What if the Victory Tour ended with a wedding rather than an engagement? A story that explores what would have happened if Peeta and Katniss had been forced to marry. How does this change affect their relationship? District 12? The rebellion? Rated M for later chapters. Banner by Ro Nordmann.
A/N: My sincerest apologies for the long wait between chapters. Much gratitude to my soul sister, Stacylk, for pre-reading. Thank you everyone for not giving up on me or this story.
Katniss's heart pounded furiously as terror gripped her. "Prim!" She screamed. Smoke burned her eyes and she blinked back tears, trying to focus her vision, trying to find her sister.
"Katniss!" Peeta called her name as he ran down the steps of the Justice Building, blood running from his split lip.
"Prim," she choked out, the smoke filling her lungs.
"We'll find her," he assured. "Check the square, I'll head toward the Seam."
Shouts and screams filled the smoky air as District 12 residents fled the square. Gunfire sounded distantly, setting off a new wave of panic. In the chaos, Katniss was knocked to the ground and nearly trampled until a pair of strong arms wrapped protectively around her torso, dragging her away.
Her eyes landed on a gray uniform, protective like a peacekeeper's yet wholly unfamiliar. But Katniss would know the Seam gray eyes staring back at her through the helmet visor anywhere.
"Gale?" She asked, disbelieving.
A static noise sounded from a communication device on his wrist. "Soldier Hawthorne, do you have the Mockingjay?"
"Affirmative," he replied, his eyes never wavering from hers.
"What — what's going on?" She asked.
He didn't answer. He grabbed her by the arm and led her toward the forest, his eyes vigilantly sweeping the terrain, the large gun he carried aimed and ready. The electrified fence that once marked the district's boundary was destroyed, torn to the ground by several trucks and tanks that gathered round. Beyond that, she could just make out a few hovercrafts carefully camouflaged in the tree line.
"Katniss!" Prim screamed. She broke away from Gale and ran to her sister. They collided in a fierce hug, sending them to their knees.
"Little duck," she breathed in relief, running her hands over her sister's braids, assuring herself Prim was safe.
Katniss was still clutching her sister close when a tall, dark-skinned man approached them. He too wore a gray uniform, though the large gun he carried was still strapped to his back.
"Miss Everdeen, I'm Commander Boggs. I'm from District 13." He said, his voice deep and authoritative but not unkind.
"What's happening?" She asked, rising to her feet, taking in the scene around her.
"A strategic rescue mission. Victors in each district allied with Thirteen are being rescued as we speak," he spoke with military precision.
"Seven districts, Katniss. Seven districts in outright rebellion," Gale added.
"The Quell, it isn't happening? We're not going back?" She asked breathlessly.
"Not if we can help it," Boggs replied.
A brief, fleeting moment of relief swept over her before another round of gunfire sounded. The soldiers from Thirteen sprang into action, squadrons separating in all directions.
"Sir! The Capitol's responding! They're already in Three," a soldier shouted from his post. A series of screens were set up, showing the six other districts where missions were in place. Peacekeepers in white battled the soldiers in gray as chaos erupted across Panem. Smoke and flames shot up from various city centers. A grain silo crumbled in Eleven. A textile factory exploded in Eight.
Katniss turned to Gale. "Where are Peeta and Haymitch?"
"Abernathy and Trinket were secured near the Justice Building. No one has eyes on Mellark," Boggs supplied, his eyes on the screens.
Her eyes widened in alarm. "The Seam!" Katniss shouted, breaking away from Prim.
Gale caught her around the waist before she could get very far. "You can't Catnip, it's too dangerous."
She struggled against him, clawing uselessly at his arms, well protected under the gray armor.
"Soldiers have been assigned to the Seam. If he's there they'll find him," Boggs explained.
Another explosion sounded in the distance, plumes of fire and smoke rising from town.
"Commander, they're detonating what they have on site. Hovercrafts have been deployed and they're coming in hot," another soldier shouted over the din.
"How long do we have?" Boggs demanded.
"Minutes, sir, 15 at the most," he replied.
"All right, begin evac procedures now," his voiced boomed the command. "Load the assets into Hovercraft 1 immediately."
A voice came through the communication device on his wrist. "Commander, this is Jackson. We have Trinket and Abernathy, we're five minutes out."
"You have three minutes, Jackson, so bust your asses and hustle," he ordered.
The woman on the other end huffed out a labored breath before replying, "Affirmative."
