A/N: Apologies for the absurd wait on this chapter. And now bad news (good news?) this isn't the last chapter. The ending is going to be a bit stretched out from what was originally in my outline. More notes at the bottom.
Since it has been some time, TO RECAP: Katniss and her crew returned to Thirteen from the Capitol after having destroyed a hospital, making victory for the rebellion a near certainty. Peeta's health deteriorated significantly and his chances of survival became very slim without Capitol technology. After a rocky start—and a bullet wound—Gale and Madge seemed to have talked through their animosity, and begun something new. Finally, after months of battles and bloodshed, the rebellion was waiting impatiently for President Snow to surrender. However, it appeared that the Capitol and Snow will not go down without a fight.
Gale says nothing. Just stands there with a distressed look of concern on his face. I think maybe he's seen my lack of clothing, but I don't know how he could with most of my body hidden by the door.
Why is he even here? He already knows I don't attend meetings. There's only one announcement I care about. Wait…could it be? "Gale, what is it? Is it Snow? Has he surrendered?"
Gale clenches his hands into fists. He pulls back his emotion and smoothes out his expression. "There isn't going to be a surrender. Snow is coming here."
Move. Need to move. Immediately. Wheelchair. Elevator. Blankets. Then elevator. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up!
Peeta groans in protest against my attempts to rouse him. He looks painfully unwilling, and possibly unable, to awaken. I regret handling him so roughly, but lack the time to coax him gently. "Gale! Help me?" I plead as I shove at Peeta's shoulder again and again. I need Gale's assistance moving Peeta into the wheelchair since he is on the cusp of consciousness and very little help.
Much to my irritation, Gale attaches himself to the doorframe. "I can't," he mutters with his eyes cast downward.
"Why not?" I bark.
His chin nearly touches his chest. "Because you're half dressed," he mumbles.
I peek down at my skinny, uncovered legs. Instinctively, I pull at the hem of my tank top to cover myself, but Gale's already seen everything there is to see. "Oh hell!" I stammer through my clenched jaw. I knew this sleeping ensemble was a bad idea from the start, but I'm too panicked to be truly embarrassed. "You get him into the chair. I'll get dressed." I scurry over to the dresser and grab the first pair of pants I find.
Gale lines himself along the bed as Peeta limply moans at the activity of the room and the random noise from the hallway. I catch a glimpse of a pair of people in District 13 uniforms jogging past the open door, ushering patients down the hall. Suddenly, a crying baby joins the scuffling of boots and random shouting. The echo of panic in the normally quiet hallway sends a shiver down my back.
Meanwhile, Gale brusquely shakes a barely alert Peeta. "Okay. Come on, sweet cakes. Rise and shine," he says with mock cheerfulness. Peeta grumbles something I don't catch.
"What did he say?" I ask while buttoning my pants.
"You don't want me to repeat it," Gale says. Peeta grunts. "Fine, we'll do it the hard way." Gale forcefully, yet smoothly, pulls Peeta into a sitting position, then takes hold of Peeta under his arms and legs, like he would for Posy or Vick after they skinned their knees. "Hold the chair steady, would you?"
I hurry back to them, grabbing the handlebars and keeping Peeta's wheelchair still as Gale successfully settles Peeta into it. Other than some hoarse murmuring Peeta does nothing to object. There was a time when Peeta weighed enough that that such a maneuver would have been difficult, even for Gale. That isn't the case now. I take a quilt from our bed and tuck it around Peeta's knees. He leans his head into his hands and tries to rub the lingering sleep from his eyes. "What's going on?" he says through a cough.
"We're moving somewhere safe," I reply shakily.
"Why?" Peeta grunts.
I look up at Gale. His hands are steady whereas mine are trembling. He's had more time to absorb the information. I try to hide my shaking hands by snatching a sheet from the bed and placing it around his shoulders. After last night's, or this morning's, breakdown, how can I stand to deliver more dire news? The kind of news that makes the cabin, the porch swing, and the drawing of our daughter more of a fantasy than it already is.
