This AU fic was inspired by the brilliant work of aimmyarrowshighin "Five Loaves of Bread: Dark Toast". .net/s/7294215/1/Five_Loaves_of_Bread_Dark_Toast
This isn't a collaboration or co-written piece, just my spin on a possible continuation of that story that I loved dearly. Takes place three months after the aim's story ends.
(While you're at it, read "Dark Toast" and everything else aimmyarrowshigh has written. They're awesome. For real.)Escape
Katniss awoke with a start at the pounding at the front door. Peeta's eyes were wide, meeting hers. The thumping was unrelenting and ominous. It was dark outside their windows. Her eyes flew to the bedside clock. Its red light read just past eleven o'clock. Past mandatory curfew.
"Mellark! Peeta and Wife! Capital Peacekeeper! Answer the door!" the pounding grew louder.
Peeta leapt out of bed and dashed to their bedroom door. "Katniss, hide!" he hissed at her.
She looked around frantically. "Where?"
"Anywhere, Katniss!" his eyes begged her.
She dove out of bed and into her closet, pulling the door nearly closed but with a small gap to peek out. She saw Peeta exit their bedroom door and listed to his footsteps pad down their stairs to the front door. The landing light clicked on and a shaft of yellow darted across the floor.
She heard the door open. "Can I help you?" Peeta's voice was calm but strained.
"Mellark. Baker?" a gruff female voice asked.
"Yes, I'm Peeta Mellark. Is there a problem?"
"Where is your Spouse?"
Katniss heard Peeta falter. "She's asleep. She's…been very tired…with all the work for the upcoming Capital Presentation Awards."
There was no response from the officer. Katniss wondered if she was nodding or pulling a gun.
"Married six months?"
"Yes," Peeta answered. "Is there a problem? It's so late, I-"
"Has she been you been examined?"
"For fertility. Unless she is expecting a child."
Her face felt as though on fire. "I don't believe we are," she heard Peeta answer. "I mean, I haven't asked. She could be, I mean-"
"She should report to her physician within the week, Mr. Mellark," the woman's voice broke in. Katniss heard clicking and beeping. "Just to be sure.
"Good night," the Peacekeeper said without feeling and walked away.
"You as well," Peeta threw back at her as an afterthought and closed the door.
Katniss slipped out of the closet and crawled to the top of the stairs. The air was chilled from the front door standing open in the winter night. Peeta was inside the front door, staring at the medical order in his hands. He looked up at her with fearful eyes.
She had been waiting for a night visit for the past three months. Every day when they woke up she wondered if today was the day she and Peeta would Disappear. Like Cinna and Portia.
They had slept on the floor inside the front door the night their Mentors had vanished, fully expecting to meet their death at any minute. The Peacekeepers that arrived the next morning must have been surprised at how quickly they answered the door, but they gave no indication of suspicion as they informed them that their Mentors had been reassigned and offered perfunctory congratulations that they were now promoted to their Mentors' positions. Katniss had sputtered in confusion, but Peeta was able to ask how they were ready after only a few short months; most Apprentices trained for two or more years. The Chief Peacekeeper said only they were clearly prepared or the Capital would not have seen fit to promote them. With that, she left the young couple standing on their doorstep with their loss.
Peeta had been ready. Working in the bakery at home in Twelve he had learned really all he needed to know before he had stepped foot in the Capital. The differences in culture came easily to him and he quickly had the shop running as if Portia was merely away on a vacation rather than dead at the hands of the Peacekeepers.
Katniss had struggled. At first the prep team watched her with jealousy and bitterness at her speedy ascension, but she learned to compliment and fawn over them until they were more than willing to help her. She had found early drawings of Cinna's in a storage room, clearly from his early work, maybe from his own Apprenticeship. The work was not as clean as his final works, but it was inspired. She was able to pass them off as her own for the time being. But she lived in fear of the day the designs ran out and she was discovered.
When the pounding at the door had come, she thought it was today.
Peeta cleared his throat and she came back to the present. She sat back on her heels and looked at him and the slip.
"What does it say?"
"The doctor's name and address. I guess they think we should be pregnant by now."
Six months. She had been married just six months, she counted. She was expected to be working on their Quota of Three within a year of marriage and she hadn't managed to get through their one attempt at sex together without panicking. She wasn't even close to pregnant.
"They can't…they can't tell, right?" he asked.
