Hot water cascades down my back and steam fills the narrow wooden stall. What tension the whiskey didn't relieve, the shower certainly has. I managed to convince the camp steward for one last shower before they locked up for the night, which means the privacy and full water pressure not shared with fifteen other soldiers also lends itself to my relief. I scrub myself clean of the forest, sticky orange, sweat and sex, however my mind still lingers on those elements.
The way Gale transported me back home with his touch, resurrecting jealousy of the girls he kissed, the crude jokes from the Hob, the smell of the cool earth mixed with a day's work of hiking and hunting, makes me ache for the soot and hunger before my name was first called. The thoughts of the what-ifs and whys revolve in my head so loudly and so frequently I sympathise with the ones who drown the racket with morphling and alcohol.
With every story I hear about the other Victors, I feel as if my own no longer holds any value. I am actually the lucky one in our little circle because what Snow has stolen from me is crumbs compared to my peers - I still have my family, most of my sanity, my strength, a sliver of dignity that hasn't ended up in a magazine somewhere, and I even have my idiot prep team. My vendetta against Snow feels childish.
I feel like an imposter.
How am I their Mockingjay? How am I their leader when someone has to constantly hold my hand and tell me where to go and what to say?
There is a knock and someone clears their throat, more than likely the steward hinting at the fact I have been in here long enough. I reluctantly turn off the hot water and grimace at the cold air that creeps into the stall. To give thanks, I quickly dry off and get dressed so they can finally close up. In doing so, I am left walking to my quarters with wet hair and bare feet in untied boots, making me reminiscent of when Gale and I had to hurry back from the lake; damp skin against dusty clothes, feet not yet dry enough for socks and grass too stiff and spikey to walk on barefoot. Normally we would lay out on the bank in the sun, but that day I had completely forgotten about a doctor's house visit for my mother.
Those times away at the lake are moments I truly relish, especially during the days when my mother was not mentally present. The only thing to do in that quiet house was listen to the clock tic and toc in the small room while I watched her stare into the abyss. When chores and homework were done, Prim was dressed and fed and usually at the neighbors and mother was tucked in her chair, that meant I could slip under the fence and disappear for a while. They were where they wanted to be, why couldn't I?
Like today. Sure, it wasn't the most perfect way to escape, but it happened on my terms, and it was with someone I feel the safest with. I remember what Finnick said about Annie, how he wished he hadn't waited so long for her, how he had missed so much by doing so. My mind spirals into another wave of what-ifs about Gale.
Here, in the rebel camps, the company has had me stay in random locations throughout the week, sometimes moving me in the middle of the night. For this round, I am assigned to a makeshift barrack inside of a large cave. About fifty soldiers line their cots in the straightest formation of three rows they can manage on the rocky floor. Towards the back, munitions and supplies are stacked in large crates.
The cave is lit with dim bulbs strung along the walls, allowing barely enough light for me to find my way to my bunk which is posted near the back and I quickly and quietly change into clean long underwear for bed. Wool socks feel nice against my raw feet and I scrub my hair with a towel to dry it a bit more.
Once I get settled under what looks to be a donated quilt, I stare at the jagged ceiling for a long time, urging my eyelids to get heavier. The damp smell of the rock takes me back to my first games, however the noises throughout the cavern of people rustling in their cots and snoring keeps me from falling completely into the memory, especially when for some people, it becomes apparent their dinner didn't settle well and flatulence is added to the ensemble.
Although I feel like we aren't technically underground, because I can see the way out across the cavern instead of above it, I think of my father and how he oftentimes had to endure close quarters with his fellow miners. He shared stories when the elevator was out of service and it would be two days before he would resurface. As a joke, they had put a dead canary next to the rear end of one of the men who had fallen asleep. They almost caused a cave in with their roaring laughter.
Back then I smiled and laughed so much with him. My mother did too.
