It's like fire running through my fingers, my toes, my lungs, my cheeks. I sit on the edge of the bed, my feet barely touching the ground, my shoulders weak and heavy. Peeta is somewhere, captured, tortured, hopefully alive, and my whole body aches with it. Maybe he's no longer alive to suffer the Capitol's punishment. Maybe he's in so much pain he'd be better off dead. Certainly he'd be better off without any of this. Peeta was always too good for this life, for this world. How someone as wonderful, kind and sincere as him could end up here makes me uneasy and laden with guilt. I'm the reason he's in the middle of this. I'm the reason he's in pain.
And I'm sure he's in pain.
The Capitol rarely ever steps aside while they're made a mockery. It didn't take much for that man in District 11 to get his head blown out, and Peeta has done far worse – he's been a part of my life. I sucked him in, I let him creep into my dreams, my waking hours, my heart. I don't know how I could have ever been so selfish. Why didn't I just leave him be? Let him go? I should have publically declared complete disdain for him, told the world that I didn't love him, that I was through with Peeta Mellark in my life and didn't want anything to do with him ever again. Maybe that would have kept him from the certain horror he's in right now.
I take a deep breath and let my hands sink further into the thin mattress. They take on more of my weight as my shoulders hunch lower with the burden of those I love.
Those I love.
I love Peeta Mellark. And not in the way I love Prim or my mother or even Gale. Especially not in the way I love Gale. I decided it was him I was destined for when I made the choice to fall in line with the rebellion, as if Gale was the only one with the ability to take on such a massive, desperate, bitter task. I thought of Peeta as someone that the Capitol forced on to me – someone that took away my freedoms and subjected me to a life I never wanted. Gale represented the person I wanted to be, the fighter, the hunter, the adamant and intelligent machine holding her family in place.
Until I realized that Peeta might never be in my life again.
It's funny how it really does take losing something to realize just how badly you want it. Or maybe it's just because you think you can't have it that you want it so much more, but either way, I now understand that I need Peeta. I want Peeta.
I love Gale, too, and my feelings are still frequently hard to decipher, but I know that I've never thought about Gale the way I do Peeta. In the arena at the Quell, when I heard Gale's tortured voice through the jabberjays, my body rushed forward without thinking. My heart shattered, the adrenaline exploding, my arms ready to fight. He has been my best friend for a long time now, especially at a time when I needed him more than I thought. Even though I love my mother, taking her place as the head of the house was too difficult and constantly too lonely. Gale was a refuge, a partner, a sign of hope and accomplishment in a life that was otherwise without those sentiments. He was strength incarnate.
But I've never yearned for him this way. Never wished he was in my bed, holding me, whispering my name, saying the perfect words to lull my heart into a nightmareless sleep.
A gentle knock on the door pulls my attention briefly from these thoughts and I take a hard, solid breath.
"Come in," I call.
Haymitch walks in, looking haggard and smelling just as bad. The showers are more for display in this place and neither of us are looking our best. However, it's not the deep circles around our eyes, the layers of dirt under our fingernails or piled on our skin, or the tangles and shreds of hair left on our heads that reveal the true hardships. It's the sagging way we walk, the constant downturn of our mouths, the distance in our eyes. I might hate Haymitch, but I think he hates himself more.
"You look worse today," he says gruffly.
I don't even have the energy to scowl. "Thanks. You, on the other hand, must have finally contacted your stylist. Body odor suits you."
I take it back. I do have the energy to scowl.
Haymitch sits down next to me. My heart suddenly begins to beat at a pace I can hear. He usually just stands in the doorway, or leans against a wall away from me. He never gets close. This is a position he would only take if he thinks he needs to be there to catch me, to lean in, to hug me. I don't like it.
"Katniss…" he says quietly, but I can tell he's not sure what to say next.
"What is it?" I reply, with a distinct edge to my voice. I'm too angry to be sad, or at least, too angry to let on just how sad I really am. I'm pretty sure Haymitch knows, but I'll never open up enough to confirm it for him.
"The sweepers have returned."
