The Caged Bird Sings

Eagle


Eagle


I find myself slipping into this world of ease. Something I never thought I could feel again. I'm comfortably nestled in a sea of green, the earth's soft blades tickling my skin. It's beautiful, looking at the sun. I reach out with my left hand, trying to pull the sky closer to me, closer until I'm drowning in the space above. The vast blue is so near, calling to me with a covetous longing, and my fingers drag along the color, swirling clouds around so they'll mist along the canvas, white paint.

I think of Cato, and Peeta, both who have eyes like the sky I love so much.

Both boys are completely different, yet the same; both sacrificed themselves for me; both showed me the depths that people can go, for hope and love.

It's been a long time since I've thought of how much everything has changed, even though I think of it constantly as I try to live with my life.

I had gone to the hospital where Cato sleeps. And, there, I had received good news. The doctors had done surgery on Cato's brain, searching for any clues to the venom, almost immediately after the incident, though there were more important things to be concerned about. I was informed much later than I would have liked. In the part of his brain, where the amygdala is located—the part, I'm told, that controls fear and memories—a small, nearly imperceptible device was shoved precariously inside the grey matter of his mind. The venom would spread from there to other parts of his brain when it was controlled to do so. It truly was well hidden—only the Capitol knows how to hide things so well.

When they pulled it out, however, they noticed that it was charred and black, the orange liquid inside nearly crystalized from an intense sort of heat, they said. A doctor had come forward and allowed me to hold it. I knew why it was like this. The day that Cato had slipped into his coma, falling further behind in life, the electric attacks done to his body had, ironically, saved his mind with the intensity of their energetic power. It had to have been. Those electrocutions… they were strong. And the guards who did it confessed that they even aimed for his head. That they were simply trying to get him down, and I still hate them for it. But if not for that, he might've had this little chip continue to haunt him for the rest of eternity. Instead, lightning took his life, a white serpent with many heads, freeing him from venom with its own deadly one, entrapping him in a story-like state of slumber.

I cried after I buried it in this petite, delicate jewelry box Prim had purchased for me. It's still there.

Afterward, I'd left to cut Cato's hair, trimming it carefully, trying to make it the way it was. I had the feeling he'd want it to look the way it had before he lost himself. His expression is always the same—not lifeless, but certainly not alive either. Even after all this time he appears to be asleep.

But he's not asleep; the condition that he's in is very serious, frightening. I dream at night yelling for him to wake up and he is unresponsive, like in the waking world; at times he'll respond and my heart will leap into my throat only for him to smile at me with the brevity of a solar eclipse only to collapse back into the coma, as though he wants to be there, away from me.

Further down, during a play-date with Gale, Madge, and their son, Cyprus—the oldest of three—I'd requested to see files containing information on the tributes during the time I was in the arena. They are employed in the government now, and they do great work every day to ensure that no one is hurt again; Gale had mentioned it to me before, telling me that what he found was shocking—it surprised everyone—but warned that he would only show it to me when I felt ready. I had waited until I felt I could breathe in the presence of my old self.

With their permission, they'd taken me to see these films stored in compartments, neatly organized and bland.

But it was the contents that piqued my interest. I watched the flicker of screens for a time, delving into the past before me—large, unknown, small and familiar. Everything I both do and do not understand. The past is a daunting enigma. And, there, in the midst of it all, I watched my life unfold between two boys who loved me—two people who I'll never truly know.

I wept quietly as I stared at the monitors, watching myself with Rue, whose smile still continues to warm my heart and her four-note whistle plays in my dreams, flying with the wind. The interaction between Peeta and Cato was something else—a friendship was forming, though I doubt both truly knew how deep it would go. Cato trusted Peeta on a level that, I think, didn't go as far with Clove and the others. He had let in a complete stranger, reaching out with a hand of camaraderie and I turned away in pain as I listened to the sound of Cato wretch out tears after he killed him. After Peeta, the boy with the bread—who, perhaps, I've known all along—sacrificed himself for me. A person who I never knew loved me so much and who I never got a chance to love back.

Peeta might have loved me, since forever, and for that I'm grateful and deeply saddened that I'll never be able to tell him how much I admire his strength—strength I'll never have. Yet he's not the boy I fell for; I learned that he never was.

It's strange, being the outsider to your own past, a world that you forgot you were ever a part of. I looked on into memories, hazy and green, this confusing, painful, wonderfully gentle relationship being expressed before my eyes—where a boy of golden hair and skin, a proud warrior from the inferno, death itself, was told to kill a girl who could save the world that only he was supposed to possess; and he fell in love with her. Slowly and unexpectedly, yet it still happened.

A devil wasn't supposed to fall in love with a being he was meant to destroy. He was going against everything he knew, everything he was taught to do. He, too, had been changing. He would watch her as she braided rough dark hair, eyes softening in a way he'd probably never felt before; control his basic instincts to kill what threatened him. He treated her with compassion as time passed, and they both were saddened by the death of a little girl with a body meant for flight; he'd even turned on old friends for her, the pain evident on his face, in his soul, for betrayal is something he actually did not take lightly. But he did it all for her. In the darkness, where only the moon played witness to midnight stars falling, love formed, in the span of a short period of time—unreal, unbelievable, unimaginable—and it coiled around the pair until neither could breathe.

He, the demon, finally, defied a god, for love.

Heaven was not pleased by it.

So gods tortured the two souls relentlessly.

Love really was destructive; to the point it frightened the creators of the world.

Though it's my story, the reason I am who I am today, I don't feel like it is. This is a fantasy that I, somehow, lived for myself—it's too unlike anything I've ever experienced, a story of lore, this cautionary tale of what darkness and light can do together, how it's impossible to distinguish the two sometimes because everyone is capable of both. This is why everything is usually grey, layers and layers of various shades of black and white. The world will always be at war with itself.

I left in a fit of sorrow, breaking. It explained much. Why he would sometimes be kind, why he would sometimes treat me gently in the dark, why he'd tell me he loved me, ask me to say it back—even when he didn't know who he was anymore, he remembered me, fought for me, sired my son, who he loved, too.

I never knew how capable of love he was, how trusting he could be.

In my room, as I cried, I felt my shattered heart stir, and it left again for the boy it forgot, who is, once more, in a dark place far from me. I hated it, still do sometimes when I'm alone and can admit it. It's not fair, though it's funny that I still think life could decide to be just for the rest of us. It never fails to disappoint.

Because I fell in love with Cato.

The emotion happened all over again; a never-ending cycle of give and take, want and need, love and loss, memory and experience…

But, the tragedy is, I've fallen in love with the past. I'm always stuck there, though the future is what calls to me, the past digs into my stomach, pulling me in every direction until I relent that it's important. He is different now—even if he ever wakes up, which is highly unlikely at this point—the doctors have told me it's rare that coma patients awaken—he will not be the same boy I knew in the arena. He'll never wake up. He'll never be the same.

We will die separated.

Snow will get the ending he wanted.

I had gone to my psychiatrist and told them my findings. I told them how confused I felt, how strongly it all came crashing down. Because, had I known all this, I would've fought him off, help him remember who he was and used to be. How could I have forgotten such important aspects of my life, such important people?

Then, eyes sad, my psychiatrist said, "Katniss, may I suggest we check your own mind?"

We did. And we were all surprised that my own memories had been tampered with. The doctors of 13 and the ones from the Capitol collaborated, rifled through months, years, lifetimes of colorful and monochrome memories; they found the memory of my father distorted—where I believed our father would hit us; which is why I did not feel too bad when I hit Hyacinth that one time, and solely that one time. It angered me that they dared to trifle with so precious a recalling.

And we found why I believed to have been with Peeta the whole time—he was Cato's replacement. Because they, the Capitol, the real monster, feared I would remember, that I would find a way to bring Cato out of his mind; Peeta was perfect—though not everything about them was the same: both had slightly similar looks—their hair and eyes—and both loved me. It would not be hard. Snow and his minions were convinced—it'll be easy to make me love someone else.

All this time, the boy crying in my heart had been Cato.

He'd been with me all along.

And I felt as though I betrayed him, for not remembering, either; for not searching inside myself harder; for just believing what was easiest—that he was my enemy and nothing more than that. I felt like hurting myself after that. But family and friends refused to see me do that, keeping me together as I simply cracked down and cried violently. I didn't think I could cry anymore at that point—it's an endless drone of soft patters on the earth, the tears.

