Distantly, Katniss can hear voices. Marco, someone calls, standard procedure, a hundred miles away. They can't touch her. But there's something she's supposed to do.
Marco, they call again. Nearby crystal vibrates with the sound.
"Polo," she answers, too weak, then starts to cough. Her lungs burn with the coal spice. The cough echoes and echoes, too long, until she realizes that it's not only her she's hearing.
Rocks stir and slip somewhere in the darkness. Her gaze swings to illuminate the area. Everywhere she looks, she sees grotesque shapes, crystalline silhouettes that masquerade as people, broken and shattered.
Movement, a frond waves, something with five digits. She picks her way toward it, this grasping tentacle, and then reaches out. Its grip is warm and firm and like a spark. It's a hand, an arm, and now a head, once cleansed by their excursion in the lake, caked anew in grime. And a face she'd know anywhere.
"Hey, Katniss," Peeta says. He's calm, like they've just run into each other in the halls at school. Too calm, given that he's covered in a blanket of rocks and shards, his other arm and legs pinned and unmoving, distorted, dark shapes through crystal.
She doesn't even know where to start, this impossible tangle of limbs.
From somewhere below, the earth warns. There's no time to think, no time to consider this rock or that, this tenuous tumble. Carefully, so carefully, she begins to shove and shift the rubble, first this plank, then the next. He helps with his good arm where he can, but his leverage is limited. As she frees his left side, he sucks in a breath. Rock shivers and hisses as he's unearthed, his right leg also pulling free.
With a bit of help, he gets to his knees, then, miraculously, his feet.
"Can you walk?" He seems unsteady. Everything around them is unsteady, nothing where it's supposed to be.
"I think so. Yeah."
"We need to move," she says, already hunting, scanning. "See if there's another way out of here." First rule of thumb when there's a cave-in. Keep moving, try to find a ventilation shaft, get away from the unstable area if you can. And this, this is the most unstable area of all, water dripping for thousands of years, forever straining to reach the earth below. "Do you have your pack?" Hers is lost, likely pinioned beneath the giant spear that had been aimed for her head.
Peeta forages in the rubble, lifting aside crystals like logs, showing his strength. She remembers seeing him unloading supplies with his brothers. He puts those skills to good use now, knowing exactly how to lift and swing with the greatest leverage. After a few more precious minutes, he procures his pack, and the risk becomes worth it.
"Great," she says tightly, continuing to survey the area in long sweeps. "Let's go."
He follows her lead, picking their way across a minefield of loose rock, every step a gamble. They gingerly skirt the alluvial fan of rubble that blocks their former entrance, then continue along the curved wall, hunting for another way out.
"There," he calls, spying it before she does. An access. It's a much smaller shaft, clearly intended as an emergency hatch, or perhaps the crude beginnings of another crucial artery like the one that had brought them here. Major find like this, they were bound to want to network it. Always more than one way in and out, another cardinal rule.
Katniss eyes the jagged rend in the wall. It's rough, a mere fissure, carved quick and dirty, not even enough room yet to stand up straight.
"Let's clip in," she says. "Looks a bit steep."
"Want me to go first?"
"No, I need you behind, in case I slip. You'd barrel me over." She's sturdy, yes, but safer to put the lighter one up front.
He mock bows. "Ladies first." He steps in after her, and they start up. Soon, they're climbing quickly, making great time despite the narrow confines. "Funny," he pants from a few paces back. "Never thought I'd find our mining lessons so practical." The sentiment mirrors her thoughts from earlier. And why should he? He's the Baker's son.
He doesn't even have to ask why she knows so much. Everyone knows about her father, Gale's father, too many fathers and mothers. The funeral was the biggest one the District had ever seen. The Mayor himself officiated. She doesn't remember what he said.
After that day, the lessons taught in school, the endless focus on mine safety, it all suddenly mattered. Katniss couldn't have stopped listening had she tried. She soaked it in and thought: Was that it? Was that what killed him? A spark from the elevator, as it swung and clipped an outcrop? They'd never know.
"Hurry," she says. "We need to get to the main tunnel before—"
No warning this time, the earth bucks. Katniss falls to one hip and bounces, backslides for a few feet, until she jams her boots into either side of the rough wall. She braces herself against Peeta's answering jolt at the end of the rope.
"Go!" he calls, already scrabbling back to his feet. They stagger forward, pursued by the hiss of rock and dirt dislodging in their wake. Like they're being herded, rats in a maze.
