A/N: I 100% blame IzPerplexing and aerobee82 for this. Really, it's all their fault. I flove them. :)
Beta'd by the amazing sweeneyanne in record speed, and pre-read by the above-mentioned instigators.
I don't own The Hunger Games. *sadface*
The room is a void; nothing but cold stone against her bare legs, and the dark. There's barely enough light to make out the presence of walls, and she doesn't move an inch until she finds the outline of a door. Her ribs throb from the last time she hit the ground, and she knows if she could see well enough she'd find purple and blue blooming across her skin. They've bandaged her arm, but the fabric is wet to the touch; bloody. The Capital doesn't patch up the wounds of traitors before throwing them in a hole to wait for death, and Katniss is no exception. She can't figure out why they've let her live at all.
She scrapes at the gravel until her nails break and kicks at the walls until she can't stand it any longer. Only when she's given up any hope of escape does she allow herself to crawl into the corner, pull her knees to her chest, and think about what's happened. In the black there's nothing to stave off the bright and violent retelling of her final moments.
She can see it happening; all she has to do is close her eyes. The way the world tilted when the first bomb hit, and Enobaria—seconds ago charging her, weapon at the ready—wasn't a problem anymore. She remembers hitting the ground right before the second wave went off, and staring up at the sky to see a hovercraft passing over. She feels the dread clawing its way through her throat like she's still in the middle of the smoke, and she'll never forget the way her heart stopped when she saw Peeta hanging from the retracting claw. He wasn't moving, and she forgets how to breathe again.
She can't remember anything after. The bombs are there, the hovercraft, some vague sensation of flying through the air and a snap in her side when she lands—but not even a flicker of how she came to be in her cage.
She spends a lifetime in the emptiness. It's probably more like hours, maybe a day, but time is inconsequential. All that matters is keeping her eyes open and ears sharp. She has to bite back her fear and fight off the sickness festering in her gut, and wait. She holds out for as long as she can, but eventually her eyelids become too heavy, the ache in her side too much, and she sinks.
This time when she wakes, she's in a soft bed with fluffy pillows. The familiar walls of the training center's apartments stare back at her when she opens her eyes, and for one single second she truly believes that she must be dead and caught in some sort of perpetual hell where she's always waiting for the games to begin. The pains in her arm and side are gone, and only a thin, pink scar remains of the wound Johanna carved into her flesh.
Maybe they want her to look pretty at her execution after all.
The windows are blacked out, the space smaller than she remembers. It feels like nothing more than a brighter lit, better surveilled cage than the one she started out in. She's knows she's not in the penthouse. It feels more like she's deep in the basement. Buried.
The first thing she tries is the elevator, even though she knows the call button will be deactivated. Still, she checks, and after that she tries every door, every window. She wonders if they're watching her from the other side, or if there are cameras; most likely, it's both. She's trapped, waiting to find out what they're going to do to her. Waiting for news of who survived. Their names and faces come in like a flood—all the people who have or might still die because of her. Because of the berries, or her bow. Because she blew up the arena, and there isn't a single person whose opinion matters who wouldn't realize she did it on purpose.
The television works and every channel assaults her with images of flames and destruction. District 12 is gone. Destroyed. The feed cuts to different angles on a loop. She watches it all. The Seam, the market, the bakery—all rubble. Her list grows to add Prim, Gale, and both their families. Madge. Peeta's parents and brothers. She's never understood what a horrible person she is until she stares at the images of District 12 and knows that the only one of them she'd take it all back for is Prim.
If there was ever a time to give up, it's now. She wants to allow herself to waste away to nothing, so there won't be anything left of her to use—but she can't. She's a survivor, and has been ever since Peeta saved her when she couldn't save herself. She has to fight, because if she doesn't then all the rest becomes meaningless.
Her days become full of push-ups and stretches, anything she can think of to keep her muscles strong and body limber. If she dies a shell in the room, they win, and she's got a long way to go if all she can manage is twenty sit-ups. She eats what the Capital provides; even what she gets as a prisoner is better than anything she ever had at home. The television stays on so she has something to remind her of what she shot that last arrow for.
It doesn't matter what they want with her, or why they've kept her alive. Any day now, they'll come for her, and when they do, she's won't go quietly.
She's not very good at keeping track of how much time has passed, but she's sure it's been over a week the first time screams cut through the floorboards.
This is all orchestrated. It's a carefully planned out attack by the Capitol. Just like they made sure the television worked but would only play what they wanted her to see, she knows that these screams are meant for her ears. It's all just another game. In the back of her mind she wonders which of the people she's sinned against it is. She has an irrational fear that it's Peeta, and not even half a day curled up in the corner coming up with all the reasons why it might not be him can reach her.
So she reminds herself of what she knows to be true.
Her name is Katniss Everdeen.
She is seventeen years old.
Someone once told her she's a mockingjay, and it feels like that used to mean something.
She doesn't know why they've kept her alive, and even though she can't believe it until she hears it for herself, Peeta is probably dead.
The sight of Snow after all these weeks, months—she's not sure, actually—bring such hatred rising up in her that she thinks she might explode. She's always known she's capable of that sort of toxic loathing, but she never thought it could be so intense. It's the first time she's been let out of the apartment. Dragged out is actually a better way to put it. It had taken three of them to bring her, kicking and screaming, into the elevator and up three levels to strap her into a chair that—beyond all reason—scared the hell out of her. It was only once she was restrained that they called for him, and he came sauntering into the room with a calculating smile.
She examines his face; the glint in his eyes and his puffy lips. She's assaulted with the memory of his bloody breath, and she knows she's going to kill him. She feels it vibrating through her bones, unreasonable and unrestrained. She doesn't care about anything else as strongly as she does for this one promise she's allowing to make herself. She will kill him. She doesn't care how long it takes.