"Snow finally spoke up," Gale says on my behalf.
I look down and realize neither Peeta nor I am wearing shoes. We should have shoes. Peeta will probably make a joke out of it, seeing as he doesn't walk much right now. I find his seldom worn leather boots tucked under the bed. They'll look odd paired with his pajamas; however, I decide to use them anyway. I don't know what kind of protection we might need from here on out, and Peeta might needs something sturdy or at least warmer than slippers. Right foot first with a double knot, because that's how Peeta always puts on his shoes.
"And instead of surrendering," Gale continues, "he decided to drop in."
"Snow knows about Thirteen?" Peeta gapes.
I locate my own boots, trying to think one step ahead of the conversation. Yes, Snow is coming here, and he won't come alone. His resources have been significantly depleted in the last year, but he still has bombs. Now he has a target.
I sit on the now stripped bed as I tie my boots. I don't usually double-knot my laces, but there's something oddly comforting about doing so on this bleak morning.
"Not only does he know," Gale replies. "But he pooled every remaining firebomb-dropping hovercraft he's got, which is why we're currently in evacuation mode."
Peeta, barely able to hold his head up, stares at me sadly; the defeat in his eyes breaks my heart. To have come so far, only to have history repeat itself, is crushing.
"Where are we being evacuated to?" Peeta asks quietly, his voice surprisingly calm. I scan the room for anything else we might need, but all we have in this room is emergency candles and Peeta's drawing tools. Poorly equipped for battle.
"There are mine shafts underneath the compound left from the old days. It should be far enough below the surface to provide protection," Gale explains to Peeta. I vaguely recall learning of the mine shafts during some refugee orientation that was recited to me while I was recovering from my injuries in the Quell.
"Should be?" Peeta wonders aloud. "What exactly are the chances of it caving in?"
"We'll find out very soon," Gale says grimly.
The sound of the crying baby I heard earlier steadily grows louder as he and the mother approach the doorway. Mother and baby rush by in a blur, but not before I note the mother's expression of terror.
"I have to find my mother," I say without thinking. Although it's very early in the morning, before sunrise on the surface, she would have immediately gone to help the sick and infirm before protecting herself. Knowing Prim, she probably did the very same. There might not be enough time to find them and get Peeta to safety. I need another option. For once, the rebellion's forces have provided me with one. "Gale, you take Peeta down to the mine. I'll make sure the wing is empty." That will take care of Peeta and Gale and then I can—
"I'm the commanding officer here." Gale snaps, clearly put off by my order.
Commanding officer? Try Mockingjay.
He pushes Peeta toward me like a bargaining chip. Peeta scowls unappreciatively at the gesture. "You and Peeta go to the elevator immediately," he commands, releasing the wheelchair's handlebars.
"I need to make sure my mother and Prim are safe," I insist.
"I don't have time to argue with you, Catnip. You don't get to be the hero today."
My hands involuntarily form fists ready to retaliate. This situation has nothing to do with me playing the part of the hero. I'm trying to protect my family, Gale included. Unfortunately, he easily recognizes my ploy, as it is something he would try to pull over on me if he were in my place.
"Go to the elevator now. I can't waste time worrying about you, okay?" he says seriously.
I open my mouth to object—I would much rather be doing something to help with the evacuation effort as opposed to sitting in the mines worrying about my family—when I feel Peeta's hand clasp around my tight fist. His hair is mussed from sleep and his eyes are red from a lack of it. I'm suddenly swept up in memory of our whispered vows, specifically when I promised not to leave him again. I did not intend to break this promise, but the well-ingrained urge to look after my mother and sister's safety is difficult to ignore. Putting faith in the belief that they will look after themselves is an even greater challenge. "Fine," I finally utter, squeezing my fist so hard my short nails cut into my palms. "You'll hurry, won't you?"