They're not going to make it. Grit rains, swarms their eyes, chokes their throats, making it nearly impossible to see, to breathe, to find purchase. Belatedly, Katniss considers a horrifying thought—perhaps this shaft had been dug from the cave itself, never finished. Any moment now, she could run smack into a barrier, the terminal point. Peeta would plow into her and that would be it. They'd be buried alive, with only a few minutes of air left…
The access widens, vomiting them into a bisecting tunnel. Peeta lands heavily on her, followed immediately by a tidal wave of choking earth and dust. For a few long moments, the dirt streams free, submerging them. She can't move, can't scream.
Then Peeta shifts, pressing up hard and somehow lifts free, his body a shield against the onslaught, which has become lethargic now, sated. She slides from under him, pulling first one leg, then the other, and then she's out, quickly reaching back to help extract him from the muck, which has him to the waist.
When he's finally extricated, they stand for a moment and just breathe, brushing detritus from their face, their clothes. Katniss swipes crumbs from her eyes and looks up to find Peeta bent over, hands on his knees, pale and panting.
"Keep moving," she gasps to him, and he nods tightly. From here, they can see that the tunnel ahead, visible just beyond the landslide, dead-ends in a pocket picked clean of clinging coal. Their only hope is to retrace the vein to its source. "This way."
She leads them onward, maintaining the same punishing pace as before, although the earth seems to have quieted now, returning to its former slumber. Peeta struggles to keep up, his gait and breath uneven, him having taken the brunt of both cave-ins.
Abruptly, she stops. She can feel Peeta behind her, drawing close in the narrow space.
"What is it?"
They've come to a fork. Two seemingly identical holes gape, like eyes in a skull. There are lines chicken-scratched into the cross beam, numbers perhaps, but they mean nothing to the uninitiated.
On instinct, she goes right.
For a few meters, it seems like the wrong choice. The walls close in again. Katniss is gasping, afraid any moment that they'll be hit by another aftershock, a ripple in the water. She considers calling it off, telling Peeta that they need to back out, this route is going nowhere, the earth is eating them alive, when the tunnel constricts a final time and then spits her out into a small cave.
Gratefully, her spine unfurls to its full height. When she spreads her arms wide, a bird, she can't touch the walls. An old loading zone. Long abandoned, by the looks of it. But roomy. And ventilated, by the smell of it. Katniss scouts back to its far end, confirming that, aside from a few deeper forays into the rock, coal picked and nearly licked clean, the shaft dead-ends here. Nowhere to go but back.
"Rest here for a bit," she orders. The ceiling above is reinforced with beams, and it's already survived two tremors. It's not much, a far cry from the underground lake, but it's better than the alternative. From her hazy recollection of the map, the one featured so prominently yet uselessly at the Museum, there are only so many pockets like this, criss-crossed with shafts.
Peeta struggles free of his pack and straightens in relief. He's filthy, as she surely is, christened again in coal after their brief respite at the lake. The smudge on his face makes his eyes a ghostly blue.
"So I guess we wait," he says.
She nods, a slight dip of her chin but doesn't look at him. "We wait."
Without discussing it, they settle in to opposite ends of their little cave. Katniss angles herself so he's not quite in her eye line. She's irritated by how calm he is, almost cheery, rooting about in his pack. He doesn't understand yet, was probably doodling in his notebook during this particular lecture. The one she absorbed with rapt attention as the teacher described the best ways to survive down in the mines if, for example, there's a cave-in.
This is how it will go: It will take them at least twenty-four hours to drill a bore hole. They'll target the cave of wonders. Odds are that the two lost kids have decided to take their chances near water. She'd responded a weak Polo; perhaps they'd heard it or the subsequent coughing. Of course, they don't know that she and Peeta are no longer in the cave. They can't know this, can't know how the stalactites swung like pendulums.
So they'll spend a fruitless day finding that out. Maybe an extra hour or two calling Marco, listening for an answering Polo that will never come. At that point, they'll have a decision to make. They won't know why Katniss and Peeta aren't answering. So they'll have to decide—probably the Mayor—if it's worth expending valuable time and resources to try another bore hole.
Say they do, say they decide the lives of two children, and one from the Seam besides, are worth the trouble. Likely with some persuasion from Peeta's mother and maybe Gale. Gale will tell them that he knows what she'll do, he knows how she thinks but, for once, he'll be completely dead wrong. Because she didn't do what she should have done, stay near the water, find shelter, and hope for the best. He doesn't know about the second cave-in.
So they'll try another bore hole, another fruitless round of Marco / Polo. Another wasted day costing the District precious, precious time it can't afford. Maybe they'll decide to try this very loading zone, or somewhere else along the arteries she and Peeta can reach. But there's probably another, more likely candidate. The map, on the wall of the Museum, is of spaghetti. They've been mining this area for nearly a hundred years.
