EPIPHANY

CHAPTER 1

PART I

"Are you certain?"

The black-clad man nodded his head in the affirmative. "Yes, ma'am. The commander of Mercy Flight One just transmitted the passenger manifest for this lift. Katniss Everdeen is not on board any of the four hovercraft in Flight One."

The woman glanced at the man, her face carefully impassive, except for the tight set of her mouth. Absently, she brushed a wayward strand of her straight, shoulder length gray hair back with one hand, while simultaneously reaching out with the other.

"Let me see that," she barked, indicating the PADD in the black-clad man's hand.

The man handed her the PADD before stepping back, arms at his side. The woman quickly scrolled down the passenger manifest on the softly glowing screen.

"Cartwright...Hawthorne...Undersee..." the woman softly muttered as she quickly scanned the list, many marked with a red "M" next to their name, indicating an immediate need for medical attention upon arrival.

The woman looked up, turning to face a stocky, sandy haired, fleshy-faced man standing nearby. He's dressed in a gray jumpsuit, similar in cut to the black-clad aide, and just a slightly darker shade than a like garment worn by the gray haired woman.

"I don't see the names Abernathy or Mellark on this manifest, either, Mr. Heavensbee," the woman remarked evenly. "I am certain that I gave Colonel Boggs explicit instructions that the three District Twelve Victors were to be on the first hovercraft."

The man smiled, not out of humor...it is the smile of man that has had his judgment validated. "Madam President," he began carefully, "I distinctly recall that I advised you that something like this would most likely happen. I've yet to meet a Victor that was any good at following orders." He regarded her with tired, bloodshot eyes. He hasn't slept in over two days, not counting the fitful sleep that he managed on the hovercraft flight from the Capitol the day before.

"When I issue a command, I expect it to be obeyed," the woman muttered as she handed the PADD back to her aide. "Boggs certainly knows better than to disobey me."

"I'm sure that Colonel Boggs had every intention of carrying out your orders, President Coin," Heavensbee replied. "That being said, I know Haymitch Abernathy quite well, and I have had the opportunity to meet both Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark...in an official capacity, of course...and all three can be quite...persuasive...when they wish to be."

"Mr. Heavensbee, are you suggesting that they managed to persuade my Chief of Security into countermanding my direct orders?" Coin asked incredulously.

Heavensbee looked decidedly uncomfortable. "Uhhh...something like that, Madam President." I doubt that there was much talk involved, Heavensbee said to himself. However, it wouldn't have been surprising to find that sharp, pointy objects, and possibly even a firearm or two, was used to present the Victors' side of the argument...and that rather convincingly.

"Word from Flight One, President Coin," the aide announced. "ETA fifteen minutes."

Coin nodded in response, turning and facing the hangar door, now tightly closed. "How many medicals on this lift?"

"One hundred thirty-one," the aide replied, after checking the display on the PADD.

"Contact the hospital," Coin ordered. "All trauma teams to the South hangar. Be prepared to accept one hundred thirty-one wounded. I assume that there's no indication on the manifest as to the seriousness of those requiring medical attention?"

"No, ma'am."

"So we don't know if we're dealing with simple bruises and lacerations, or through and through gunshot wounds," Coin muttered in frustration. "No matter. Our medics can triage right here in the hanger." Coin paused, tapping her lower lip thoughtfully. "One more thing. How many Capitol citizens and how many of these so-called 'Rebel Peacekeepers' are on this lift?"

The aide frowned at the PADD screen for a moment before looking up again. "No indication on the manifest, Madam President."

"Why do you ask, Madam President?" Heavensbee asked softly.

"Simple, Mr. Heavensbee," Coin replied. "It's a matter of security. And until any and all potential or actual Loyalists are properly vetted and screened, they will be watched, and watched closely...including the people that you brought out with you yesterday."

"About that, Madam President," Heavensbee chose his words carefully. "Cinna's commitment to the cause is absolute, as is Portia's. In fact, the only reason that she and her prep team aren't here is as a result of a 'perfect storm' set of unforeseen circumstances that -"

Coin held up her hand. "Mr. Heavensbee. Believe it or not, I'm just as exhausted as you are. That means that I am in no mood to debate my decision to keep Katniss Everdeen's Stylist and prep team under increased scrutiny until I am satisfied that they pose no threat to the security of District Thirteen."

