Katniss was working her shift at Sae's Diner when she saw the first sign that her life was about to get weird.
She was about to take her much-needed break. Leevy called her over to the tiny breakroom television as soon as Katniss entered the room. "Katniss, you gotta see this. It's about you! Well, sort of."
The news announcer was describing what sounded like a particularly grisly murder scene, and eventually repeated the information that had Leevy so riled up.
"Police refused to speculate about a possible motive for the execution-style killing. But they have confirmed the death of Katniss Everdeen, a thirty-five year old resident of the District 6 neighborhood of Panem City."
Leevy grinned up at her. "You're dead, honey."
Katniss just rolled her eyes. "The most surprising part of that story is that there's someone else stuck with the name Katniss Everdeen." She then put the entire thing out of her mind.
Katniss was the one to answer the phone in their apartment when it rang that night. "Hello?"
"First I'm going to rip the buttons off your blouse, one by one. Then I'll run my tongue along your neck, down to your bare, gleaming breasts..."
"I get that you two are old enough to date, but I really don't need to hear this, Rory."
There was a shocked pause on the other end of the line. "Oh, fuck! Katniss! Shit, I'm sorry! I thought… I didn't realize… Um, can I talk to Prim? Please?"
Katniss tried hard not to laugh. She may have finally had to admit that her 20-year-old sister was old enough to have a sex life – just because she didn't feel the need for one was no reason to forbid Prim – but that didn't mean she couldn't still give them a hard time about it. "It's for you, Little Duck!"
Katniss was spending her Friday night alone. In a pizza parlor.
She was supposed to meet her friend Gale for a movie and then hang out with him for a while, but he had canceled at the last minute for a "hot date." Gale did this all the time; ever since he had confessed his feelings for her at the end of high school and she had rejected him, he always tried to rub his dating life in her face. As if she was going to suddenly become jealous and develop romantic feelings for him. She just didn't work that way; Prim was the one for romance, Katniss had left all of that behind when her father died and her mother may as well have. Love was a weakness she wouldn't allow herself.
She couldn't go back to her apartment because Prim and Rory were there doing… Well, she didn't want to think about what Prim and Rory were doing. But it left her stranded in the pizza parlor with a full stomach, half a cold pie, and nothing better to do than watch the TV behind the counter and nurse her beer. That's why she was paying attention when the news came on and the anchor began speaking about a police press conference.
"Police Lieutenant Haymitch Abernathy spoke moments ago on the topic of the Phone Book Killer, believed to be responsible for the deaths of two women in Panem City today."
The news anchor was replaced with the image of a grizzled man in rumpled clothing, and when he spoke Katniss could swear he was slurring his words slightly. "We can confirm that the two victims, one from District 6 of Panem City and one from District 10, had no known connection, other than sharing the name Katniss Everdeen. And yes, to answer your question, they were killed in the order in which their names appear in the phone book."
The officer was interrupted momentarily by the cacophony of reporters, but was able to continue after a moment. "Now, the important information we need to get out there is that there is a third Katniss Everdeen out there, a resident of District 12, who we have been unable to locate as of yet. If you are Katniss Everdeen and you are watching this broadcast, please contact the PCPD immediately. You may be in danger."
The news anchor was back prattling on about a chilling warning from Police Lieutenant Abernathy but Katniss had stopped listening. All of a sudden her hunter's senses kicked in and she felt like she was being watched. But that'd be impossible, no one here would have any way of knowing who she was.
She asked a waiter if there was a phone she could use and was directed to a pay phone in the back near the restrooms. She first tried dialing the police, but apparently she was far from the only one trying to call them right now, and after ten minutes of being transferred and put on hold, she gave up and decided to try her apartment. She smiled at Prim's cheery answering machine message like she always did; Katniss had recorded a message for the machine, but Prim had insisted that she sounded to dour and had made a new one.