Boggs turned to Gale. "Hawthorne, I want you on Hovercraft 1 with the Mockingjay. Get her and her family secured now!"
"No!" She shouted, struggling against Gale's arms. "What about Peeta?"
"Still no eyes on Mellark," a soldier reported from his station.
Boggs turned to face her, "I'm sorry," he said genuinely. "But we can't risk the mission."
"I thought you said the mission was to rescue all the victors. Peeta's a victor too!" Katniss shouted frantically.
"He may be a victor, Miss Everdeen, but he's not the Mockingjay," Boggs said.
"Just stop," she screamed. "Stop calling me that! What does that even mean?"
The chaos seemed to slow at her outburst, the eyes of every gray-clad District 13 soldier landing on her.
Commander Boggs looked her in the eyes and spoke in a low voice. "You're the Mockingjay. The face of the revolution. You, Katniss Everdeen, have done what District 13 has sought to do for years. You united the districts against the Capitol. You gamed the system. You were never supposed to win and you did. Only one victor was meant to survive and yet you saved two lives. Because of you, every man, woman and child in District 13 has hope. I am not risking that hope, the very fate of this rebellion, for anything," he said, his last words sharp and final.
Katniss' mind swam, turning over the commander's words. Her stomach turned as she realized the implications of his revelation. She was the Mockingjay. She was the mission. Suddenly it all made sense. Capitol forces were bearing down on them yet there was only a handful of hovercrafts, a couple of tanks and a squadron of soldiers. This wasn't a battle, this wasn't a military stand. It was a precision strike. An extraction.
"You're not going to try and save them are you?" She accused. "He's going to hurt them, kill them because of me and you're going to let it happen, aren't you?"
The man, Boggs, had the decency to look away as he said. "We're trying to save your family and the other victors, but yes, we're here for you. You're the mission."
Katniss felt sick. Smoke filled her lungs and burned her eyes. The district was doomed and it was all her fault.
She turned her head when Prim called her name, standing on the open bay doors of a hovercraft. Another soldier was buckling her mother into a seat when Gale returned for her, dragging her along. It was only when her mother threw her arms around the woman next to her that she realized it was Hazelle Hawthorne, with Rory, Vick and Posy settled beside her.
"Come on, Catnip. You gotta go," Gale urged.
"Move it, Sweetheart," Haymitch yelled, grabbing Katniss by the arm as he ran by, dragging her toward the hovercraft.
He and Effie nearly collapsed in a breathless heap just inside the craft's doorway.
Prim barreled into her as soon as Katniss was aboard. Her skinny arms wrapped like a vice around her older sister's waist. Katniss kissed her brow and murmured words of comfort in her ear. "Easy Little Duck, I got you."
Katniss winced as more shots rang in the distance. She opened her eyes to find Gale's steely gaze on her. "How can we do this, Gale? How can we just leave them? What kind of symbol would I be if I abandon the people of this district? If I abandon Peeta?"
"Wait!" Haymitch bellowed. "Where's the boy?" He asked, eyeing Boggs.
"We were unable to secure Mellark," Boggs said.
"Well you better damn well send someone out to secure him. That was part of this whole damn deal!" Haymitch shouted, pointing wildly toward the district.
"What do you mean 'deal?' " Katniss demanded.
The mentor avoided her gaze.
"You knew!" She shouted, rounding on Haymitch. "You knew this was coming! For months, we thought we were going to die and you didn't say a thing! All these people are at risk because of whatever rebel plans you've been making! How could you?" She yelled, shoving him backwards.
Haymitch caught his footing and looked at her with narrowed eyes. "Yes. I was part of rebel plans. I was trying to save your ass, Sweetheart. But don't you dare convince yourself I was figuring on sacrificing the boy or the district to do it. No one quite saw this coming."
"Cut the bullshit, Haymitch. You think of everything, don't you?" Katniss accused. "You were willing to use him as a pawn once before, what makes now any different? What's District 12 against the whole country? Are those the lies you've been telling yourself these past few months? While you were sweating and working and training alongside Peeta and me?" She lunged at her mentor, clawing and scratching. "Why would you do that? Why would do and say everything that you did, knowing this might happen?" She screamed.
"Because, Katniss, revolution is worth dying for, but you've got to have something to live for too," he said knowingly.