She knew what he was asking. If a physician could tell they hadn't been sleeping together. "I don't think so. I mean…we got far enough…" She paused. She realized she meant she had gotten far enough. He wanted more. He would have gone further. But never without her consent. Or desire.
He exhaled fully and raked his fingers through his bedhead hair. He re-read the notice in his hands twenty more times, as though it would turn into something else.
She crawled back across the carpet into the bedroom. The low pile lightly burned her knees and the heels of her palms, but she knew she couldn't stand on her trembling legs.
She used the sheets to pull herself up to the bed and rolled in sideways, attempting to steady her erratic breathing as she pressed her face to the mattress with her eyes trained on the door. She was going to Disappear. She wondered if they'd take Peeta too.
She felt a shiver zip down her spine as he appeared in the doorway, his silhouette blurred and dim in the darkness. She watched him cross around to his side of the bed. As he sat, the shift in the mattress lifted her like a wave.
"Katniss?" His voice sounded frightened.
The lead encasing her body broke and she burst into tears, curling into herself. He lay down behind her and cocooned her in his arms, shushing and rocking her. She pulled herself from his grasp and rolled over to face him, letting him replace his arms and knot his fingers behind her shoulder blades.
"Shhh, shhh," he soothed, tucking her head under his chin and enveloping her fully.
Her mind raced in her burrow. She knew what she had to do.
She slipped her head out and brought her mouth to his. He kissed her gently, quickly. She forced her mouth to follow his when he tried to pull away. She needed him to know what she was asking.
He brought a hand back to her cheek to stop her. "No," he said softly.
"We have to. I have to," she insisted quietly.
He let go and rolled onto his back. "No, we'll figure something out."
Her voice cracked. "Peeta, please. I don't want to Disappear. I don't want you to Disappear because I didn't try."
She saw his eyes watching her in the darkness. He struggled to respond. "You shouldn't have to do something you don't want to."
"I want to."
"No, you don't."
"I do. Please."
He made no move to reach for her.
Shifting back, she grasped the hem of her nightgown and shakily pulled it over her head. It had been warm in the bed with him and she hadn't worn any undergarments. She felt his eyes linger on her bare skin. Her tremulous hands reached out and found his, pulling them to cover her breasts.
She heard his intake of breath and felt his hands twitch, betraying his eagerness to feel her again.
"I want to," she repeated, leaning over and kissing him again.
He pulled back. She could see the conflict for her safety against her trust raging within him. "Are you sure?" he ultimately whispered. She nodded.
"If you want to stop, we stop. Okay?" She nodded again.
He stood up and pulled off his shirt, and leaving his eyes on her, pushed his pants from his hips. Her eyes darted to him, and she thought she could see him blush.
He knelt back on the bed, leaning in and kissed her gently again. He guided her back down to the mattress and stretched out next to her, letting her rest her head on his left arm. His right hand roamed her body, outlining her collarbones, stroking her sternum, finally grazing her breast. She breathed in the sensation, reminding herself of the pleasure he'd given her and that she had nothing to fear at his hands. She looked up into his eyes and brought her left hand to stroke his face. She wanted him to use his mouth on her breast again so badly. She wanted to be able to ask for it. But she couldn't find the courage.
Her fingers must have gently twitched of their own account, because he smiled as he lowered his head to other nipple to gently tongue the electricity through her body. She groaned and gripped a fistful of hair, his name escaping her lips.
He kissed his way back up to her mouth and she felt his hand leave her breast and slide down her stomach. Her insides tensed as he traced her hipbone with his thumb; traveling ever lower and lower.
She willed herself not to, but she did flinch when he touched her. He pulled away and looked at her with concern.
She brushed it off, "Cold hands," she excused.
He smiled. "They'll be warm soon enough," he teased, replacing his hand on its journey.
He dipped a finger inside her and she moaned into his mouth as he moved back to kiss her. His thumb grazed over the tender flesh, searching and finding the spot that made her hips buck and grip his shoulder. Sliding another finger inside her, he began to work at her, rubbing and sliding and exploring. She began to writhe on the sheets. He pulled back so she could breathe and to watch her face in awe.
Reason was quickly slipping from her brain as she let him invade her senses. She stared back up at him and watched his infatuation at giving her pleasure.
She brought her fumbling hand to his abdomen, feeling the heat radiating of his soft skin. He wavered in his movements and glanced down to watch her slip her hand down to grasp his rising erection. She struggled to remember the diagrams from her classes, but ultimately decided to rely on his reactions.