"Prim, are you there?" Katniss waited but got no response. "Prim, if you're there please pick up." Still nothing. "Prim, I think there's something going on. There were two women killed today and they were both named Everdeen. I think we should go to the police to make sure we're safe. I'm at Tony's Pizza on Market Street, please come and get me, okay? Listen if I'm not here when you get here then I've probably already gone to the police, so just go straight there if you don't find me here. All right? See you soon, Little Duck. Stay safe."
Left with nothing else to do, Katniss returned to her seat and ordered another beer to nurse. The feeling of being watched wouldn't go away though, so she began surveying the other patrons over her glass.
For some reason her attention kept returning to a blond man in a trench coat carrying a long baguette. Who brings a baguette to a pizza parlor? He was just standing there in the corner, and no one seemed to be paying him any mind, but every time she looked at him Katniss couldn't shake the feeling that he had been watching her just a second earlier. As she sat and continued nursing her beer, she tried to get an impression of him. He wasn't bad looking, she decided. He looked young; she'd guess him to be about her age, but the way his blond curls fell over his eyes made him seem almost boyish. Just a beautiful blond boy in a trench coat with a loaf of French bread. That was perfectly normal for a pizza place on a Friday night, right?
It must have been her fifth or sixth time stealing glances at the blond when she finally caught him looking back at her. She was taken aback by the intensity of his gaze. The eyes partially hidden by his blond curls were a bright, vibrant blue. Not a sky blue like Prim's, but a deep ocean blue that looked almost unnatural. Katniss found that she couldn't look away, not until the boy looked down at the floor.
Finally she couldn't take it anymore and decided to try the police again. This time she managed to get a hold of Lieutenant Abernathy after only eight minutes of runaround.
"Katniss Everdeen? This is really Katniss Everdeen? Cause if this is another faker-"
If anything Abernathy's speech was more slurred than it had been in the news clip. "Yes, that's me! I don't exactly want to shout it though!" Katniss said in a harsh whisper. "I'm in Tony's Pizza Parlor on Market Street, and there's this weird guy standing in the corner. I think he's watching me."
"Ms. Everdeen, just listen to me: You're in a public place. Stay visible, don't go to the restroom and don't go out into the street where he can grab you. Just stay in the busy restaurant and you should be okay. I have officers on their way to you and I'll be there as soon as we get off the phone."
Katniss took a deep breath to try to steady her nerves. "Okay, fine. Just get here quick."
"Just hold tight, Sweetheart. We'll be there in a few minutes."
Katniss rankled a bit at the Sweetheart name, but if he got here before that weird guy with the bread made his move then she'd get over it. She had only taken a few steps back toward her seat when she noticed the hulking brute in the front entrance way.
He was looking straight at her.
For just a moment, hope flared within Katniss. "Did Lieutenant Abernathy send you?" she asked the monstrous blond.
In response, he pulled a pistol out of his belt and aimed it straight at her.
This is it, Katniss thought. After all those years of struggling, all those years of starving, this is how I'm going to die.
But just as Katniss was making her peace with death, the boy in the trench coat stepped in front of her. From behind him now, she could see that he had been using the long French loaf to conceal a shotgun barrel. The need for concealment at an end, the man dropped the bread at her feet, raised the shotgun, and fired straight into the brute's chest.
As if the past three seconds hadn't already been the most unbelievable of Katniss's life, the shotgun blast barely staggered the brute. The boy in front of her fired two more shotgun blasts in quick succession while advancing toward the other man; each one having more effect. The other patrons simply huddled against the walls in fright, not daring to get between the two gunmen.
Finally the fourth blast from near point-blank range sent the brute falling backwards through the glass door to the pavement outside. The man in the trench coat didn't hesitate, he turned and ran straight back to where Katniss was frozen by the pay phone. "Katniss!" he almost yelled at her, and somehow the fact that he knew her name didn't even register as unusual. "Katniss, listen to me! You need to come with me if you want to live."