Katniss stepped back, his words landing like a blow. The fresh memories of last night and this morning played in her mind, still so sweet and dear to her. She remembered Peeta's nervous smile as he extended the bread. The way firelight cast his complexion golden. The feel of his skin against hers. Katniss closed her eyes against the onslaught. When she opened them, they landed on her sweet, dear sister. She wrapped her arms around Prim in a fierce hug. She only ever wanted to save her sister. She never planned on a rebellion or becoming a symbol. But then she never planned on falling in love with Peeta, either.
Just then a siren sounded throughout the district. A sound every District 12 resident knew well.
"The mine," Katniss said under her breath.
"What is that? What's going on?" Effie asked.
"It's the mine," Gale explained. "The siren. It means there's a collapse. The last time it sounded our fathers died," he said, his voice solemn.
"They're blowing it up," Haymitch surmised. "They know those hovercrafts can't get here before we get Katniss out, so they're detonating the underground explosives."
The craft's engines roared to life, the floor shaking beneath Katniss' feet as they prepared for takeoff. The bay doors had just started to close when she hugged Prim tightly. "I love you, be safe Little Duck," she whispered in her ear before running toward the opening and jumping from the craft already hovering a few feet above ground.
She took off at a dead run, Gale hot on her heels.
"Stop!" He shouted, wrapping his hand around her arm.
"Let me go!" She screamed, her eyes blazing. "I have to get to Peeta!"
"Thirteen's got soldiers on the ground. They'll do everything they can to find him. But you need to leave now!"
"I can't leave him Gale, I can't save myself and let him die. If that's what they want from the Mockingjay, tell them to find someone else."
"There is no other Mockingjay, Catnip. If you die, the rebellion dies with you!" He shouted.
"If Peeta dies, I die too!" She screamed.
Gale reeled back, stunned at her revelation. "You love him that much. Like Prim. You'll die for him."
It wasn't a question, but Katniss answered anyway, "Yes."
"Hawthorne!" Boggs' voice boomed from the communication device on Gale's wrist. "You get the Mockingjay back on this hovercraft now!"
Katniss looked Gale in the eye. "I'm not going. Not without him."
Gale scrubbed a hand over his face. "Well if we're going to save your baker, we should try and round up as many people as we can, maybe take cover in the woods."
A smile broke out on Katniss' face before they took off toward town.
"Hawthorne!" Boggs shouted. "What are you doing? Do not deviate from the mission! Subdue the Mockingjay by force if necessary and return to this craft immediately!"
Gale tore the device from his wrist and threw it to the ground as they reached the district boundary. Boggs' commanding voice boomed Gale's name one last time before he crushed the device under the heel of his boot.
"Where to Catnip?" He asked.
"The Seam, he went there looking for Prim," she said.
Fear threatened to overwhelm her as they made their way to the Seam. Smoke filled the air and the shrill sound of the mine's alarm kept ringing insistently, chiming an ominous tune she felt in her bones.
The earth shook beneath them, sending the terrified residents of District 12 to their knees and suddenly Katniss felt 11 years old again. She remembered this fear, this panic, clawing at her insides. The day her father died. She had known as soon as she felt the tremors. The earth was shaken and so was her world. Suddenly and without a doubt, she knew where Peeta was.
"The mine," she shouted.
"Why would he go there?"
"People need help," she said, her voice watery. "He's going to give it."
They just reached the mine when the ground shook again, a rumbling, groaning noise rising from the earth before a sickening crack sounded as a wide, gaping hole opened up in the ground beneath their feet.
A fit of screams came from the south and Katniss and Gale were horrified as several people were swallowed by the crater.
"No!" She screamed, running toward the collapsed vein of the mine. Dirt and coal dust rose from the seam in the ground. Katniss tried to navigate closer to the mouth's opening but the ground crumbled beneath her feet, nearly toppling her into the abyss until Gale's arm caught her.
"We can't. It's not safe this way. We have to find where the break ends and go around,"Gale advised.
"We don't have time! They need help!"
"We can't help anyone if we're dead, Catnip."
Gale's grip on her arm was as steely as his gaze and Katniss knew he was right. It would take longer, several precious minutes more than they had to spare, but there was no other way.
A few more tremors rocked beneath them as they made their way around the crater, farther into the Seam. Through the haze of smoke and dust they found a group near another arm of the collapsed mine, struggling to pull survivors from the rocky debris.
"Sae!" Katniss shouted when she saw the older woman. "Sae!"
Greasy Sae turned toward the sound of Katniss' voice, panic clear on the older woman's face.