Heavensbee inclined his head slightly. "Of course, Madam President. I meant no offense to your authority. I'm just concerned about Katniss's reaction, that's all."

"Reaction?" Coin arched one eyebrow as she eyed Heavensbee warily. "Please explain...and try to do so in, say, fifty words or less."

"Very well," Heavensbee replied. "Katniss is extraordinarily fond of Cinna. She also has a soft spot for her prep team. It would go a long way towards securing her commitment to becoming the Mockingjay if she was able to see Cinna and the others treated as allies, rather than criminals."

Coin pondered Heavensbee's words for a moment before replying. "You have a point. No sense in alienating Miss Everdeen. Very well." She turned to her aide. "Cinna and his staff are to be on hand when the Victors finally arrive. Minimal security. Got that?"

The aide nodded. "Yes, ma'am." His eyes never leave the PADD that he's typing on.

"One more thing," Coin added. The aide looked up questioningly. "Any indications of further Capitol air activity in the vicinity of Twelve?"

The aide shook his head. "No, ma'am. Nothing on long range radar."

Coin nodded in satisfaction. Behind her there was a sudden bustle of activity as more medical teams arrived and began setting up to receive the first influx of wounded. And, as Coin turned back to Heavensbee, a voice boomed out from the public address system in the hangar as the massive portal doors began to open.

"Attention. Prepare to receive inbound hovercraft. ETA in one minute."

Coin tugged at the front of her gray coverall. "Alright then." A grim smile creased her face. "Time to greet our arrivals. Coming, Mr. Heavensbee?"

"Of course, Madam President," Heavensbee replied smoothly, carefully masking his true feelings and thoughts.

I have to tread very lightly with this woman, he said to himself, even as the first hovercraft glides into the hangar and is guided to a landing pad by a ground handler, I can see that she's every bit as dangerous as Coriolanus Snow.

PART II

I finishED off the last of the water in the bottle and stand up carefully, wary of the hovercraft hitting still more turbulence. I don't have to worry. The flight now was as smooth as glass.

A District Thirteen crewman spotted the empty bottle in my hand and moved forward. "I'll take that," the crewman...a young woman no older than me...smiled shyly at me as she held out her hand.

"Thanks," I murmured, handing her the empty bottle. "Any chance of getting another?"

"Sure." The crewman handed me a full bottle. I nodded my thanks, getting another shy smile in return, before I turn and head towards the cockpit...and Katniss.

"Hey." Katniss was kneeling next to Cressida's lifeless body. She's wrapped Cressida carefully in a mattress cover that she ripped off a bed in the train. Katniss looked up at me wearily.

Wordlessly, I hold the water bottle out to her. Katniss stared at it for a moment before taking the bottle from me. "Thanks," she muttered as she opens the bottle and takes a long drink, then another, before capping the bottle and setting it carefully beside her.

I squat down awkwardly next to Katniss. "It's a short flight to Thirteen, or so I've been told. Thirty minutes, maybe a little more. We'll be there soon."

Katniss nodded in understanding. "How many," she began, her gaze dropping back to Cressida's shrouded body, "how many made it out?"

"Haymitch thinks a couple thousand or so," I replied, glancing to my right, where Prim Everdeen and her mother were working on Darius Potter's injured leg. Darius, who had made it through the battles in District Twelve with only a few minor cuts and bruises, had managed to trip over a tree root last night. At first, Prim and Mrs. Everdeen had thought it to be badly sprained, but the swelling and the fact that Darius couldn't put any weight on it at all had them convinced that the leg was, in fact, broken.

I caught Prim's eye and she gives me a quick, tired smile, before turning back to her patient. She looked exhausted. We all look exhausted.

"A couple thousand," Katniss echoed. "That means over seven thousand dead. Dead because of me. Because of us."