The sweepers. Ten rebel volunteers headed out almost a month ago to explore the districts…or what was left of them. Communications have been down with our spies in the Capitol for a while now, and the only way, the best way, we could reconnect was to meet up in person. We didn't know if the Capitol spies had the same idea and were headed our way as well, but time couldn't be wasted. It was immediate and desperate need. The volunteers would have to make their way in carriages and on foot, with one quick ride in the hovercraft when it could be used without giving us away, the journey taking at least a couple weeks through hostile district territories. Simply said, it was an incredibly stupid and dangerous task. Naturally, I wanted to join them, but no one would hear of it. They said I was too valuable, and that they needed me here in the dark, endless pits of District 13.
Still, I spend most of my days wandering the underground maze, fiddling around with Prim, and pacing the floor behind my locked bedroom door. It doesn't matter how many times I promise not to escape, Haymitch knows me too well to buy it.
I look into Haymitch's weary eyes and notice a strange glimmer in them that I don't expect. His face hasn't shown any sign of humanity in ages. There has been no sign of emotion, least of all…dare I say…hope?
"What happened? What did they find? What's wrong?" Suddenly there are questions in me, fueled by this odd expression lodged in Haymitch's face.
"The Capitol is more powerful than we thought – their numbers are staggering. And they've shut off even more of our trade roads. We'll be lucky to cultivate enough crops to sustain the communities here for little more than a few weeks. The Thirteeners are talented, but still, we relied on those grain stores."
These facts are not related to the twinkle in his eye. I can see it – it hasn't changed.
"Did they connect with the Team?"
Conversations have become more valuable here than they ever were above. There is a sort of shorthand speak that comes with our planning, a simplified way of identifying what doesn't need further description. Various groups, for example, are often labeled in the most basic ways. The masses that have fled during the destruction of each district are called by their corresponding numbers: the Ones, the Twos, the Elevens, the Twelves. I am, of course, The Bird, and Finnick and Haymitch, along with a few of the other rebellion masterminds are collectively called the Brain. The spies that have stayed behind in the clutches of our enemies are called the Team, and we rely heavily on communication with them to keep the large crowd hiding out in the underground of District 13 alive. Finally, of course, If we want to speak of those that are the cause of all this, the drones that pursue the bloodshed and control, in honor of the President we call them the Winters.
It was the Team we'd lost contact with, and the Team our rebel volunteers were headed in to find.
Haymitch has paused too long. "Yes…they connected with them."
I take in a small breath hearing the words unsaid in his short sentence. Just like the shorthand, there is a language of the unspoken that you begin to learn as well.
Death has become too much of a reality for it to affect me much anymore. I've been lucky, though. Unlike most of the people here, I haven't suffered loss in the same magnitude. My sister, my mother and my best friend are intact. The people I've grown to trust – Finnick, Haymitch, Effie – are all alive and as well as one can be. There's only one person I am without, and incredibly, he is the one person I feel most empty separated from. Peeta lingers on my mind once again and I don't try to shake him away.
"Pierot was already dead when they got there," Haymitch continued, "but the rest of the Team was relatively unharmed. The Winters got word of him, Pierot. We still don't know how, but they knew something was up. That's why they killed him. They didn't even give him a chance to defend himself."
I watched Haymitch, stared intently in his eyes for that little light to move, to change, to give itself away when the hope they carried was about to be explained.
"I'm sure the leak came from the bottom up, mostly because someone of Pierot's background and training would hardly give himself away. And like a good breadcrumb trail, the Winters would have followed each little piece to the top – to Snow's inner circle, to Pierot. Yet, for some reason, they didn't make a slaughter of it. I think Snow decided to get rid of the part that he thought could harm him the worst, but he's left the rest of the ants to report back to their homes. Surely he's hoping they'll lead him to us, because Pierot wasn't about to waltz him into the arms of the rebellion leaders. He's not stupid, Snow, no matter how hard we try to hate him into it."
Still nothing in those eyes. I was starting to believe I'd imagined it.
"When our volunteers arrived, they waited in the mountains and watched. They signaled, but there was no reply. That's how they knew something was seriously wrong. Each District was a wasteland, barren and coated in ash – it wasn't good, Katniss. Honestly I don't think they would've even gone the whole route if they had another way, but the Capitol is our only supply source anymore, you know that. Without food and ammunitions, and most importantly intelligence, we don't stand a chance of winning this war. We can have all the cunning we want, but we'll starve to death too quickly to use any of that wit without the few precious supplies the Team can muster."