I asked my family, my friends, "Why did it take so long to find the memories?"

Gale walked over, while Prim pressed her dainty hand into my shoulder, "We searched through these catacombs in the Capitol. It was hidden very well. Snow didn't want us to find them, or anyone to remember."

"How was that possible?"

Haymitch answered, "He didn't want any of us to know. During the time you were gone, we stopped receiving video feed from the Capitol for the Games. But during the time you were seen by us, we saw you with Peeta or Rue; the Gamemakers had edited the footage to make it appear this way—the one with Peeta anyway... They were very efficient in tricking us all,"

"So they just wanted us apart,"

Of a sudden, my mother appeared by my side, smiling sadly, and I see a flash flicker in her eyes—similar to when she lost our father; her husband and friend, "Your love was quite the threat,"

I buried myself in her chest.

None of us are still really certain as to why Snow did all that he did—was he truly a psychopath, bored, fearful of human emotions? There are many theories. Mine is that he simply hated people.

I open my eyes, leaving the reverie; my son peers over my sight, looking down at me, golden shadows.

"Hi, Mama,"

"Hello, sweetie," I say, reaching out to stroke his cheek before kissing it. He grins at me, and I see his father in that smile, radiating life and energy. So different from the way he used to be.

"You ready to go?"

"Yes, little one," he's the only person, aside from Prim, I call affectionately. Unlike most boys his age, where they begin to feel embarrassed by such names, he is surprisingly gracious about it. We make our way down the town. He takes my hand and I squeeze back. My little boy is so wonderful. We still live in District 12, where everything is no longer bleak and black—the color of the coals that would both mark and free us. There's green here now—trees spread along the thicker sidewalk, children playing freely, stepping over cracks and laughter rings out merrily. I never thought I would live to see a day where children can enjoy life without the constant terror of someone tearing it out of their hands before they even begin to truly live.

I wave at a family nearby, still a little wary—I don't believe I'll ever truly master the art of being friendly without feeling socially awkward; it doesn't help that I've always been cautious around others. But I'm getting better, I'm told. I'm trying, day by day. Though it's easier when I have Hyacinth nearby—he encourages me the most and I hate letting him down.

On the way to our destination, we come across Cyprus, Gale and Madge's oldest child and only son. A large grin spans across his face, arm enthusiastically waving. He's always happy to see us and we him. He's a strange but pretty combination of Gale and Madge—he has Gale's black hair, with everything else inherited from his mother, including her more genial attitude.

We're at the hospital and Hyacinth threads his fingers into mine, a comforting gesture that never ceases to calm my heart, palpitations slowing. We put him in a different hospital—the current place we're at—after I, Gale and the others deemed the last one incapable of providing the proper care. The intensive care unit here is up to par with what I requested and Cato doesn't have bedsores anymore, and they give him the nutrients he needs. The staff is a mixture of both friendly and antagonistic, however I do not mind. It's not about personality here—though it can help, it's about ensuring that he is treated with the care he deserves. Thankfully, he wound up not needing a ventilator. He's strong at breathing, for someone in a coma.

I'm still the one who cuts his hair.

Oddly, I don't have much to do with any scruff he grows on the lower half of his face.

I walk in with my son and we stare, together, our hands still laced in dark twinning, for a long time at the body of his father. His muscles have wasted away from disuse. He's so still, a soft, breathing statue.

There were times of terror in this place. There was one time where I feared he would have recurrent pneumonia, and that, in addition, his lungs might scar, losing hold and collapse in on themselves and he would no longer breathe. Nothing happened, though when I was informed that he might have an infection in the bloodstream from a possible urinary tract infection—his bodily waste has to be removed somehow from the bladder—and I nearly passed out from the dread. This one was the closer call—and it's been several of them. With the advancements in medicine—that continue by the day, it seems—we could help him much better. Of course there was still the cost of it, but I was willing to pay anything.

After a time, I was suggested that, maybe, it would be more prudent and merciful to stop the artificial feed tubes.

I nearly strangled the nurse who told me.

Though she'll never know—I did it in my mind. She died. Ha.

I didn't like the thought and didn't want to think of it, dwell on it. However I know that the others, everyone I love, might believe it for the best, too, deep in their hearts. They must hate how I visit him on a daily basis, how I look on at his face and feel all these emotions sweep over me, the powerful tide that they are, dragging me down and up until I am unsure of where I am—remembering all the good and the bad. My mother understands me the most on this.

But I could not do it. Even if it was better that this vegetative state—where one does not respond to light, movement, or sound, or warmth, a living corpse—I could not kill the father of my child. Because, in the foolish part of me, I believed he could still come out of it. Revive himself, even though chances were slim, and we could all, maybe, in some ways, try again.

As I stare at him now, with his eyes closed and wasting away into this shell of his former glory, paler and incompetent and pathetic—something Cato would not like—I don't think I made the right decision. I hate doubting myself, especially in the presence of my son, when I am trying to live and no longer doubt my abilities to make choices… however, I was, undoubtedly, thinking of myself. Cato would have rather died than be seen this way.

But after he fought so hard to help me, to help himself, to simply save lives… I couldn't take his.

I've changed.

It's strange. How much I have grown to come out of my bitterness and resentment, and treat him with a compassion I thought was long gone for people. I pull myself against the wall, lean on it and watch him before looking at my child, who continues to stare at this man with a longing despair and an almost choked nausea on his features.

It's been difficult for him. What children would say to him at school; what he would hear on the street…

It broke my heart when in the middle of the night, he crawled into bed and whispered to me that he dreamt his father hurt me.

My little boy… he grew up fast, too, even though he didn't have to fight for his life, not in this time.

Some children are just doomed to grow up quickly.

"You're awake," I hear him say.

Is he talking to me? I'm about to answer my son when I hear it, faintly, the voice of my captor and protector, "Yes…"

It burns my ears, listening to his voice, imprinting itself into my skull, my memory. It washes over me in this sleep-inducing wave that almost causes me to collapse on the linoleum tiles and go into a comatose state myself. But I lean forward from my position, legs shaking, arms quivering, everything moving except my heart, immobile and caught in the whirlwind of his breath.

I whisper, "Cato…"

"Katniss," And it's his voice. Talking to me, speaking slowly, quietly, in the way the dead do when they've just been awoken and see the ones they love; I cannot believe he can recognize me, after all this time, that his mind had been damaged further by the shocks and caused him amnesia in his absence from the world. He is different from the boy I knew, even though I watched him for years and he hadn't changed. "Shit…"

That one word prompts me from my chair, causing a riveting sensation through my heart and soul I've long forgotten. I grip his hand, helping him to sit up, wincing—I can only imagine the pain that is jolting through his spine. Instinctively, my hand touches his face—the way it automatically moves in concern for those I care about. Even though I shouldn't care, a part of me does and I can't fight that off. Images of him over me, body hot and rough on mine, flit through the surface of my mind, remembering the terror of those endless nights without the sun. But I persist and keep my hand there, because those people aren't us any longer. I'm not the same person—I've learned to forgive. Haven't I?

I realize that I can. And I can't. My heart aches as I stare as this familiar stranger's face, his mouth parted in wonder as he stares into me. It's been too long… "You're here. I can't…"

"Back? Where have I been?"

The tears fall faster, relentless in their drowning of my soul. I feel every pain inside me suddenly burst, coming to life and pushing through the insides of my body, destroying the seams of hard skin and toughened lies that I created to protect myself because, deep down, I am still weak, having not been able to truly speak with the boy who both saved and ruined my life. There's so much left unsaid and undone, a gnawing hurt that he and I should not have to feel anymore.

Our son answers, "You've been gone for a while,"

"…How long?"

I simply hold tight to his hand.

"It's been sixteen years."

I hear a pain in my son's voice that he often hides, and I hate myself for it. I tend to blame myself for whatever hurt he feels. There's nothing I can do but that.

I stare at his face, an astounding revelation sinking into his gaze, his bones, until it makes him weary and he suddenly feel heavier than shadows in my hand. He is both returned yet lost to us, trapped in the passages of time gone and given.