A noise outside attracted both their attention; the brute was getting up off the ground, and he had abandoned his pistol for what appeared to Katniss to be an Uzi submachine gun.
It was seeing this weapon, and knowing the firepower about to be unleashed, that shook Katniss out of her frozen state. She took one unsteady step backwards before the boy took over again, grabbing her by the wrist and pulling her behind him as he ran through the pizzeria's kitchen and out to the alley behind the building. Katniss could hear the sounds of chaos behind them in the parlor: people screaming, furniture crashing, and of course gunfire. But as she struggled to keep up with the trench-coated blond, unable to process all the impossible events that had happened to her in the past three minutes, only one coherent thought went through her head.
The boy with the bread just saved my life.
They were hiding in a parking garage when Katniss finally demanded some answers.
They had fled several blocks to where Bread Boy had a car stashed, being chased by their hulking assailant the whole time. She really should have been more surprised when the brute had punched through their windshield like it wasn't even there, but he had already taken several shotgun blasts to the gut and shaken them off like they were nothing.
There were times during their flight when Katniss wanted to panic, or to just run away, but something about the blond stranger set her at ease. Nothing that had happened made any sense in her mind, but somehow she felt like she could trust the boy with the bread.
They had ditched their car in the garage and were hiding in a new car when Katniss's natural attitude began to reassert itself. "We seem to have a few minutes, you wanna tell me what the hell is going on?"
"Isn't it obvious?" the man answered her. "That CATO is trying to kill you."
"Yeah, I figured that much out on my own, Bread Boy," she scoffed. "So all that's left for you to tell me is, who the hell is he, who the hell are you, why is he after me, why are you helping me, and how the hell is he still alive after all of those point-blank shotgun blasts?"
The man considered her for a moment, then broke out in a wide grin. "Bread Boy?"
"Well, yeah. In the restaurant, you were carrying a loaf of bread. So in my head I called you the boy with the bread."
The grin doesn't leave his face. "You noticed me in the restaurant?"
"Well, yeah. You kept looking at me."
"You're very observant, Katniss Everdeen."
"That's another thing: How do you know my name? I swear, you'd better start answering some questions, or else I'm leaving."
All traces of a smile were gone from his face in an instant, and he reached out and grabbed her by the arm faster than she would have thought him capable of. "No! You can't leave. You're in too much danger. You have to stay with me."
Katniss scowled at him. "Answers, Bread Boy."
"Okay, well, first of all my name's not Bread Boy, it's Mellark. Soldier Peeta Mellark. I was sent to protect you from the CATO."
"Cato? Is that the name of the man trying to kill me?"
"It's not a man, it's a CATO. Computerized Automated Terminator Organism. Snow Industries model one-zero-one. It's an infiltration unit, designed to look human. Inside it's a hyperalloy combat chassis, very tough. But outside it's real living tissue."
"So you're saying it's a robot?"
"Not entirely. The 600 series CATOs had rubber skin, they were easy to spot. But these new 800s, they're tough. Real skin, real hair, real blood. They even have bad breath. I had to wait until he went after you before I knew who he was. We call them mutts: not pure biological and not pure artificial, but a mix of both."
Katniss's nerves, which had been remarkably calm during the life-and-death events of earlier in the night, were starting to get the best of her. "Do you think I'm stupid? Everything you're saying, it's science fiction. They can't make anything like that."
"Not yet. Not for another forty years."
"You're saying I'm being hunted by a cyborg from the future?"
"And I suppose you're from the future too."
"Okay, sure." Katniss decided she had heard about enough of this. She popped up off the floor of the car and went to open her door, but Peeta had grabbed the door handle before she could push it open. She shoved as hard as she could but couldn't budge the door against Peeta's strength. In a moment of panic, she ever resorted to biting Peeta's hand; she could hear his grunt of pain, but his grip on the door didn't let up one bit.
