Sooooooooo sorry for the delay! This one took far longer than I'd intended. What can I say? Writing is hard. But thank you for sticking with me. I know you miss Peeta. I do, too. Time for him to come home.
When I open my eyes, I'm back in the old familiar hospital room. Haymitch is at my bedside. "Good morning, sweetheart."
"Morning?" My voice is husky.
"Well...afternoon, almost. You've been out about eighteen hours."
Then the memory slowly surfaces—my pregnancy, the extent of Peeta's torment, District Twelve in ash, my utter failure—and despair once again washes over me.
"We're getting them out," he tells me. "Peeta and the others. Plutarch put together a rescue team. They left last night."
"Well, it's about fucking time," I growl through gritted teeth. I have no feelings of gratitude for that self-seeking ex-Gamemaker. As far as I'm concerned, he's only doing for Peeta what he owes him. And the others. And it's long overdue.
I push myself up into a sitting position and notice the sting in my arm where the needle penetrated my skin. "Ugh. These people can't keep shooting me with drugs whenever they feel like it. It's not good for..." I let the sentence drop just before the word slips.
"The baby." Haymitch nods. "I heard. Believe me, your mother gave us an earful when we brought you in yesterday."
A sudden feeling of panic overtakes me. "Does Coin know?"
"I need to keep doing this, Haymitch." My voice has taken on a pleading tone. Twenty-four hours ago, I wasn't so sure, but now...well, the rescue mission will result in one of two things: Either Peeta will be safe here, or he'll be dead. Either way, I'll no longer have to worry about him paying for my actions. "I made a deal. Peeta could be executed if I don't hold up my end."
"Relax, Sweetheart. We'll find a way to keep doing to propos. I mean, if the original plan was to use that God awful studio, there has to be some middle ground. Besides...who knows?" A wry smile crosses his face. "Maybe with Peeta's help, the studio won't go to waste."
I shoot him back with mock laughter. "Very funny." But he's right. Peeta has carried every interview we've done together since the first arena. He carried our wedding, of all things. The only thing I really remember about the ceremony is that I wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. I was so zoned out, I might as well have been a zombie. But I do remember Peeta being there, holding my hand. Peeta could turn my worst performance into a usable product.
"Seriously, though," Haymitch says, "Plutarch is already talking about a Star-Crossed Lovers series of propos."
I roll my eyes and let out an audible groan. "Fabulous." Exploiting our on-screen romance for the cause. How very, very Plutarch. But to tell the truth, it's probably not a bad idea. Peeta deserves a chance to let the rebels know he's on their side. And mine. Although, if his last appearance on television was any indication, they must know he's been acting under duress.
"Annie!" It's Finnick's voice, and it's coming from a bed along the opposite wall, where he is in the throes of a nightmare. I give a nod in his direction. "Does he know?"
"Yeah. He insisted on going," Haymitch replies. "He had to be sedated because he refused to take no for an answer."
What the hell? Do people in Thirteen just walk around with handy sedatives and itchy, trigger-happy fingers? Come to think of it, who dealt that needle jab in my arm yesterday?
"I should probably tell you Gale went," Haymitch adds.
It takes a moment for this latest bit if information to register, and when it does, I'm not surprised at all. "Of course he did," I say. I sink back onto my pillow. It's just like when Peeta gave me that locket in the Quell. Willing to sacrifice himself so that I might have a future with Gale. And now, here Gale is, essentially doing the same thing.
I don't deserve either of them.
Just then, Prim walks up, grinning from ear to ear. "Glad to see you're finally awake." She fits a blood pressure cuff around my arm and begins taking my vitals. "How are you feeling?"
"Not well," I admit. There's no sense in pretending with her anymore. She can see right through me.
Haymitch stands up. "I need to get to Command." He pauses briefly before adding, "Plutarch's pretty hopeful they'll get back alive. In any case, try not to worry. Won't do any good." But even as he says this, a crease forms between his eyebrows. "Easier said than done, I know. See you later Prim."
"Bye, Haymitch." Prim's is positively beaming. It's the only thing that could lift my spirits during this dark time. I can't help but return her smile.
"What's gotten into you?" I ask.
"They want me to take the Medic's Exam."