"Oh girl, we thought they got you!" She said as she threw her arms around Katniss.
"No, no, I'm alright," she assured. "What's going on? Who's down there?" She asked.
"The alarm sounded a few minutes before the collapse, there weren't nobody working today cause the Reaping so it shoulda been alright, but in all my years I ain't never seen the ground swallow people up whole. This wasn't right, Katniss. It wasn't natural."
"Haymitch was right," Gale said. "They blew the mine."
"Gale Hawthorne, as I live and breathe, you're alive!" Sae shouted, throwing her arms around Gale, a shocked and overwhelmed expression on her face.
The older woman drew back and continued her explanation. "I don't know how many people it swallowed up in the initial collapse, but Katniss, your young man went in to help and, well, a few minutes after there was another rumble. Thom and a few of the others went in looking." Sae delivered the news sadly.
"No, Peeta!" She shouted, searching the site frantically. "Where is he?"
"They've got a few people out, but there ain't no word on him yet. Katniss, I'm so sorry."
Pain ripped through Katniss' chest, bringing her to her knees. Her father's face swam before her eyes. It wasn't right. It wasn't supposed to be like this. This wasn't Peeta's fate. She would not lose him to the mine, like she lost her father. He was too bright, too luminous. He was her dandelion in the spring and darkness would not take him. A dirty coal pit was no resting place.
Katniss rose to her feet and determinedly ran toward the collapse. She was unsteady on the loose ground, but tread cautiously, careful not to fall.
Thom was just pulling Leevy out from the hole when Katniss made her way to the opening. The girl was banged up, with several cuts and bruises and maybe even a sprained wrist, but she had survived. Katniss was hopeful Peeta would survive too. No one had a heart like his, so strong and true — it could beat forever.
Katniss had just started her descent when Thom grabbed her arm. "No, Katniss, it's not safe."
She couldn't tear her eyes away from the darkness, the gaping chasm ready to consume her whole world. "Is he down there?" She whispered.
Thom closed his eyes tight for a moment and the pained expression on his face was all Katniss needed to know. She tried pulling out of his grip but Thom held firm.
"I can't. He'd never forgive me if I let something happen to you," Thom entreated her. "He saved my life and I'll do my best to save his, Katniss, I swear it. But I know he wouldn't want you down there."
Her eyes traveled over the burn scars just peaking out from his shirt collar, remembering the day Peeta ran into the burning Hob and the terror that gripped her then. "Thom, please," she begged.
"I'll go Catnip," Gale said. "You were never meant for the mines."
"No!" She shouted, turning on Gale, forcing him backward and away from the opening. "You go and tell people what's coming. You get people to safety. Get them as far into the woods as you can before those Capitol hovercrafts get here. Don't let Snow take our people if we can spare them."
"I can't let you go in there," he said. "It'll be like watching you go into the Arena all over again. Never knowing if you'll make it out."
"That's why I have to go," she reasoned.
Gale looked in her eyes and saw it. A look that said she would move heaven and Earth to get Peeta back. It was the same look his mother wore the day his father died.
"Because he's your partner," he said solemnly.
She nodded, tears forming in her eyes. "Because he's my husband."
Gale's eyes slammed shut at her admission, finally understanding, finally accepting.
"Let her go Thom," Gale said.
"What? No, I can't. Gale, you can't be serious. She's never even worked in the mines, hasn't been trained. It's not safe," Thom argued.
"You really think there isn't anything Katniss can't survive?" He queried, brow raised.
Thom just sighed in defeat.
"Alright, Catnip," Gale said, pulling her in for brief yet tight hug. "You be safe. Shoot straight."
She hugged him back, knowing what he meant even if there wasn't a bow in her hands. Shoot straight. Aim true. Good luck. It was all the same in the language of hunters.
With one last look in her direction, Gale rounded up a few of his crew members from the mine and headed off toward town and through the Seam.
Katniss took a deep breath and steeled herself as she followed Thom into the crater. What little sunlight there was quickly faded as they made their way through the mine shaft. The air was heavy and dank in her lungs and a gritty bitterness quickly coated her mouth. Katniss spat vehemently trying to expel the coal dust.
She doubled over coughing and that's when she saw the trail of blood. Unwitting her eyes followed the trail to its source. A body lie crushed under a boulder, a pale, lifeless arm stretched out from underneath the rock at an unnatural angle. Katniss closed her eyes, it was all she could do not to vomit.