She snarls. "What do you want?"
Snow is unbothered by her hostility. He speaks to her like this is any other day; like she's not strapped into a chair fantasizing about ripping his throat out. "You are going to do great things for Panem."
It's the only explanation she gets.
They jab a long, menacing needle into the crook of her elbow. The room begins to sway and a projector hums to life with footage from her first Hunger Games. Sharp frames interspersed with longer clips flash across the screen. She grits her teeth. In all the time she's been trapped here, she's longed to see Peeta one more time, but she never imagined it would happen, much less like this. She never wanted to see this footage again.
Peeta smiling, twisting the handle of a knife between his fingers, then it cuts to his hands tangled in the girl from nine's hair, his blade sinking into her flesh.
Cato and Clove, side by side, slitting throats.
Peeta laying in the dirt; Marvel ready to strike. "You'll never find her without me."
A laugh. Mutt eyes. Glimmer bursting at the seams.
It all spins together in a sickeningly rapid narrative that tells an entirely different set of events. She wants to close her eyes, to block it all out, but they've paralyzed her and left her helpless to do anything but watch—but what they don't realize is that while she has no idea what they're trying to do to her, she still has an advantage. She knows these are lies. They're jabberjays made to parrot back what they're told, and they can't take that away from her.
It isn't real.
"Up the dose."
She's looking down on Peeta, pacing below her tree. "We'll deal with her in the morning."
The combination of a pounding headache, drowsiness, and lost time is familiar, but her thoughts are far too slow to place why that is until thirty minutes have passed and she's emptied the contents of her stomach on the floor. When the word comes to her, she thinks she's going to be sick again.
She's immediately sent into a tailspin trying to piece together what exactly the Capital is trying to do. If they were going to kill her, surely they'd use a method far more efficient and public. She closes her eyes and fights the sick images flashing before her eyes—that terrible thing they turned Peeta into—and she repeats it back over and over. It's not real. It couldn't be. She was there, and Peeta would never.
She manages to hold onto that belief until she notices that the television has a new channel.
The footage of Peeta slaughtering Brutus in the jungle is intense and raw. They haven't had any time to edit, but it's not like they need to. She sees a glimpse of the Peeta she remembers from back home, and she knows that of all the things they've shown her, this one happened just as it appears. Somehow, knowing that he killed Brutus like that makes everything else infinitely worse. She'd never considered him as capable of something like that before, not even when she was jacked up with venom and only half-lucid. It's something she can't try to bury.
The second time they take her, she knows what to expect. It's too soon—she hasn't found her footing yet—but she still manages to break one of the guard's noses before they can get her strapped down. It still takes three injections before they're satisfied.
She wishes she knew what they were looking for, how to fight them, but she doesn't know what they're trying to accomplish. So she screams until they gag her.
Before Prim's name was drawn at the reaping, sleeping in was a luxury Katniss had to ensure her sister got to experience every now and then. It was nearly impossible—they shared a bed, and early morning was best for hunting—but Katniss always made sure that every few weeks Prim got to wake up on her own. She used to hate lying in bed, waiting for her sister to stir. Now it seems like that's all she does.
It's surreal. There's a set routine to her captivity, but she has no way of telling what sort of timetable it works on. She's been arbitrarily judging the passing of time by assuming that she sleeps at night and wakes when she used to, but it feels like's she's going to bed sooner, sleeping longer. When she's awake, it's nothing but a more lucid dream.
She stares at the ceiling, and for a moment she's almost convinced that she's waiting for Cinna to come swooping into the room to get her ready for Caesar's interview. Any second now he'll come through the door, and then there'll be Haymitch and Peeta. The Quell never happened. But then her eyes shift to the blackened windows, the scar on her arm, and she knows it's nothing more than a fantasy.
She keeps seeing Peeta out of the corner of her eye.
She loses count of how many times she's been strapped into the chair far sooner than she'd like. She knows that after the third time they send four guards instead of three. The eighth, she's weak enough that they can scale back again, but they still make sure to shackle her wrists before even trying to get her into the elevator.
She thinks that it's somewhere around twelve when she almost manages to scratch the doctor's eyes out, and they have someone clip her nails. She's careful not to scream or struggle one bit more than she usually does, because she can't let them know the click of the scissors in time with the flashes on the screen is by far the most disturbing thing they've come up with, yet.
On the days Snow watches, he doesn't let them gag her. He just observes with a self-satisfied smile as she screams the worst things she can think of until her voice goes hoarse. She thrashes in the chair until unconsciousness swallows her whole.
She wakes up on the couch and isn't sure how she got there.
She can't keep track of what's happening anymore. She stops trying to pretend like there's any sense of normalcy to the passing of time, because she doesn't know the hour, or how long she was out before consciousness found her. She needs over an hour just to open her eyes and remember how to move without vomiting. Then it's a matter of testing her limbs, getting to her feet, and picking at the food they've laid out for her.
The moment she catches a glimpse of something normal, she's right back in the chair, eyes paralyzed, watching Peeta whisper in her ear. The things he says make her blood boil and fists clench. Sometimes he tells her to play the game and everything will be fine. He kisses her on the cheek and mentions the girl he stabbed in the bloodbath—how easy it was, how natural—and the way it felt so good.
He talks about Prim, a lot.
The only thing that keeps Katniss from losing what little sanity she has left is that she's already promised herself that someday she'll kill Snow. She thinks that if she was sure, if she knew beyond the shadow of a doubt this was Peeta, she'd kill him, too—but she can't give in to those thoughts. She might try to kill him anyway, though, just to make him shut up.