I'm not sure how long I had been asleep when the entire cave lights up with a bright flash followed by an enormous explosion. Every occupant is jolted from their slumber, including myself and Gale. He is in the row across from me with his boots and tactical pack neatly tucked under the green canvas cot. Everyone stands, reaching for clothes or rifles, some activate glow sticks and turn on red flash lights. Another blast outside lights us up once again, and instantly, everyone sighs in relief, some laugh and holler even.
It is only lighting. Very close lightning. I am thankful I'm tucked away in the rock, instead of under a flimsy nylon sheet outside. The thunder is loud, but the rain would drive me absolutely mad with its constant hiss and static pounding on the tents. I feel bad for the soldiers who will more than likely spend the next few hours curled up with their pillows pressed over their heads.
The thunder echoes through the cave, shaking everyone to the core. That sound was the last thing I remembered in the arena only a few months ago, save for the pain, of course. I settle down on my knees next to my cot and try to reorient myself. A new location every night becomes confusing and I have to not only remind myself of where I am, but who I am.
"My name is Katniss Everdeen. I am seventeen years old. My home is District 12. I was in the Hunger Games. I escaped. Now I am in District 2 helping overthrow the Capitol." Lightning cracks again, making me jump. "This is not the arena. This is not the lightning tree. This is not the bunker in 13." I almost say that this isn't real - but - it is. I fix the phrase and say it is natural instead. I close my eyes and listen to the rain. This isn't the blood rain, but natural rain. The flashing light is not from bombs, but is totally natural lightning.
Everyone in the mountain barrack has essentially calmed down, some have taken this opportunity to go and use the latrine. However, when I look up to see Gale, he is pacing besides his cot, his boots on but not tied. Judging by the fact he didn't put his pants on and is pacing only in his long underwear tells me he was jerked into combat mode. One hand holds a rifle and the other rubs through his hair and each crack makes his hands go to his ears. I now see that our fight in 8 may have affected him more than I thought. Or was it when our home was bombed? I feel bad when I think that I am not the only one at war here.
"Gale, hey," I call over to him from my cot. When he doesn't hear me I stand and cautiously step over to him. "It's just me Gale, shhh, it's just me," I announce myself before I reach him. I understand it's too dark at this moment for Gale to see and I can tell he is very much in fight mode.
"Katniss? Oh god, this stuff is crazy huh?" he says as he continues to pace, not looking at me.
"Gale, it's okay. It's only lightning. It's natural. No bombs. We're safe," I try to reassure him.
"Bombs? This would be the perfect time to. . . I should go see Lyme," he sits down and starts to lace his boots. I squat down in front of him and still his hands.
"Gale, it's fine. We're safe," I say again. I can barely make out his features in the dim red glow from his flashlight which is still clipped to his tactical pack on the floor. When the lightning hits again, I finally see the fear in his eyes instead of just feeling it in his shivering wrists.
"Come with me," I unclip his red light from his bag and stand up, pulling on his hands to lead him to the back of the cave where the boxes and crates are stored. One thing I know best is how to find cubby holes to tuck myself into until all of the bad goes away. We pass by a case of ammunition and rifles where I find a couple sets of shooting range earmuffs. I shove a pair onto Gale's head before putting on my own. Instantly the ruckus of confused and sleepy soldiers disappear.
The cacophony continues to follow us and it resonates through our bones, but the further we venture into the cave, the less jarring the shockwaves and flashes are.
We find a spot way in the back, where up and over a few boxes is a gap between some M.R.E.s and wooden crates; their contents only known by those who can translate the random letters hastily spray painted on the side. It's cozy and fits the two of us just fine.
I sit Gale down and allow him to lean back against the sacs of grain and study his face. He looks as if he has calmed down a little since I put the ear protection on him. He taps on my pair and smiles, I guess he means to say 'good idea.' He lets out a big puff of air, but straightens up again at the next blast that rumbles through the cave. I put my hand on his chest and I can feel his heart pounding. His boots rub back and forth on the dusty ground and he tightly closes his eyes.