This, then, is how they'll die. Their would-be rescuers putting pins on a map with their eyes closed. And this is actually the most promising scenario. Katniss can image other scenarios in which their chances of survival are equally zero.
Mines could have caved in across the mountain, leaving pockets of miners that they'd triage based on who's down there, position, size of family, etc. If the other seniors were also trapped, somewhere on the trek back to Grand Central, they'd go after them first. She and Peeta are but two.
Katniss stands and begins to pace, five steps forward, five steps back, thoughts snarling, fear rising, boiling over until she snaps, "You shouldn't be here." Peeta freezes from where he's been intent at his feet, scratching something in the dirt with the edge of a rock. But he ignores her jibe, doesn't even look up. His jaw twitches, and then he just renews his efforts. "What are you even doing?" Her voice grates, harsh.
"I'm drawing a map."
It's the last thing she'd expected him to say. "Of what?"
"Of the mines. Trying to figure out where we are. If there might be another way out."
She stares at him. Here she is, wallowing in hypotheticals and doomsday scenarios, and he's already trying to save her. Again.
"Can I see?"
This time, he looks up. "Please. I'm hoping you can help me remember."
She steps gingerly around the post that separates them, careful not to jostle it. Stands above his map for a moment, squinting at it upside down. Then she swivels to kneel next to him. Uncomfortably close, but she needs to see.
And she thought Townies don't pay attention. But she should know by now. Peeta isn't just any Townie.
He's recreated the map that's on display in the Museum. The one that they've stood in front of, year after year, while a voice like syrup tells them about this pride of Panem, the twelfth world wonder.
"I think we're here," he points to one of the ovals. "And that fork we came to. It could be here or here. Mostly I just remember that the various loading zones made a rabbit."
She frowns, not sure what he means. The lines in the dirt are clear but crude, his only utensil a rock. He's clearly seeing more in his mind's eye than she is. She cocks her head and then she understands, the oblong circles of the various loading zones coalesce with the torso of Grand Central to form a simple rabbit with two ears, fat feet, and a stubby tail.
"Rabbits don't have five feet." She points. "So if we head back to that fork, the other shaft might eventually double back to Grand Central."
"One shaft for loading, one for unloading," he quotes, likely from the foreman's speech that she missed. Briefly, she thinks of Gale. She wonders if he already knows what's happened. Or if he's still toiling down in the dark deep, and he'll find out when he comes up for air.
Then another thought strikes her. Three cave-ins up here, so much closer to the surface, there could have easily been more, down there. Deepest. A third scenario, the worst.
They have to decide. Leave the relative safety of the loading zone, brave that second fork, see where it takes them. Katniss is quiet for a long moment, listening like she does in the forest when her prey is near. Whatever they awakened down deep, by cavorting in that cave, it's finally still. She can't feel it anymore, the buzz in her bones.
"It's worth a short," she says. "Let's move."
So they gather up his pack, unwilling to part from it, and, with a fortifying breath, squeeze back through the crevasse.
Where they'd turned right, they now turn left. Almost immediately, the shaft widens and heads up. The panic that's pressed on Katniss' chest begins to ease, just slightly. Up is good. Up is hope. They increase their pace, forgetting the stifling heat and the first pangs of hunger and thirst. Everyone had been too busy swimming, they hadn't thought to eat. She fumbles in her skirts, glad to see that her protein bar is still there. Crumbled, but edible. With the one in the pack, that makes two.
Distracted, Katniss almost plows into Peeta. He's stopped short, his broad back blocking her view of what's beyond. But she can already see it in his shoulders.
"Another one," he confirms. She taps his shoulder once, a signal, and he steps around her, an awkward little dance. We call it the two-step, Gale might say. She shines her light on a jumble of rubble, similar to the one that had cut them off from the rest of the group. Just as sudden, just as devastating, just as final.
They'd followed Peeta's rabbit trail, but it led to nowhere. He was probably right, with his eye for detail. This fork probably led back to Grand Central, she can feel it. Probably, but they'll never know.
Peeta's already moving, his clear eyes missing nothing. "The rubble seems a bit more loose here. Maybe we can dig our way through."
Maybe, but they both know it's a bad idea. Yet another cardinal rule of cave-ins: Don't try to dig your way through. The ground is already unstable, rocks roiling and shifting like a mouthful of loose teeth. One wrong move, and you're likely to bury yourself alive.
Despite her earlier jab about Townies, she knows Peeta knows this. They both know it. But if his map was right, then there's no other way out. The little cave they found themselves in doesn't connect back to the surface in any other way.