She gently began to massage the flesh in her fist, sliding slowly back and forth. His fingers started their circles and rocking again, but his mouth was hanging open as he sucked in air. He began to pump his hips against her fist and she instinctually firmed her grip. The moan it elicited made her feel triumphant. It drove a quiver through that reached her core. She felt his hands moving freer and easier as her body readied itself.
He pulled away and she realized it was time. Fear bloomed inside her and she fought it, pushing it back down behind a dam. Would it hurt again? Would this lead to a child she would ultimately lose to a stranger in a far away District?
She opened her legs wider and he crawled over her leg to position himself. She raised her legs along her sides and he set his arms below the crook over knees. She felt his thickness brush her flesh and her stomach flip-flopped.
"Do you want to stop?" he whispered.
She shook her head. He looked her in the eye. "Keep going," she whispered back.
Holding himself steady, the inward push was slow. She felt the stretching sensation again, the sharp pinch but this time it melted more quickly into an uncomfortable pressure. She knew he was watching her closely. She closed her eyes and focused on the smell of the cinnamon and chocolate from his skin, the beads of sweat breaking forth from where his arms met the back of her legs, her shallow breathing.
"Keep going," she gasped again.
She felt the pressure retreat then barrel back inside her. It ebbed and flowed, strange and pleasurable and uncomfortable. She clutched the sheets in her fingers and listened to his gasping and grunting. The tide flowed faster and the pressure was building towards something big; something frightening. She left as though her body would be sucked into a black hole. As though she was disappearing.
She cried out and brought her hands up to cover her face as the tears rushed out and she was unable to dam them back. She felt Peeta withdraw quickly and pull away, exclamations leaving his mouth.
"Are you okay? Did I hurt you?" his alarmed voice was behind her fingers. He clicked on the light over their bed to see her. He pried her hands away from her eyes. "Did I hurt you?" his frightened eyes peered into her wet ones.
"I'm sorry, I panicked, I'm sorry," she pleaded. "Let's keep going."
"Katniss, you're crying. We're stopping," he said, reaching for his clothes on the floor.
"No!" she cried, sitting up against the ache and grabbing his arm. "We'll just cover my mouth," she begged, lacing her fingers through his and trying with all her inferior strength to pull him back on the mattress. The terror of Disappearing was outweighing her terror of fulfilling their Quota and desperation poured out. "Peeta, just put your hand over my mouth," she pleaded.
He yanked his hand away and his face was a mask of horror. "I'm not going to force myself on you!" he shouted at her. He turned away, and sat slumped on the edge of the bed.
She watched him try not to cry, his back towards her. He was so unlike anyone she'd ever known. Forcing her wasn't illegal or even uncivilized; as her Spouse he had every right to have her whenever in whatever way he wanted. But the only thing he'd ever wanted was for her to want him back.
"I'm sorry," she whispered to his shaking shoulders. "I know you wouldn't do that." She inched closer, afraid to anger him or hurt him. "I just want to give you this so badly," she began to cry again.
She pawed at his shoulders, aching for comfort. "Peeta," she whispered, "please don't be angry."
He turned around sharply and wrapped his arms around her tightly, pulling her over. She looped her arms around him and cried into his shoulder. He brought his lips to her ears and murmured, "I will never hurt you. Never. I will never make you do anything you don't want to. Never, Katniss." He shifted to look her in the eye. "Never."
He held her until her tears ebbed. He laid her back down and retrieved his clothes to pad off to the bathroom. She heard the water running and she stared up at the ceiling. She felt like she was floating in failure. She couldn't sate her husband. She couldn't meet her Quota. She hadn't learned her Vocation. And she still yearned for home, where she knew who she was. Where she was still her.
Peeta returned and she became conscious of the face she was still lying naked across their bed. She looked for where she'd dropped her nightgown when Peeta sat down next to her and she felt a warm washcloth sliding over her skin.
She sighed as he started at her forehead, gliding the cloth over her temples and around her neck. He traced her collarbones, then dipped the cloth in a small bowl of hot water and returned it to map out her breasts. He followed the outside of her legs, wiping the sweat from where their skin had met, then finally gently cleaned where they had been joined.
He set the bowl down and pulled her nightgown from the foot of the bed. She sat up and raised her arms, letting him pull it back over her head and shoulders. She adjusted to pull it back down to her knees.
He returned the washcloth and bowl to the bathroom before turning off the light and sliding in next to her.
He lay quietly on his side of the bed. She listened to him breathing. Loneliness washed over and she rolled over and lay her cheek on his chest. His arms moved immediately to hold her.