"Hey," I replied quietly. "You didn't attack Twelve, and neither did I. Snow did." I ran my fingertips over her cheek, now streaked with sweat, dirt, dried blood, and numerous tear tracks. Katniss reached up to grasp my hand firmly, holding it against her cheek. "Snow did," I repeated. "Not us."

Katniss shook her head sadly. "Snow, us, Peacekeepers, Thirteen. It doesn't matter to the people that wouldn't...or couldn't...make it out before the bombs started to drop. They're just as dead." Katniss's gaze falls back to Cressida's carefully wrapped body. "Just like Cressida."

"She knew what she was getting into," a new voice said from behind me. Messalla, along with Castor and Pollux, squat down next to us. Messalla reaches out and tugged at a corner of Cressida's shroud, carefully tucking the loose flap of cloth back into the small, still bundle. "We all did. And, to be honest, none of us really expect to survive this war. Cressida least of all." Messalla paused for a moment while reaching out to smooth Cressida's shroud. "We just didn't think it would happen so quickly," he added softly.

"You're willing to fight for something that you don't think you'll live to see?" Katniss asked doubtfully.

"Aren't you?" Messalla countered.

Katniss regarded Messalla with a steady, unflinching gaze. "I guess I never thought about it like that before."

"And now?" Messalla asked.

Katniss's gaze dropped back to Cressida's small, still form. "Yeah," she murmured softly. "I won't be able to not think about it. But I plan to survive this. I have to. There's something that I have to do."

"What's that, Katniss?" I asked gently.

Katniss turned towards me, and, in a quiet, solemn voice, she replied, "I have to kill Snow."

PART III

I firmly grasped the litter handle and glanced to my left as Haymitch grabbed his own handle. "On three," he grunts. "One...two...three."

The three-count was unnecessary. Cressida was a light load for the four of us.

There's a moment's awkwardness as Haymitch and I stutter step before we find our rhythm with Castor and Pollux. It takes a few steps until the four of us are working in tandem with one another.

Katniss was leading the way, along with Colonel Boggs. Directly behind us was another litter, this one bearing Darius, who's being carried by the other two surviving Rebel Peacekeepers...I was glad to see that one of them is Purnia...along with the two unwounded infiltrators, Jackson and Leeg. Homes and Mitchell, the other two members of the infiltration team, had been evacuated earlier on another flight, over their strenuous objections. Mrs. Everdeen, along with Prim, are both walking next to Darius's litter, even though there's nothing more they can do for the former Peacekeeper.

As we neared the exit ramp, Haymitch muttered, "Heads up. Looks like we got a reception committee."

I peered around Pollux and Boggs and I could see a small group standing a few meters past the end of the ramp. I recognized Plutarch Heavensbee, Cinna, and Katniss's prep team...Venia, Octavia, and Flavius...along with a slim, gray haired woman that I knew, from the way Boggs and the other Thirteens had talked about her, could only be one person.

The President of District Thirteen, Alma Coin.

President Coin stepped forward just as we step off the ramp onto the concrete floor. "Madam President," Boggs intoned, "this is Katniss Everdeen. Miss Everdeen, Alma Coin, President of District Thirteen."

"A distinct pleasure," Coin said with a smile, her hand extended towards Katniss. "Your courage has inspired us all."

"Hello," Katniss said absently, peering around Coin, her eyes widening when she catches sight of Cinna, standing patiently with the prep team.

"Cinna?" Katniss gasped as she rushed forward. "Cinna!" Katniss practically knocks Cinna over as she all but hurled herself into his arms.

"Hello again, Girl on Fire," Cinna murmured as his arms wrap around Katniss.

"I'm sorry," Katniss gasped. "I'm so sorry. I...I ruined this beautiful dress that you made for me." Katniss pulled away from him slightly, indicating with her hands the stained, torn remains of Cinna's creation.

"If I'd been thinking, I would have made it bullet proof," Cinna replied with a smile. "Don't worry. I'll make you another."

I glanced over at Coin, standing tight-lipped, with Heavensbee at her side, and get Haymitch's attention. Haymitch takes in the situation at a glance and gives me a quick, crooked grin.