So Peeta just turns and hefts one of the smaller boulders, pulling it to his shoulder like a sack of flour. There's nowhere to put it, not really, but he looks around anyway. Katniss is about to join him, start piecing together a plan for how to stack the rubble in a way that will still allow them to back out if need be, when she smells something, like a fresh kill in the woods. A smell she knows well.
"Peeta," she says. "Stop."
"What is it?" He grunts, lowering the boulder carefully to the side.
He does as she asks, head cocked. Methodically, she directs her headlamp at him in long sweeps, first his head, neck, torso, arms, then…
He looks down, looks to where she's pointing the light. And where she's pointing is a slick sheen on his clothes, and not just of sweat. Peeta's left leg is drenched in it. The leg he's been favoring, the cause of his uneven gait.
Blood. She'd smelled blood. Animal and human, it all smells the same.
"Oh," Peeta says. He looks up at her, and then it's like time moves like molasses, every blink of his eyes as the impulses reach his brain. His irises roll up up up, until all she can see is white, and he crumples where he stands. She's too slow, diving forward to scrape her knees.
There's a crack, and his headlamp winks out.
"Peeta," she calls, slapping at his face. He needs to wake up. He must wake up.
"Oh," he says again, weak but this time with wonder. She's so very close, half-draped on him, her face inches from his. She can feel the rise and fall of his chest.
She pulls back, gives him space to breathe. He looks at her for a long moment until the cloud in his eyes clears. Then he glances down toward his leg, face pinched in pain.
"Guess it's worse than I thought. It caught on something, back in the cave, when you were pulling me out." So many jagged edges. Her own arms and legs are criss-crossed, like the time she and Gale braved the briars in the woods. But hers are shallow cuts like fingernails, not like this.
She's heard of these things, adrenaline keeping you going for longer than you should. She needs to get him back to the loading zone, where there's space for him to lie down, space for her to take a look and do what needs to be done.
"You should have said something." She's snapping at him again, a tendency when she's worried. Or more than worried.
Gale usually snaps right back, and they clash. But Peeta just looks at her again, eyes soft. "I'm sorry. I thought it was just a scratch. Didn't seem…important, given everything."
He's doing it again, that thing where he's looking at her like she's the only thing he sees. She turns away, can't bask in the glory of that gaze.
"We need to get back to the zone." Still terse.
She helps him to his feet, doesn't mind where he grips her forearm, then shoulder. Then he's standing, balancing weight on his good leg. She can hear him breathing. He's looking vaguely down at the ground, but not at his leg no, most certainly not at his leg, brow furrowed as though he's trying to do math in his head.
"Can you walk?"
"I…" He shifts some weight, blanches.
It's answer enough. In return, she just shoulders on his pack and braces her other arm around him. Together, they lurch forward.
When there's enough room for them to walk side-by-side, it's almost manageable. She gets a bit of a respite when Peeta hops on his good leg. But when the walls force them down to single file, she nearly doubles over with the weight of him on her back. He's a lot heavier than he looks. She's gasping, chanting, "Almost there, almost there."
He says nothing, just focuses on moving forward. One foot, drag. One foot, drag.
Somehow, they tumble back to the zone. Peeta crawls himself to the little hollow he'd settled into earlier, decimating his map.
"Home sweet home," he says. His face is pale, alien in the light of her headlamp, shadows in the wrong places. His eyes rove restlessly, not quite focusing on her face. She's seen this before, in the faces of men stretched out on her dining room table, before she retreats to her room. Not all of them survived.
She wishes, now, that she'd stayed in the room. That she'd watched, like Prim. The mere glimpses she's seen, they might not be enough. But she has to try.
She starts with his boots, reaching to unlace them, so much bigger than her own. Pulls off one, then the next, setting them neatly out of the way, leaving his socks on in case he gets cold.
He's watching her now. It's unnerving, the way he looks at her. The way he's always looked at her.
She pauses, but there's no easy way to say this. "I need to take off your pants."
He nods and tries to help, fingers fumbling at the button. But he's too disoriented and the button is too small, so after a beat she gently pries his hands away. She fumbles with the button a bit herself, unused to opening it from this angle. Then it slips free. The zipper feels slick and too loud. Like hers, his underwear are still damp from the lake.
"Not exactly the way I pictured it," Peeta mumbles, then coughs what's supposed to be a laugh, trying to make her comfortable. He watches her, always watches her as he helps again, shifting his hips so she can slip the pants down, first off his good leg, free of his foot.
When she peels his other soaked and sticky pant free, the world wobbles. She's not like her mother, her sister. Her stomach doesn't do blood. She always looks away at this point in the Games. But this time she can't look away, can't leave the room while her mother and sister work their magic.