"Already?" I really shouldn't be surprised. This is Prim we're talking about, after all. But as far as I know, medics are ranked as Soldiers. A title nobody is granted until the age of fourteen. Prim's fourteenth birthday is the better part of a year from now.
"Oh, they're not going to make me a medic yet," she explains. "They're just curious about how much I already know, because...well, I've been breezing through the courses." She tries to make it sound like it's no big deal, but she's clearly proud of herself. "I guess, they're impressed."
"Oh, Prim, don't be so modest," I say. "Of course they're impressed with you."
She finishes checking my heart. "I'm going to bring you your breakfast tray. You can leave as soon as you're done eating." Then she walks off.
Like I feel like eating.
"No, Annie!" Finnick sits straight up, clutching his blanket tightly. He looks frantically around the ward before locking his wild eyes on mine. "Are they back yet? Are they back?"
I shake my head.
"Oh." He loosens his grip on his blanket and exhales deeply. "Hi, Katniss."
He takes his rope, now little more than a worn length of fibers, from his bedside table and slogs toward me. I make room for him at the foot of my bed. He takes a seat and immediately gives his attention to the thing he's been doing for the past thirty-seven days. Making knots. Today, however, he's so agitated, he can hardly keep his hands steady. He keeps having to start over because he keeps making mistakes.
"It will all be over soon," he mumbles, without looking up. I'm not sure if he's speaking to me or to himself. "One way or another, this agony will end."
"It's going to be a long day," I say grimly.
It takes a few minutes, but he eventually completes something resembling what he calls an eye-crosser knot. He holds it up to examine his work and, decidedly satisfied, he undoes it and begins another. "I hear congratulations are in order."
"Yeah," is all I say.
I quietly watch as Finnick loops the rope in and out, over and under. Pulling, twisting, looking it over, and beginning again. With each turn, he becomes more and more flustered, until finally, the frayed ends become so tangled that they cannot be undone.
"Ugh!" Finnick throws it to the floor in frustration. "Stupid thing doesn't work anymore, anyway! It just keeps my hands busy."
Prim returns with my food and, seeing Finnick awake, is quickly off again to fetch his. I guess pregnancy has its perks, because I notice my helpings are considerably larger than they have been. Unfortunately, the bland food and the anxiety of the rescue mission don't make for much of an appetite for either Finnick or me. But if I don't eat, I won't be allowed to leave the hospital, so I force myself to swallow a few spoonfuls.
I must be hungrier than I thought, because before long, my tray is empty. Not surprising, really, since it's been more than a day since my last meal. I manage to coax Finnick into eating a few bites, but I ultimately end up finishing his meal for him.
Haymitch catches us just as we are leaving the hospital and lays a new assignment on us. "A diversionary propo," he explains. "It has to be so riveting that Snow himself won't be able to look away."
Finnick and I both jump at the chance to help with the rescue mission. I'm not sure I have anything you'd call riveting, but I do have something that might suffice. The Capitol loves the Star-Crossed Lovers. So much that, in an unprecedented turn of events, Peeta and I were both allowed to live. So, when the camera is rolling, I once again play that angle, and talk about the day we met. Everybody loves a good love story, right?
Finnick, on the other hand...talk about riveting! Even I'm captivated. It's a good thing I went first, because there is no way I would have been able to follow that.
And Haymitch wasn't kidding, either. I did get off easy. Being forced into a marriage to someone who loves you is nothing compared to having to give yourself to the highest bidder every night. In fact, if there's anything the last five weeks have taught me, it's that I love Peeta back. I never want to be without him again, and, if he comes back alive, I'm going to tell him I'm ready for that toasting. We can't do it in Thirteen, of course. Not the way they ration food.
And suddenly it occurs to me. Where will we go when this is all over? Back to Twelve to rebuild? Another district?
I shake my head as though to clear it. I'm too exhausted to think about that right now. And besides...Peeta...might not come back alive. I return my focus to the task at hand and try not to think about anything else.
Thanks to Finnick's vast store of dirty Capitol laundry, this propo turns out to be very time consuming. The good news is it's late afternoon by the time we're done. The bad news is there are still plenty of hours left in the day, so I get permission to take Finnick hunting. Hunting is good. It requires focus, which will keep us from falling apart, and silence, which would otherwise be impossible to fill. And, it provides the added bonus of taking place aboveground. I never get enough time aboveground.