"Cato…"

He turns to look at me, and I stare into unfathomable blue. Eyes that I always thought was Peeta's, holding my gaze in the darkness whenever I felt myself slip and fall into a world where I could only scream. The boy who was with me all along, since the start, too; not just the Boy with the Bread, I knew this boy, too. He raises his hand with some difficulty, a soft gasp escaping me as it touches me, but he manages to keep his palm pressed against the side of my face. I raise my own and hold it there, a warm solid thing. A depraved part of me cries out not to let him touch me, to run away, but it's a part of me I no longer recognize or desire to obey—it's that scared, bitter side that I've fought for years to overcome. And while some days are harder to struggle with than others, I fight it by continuing to hold his hand to me cheek. Because, all along, he was a victim too… my voice breaks.

"I… We… I can't believe you're awake. You're back. You're back,"

For a time, it's all I'm able to say and I don't quite understand the particularities. It's such a painful circumstance, one I never thought I would experience. Truly, none of us expected him to wake up. None of us believed in him returning from the lull of that yawning sleep. It's so unreal, finding him coming back from the dead, because that's what it's like—we watched this boy become a man in death, a perverse form of life itself. You are not supposed to grow old and become someone new on the vestiges of the unknown, with no one beside you.

I hear my son leave. I know my son well enough to know that he's going off to inform the doctors. I know my son well enough to know that he's going to return. Despite what he would tell me, there's an emptiness in his life that has made him somewhat despondent until this shocking new event. My poor son… I long to go after him and hold him.

Suddenly Cato is weeping, long, hard and tragically. He must've realized who that young man is, our boy, at the powerful and frail age of 17, the cusp of adolescence and manhood. I pull him into my shoulder, feeling his body shake beneath me, tight yet broken in my arms as he struggles to breathe. The weight of nearly twenty years comes crashing down atop us until we're left harshly breathing, our throats hoarse from the drenching of our sobs, like our bodies had overflown with sorrow to over the tipping point. Everything floods in and out of me. And I feel and recognize that part of me that I swore to my loved ones I would battle—that bitter, angry and violent piece of my soul that wants to cover the world in black and watch it suffer, the way I have suffered. It comes up, vengeful, breathing smoke, toying with my mind and strength as it taunts me on how easy it would be to kill the man in my arms.

I shove it back into the void—this cruel and devilish creature that is me. I've waited too long without knowing that's what I've been doing: waiting. I've been waiting for atonement; I've been waiting for my son's questions to be answered. I've been waiting for life to truly begin again. This man is a part of me in a way I still never thought possible, tied to me by red strings, and, damn it, he is not going to be denied life any more. Not anymore. Not like I had been. I have been given the opportunity to truly learn what it means to forgive and forget. To not hate, and love as much as humanly possible.

No one is going to take this chance from me; not even myself.

His doctor comes into the room, all aghast from the sudden awakening. He comes forward and checks Cato's vitals. Letting out a shaky breath, he turns to the both of us, ready to inform Cato of all that's happened.

To say it rocks Cato to the core is an understatement. I never saw the light die faster from anyone's eyes until I glance at his blue eyes. Putting his hand against his forehead, we watch him struggle to grasp that sixteen years of life have passed, an eternity he will never be able to reclaim. Opportunities and chances of laughter, closure and healing, gone; for he had been raped mentally, twisted into someone horrible by a person crueler than evil. This darkness has tainted us all, but while we've had time to try and collect ourselves as best we can, he has been far away from us all. He'll be the last one to move on. For him, he'll always be last. He must hate that more than anything, this boy who I know strives to win and achieve goals with speed and accuracy.

For him, he's already lost.

Once the doctor leaves, I stay with him for a time. I know he will not be alright for a long while. I certainly wasn't. I don't push anything upon him, giving him space without leaving, because he needs someone here. There's no one else. I was right. My son did not come back.

When the clock announces the appointed time of visiting hours over, I get up slowly, preparing my departure. He turns to look at me, and though he hides it, there's a hint of panic in those eyes like the sky.

"I'll be back tomorrow, alright?"

He nods, and I feel his gaze on my back until I'm out the door.

The walk toward my home is a quiet and long one, though it's not usually so slow or silent. Upon entering my home, I am bombarded suddenly by Gale, Madge, and the rest of my family and friends. They look at me with anxious eyes, for Hyacinth must've told them of what transpired back at the hospital. They asked questions when I came through the door, but for the past few minutes, they've only stared at me, as though waiting for my reaction. There's nothing to say, at the moment.

I am lost in my thoughts as I go to sit in the kitchen. Pouring some tea in a mug, letting the scent of lavender and chamomile calm me, I recall what happened back at the hospital, trying very hard not to feel the pinpricks of a thousand anxious stares burning into my spine.

A white hand covers my own, and I turn to look at my sister, my daughter, fully grown, beautiful, and terribly sad. "What happened?"

"How much do you know?" I hear them all come closer, surrounding me—whether to trap me in and protect me, could be seen either way—and I watch Prim lick her lips.

"Hyacinth came home…and he only told us that things have changed. We thought…" she flushes, suddenly.

"Yes, Prim?" I prompt, gently.

"We thought he died, at first," Gale speaks for her, always ready to help her when her voice falters.

"At first?" I stare at my best friend, "Hyacinth didn't specify?"

"No, not in the beginning; but after asking him further what this meant—especially since you didn't come back—we wondered and he said, 'everyone's awake.'"

Everyone's awake.

He must mean me. I kill myself in my mind's eye. Have I really looked dead all these years to my son, too? Was I asleep that whole time, as well? Is my son angry and resentful at me…? I'm about to rise when Prim's hand clenches atop mine, gripping it tighter than I've ever felt before. When did she become so strong?

"Katniss," she says, eyes furtively moving, "I have to know. Is he awake?"

"Yes," my voice is a whisper, "he's awake."

A collected breath I didn't know they were holding is suddenly released in a quiet and deadly whoosh. I find myself waiting for their reprimands and warnings to come raining down on me, but nothing is said. My mother comes forward and asks, "Are you hungry, sweetheart?"

I nod my head, realizing I haven't eaten all day. I'm starving, really, something I know does please everyone, since, for quite a few years, my mind insisted on punishing me from the one thing I always fought to have, for myself and those I care about. A willing starvation was unfathomable to us, including myself. I indulge myself, relieved I don't have that problem anymore. I hated hating food.

Everyone is still here, either talking, casually, about either work or nondescript commentary that isn't intrusive. Prim goes to sit in a chair and sew, something she does to soothe her nerves, which I'm sure are wrought. She worries too much about me, though I tell her it's not as bad as the earlier years of my therapy. But she's my sister, so she'll be concerned; the same way I would be if she had been in my position. My mother brews tea, making a mug for herself. Everything is quiet, but beneath the surface, everyone has questions for me, questions I have for myself, as well—beneath the calm, we're all waiting to be turbulent and scream.

They were fine for the years I'd spend going to visit him every day, and my therapist, while he warned me it might be more damaging than good, he was more willing than they were for me to heal in a way I thought could work for myself, giving me my first taste of independence and self-trust I had long been denied. And, in time, it did help me as I stared at that sleeping face, remembering memories, coming to terms with how we're all victims in this, and our true enemy was Snow all along.

There was no need to hate Cato anymore.

But to be near him…holding him, and not push him away… I'm surprised how easier it was than I thought it would be, even in my wildest imaginations of scenarios. It was so instinctual, like I'd done it before, with not question at all.

It felt…right.

After a time, as I help put the dishes away, I turn and see my son standing in the hallway, my young champion. Everyone behind me is silent, watching us carefully. It's probably the first sight of Hyacinth they've seen since he came home.

I smile, motioning for him to come forward.

My heart twinges in pain when he hesitates, looking all the more like his father than usual in that one step.

"How are you, honey?" are the words I want to speak, but I keep my mouth shut. I want him to talk, first. Let him say his piece, whatever it may be. He's mute as he joins me by the sink, wordlessly grabbing a towel to dry the plates in the rack. When he's troubled, it takes him a long time to speak, something he picked up from me, and possibly inherited from his father.

"How is he?"

But he's always been more ready to get pain over with.

"He's fine," I answer, "I left him a while ago. The doctor went over his vitals, just to see how his body is doing,"

Behind us, the quiet is infallibly larger—everyone is waiting for more details. For, they knew, Hyacinth and I must be the ones to talk, together, before I could talk to anyone else.

"Hmm, that's good."

"Yes, it is…"

He clears his throat, "So, are you planning to see him again?"

"Yes, he is going to begin rehab as soon as the doctor thinks it's safe for him too,"

"You don't have to see him for a while, then,"

I glance at my son's hands, strong and no longer little, "I'm seeing him tomorrow—"

"What?" he questions.