When Peeta touches her she feels the prickling of a memory, of sand and water, of something begging her to let it loose—and it makes her skin crawl.
The flashing lights click off, but Peeta wavers in and out. He raises his finger to his lips and smiles.
Snow emerges from his corner, leans in close, and the smell of the rose pinned in his lapel brings her lunch up. "Soon, I'm going to drop you right into the lion's den, and we'll see what becomes of our little mockingjay."
She comes to face-down in front of the elevator and starts the lengthy process of putting herself back together again. She has it down to a science now. Lie still for an hour, then crawl through the apartment; get herself into bed until it stops feeling like the rooms are all tilted at different angles. Try to ignore Peeta.
The only way to keep track of how much she's deteriorating is to keep pushing herself. To keep the television tuned to the rubble of District 12, and count how many push-ups she can do. It's the only way to remember. That image of the bakery on fire is the only thing that keeps her thinking that this Peeta with her now isn't really him. She thinks. The boy she remembers would never do these things, say these things, but she also remembers his voice announcing his kill to the careers. She remembers he was good with his knife, and that he touched her just so… She can't get the replay of the way he killed Brutus out of her head.
She's halfway through the room when movement startles her. There's a man curled up against the wall.
The only way she knows that she's not hallucinating is that there is no possible way her mind could create a Finnick that looks so terrible. She'd believed he was dead—that they all were. Now he's sitting in front of her, beaten and bruised, with only a shadow of his smirk left on his face. His hair is dirty and cuts cover his arms. He looks her in the eye and she realizes that even though he's sitting eight feet away, he's still a ghost.
Apparently, she has a roommate, now.
"Why are you here?" It doesn't even sound like her talking. Her voice was never this broken and disused before.
"I don't know," Finnick says. He sounds just as terrible. "Maybe they needed to free up some cells."
"Who else is alive?" She's sure it's a bad time to ask, Finnick knew everyone better than she did, but she has to know. She just has to find out if Peeta's dead, because if he is maybe she's just being haunted instead of going crazy.
"I don't know." Finnick drops his head into his palms and his shoulders give a little shake. "Dead, captured, safe… I don't even know which I should hope for."
She thinks of Peeta and the way his breath on her neck gives her goosebumps. "Dead. It's better if they're dead."
Finnick nods, and doesn't say anything else. He makes fists and unrecognizable motions with his fingers, and she watches, strangely fascinated, until another question comes bubbling up.
"How long has it been?"
Finnick's brows furrow and he shifts his attention to his arm. Katniss notices that the scratches actually form some sort of a pattern. He stares at them for an uncomfortable span. "Eighty-seven days."
"You scratched the days into your arm?" Why hadn't she thought of that?
"There wasn't anything else to do."
She scowls. "I found plenty to do, but then my lungs gave out."
"Ah," Finnick says, immediately understanding. "I thought I recognized that agonized scream of yours."
It's insane to be embarrassed that Finnick heard her that way, but she is. It makes her feel weak, like a victim. She is, but she doesn't like admitting it.
She whispers, "Why haven't they killed us?"
Finnick shrugs and stares at the blackened windows. "Because they don't believe that we don't know anything."
Either Finnick has lost all capacity for lying, or he simply can't be bothered to try anymore. She'd suspected that he knew more than he was letting on before, in the arena, but now she knows for sure. If they weren't being watched she'd pick up right where the Capital left off and torture it out of him. It doesn't matter that she owes him or that he's sort of her friend; he used her, and she wants to know why.
They don't speak anymore, but Finnick does help her crawl into bed before leaning against the far wall in the bedroom and sliding down to the floor. She'd protest if she had it in her, but she can't see how anything Finnick does matters at this point.
Her eyes slide closed, and she's back in the arena, seeing things she doesn't want to. Watching events unfold from the sky.
They've never left her alone for this long. It's been three days of quiet; no screaming, no needles, and because Finnick insists, no fiery glow emanating from the television. They eat their meals in silence and he holds her feet while she subjects herself to the agonizing process of doing crunches. She tries to get even the smallest piece of information out of him, but Finnick is a steel trap. He's not sharing any secrets.
The only thing Finnick will talk about is Annie.
Katniss thinks she likes her. In a way, it would have been wonderful to return home from her first games a raving lunatic. There wouldn't have been any pretenses to keep up, no weight on her shoulders. She wonders if that will be the life she has if she ever makes it out of here alive.
Sometimes when she dreams about Peeta, it's real. He smells like bread and has a soft touch. He smiles at her like he means it, and kisses her like he would die for just five more seconds of his lips moving against hers.
Those dreams are few and far between.
"She'll never even see it coming."
"We're wasting time! I'll go finish her and let's move on!"
And suddenly she's laying in the dirt and he's coming at her, knife at the ready. All her skill at hunting, all the lessons her father taught her, they fly right out the window as he approaches on inhumanely swift feet. Peeta was noisy, wasn't he? She's not sure anymore. She can't remember. All she can see is the glint of the moon reflecting off his blade. Her arms come up to cover her head, and she screams.
His weight crushes her. His knees dig into her arms and one hand grabs her throat to tilt her head back. His eyes flash red. His lips curl into a sadistic sneer as he leans forward to whisper across her cheek. "Sweet Mockingjay. Didn't you realize you aren't the only one who can pretend?"
She can't breathe. Thick, purple liquid oozes from his fist, and when he splays his fingers open she sees the nightlock. In one, swift motion his hand covers her mouth. Peeta snarls and breaks the berries against her clamped lips; the juice dribbles over her face.
She opens her eyes to find floorboards under her face, and Finnick kneeling at her side.