Gale nods curtly. It's not as if he has another option. He carefully watches as I step behind Peeta, take hold of the handlebars, and hurriedly move us out the door and into the flow of traffic. "Save me a spot!" Gale yells. He tears down in the opposite direction of the elevator, making sure every person evacuates before ensuring his own safety. Fear trickles down my spine. What if he doesn't make it in time? What of Madge? What of Prim and my mother? The only person I have any knowledge of is Peeta. And I have to say a quick prayer of thanks for that. Nearly every time I take my eyes off Peeta he ends up injured or captured. Although I'm wracked with stress, with Peeta in his current state I have no choice but to get him to safety. Maybe once he's settled I'll be able to go back for Prim and my mother.
The traffic of people is sparse coming out of the hospital wing, but when we reach the barracks the crackle of panic is rampant as is the organization of the evacuation. The entire population of Thirteen plus the refugees scale over one another like a group of Seam kids grabbing at a loaf of fresh bread. The soldiers ask that we stay quiet and calm, but they're difficult to hear over screams of confusion and alarm that ring out on every side. The remaining soldiers in District 13 aren't exactly the rebellion's finest either. The strongest have already been sent to other districts to quell the riots. What remains in Thirteen are the young, barely trained, and never meant to see battle.
An older man who forgot to put on his shoes cuts in front of Peeta. A moment later a couple holding hands trip over the wheels of the chair without sparing Peeta a second glance. I push Peeta's head down into his lap to prevent anyone from elbowing him in the face. I could easily snake through the crowd if I was alone, but cutting around people with the cumbersome wheelchair is nearly impossible. Afraid of being knocked down, or worse, I abruptly direct us toward an open threshold of an empty conference room where I tuck Peeta away from the mass of people. I put my body in between them and us to protect him from the crazed assaults of passersby.
"Do they know?" Peeta asks, his voice muffled by the blanket over his shoulders.
I shake my head rapidly, unable to believe Haymitch and Plutarch would incite such chaos on purpose by telling people the reason for the evacuation. Then again, they've been hiding here for seventy-five years fearing they would be destroyed like the former district. Perhaps they don't need to be told the truth of the situation. The fact that we're being forced to evacuate is enough to trigger their worst fears.
The morning lights kick on with a pop, causing dozens of people to jump and a few to shriek. It's strange to see the building take on its routine when it's possible it could be destroyed in mere hours, mere minutes.
From where I'm standing, I can see a bulk of restless people clambering in front of the elevator doors. It's obviously loaded with too much weight, but no one cares that they're testing the limits of the elevator cables. Peeta and I have no choice but to try for the elevator, though we risk being trampled.
"Katniss! Peeta!" someone shouts from somewhere further up in the chaos. Profanities are muttered by refugees who are shoved aside to clear the way for a short girl, not dressed in uniform, but with eyes as intense as any soldier.
Peeta perks his head up at the calling of his name. "Shell?" he croaks.
"What are you doing back here?" she screeches to be heard over the crowd. "Does no one have common sense?" She shakes her head with disgust. "Stay close!" While Shell is aptly concerned with the welfare of the sick she doesn't seem to give much thought to those in good health. She unapologetically shoves stubborn refugees aside clearing out a path for Peeta and me to get by. Several people object, even after they see it's a crippled man coming through. In fact, I think that causes them to object even more. It's a deep survivor's instinct they're responding to. Why should the wellbeing of the ill be put ahead the wellbeing of the strong and able-bodied? And while that attitude may be embedded into their minds, as Prim or my mother or even Shell would say, in a civilized society, the right thing is to take special consideration for those in need. Luckily for us, Shell also has a "take no prisoners" attitude to go along with it.
Within seconds of Shell finding us we're standing at the open elevator doors with just enough room for Peeta and me, but only after Shell compels two grown men to give up their spot with a violent threat I believe she would made good on. I look gratefully to Shell. "Thank you," I say over the grumblings of the people whose spot we've taken.