I stare at my child, his eyes like mine, "I'm seeing him tomorrow."

"Why?"

"He has no one else," I whisper.

"Mom, I know he has no one else, but you don't have to be the one to take care of him,"

"Sweetie, I know you're upset, but—"

"Upset? I'm more than just upset. We don't even know this guy and you're acting like you've known him all your life,"

"I might as well have,"

"But those memories the Capitol pulled out of you, those don't have to mean anything. Do you really think he's going to be the same after sixteen years of being in a coma?"

"He is the same person he was sixteen years ago. For him, time hasn't passed—the doctor told us today when he went to see if Cato really was awake,"

My son lets out a bitter humorless laugh that reminds me too much of his father today, "Do you think he really deserves your sympathy?"

"He didn't do anything he wanted to do—he was completely out of his own control,"

"Yes, I know—Tracker Jacker venom is deadly stuff, but what I'm saying is that we're done now. He's awake. He can rehabilitate on his own."

"Hyacinth—"

"No, fuck what the doctors said, Mom—you need to take care of yourself!"

"Hyacinth, don't yell at your mother!" Gale interjects.

I look at him, grateful, while my son turns red, ashamed of himself. I gently touch my boy.

"I'm better than I was years ago; you know that," I remind him, "You saw me,"

"Yeah, after years more of medicine and therapy and all that shit, come on, Mom, why does he matter? Why should he matter?" Why does he matter to you more than I do?

That's the look in his face, his eyes, his expression and voice. It pains me, for I knew he didn't always see the point in going but… that questions rings so loudly in his silence that I'm left not breathing.

"Hyacinth," I say, "I want you to tell me, why are you angry?"

"Mom, please—"

"Hyacinth Everdeen, you tell me, right now," I whisper low, for his ears alone, "I want to understand. I want to help you. Why are you so upset about your father being awake?"

He's quiet. He looks away from me, gaze directed at the floor, and I'm in pain, wondering what's troubling my son, who I know is loved by his father more than anything in the world right now.

My son murmurs, "I don't know why…"

"What do you feel?"

"I just feel… really angry. And…" his eyes falter. I'm a little scared.

"Is this because he wasn't here all this time?"

He lets out a whooshed breath, hand brushing through his hair, struggling for words, "Yes…and no. I just. It's complicated. I know it's not his fault but, I just. I don't know how to connect with someone I've never talked with. I've only watched him sleep."

I remember how, as he got older, he would constantly ask me when Cato would wake up, so he can ask him questions, learn who his father is and spend time with him, because he discovered from us all that what Cato did was not his fault. It was only recently that we defined what had occurred—rape is a delicate horrible thing and to tell him before he understood life a little better, a little deeper on what darkness it could possess, would have destroyed him. He had not taken it well and that, perhaps, is one of the reasons why he suddenly showed an aversion to going—understandable and expected. But, even before this, the questions slowly turned to ifs instead of whens on his waking up; eventually, Hyacinth stopped asking me altogether, having accepted that childhood is leaving and his father will never awaken to see him. My son gave up hoping for a normal childhood and adolescence and, in turn, he must've grown bitter.

"Hyacinth, I'm going to tell you something, and you are free not to believe it."

He looks back up at me, eyes pleading to know, to not know. He's lost as he wonders, not wanting to find anything to love about this man that he, truly, has no idea about. His father is a complete mystery, shrouded by years of absence and unfathomable pain.

Hyacinth knows who his father—the legend, the enigma, the victim of rape and war as much as his mother was—but he doesn't know who he is, inside: the boy who laughed at my quips, who stared on in silent focus as I braided my hair; the boy who held me in the night as I mourned another sister, who challenged my thinking, my trusts, my everything and eventually loved me and I him, though I'd no idea I reciprocated it. Not for many, many years.

I reach for my child, hand on his arm, "Your father loves you, very much."

"You don't mean that," he tells me.

"I do. When you left, it hit him that he didn't watch you grow up…he wept, for a long time."

The house is a tomb—no one is even breathing from this revelation. Because, for many of us, even myself, in that dark void I deny exists, we all wanted to believe this man was a monster, because it was easier not to pity him for everything that's happened—we're all still trying to find a person to blame, to find a way out of our confusion and hurt.

"I want you to know that this man isn't a monster. We'd been deceived. He is your father, who loves you—I'm sure he does."

"He didn't tell you himself, though."

"No," I breathe out.

"Then it's not his words."

All my son wants to know is who this dead man is, recently come back to life. But until he talks to him, he'll only have my word, my understanding of who this self-sacrificing individual is that's been hidden from us all by evil. I'm sure, too, my son wants to believe this, but this man is a stranger, who he cannot readily accept with open arms until he has an idea of how his character is.

"Hon," I murmur, "if you want…"

"I'm not going with you to see him."

"You don't have to, if you don't want to. You've done enough, and I'm not forcing you to do anything against your wishes."

"Mom… I know you want me to try and learn more about Cato, but… sixteen years is a long time."

I touch his face, "Hyacinth, I want you to be honest with yourself. When you're ready, you can come to us, to him."

He nods, and then he turns away, leaving me feeling empty and torn between two very similar people, my son who I love dearly and the captive protector who did all he could to save my life.

He stops in the doorway, "I'll talk to him."

I stare at him, surprised. "Yes?"

"When he's ready to come out of the hospital. I won't do anything before then."

That'll give my son some time. He does better when he's not pressured. "Alright, then. When he's ready."

He leaves, an enigma, his father and I reflected in his walk, his features.

"When you're ready…" I whisper to his vanished form.

Gale is by my shoulder and I feel his warm, solid hand give it a gentle squeeze. "He just needs time."

"I know," I put my hand on his, my best friend. I let him hold me as I cry, and I feel my sister rush over. Years of turmoil suddenly return in a sick, hot flood. I fall asleep soon after my friends leave and my mother and sister retreat to their rooms.

I go to bed, exhausted, and collapse. For a while I lay there, silver light dancing upon the walls, drowning me in liquid white, drowning in the air.

Cato is alive.

Alive, lean and grown, his mind a boy's still.

Trapped in time…

On and on our torture goes—it doesn't end.

I dream of my son fighting with Cato, anger and resentment violently streaming from his mouth, Cato the quiet opposite, letting it happen, unlike the boy in my memories, fire burning around us and I grow dizzy as I struggle to identify who is who, flames blurring my sight. Everyone in my mind looks the same, identical mirrors of one another.

I know that, though Cato never harmed Hyacinth, damage had been done the day the guards took him from us in one violent, electrifying moment. I rush to them when a light of blue cascades over us, deafening in its silence, but I realize the sound of it was too much that my ears are damaged by the noise. A cacophony I can't hear escapes into the atmosphere, large hulking masses of rock and cement jutting out of the earth, a personal skeleton revealing the destruction we've inflicted on it all.

I wander, for ages upon ages until destruction blurs together with disillusioned harmony. Red plays with the blue, the smoldering ash flying up to a darkened sky, as birds fall, wingless, bodies mangled from the explosion. My knees hit the ground, scraping skin beneath the fabric of my clothes, and I listen to nothing as the world rages on its hellish masochism. People run past, black figures against the background and my hearing suddenly returns—I catch a siren blaring mournfully on the wind, above us, a warning call.

A footstep trod behind me makes me turn, a looming figure in white slashing through me in one blow yet I don't die instantly. There's nothing I'd rather do, but I'm stuck here, alarmed, decapitated, my head far from my body but I can't scream, I'm dead, and I can only blink for ten horrifying seconds as I'm watching my loved ones become slain like nothing else matters, death is the only thing that matters, living is just a word, a fantasy and I have to accept that because what can a severed woman do—

I scream, the bed beneath me groaning in protest as Prim hushes me.

"Katniss, it was just a nightmare," she whispers soothingly.

"Mom?"

Hyacinth slides before my doorway, rushing in and my heart clenches as he skids to his knees by my bedside, "Mom! What's wrong? Are you alright? What happened? I heard you scream!"

I reach for my son, a stifled sob escaping my throat as I wrap my arms tightly around his neck. Oh my God, my baby…!

"What happened, Aunt Prim?"

"She just woke up with this terrible screaming! It must've been another nightmare,"

His arms tighten around me, "She hasn't had any bad dreams for five months now. How is this happening? The medicine—"

"Katniss, did you take your medicine?"

