... efficiunt Daemones, ut quae non sunt, sic tamen quasi sint, conspicienda hominibus exhibeant.
She's asleep beside me, half naked and fully relaxed in the soft moonlight, long lashes resting over chiseled cheekbones. Disheveled black braid slithers down her lean back, olive skin dappled with the pink burn-scars I know and love so intimately tempts me for a caress.
It should be so, always and forever.
I have nothing but love for my wife, and even after all the hell we've been through, count myself the luckiest of men to have her in my life.
Sometimes, though, I see nothing of my wife in the creature sprawled in our bed.
She overslept this time.
The rising sun hits her skin just right (or perhaps just wrong?), and the scars are on fire. Burning like the hide of a fire mutt, bright and shiny, ready to incinerate me at the merest touch.
Her eyes are closed, form still and serene, yet I know she's just biding her time.
She, the mutt. The enemy.
Trying to catch me unawares, to claw a hole in my chest and spew poison inside, to run away with my bleeding, beating heart…
I lean closer, watching her eyelashes flutter slightly to match the compulsive movement of dream-stirred eyeballs.
Dreaming of killing me, still? Are you, are you, Katnissss?
Dark braid seems to move furtively in the tricky light, ready to strike like a snake, to fill me with her poison, to spread the contagion, to hurt and to corrupt…
My fingers spasm above it, wanting to seize and squash the snake, to wrap it around her throat and strangle her with the very tendrils of my nightmares. To make her gasp for life. To make her pay for every moment I'd craved her affection like the air, only to receive lies in return.
To hold her in my power, make her mine, tear her to bloody pieces, drain them of poison and make each and every one of them mine…
But why is her hair so soft to the touch, why is she murmuring my name in half-sleep, sweet and affectionate as if she'd already willingly given me so much more than her flesh?
She reaches out blindly, arms of a loving wife seeking embrace, and I flinch away, desperate to escape the lie, the vision, the part of me that sees her all twisted…
Sheets tangle between my scrambling leg and a half, my body clumsily rolls off the bed, head hitting the floor.
"Peeta?" she croaks, fully roused by the sudden noise.
"'S nothing," I murmur, every syllable throbbing in my brain. "Just slipped a bit."
Slowly, I poke my aching head above the bed, smiling sheepishly at her – awake and glorious in the sunrise.
Katniss grins in amusement, the fog of anxiety and suspicion clearing from her eyes.
And so does my doubt, my fear, my craving for something I don't even dare to name… it melts and dissolves… slithering back into the deepest recesses of my subconscious where the poison dwells.
It's a part of me and always will be, but I know the visions it brings me are not real.
Katniss would never hurt me and I would never hurt her.
Or would you, Katnissss?
She is lovelier than ever, with plumper cheeks and fuller figure, and most importantly, the precious roundness swelling in her middle. There our baby grows, after so many years of healing, after so many years of my hoping and waiting for her to fully embrace the idea that a new life can spring from our ashes.
He or she is already kicking.
Usually, I can dissolve Katniss's anxiety when I smooth my hands over the firm dome of her belly, caresses followed by kisses and whispers of reassurance.
From her, from us, shall spring a life we will both cherish and protect and love.
We will make it. Together.
There's simply no other option.
Sometimes, though, when she lays her hand on her stomach with something akin to terror in her ashen eyes, I can't help but wonder what she's hiding in there.
Is that some new, subtler, more precise plan to get me?
What if she's hiding a nest of tracker jackers there, and one day they will burst out ripe for the kill, just like the ones she sent after me in the first arena?
The poison in my veins stirs in tune with the idea, buzzing buzzing buzzing…
Not real. STOP.
Anything to make it stop.
Next time rumbling, growling, screeching…
Perhaps it's not tracker jackers. What about the wolves with human eyes?
Will it be a little mutt like that, with the taloned body of a carnivorous monster, and my eyes?
That's what would have been born of me had she killed me in the first arena.
It can still happen, the poison whispers. Yessss…
I scream no, scream it with bleeding fists stuffed into my mouth, she can't know, she can't worry anymore than she already does… I can't betray her, especially not now that there's infinitely more at stake… it was just a slip, just a little slip… like the slips of paper at the reaping…
Innocuous until fatal.
Or an orange monkey with wildcat's teeth, hungry for my blood? A sharp-beaked jabberjay bursting out of my Mockingjay? Or a lizard-human, white and scaly and reeking of roses?
Roses for the star-crossed lovers…
Are you, are you my lover, Katnissss? Are you expecting our baby? Real baby?
One time, I have to know. I just have to, however hard I fight; my fingers inch closer to the handle of the bread-knife, squeezing it like a lifeline, like an already lifeless throat.
Lifting it, I turn towards her.
Katnissss… what are you hiding in there?
May I have a look?