"Castor," Haymitch called out. "Pollux. Let's set Cressida down for a moment, okay?"

We carefully lower the litter. Haymitch leaned in closer to me, and muttered, "Looks like her majesty is a little miffed that Katniss is ignoring her in favor of her Stylist and prep team." Haymitch then stepped forward, beckoning me to follow.

"Madam President," Haymitch began, extending his hand. "Haymitch Abernathy. And this is Peeta Mellark, Victor of the Third Quarter Quell."

"Mr. Abernathy," Coin replied, her voice tightly controlled, as she takes his outstretched hand. She shoots a cold glance toward Katniss, who's now busy hugging each member of her prep team. "I trust that you are better versed in matters of...decorum, than your...than Miss Everdeen."

"Youthful exuberance," Haymitch explained with a smile. "And this," he continued, "is Peeta Mellark."

"President Coin," I murmured, offering her my hand. "It's an honor."

"The pleasure's mine, Mr. Mellark," Coin replied as she shakes my hand. "You, at least, seem to possess basic manners."

"She's had a hard time," I explained. "I'm sure that she -"

"Wait." Coin holds up one hand. "What...is that?"

Haymitch frowned. "Madam President?"

Coin pointed at the shroud-wrapped body of Cressida. "That. Why was that brought here?"

Boggs, who had been standing patiently to one side while waiting for Katniss to finish greeting Cinna and the others, moved quickly to step between Haymitch and Coin. "President Coin," he began carefully, "I can explain. I -"

"I'm surprised at you, Boggs." Coin turned to her security chief, cutting off whatever he had been about to say. "You know what SOP is regarding KIA handling in the field."

"Ma'am." Boggs said, swallowing hard, "I know the SOP. But Miss Everdeen was insistent. Something about performing some sort of District Twelve funeral rite. I thought, given the circumstances, that an exception -"

"No exceptions!" Coin snapped loudly. She sniffed disdainfully at the body. "It's already starting to stink. Do you want a repeat of the Pox?" She turned to a man standing just behind her. "Get a disposal team to the West Hangar ASAP. One for incineration."

"Uhhh...President Coin?" I stepped forward. "Ma'am, we'll be happy to take care of Cressida ourselves." I turned, indicating Haymitch, Castor, Pollux, and Messalla, who had also joined us. "This is Cressida's crew," I explained. "They were...we all were...close to Cressida. All we need are a few picks and shovels and we'll see that she's given a decent burial."

"Mr. Mellark," Coin replied, her voice condescending, "inasmuch as we would like to acquiesce to your request to perform some sort of quaint outer district burial ritual, you must understand our position here. A corpse is a veritable breeding ground for infectious disease. Incineration is -"

"NO!"

Coin jumped, visibly startled, and turned toward the source of the voice...a very angry Katniss Everdeen. Coin made an obvious effort to compose herself before she attempted to speak.

"Miss Everdeen," Coin began, her voice tightly controlled, "I need you to understand the necessity of -"

"I said no!" Katniss practically spits the words. "Cressida died trying to protect me! She died for the Rebellion! She's earned the right to a decent burial!"

"Disposal team is en route, ma'am," the aide reported. Coin turned her head slightly, nodding curtly, and then returned her attention to Katniss.

"Young woman," Coin said, fighting to maintain control of her voice, "I can understand your loyalty to a fallen comrade, but a burial detail is a waste of valuable resources. The answer is no. You may conduct a memorial, if you wish, at a later date. But there will be no burial."

"Ma'am?" I stepped forward, sliding my arm protectively around Katniss's shoulders...although, at this point, it's more to protect Coin from Katniss's rapidly building anger. "Ma'am, there's more than enough of us here to take care of Cressida. None of your people would have to lift a finger to help. All we would need are the tools to dig with."

I felt Katniss tense under my arm. We're definitely not starting off on the right foot here. We haven't been on the ground five minutes and already there's a problem between Katniss and Coin. I glanced around at the rest. Messalla, along with Castor and Pollux, are standing over Cressida's body protectively. Haymitch was talking in low, urgent tones with Plutarch Heavensbee. Prim and Mrs. Everdeen are standing to Katniss's immediate right, their presence offering Katniss silent support. Prim was clutching the leads to her two goats, while Mrs. Everdeen was holding the makeshift pet transporter that contained a very miffed Buttercup.