"Keep working on that limp, Peeta," she calls out. I'm sure Peeta would have laughed were the situation not so terrifying. With a playful salute Shell disappears amongst the crowd to rescue more unfortunate souls.
The doors of the elevator draw closed with a groan and finally a snap. The muffled screams peter out as the steel box begins to rattle downwards. The drop continues on and on. Thirty seconds. Then a full minute. Then two. How far below could these mines be? I fight off every memory of the mines in Twelve, but cold dread washes over me regardless. I've been living underground for months, but there's something about four walls and plumbing that makes one forget. Being in this semi-dark, clattering, ten by ten box, pushed up against a large sweaty man, while a child whimpers somewhere in the corner stirs up more panic in me than anything else that has happened tonight.
Peeta blindly reaches over his shoulder, feeling around until he finds my hand, then he grasps it tightly. The touch doesn't remove the memories, but it does force me to focus on him and the somewhat backwards hope that the mines will provide us protection.
The painful ride ends with an ironically playful ping sound. When the doors open, blinding bright circles of light shine into my eyes.
"Follow the line! Take a seat at the first open space available!" a soldier orders gruffly—one of the only soldiers to have found an authoritative voice in this mess of an evacuation.
I push forward, heedless of the right direction; my eyesight peppered with lingering spots after having lights shined in my eyes. My eyesight fights to clear, but I quickly find there's nothing so see. Nothing but darkness, which is occasionally broken up by streams of light attached to helmets of the soldiers. It's quieter down here than it was in the compound—less shrieking. However, there's much more sniffling and intermittent sobbing. Mostly people's names.
The frigid, stale air coats my mouth. I taste dust. And somehow, the air moves, like a breeze. It's been days since I felt a breeze that wasn't blowing from a ventilation duct. I fail to see walls or a ceiling. The mine must be unfathomably vast, more of a cavern than a narrow mine shaft. Thankfully, the cavern floor has been smoothed out enough for Peeta's chair to move without too much difficulty.
The instructions we received from the soldier when exiting the elevator eventually become apparent. A narrow path has been left clear for newcomers traveling further and further into the mine until there is an open place to sit. I take a mental note of how many steps I've taken in hopes of making it easier for Prim and my mother to find us or for me to find my way back.
A stocky soldier waits at the end of the line. He directs to an open space off the side. I follow the yellow stream of light until I reach the dusty wall. The light abruptly disappears when the soldier looks in a different direction. A woman and her two children huddle near us. It's odd to be lumped in with the masses after being the Games caused me to lose my anonymity. Comforting, too. I'm not responsible for these people. The Mockingjay is, but right now the efforts of the Mockingjay aren't remotely useful.
Peeta leans his head into his hand; his shoulder slump with fatigue. We've been silent almost the entire journey. It wasn't because the soldiers ordered us to be quiet. What is there to say? Our efforts may have been for nothing. We may not see this war end. I've no desire to say those words aloud.
Still standing behind him, I touch his forehead. Warm, but not feverish. I fear removing the blankets. It's colder down here than it was in the compound. I slide my hand back and lightly scratch Peeta's scalp, hopefully combing down some of the mussed pieces of his hair. He sighs and slouches down further into his chair. A dank and dark mine shaft isn't safe for him. How can he survive down here when his prognosis while staying in the hospital is so doubtful? What is the likelihood that any of us will see the light of day again? The uncertainty makes my stomach feel like lead. I desperately wrap my arms around Peeta's weary shoulders and press my cheek against his. I try to hope I haven't ushered us into our own graves.
Prim is the one to find us. Clad in pajamas and slippers and carrying a flashlight she looks every bit the little girl I've taken care of for so many years; however, the way she slips through the crowd without fear reflects her recent maturity. Hard to believe this girl was afraid of her own shadow not so long ago.