Instead, she holds her breath and forces herself to look at the wound objectively. Cataloguing the size (a canyon), the color (too much blood), the look of the surrounding flesh (inflamed). Despite it all, she also notices his thigh, thick with muscle, so very different from her own.
Peeta's watching her closely. "It's bad, isn't it?" He says, almost cheerful, like it's an inside joke.
"You're going to be fine," she grits, rote, what Mother always says. Sans the warm bedside demeanor.
And he will be fine. She'll make him fine. Her fingers fumble at her skirt until she finds a worn area. The fabric is so threadbare that it doesn't take much to work her fingers in and yank.
Peeta's muttering something now about girls ripping their clothes off, but he's trembling with fatigue or something else and his words are a bit soft and she's not quite sure that what he said even makes sense. This is the point where Mother would say, he's going in to shock, and then she'd bustle about grabbing this vial or that. But all Katniss can do is tie her strip of skirt around his thigh, drawing it tight above the slash, hoping it will be enough.
Peeta's eyes are too wide for his face, pupils lumps of coal. Gaze firmly on her face, as if she's his anchor. He's trusting her. He's looking up to her, believing somehow that she can save him from this.
But she's done all she can for him, all she knows how to do. Still, she sits with him for a long while, giving him only a few sips from a canteen that's already dangerously low. They'd had enough water for a few hours, less than a day.
Now, they wait.
Humans can go weeks without food, Katniss knows this better than most. She's used to the hollow in her belly, although she doubts Peeta has gone hungry a day in his life. Not his fault, just reality. For both of them, the thirst will be new. The thirst will be the real problem. In the forest, she's always able to find moisture, in the hidden places her father taught her about. Down here, they're bone dry. To top it off, Peeta's leg. She doesn't know how quickly infection spreads. Mother or Prim would know, but they're too far away.
So it's a race. A race between the thirst, the infection, and their would-be rescuers. Gale, she thinks. He's heard by now, likely leading the search party himself, digging with his bare hands if he has to. If he's able. If he's not buried somewhere in the deep, like them. In twenty-four hours, she'll get her first clue.
She spends most of her "day" at the smaller cave-in, loading up their helmets and dumping the debris further down the tunnel. Ironic, that something that happened in a few seconds might take her a few weeks to clear out. And that's assuming she even can. In brief spurts of her headlamp (an attempt to conserve power), she sees bigger boulders that squat like hefty mutts, taunting her. She still has Peeta's rock hammer, but it's yet to make a dent.
Perhaps if Peeta himself were at full strength, they'd have a chance. But her only hope now is to clear out enough of the detritus around the larger pieces that she can maybe slip her way through the interstices, get some help.
It's a wisp of a chance, but it's the only one they have. It's been more than twenty-four hours now, and not a whisper from the surface. The first attempt has failed.
When she grows too tired to move her arms, she picks her way back to Peeta. They have their meager meal—a bite of the bar, a sip of the water—and then they rest. When Peeta's lucid, like he is in the beginning, they talk.
Their conversation ebbs and flows. Time means nothing here in the forever dark, so she's not quite sure how long they go between rounds. At first, Peeta asks her little things, like what's her favorite color and what subject she likes best in school. She finds out that he likes the color of sunset and that his favorite class is science, mostly because he gets to draw the diagrams. She can see that, him always doodling in the margins.
Then, easy topics exhausted, they move on to other things. When she brings back a piece of mineral rough from her dig site, she tells him about how her father used to bring back colored crystals for his girls, rejects from the mines. She and Prim still have a row of rough lining the windowsill in their bedroom, casting fanciful lights and colors throughout the day, when the sun hits them just right. Faeries, Father used to call the resulting prisms on the ceiling, on the bed, sometimes even on their faces.
Peeta asks, "Can I have it?" She drops the rough into his waiting palm. He clutches it until he falls into fitful sleep.
Later, Peeta tells her what his own father told him once, on the first day of school. That when her father sang, even the birds stopped to listen. It's strangely moving, the idea that the folks in the Town knew about her father, that he sang somewhere they could hear, not just in the coal mines. Then Peeta tells the other part of that story, about his father and her mother and at first she can't even believe it but then. Then she kinda can. Mother comes with her and Prim to the Bakery sometimes, usually only on holidays, and she almost smiles.
"I remember the day when my dad let me bake my very own cake." He was seven, maybe eight, and so very proud. Too excited to sleep, so he got up before the sun and crept down to the kitchens in the dark, arranging his ingredients so very quietly, so very neatly, doling them out bit by painstaking bit. Then he'd waited, nose glued to the oven, until his Father, yawning, had to shoo him along to his other chores.