Boggs, looking unhappy with the way things are developing, was standing off to one side, along with Jackson and Leeg. The litter that holds Darius had been carefully set down. He, along with Purnia and the other Rebel Peacekeeper, are watching the conflict between Katniss and Coin with undisguised interest.

I catch sight of a movement off to my left and turn my head to see two people, clad head to toe in some sort of protective overgarments, pushing a wheeled gurney towards us. It's pretty obvious that this is the "disposal team" that Coin had ordered to report here.

Coin's eyes flicker toward the pair. "One for the incinerator," she said, pointing to Cressida. I felt Katniss's entire body stiffen.

"Madam President," Heavensbee said urgently, as he and Haymitch step forward. "Please. I beg your indulgence. One minute."

Coin glanced at Heavensbee before nodding and holding up one hand. "Wait." She turned and faced Heavensbee and Haymitch. "You have one minute, gentlemen."

Plutarch and Haymitch began to speak urgently, in low tones, to President Coin. Katniss's eyes never leave Coin as she whispered, "I won't let them take Cressida, Peeta. I won't!"

"I won't let them either," I promised. I steal a glance at Darius, Purnia, and the third surviving Rebel Peacekeeper...I really need to learn his name...watching intently as Coin conferred with Plutarch and Haymitch, their hands never far from their pistols. How am I supposed to keep a promise like that? For the first time I noticed just how many District Thirteen soldiers...armed soldiers...are present.

It's just like the Games, minus the countdown clock. The hovercraft is substituting for the Cornucopia. If someone does the wrong thing here, it'll be a bloodbath. We're outnumbered. We need to retreat, not attack, especially considering that these people are supposed to be our new allies!

Just about then, Coin stepped forward, flanked by Plutarch on one side and Haymitch on the other. "Some...facts...were just brought to my attention," Coin said, her voice tight. "Miss Everdeen. You may conduct your burial ritual. The disposal team will assist you with handling the...Miss Pierce's remains. Boggs, they will need an escort topside."

Jackson spoke up before Boggs had a chance to acknowledge. "I'll do it."

"Me too," Leeg added immediately.

Coin nodded. "Very well. Now, as to your livestock, and the feline. Normally, pets are a waste of resources, and as such, are prohibited in Thirteen. However, considering your contribution to the Rebellion, I will make an exception for the cat. The goats will be turned over to our animal husbandry section -"

"No!" Prim shouted, and then, as if shocked by her outburst, she added, "Ma'am."

Coin looked at Prim in irritation before continuing. "As I was saying, the goats will be turned over to the animal husbandry section, where they will be well cared for." She gave Prim a pointed look. "Satisfied?"

"They won't be hurt?" Prim asked doubtfully.

"I give you my word, young lady," Coin replied. "Your animals will not be harmed in any way." Once again, she turned to her aide. "Contact the Farm. Have them send that geneticist...what's his name? The one that walked here from Ten?"

"Dalton, ma'am," the aide replied, without looking up from his PADD.

"Dalton." Coin repeated. "I'm sure he has experience with goats. I know none of our people do."

"Festuca," Haymitch muttered. "He can help also."

"Right," Plutarch said. "President Coin, there was a man on one of the earlier lifts that has extensive experience with goats. In fact, he sold these two to young Miss Everdeen. His name is Silenus Festuca."

Coin nodded tightly and once again turned to her aide. "Contact this other refugee as well. See Mr. Abernathy for his name." She turned back toward Katniss and I once again. "Will three hours be sufficient time to conduct your rituals?"

"Yes, ma'am," I replied immediately, before Katniss can say anything.

"Very well," Coin said stiffly, as she turned to Plutarch once again. "Mr. Heavensbee. Colonel Boggs. Please come with me."

"I'll talk to you all later on," Plutarch said quickly, even as he hurried after Coin.