"I was afraid you would be held up in the hospital wing," I say when she kneels down beside me. I throw my arm around her neck, being careful not to jostle Peeta. With effort from both of us Peeta and I finagled him to the cavern floor where he could lie down, using my lap as a pillow. I have my back against the wall of the cavern so I could keep watch. The line of people filing thinned out an hour ago—or so I estimate. A few lanterns have been scattered around though they provide very little illumination, enough to quiet the crowd. The shrieking stopped and faded into anxious whispering.
Prim leans back on her heels. "No." She sighs. "I tried to get over there when the evacuation alarm went off, but I ran into some…uh…" she drifts off to look over her shoulder into the darkness. She exhales again, turns back, and remembers herself. "Interference," she finishes.
"Interference?" I wonder aloud. I suppose Peeta and I also ran into a great deal of "interference" while making our escape, but I never would have chosen that word to describe it. More like mayhem.
"Yeah…um…it was rough up there," Prim answers hastily. "Everyone was panicked, especially refugees who were forced out of their districts because of bombings."
Like she was. I've only begun to recognize my sister's maturity, but suddenly I'm filled with pride. This is the second time Prim's been in the face of such danger and she's handling it remarkably well. She's not amongst those falling to pieces, whimpering in the near darkness. The war has strengthened her, not broken her. The same can be said of Madge and Gale and Wing and Shell. I can't say if it's true of me.
Carefully, Prim steps over my outstretched legs, accommodating Peeta so he can see her without looking upside down. "How are you, big brother?" Prim asks with a sweet smile. She touches his forehead gently, feeling for a fever just like my mother would.
"Not bad, considering." Peeta manages a pained smile. Lying through his teeth no doubt. He coughs to clear the muck out of his throat. "Where did you get that flashlight?" he asks. While I didn't question it at first, I do wonder about the flashlight when Peeta brings it up. Flashlights run on batteries—a precious commodity in Thirteen. Generally the only people who are issued them are soldiers or people who work third shift.
Prim holds the light under her chin, accentuating her cheekbones and long blonde eyelashes. "I never reveal my sources," she says darkly. Prim becoming more grown up is one thing but this spy business makes me uncomfortable. We need to get out of this district before someone notices her talents and sends her into the field.
"Do you know where Mom is?" I ask quickly. I'm desperate to look for her or Gale or Madge or just about anyone who knows more than I do. Peeta even told me to search when he noticed my concern. However, I'm too afraid to leave Peeta alone with so many people surrounding us. Several of them have eyed his blankets. Apparently his celebrity doesn't go very far when the temperature is below sixty degrees.
"I haven't seen her yet, but I heard some soldiers say that the compound is fully evacuated," Prim explains. I have heard this as well from the whispers around me, but I wish more than anything I could hear it from Haymitch. Or more importantly, how any of this happened? The Capitol was on its last legs prior to our attack on the hospital. It was barely keeping control of the upper districts. How could Snow have gathered enough arms to send us into hiding?
"Have you decided on anymore animals to add to your zoo?" Peeta asks playfully of Prim.
What a time to make lighthearted conversation.
Prim settles herself more comfortably on the dirty floor, folding her legs out in front of her. The amusement on her face is plain as day. "I have. Do you think it's possible to domesticate a lynx?"
Peeta chuckles. "About as likely as domesticating a fox I would imagine."
"I was afraid of that." Prim exhales in disappointment. She rolls the flashlight between her palms, sending a shaky column of light upward. For the first time, I think I catch a glimpse of the cavern ceiling. Some morbid part of me wants to know how far away the ceiling is in case it starts coming down on us.
"Gale says a fox wouldn't make a good pet," Prim laments.
"Probably wouldn't get along with your ducks and chickens."
"What if I had it from the time it was a cub?"
Very soon I will need to explain to Prim that the only way for her to have a fox cub is if I were to steal it from a fox mother. It will be hard to break this to her. I can picture her glassy eyes at the mere thought of it.