"He's mad about the berries," Katniss rants, struggling to right herself without help. All she manages is to get the heels of her palms flat against the floor. She doesn't know where the words are coming from, but they spill out of her with such force that she has no time to hold them back. "It was the berries, and the bloodbath, and it's all pretend." She shakes her head and wrenches her eyes shut. "It was all pretend. This is all lies."
Finnick pulls her upright and wraps his arms around her, and doesn't let her go when she starts thrashing. She doesn't like the constriction. She spends too much time tied down.
"It was just a dream. It's not real," he mutters, rocking back and forth. She starts breathing again, and the spinning slows. "It's not real, Katniss."
She doesn't understand how he could know. She's lost all ability to tell the difference.
"I don't know who he is anymore."
"Peeta?" Finnick asks, and just hearing the name tumble from someone else's lips is enough to send a shiver down her spine and make all her muscles tense to the point of pain. She's shaking again and Finnick smoothes the sweaty hair from her face.
"He killed Brutus." Saying it out loud is the worst thing she's ever had to do, but it's the one thing they've shown her that she knows is fact. She knows that happened—no editing, no tricks.
"Brutus killed Chaff, first."
That doesn't make it any better. It's not that Peeta killed him, it's the look he had on his face when he did it. It's the blood and guts and how she knows he wasn't sorry for it. It's the way watching that one act showed her a darkness in him, and how that one tiny chip in his character is rotting everything else. Peeta had said he wouldn't let the games change him, but they did. He killed those girls from eight and nine. He'll try to kill her for the berries. And he'll enjoy it.
"Peeta loved you." Finnick insists. "You loved him, too. I didn't believe it, at first. We all thought it was all just something the two of you had cooked up for the camera, but when he hit that force field… I could tell it was real for you." Finnick pulls back and there's something hard and fiery dancing over his face. "Listen to me. You love him. That's what's real."
And all these things Finnick is telling her feel right, they feel true, but so does the memory of watching Peeta's eyes flash with contempt as he stares up at her in her tree. She could never love anyone who looks at her like that, who says such terrible things to her. She digs her fingernails into her palms, but they're cut too short to give her any baseline. "I don't know. I don't know."
She doesn't realize she's shaking her head and rocking again until Finnick grabs her shoulders to stop her. "It's real."
"Not all of it."
Something in Finnick breaks right before her eyes.
"That's why," he says. "That's why they threw me in here with you. They want to see how much of it you believe."
She can't deal with this right now, so she says the one thing on her mind that has nothing to do with Peeta. "You're too good at this."
"What can I say?" Finnick smirks, but his heart isn't in it. "I've got experience with crazy girls."
Katniss rubs the heels of her hands over her eyes, trying to make something, anything, come into focus. "What are they doing to me?"
Finnick sighs. "I don't know, but I could wager a guess."
She waits for him to tell her, but he won't.
They take her right out of his arms in the morning, wrestling her from the floor. Finnick tries to fight, like she used to when she was strong enough, but the end result is the same. The Capital has numbers on their side, and what good are two broken Victors against the horde?
She worries about him for hours, but when they toss her back into the apartment, Finnick is gone.
That night, as she sleeps, Peeta lies in bed with her and tells her about the time he fed Foxface poison berries. He wonders how it was so easy, if it was a fluke, and says he'd like to try it again.
A hand closes over her mouth in the dead of night, the familiar prick of a needle in her arm quick to follow. She is so damn sick of people shooting her up with drugs.
"Shh," a voice hums in her ear. "It's okay, Catnip."
"Gale?" She doesn't dare allow herself to do more than breathe his name. She only catches a glimpse of his face before her vision starts turning fuzzy. She jerks her head and bites her lip hard enough to draw blood.
"Sorry," Gale says, nodding to the syringe before tucking it away in a pocket. "It's only a tracker, just in case. Stay calm, okay?"
She knows he's lying. She can feel her muscles relax as something foreign and toxic races through her. This has to be another one of their games. Another way to toy with her. "You're not real."
"Jesus." Gale swears. "Of course I'm real. Now come on, we've got to get you out of here."
"Prim?" she asks, her heart twisting with the word. She doesn't know if she believes him yet, but she still has to ask. Games are irrelevant when it comes to her sister.
"She's okay. Your mom, too. We all got out before the bombs dropped." Gale's explanation is brusque—clipped and to the point—but there's that underlying softness that she sees better than anyone else. Real, it is. If they wanted to toy with her, surely they'd say Prim was dead and they wouldn't bother saying anything about her mother. "I'll explain later. We have to get out of here."
They've twisted down two hallways before her tenuous grip starts slipping. Once she figures out which way is up, she's going to give Gale a piece of her mind for drugging her. There's a flash of Peeta standing down the hall, stroking the head of a mutt while he stares at her. She jerks away and he's gone. She can't ask Gale if he was ever there to begin with, he wouldn't know, not like…
"Finnick!" She's ashamed for not thinking of him before.
"We have to go back." She's already five paces away before Gale snaps out of it and tries to drag her back. He doesn't expect her to fight him, though, and it only takes one sharp elbow to his stomach before she's free again.
"We don't have time for this!"
"I don't care! We can't leave him."
"We're not," Gale says, still trying to herd her in the opposite direction. "Let the other team handle it."
But she can't leave Finnick's fate in the hands of someone else. She owes him too much, even if he's a horrendous liar and she kind of hates him for it. She needs him to help her figure out what's happening. Something is wrong with her head, and only Finnick understands what it is. He's the only one who knows what they did to her—the only one who can explain.
Whatever Gale gave her makes it too hard to express any of this; it's taking all of her concentration to keep from being dragged down the hall. She only stops fighting when one of his arms loosens and his hand goes to his ear. She knows that look on his face; he's listening for something.
"They got him," he tells her. "Can we please continue with our daring escape now?"