"That went rather well, don't you think?" Haymitch remarked sardonically, as we watch Coin striding towards the hangar exit, with Plutarch and Boggs hurrying along behind her.

"Mr. Abernathy," the aide said, "I'll need the spelling of the name of that goat expert. Then I'll take care of getting you all in-processed."

"Later," Jackson said. "We have something to do first." She turned to the disposal team. "Transfer Cressida onto your gurney," she ordered, "and be gentle about it. She's suffered enough."

PART IV

I dozed fitfully, sitting in an uncomfortable, straight-backed chair next to Katniss's hospital bed. My hands are raw and blistered, unaccustomed to either wielding a shovel or swinging a pick. Some of the blisters had already popped, and have been carefully covered by medicated bandages.

I learned three things today. One, a grave designed for one person must be dug by one person at a time. Two, life here in District Thirteen was decidedly different than life in District Twelve. And finally, three: Everyone has their limits. Even Katniss Everdeen.

She finally collapsed under the combined weight of the emotional pressures and the physical stress from being shot...but not before we had carefully lowered Cressida into her final resting spot, in a patch of soft earth near a small plot of cultivated land that Jackson told us was part of a complex known collectively as "The Farm."

None of us knew the right words to say. But everyone present said something. My contribution was by simply saying, "Find peace, Cressida. You've earned it." Katniss's was even shorter.

"I'm so sorry."

And then she collapsed.

There was something macabre, even ghoulish, about loading Katniss up on the same gurney that had taken Cressida to her final resting place. And, under normal circumstances, I would have simply picked her up and carried her back into District Thirteen. But the circumstances are far from normal, and I'm teetering on the brink of exhaustion myself. I just didn't have the strength right now to carry her anywhere.

The medical staff here impressed me. They are compassionate and there's warmth about them that I've yet to see from any other resident of District Thirteen. They immediately took Katniss under their care, quickly notifying Mrs. Everdeen and Prim, and even had time to assign a medic to look at my hands and take care of me.

They had worse luck convincing me to locate my quarters to get cleaned up and rest. But I can't. Not until I know that Katniss will be okay. And so, here I sat, keeping vigil over a heavily sedated Katniss Everdeen.

A nurse comes in, checks Katniss's morphling drip, and examined the readings on the machine that monitors her vital signs before turning to me.

"Did her mother and sister go to dinner?" She asked.

I nodded. "About fifteen minutes ago."

"You should go get something to eat," the nurse suggested gently.

I shook my head. "There should be someone here that Katniss knows when she wakes up."

The nurse nodded in understanding. "If you wait until they return, the mess hall will be closed." She reached over and gently patted my hand. "I'll see if there's any left on the dinner cart, okay?"

I nodded. "Okay. Thank you."

Silently, the nurse walked out of the room. I sat back in my chair, suddenly overcome by fatigue. The stress of the last few days was finally catching up to me. All the planning, the secrecy, the worry that something will go wrong and we would be found out, coupled with the actual chaos and horror that accompanied the Uprising, and the subsequent firebombing of the district, the death of my mother, brother and his wife...

I jerk awake at the sound of Katniss moaning softly. She's beginning to thrash around in the hospital bed, small moans coming from her mouth. I leaned forward, reaching out and grasping her hand firmly in mine, placing my other hand gently on her forehead. If I'm lucky I'll be able to wake her before her nightmare gets any worse.

"It's okay, Katniss," I murmured over and over, stroking her forehead and feeling her fingers close almost spastically over my other hand. I am lucky this time. Katniss's moans began to subside and her eyes slowly fluttered open.

Katniss turned her head towards me and stared in confusion for a moment, before her eyes finally focused on my face and her features relax in recognition.

"Peeta?" She blinked her eyes rapidly. "Oh, Peeta. You look terrible."

I managed a crooked smile. "Good. I'd hate to think that me feeling like shit isn't going to waste."

Katniss shook her head. "You're unbelievable. Making jokes after all that's happened in the last few days." Her tone was gently chiding, but nevertheless a ghost of a smile flickered over her lips.