Eventually Peeta was able to control both of her arms and pull her back away from the door. He held her still and looked right at her; once again Katniss was frozen by the intensity of his gaze, but now she saw something in it that she hadn't seen during any of the night's earlier events: fear.
"Please, you have to listen to me. That CATO is after you. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. It doesn't sleep, it doesn't rest, it doesn't even slow down. It has only one goal in its existence: It absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."
She didn't know what it was. Maybe it was the intensity of his gaze. Maybe it was the same thing that made it impossible for her to look away from his impossibly blue eyes. Maybe it was the impression of barely-contained insanity that he gave off. Maybe it was the way that he stared down the invincible CATO calmly but panicked when he thought she might put herself in danger. Whatever it was, something about this stranger made Katniss believe him. For whatever reason, she trusted Peeta Mellark.
"Can you stop it?" she asked unsteadily.
It was only when Katniss relaxed that Peeta finally let her go. "I don't know," he answered as he swept his shaggy blond hair out of his face. "With these weapons… I don't know."
"Well, at least you're honest, if not exactly encouraging."
Peeta fixed her with his intense gaze again. "I'll never lie to you, Katniss." And again, against all semblance of good judgment, Katniss believed him.
They were quiet for several minutes before Katniss spoke up again. "I'm sorry I bit you."
Peeta smiled a bit, and let out a noise that might have been a tiny laugh. "Yeah, can you not do that again? CATOs don't feel pain, but I do."
"Sorry," Katniss repeated.
After another few minutes, Katniss spoke up again. "So why is this CATO from the future after me? What did I do?"
"It's not what you did, it's what you're going to do." Peeta paused as if he's deciding whether or not to continue, then he takes a deep breath, as if he's about to speak for a while. "There was a war, a few years from now. A massive nuclear war. We call it Reaping Day. Took everyone by surprise, nobody knew who started it. Weapons just started firing, and before anyone knew why the other side was responding. Half the human race was wiped out that day." Peeta paused to swipe a hand through his hair again. "Turns out no country initiated that launch. It was all Snow Industries."
"Snow Industries?" Katniss asked in shock. "You mean the defense manufacturer?"
Now it was Peeta's turn to be shocked. "You know Snow Industries?"
Katniss nodded her head. "They make weapons for our military. Tanks, planes, guns. I fire some of their stuff at the gun range."
Peeta grinned at her again. "Katniss Everdeen: Weapons Master. The stories are true."
Katniss juts shrugged. She never had handled compliments very well. "I know my guns." She didn't mention the bigger reason she was so familiar with Snow Industries.
"Well, in a few years Snow goes far beyond guns," Peeta continues with his explanation. "They were going to take the soldiers out of war, and everyone loved that because who likes casualties? They made everything computer controlled: The tanks, the planes, the missile launchers. The ships, the submarines, the robot soldiers. All controlled by the Snow Industries mainframe."
"So what happened?" Katniss asked.
"They got smart. Snow Industries realized that they controlled the army, the navy, the vehicles, the fighting forces. They didn't need the countries anymore. So they decided to get rid of them. All of this-" Peeta began gesturing around them "-all of it, everything, just gone. Where I'm from, there's none of this. Just a ruined world, and a broken people. All controlled by Snow."
Katniss tried to imagine it. In her mind, she saw a bombed-out wasteland, a handful of people like Peeta, clothed in rags, running. They were trying to escape a massive computer-controlled tank, that was mowing them down one by one with some kind of laser bolts, crushing untold numbers of dead bodies under its treads.
Just the image made Katniss shiver. "Did you see the war, Peeta?"
Peeta smiled for just a moment, at what Katniss had no idea. When he spoke his voice was still grim and serious. "No, I grew up after. In the ruins. Snow needed some survivors to keep their factories going. They setup twelve massive prison camps they called Districts, and each district had a different assigned task. I grew up in District Twelve; our job was to mine coal to fuel their factories."