She lets him lead her through the winding catacombs of the training center, and then out through some sort of underground network of halls. Any minute now Snow's going to pop out and drag her screaming back to that chair, strap her down, and let Peeta whisper horrible things in her ear; make her watch him slash and stab and squeeze berries in his fist. It's not until they break out onto some sort of helipad that she realizes Snow isn't coming.
She climbs aboard the hovercraft and sees Finnick, and for the first time in three months her lungs inflate.
Something inside her screams that this is all too easy.
"It's almost like they wanted us to take you." Apparently, Gale thinks the same.
Finnick raises his head and looks her right in the eye, sees through all the venom and confusion, right to her mangled soul. "That's because they do."
When Gale pulls her off the hovercraft, Peeta is standing on the tarmac. He looks different. He rushes forward and pulls her to his chest, and she does what comes naturally. She screams.
The first thing the doctors in District Thirteen do is shoot her full of sedatives. It just makes things worse.
She's already fighting a losing battle against all the confusion swirling in her head; adding the fact that District 13 really does exists, that they've rescued her and Finnick, and there's a full-blown rebellion happening… it scrambles what little sanity she has left.
They say that her memories—her mind—can't be trusted, and she absolutely hates every single one of them for assuming she doesn't know that already. It's not a matter of accepting this one basic fact—it's a matter of figuring out how to get around it. Her instincts have been played with, altered, and she doesn't know how to stop listening to them. For so long she's run on nothing but her gut; it's impossible to just stop.
Their solution to this problem is to keep her so doped up that she can't find her hands until they figure out what to do with her. These doctors in Thirteen, they would thrive in the Capital.
They tell her it's a matter of getting the tracker jacker venom out of her system. That things will get better. She doesn't believe them. Slowly, they wean her off the morphling.
She wakes in a cold sweat, shaking, and for two days she can't keep anything down. She's been poisoned in every way imaginable, and it makes her feel so violated that if she could go more than five minutes on her feet without passing out she'd steal a hovercraft and fly it right into Snow's mansion.
Prim is the first one to visit and it's not until then that Katniss finally allows herself to cry. She can't figure out when Prim got so big; when she grew up.
Gale stops by, and Finnick shows up with Annie. Katniss likes her because Annie's crazy, too. She thinks Annie likes her because now she's not the only one. They all come and go, and it's not until the third day, when Haymitch comes to see her, that anyone starts telling her the truth.
The first thing she notices is that Haymitch is sober. The second is that he looks guilty, but in that way where it's not actually his fault—it's hers.
"Finnick says they really messed you up. Played with your head."
"Seems that way."
"You told me to save him," Haymitch says, no hesitation, no restraint. He's never been one for coddling.
Katniss closes her eyes. She can't find a name for the thing that wells up in her. She did say that, once. She made Haymitch swear up and down that this time, it was Peeta's turn. Why would she have done that? It feels like a little grain of truth hidden in a bed of lies. It's something she can hold on to. She made Haymitch promise.
"Do you understand that that boy loves you?" Haymitch asks in that condescending way of his. She finds it comforting, that someone around here is treating her just the same as they always have.
Katniss nods, mostly because it feels like the only response that will subdue Haymitch.
"And you realize that not everything you feel can be trusted?"
This time it's a lot easier to agree.
He gives her an awkward pat on the shoulder and walks away. "Then the rest will come in time."
No one else dares mentions Peeta, but she hears things. He's been shuffled out of Thirteen, out on some campaign. He's being kept away. There's talk and speculation over how he'll react when he returns; whether there'll be a tearful reunion full of kisses and soft touches, or if she'll freak out again. One woman seems entirely convinced that Katniss will try to kill him, and the nurses start taking bets. They don't realize Peeta isn't gone. He stays with her, always.
She startles awake at the sound of the door clicking shut. Her breath catches in her throat when she sees the star of her nightmares standing four feet away, head cocked to the side, something indescribable shining in his eyes.
"Katniss?" Peeta says, reaching out a hand, cautious but with enough determination that the small piece of rationality she was clinging to slips out of her grip.
She's up and across the room before the shock can register on his face. Electricity flows through her limbs. Her back hits the wall. Peeta keeps staring, quiet and worried, and she can't reconcile this image of him in her mind with the boy standing in front of her. She remembers his lips curling away from his teeth. The knife dangling from his fingers, his weight pushing all the air from her lungs, and a handful of berries.
She has no weapons to fight him. She never does. He shifts his weight from one leg to the other, and it's with a hunter's eye that she catalogues the movement. It's comforting to know that some things can't be taken away. If he comes after her, she'll go left. She's fast and can get to the door. Whether or not it's unlocked is an entirely new problem. If she's trapped in this room with him, she'll need something to defend herself, and she has nothing.
All they have are their hands, and his are so much stronger.
Peeta looks… well, if she didn't know better, she'd say he looked heartbroken.
She thinks she might have to strike first, but doesn't get the chance before the door flies open and Finnick comes barreling in. He takes one look at the two of them and deliberately places himself in the middle, facing Katniss. He looks even worse than she feels, but there's something in Finnick's stance—a lightness—that she somehow knows means he's going to turn out okay.
He cranes his neck far enough to see Peeta out of his peripheral. "You need to give us a minute."
Peeta doesn't budge.
She can't stop the tremor that races through her. She grits her teeth and pleads with Finnick the best she can without words. She's not ready for this. She doesn't know what's real and what's not. She doesn't know which Peeta is lying: the one standing across the room from her, or the one she remembers kissing her neck and whispering against her skin about how amazing it felt the first time warm blood spilled over his hands.
Only then does Katniss realize they have an audience.