I gently brushed a stray strand of dark hair off of her forehead. "It's either joke or scream," I replied softly. "I'd rather joke."

Katniss clutched my other hand tighter. "What happened?" She asked, glancing down at her supine body.

"Lots of things," I replied. "Stress, fear, worry, exhaustion...but most of all, the broken rib that you got when Breccia shot you. You're taped up pretty good, but the doctors say you can get out of here tomorrow morning."

Katniss's eyes narrowed slightly as I speak. "What about Prim? And my mother?"

"They've been assigned quarters. We all have...well, except for me. They went to get something to eat. They should be back soon."

Katniss frowned. "Why not you? Why don't you have quarters yet?"

"Because," I replied carefully, "I came here with you instead of going to in-processing after we...took care of Cressida."

At that moment the nurse returned, pushing a small cart with two meal trays. "Oh, good," she said with a smile, "you're awake. And there was an extra tray." The nurse positioned a small tray-table over Katniss and sets one dinner tray on the table, and then placed the other tray on a small night stand next to Katniss's bed.

"I'll come back on rounds after you've eaten," she said as she leaves, pushing the empty cart ahead of her.

I examined the tray. A single square of some sort of processed meat, a serving of vegetables (my nose tells me stewed turnips), two slices of bread, and a glass of water. I glanced up at Katniss as she examines her own, identical, meal.

We ate in silence. Mrs. Everdeen and Prim returned just as we're finishing up. They've already changed into District Thirteen clothing. I noticed that it's identical to the uniforms that the hospital staff was wearing.

"We've been assigned to Medical," Mrs. Everdeen explained.

Prim told Katniss that their quarters were located in the upper levels and that there's a real window that opens to the outside...District Thirteen's concession to allowing the Everdeens to keep Buttercup. The window was to allow Buttercup to be able to roam outside at will...and feed himself.

"We were told that if he made a nuisance of himself that he would be shot," Prim stated bitterly. "I don't think I like this President Coin very much."

"Primrose!" Mrs. Everdeen sharply rebuked her youngest daughter. I don't know if the rebuke is genuine, or if it was done out of fear that the hospital room, like our mansions in the now-incinerated Victors' Village, is bugged.

"It's okay, Prim," Katniss said wearily, ignoring her mother. "I don't think I like her very much, either."

Mrs. Everdeen looked like she's about to say something else, but instead compresses her lips in a thin, white line. I catch her eye and shake my head slowly. "Neither do I."

If Coin was listening, she might as well know that the Everdeen and Mellark survivors of District Twelve don't think much of her.

PART V

"Here we are." My escort...the young man that I saw earlier today at Coin's elbow, and whose name, I've learned, was Henry Elliott...stopped outside a nondescript door somewhere on Level Twenty.

Henry slid the door open. "Normally, bachelors are expected to share quarters with other bachelors," he explained, "but you are a VIP." He offered me a wan smile. "Not exactly what you were accustomed to in Victors' Village, but it's clean, and private." He paused for a moment. "You were originally supposed to have quarters near the Everdeens, but the presence of the cat complicates things."

I stepped into the quarters...a single room, with a small bed, chair, and a combination desk and table. My small bag sits on the bed; next to several neatly folded gray coveralls. A clean, sterile room, completely devoid of personality...much like what I've seen of District Thirteen so far.

Henry quickly pointed out the rooms' features...light switches, the bathroom, a small closet, storage compartments, a comm unit on the desk complete with a digital directory, a video screen ("Not for entertainment," Henry had explained, "for announcements and information. It activates automatically and shuts off when the announcement is complete."), and, finally, a recess in the wall, with a single pushbutton and a small light next to the button.

"First call is at zero six hundred. If your alarm is still activating at zero six thirty, expect a comm call from Medical. Once you get up, stick your arm in this -" he inserted his left arm into the recess "- and push this button. This light will glow red for a few seconds. Take your arm out when it changes to green."

"What's it for?" I asked.

Henry smiled and pushed up his left sleeve. His forearm was covered with dark, purplish writing. "Your daily schedule. Covers everything from breakfast to lights out. It's in indelible ink; so don't worry about it smearing. It'll wash off every night during Bathing."