Of course, he'd ended up making a rookie mistake. You forget every ingredient at least once. Some make more of a difference than others, like if you leave out the vanilla only the Mayor's wife might notice. "But I'd forgotten the eggs. That, you notice." The cake came out runny, a pile of goop. His brothers had teased him mercilessly for weeks.
"It's probably why I ended up a better baker than all of them. All that motivation."
There are some topics they avoid. She never mentions Gale. He never alludes to his mother, not once. And, of course, they never mention the day with the bread.
More hours pass. She counts time by Peeta's short, choppy breaths.
"Peeta," Katniss says, the first time either of them has spoken in hours, maybe half a day. Today she had to rest, the bones in her arms aching, shaking under their unnatural strain. She couldn't even hold their helmets, empty. At first, Peeta seemed reanimated by her company, peppering her with questions like he does, even silly ones. But he's been quiet now for a while. Too long.
"Peeta," she says again. "Bake me a cake."
He remains quiet, too quiet, and she thinks maybe he's asleep. Or worse. It could happen any time now.
But then he whispers, "I've always wanted to bake you a cake." As the hours bleed in to days, he's started saying things like this, things that make her shiver somewhere inside. "Your sister," he coughs, "she likes the cookies. But you. You, I could see a triple-layer double fudge cake. This imposing monolith on the outside, impossible to tell what lies beneath. But when you open it up, you get to the good part, the gooey, molten center. Melt on your tongue good. The best cake you've ever had." She feels warm inside now, her head lolling toward him on its pillow of rock.
So he bakes her this cake. In a whisper at first, but then stronger and stronger, the most animated she's heard him in days, as though the imaginary food gives him strength.
She remembers this, the fantasizing about food. She and Gale used to do it, lying on their backs at their knoll, the one that looks out into the valley, seeing food in the clouds. They'd remind each other of what bread tasted like, bacon from the fattest of pigs, the unbelievable snap and sweetness of biting into an apple. "Cheese buns," Katniss would moan, and Gale would just laugh. He never understood her thing for cheese buns, how, golden and hot, they dissolve on your tongue.
His earlier anecdote to the contrary, Peeta is a magnificent baker. She can see it in the way he arranges his ingredients, so neatly, so elegantly, everything within reach in the exact order he'll need them, his flour and salt and sugar.
She can see it in the way he sifts the flour with a flick of the wrist just so, leveling it carefully, one, two, three, four. Saying the numbers aloud so he doesn't lose count. He's making her a big cake, the biggest. A monolithic monument of a cake.
Sifting in the other dry ingredients, creaming the wet—the trick is to make sure the butter is so soft soft but not too soft, you don't want it to ooze—pause for a cough—adding the eggs last. Fresh from the coop, one crack, two crack, three crack, four. Pour the batter into the mold, squeeze in the chocolate, a final flourish. Sometimes, with his chocolate pen, he draws a face. Other times, a leaf. Today, for her, he draws a flower, shakes the pan to settle. Then bake in the rosy glow of the ovens for exactly twenty three and a half minutes, not a second more, you'd best watch so close so very close.
Together, they watch his creation rise before their very eyes. Now, time for the icing, he says, and presents her with an array of options with fancy names like buttercream and fondant and fudge.
Chocolate, she breathes.
An excellent choice. Impeccable taste.
Fast forward to the good part, where the cake emerges, cools, and he slathers it with the fudge.
"And now," he says, "it's time to taste." He's energized, all this talk of food, his passion. He can do anything right now, like stand up and do a jig or swim through rock like it's water. Instead, he settles for lifting his right arm, balancing a fork, then swoops it down down to scoop out the delicate tip of a decadent wedge. "Ladies first."
And then he reaches up up and sticks his pointer finger in her mouth. Surprised, Katniss grips his wrist loosely, helping him reach. Her eyes flutter closed, and she licks a long, languorous lick, until his finger emerges with a puff. Impossibly, he tastes like cinnamon.
"Oh," he breathes. His finger hovers at her face, her lips for a moment, hot on her skin, then descends. All this baking has exhausted him, energy drained, this final gift that he can give. When his hand drops, so does hers, and she keeps her fingers tangled loosely with his, willing him some of her strength.
She can feel his smile.
They grow hungrier, all this talk of eggs and chocolate, so Katniss crumbles up the last bit of the protein bar, the bits they'd been saving. The one that was intended to get them through a few hours, they've rationed it into a few days. Now it's all gone, and Katniss lets Peeta lick her palm for every last crumb. They sip at the canteen until it, too, is empty.