Oops. I shake my head.

A collected breath escapes them both.

"Mother," Hyacinth chides, "I told you, you can't skip—"

"I didn't skip it," I tell him, looking at his face, "I forgot, honest."

Prim says calmly, "We'll just have to remember tonight, hmm? Do you want to talk about it?"

"No, it's alright." It's already somewhat fading. I don't want to remember it in full.

My sister looks at me questioningly, scrunching her face as she recalls something, "But, Katniss, you've sometimes skipped before—not saying that you did last night, but you have, on purpose, in the past, and the dreams never seemed to come; and if they did, not this violently…"

Hyacinth's face twists in a snarl, "Told you he was going to affect her—not even out of the hospital—"

"Cato wasn't the reason I had a terrible dream," I say.

"Was he in your nightmare?"

"Well, yes, but—"

"But nothing; you need to take care of yourself."

"Hyacinth, I know you're worried but I've had nightmares before."

"You haven't had any in a while, though, and suddenly he wakes up, you do forget your pills, and you have a nightmare that I haven't heard you scream this bad about since last year, maybe even longer than that."

I fold my arms, staring at my child. In his fury and anxiety, he morphed into his father, gold and powerful and it knocks the breath out of me until I'm able to speak. "Hyacinth, I'm alright."

"You need to be more careful," he reprimands gently, helping me to my feet. Prim walks around the bed to hold me up as well, brushing my cheek tenderly before kissing it.

Hyacinth suddenly looks at the clock, "Oh, crap! I'll be late for school!"

He hurriedly rushes from the room, apologizing for leaving down the hall, "CrapcrapcrapsorryMomIthinkIsteppedonyourfoot!"

I laugh and shout, "You didn't! That was your aunt's foot!"

"Sorry, Aunt Prim!"

She rubs it lightly, "It's alright, just get ready!"

I listen to the faint bustling sounds of my son in his room as my sister turns to me, "Will you be going to work, soon?"

"Yes," I tell her, "I'm teaching my students archery today,"

"How is that going?"

"Not too many people come by unless it's a specific season, but it does well. With the Capitol being non-existent with certain things, a lot of them have changed, I guess. Most of my students are from there."

Prim smiles, "I think that's great news. It really shows how people can change."

"Yeah…"

Cinna had introduced these people from the Capitol that he's known for a long, long time. They weren't as bold and daring as Cinna in their pursuits of bringing down the Capitol—they feared their lives, understandably—but once it went through, they slowly came out of hiding and joined the Rebellion, leaving behind all they knew. Eventually, he had them meet me, after the war. And, not wanting to go back, I taught them how to fend for themselves and they paid me handsomely for it. Even in death, my father provides for me—I wouldn't know all this without him.

At first, it was awkward, finding myself surrounded by the very people who cheered on the deaths of countless children for generations. But these were different people. They were like Cinna. That made it easier to feel more comfortable, forget that I shouldn't fear them and that they wouldn't try, or even want, to imbed my very arrows into the back of my head—my xenophobia was still an issue back then. Eventually, there were more who came—those like Effie: ignorant, innocent of the wrong, completely brainwashed to believe killing was right, even necessary, but not mean-spirited. I found out from Effie that my stylists, while still living in the Capitol, have changed their ways, through much mediation.

I taught them, my group, what my father knew.

They're an eager bunch, coming to me for everything when they have an answer. No one's giving me a hard time for the destruction of their world, and seem pleased to finally be away from a civilization that reigned only from death.

"I'm looking forward to teaching this little girl who just joined," I tell Prim.

"Oh, is she the one with the pink hair?"

"Yes," I answer, "She's so little—I'm surprised her parents let her,"

Prim smiles, patting my shoulder, "Better than before. She's such a sweet little thing,"

"Who?" my son asks from the doorway, combing his hair and gnawing on toast.

"One of the students of my class," I tell him.

He beams, his smile hurting my heart with good pain, "I'm glad you're enjoying your job, Mama. Got to run!" he says.

"Bye!" we call out together. I rush to the window and watch him head off, Cyprus at his side, laughing as they sprint down the street. The girls must've gone off already. Cyprus usually waits for Hyacinth, no matter how late it is. They're attached to the hip, those two.

Prim chuckles softly, "He's so big now,"

"I know… but he's still my little boy."

She's suddenly putting her arm around my shoulders, squeezing them gently, "Mom says that about us,"

I laugh quietly. We head downstairs where my mother is brewing tea, greeting us warmly. She's changed since I came back home sixteen years ago. She's more like the woman I knew before my father died. I'd forgotten how wonderful she really could be. It's perturbing what death and loss can do to people.

She pours us the tea into mugs as she brings out loaves of bread. Eventually, the three of us head out, all into different directions. My mother heads to the left, where the apothecary she runs does surprisingly well, and even she teaches her remedies and potions to those who ask; Prim heads to the right, toward the hospital, where she works and gives her life to others; she had turned to me and said, "I'll check on him for you." I nod, grateful, knowing she's probably worried about me still.

I walk ahead, into the forest, where home is everywhere and I fall into bliss.

Class goes by in a comfortable blur—not too fast or slow. I say hello to them all and the little girl with pink hair, Aris, walks over and holds the bow with enthusiasm. I correct their stances when I must and show them how to properly pull the string, ensure their posture is good enough and, soon, I let them practice with arrows, though the soft-tipped arrows to avoid accidents. Eventually, they'll learn how to hunt with them, if they so choose to.

Birds flutter overhead, their songs and cries mingling together, and a flash of darkness comes across my mind, remembering smoke and decay. I push the nightmare back, walking over to an old man who smiles at me toothily and I show him the proper grip, his hands arthritic despite where he comes from. Everyone here is from the Capitol. I briefly wonder as I show him how to aim. He manages to grasp it and pull it back; I praise him, his expression one of boyish pleasure.

I breathe, smiling. It's a good day.

Once we've completed our lesson, we head home, tired and exhausted. I wave goodbye to Aris, the only child in our midst, and she bounces away.

I turn, walking the path to the hospital. I nod to those who say hello, but I don't steer off course. It feels as though I haven't seen him in the longest time, even though it was only yesterday.

I feel like this every day.

Months pass again before I can even register the space of time. He insisted on starting physical therapy as soon as he could, still impatient, still eager to do what he can. It bothered him to know that so much has happened while he'd been gone and he didn't want to live another minute tethered to that bed. It must feel like a coffin at this point.

They tell me he has a hard time sleeping. He screams. But, in the morning, he doesn't remember, unaware of sounding terrified to begin with. Though they've taken extra measures to give him medicine in his drink and food to help him sleep; he would refuse them if he knew and, not being his doctor, I have to agree.

I come today and I'm told somewhat disturbing but understandable news: he's hurting himself.

I ask how.

"There are bruises all along his legs,"

There's no reason to explain the why. I nod, entering into his room. He doesn't look at me, so I just sit there for a few hours until it's time to leave. I search for Cato's doctor, and upon finding him request that he go outside with me for a little while.

"Katniss, are you sure that's wise?"

"You're his doctor, you tell me."

He ponders. "It would undoubtedly help him, fresh air and watching something new could put him at ease. I'm wondering if the strain of not having been awake for sixteen years will taunt him, though,"

"Cato's much stronger than he looks," I answer, remembering memories I can finally call my own and see, "He just can't remember."

A smile breaks out along his withered face, lines forming, "Alright. He can go with you tomorrow."

The plan is in motion and a nervous bubble of excitement forms in the pit of my stomach, anxious but filled with a new feeling, setting my heart on this fluttering journey.

"How did it go today?" my mother asks at dinner.

"Still difficult but we're getting there,"

I pretend not to notice Gale and Hyacinth exchange glances.

"What's the plan for tomorrow? You don't have work," she inquires again, genuinely interested, supportive.

"I asked the doctor to let him out for the day tomorrow so he can—"

"What?" Gale interjects.

"He needs fresh air and a change of scenery. It'll do him some good."

"What about the rest of us?"

I know what he means, taking my time to respond as I sip my drink, "Nothing bad is going to happen. The community doesn't even really know what he looks like—no one's seen him save for a few of us." He's been practically hidden from the world.

It looks like he's about to say more but he closes his mouth. Finally, "Well, I wish you luck."

I smile and he returns it. Hyacinth's eyes are downcast, but he remains quiet. I worry.