I examined Henry's schedule closely. Sure enough, "Bathing" was stamped on his arm, scheduled for twenty-one hundred hours. "Very thorough," I muttered.

"You'll get used to it," Henry said, somewhat defensively. "Alright, Mr. Mellark. I'm sure you would like to get settled. I'll see you tomorrow." He slides open the door and then pauses. "Oh, I almost forgot. The clothing that you're wearing...would you like it laundered?"

I glanced down at my clothes...the same suit that I had worn to Reaping, and have been wearing continuously for the last three days...and I shake my head. "No," I replied slowly, "no, don't bother. I don't want any of it back."

"We'll recycle them, then," Henry replied with a smile. "There's bags in your wardrobe. Just place your clothing in one of the bags and leave it outside your door." He turned to leave again. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Henry," I replied as the door slides shut behind him. I'm alone for the first time in days.

I hung up the coveralls in the wardrobe, noting that everything seems to have been provided for me...underwear, t-shirts, socks, even two pair of sturdy boots...and unpack my meager possessions from my bag. Wearily, I stripped down and pad into the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth thoroughly and shave before stepping into the shower...my first in days.

I spend a long time in the shower before finally, reluctantly, turning the water off. After toweling myself off, I carefully hang the towel up to dry and slipped on shorts and a t-shirt before I sink down on the bed.

I debate for a moment about removing my prosthetic before finally detaching it carefully, setting it next to the bed. My exhaustion is quickly overtaking me and I'm having trouble keeping my eyes open. There's only one more thing that I have to do.

I pulled myself to my feet and hopped to the desk, settling into the chair and pulling the comm unit to me. I quickly consulted the directory and tap in a code. It's similar to telephones that I've used in the past, except there's no handset.

"Nurse's station West," a voice answered almost immediately. "How may I help you?"

"This is Peeta Mellark," I replied. "I would like to speak to Katniss Everdeen."

A short pause, followed by "One moment, Mr. Mellark." After a few moments, I heard a click, followed by a familiar voice.

"Peeta? Are you alright?"

"Yeah," I replied, feeling my voice catch. "I...I'm in quarters. I just wanted to talk to you before it got too late."

"I'm glad you called," Katniss said quietly. "There's no phone...I mean, 'comm unit,' in my room. They had to bring one in for me."

"I just wanted to say I love you before I fall asleep," I replied softly.

"I love you too, Peeta," Katniss practically whispered. "I can't wait to get out of this hospital tomorrow."

"I know. I don't blame you."

"Peeta? Did we do the right thing?"

I don't know, Katniss. Thousands of our friends and neighbors are dead...cremated by Capitol firebombs. And it will only get worse before it gets better. Did we really do the right thing?

"Yes," I replied firmly. "Yes, we did."

"I'm not so sure anymore," Katniss said softly. "I'm not sure of anything anymore."

"You can be sure of one thing, Katniss...that I love you."

"I love you, Peeta," she whispered. "But I have to go. The nurses want me to get some sleep. And you need to sleep too."

I sighed. The last two nights we spent in the forest, with no fire for fear of attracting Capitol hovercraft, huddled together. How she must have been hurting all that time! But she never once complained. Tomorrow night, I said to myself. Tomorrow night we'll sleep together.

"You're right," I softly said. "Goodnight, Katniss. I love you. See you tomorrow."

"Goodnight, Peeta. I love you."

And the line goes silent.

I sighed once more and hopped back to the bed. It's narrow, and the mattress is thin, and, as I lay down, it feels like the most luxurious Capitol bed that I've ever slept in. I lie down, pull the covers up, and dim the lights. I'll worry about tomorrow in the morning.

I fall asleep quickly, and tonight, my dreams are not of mutts, and dead Tributes, and losing Katniss. Tonight, my dreams are about a small, shroud-wrapped body, being slowly covered by clumps of rich, loamy earth.

Cressida was the first to die in the Rebellion. She won't be the last. I just hope that she doesn't have too much company along the way.