"We need to get out of here."
She stayed silent.
"We should talk to Finnick. Find out where he sent Annie."
"He's coming to the studio tomorrow," she remembered. "For a fitting. I'll bring him to the bakery after."
"Tell him I'm making something as a good luck token. People have been ordering specialty desserts all month for their viewing parties," Peeta offered. "Finnick will know what to do."
They lapsed into silence, Peeta staring at the ceiling and Katniss staring at his face. Her heart ached. He would gladly have given her children as soon as possible. Used their Allowance to buy her gifts and the children toys. Doted over his family and minded only them, just as the Capital intended. She was just too afraid.
"We should go to sleep," he finally said, kissing the top of her head.
"Yes," she agreed.
They lay awake all night.
"I have arrived!" Finnick strode into the studio in a breeze of grandeur. Four attendants were fawning over him, speaking on handheld computer phones, taking his sunglasses from him, removing his garish fur coat, offering him water and fussing with his hair.
Katniss smiled as Cinna's – her – prep team oohed and aahed. She had invited them to assist her today, knowing their excitement over seeing such a celebrity would make them overlook her inability to properly measure a suit on a man.
"Mrs. Mellark!" He strutted over to her like a peacock, taking her hand and kissing it brazenly. "You are a vision of loveliness. Not unlike-" he winked towards the prep team "myself!" He laughed good-naturedly as the three assistants dissolved into childish giggles and his entourage laughed far too loudly at such a corny joke.
"It is a pleasure to serve you, Mr. Odair. Right this way, sir." She led him away, offering his entourage a seat in their lounge by a table fully stocked with luxurious treats and of course, alcohol. That should keep them very busy.
Finnick stripped to his underwear and donned the suit Cinna had been preparing since last year's awards. Once her prep team had stopped drooling over his form, they immediately took over as Katniss had hoped. She didn't have to do anything but nod and compliment their work. That was all they needed to do everything for her.
"We're all rooting for you to win Best Presenter, Mr. Odair. As if you had any competition," she demurred with a knowing smile.
"It is, of course, just an honor to be nominated," he replied, rolling his eyes. "As I am required to say."
She laughed politely. "My husband is especially a fan. I wonder if you would be so good as to let me escort you to his bakery after your fitting. He's been preparing a special good luck gift for you. I'd love to surprise him with a visit from you in person."
Finnick caught her eye over the pecking over the prep team. She dropped her smile and gave him an honest look of open panic. He nodded almost imperceptibly, then moved quickly back into his public persona.
"How could I refuse an offer from so lovely a stylist?" he cooed and she bowed her head in thanks.
Peeta set another plate of éclairs in front of Finnick's handlers and offered them more tea. They were already bloated with cookies and cakes, but eagerly stuck their sticky hands into the plate of pastries. "If I can get you anything, please do let me know," he smiled graciously.
He returned to Katniss and Finnick tucked in the room with the wide set of ovens, shutting the door to the seating area firmly.
"They want to check Katniss' fertility," Peeta leaned in, speaking quietly but clearly. "She's not safe here. They're watching her."
"It's not too uncommon," Finnick frowned. "I've heard of those sorts of tests. I mean, it's a little early. And it's not standard, but I don't think I'd worry."
"She's not going to get pregnant, though," Peeta rushed.
Finnick's eyebrows rose.
Peeta's cheeks darkened and he dropped his eyes. "We're not…" he stopped.
Katniss broke in, unable to face Peeta's humiliation. "I'm not ready for a child." Finnick looked unsure of what to say. "Finnick, they've been watching us."
He listened as she described the frequent check-ins at the studio, and didn't speak as Peeta described the stream of diplomats dropping by his bakery. He stood wordless and thoughtful.
He surprised them with a question. "How did you end up here?"
Katniss and Peeta exchanged a glance. "What do you mean? We were Contracted here."
"No, I mean do you have extraordinary talents? I can tell Peeta's pretty amazing with these treats, but Katniss – are you an extraordinary stylist?"
Her eyes betrayed her shock. "I can't even draw." She cleared her throat. "Something…strange…happened during the Contract ceremony."
Peeta and Finnick looked at her sharply.
"Peeta, do you remember? Right after Effie read my name and right before yours? That crunching noise the projector made? I've never heard that before at any year prior. And after us, the matches were all unusual. That fox-faced Researched and the Undertaker." She looked up at Finnick. "The whole thing was unlike other ceremonies, but I can't say how."