The morning is bright and open, sky an effervescent blue, not a streak of white lacing its canvas.

Perfect for new beginnings, my brain remarks, despite myself.

A small feeling of dread does take form as I head out into the world, listening to birdsongs while the sun filters gold. What if he doesn't like it? What if someone gets too nosey and it prompts him into a fit? What if this really was a bad idea? Unfortunately, pessimism still reigns unbound in my personality…

I see him a little ways in the distance, propped in his wheelchair, staring vacantly around. He's accompanied by his nurse and I breathe a little in relief.

"Hello, Katniss!"

I turn at the sound of being called. "Oh, hello," It's one of Gale's coworkers. Though I can't remember his name…

"How are you?"

"Oh, I'm doing alright,"

"That's good to hear," he remarks, "We haven't seen each other in a while,"

I keep up my pace, smiling as genially as possible. He proceeds to continue conversing with me, though I'm not paying much attention to whatever he's saying, my mind preoccupied with the man ahead.

"Katniss, may I ask a question?"

I warily look at him, his face earnest, "Yes?"

"You're a beautiful woman. How come you don't date?"

A laugh escapes me in spite of myself, a little shocked at such a personal question coming from someone I barely know. Though I've known of his intentions for a while, I'd rather not discuss this with him or encourage anything.

"I'm perfectly serious," he tells me.

"It's not something I can take seriously,"

"There's no one in your life you view that way?"

A looming, golden figure flits through my mind, "Not particularly,"

"Your son is old enough to take care of himself, though—so it's not as if your child needs you,"

"You're right," I say, my voice a little clipped, "But pursuing a romantic relationship is not a goal in my life,"

"You're very busy then?"

Feeling a different anxiety enter my chest, very much unlike the nervous excitement of showing Cato my home, I reply, "Yes, I don't have the time."

"I see," he muses, looking thoughtful.

Before he can ask anything more awkward of me—as he looks perfectly fine—I tell him I really must get going.

"Alright then," he replies, smiling, "I'll see you later. Bye, Katniss!"

I let out a sigh and greet the pair before me, "Hi,"

The nurse is one of the sweetest ones, promptly welcoming me with a bright grin, "Hello, Miss Everdeen,"

Cato, however, looks a little solemn, downcast. Is he upset about my being late or maybe he doesn't want to be here? "Who was that?"

His question catches me off guard. "Him? He's just this guy Gale works with."

Cato's head tilts, "Oh."

A flicker of something flashes through the blue of his eyes. Is he…? No, he can't be jealous. Inside, a part of me wants to assuage his concerns but my therapist told me to say nicer things about people I interact with, so, instead, I remark, "Yeah, he's pretty nice,"

It doesn't have the affect I want, nor was it exactly what I wanted to say. His expression falls further, if that's possible. And his gaze wanders over his legs, though he's not aware of it, and my heart clenches as it thinks of his bruises.

Screw it, "He talks a lot though, and he's kind of pushy, now that I think about it."

It's similar to a light coming on, his face brightening beneath the hood and a twinkle returns to his gaze. He's smirking and it's better to see him this way. I wanted him to come out and enjoy something peaceful and different and new; it'd be no good if he was in that sort of state. I try not to think of how another aspect of my mind, quiet and hidden beneath my concern, is pleased by the response, though I've never liked how jealously possessive some men can be with their lovers.

I internally shake my head. No. Not lovers. Well, everyone else I've met is—Gale has been jealous before and Madge in kind so maybe it's not all that uncommon…

Peculiar and strange, I ignore it, getting a little dizzy from the thoughts.

I put my hand on his shoulder in encouragement, "You ready to go around more?"

I try not to think of how that wide grin is bright and open, the way my son would happily smile when he is exceptionally at ease.

We walk along the path, the forest at the ridges of the town, watching for straggling animals that still tend to roam and wander near the vicinity, despite the abundance of animals that have returned in nearly twenty years. The forest has expanded and I've longed to crest unknown ridges, explore the home away from home. Slowly, we enter a decrepit area of 12—we're not districts anymore but old habits and all that—that holds rundown shacks, black, ghastly, and weathered. Ash and debris are swirled from the lightest of breezes, even now, as though these pathetic mounds of wood and earth are one rough gust of wind away from being hurled into the sky, a breath blowing up dust.

I place one hand on it, listening, feeling it creak beneath my palm, "My father used to take Prim and me here. He knew the merchant before he died."

I come out of a stupor I wasn't aware of being in, a fog lifting from my mind. He watches me carefully, quietly, and I blink in slight embarrassment. My heart is beating fast…

A cold washes over me. In the hustle of movement and winding bodies, all heading to where they need to be, I find myself in the midst of where the Reapings were once held. Unknown to me, I've sunk into a sadness I'll always feel, though it's not as strong as before, and not quite for the same reasons. I sigh and turn to find the man behind in this look of complete focus, though his eyes are vacant. We head back to the hospital and he tells me goodbye.

I try not to think of how he breathed my name, a shiver coursing through my spine.

Being at home is silent, no one questions my day. Though from the looks on their faces, most of them assume that it went well and we talk about nothing for a while, enjoying each other's company and only that. I dress for bed and am just about to crawl into the sheets when a knock on my door alerts me.

"Yes?"

Prim peeks, smiling a little, "Hi,"

"Hi, Little Duck," I motion for her to sit on my bed.

She walks in and shuts the door. Then she tiptoes onto my bed and stares at me. I cock my head, "Yes?"

"So…?"

"So…?"

"How'd it go?"

"Oh, well, um. It went pretty well."

She gives me a mock frown, "Not your most eloquent sentence, sis,"

"What would you like me to say?"

"Did he enjoy the outing?"

"For the most part,"

"The most part?"

I sigh, "He didn't like the beginning. Or the ending."

Then she lays on her stomach, chin propped up by her hands, and smiles, "Because you left?"

I laugh, "I doubt that."

Prim sniffs delicately, tossing her blonde hair over her shoulder, "And I doubt your answer,"

Realizing I haven't taken my sleeping medicine yet, I reach over to the counter to take a dose, taking my time to swallow the water and pill. Prim waits all the while. Shoot.

"He has a very open face,"

Her statement catches me off guard, "How do you mean?"

"Like… he's not very good at hiding what's on his mind. When I check on him during my breaks, I just peek through the window in the door and he's the same inside the room as outside—his emotions are everywhere."

"…And what do you think about that?"

"I kind of like it. Too many people tend not to show what they're thinking."

"Thanks, Little Duck."

She laughs, a tinkling chime, "I expect it from you—you're my sister and you've always kind of been like that. Him, it's just… weird. All these years without knowing him, so… I guess he's really different from what I pictured."

"How did you see him before?"

She's quiet, staring off into the distance, merely gazing on at the wall; she whispers, "I thought…of him as the monster who took my sister."

I swallow. "And now?"

Then she smiles in this mischievous knowing way that little sisters should never do in front of their older siblings, "Oh, definitely better than that."

And before I can ask what she means, she rolls off my bed, plants a chaste kiss atop my head, and leaves.

Oh, sisters… at least I didn't have to explain that awkward moment when Cato saw my terrible romantic pursuit. The gossip and teasing she'd do to me… I laugh.

I wake up in the morning to no nightmares. It's a work day so I hurriedly get ready for my class. My mother and sister have already left for theirs—they tend to go earlier on certain days so sometimes I expect it. I knock on my son's room, slowly opening it a crack to peek in. His mouth ajar, hands and legs splayed, I chuckled and murmur, "Hyacinth,"

He groans, sitting up to rub one eye, before yawning, "Yeah?"

"I'm going to work, alright?"

He stretches, "I miss when you didn't work on my weekends,"

"I know, honey, but my shifts change with seasons, you know that,"

"Well, okay," he mutters, shifting back under the covers, "Have a good day, Mama,"

"Bye, love,"

Before I know it, the day comes to a closing for me. I wave goodbye to my class, each one cheerful as they head home after a long, eventful day. Aris had given me a hug before running a few yards to where her parents stood, scooping her up into their arms.

I think of Hyacinth and how I can't pick him up like that anymore. It makes me a little sad, even though I know part of life is growing up.

My steps falter in the direction of the hospital, taking me elsewhere. Eventually, my footfalls guide me to a beautiful meadow, laden with flowers of different colors and shapes, the air sweet with the scent of them. Kneeling, I gather several of them, arranging them into a bouquet that I think even my mother would appreciate—she's always had this way with plants.