Plutarch's standing right outside the door, his head tilted as he watches the scene. Katniss could rip his throat out and never feel bad for it for all he put her through. It's too bad she's reserved the one premeditated murder she's allowing herself for Snow. He tilts his head and murmurs, "It really is fascinating."
And that's when Haymitch, previously a silent shadow just outside the room, absolutely loses it. "Get out! All of you, leave!"
Plutarch has the decency shuffle away, but Finnick and Peeta both stand with arms crossed, daring Haymitch to make them.
"Great." Haymitch sneers. "Now I've got three insufferable children on my hands."
She can't deal with this. She steps around the three men taking up far too much space, walks out of the room, and starts running. She has a vague idea of how the place is laid out, and she makes for her best guess as to where the exit is. The first door she tries is some sort of boiler room, but the second opens to a set of stairs and another door that leads outside, onto the helipad. She must have been paying more attention than she thought when they brought her in.
The sun is setting.
It's the first thing she's seen since this whole nightmare began that is beautiful.
She hates District 13. It's nothing but an underground cobweb of halls and passages with the weight of the earth crushing her at every step. It feels like a mass grave. Like she's dead and buried along with everyone she cares about.
Her mother doesn't really know what to say to her. She doesn't have much time to figure it out, either. It seems everyone in District Thirteen has some critical mission to carry out, unless they're crazy. Katniss and Annie have a lot of time to themselves.
Prim tries to tell her that it could have been worse. The Capital had been interrupted. She'd been rescued before they could push her from fear to violence, and that's something to be thankful for. Katniss doesn't have the heart to tell her that this terror rushing through her is the most agonizing thing she's ever endured. She'd rather hate Peeta than be afraid of him. Besides, Katniss is violent enough on her own, and everyone knows it. There wouldn't have been much need for a push. There's something else, too. Something in the way Finnick looked at her on the hovercraft that makes her think that maybe the Capital wasn't as interrupted as everyone seems to assume. She doesn't know, and as far as she can tell, there's no way to find out.
Is she still being used? Is she still playing into Snow's plan? The lingering doubts have the potential to drive her so far into madness she'll never be able to claw her way back out.
Annie moves into the infirmary, taking up the other bed in the room Katniss is staying in. She tells her it's nice to have someone who understands. Katniss knows the feeling. As it turns out, Annie is a good roommate. She's strangely unbothered by Katniss screaming in the middle of the night or whispering to someone she can't see. It's fair; Katniss doesn't make a fuss when these things happen to Annie, either.
They teach each other games from back home; from before they were Victors and long before they were damaged. It all reminds Katniss a little bit of Madge; the way she and Annie are sort of friends through an inability to get along with anyone else.
Annie doesn't ask about Peeta, but she doesn't tiptoe around him, either.
It's obvious that the people in charge—whoever they are—don't want Peeta around her. Apparently he's important, and she can't be trusted. She doesn't necessarily object to Peeta staying away, but the idea that they're rallying to protect him sets off a nasty feeling in her. She's not sure who to blame for the bile in her throat, but she pins it on Snow anyway.
She almost wishes they'd have the same caution with Gale. He's important, too, and the way he treats her like a child and picks every single word like the wrong one might cause her to have a complete meltdown is grating on her nerves. But the Capital didn't warp her memories of Gale, and she thinks that even if they did, it wouldn't make much of a difference. Gale is different from how she remembers him anyway.
She's been getting better, has an easier time sorting through what she really feels and what the Capital put there—but seeing Prim in the same room as Peeta is something she absolutely cannot abide.
All she can see is how small Prim looks next to him, and how much it reminds her of Rue facing off against Marvel. Peeta cracking his neck and handling his knife. Always with that knife.
She bursts in, ready to strangle him for daring to go anywhere near her sister, but her fingers close around air, and she takes another look around the room to find it empty. It's all lies. All of it.
So maybe, she's not getting better at all.
It's Prim who convinces Gale to show her the footage, even though she's not supposed to know about it. Hours upon hours of Peeta begging, pleading, and weaving beautiful words all focused on her. She can see it. She remembers why it's so easy to listen to him. She also has the image of him slitting that girl's throat burned into her mind, but the more time passes, the more it fades.
The after-effects are starting to wear off. Or maybe she's just becoming desensitized. Either way, Peeta doesn't talk to her much anymore. All she's left with is a brain full of jumbled memories that she can't quite sort through. The doctors claim it's because the venom is finally out of her system, like she has nothing to do with it. It's their accomplishment, not hers. In their minds, they fixed her. She makes sure to take every opportunity she can find to tell them that they didn't do anything but replace the tracker jacker venom with morphling until she figured it out for herself.
She has hundreds of feelings she doesn't understand, all bottled up, just waiting for something to come set them off. It's going to happen any minute now. More and more she hears Peeta's voice down the hall from the infirmary, and today is no exception. She figures it doesn't matter if it's really him or the version of him that haunts her when she lets her guard down. In this way Peeta always has been and always will be the same as he ever was. He's always had the ability to affect her, even when no one else could.
"This is a bad idea," Haymitch says, right outside the door. Apparently, it's really Peeta out there today.
"I don't care." Peeta's voice is more of a growl, and she hates herself for the way she reacts to it. "She's still Katniss. I won't let you or anyone else tell me otherwise."
"I know," Finnick's voice joins the conversation. "But she's not the Katniss you knew right now. This isn't good for either of you."
"She's Katniss…" Peeta says, thicker, sad. Something in it is familiar.
Finnick stays silent. All Haymitch says is, "Fine."