When the water runs dry, so do their words, the mechanics of speaking with their lips, teeth, and tongue becoming too difficult, jaws welding shut. Sometimes Katniss flicks on the headlamp, dimming now, and they just look at each other, heads lolling loosely on their necks, hands reaching, Peeta with eyes foggy from fever, lips so cracked they're bloody, and him licking it away because it's wet.
Katniss dreams of the underground lake, overflowing, enough water to last a lifetime, separated from them by only a few meters of rock. She thinks, sometimes, that she can smell it, that she can hear water dripping steadily somewhere, just out of reach. It goes drip drip drip.
Do you hear that, Peeta? Do you hear it?
She doesn't know what it is. Maybe it's raining on the surface, water percolating through the porous soil. Rain, she can scarcely imagine it.
He can't hear anything past the chattering of his own teeth.
When Peeta sleeps, fitful like a puppy, she forces herself up, keeping herself moving, scouring the nearby tunnels for any hint of moisture, even a sheen down the wall. She puts pebbles in their mouths, in the off chance that their bodies can absorb liquid, any liquid.
Try as she might, pacing an endless loop from one cave-in to the other, she can't find the source of that elusive drip drip drip. Sounds are misleading down here, acoustics nefarious. Over here, it's closer, over here more distant but no matter where she stands, no matter where she puts her ear, she gets no closer.
She half-heartedly tries to dig through the other cave-in, the one that leads back to the lake, which she now thinks she dreamed. It couldn't be real. Nothing is real anymore. There's no cave. There's no lake.
But she's too weak now to lift all but the smallest of rocks. And Peeta's too weak to lift his own hand.
Drip drip drip, goes the water.
It's torture, slowing driving her mad.
Drip drip drip.
She listens to it for hours, maybe days. Once, she screams, clutching at her head, trying to stuff her fingers into her ears so she can't hear it anymore. Make it stop please make it stop.
Peeta stirs but does not wake. He's beyond her screams.
She beats her head against the floor until she knows no more.
She wakes to the sound of her name, the sibilant hiss of the ss. It reverberates in the inky black, fading echoes like maybe it's not the first time he's had to say it. Her head feels three times too big, so heavy she can hardly lift it. She's on her stomach, head craned impossibly. There's something caked across one eye. Her skin pulls when she at last cracks the lid.
For a heart-stopping moment, she can't find the lamp. She'd left it up near her head, but she must have bumped it away in restless sleep. Her clawing fingers close on it at last, farther than she expected. She clicks it on, sees a brief flash of Peeta's back before she shuts it off again.
As she scoots toward him, she can hear him panting, shivering. She flicks on the weak light, needing to see. He's shaking, clutching himself as though he's cold, despite the heat, thick like a blanket. He's drenched and too terribly pale.
And he's seen her, too.
"Your head," he says, alarmed, trying to reach for her, she guesses, but his fingers merely tremble near her arm. She must look frightful, caked blood down her face, head wound and all.
"It's fine," she says. "Just a scratch." This time, he doesn't pick up on her dry humor, her subtle jab.
"Katniss," he says again, serious. "I need to tell you something."
"Shh," she soothes, pushing the hair out of his eyes. "We can talk later."
"There is no later."
"Don't say that."
"I'm dying, in my blood. I know what blood poison is. I can feel it, crawling in veins like worms." It's the fever, he's burning up with it, talking so crazy, this babble. "But I don't want to die without telling you. Without you knowing the truth."
She plays along. "The truth about what?"
"Peeta, rest. Please," she's desperate. She doesn't want to hear this, this deathbed confession.
"No," he says. "No. I have to tell you. I have to tell you the truth." She doesn't know if she wants to hear it, if she can hear it.
He's undeterred. He's learned already not to take her no for an answer. "I remember the first day I saw you. It was the first day of school. You were an angel then, an angel with a scowl. You stalked in there like us mere mortals were beneath you. But then you stood on that stool and sang us the Valley song, and you took us to another place."
She hadn't known any better, then. She was still proud of her daddy and the songs he taught her. She'd been so young.
He continues, "That was…before." She knows what he's saying. Before her father died, before she realized what it was like, being from the Seam. "But I watched you since then, every day. At school. From our upstairs window, when you traded with my father. For twelve years, I've been trying to work up the courage to talk to you. This felt like my last chance, this last week of school. No Prim and no Gale and, what are the odds, no Madge. Nowhere for you to go."
"Well, this has just worked out nicely." She's deflecting, the way she does with Gale when he starts talking about kids or proposals.
"In a way, yes. If I have to die, I'm glad to die for you. I'm glad we've talked. And I'm glad you know, now, why I would do it."