"I had Napoleon from the time he was a small turtle and he never harmed anyone; well, me he bit once."
Prim giggles. The people near us cast nasty looks. It's too soon after the shock of the evacuation for laughter apparently. I scowl back. I didn't tell them to be quiet when they were wailing and moaning. My sister can laugh all she pleases.
"My fox will be as docile as Buttercup was," Prim declares.
Buttercup? Docile? Good thing her expectations aren't very high.
"I'll show Gale," Prim adds confidently.
The mention of Gale sends my mind back into distress mode. Where is Gale? It's been some time since we arrived and I haven't seen any sign of him. What I wouldn't give for a flashlight. Maybe if I ask Prim to tell me where she got hers I can—
Wait. Prim is here. With me. Not with my mother, not with patients, and not with the person she's been spending most of her free time with.
"Did you come down here with the Hawthornes?" I inquire abruptly.
Prim's laugher cuts out with a small squeak. Her eyes widen and I witness a gulp travel down her throat. She's not quite ready for espionage yet. She hasn't grown out of the scared doe eyes.
"Yes," Prim responds quietly.
"Have you seen Gale?"
She offers a shallow nod. "I saw Madge, too," she says, her voice even smaller.
Prim's answers confound me. I should be relieved that my friends are safe and yet I'm more troubled that she didn't tell me this immediately. "Did he give you that flashlight? Did he tell you to look for us?" Not something I approve of Gale doing. And Gale knows that. He would never knowingly put Prim in danger. Not to mention Rory.
Prim busies herself by tucking Peeta's quilt firmly around his legs, averting her eyes. "Not exactly," she mumbles.
"Where are the Hawthornes? Where's Rory?" I ask. Prim refuses to look at me and if Peeta didn't have his head in my lap I would have my hands on her shoulders to demand answers. I feel a tug on my pant leg—Peeta—trying to get my attention, but I can't be derailed. I'm too wound up from worry and Prim, my own sister, won't tell me what's going on. "He let you walk around by yourself? Did Hazelle—"
"I took the flashlight, okay?" Prim interrupts sharply.
The woman sitting near us scoops up her children and scoots away. The conversation is louder than I realized. I attempt to piece together the scenario, but the parts don't fit. Prim has never done anything wrong…ever, as impossible as that might seem. Even as a baby she never had a tantrum. Or am I just remembering it that way? "You stole Gale's flashlight?"
"I needed it so I could find you," she says tightly.
"That gives you no right to steal."
There's a sputtering cough below me. Peeta's covers his mouth with his fist to conceal his cough, but even in the darkness I see him smirking. I don't know if he's laughing at me or Prim, but I'm in the mood for neither.
Prim lifts her knees and hides her face against them. The light from the flashlight spears off into the crowd. Heads turn to follow the light just to have something to look at. "I couldn't stay there," she mumbles from behind her arms and legs.
"With the Hawthornes?" Prim spends more time with them than she does me. "What is going on?" I ask, exasperated.
"Nothing," she snaps, her head lifting up. "Do you want me to look for Mom? She's probably with some patients. She'll want to know where you are." Without a glance Prim stands up, takes a moment to wipe the debris from her backside, and steps off in the direction she came.
"Prim!" I shout, unable to move with Peeta in my lap. My voice lifts above the murmurs, which have stopped as we've become something more interesting than a ball of light to stare at.
Prim whips back around, accidently shining the flashlight directly in my eyes. "I'll be back soon. Where am I going to go?" she says with an irritated shrug.
I lean back against the cavern wall as she stomps off, legitimately slack jawed. My sister snapped at me. My sister stole. My sister is walking around an abandoned mine shaft like a soldier on a mission, alone. Why haven't I gone after her yet?
Something soft and slightly warm strokes the side of my face. Oh. Peeta. His fingers guide my chin down to see the genuine concern on his face.
"Do you want to follow her?" he asks softly.