Finnick pursed his lips pensively. "Someone put you here. On purpose. I don't know why, but you're right. They're watching you."
"We've got to get her out tonight," Peeta insisted.
"Both of you," Finnick said. Peeta began to protest. "Yes, yes, I know you're worried about her but you can't protect her if you Disappear." Peeta was silenced. Finnick leaned in closer.
"There's been a lot of activity in the field. People who want to end this system for good. I don't know how you fit in with all this, but I'm going to get you to them. I'll get a hold of Alma. Go home immediately after work, I'll send someone to collect – the recipe for these amazing treats!" he suddenly shouted.
Katniss was startled and knew someone had walked in behind her. Peeta picked up the ball and ran. "Now, now, Mr. Odair, you know I can't share trade secrets."
"Mr. Odair, we really need to get going. Your hair care specialist won't wait forever!" whined the little man with the insipid bowtie carrying an electronic calendar.
Finnick feigned a wounded look. "It is so difficult to get good help, isn't it? Thank you for a lovely afternoon," he smiled as he strode back out to the seating area. He dropped his smile as he turned back to them. "I hope we meet again very, very soon."
And he was gone.
Katniss and Peeta sat silently at the kitchen table, their coats lying on the empty chairs. Peeta hadn't bothered to make dinner; neither of them had any appetite. Katniss watched Peeta's eyes flick over the door whenever footsteps passed by their window. His eyes met hers.
"Are you feeling all right?" he asked.
"Would you like some tea?"
She smiled. "No. Would you?"
He exhaled a laugh. "No." He took a breath and sighed. "We really should eat something. It could be a long-"
A knock came to the door.
"Go into the living room," he whispered, standing. Katniss hesitated, hating to leaving his side. He stopped at the front door, his hand on the knob to make sure she complied before opening the door. She peered around the archway to their foyer to see who was calling.
Her greeting was incomprehensible, but she held up a piece of paper. Katniss stepped out from the shadows as Peeta closed the door behind the old woman. Taking the scrap from Mags, Katniss read it while Peeta peered over her shoulder. "We're to escort her to the hospital?"
"No," Peeta frowned. "The address is the next street over from my bakery, it's not the hospital. This could be the doctor's home. Mags," he said, turning back to her stooped form, "is this Dr. Aurelius trustworthy? He's a Capital doctor. I've seen him interviewed on television."
She nodded firmly, making eye contact with them both. She pulled her sleeve and showed a well-aged and deep scar, lined with the faded marks of neat stitches. She gestured to his name, then her arm again. She attempted to tell them how he had helped her, but all they could gather was it was very serious and he had saved her some time ago.
"We have to trust him, I suppose," Peeta sighed. "Let's go."
They set out with nothing but their coats – they couldn't take anything or risk being stopped. Already being out during Family Hour was risky; but they had the excuse of taking a frail old woman to a doctor friend of theirs. Even if they were stopped they could have the Peacekeeper escort them to Dr. Aurelius' house. Katniss hoped he would carry their lie if called upon.
Peeta led them down back alleys, looking out for anyone who could turn them in. Katniss kept spinning around, imagining they were being followed with every small noise.
Peeta motioned for Katniss to stay with Mags when they finally reached the corner before the address written in Finnick's tightly coiled handwriting on the scrap of paper, but Mags pushed past him right out into the street and up to a house with a vibrant red door. She pounded her shriveled fist four times.
Katniss grabbed Peeta's hand as they hurried to stand behind her, eyes darting up and down the street.
The door opened slowly.
A middle-aged man with a gentle face came into view.
"Mags! What a surprise to see you at this hour. Please come in, you must be in terrible pain for such a visit," he said looking over her head, taking in the frightened couple and the empty street. He shooed them inside, securing the door behind them.
"You must be the Mellarks," the doctor said, nodding curtly while helping Mags to an overstuffed chair by his fireplace. His house was larger than theirs, but essentially the same layout. The décor was much richer and he had clearly lived in the Capital for many years. Collections of medical textbooks lined his walls and certificates of accomplishment hung above a rich mahogany desk.
He turned back to them. "I'm Dr. Aurelius. I've been Finnick's personal physician for a number of years. I'll be delivering his son next month," he intoned, as though to let them know to trust him.
"They're watching my wife," Peeta blurted out. "They're going to try to take her away," he continued, clinging to Katniss' hands with his. She could hear the distress in his voice.