She senses my intent early enough to slow me down by a kitchen chair hurtled precisely into my prosthetic leg, and waddle-runs to Haymitch's right on time. In the insane, instinctive chase, I don't think to retrieve the knife.
A bottle in the fist of our mentor greets me in the doorway, casting a black curtain over the scene of almost-tragedy.
I cry at Katniss's feet when I return from the hospital, and her forgiveness hurts more than the lack of my own.
Big slip. Huge. Like the ones pulled out of the ball.
But I strive for control, for victory, with every ounce of my willpower.
I have to.
For her, for us, for the child of our love that shouldn't suffer the taint forced upon their parents.
Sometimes, though, I retreat beyond locked door to paint monsters clawing their way from Katniss's belly, and laugh through mad tears as I slash the offending canvases moments later.
Sharp bread-knife brings death to all muttation, to all the visions brought to twisted life by the poison that still lives in my veins.
Anything, everything to alleviate the anxiety of expectation.
The child is born, finally, soft skin brownish like cinnamon sugar, on a baby girl just as sweet.
Perfect. Clean. Ours.
The purest essence of humanity.
My hands shake with nervous excitement and eyes leak tears of bliss when I take her to my arms for the first time, her tiny heart beating with love reincarnated.
Not a mutt.
Our little angel.
The joy is overwhelming and cleansing, for a long time.
Not a mutt…
Will I ever forget the word?
There's two of them now.
Our children. Our precious, lovely children born against all odds.
Katniss is impossibly beautiful when she takes them in her arms, brushing her lips over smooth foreheads, sleepy eyes, tiny noses. Her affection elicits laughs as she kisses stomachs golden and rounded like fresh loaves of bread, and squeals of excitement when she blows tickling, flatulent streams of air into the pliant flesh.
Real, the most wonderful reality I could have wished for.
Sometimes, though, I don't see my beloved wife there, in a moment of uniquely reserved tenderness.
I see stubbly nails turn into talons and break through baby-skin… teeth lengthen and tear into the helpless body, spilling guts and showing what it's really made of…
I move to snap the mutt's neck, to get it away from them to…
… to wrap my murderous fingers over the headboard of the bed, squeezing the death out of them.
Luckily, Katniss doesn't notice, preoccupied as she is.
It wasn't real anyway, it was just a phantasm to be shunned.
She would never do that.
She would never hurt our little angels.
Or was it a tiny talon disappearing in Katniss's loose hair instead of wee little fingers?
Are they our little mutts?
Is it three to one now? One to three?
No, they can't be.
I can't believe it, can't reap them into my own game, can't slip, there are no slips for them not anymore… I can't… they are just…
Mutts. Tiny, precious little mutts.
No wonder if they were.
Now shadows are playing around their sleeping heads, creeping in, creeping out, seeping, slithering…
We are in their veins, both fire mutts, both poisoned.
She is in their veins, the source of all suffering.
They are her spawn.
Spreading the contagion, passing it on, seeds of destruction poisoning the future…
I watch them, unmoving, helpless, all closed eyes and tight little fists.
Picture-pretty, yet they must be destroyed.
My hand closes over the wooden handle, knuckles turning deadly white.
I would never do that.
I would never hurt our little angels.
I would never get my hands warm and sticky with their dear life, I would never feel it dribbling down to my elbows as I hold shaking red palms before incredulous eyes.
I would never sink to my knees in sheer horror as I do now, staring at the torn, mutilated mess.
Colors of flesh and blood, my, our own flesh and blood.
Spilling free, staining my hands, staining the floor, staining the knife I normally use for slicing bread.
Oozing from ripped canvas.
Picture, just a picture of death.
Once and never for all.
She can't see it, if she doesn't see it, it's not real not real not real
I burn the desecrated image after Katniss slinks out hunting, in the chill pre-dawn hour rife with darkness and hope in equal measure.
The children are asleep, unaware that one of their possible fates is turning to ashes.
What's in ashes doesn't have to be entirely gone, though.
We are the living proof of that, Katniss and I and our children.
Our little angels…
Now I'm watching them as the sun rises, their tiny sleeping noses wrinkling subconsciously as the smell of burning paint I've just been temporarily cured by reaches them.
Sometimes, I watch them as the sun sets, filling their eyes with fire.
They shine… shine…
Sometimes, I watch them at night, when the monstrous shadows play, and in my head, I'm still fighting.
Well, I should be fighting.
With all the mutts.
Three to one.
Not real .
Sometimes, though, I really want to smell their blood instead.
I step forward, dry paint peeling from aching fingers.
Light feet patter behind me, quick and worried, intuitive concern urging them here. To her spawn, to her kin.
Her children, children, our children…
My head turns sharply, and something – something stronger than poison, firmer than the steel of the knife hidden in my sleeve – instinctively answers the call.
The shadows are at play, dark and furtive like the braid adorning her neck.
Are you, are you...?