This is part of our series on The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. *Spoiler alert: This post contains details regarding the end of the series.*

By Jordan Ballor

Peeta could hear birds faintly chirping in the courtyard as he was escorted to a meeting with Gale. President Gale. But that wasn’t the important thing. Seeing Katniss was what mattered. He hadn’t seen her, not in person, since the incident nine months ago. After Katniss had killed  President Coin, she had been whisked away by guards, and Peeta hadn’t been allowed to see or even talk to her.

All he knew is what had been broadcast for the public to see. He had seen some pictures of her, and even some brief video of her sitting in courtroom, where she looked defeated, vacant. As the months dragged on, however, nothing seemed to become any clearer. Peeta didn’t know why Katniss had done what she did, or what was going to happen to her. All he did know was that he had to see her.

Then this summons had come from President Gale. He had been appointed in the aftermath of the incident. Or was it an assassination? In any case, all the note told Peeta was that his presence was required at the presidential palace the following morning and that he was to see Gale and Katniss.

As one of his escorts opened the door, Peeta could smell the aroma of fresh-baked bread. He was momentarily transported back to those mornings in District 12, where as a child his job had been to knead the dough and carry sacks of grain for his mother. But as he entered the room, reality snapped back as he saw Katniss. She was seated at a table next to Gale, and they were eating breakfast. Katniss had a roll in her left hand that she had just taken a bite from.

Peeta tensed to run to her, to hold her close as he had done once before. But before he could move the iron grip of his escorts wrapped around his arm, and Gale’s voice broke through the morning’s peace.

“Now, now, Peeta, you’ll need to stay there for just a moment.”

“What’s going on?” Peeta demanded. “Why haven’t I been able to see Katniss before now? What have you done with her all this time?” Katniss merely looked at her bread more closely, engrossed in slavering it with butter.

“I’ve called you here this morning, Peeta, because I have something very important to tell you. After Katniss killed the president we discovered that she had a psychotic break. She thought she was killing President Snow. She was confused and made an unbelievable mistake. All this time she’s been in therapy, and we’ve finally found a way to bring her some peace.”

Peeta waited. There had to be more.

Gale went on, smiling thinly. “You haven’t been allowed to see her because her concern for you was one of the reasons she suffered the break. Her psyche was just too raw, too hurt, to let her see you.” Gale took a knife and cut a slice from a blood orange. Lifting it to his mouth he said, “That’s also why this is the last time you’ll ever be able to see her.” He bit into the orange with an audible crunch, and a thin line of juice ran down onto his chin.

“What are you talking about, Gale? None of this makes any sense,” Peeta protested. He struggled to free himself from the grip of the guards, but their hands remained fastened on his arm.

“You and Katniss can never be together, Peeta. Her treatment had to remove the cause of her distress, her overriding concern for you.” Katniss still had not looked at Peeta, but now she did glance at him as she reached for a carafe of water. She turned her attention back to the glass as she refilled it.

“We all have to make sacrifices for the good of Panem, Peeta, especially after all that’s happened. You don’t know how tenuous the peace is. I’m barely holding things together, and Katniss can’t simply be allowed to retreat back to District 7 with you. Panem needs her. I need her.”

This was all wrong. Gale had done something to her. Manipulated her. Just like Snow had done to him. Peeta shivered. Could this really be happenening?

“Peeta will become the new First Lady as we work to rebuild Panem,” Gale stated flatly.

“You can’t do this,” said Peeta quietly. “I won’t let you.”

“You don’t have a choice.” Gale smirked. “I let you have this brief visit to show you that Katniss doesn’t care for you anymore, and that you’ll be going back to District 7 to help piece things together. If you refuse … well, let’s just say that Katniss isn’t the only one here with a history of mental issues.”

Now Gale was threatening him. Peeta felt the rage building. This couldn’t happen, not after all that he had been through. Not after all that Katniss had been through.

“Katniss, it’s me. Peeta. Don’t you want to come home with me?” Peeta pleaded. Katniss looked up. Their eyes met, and somehow Peeta knew. Katniss was gone. She stared blankly at him.

“Katniss!” Peeta struggled against his captors, wrenching an arm free. Gale looked on with a wan smile. As Peeta pushed away from his guards, he called to her again. “Katniss!” He ran toward her, taking one long step, then another.

Something hit him in the back of his head. His vision narrowed as he fell, and the last thing he saw before the black took him was a bemused Katniss looking down at him.