"That's not," her voice shook. "That's not Peeta is it?"
"No," Thom said, assuring but still sad. "No, that was Mr. Bennet. I saw it happen." He paused and took a deep breath before continuing. "We all fled the square after the Peacekeepers started shooting. We made it a mile or so before we heard it, the alarm and then the ground started shaking. I mean just rattlin' right under our feet and then it opened up. One minute he was standing there, shouting at his wife and girls to get to safety with the ground solid beneath his feet and the next minute it was gone and him with it.
"Peeta was there," Thom continued. "He'd been looking for Prim when it happened and we all tried to get to Bennet as soon as we could. Peeta ran in first and I swear Katniss, I made to follow, but then it started shaking again and the hole opened up taking more people with it and when it stopped Peeta was just gone."
Katniss gripped Thom's hand. "He's here and we'll find him," she said, steel in her voice.
"How can you be so sure?" Thom asked, tired and defeated.
"Because, I found him in the Arena. I can find him in my own back yard." She said, offering Thom a reassuring smile.
Katniss and Thom made little progress as most of the tunnels were collapsed. The few routes large enough for them to fit their bodies through were slow going and only minutes had passed when the rock shook again. Katniss braced herself against the walls until it stopped.
"You should go, Thom," Katniss said.
"I won't do that. I won't leave you. You'll never find him on your own," he argued.
"You've got a girl. Go get her and get out of Twelve as fast as you can. Run toward the woods, go as far as you can and then keep going. Don't stop, okay? You don't…" she paused. "Just don't stop and don't turn back."
Thom looked pained and torn and she could tell her words were swaying him.
"Go Thom. I'll find Peeta. Go make sure your girl is safe, please," she begged, unwilling to have another life on her hands.
Thom handed her his lamp. "When we dig, we follow the mine's natural veins as we best we can. It's safest that way. The shafts are strongest and if you follow the veins long enough it eventually leads to the heart of the lode, you understand?"
"The bigger chambers have more oxygen and some have a water source if you're lucky. There's a chance, if he ended up in one of them, he's got time. Maybe even a few days."
Katniss didn't bother to tell him that she didn't have days to look, but it didn't matter. She'd keep looking for Peeta until her last breath.
Thom smiled sadly before quickly backtracking toward the surface. Katniss set the lamp down and stood still, searching for a breeze in the dank, stale air of the mine.
Her father's voice came to mind, a long forgotten memory suddenly remembered.
Her father was washing his hands in a pail by the fire, rivulets of black water dripping from his cracked and bleeding fingers as he sang a song under his breath.
"Why do they call it 'digging for Devil's blood' Daddy?" She had asked, curious like any small child.
Her father looked at her long and hard, deciding how much truth to tell his young daughter. He grabbed a cloth to dry his hands and pulled her onto his lap. He took Katniss' hand in his and held them up before the flames. As her father spoke, she traced the black lines of cracked skin across his palm.
"Because," he sighed. "Coal is black and dirty as Devil's blood. And sooner or later, the Devil always gets his due."
"What's that mean?" She asked.
"The underground is the Devil's domain, Katniss. It's his and you can only take so much before he takes something back. But the Devil never gets to keep the good ones. He may get their lives, but he only gets to keep the souls as black as his."
"Where do the good men go?"
Her father looked up at her mother, standing over the cook stove in the kitchen, one hand stirring the stew they were having for supper and another hand resting on her growing belly.
"They fly free, like mockingjays in the woods. There's a legend in the mines, that a long time ago, before the Districts and the Dark Days, there was a miner trapped deep underground. It was said that his crew looked for him for days to no avail. Then, when everyone had given up hope, certain he was dead, the man appeared. Oh he was battered and bruised and tired as the day is long but when he recovered a bit they asked him how he survived it and he said he followed the wind's song. You see Katniss, the earth isn't completely solid underground. There's all kinds of holes and chambers besides the ones we dig and sometimes on the days when it feels like the Devil is breathing down your neck, making you pay for taking his blood, the coal, you'll feel a breeze. And it's one of the sweetest things in the world."
"As sweet as me?" Katniss interrupted playfully.
"No," he said, wrapping his arms more tightly around his little girl. "Nothing's sweeter than you or your mama, but it comes close, Kitty Kat. It comes real close."
