit.
I return it with a wider one of my own.
Our talk is simple, trading simple facts about one another. He asks about my childhood in District 2, the way it had been before it was destroyed during the rebellion. What I miss most about it. I genuinely miss nothing. What my favorite place about here is. I say it's this house, which makes him grin.
He asks about my favorite color, which I still don't quite know, "A… bluish-grey?"
"So cesious," he tells me.
"Cesious. That's bluish-grey."
I bark out a small laugh, "You must be good at English,"
"I am actually," he says proudly, "I really like literature."
"I like science fiction and satire. Some anthologies."
"I'm so glad you turned out smarter than me."
He laughs out loud, completely at ease in his posture, my company actually engaging to him—it's almost surreal, this affection and acceptance. But I'm growing happier by the minute, the crickets chirping in the swarthy temperature.
His favorite color is purple, in all its shades. He shares Madge's love of strawberries, and his mother's enjoyment of the forest. Gale and Katniss have both taken him hunting, and while he is good at it, he prefers wandering around the town with his friends.
I ask him about Cyprus, "You like him?"
He suddenly blushes, looking younger than he is, "Sure, why wouldn't I?"
"I thought you two were dating,"
"Nah…" he drawls, scratching the back of his neck, "I'd hate to ruin our friendship like that."
"Why? Do you think I should ask him out?"
I laugh, patting his back, "If it's what you want to do."
He shrugs, though his face seems set on a decision.
Eventually, the moon hangs further to the side, and he gets up from the seat, stretching, "As much as I'd like to keep going, I got to wake up for school."
"Of course," I say, not wanting to push it. Give him space. Though I'm pleased he said he'd like to keep going if he could.
He shifts awkwardly on his feet, planting himself firmly in front of me. He gazes directly into my eyes, another scowl etching his face. Then I see the familiar glisten of tears, his body rushing forward, draping his limbs around me, crying softly into my shoulder.
I shatter in his arms, clinging to my son, who I had to miss for years—be deprived of for so long, despite loving him so, so much, no longer small, having missed everything about his childhood, a man in the span of seconds.
Heaving sobs rack my frame, feeling the true age of this body, and it frightens me, but I push back that anxiety threatening to tear me down. I simply let myself fall apart from grief, needing to accept that this is it—there is no way I can claim the time I had lost with Hyacinth, no matter how badly I imagine it. It won't work.
But I will be here for him now, in this coming years. For the rest of his life, I want to be here.
Withdrawing from each other, Hyacinth smiles at me, drying away the tears. We look at the door, remarking that is has been open for a while, Katniss standing in the entrance.
We both extend our arms simultaneously, Katniss beaming at us as she rushes in-between. We all hold each other for a long, long while, soaking in each other's presence. Then Hyacinth pulls from us, though we remain attached. He bids us goodnight, heading into the house.
"You two had a good talk?" she questions, arm around me.
I grin at her, leaning down to kiss her, stroking her chin with my thumb. When I pull back, she stares at me in a gentle daze.
"The best talk."
I feel complete for the first time in years.