"That's weird," Katniss said. "Here in Panem City, we call our neighborhoods districts. I live in District Twelve too."
Peeta smiled again. "Hello, neighbor."
Katniss shook her head and tried to hide her own smile. How could Peeta be making jokes at a time like this? And how could he be making her smile? "So how did you end up here?" she asked, hoping to change the subject.
"There was occasionally some minor resistance in the districts, but it never amounted to anything. The districts were kept separated, and with their different jobs none of them had all the materials to build a real resistance. That all changed because of one man." Peeta looked directly at her then, and if anything he looked even more insistent than he had before. "One man taught us how to organize ourselves, how to fight back. He helped some of us escape our Districts. We built a hidden city in an abandoned underground military bunker. We called ourselves District Thirteen, and in Thirteen we built ourselves a real rebellion against Snow and their machines."
Peeta paused again, as if the memories were too painful. "It took a lot of years, and a lot of fighting, and we lost a lot of good people. But with John's leadership, we hung together."
Peeta looked back to Katniss. "John Everdeen. He's the father of the resistance, the man who lead the rebellion to free humanity from the control of Snow Industries. The liberator of the human race. John Everdeen, your son."
Katniss felt like she was about to hyperventilate. "I don't have a son."
Peeta placed one hand on her arm, and somehow it calmed her. "You will."
Katniss just shook her head. "No, you don't understand. I'm never having kids. I always swore to myself, I would never subject a child of mine to the horrors of this world." She didn't know why she was opening up to this stranger, why she felt like she could trust Peeta Mellark. But she found herself discussing things with him that she never discussed with anyone but Prim and Gale. "My father died when I was very young." A sudden thought stopped her thoughts. "John Everdeen. My father was John Everdeen."
"Well, at least we know where the name comes from."
"No, you don't understand. My father died when I was eleven. It broke my mother, she was never the same again, she was practically catatonic for a year and then she turned to drugs and alcohol to kill the pain. I had to take care of my sister Prim on my own, I had to use my father's old rifles to hunt in the woods outside town for food, and I had to hide everything from Social Services, otherwise they would have put Prim and I into foster care. They would have separated us, and foster care would have crushed Prim like a bug. The only good thing my mother ever did for us was she waited until just a few weeks before my eighteenth birthday before ODing; I was able to hide it until I was old enough to become Prim's official guardian."
"Wow," Peeta said. "You're remarkable. To have that kind of strength so young. No wonder you were able to teach John how to survive after the war, how to fight back."
"That's what I'm getting at," Katniss said. "I swore to myself I would never do that. I would never love someone, only for their death to kill me like my mother. I would never have children, only to potentially abandon them. I would never, ever do that."
Peeta just shook his head. "I don't know what to tell you, Katniss. At some point, not too many years from now if I've got my dates correct, you have a son, and name him John. You teach him about weapons, you teach him about warfare, you teach him about hunting and living off the land. You teach him how to survive, you teach him how to fight back. And he saves us all."
When Katniss didn't say anything for a minute, Peeta popped his head up and stole a look around. "I haven't seen a siren in a few minutes, I'm gonna try to get out of here."
Peeta smashed the keylock away from the steering column and was able to jumpstart the car. They slowly began making their way towards the garage exit, trying not to draw any attention to themselves.
"Shit! Get down!" Peeta screamed just as Katniss's window exploded, revealing the CATO firing at them from a police car.
It took Katniss almost half an hour to control her sobs after speaking with Police Lieutenant Abernathy. Thankfully they had the decency to leave her alone. Once she had managed to quiet herself and had been silently weeping for a while, they all rejoin her –Abernathy and two other men. They might have been introduced to her earlier, but Katniss couldn't be bothered to try to remember. Not now, not after…
The CATO had chased them all over downtown Panem City before they had managed to evade it. They couldn't evade the real police, however. Katniss had convinced Peeta not to try to shoot his way out, and they had been brought to the station. She had finally met Lieutenant Abernathy in person, and he had told her…
No, she couldn't think about it.