He nuzzled her nose before continuing. "And sometimes, with the breeze comes a song. Almost like a whistle. And that's a good sign, Katniss. If you can feel a breeze and hear the wind's song it means if something goes wrong there might be a way out. It means you may get to see the sun shine again."
Katniss felt the breeze ruffle the tendrils of hair that fell loose from her braid. She closed her eyes tighter and willed herself to listen. And then she heard it, over the sound of her own thunderous heart, Katniss heard the wind's song. She dared hope it meant there was another cavern where Peeta might be, another cavern with water and air enough to keep him alive until she found him.
Terrified but hopeful, Katniss opened her eyes, picked up the lamp and made her way forward, singing the song her father had all those years ago.
"Born and raised in a minin' town
Where most folks thought that up was down
We all lived and gave our soul
Did it all for ol' king coal
Daddy rose at the crack of dawn
When I could I'd tag along
Capin' said what a fine young man
Put a pick in that boy's hand
I feel the dust upon my tongue
Feel the pain down in my lungs
The time to leave has come an' gone
There's nothin' left but to carry on
Way down here in this ol' coal mine
Where the sun it dare not shine
I sweat an' toil till day is done
But I'll be back when mornin' comes"
Periodic tremors continued to shake the mine and so Katniss recited the verses over and over until her voice was hoarse. But still she kept singing, as if her father's words were a rite that would protect her, guide her.
The sounds from above stopped and Katniss didn't know if that was good or bad. She didn't know if the Capitol strikes had been successful or subdued by Thirteen. But still she continued, winding her way through small channels and openings between the rock, following the faint, illusive breeze as best she could.
Katniss's heart stopped sometime later when she heard a faint noise, a cough. She dropped the lantern and started scrambling through the rock, trying to widen the opening until she could fit her body through.
The cavern was wide and a faint trickle of water sounded in the far side of the room. Katniss reached back for the lantern and held it up, illuminating the darkness. She took a hesitant step and then she heard it.
"You here to finish me off, Sweetheart?"
"Peeta!" She breathed, frantically searching the room for the source of the voice.
A dry, hacking cough filled the space and Katniss' eyes finally spotted him. She dropped the lantern and collapsed beside him, throwing her arms around him in a fierce hug.
"I heard your voice," he said, bringing his hands up to her face, brushing her tears away. "I heard you singing and I thought I was dying, having the voice of an angel inside my head," he said, his voice nothing more than a laboured whisper in her ear.
Katniss sobbed, wiping her hands across her face, trying to clear the tears tracks from her cheeks. She was so overwhelmed and relieved it almost hurt, but she didn't focus on the tide of emotion threatening to overwhelm her, she focused on what she could control, on practicalities. "Where are you hurt?" She asked, looking him over as best she could in the dim light cast from the lamp.
"My ribs," he winced, sucking in a breath. "My ribs hurt, a few might be broken, but it's my leg."
Katniss looked down to see a large boulder crushing his bad leg, up to where prosthetic met flesh. There was blood and she could see bits of machinery as well muscle and bone. Her mind raced, the boulder was far too heavy for either of them to move.
"I can't...does it come off?" She asked, her mind racing.
"No," Peeta said. "It's not like the ones some of the miners have. It doesn't slip on and off. It's a permanent replacement, surgically attached to my body. The latest in Capitol technology," he remarked sarcastically.
Katniss brought the lamp closer and inspected Peeta's injury, tearing his pant leg away from the wound. Beneath blood and torn flesh she could see where the prosthetic was joined with Peeta's leg, the metal fitting into bone, the joints fusing. It was remarkable technology, almost elegant, but if Katniss were to have any chance of saving Peeta's life she'd have to figure out a way to undo it.
Katniss surveyed their surroundings, she didn't have anything on her. She searched the cavern for any abandoned mining tools hoping she might find something that could help, but there was nothing but crumbled bits of rock and coal and dirt. Her mind raced, frantically trying to think of a way to extract Peeta. She thought back over past mine accidents, men her mother treated and wracked her brain for a possible solution. When it came to her, she almost felt sick at the sense of deja vu.
Quickly tearing the laces from her left boot, Katniss wrapped it tight around Peeta's leg, just above the knee, forming a tourniquet.
"Peeta I have an idea, but it's going to hurt like hell," she warned.
Blue eyes met hers in the dim light of the cavern. Peeta's face was streaked with sweat and coal dust, his eyes were bloodshot and tired but beneath all that she could see his faith in her, his love and trust and devotion, swirling amid his will to live
He nodded his head. "Whatever it is, Katniss, do it."