"You'll be leaving tonight. I have a courier leaving in an hour, they'll take you to-"
A loud knock was at the front door. No one moved.
"Aurelius! Physician! Capital Peacekeepers! Answer the door!"
"Go out the back door. Turn left. There's a garden with tall, sculpted topiaries at the end of the block. Hide there. Do not come back. I will find you."
Katniss was staring at his unmoving features when she felt Peeta pulling her to the back door. "What about Mags?"
"She'll be okay, Katniss," he said, opening the garden door as Dr. Aurelius turned to enter his foyer. "She has to stay so he has a reason why we were spotted here," he hurriedly explained in a shaking voice, quietly closing the door behind them. Taking her hand, they ran out of his beautifully arranged winter garden and down the darkened alley.
Katniss spotted the heads of the topiaries shaped into horses at the end of the block. They were standing high above the low garden gate. Peeta helped her over the wall and then hopped over. They crouched into the tall plants, their heavy breathing the only sound in the still night.
"Will he be all right?" she finally asked in a small voice.
Peeta paused before answering. "He's been helping Finnick for years. Maybe this has happened before."
She nodded, but wasn't sure she believed it.
They stayed still for a very long time. She couldn't tell how long they waited. The moon crawled through the frozen sky. Peeta took her hand and stroked the back of it with his thumb distractedly and his eyes searched the dark house they were hidden behind. Approaching footsteps made him grip her hand until it hurt.
"Mellark?" a whispering voice was outside the garden gate. Katniss and Peeta leaned silently out of the leaves, trying to make out the face without being seen. "Mellark and Everdeen?"
Katniss nearly fell over from her unsteady squatting position. How did this person know her former name? Peeta must have taken this as a sign. He put a hand on her shoulder, pushing her gently back into the shadows. "Who are you?" he whispered back.
"Name's Chaff. Work with Finnick. Friend of Haymitch Abernathy."
Peeta's eyes widened as they met Katniss'. They scrambled out of the flowerbed and into the pale moonlight.
A man about Haymitch's age was on the other side of the garden. He gestured for them to hop back over and Katniss saw why he had not jumped the gate to come in. He was missing his left hand. She wondered why briefly as she jumped down to stand next to him, but he didn't offer any more information as he motioned for them to follow.
They stole quickly into the night, blindly trusting the stranger who had come to them. Peeta kept glancing at Katniss, looking for escape routes in case he saw something strange or threatening. She did the same.
"Here!" rasped Chaff and ducked into an open cellar door. Peeta stopped at the entrance. It was too dark to see what lurked inside. Katniss was at his side and he blocked her step with his arm.
"What?" Chaff's face popped out of the doorway, still bathed in moonlight.
"What's down there?"
"A way out."
"Why should I believe you?" Peeta asked, honestly and with an edge of hostility. "You could be a Peacekeeper waiting to kill her." Or you, thought Katniss, watching him.
"With one hand? Do you know any Peacekeepers – any Capital citizens at all – with one hand?" Chaff stifled his laugh. Of course they didn't. Everyone in the Capital had to be perfect. "They'd kill me if they didn't already think I'd died during a train tunnel explosion."
Peeta didn't release Katniss. Chaff sighed, "Look, the alternative is you wait it out to see if anyone else stops by to help you."
Katniss leaned into Peeta's ear. "I think we should go," she whispered. He met her gaze. "He knows my family name. He knows more than we do."
Peeta nodded, but made sure his body was fully in front of hers as they followed Chaff into the darkness.
They descended stone steps and felt their way along the cellar floor, bumping into bottles and crates as they stepped. They heard Chaff moving nearby, the sound of scraping stone then they were ushered into a narrow pathway. Katniss realized there were going through a false wall as she heard it close with a solid thunk behind them, sealing them in.
The pathway was pitch black and they stumbled along slowly, hands out to the wall to guide themselves. Peeta reached back in the inky dark and caught Katniss' forearm. She slipped his grip and moved forward to put both hands on his waist, looping her fingers through his belt. "I'm right here," she whispered. Holding tight to him, they followed the sound of Chaff's scraping feet for fifty yards.
Katniss felt Peeta stumbled then stop walking and she collided into him. Refusing to let go, she asked, "What's happened?"
"The floor. Something's…different."
"We're at the start of the station," said Chaff from ahead.
Blinding light overtook them and Katniss let go of Peeta's belt to shield her eyes.
"Sorry about that," Chaff said. "Forgot to warn you."