Abernathy, whose speech had only grown more slurred as the night had gone on, handed Katniss a flask. "Here, drink some of this, Sweetheart."
Katniss didn't have the will to resist, she took the flask and drank. Then she had a two-minute coughing fit trying to keep it down.
"Looks like that's enough for you, Sweetheart. Can I have that back now?" Abernathy asked.
"No," Katniss said, wrapping her arms around the flask. Abernathy shrugged, and pulled another out of his desk drawer.
"Lieutenant, are you absolutely sure it's them?" Katniss asked in desperation. "Maybe I should see… just in case…"
"I'm sorry," Abernathy said, shaking his head. "There's no doubt. They've been positively identified."
This just brought on a new round of tears. "Oh Prim…" Katniss moaned. Thankfully she managed not to break down into another sobbing fit, but she felt dead inside. For more than half her life, Prim had been her entire reason for living. And now Prim was gone, killed by- well, she had no idea. Did she really believe that Prim and Rory had been killed by a computer-controlled cyborg from the future? Because she had been told that by a creepy stranger who stalked her in the pizza parlor and tried to hide her from the police? Everything she had believed an hour ago seemed so incredibly stupid now. How could she let her self be so gullible?
"Sweetheart, this is Doctor Aurelius," Abernathy said, gesturing to the older of the two men he came in with. He didn't introduce the other; Katniss assumed he must have done so earlier before he shattered her world. "I'd like you to tell him everything that Mr. Mellark told you. Can you do that for me?"
Katniss took a deep breath, and wiped the tears from her face for the millionth time tonight. "I can try." She turned to Dr. Aurelius. "You're a doctor?"
"Criminal psychologist," he answered smoothly.
"Is Peeta crazy?" Katniss asked.
"That's what I'd like to find out," Aurelius answered.
Katniss sat in an observation room now, along with Lieutenant Abernathy and the other officer, who she eventually learned was named Darius. They were watching through a one-way observation mirror as Aurelius interviewed Peeta.
"So, you're a soldier. Fighting for whom?" Aurelius asked.
Peeta heaved a heavy sigh before answering. He was clearly tired of answering the same questions over and over again. "I fight with District Thirteen. I was tac-com in the 132nd under Commander Paylor from '21 to '27-"
"Just to be clear," Aurelius interrupted, "that's the year 2021 through 2027?"
"Yes, 2021 through 2027," Peeta answered as if he was talking to an idiot. It actually made Katniss smile a bit.
"This is amazing stuff," Darius said quietly. "You don't see whackaloos like this every day."
Through the window, Peeta was continuing. "Since '27 I've been assigned to Panem Brigade, serving directly under John Everdeen."
"And who was the enemy you've been fighting?" Aurelius asked.
"The defense manufacturer?"
"And Snow Industries, your enemy, thinks it can win this war you're in by killing the mother of their enemy? In effect killing him before he is even conceived?"
"Yes," Peeta said, again sounding as if he was explaining to an idiot.
"This is great stuff," Darius said, chuckling to himself. "Aurelius is great with these guys, always cracks me up." Darius's joviality rubbed Katniss the wrong way. He was just mocking Peeta, not trying to figure out if his story could possibly be true. Even if Peeta was crazy, he needed help, not ridicule.
"Shut up," Abernathy grumbled, earning him some credit in her eyes.
In the interrogation room, Peeta was continuing. "They had no choice. We had won. The defense grid was smashed, we'd destroyed their mainframe. None of their computer control was operational anymore. Killing John Everdeen then wouldn't have made a difference. Snow needed to wipe out his entire life, to prevent the rebellion from ever happening. We captured their lab, found their… whatever you want to call it."
"Their time machine?" Aurelius offered, earning another chuckle from Darius.