She's ready for him when he walks through the door. But then, there's something else. It comes, vivid and intense, like it used to be when the venom was still burning through her veins. Peeta draws a blade from his belt and all Katniss can see is him charging at her, his blade sliding into her belly like she's nothing but butter. He smiles as she falls inside-out all over him. She blinks, and he's still standing there. There's no gash in her stomach, and no trace of satisfaction in his expression. She still really, really wants that knife, though. She wouldn't hurt him, she doesn't think so, anyway, but she certainly doesn't want him to have it. Just in case.
Peeta sets the knife on the table and backs away, hands up. "I wanted to bring your bow, but they had some concerns about arming you with projectiles."
"What is this?"
"I just thought it might make you feel more comfortable," Peeta says, nodding toward the knife. "Take it. It's okay."
"They let you bring me a weapon?" It's the most absurd thing she's ever heard.
Peeta has the decency to duck his head. "Not exactly."
She doesn't take the knife, but she does make sure she's closer to it than he is.
"What happened to Brutus?" She already knows, they showed her, but she wants to see if he'll tell her the truth.
Peeta's face pales, and he sags against the wall. "I murdered him."
She's inexplicably please that he used the word murdered instead of killed. "Why?"
"Because I saw what he did to Chaff." Peeta looks up at her, and he's got that same look on his face that Haymitch did when he first came to see her. Peeta feels guilty, but he also doesn't think any of this is really his fault. "Did you ever wonder why Chaff didn't seek us out? Try to join our alliance? He was friends with Haymitch; he had to have known we'd take him. Plus he was in on the plan to break us out, same as Finnick and Mags. I think he didn't want Haymitch to see it, when he died. But I was there, and I was so sure the cameras were on us, and I just…"
There is a very significant part of her that wants to rip Peeta's hands right out of his hair, squeeze them tight, and tell him he did the right thing. He definitely did the same thing she would have. That has to mean something.
She doesn't, though.
Peeta lets out a groan and shakes his head. "I snapped. I lost it." He looks up at her, and for the brief moment she allows herself to look him in the eye, all she sees is misery. "I never wanted to do something like that, and I never wanted you to see it."
That makes two of them.
When she finally meets the rebel leader, Katniss isn't sure of the protocol.
Gale always speaks highly of Coin. Haymitch doesn't, but he doesn't talk nice about anyone. Katniss opts for the middle-ground, and keeps carefully aloof as they talk.
Coin asks how her recovery is going, and talks about how great Peeta has been for the rebellion in a way that makes Katniss think what's being inferred is that Peeta is good in all the ways she wouldn't have been. Peeta is respectful, diligent, and responsible. He rallies the people and gives them hope. She makes it sound like Peeta is some sort of bizarre puppet—and the only thing worse than thinking about all the things Peeta is capable of is considering what he might do with someone else pulling the strings.
She decides that she's going to side with Haymitch on this one. This Coin woman is kind of a bitch. She doesn't trust her.
It's easier to talk to Peeta when they're outside. There's no walls closing her in, and a thousand places she can run. She's sure of it now; Peeta is hopeless in the woods. It gives her the advantage.
She picks at the puffs left behind by the dandelions that used to span the area west of the helipad and wonders, "Why do you keep coming to see me?"
His answer is immediate and sure. "Because you're Katniss, and I love you."
"Did I love you back?" she asks, furrowing her brow to try and catch hold of a lingering moment in the back of her memory. Something small. Something they didn't know to take.
Peeta gives her a small, indulgent smile and shakes his head. "I never knew. Not for sure, anyway. I like to believe that you did."
"Finnick says I did." She offers the small consolation, because it's all she has to give.
"I know." Peeta brushes some hair away from her face and tucks it behind her ear, quick to retract his hand before she can bolt away from him. "He also says that whatever's happened to you, you'll win. I think he's right. There's never been anything that could keep you down for long."
"What if I can't?"
"Then I'll save you," Peeta says. "That's how it works with you and me."
It's not an option, and Peeta knows it just as sure as Katniss does. If she doesn't fight through this herself, they win, and she can't let that happen. The Capital could drug her, warp her memories, and toy with her all they want, but the truth is still there. It's buried deep inside her, just waiting for her to claw her way through all the lies. She'll do it, no matter how hard it is, for Prim. For Peeta. Because she believes that at some point, some version of him really did love her.
And she thinks that more than anything else, she misses whatever piece of him they took away.
"I'd like to say I want to start over," she says. It's the best she can do. "But I can't right now. Not here. Not with Snow in my head and Coin in yours."
"I don't think it's going to be much of a problem anymore."
"Why not?" She doesn't know what he means.
"Because it'll be over soon, one way or another. They're gearing up for their attack." Peeta only sounds half as angry over it as Katniss is.
"What about us?"
"They say we can't go." Peeta shrugs. "Coin's trying to distance herself from us. She doesn't want the competition."
She feels the panic well up in her lungs. When everything she knew was a lie, she held on to this one truth, and now it might slip through her fingers. "Snow?"
"He's considered a war criminal. They'll execute him if they win."
She can't let that happen. "No. I have to do it. I have to."
Peeta waits for her breathing to slow, watching carefully the whole time, and then makes his decision. "Ever want to steal a hovercraft?"
It doesn't take long to rope Finnick into their little covert op; two minutes, maybe. Annie is a much harder sell. Logically, Katniss knows it's Annie's right to be apprehensive, but her gut—that part of her that never stops telling her what to do—wants to knock Annie out, kidnap Finnick, and apologize for it later. Finnick seems to realize this, and he keeps himself positioned between the two girls while he talks Annie down.
Peeta knows exactly where the weapons storage is, but it takes him nearly fifteen minutes to con the guards into letting him take a bow, some arrows, and a couple choice weapons for himself and Finnick. It's not long by any means, but Katniss still feels the itch of being behind schedule. She has a president to kill, and the army has a two hour head start.