Why is he explaining all of this to me? As if I doubt the rebel volunteers for heading all the way to the Capitol or any of the actions they might have taken. Sure they'd been gone a long time, maybe too long, but this was the nature of things these days. Time passes irregularly. Sometimes too slowly, sometimes far too fast. I am in charge of food rations, it's something to keep my mind from idling on Peeta's strong face and deep, blue eyes, but with so little food as it is, my job is done before I can even think of a way to drag it out. So I just sit around, wanting to have a clear head, but knowing it's useless to try and think of anything other than him…other than the truest and kindest and most beautiful man I know. For me, time moves in booming clicks and clanks, in seconds that last for hours, in distant, black voids.
I still don't reply to Haymitch, just watch. He's closer to the give now, I almost think I can feel it.
"Burggen was the one who found him, but the Winters found Burggen before he could tell the our rebels much of anything. They got bits and pieces, broken signals and strange tilts of light as if someone was writing a sentence and leaving out all the vowels. Then…" his voice hitched. I braced myself. "Then Snow took off in his hovercraft."
"Who did Burggen find?" I ask unexpectedly.
I wait for a reply, but he just sits still, eerily close to me and in sad concentration.
"What happened then, Haymitch? After he left? Why did he leave? Why does that matter? Where was he going? Who was Burggen with?"
"Snow would never leave unless he knew it was going to be so bad even he wouldn't want to stick around for the stench of blood. As soon as the rebels realized he'd left, explosions took out four, leaving only five left to go in and find the Team. Clem lost his hearing in one bombing, sort of like you did in the first Hunger Games, except he walked away with both of his ears intact…just not the drums. He wasn't much help scouring the buildings when you needed so desperately to hear the slightest drop of a pin. So he stayed in the hills and kept watch. If no one else came back in 24 hours, it was his job to return here to Thirteen…to let us know that we didn't stand a chance after all."
Here, strangely, his eyes break open and I don't understand what could be hopeful about anything he just said. Maybe I'm misreading it. I can't be certain of anything, but I think of Peeta again and the way he always told me he loved me without turning it into a dramatic production of guilt and sap and embarrassing words.
"It was almost the end of the 24th hour…god, those men like to cut it close, but Markim made it back to Clem."
A mix of emotions flood his face. Only Markim made it back…which means the rest must be dead. Eight out of ten killed, just like that. I suppose that's the way it happens anymore – swift and in large numbers. Haymitch will avoid saying it, but I know he's devastated. Jenau had volunteered, against Haymitch's pleas. She had loved him, something no other woman had ever done before. But mostly, I think he might have loved her back, and that was the real feat in their story.
"He was hurt. Badly. Clem said he knew the second he saw him that Markim wouldn't be making the journey back to us, but the person with him, the man carrying him, would."
Haymitch looks straight at me now. Intense, but careful. My heart pounds and the blood running through my veins feels foreign. I don't remember the last time I felt like my body was actually alive. He pauses and surveys my face. Maybe my eyes are betraying me now, because I'm certain there is a glimmer of hope in them, too. He has to be talking about one person…
"Katniss, it was Peeta."
I know my breathing has stopped. Anything I might try to hide is being spilled across the table at this moment. Fear. Hope. Pain. Love. Pleading. I still don't speak.
"Peeta is alive, and he's here now."
My eyes search Haymitch one last time. What's the catch? He must be destitute. Starving. Black and blue. Surely he's not well enough to walk after all that torture in the Capitol. But he had carried Markim back into the mountain post where Clem was hiding. He couldn't be that hurt, could he? No…I wouldn't be so lucky. I wouldn't deserve it. I've been too bad to Peeta and there's no way I could go on unpunished for it.
Then another knock at the door. A strong, but calm knock. I know that knock.
Haymitch and I both look towards the door, then at each other. My eyes must be wild like a predator ready to pounce its prey. I'm sure I don't look too far from one either. The two of us stand and I walk briskly towards the door, glancing at my mentor twice before putting my hand on the knob. I take in a deep breath. What if I'm wrong and it's not him? Punishment, remember? I don't deserve him to be on the other side.
My fingers wrap tightly around the silver handle. I bite my lip, hold my breath.
The heavy metal door creaks open slowly and I strain to see around the edge. There, as tall and handsome and perfect as I hadn't dared to hope, is Peeta Mellark. And he smiles.