She leaned down and kissed Peeta briefly on the lips before undoing the decorative leather cuff at her wrist and placing it between his teeth.
"Bite down," she instructed, her voice firm despite her nerves. Katniss grabbed the lamp and moved closer to Peeta's leg. She tore his pant leg up to his thigh and then grabbed a couple of rocks nearby. Sucking in a deep breath, she wedged the smaller one in Peeta's wound, between where the metal met his knee joint and then, with one last glance at Peeta's face, she brought the larger rock down with all the force she could muster.
Peeta's muffled scream filled the cavern and Katniss' heart twisted in agony at the sound but she continued, trying to the break the bone, trying to sever the bond between man and machine.
It was bloody and sickening and Katniss felt her heart splinter with each bit of bone but she continued. Peeta's screams eventually stopped when the pain became too much and he passed out. Katniss wiped her tears and running nose but kept at her gruesome task until finally she heard the sickening crunch that meant it was done. Her hands covered in blood, she pulled at the metal and synthetic materials until finally all connection between Peeta and prosthetic were severed.
She tied the ends of his tattered pant leg around his stump, ensuring the tourniquet was snug. She wiped her hands on the front of her jumper before lying down beside him, cradling his head in the crook of her shoulder. She trailed her fingers across the planes of his face, marveling that a mere 24 hours ago they'd been tangled in bed together, consumed by each other. She held him close and sobbed. She wanted a million more nights like that one, she wanted a lifetime with Peeta Mellark and she wouldn't let the Capitol, or Snow or a damn coal mine take that from her.
"Peeta," she whispered softly in his ear, gently carding her fingers through his hair. "Peeta wake up."
He stirred slightly, wincing at the pain. His eyes were hazy and unfocused when they met hers.
"I have to leave you for a bit, okay? I have to try and find a way out."
A cough halted Peeta's reply and so he simply nodded his head, too tired to do more. Katniss placed a tender kiss on his forehead before grabbing the lamp and rising to her feet. She followed the slight breeze that had let her to Peeta, listening for the sound of water or anything that might lead her above ground. It was several long moments before she heard it, so faint it was almost a dream. Katniss followed the noise for several yards, unsure it wasn't her imagination, but as she continued the birdsong grew louder and then she saw it, a faint shaft of sunlight filtering between holes in the rocks.
Katniss clambered over boulders and through rubble until she reached the shaft with the opening, about 20 feet up. A hard but doable climb, it would be doubly difficult with Peeta's injury. Katniss inspected the rocks, looking for foot and handholds, the best possible route they could take. It would be hard, but not impossible. She straightened her shoulders and hurried through the maze of rock and debris back to Peeta, who was drifting in and out of consciousness.
"Peeta," she said, gripping his shoulder and pulling him upright. "Peeta, there's a way out," she said, her voice hopeful.
His arms, still so strong, pulled her into his warm embrace. He kissed her forehead before blue eyes met gray. He didn't say a word, just braced his hands on the ground, trying to rise to his feet. Katniss wrapped her arms around his lean torso, bracing her hip against his in support.
When they were finally on their feet Peeta spoke, his voice a gravelly rumble in the dark. "What is it with us and caves you think?"
Katniss snorted. "Only you would make jokes at a time like this," she said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders.
"Well, somebody's got to," he said, hobbling through his first few steps.
"Walk, don't talk," Katniss said, her voice firm but her touch gentle.
It took much longer to navigate back to the opening Katniss found, Peeta was unsteady without his prosthetic leg and tired and woozy from blood loss. She offed to stop a few times and rest but Peeta was determined they go on. Eventually they stood in the shaft of light from the opening, so close yet so far from safety.
"Katniss, you can't mean to… There's no way I can make it up that," he said.
"You can and you will," she said, her jaw set in determination.
Katniss led Peeta to the portion of the wall she thought had the best path. There were several roots and large rocks jutting out from the dirt, making footholds and handholds.
"You go first and I'll follow, I'll help balance you," she said.
She grabbed his hands and placed them on the first rocks, pointing out the various markers she thought best. Peeta stole a quick kiss before hoisting himself the first few feet, relying on his upper body strength for much of the climb. Katniss followed behind, calling up instructions to Peeta, guiding his foot where she could.
About halfway up, Katniss' arms were aching when Peeta lost his footing. He held on tight to the rocky outcropping but his foot flailed, trying to find the root for leverage.