By the time Annie starts running through the ship yard screaming, Katniss is so tense she's vibrating.
It's hard, being in such a small space with only Peeta for so long. But he's focused on flying the hovercraft and she sticks to the back and stares out the window as they soar through the air. She decides it could be worse.
Peeta seems to know what he's doing, and he knows where to land. It makes Katniss wonder just how long he's known that he wasn't going to be included in the final strike, and how much of this he planned out in advance. Did he hope she would come with him? That Finnick would be here, too? Or was it just a random, passing thought—what would he do, if he could steal a hovercraft and help the rebellion whether they wanted it or not.
Finnick and Peeta know exactly where they are going.
Finnick sees the question written on her face before she asks, and says, "I had to sneak around a lot. Had to learn the back ways quick."
Katniss glances at Peeta, and he sighs.
"They have blueprints, back in Thirteen. I memorized them. When they were rescuing you." He keeps his eyes front through the whole explanation, and she recognizes the deep-seated anger simmering under the surface; she understands all too well. He was being kept prisoner, too, in a way. He may not have been locked in a room or strapped down to a chair, but he was trapped in District 13 until they moment they rescued her and Finnick—and after that, they tried to lock him out.
She knows there isn't anything she can say to him to tame his sense of injustice, so she doesn't try.
They start making their way toward the center of the Capital in silence. They want to fly under the radar, to avoid rousing any suspicion, but there's virtually no opposition to hide from. After four blocks and only two Peacekeepers, Finnick takes this to mean that they're far ahead of the first strike team. Peeta wants to lay low for a while, let Coin's army catch up, and it's with reluctance that Katniss agrees. If they manage to get to Snow, if she can put an arrow in his throat, they'll be swarmed. If it was just her, then she might have considered it, but she's got Prim waiting for her back in Thirteen, and Peeta and Finnick standing at her side, and there's no satisfaction to be gained from killing Snow if they all die, too. If the rebels are close, they'll have no choice but to protect them.
It doesn't take long. They take the long way around, through back alleys and side-streets. After a couple of hours the civilians start to evacuate, and they hide out in an abandoned house as close to the line separating the residential area from the government center.
They hear the stirrings of the battle and Finnick motions them forward. Chaos has started to fill the streets of the Capital, and after they've made it one block, an acrid smoke wafts through the air.
"Firebombs," Finnick mutters.
That's all the explanation she needs. She remembers all too well what happened to District 12, and the reminder only serves to push her forward. There has to be a point where this all ends.
They start crossing paths with soldiers. It doesn't impede them. Katniss finally has her bow back in her hands and Peeta's got that terrifying knife of his. The best Finnick could find in the armory was a spear; he's just as deadly with it as he was with his trident.
It scares her, how unaffected Peeta is when his knife soars through the air and lodges itself deep in a Peacekeeper's breastbone—but then not five seconds later she loosens her fingers and sends an arrow straight into another's neck. It's easier than it should be, and she wishes that Gale hadn't been right when he told her that there really isn't a difference between people and animals.
It's easier to see that Peeta isn't wicked when she's matching him kill for kill.
They're ducking onto the main street to check the rebel's progress when it happens; a crash sounds out, and an intense hum vibrates through her body. It's not close, but she hears it. She knows that sound. Her heart pounds and three months of hell comes rushing back at her. She's frozen.
Finnick takes one look at her and rushes back to throw his arms around her waist and haul her away from the street with no concern for the way she fights him. He doesn't even flinch when she carves four jagged lines into his arm with her fingernails. She draws ragged breaths and gnashes her teeth, because above all else she can't give away their position, but she can't get past the panic racing through her, either. Peeta just watches, looking as helpless as she feels.
Finnick doesn't let her go until the buzz has disappeared.
"What was that?" Peeta takes a couple steps closer to her, glancing at Finnick. "Did that really just happen? Why would there be tracker jackers in the Capital?"
Finnick scowls. "Tick-tock."
Sometimes it feels like Katniss is never going to get the hell out Snow's arena.
Peeta doesn't reply to Finnick. He keeps a careful eye on Katniss and waits until her breathing evens out. Instead of asking if she's okay, all he says is, "We're close. Are you ready?"
It's the only thing he could possibly have said that would sharpen her focus. She's been ready for years, and she's been waiting for this for too long to let anything stand in the way. Her resolve snaps back into place, and she buries all those bad feelings down, so they can't distract her. She'll have time to fall apart later.
They find Snow standing on the steps, right outside his mansion. Up until the moment he sees them, he looks to be deep in thought, but as soon as his gaze lands on Katniss a broad smile crosses his face. She stands across the courtyard, arrow ready, hands steady.
"I knew you'd come back to me." Snow laughs. "Though, I have to admit, I thought it would be minus one baker."
There it is, the answer to the questions that have been plaguing her. Snow thought he could make her kill Peeta, and she didn't. She's stronger than he thinks, and she's stronger than this monster he buried in her.
She doesn't give him a response. He doesn't deserve one, and she certainly doesn't owe it to him. She notches her arrow, pulls the string to her lips, and lets her arrow fly. She hits him right in the adam's apple. A perfect shot.
Peacekeepers swarm the scene, but they're too late. Coin's army has arrived just in time to witness Katniss' triumph, and there isn't even a need for her to assist.
Peeta lets her bask in the moment for a while before he places his hand over hers and guides her bow down. She makes herself look at him, really look at him, and she doesn't have time to comprehend what's happening before his lips are on hers and a thousand sirens set off in her head. She panics first but when she jerks back, he follows, holds her steady, and whispers, "It's okay. It's over."
She lets him kiss her again, and a few fragments of her mind untangle and right themselves. And it kind of feels like he might be right.