I lean forward and kiss him, hard. His feet stop moving and his hands stay put at his sides. When I pull away, he doesn't flinch when the next explosion of light finds us in our hiding spot. And before the sound can come crashing in behind its mate, we are already tearing at each other's clothes.
Gale is right, there is something about him when he's hurt or vulnerable that gets me. Maybe it's to make up for all of the wrong that I've done because I'm the reason for all of his pain.
I straddle him in the dim red light, I still feel his heart pounding but it is no longer fearful. Another blast sends vibrations through the rock which, this time, excites every part of me. Gale slips his hands under my long sleeve under shirt and grips me tightly around my ribs as I start to move on top of him. My breathing becomes reminiscent from earlier in the forest, however, it's natural and not as a mimic. Now, I understand. I understand the sensation of being in control of my movements as well as sharing those movements with my partner as well as the same heartbeat.
I lay my left hand on Gale's shoulder, just as it slopes up to his neck. I feel his heat blossoming in this chilly little nook of ours. His pulse drums out a rhythm for me to follow. I allow my right hand to slip between us and I start to touch myself. Another strike cracks outside, yet I doubt it is the reason for the buzzing in my core.
My earmuffs are still tightly clamped over my ears. Even though they mute the outside world, they amplify the tiniest sounds that I so desperately try to keep at bay - however, I don't hear them like I would with my ears, I feel them in my head, much like when I am underwater.
I move faster, and for a moment I think of our first experience, how one sided it was. I wonder if I am being selfish until I see Gale's face - his head back against the bags of grain, his mouth slightly open and his eyes are closed. The way his eyebrows are knitted but turn upward let's me know this time is not as one sided as I thought.
When he bites his lip, and moves his hips upward, changing the angle ever so slightly, I feel something new, I have to stop for a moment. Gale pulls me forward and wraps his arms around me, stilling me while he takes over and lifts his hips, over and over again.
I feel the thunder between us and I sit up again, but this time I lean back, moving my left hand to his right knee to hold myself while my right resumes its position between us. He lets me move at my pace and his hands don't stray when I close my eyes. A moan escapes from my throat and resonates in my head, chambered by the firearm earmuffs and I realize only I can hear it - Gale has on his ear protection and with the storm shrouding us in its song, I allow myself to express, just loud enough, my most intimate sounds.
My mind is blank and my senses are in overdrive; I feel the cool rock under my bare knees, the percussive shockwaves in my core, the humming sweet sounds that swim in my ears, the light I see even with closed eyes, the hardness that presses inside me in just the right way and my very own fingers directing my pleasure.
The combination of these sensations paired with Gale's own displays of ecstasy, drive me over the edge and I imagine that the ground shakes because of me. I freeze in place, but my center continues to flex against Gale. I open my eyes to see him watching me, his mouth open and gasping. Suddenly his eyes scrunch closed and he bites his lip. Calloused hands grip my naked thighs and the hips I continue to straddle flex just as I did a moment ago which I also feel inside.
Breathless, I fall forward onto Gale's chest and let him wrap his arms around me. We lay in the red light for a few moments, until our hearts slow, and our little cubbyhole comes back into focus. He kisses the top of my head and strokes my hair.
I find it interesting that not even eighteen hours later at the train station at the base of the Nut, when a man pulls a gun on me, my pulse never changes. I tell him what Peeta told me, that I am tired of being a piece in their Games. What I meant was I had finally overcome the fear and the control that ground me down into the bloodied earth by the Capitol, by Thread, by Snow himself.
I was tired of killing, of feeling helpless and not in control. To stand up against this man with cold metal pressed against my temple, I am able to look him in the eye without blinking. I am no better than my peers who were called to the arena, nor am I better than those who claw their way out of this burning train tunnel. But I'll be damned if I let another man press me down. And when I see myself get shot on that giant screen, I have never felt more accomplished because I was standing tall.
I am also tired of ending up in this damned hospital bed.
I'm tired of sleeping. Of staying awake. The wires stuck to my chest and the tape scattered across my arm holding tubes and cords in place. Even more tape is stuck across my belly to conceal the operation that removed my ruptured spleen.