"Peeta!" She shouted, trying to grab his ankle which was just out of arm's reach. "Hold on, I'm coming!"
All she could hear was his labored breathing and the pounding of her own heart as she hurried up the wall, hoisting herself up the next few feet. Finally, she grabbed his ankle and guided it to the nearest foothold.
"Come on, we're almost there," she called, looking up, the opening looming closer and larger.
Peeta grunted in reply, his arms shaking as he managed to pull himself up the last few feet. He reached down to grab Katniss' hand and pulled her from the hole, as soon as she was free they collapsed into a pile of limbs at the base of a tree. It was dusk and the last traces of sunlight filtered down through the leaves as Katniss' eyes spotted it, a mockingjay nest in the highest branches. The mother bird's song rang out as her chicks clambered about the nest. Katniss closed her eyes, breathless at the sight, at the miracle of their escape.
She opened her eyes when Peeta spoke. "Where are we?"
"The woods," Katniss said, looking around, seeing no sign of the district boundary or town. "We must have traveled farther through the tunnels than I thought."
She rose and surveyed their surroundings, they were farther east than her usual hunting grounds but if they crossed west they could grab a knife and pack of supplies hidden in the hollow tree where she and Gale stored their weapons.
"Come on, Peeta," she said, reaching down and wrapping her arms beneath his, helping him stand up. "If we hurry we can take shelter at the cabin."
"You think they'll come looking for us?" He asked.
"I don't know," she replied. "If we're lucky they think we died in the collapse."
Peeta didn't ask what would happen if they weren't lucky. They already knew.
Their progress was slow and Katniss stopped periodically so Peeta could rest. She checked his leg, thankful the bleeding had stopped. She'd been fortunate she hadn't had to sever any blood vessels to disconnect the leg, but knew the broken bone must be agony for Peeta.
They were a hundred yards or so away from the cabin when they heard voices. Katniss stopped and helped Peeta to the ground before skulking off to investigate. She gripped the knife tightly in her hand as she circled around a tree, a branch snapped close by and she raised the knife in defense when a large hand clapped around her wrist.
"It's me Catnip, it's me," Gale said in her ear.
"Gale," she breathed out a sigh of relief, sinking into him.
Her looked her over, "You're alive. We weren't sure," he gulped. "After the hovercrafts came…"
"I'm okay," she said.
"And Peeta?" He asked.
She blinked back tears, "He's alive, but he's...it's not good, Gale."
"Is he with you?"
"Yeah, he's just over there, behind that stand of trees," she said, pointing in the direction from which she came.
"It'll be alright, Catnip. I'll go get Thom and we'll go with you, we'll get him."
Peeta was drifting out of consciousness when they made their way back to him, blood loss and exhaustion taking their toll.
"What happened?" Thom asked.
"His prosthetic leg, it got pinned under a rock and I had to remove it. It was...it was surgically attached."
Thom and Gale paled at the revelation.
"Damn but you are tough," Thom said, amazed.
Katniss shook her head. "He's tougher," she said, motioning to Peeta.
"Be that as it may," Thom said as he and Gale reached down to lift Peeta up. "You're the reason he's alive."
They brought Peeta inside the cabin and laid him down to rest before the hearth. There was no fire to light up the small room but Katniss could tell it was near bursting with people.
"How many people did you convince to come with you?" She asked Gale.
"Several hundred, maybe a thousand if we're lucky. People in the worst shape are holed up here. I've got several more small camps scattered throughout the woods. It shouldn't get too cold so I warned them not to make fires."
"Maybe we can go back to Twelve in the morning and get some supplies. Food, medicine, more clothes."
"We need to get to Thirteen," he argued, an edge to his voice. "Get these people safe and find out what's going on."
"Gale, we can't take this many people who knows how far without supplies, there's no way. There are children and the injured to think about," she argued. "And all the other people left in Twelve to consider. Maybe we can convince them to come with us."
"Katniss," Gale said softly. His tone made her realize there was more to it. It's the same one he used to approach wounded animals before delivering a deathblow. Instinctively Katniss raised her hand to block his words but he caught it, holding on tightly.
"Don't," she whispered.
"Katniss, there is no District 12."
A/N: Alright folks, I think there's about one more chapter after this one and a possible epilogue.
Thank you for reading! I'm on tumblr, username optimus-pam.
Also, "The Coal Miner Song" belongs to Jimmy Joe Lee.