I try not to run, or skip, to the hospital wing where he is. I greet the receptionist and a few nurses, none objecting to the flowers. They probably think their workplace could use some more color, too. I don't bother to knock, usually used to him being alone.

My sister sits in the chair I tend to occupy, her face breaking into a smile when she sees me.

"Oh, Prim! You're here." I say, pleasantly surprised.

"Yes, I'm on break, and thought I'd check up on him for you." Prim answers me, rising.

"Thank you," I tell my sister, placing an arm tightly around her slender shoulders, grateful for her care.

I turn to the man who watches us with calm. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm alright," he answers.

"Good, I'm glad," I reply, and it strikes me how odd that is—that, once, I would've given anything to see him in pain. The flowers bounce lightly as I walk forward to place them into the vase, removing the dead ones.

"I should go back to work," Prim announces.

Turning to face her, I ask, "You busy today?"

"Well, yes and no," she says, looking thoughtfully at the ceiling, "It's not usually so chaotic anymore but we did get one terrible case that almost left this man scarred all over—"

"Stop, stop," I insist, holding up my hand so she can heed my warning, "I still don't understand how you don't get nauseous from this job,"

Laughing humorously, she remarks, "Oh, it's not so bad. Although, Mama does agree I have the stronger stomach."

"Both of you do."

Beaming, my little sister walks to the door, "Are you still going to be here until I'm done with work?"

"Most likely,"

"Alright, we can head home together," Prim enthusiastically expresses. She likes doing that.

"Sounds good, Little Duck,"

She leaves with a wave, grace and beauty in her moves. She's grown up so much as well. I think back to when she asked how it went with Cato on his outing; how Gale's coworker came up to me with all the jubilant energy of some intrigued swain; how Cato asked who he was... Prim is wrapped up in her work, no different from our mother and myself, and she's shown no interest in changing that either. I try not to think about it, feeling a flush tint my cheeks at what I'm pondering—the thoughts adolescents possess, where they wonder of love and romance, thoughts I never thought of before, never believed I could freely think about. There was never any time to do so, never anyone to think about. I try not to let out a heavy sigh at how ridiculous this is: I'm in my thirties, why am I like this?

"Nice flowers," Cato suddenly says.

"Hmm?" his voice snaps me from my thoughts; something else to think about! "Oh, yes. I went out to the meadow today before coming here, which is why it took a little long. I thought it'd look good in here."

His eyes aren't on me, so breathing is easier; he asks, "Do you go there a lot?"

"Yes, I love it there." I say.

Then blue does turn to me, "What else do you love?"

Even now, with my past as it was and is, no one's bothered to question me on this. It's so sudden, a flash of depth, that I'm left speechless for a moment. "I guess…not much."

"No?"

I tear my gaze away, staring at the flowers, "I suppose I enjoy other things."

"Like what?" he persists, reminding me of the man the other day. But this terrible flitting in my chest is different…

Annoyed with my nonsensical thoughts, I petulantly look at him, "Aren't you tired?"

"Nope," he replies quickly.

His face is earnest, face softening, the way light does in the forest, and something in me stirs, unexplored, forgotten and human, "Are you sure?"

"Yes, I thought that's why you'd come here—to give me company." Cato says, reminding me of one reason I do.

I stare at this man, absorbed in an entirely new way, "We…don't actually spend much time together, do we?"

"No, we don't."

I realize he's right. When I'm not working with my students, I am on the sidelines as he struggles to gain motion back into his lower body, watching him drag himself along; or we're here, with his body tired of sleep but exhausted to that point of doing nothing but slumber. At this moment, we are free to do as we please.

A sigh escapes me with a smile, "I love gardening,"

Cato smiles back, "I would suck at it,"

"Not much of a gardener?" I ask, though I'm sure he's not.

"Not at all," he confirms, "Well, for one, we lived in the mountains, so there wasn't much to start with. Whatever my mother tried to make would usually die eventually. It would get pretty cold sometimes."

I can't imagine a life without the forest, without green pastures and the call of wildlife, "That's not good at all—we'll have to go to the forest together so I can show you,"

The promise leaves my mind before I truly understand the implication of what I'm saying. It's been said, however, and he looks so startled and touched I wouldn't take it back, even if I wanted to. That feeling stirs in me again; I squelch it down, "What do you love?"

He takes his time with this question, "I used to read a lot,"

I can't help but laugh. "You read?"

Snorting, he cocks his head, glancing at me from the corner of his eye, "I am not as uncultured as all that, Katniss Everdeen,"

"No, of course not," I amend,"So what would you read?"

"I liked reading about science,"

"Oh, yeah?" A subject I've never really been good at, but it's something I never thought he himself would enjoy.

"Yeah, even though lots of us complained about it in school. But I thought it was useful, a little neat, since we didn't get much books, despite what the other districts might've thought,"

A fascination overcomes my thoughts, and I lean in without meaning to, "You didn't?"

"Some of us could afford to learn—I got lucky," he states matter-of-factly; as though he doesn't regret talking about this. Letting me in…

"What was your favorite part about science?" I urge him on.

"Learning anatomy,"

"Ooh, so refined!"

His broad grin flashes teeth, delighted.

"Anything else?"

A bashful expression enters his face; it doesn't dim the smile, "…I had a book about weapons,"

I laugh again, more than I have in a while, "It figures you would. I'm not much into science myself,"

"What do you read?" he asks, interested.

All the books I've managed to read come to mind and I realize that my tastes are not only vastly the antithesis of his but may produce something infinitely more mocking than I have with him. So, carefully, I murmur, "Don't. Laugh."

"Lips are sealed," he assures me, pretending to lock his lips. I try not to notice them.

My chest is full, a guarded secret about to be known, even if it's just to him—especially to him, "…I sometimes read romance novels."

Cato's laughter is the sound of thunder, powerful, fast and awesome.

I blink from my stupor, "I told you not to laugh!"

"But, I just…" he breathes out, gasping, holding his side, "Ugh, Katniss! Romance novels, of all things?"

Crossing my arms, I cock my head away from him, "I can't help it! It's the words." And it's true. It's the only reason I bother to pick them up.

Wiping his eyes, his smirk plays the corner of his lips, "The words? Sheesh, did porn get better while I was out?"

Feeling myself blush, I smack his shoulder, and this only makes his chortle harder, "No, it's not that. It's just… that…" I try to find a way to explain, my hands twisting my braid, "I like the way it's written. It's rather… ornate? I'm not sure how to describe them. They get rather poetic in the books, which is why I read them."

Cato pauses in his chuckles, thinking, "Ah, so you just like how descriptive they are,"

"Yes, I suppose," I say, though he's explained, in essence, the true reason why I read them, "I found I much like those sorts of books,"

"You don't care much for the people in the books, though?"

I agree, thinking of the many idiots that seem to take up the majority of these books; such a sad waste of potential, "Honestly, most of the characters are rather idiotic."

He nods, "Yeah, stupid characters tend to ruin good novels,"

"Unfortunately," I reply, aware of the warmth spreading through my chest at being able to talk to someone about this—someone who can share my interests, break down my thoughts when I'm struggling to comprehend myself; and it's…fun. It's nice, so I admit, "Which is terrible, since I didn't get to read all that much beforehand,"

Though his attention is fully given to me, his moves himself up to a more comfortable position. I'm about to help but relent to allowing him to do it himself. He might not like it. But he manages without aid, pressing his back to the headboard, gazing at me with that same intensity, "Why is that?"

Nonchalantly, I shrug, "There didn't seem to be a purpose for it outside of class, and even then it was only out of necessity. My father taught Prim and me a little more than most children received in their education. I didn't even know I liked to read until a couple of years ago!"

This is another time that's shocked me—I've told him more about my childhood with Prim and my father than I have to anyone else. He doesn't press the matter, simply absorbing it in.

"Reading can be a fun activity; what else do you like to read?"

"Fantasy is pretty enjoyable," I answer readily; much better than romance.

His face suddenly twists, and I blink at the reaction. It's been good so far. "Not a fan of the genre?"

"Not exactly," he slowly answers, "They were interesting as a kid but, at the same time, it felt so unreal."

Chuckling, I reply, "That's why it's a fantasy, Cato."