Their eyes adjusted and they turned back to see him at a light switch ten feet from them. The lights weren't truly that bright, but after the night outside and the pitch black of the tunnel they had been unprepared for electric light.
Katniss saw the tunnel behind them was uneven and rough-hewn. There was a secret tunnel running from the cellar to what lay before them: a neatly laid pathway that looked like the stones from the train station when they arrived.
"This was the original terminal of the Capital train station. I was working on it twenty years ago when an explosion took out the rest of the tunnel. Lost my hand. Most of my crew. They thought I was dead. But Doc – Aurelius – found me alive. Sewed up this stump. Gave me a chance to finish out this tunnel for what we need it for. A way out."
He took three flashlights off a hook on the wall. Katniss saw at least fifty more hooks with a hundred flashlights lining the wall. Boxes of canned goods lined the floor. Enough for a small army. "Let's go."
They walked for hours on end down an abandoned track. Their eyes grew accustomed to the darkness broken only by their flashlight beams. Their footsteps echoed away from them, but did not bounce back. Katniss' stomach ached with hunger and she twice saw Peeta rubbing his own midsection. Their fatigue was overcoming the fear that had killed their appetite. She felt she hadn't eaten in days rather than hours. It could very well be morning by now.
"Ah! Here we are," said Chaff. Katniss brought her light forward.
"It's a dead end," Peeta finished for her.
"Only if you don't know where to look," Chaff grinned at them. He ducked to the side and they noticed a metal vent grate near the floor to their left. Pulling a strange key from his pocket, Chaff unlocked a false screw and it popped open.
"After you," he offered.
Peeta climbed through the narrow grate first and then his hands reappeared to pull Katniss through. Chaff brought up the rear; pulling the grate closed after them until he was satisfied it relocked behind him.
They were in a large water drainage pipe. The smell of fresh winter air and thin morning light was waiting at the opening a few hundred feet away.
The three fugitives rushed towards the opening. Chaff got in front and motioned for them to be silent as they reached the edge. He peered out carefully.
"This way!" Chaff motioned, and hopped out of the pipe, taking off in a slow jog.
"How does he have the energy? We've been walking all night," moaned Peeta.
Katniss smiled. "Come on," she said, pushing him towards the exit.
Stepping out of the pipe, Katniss gasped. They were outside the Capital.
There were sparse woods around them and dried winter grass poking up from untended fallen leaves. As she stepped down into the grass, she turned around. They had descended through the mountain in the night and were outside the Capital walls.
They were free.
She inhaled the forest air and for just a moment, was surrounded by the woods at home; bow in hand with Gale at her side.
Chaff was waiting at the edge of what were once the train tracks. They should have been rusted and destroyed, but were clearly in use. An old, many-times repaired handcar rested on the track.
"Always glad when I have someone else to help move this thing," Chaff winked at Peeta, who sighed and lifted Katniss up onto the seat. Climbing up, he took the handle opposite Chaff and they began to roll the cart down the track as it lead into the thickening woods ahead.
The trees rolled by as the cart moved. Katniss felt her eyelids dragging down. She looked up at Peeta as he worked, watching his strong shoulders strain as he pushed and pulled the handle. He looked back at her and smiled as he began to sweat.
"Thank you," she said, smiling back.
"For what?" he grunted, pushing down on the handle.
"For everything," she said, closing her eyes and sighing gratefully. She turned back to look at the passing trees, then cried out in alarm.
"Stop! Someone's out there!" she attempted to stand, but stumbled and had to catch herself.
"Good," said Chaff, huffing when Peeta stopped working the other end of the pump handle. "We're getting close."
"Close to what?" asked Peeta as he helped Katniss back to the seat and resumed his spot at the handle.
Katniss had begun to see faces among the trees, some masked, most camouflaged, watching them. She saw guns and weapons, none raised when they saw Chaff as their guide. She realized she had no idea what was waiting for her and Peeta in their newfound freedom.
It was another twenty minutes before they stopped.
Small, hand-built structures had begun to appear in the dense wood and what appeared to be a town center, if one could call it a town. Chaff nodded for Peeta to stop pushing the handle and they glided to a stop in front of a makeshift train station. A group of young men in what appeared to be battle fatigues came forward to greet them, welcoming Chaff back and eyeing the youths in their Capital clothing.
Peeta stepped down first, and then lifted Katniss off the cart, remaining in front of her and blocking her from the heavily armed soldiers.