Do it, he says, and for a moment she doesn't know what he means. But then she thinks back to earlier, so long ago, when she'd snapped at him. You shouldn't be here. And he really shouldn't. His had been one of the pale moon faces, already in the safety of the tunnel, helping the miners get his classmates back through.
When the sky had fallen, she remembers something hitting her, bowling her over, and not just a rock. He'd thrown himself from the safety of the shaft, 100% guaranteed, and had kept her safe instead.
"You pushed me out of the way of that falling rock," she says. "You came back for me."
"Yes," he says. "I would never leave you," he says. She shudders to think of it, her alone down here in the dark. She would already have gone mad, she knows it. Drip drip drip. But the cost of her sanity is Peeta's life.
"I would do anything for you," he says.
He says it so simple, so true.
Katniss thinks of a hundred moments through the years, winking in the darkness of memory like fireflies—a door held open here, a pencil loaned there, a cookie slipped somehow below a loaf when it just so happens to be Prim's birthday. Peeta punching Glenn in the ear when he was about to rock an elevator she happened to be in. Small things, all of them. She'd thought nothing of them because that's Peeta. That's how he is, and not just with her. He holds doors open and gives pencils to all the girls, Town and Seam.
But then there were the bigger things. She thinks of a boy who braved a beating for a loaf of bread.
She thinks of the day she and Gale came to fisticuffs with a group of Townies after school. No surprise there, Town and Seam fighting, but this time, it was personal. As they were passing by, one of the boys made some offhand comment about Gale's Seam slut.
Gale struck so fast, so quick, like one of his snares. Deadly. The boy was lucky his nose was the only thing that shattered. Blood gushed, friends flushed and leapt to defend. Five against one, she didn't think so, and then she didn't think at all. She grappled onto the nearest back and used her body weight to throw one off balance and get him out of striking radius of Gale. Then his elbow swung back and she flew off, oomph, the wind knocked right out. This kid loomed, landing one good kick to her kidney…
And then he was absolutely leveled.
It was another Townie, turning on his own. Slight but broad and so impossibly quick. Katniss watched, elbows propping her up, while Gale and the Townie wiped the floor with those guys. Only after the other boys slunk away, tails between legs, did she recognize who it was. Her savior.
It was him.
His gaze was a laser, as it had been a few years before, through the rain. This time, there was no rain. Nothing separating them except a few steps and an extended palm. She could see it in his eyes, now soft, now steel. He took a breath and then took those steps. He extended his hand…
Gale was an eclipse. "You okay?" And he was the one who helped her to her feet. He was the one who probed gently at her side, cupped her bruised cheek, the one she allowed to touch her, like she never did. But when his eyes, his hands became uncomfortable, she looked past to see Peeta, limping away. They hadn't even spoken. Not even a thank you.
"Gale," was all she said. He followed her gaze, then nodded. Slow, reluctant, but he nodded. Later that week, Gale left the Baker a string of plump rabbits.
It's wasn't enough—it will never be enough—but it was a start.
"Anything," Peeta repeats, bringing her back to him, back to this. This present day (night) where Peeta has saved her, yet again, and now lies broken and bleeding before her, expecting nothing, asking for nothing. She wants to save him, this boy-turned-man whose life seems inextricably bound to her own. Perhaps he's been meant for this all along, to sacrifice himself for her.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" she asks.
He looks at her for a long moment, lids heavy, cheeks haggard. His lips part, but it's a while before they make a sound. "Someday," he whispers at last, "I'd like to watch you hunt. It's only fair, what with me baking you a cake."
"Deal," she laughs, a wheeze, and then she cries, but she has no tears. He coughs along with her. It doesn't stop, a hacking miner's cough, spice in his lungs. He spits.
"Can you sing?" His voice is reverent, his voice is hope, his voice is unconditional.
She's not sure she can sing, what with her mouth and jaw having fossilized, fused into the surrounding rock. But sing she does, if that's what you can call it, although her voice is gravel, likely a far cry from the youthful falsetto of Peeta's memory.
First the Valley song, because she wants to make his eyes shine. Then other songs, songs she hasn't thought of since before her father died. Songs he used to sing in the woods, or to help his daughters go to sleep.
Like Peeta had when he baked his cake, Katniss feels herself reviving.
There's a new canary in this coal mine.
When she's sung all the songs she knows, and a few more besides, she trails off, a final warble, and finds Peeta with his eyes closed. She's sung him to sleep. He's still and peaceful, chest still rising and falling. Shallow but steady.
"Peeta," she whispers in his ear, a caress. "I love you."
But he can't hear.