I'm tired of the doctors coming in the moment I finally find a comfortable position to sleep.
I'm tired of the effort it takes just to walk across the cold room to the bathroom. I barely have the energy to roll my eyes as Johanna whistles at me as I walk past her bed in my hospital gown which reveals my backside.
When I hear Johanna whimper and curse at night, I hate myself for having the slightest complaint of my situation. I almost insist she takes my morphling. She's endured so much more than me - to refuse her would be absolutely selfish of me.
I pretend to sleep when Gale comes by to see me. There was something about our last conversation that really upset me. How he easily justified his plans for the bombing of 2. How much his face changed when he spoke of killing all those people. I try to remember how fragile he was in the cave, clutching his ears, cowering at the lighting strikes.
Although, I think that night changed him somehow. The lightning had continued for about an hour after we returned to our cots. Gale had fallen asleep well before I had, his body sprawled across the cot with such comfort and complete disregard for anyone and everything. I must admit, I slept fairly well that night too, but my opinion of trapping people in a crumbling mountain never changed.
When Johanna would harass Gale on his visits, I have to try my best to keep from smiling. How she calls him gorgeous, or pleads for him to take his shirt off. He doesn't stay long when it's just the two of them.
Soon, my electric tethers are removed but the intravenous cannula remains on the back of my hand, leaving me access to my morphling and whatever else they decide I may be in need of. I can walk about the room freely in proper attire which is somewhat like pajamas; they are loose and comfortable.
I manage my first real shower since I arrived back in 13. The sweat and grime that wipes and damp sponges are incapable of removing disappears easily in the hot water. I pat my stomach lightly around the stitches to try and remove any unnecessary scabs and black sticky lines left over from the medical tape. It's not advised to let your wounds get wet, so I awkwardly submerge as much of myself for as long as I can. Finnick showed me a trick to keep the showers from automatically turning off after five minutes. I wait until my fingers are pruned before I begrudgingly turn off the water.
In our hospital room, we are fortunate to have a bathroom with a shower, so we aren't having to gather up all of our belongings and shuffle down a mile long hallway just to pee. When I finally finish, I find Johanna curled up in my bed with my morphling attached to her arm, her head is buried under my pillow.
The next day, Cressida is in our room with Castor and Pollux to film a new propo to commemorate my survival and the Districts' victory in the latest events. Cressida runs her soft fingers across my purple torso, amazed at the sheer size of the bruise. She reminds our viewers that Cinna is still looking out for me and it will take a lot more than a coward with a gun to kill me.
Johanna is courteous enough to stay quiet through the interview, only rolling her eyes once or twice at Cressida's praise of my recovery. I know for a fact that given the opportunity, she would turn down any interviews or propos about her return from the Capitol, however, she sits on her bed bouncing her foot as if she's insulted no one is giving her any attention.
Once the segment is done, Cressida relieves Castor and Pollux from the room and she sits with me for a minute.
"They wanted us to do the propos the day you woke up," she says quietly. "I knew that wouldn't be right. You weren't ready for that. Coin wasn't too pleased, but I think you look a lot better now than you did with all those wires and stuff."
"Thank you. I feel better, but until I can sneeze without crying, Coin will have to wait for her Mockingjay."
"You're doing really great. You scared us there for a minute. I'm glad you pulled through," she says and Johanna loudly sighs and pulls her curtain closed around her bed.
Cressida and I look at each other as if one of us has kicked a puppy. I start to make an excuse for her, but I only manage a sigh of my own. Cressida puts her hands up and shakes her head, remaining silent. She gets up and goes to Johanna's side of the room and slowly peeks her head around the curtain. Keeping her voice low, I can only make out the gist of what she is saying, things like how Johanna had inspired her to join the rebellion.
"I don't know if you remember me, but I, well, we worked together once. I photographed you," Cressida finally confesses. "I felt so bad about how they were treating you-"
"I don't remember you. Photographed me for what?" Johanna asks sternly.