I shake my head. Close my eyes. I can't go. And she doesn't want me to follow her.
"It's not like she stole his gun," Peeta muses. The corner of my mouth turns up unconsciously. His thumb skims over my lips carefully like he's touching something precious.
With my eyes still closed I release an exhausted sigh. Prim, Prim, Prim. It wasn't long ago that we talked in the dining hall, right after I found out she and Rory are a couple. She was so sweet and excited and sure, and she also understood my relationship with Peeta on a deeper level than I did. I remember being awed by how grown-up and intuitive she had become. No, she didn't steal a gun, as Peeta says, but she's disobedient and unpredictable. She's not herself. "I never thought I'd see my sister behave in a way that was anything but kind," I confess with disappointment. I haven't been there for her like I have in the past. I leaned on my mother and Hazelle and Rory to guide her. And maybe that was a mistake.
Peeta's fingers drift away. I open my eyes. I've adjusted to the darkness and read the pallid coloring of his skin. The strain in his eyes he's trying to disguise. "We all have a rebellious stage. You certainly did," he teases.
The banter may have succeeded in lifting Prim's spirits, but it fails to distract me. I wish we were back in our room, as much as I'd grown to despise those gray walls I miss the privacy. "Are you okay?" I whisper, cupping my hands over his cheeks and leaning in to create a pretend cocoon for us.
"Prim just asked me that," Peeta groans in annoyance.
"Now tell me."
"I'm fine," he says slowly, deliberately, smoothing out his face as best he can to convince me of the lie.
"Are you in pain?"
"I should have gotten something before we came down here." Had I been thinking straight I would have stopped at the medical storage for morphling. Granted, I would have had to steal it. Oh god. No wonder Prim is lifting flashlights off of people.
"Katniss, stop. I'm fine. We'll be fine," he insists. Quite a change from the conversation we had during the night when you were prepared to say a final goodbye, I think grimly. However, I have to concede that arguing over this is pointless. We're trapped down here for the time being.
I lean back against the wall observing my fellow prisoners. Several people have taken Peeta's example and lay down to try and sleep. It must be nearing the time the first shift of people rouse for work, but with the evacuation everyone's sleep has been disrupted. I'm impressed by those who can sleep with a firebomb threat in action, but then again, the moles have lived with this threat for decades. It's not so different from every other morning.
The rough texture of the stone scratches the bare skin of my shoulders. It competes with the tingling sensation in my legs and backside from sitting in one position for so long for the greatest discomfort. I shift slightly, arch my back, and try to work the kinks out. Though what I really need to stand up and maybe run in place.
"Sometimes I forgot that we were living in leftover mine shafts," I whisper, trying not to disturb those around me. I glance down to see Peeta blinking rapidly at me, shaking out the sleep. Of course he's tired. He barely slept at all last night.
"Shell told me it goes on for miles. Deeper than the mines in Twelve," he says conversationally.
"In the last seventy-five years we probably caught up." I find strange humor in the notion that there is a competition between Shell's district and mine as to who has suffered through the most. Factor in how Thirteen has never had to take part in the Games and their position on that hierarchy is knocked down a few notches.
I relax one arm on Peeta's chest. He takes my hand and kisses my fingers. "Is it alright? Being down here?" he asks. How like him to think of the things that plague my nightmares, even now. I debate between compartmentalizing and pouring out my fears—something neither of us has fully succumbed to yet. How can I tell him that I've already considered that this place might become our tomb if the walls and the ceilings don't hold up against the President's bombs?
Peeta tucks the hand he kissed under the blanket. I shiver at the difference between the open air and the temperature under the blanket. Instead of confessing, I change the subject. Nothing could make me feel safe here anyway. "It's so cold down here. I didn't realize we had it so good up in the compound."
Peeta hugs my arm against his body. "You should have put on a long-sleeved shirt or something."
I was lucky to remember to put shoes on. "I'm dressing in full uniform when I go to bed from now on," I decide.