"It's about time!" a voice called from the edge of the group. Katniss' heart skipped a beat. "I thought you'd never get here."
She peeked out from behind Peeta's shoulder as the younger men stepped aside to let the commanding officer through. He was just thirty-five, but white hairs had begun to pepper at his temples. His grey eyes shone with fire and delight. And when he smiled at the face peering around her Spouse's shoulder, she saw her own lopsided grin.
"Dad?" she whispered.
Peeta jerked his face around to gape at her question. She stepped out from him, slowly and deliberately to make sure she wasn't dreaming.
"Hey there, Katniss."
"Dad!" she screamed as she ran into his arms. "I thought you were…" she sobbed. "You Disappeared."
"Shhh, shhh," he said, stroking her hair. "I'm okay. You're safe now."
She pulled away, sniffling. "I thought I'd never see you again, I thought you were gone. Where were you?" Questions poured forth. He laughed at her babbles.
"Hush, Katniss. There's time for this later. You need to rest."
She saw him glance over her shoulder.
"Oh, Dad, forgive me. This is my Spouse, Peeta," she smiled, reaching back to take Peeta's hand and pull him forward.
Peeta smiled nervously and extended his hand. "An honor, sir," he said.
Donnel Everdeen stiffly shook Peeta's hand. "Son of Farll and Mahra. Yes, I know you from Twelve," he said. Turning back to his daughter, his smile returned. "You must be exhausted," he said. She nodded, laughing sheepishly as she yawned. "Come on," her father said.
She took Peeta's hand as they followed him through the tiny village of runaway rebels and fugitives. Katniss looked all over at the few straggling escapees who had found refuge here. A set of young twins tossed a ball back and forth and she saw their mother watching with her arms full of two more twins; a forbidden four children. An elderly widower giving a flower to a middle-aged woman. A head of russet-brown curls and a full pregnant belly on a smiling woman hurrying to meet them.
"Annie!" Katniss shrieked, and ran to her.
Annie opened her arms to receive her, ducking her belly away from the onslaught of excitement. Katniss fell into her arms, laughing and wailing. "You're safe!" She cried out, pulling back and looking at her belly. Peeta caught up to her and embraced Annie warmly.
"And so are you," she grinned. "I'm so glad you're here."
"Finnick sent us to you."
She beamed with pride. "I knew he would. But I'm sure he sent you to Donnel." She gestured towards Katniss' father. "When I found out whose daughter you were," she said to Katniss, "I knew you'd be here soon enough."
Donnel had wandered over and smiled at them. "Finnick's a good man. So glad to have him on the inside, Mrs. Odair," he winked at her.
Annie blushed, and rubbed her belly. "I'll be glad when he's here to change diapers," she laughed.
"Come on, let's get you rested," Donnel said, taking back off for the tenements.
"I'll find you later," Annie said, squeezing Katniss' hand and waving to Peeta.
Katniss slipped her arm around his waist and continued on. She saw her father watching them out of the corner of his eye and she smiled at him. Her father was alive. She couldn't wait to wake up and talk to him. To get to know him again.
They reached a cabin with "Everdeen" written in chalk on the door. He pushed open the door for them and closed it behind them. "Bedroom's upstairs," he said. "I have them setting up a house for you, but we only learned you'd gotten out last night. It's not quite ready."
"Thank you so much," she said through a yawn.
"Why don't you get some water for you two?" Donnel nodded to Peeta. "The kitchen's through there." Peeta nodded sleepily and walked out of sight.
Donnel helped Katniss up the stairs to the one lofted room. She stepped out of her shoes and collapsed immediately.
"Do you want me to tell him to go?"
Her eyes opened at the question. "Peeta?"
"Your Spouse. I can take him to another house. Or tell him to sleep downstairs."
"No," she said, her forehead creasing in confusion. "No, he's…good. He takes care of me."
Her father looked doubtful.
She smiled softly. "He's a good husband, Dad."
Peeta's footsteps on the stairs ended their exchange and he shyly appeared in the doorway with two tin cups. Donnel stepped aside so he could hand one to Katniss. She drained hers greedily as Peeta did the same. Donnel took the cups from them and moved to the door as Peeta sat next to Katniss on the bed to pull of his shoes.
"I'll come back later to see how you are," he said, his hand on the doorknob.
"Thank you, Dad. Thank you," Katniss said. Peeta stretched out next to her and pulled the ragged blanket over their worn out bodies. She closed her eyes and curled into him, resting her cheek on his shoulder.