"Yeah, I get that," he hurriedly says, as though he doesn't want to offend me, "but a lot of the ones I'd read involved a hero going on some grand quest, not because he wanted to, but because of some predestined outcome that absolutely had to happen at some point,"

A part of me clicks together; enraptured by this boy in a man's body, trying to figure him out, in awe of his words and how opposite he truly is to the monster I knew in the dark; evil doesn't bother to question morals and decisions of people—it does as it pleases, without question; a curiosity I didn't know I could feel this much makes me speak, "Do you think fate and destiny are the same thing?"

Skies look down, golden hair touched by the sun, as he thinks, trying to answer me as best as I've tried to answer him, a mutual desire to be open, "I don't think so. Fate… it's kind of like saying an event or action had to happen and it didn't matter who tried to fight it—it was going to happen anyway; destiny is saying that someone had to do something and the outcome is whatever that person did,"

"So, fate excludes human involvement while destiny is all dependent on choice," It's my attempt to understand, my eyes never leaving his face; when he briefly glances at me, his gaze is this non-physical caress. I repress a shudder.

"That's how it seems to be, at least when I think about it," his voice is quiet; we really are sharing secrets, even if they're not bad ones, it counts.

"They're often used interchangeably, though," I say.

"No doubt about that," he consents, "but when are words not used interchangeably at some point?"

My mind churns at our vapid range of subjects, a thought process forming, drinking it in, and I haven't realized how starved of topics my being was; so, without care to how silly I sound, an aspect of myself flies free, excited to speak with this person I've known for years yet is discovering for the very first time, "That is very true. It's fascinating, isn't it? How we've come so far technologically but if I or you spoke of all this to someone it'd likely cause a heated debate,"

An ironic twist to his mouth comes, "To be honest, Katniss, we humans can bitch about anything and never be happy,"

Smiling, I lean back in the chair, comfortable in this atmosphere, "Did you always ponder these sorts of questions?"

Cato's eyes hurriedly go down, and red enters his face; I try not to think of why, "Not usually."

At first, I wonder if I, somehow, offended him, but when his gaze returns, drowning in skies, full of life and air and humanity, I find neither of us can look away—willingly or otherwise. My body grows warm, soft, glowing, a little fire flickering inside my breast

Cato inquires, then, "Do you write?"

The question is unexpected, breaking the quiet, so the warmth in my body rushes to my face, "N-No…"

Tentatively, softly, he pokes my shoulder, "Most readers try writing,"

Quietly, I, too, try to remember when I've done so, "I've been working on my father's book about plants; does that count?"

"I think so," he says, approvingly, "in a way, though I meant books completely with words,"

Ah, "Then I haven't."

"You should try it sometime," Cato tells me, and the look on his face is completely of encouragement.

Touched by his enthusiasm, I smile, "I'll keep that in mind,"

He stretches, but he doesn't look away from me, "So, you said you're working on your father's book?"

And, again, the topic of my father is brought up; and, again, talking about him is as easy as breathing; should I be concerned by this? "Yes, when we were little, he'd work on this massive book filled with all sorts of plants and herbs, ranging from their uses to their colors and size. It's very detailed."

"Sounds convoluted," Cato says, his brows furrowing.

"On the contrary, it's simple to understand. It had to be, for Prim and I to understand the context at our young ages,"

"Do you write in it often?"

Nodding, I continue, "When I manage to discover a new plant or remedy, then I do. Honestly, what it needs are illustrations, which I know next to nothing about being able to do,"

"Maybe that can be a hobby of yours to pick up,"

I shove his arm before I can even remind myself not to, "Or you can pick up that hobby,"

"I'll keep that in mind," he says, in the same way I did, and we're both smiling at each other, a camaraderie blanketing the two of us in its folds.

"What plant would you like to see most?" I decide to ask, wanting…

"I'd like to see what the namesake of your sister and our son look like,"

"I'd like you to see them too," My confession leaves; I find my gaze on his hand, and I realize how sincere this wish is. My father's book doesn't enter the hands of simply anyone, and he manages to win it over easily, quickly, as though he was meant to… and, as though I was meant to, his palm unfolds, blooming, inviting, and my hand, hovering, lands in the center; his fingers are warm, no longer cold like before.

"Just wondering," he whispers, his thumb rubbing the back of my hand, comforting, "Is your name a plant, too?"

I chuckle softly, "Yes, I'll show you that one, too, though it's not as pretty as theirs, believe me,"

"It does sound kind of weird," he teases.

"Oh, shut up," I reply, at ease with his hand in mine, as though it's filling a gap I never noticed before when it was my hands and mine alone.

"What's your favorite color?" he questions, and his eyes take on that all-too-familiar focus.

I can't help but laugh at how basic this inquiry is compared to all we've conversed about, "Such a simple question, Cato—I'm in awe of your wit,"

"Thank you, Miss Everdeen," he emphatically states, tone imperial, "Yet it seems to be one of the most vital questions in anyone's life,"

"Ah, yes," I reply, matching his voice, "It could largely determine who befriends you and who will become a foe,"

"Exactly my point," he points out.

I sigh in pleasure,, "My favorite color is green,"

"That's not surprising," he says with a smile of his own.

"What's yours?" It's only fair I know his.

Surprisingly, his answer is not immediate. He takes his time to answer. "Maybe blue…?"

"Blue?" He's not sure what color he likes? Despite myself, my mind conjures the thought of a boy, familiar in all ways to the one I raised, standing alone, learning how to survive a world full of death, and he can't even bother to know as something as simple as his personal favorite color. It's rather sad…

"Or gray,"

His voice is the softest of wings, truth in every syllable now; he's leaning in, his hand in mine alive with brand new heat as my body is aware of each sensation, each movement, though I'm petrified to the spot—darkness returns with dizzying swiftness, black ink blotching any light, and I remember death, ugly laughter, and dry, rough motions that left my being and soul raw and ravaged…

Fear.

I'm afraid again.

As his other hand caresses my face, beautifully warm, gentle, tangling itself into my braid, fear, anguish and dread rise in overwhelming tides, trying to drag me down, keep my from moving on.

No.

I'm not letting it win. That dark part of myself—black, frightening, cold, like my pasts, my nightmares—wants to drown me, refuse to give me up to good that's so, so near. I will not be my own worst enemy any longer.

Thus, my mouth brushes his, and his lips are pliable, causing heat to form inside my body, but I only whisper, "Gray's a nice color,"

"Yes, it is," he murmurs back, voice rough with an emotion I can only equate to need.

My voice is still hushed, "Does it remind you of home?"

"Yes," so is his.

"Green reminds me of home, too," I say, allowing him in.

"We found something in common," he replies in this incredible sweet tone, eyes bluer up close; I'm truly in the sky.

"I guess that question really is important," I breathe out, unable to think of anything else.

Cato pulls me in closer, and his mouth parts mine, hot, solid, and brimming with life that I didn't think I'd see come back to his body; my free hand cups his face as my tongue darts in, alive in fire, his pulse fast beneath my skin, and this is Cato, the real Cato who fought to protect our son, love me, and his teeth bite into my lower lip, a gasp leaving my already harsh breathing, heart singing that the ghost of him is flesh again, he's come back to me—

A knock on the door pulls me back, where I didn't quite jump away but I'm not near him now, and my body cries, wanting him close, where before all it cried for was him to stay far from me.

Prim is at the door, congenial smile in place; too innocent… "I'm done with work, Katniss,"

"Oh, good," I reply, wondering why she looks like that. Crap… Standing to my feet, I turn to look at him, his face showing what I feel, "I'll be back to see you tomorrow,"

Cato's expression could rival the sun, his voice beyond happy, and, without success, I attempt to push down the blush.

"Okay," he answers, and he waves to us goodbye.

Prim walks beside me, steps light, "You and he have a good time talking?"

"Uh, yes, it was nice,"

"What'd you talk about?"

"Lots of things,"

"You're coming tomorrow, right?"

"I was planning to," I answer.

Prim hums.

This causes me to glance at her askance, "Why are you smiling like that?"

"When were you going to tell me about Cato's reaction to Marcellus?"

I stop short. "That's his name?"

Prim laughs out loud, long and hard.

"Prim!"

"I couldn't help myself," she says, winking.

She skips ahead and I break out to run after her, yelling for her to come back though I'm grinning wider as recall our conversation, and my father's book enters my mind. I'll bring it to Cato tomorrow, I decide.

I hope he likes it.

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