"Well, that's the most disappointing thing I've heard all morning," Peeta says, his face very serious.
"Shh!" I sputter, leaning over him again. Continuously, I'm shocked by the things he says. I wonder if that will ever change. "When Gale walked in, I was—"
"What do you mean, 'when Gale walked in'?"
"When he knocked and I…I didn't check…," I flounder, unwilling to rehash my ill-advised decision to open the door half-clothed. I wait for Peeta to indicate that he remembers and save me from explaining, but if his wrinkled, confused brow is any indication he was asleep when it happened and witnessed nothing. "Never mind," I mumble.
Peeta taps his fingers against the back of my hand. The wrinkles in his forehead deepen as he works through the haze of events. "Are you telling me that Gale saw you without—?"
"Shhh!" I hiss for the second time. My whole body cringes. Hopefully, he can't see me blush in the darkness. Peeta isn't blushing, that's for certain. He rivals Gale or me in the severity of his scowl. I hate to see it on him, especially over something so insignificant. I tenderly comb his hair away from his face and murmur, "don't be angry."
"As a husband I'm entitled to be upset over matters such as this," he responds tersely.
I scoff at his reaction. "The whole of Panem has seen you wearing nothing," I point out.
"The only person who was scandalized by seeing me naked was you. And you didn't even look."
I inwardly groan. There was certainly a turnaround on that. How did I go from being annoyed when people saw me as pure to being upset when people gossiped about how not pure Peeta and I have been since we came here? I look around to see if anyone else is listening in on this conversation. People seem to have found more interest in sleeping than us, so I'm spared that embarrassment. This is a ridiculous conversation and Gale would agree with me. "Trust me, both Gale and I were focused on more pressing matters than him seeing me in my underwear," I say under my breath.
"He'd say different."
"He's with Madge now," I challenge.
"That doesn't make you any less beautiful."
My mouth snaps shut against further argument. He doesn't say it often, partially because I don't care for compliments, and partially because he doesn't have to. I see it in the way he looks at me, the way he studies me before he sketches me. He knows everything there is to know about me. And still I'm stunned silent by the unpredictable things he says? If I had more time I would learn. I swear I would learn every truth there is to this man. At a loss for words, as I often am, I lean forward, ignoring the aches in my back and kiss him, gently, because he is very sick. He squeezes my hand with his remaining strength. I pull away. Kiss his nose, his weary eyes. "Are you tired?" I whisper, my face next to his.
Peeta sighs. Always so reluctant to admit defeat.
"You should sleep."
"How close are they?" he whispers, his voice rough.
"I don't know." There hasn't been much information shared. I have to find Haymitch. He answers my questions. Most of the time. And I need to know what it was that brought them here, especially if it's because of our phone call. If it's my fault. "I'll keep watch," I promise.
"It's kind of like being in the caves again," Peeta observes before closing his eyes.
A dark, cold cavern. The Capitol watching us. Peeta fighting a fatal infection. Imminent death.
A sharp tremor runs down my back. It's exactly like being in the caves again.
A/N: Okay, it's been…some time. Here's some stuff that has been going on.
Awhile back, I was interviewed by Silver Sniper from the blog, So You Think You Can Write? I had a great time chatting with her. Endless thanks for the rec, Silver!
I've also been hard at work helping to run The Pearl Awards – a Hunger Games fanart and fanfiction awards. Nominees are posted and dying to be read. Check out my profile for linkage.
You may or may not have noticed my penname changed. It was KenoshaChick for a good six years and while it was a loyal pseudonym, it was time for us to part ways. My new penname and twitter handle: holymfwickee. If you would like to know the story behind it, you can ask, but if you figure it out, you'll be awesome. Cause really, it's not that interesting a story. ;)
I cannot repeat my thanks enough to Medea Smyke for pre-reading this chapter. I never could have made it this far without her beta work and encouragement!
So…to be continued.