I can hear Cressida struggling to find the right words, "It was a, uhm, a special kind of publication, I guess you can say. I didn't like doing it. Like I said, you inspired me to make a difference, to seek out the rebellion."
"I didn't notice a difference. What did you do to help me?"
"Well, I-" Cressida clears her throat, "It took a long time before I met Plutarch and was finally put in a strategic position within the rebellion. I'm so sorry for what happened to you."
"This photoshoot. You get paid for it?"
"Of course, but-"
I hear a loud slap from behind the curtain.
"How fucking dare you come in here and say you wanted to help me when you were making money off of me! You Capitol piece of shit. How much did you make off those photos? How much money did my cunt put in your pocket?"
I feel the room turn to ice and Cressida flings open the curtain and hurries out the door with her hand to her cheek.
It isn't long before Johanna pulls the curtain back and stomps to my bed, wordlessly sitting down next to me and popping the morphling drip onto her own cannula. Her lips are pursed and her nostrils are flared as she breathes heavily. After a minute, she closes her eyes and allows herself to relax under the spell of the morphling.
"Cressida really has been making a difference," I break the silence.
"Just because your girlfriend has been all sweety pie to you, doesn't mean she's still not one of them."
"She told me she had no choice, they threatened her if she didn't do the shoot," I say, desperately trying to explain the other side of the story.
"Oh, you two sharing secrets now, huh? What else did she say about me?" Johanna purses her lips again, but her eyes are barely open now. "She tell you what happened when I finally said no? When I wanted to make a difference?" Her chin quivers and she slumps over onto my pillow. Although she closes her eyes, a few tears manage to escape from between her heavy lids. She lets out a ragged sigh, and falls asleep.
The events during the following days keep my mind off of my throbbing ribs. All of my morphling goes to Johanna now, even after Annie and Finnick's wedding night. The dancing and festivities left me in so much pain that night, however, my midnight meeting with Peeta kept me sober. He reminded me that I still have real enemies.
Real enemies in the Capitol. The place where I am not allowed to go. Coin must have heard about mine and Johanna's frustrations about our being held captive in 13, itching to get out and truly make a difference. We are summoned again to the Command Center after dinner, and this time, Gale and Finnick join us.
I gladly take a seat at the large table. It's a long journey to Command, and twice in one day has my ribs burning. Johanna decides to find a seat on a short cabinet to the back of the room, whereas Gale and FInnick remain standing.
Coin stands before us, with two guards standing at attention at her side. I figure it to be more theatrics on her part, but soon she informs us that she has an incentive for us. A gift really.
"I have given you three weeks to train for the opportunity to be deployed on a special ops mission into the Capitol. Some are more prepared than others," she says, looking at Gale. "I want to make sure your heads remain in the game. Come with me." Her guards stay with her, one in front and one behind, as she guides our small group through little dark hallways. I bring up the rear, shuffling along at a decent pace, but not fast enough to overdo it. Eventually, I fall far enough behind to where Gale has to come back and find me since they made two turns ahead of me. I can only imagine how disappointed Coin is in my failure to even walk.
Soon we come to a familiar compartment, number 3908, the holding cell for Venia, Flavius and Octavia, my prep team. My stomach turns at the thought of seeing more of my friends or allies behind this door. Gale notices it too and speaks for me, "What could you possibly have for us in there?"
Coin clears her throat and motions to the guards. One steps forward and inserts a large key into the lock. The other tightens his grip on his weapon. Whatever it is, they don't want it getting out, yet how they are looking at me, they don't want me going in.
When the door opens, we peer inside to the dark room. A figure sits on the floor, shackled to the far wall.
Coin clears her throat and says, "What is in this room? Your incentive to successfully complete your training." She nods again to the guard and the light is switched on.
A small emaciated man with white hair and a scruffy white beard is huddled against the wall, wearing nothing but sweatpants. I don't recognize him.
"That son of a bitch," Gale says. And then it hits me.