Finnick may be an expert fisherman, but he hunts with about as much skill as...well, as Peeta. Warning the game that we're out to get them. If my family were depending me, we'd be screwed. But since the only thing I'm really trying to kill today is time, it really doesn't matter if we bag anything.
Before too long, I detect a rustle coming from a nearby bush. I pick up a rock, and, just as I am about to toss it, Finnick and I are alerted to the sound of a hovercraft flying overhead. We both look up.
"It could be anybody," Finnick says dismissively.
He's right. Best not to get our hopes up. We may not get good news when they get back anyway. I turn my attention back to the hunt, and toss the rock. At the sound of it hitting the ground, a deer leaps out into the open. I let my arrow fly, and the animal goes down like a ton of bricks.
That's when my communicator goes off.
"Katniss Everdeen," I answer.
"They're back." It's Haymitch's voice. "All of them. They're being taken to the hospital."
The hospital...that means...
All of them, he said!
"We're on our way," I say, eagerly. I turn to Finnick. "I hope you're ready to pop the big question."
I don't even bother to retrieve my arrow. Some other predator can have the deer. Finnick and I practically sprint back to the district.
When we get to the hospital, the place is in an uproar. Doctors and nurses are buzzing around the injured rescue team like a swarm of bees. Finnick quickly locates an unconscious Annie and is immediately at her side. I find Boggs sitting upright on a stretcher, looking a little haggard.
"Peeta's in the room at the end." He gives a wave down the hall. "We used some pretty strong stuff to knock them out, so he'll probably be out a while."
I start to take off, but quickly backtrack. "What about Gale? Is he okay?"
"Took a hit to the shoulder," Boggs replies, "but he'll be fine. They're working on him now."
After a quick nod, I hurry toward the room Boggs indicated. When I get to the door, I come to an immediate halt.
Peeta is there, completely oblivious to the fact that he, at this very moment, is the subject of Prim's phlebotomy practice. Under the supervision of an older medic, my sister swabs the inside crease of his elbow with alcohol.
I slowly walk toward them.
Peeta! He's really here!
He looks like hell. His lower lip is swollen, the right side of his face is badly bruised, and he hasn't had a decent meal in weeks. But he's alive, and he's here with me. Finally out of Snow's hands.
"Now find the vein," the medic instructs. Prim is a good student. Not bothering to point out that she has plenty of experience using syringes.
I watch as the phial fills with Peeta's blood. Prim immediately corks and labels it, and places it in a tray of other phials.
"You did well, Miss Everdeen," the medic says. "I'll drop these off at the lab and see you back at the nurse's station." Then she leaves the room.
I throw my arms around my sister, and my eyes fill with tears. It seems crying is all I ever do anymore.
"Oh, Katniss." She gives my braid a light yank. "You're such a hormonal mess."
I can't help but chuckle. I reach behind her back and return the gesture. From the corner of my eye, I see Peeta's face and hands spasm, and recall him doing that when I last saw him on television.
"He's still twitching," I say.
"It's a nervous reaction," Prim explains. "His blood pressure is pretty high, too. I think it's safe to assume he's been under a great deal of stress."
My eyes wander to a liquid-filled pouch hanging over the bed. "What's the IV drip for?"
"Dehydration," she says. "That's evident in the amount of weight he's lost in such a short period of time."
Peeta's body spasms again.
"I have to get back to work," Prim says. "Let us know as soon as he wakes up."
"I will," I say. And she disappears through the door.
I look down at my sleeping husband. Run my fingers through his blond curls. His blond curls! They're in my hand! I'm actually touching him! I feel the sensation of sweet relief run through my veins as the realization sinks in. "You're alive," I whisper.
I try to scoot him over to one side of the narrow mattress. Not the best idea, I soon realize. He's lost a lot of weight, but he's still pretty heavy. Still, I do manage a few inches, and decide that's enough for me to squeeze in next to him. Barely. I quietly remove my boots and rest my head on his shoulder.
I crane my neck and leave a kiss on his chin. "I love you."
For the first time in weeks, I think everything will be okay.