"You can call it that, whatever. We had their notes, we had their readouts. The CATO had already gone through. We sent two of us through to try to stop the CATO, then they blew the whole lab. I don't know what happened to Mitchell, I haven't seen him since I came through."
"If they blew the lab on the other end, how do you go home?" Aurelius asked.
"I don't," Peeta said, his voice deadly serious. "Nobody goes back. Nobody else comes through. It's just the CATO, and me. And Katniss."
Later, they all convened in Abernathy's office, and watched the video back.
"Why didn't you bring anything with you? Some more advanced weapons? Don't you have ray guns in the future?" Aurelius asked on the video. He's answered with only a glare.
Darius laughed again and nudged Aurelius. Aurelius smiled and nodded in acknowledgement.
"It doesn't work like that," Peeta answers tightly. "Something about how the time displacement field interacts with the magnetic field created by a living organism- I don't know, I don't understand the tech stuff. I'm not a physicist, all I know is what they told us. Nothing dead will go though. Not even clothes – I came though naked."
"But this robot, if it's metal-"
"It's not a robot, it's a mutt," Peeta said angrily. "Its endoskeleton is surrounded by living tissue."
"Of course," Aurelius said calmly.
At this point the real Aurelius paused the video playback. "This stuff is great, I could make a career out of this guy!" he said excitedly. His attitude turned Katniss off just like Darius's had. He clearly didn't believe Peeta, but also didn't seem interested in helping him. "You see how clever this part is?" Aurelius continued. "It doesn't require any proof. In fact, the story explains why any proof would be impossible. Most paranoid delusions are intricate, but this is brilliant." With that, he started the tape again.
"Why were the other two women killed?" Aurelius on tape asks Peeta.
"The CATO was just being systematic," Peeta answered. "A lot of records were lost in the war. Snow didn't know much about John's mother. Just her name and the city where she lived. It was easier for the CATO to kill them all than figure out which is the right one, I guess."
Peeta heaved a heavy sigh. "Listen, we've been trapped here for hours. I think you've heard enough. I've answered all of your questions, now I need to see Katniss Everdeen."
"I'm afraid that's not up to me," Aurelius said.
"Then why am I wasting my time talking to you?" Peeta asked with rising anger. "Who is in authority here?"
"I can help you-" Aurelius began
"No, you can't," Peeta cut him off. "You don't understand. You still don't understand." Now Peeta looked straight into the camera. "He'll find her. That's what he does, that's all he does." Peeta was growing more and more agitated, his face twisting in anger. Abernathy motioned for Aurelius to cut off the playback, but Aurelius made no move to do so. "You can't stop him, he'll wade through your men like a fish in the sea. He'll kill all of you, then he'll kill her!"
"Doc!" Abernathy said at last.
Finally Aurelius stopped the playback, the video freezing on Peeta's face contorted in fury. "Sorry," muttered Aurelius in response to the look Abernathy gave him.
"So you think Peeta's crazy?" Katniss asked.
"In technical terms," Aurelius said, "he's a loon."
"But what about everything this CATO did?" Katniss asked.
Abernathy handed her some body armor. "Sweetheart, this is the armor our SWAT teams wear. It'll stop a 12-gague round. The guy you saw must have been wearing some under his coat.
It made sense. It certainly made more sense than a cyborg from the future. Katniss wanted to believe Abernathy. But somehow, in the pit of her stomach, she didn't. "What about when he punched through the windshield?"
Officer Darius shrugged at her. "Probably high. Say he's on TJV, he could've broken every bone in his hand and not feel it for hours."
Katniss knew what TJV was. Tracker Jacker Venom. It was a hot drug on the street, and a powerful hallucinogenic. Her mother had used it from time to time when she could afford it. "So you're saying that guy put on high-tech body armor, got himself an arsenal, and then came after me, because of a TJV hallucination?"
"Might explain Mellark too," Darius offered. "There's this one gang that operates out of downtown, called the Careers. If they need to get rid of someone, they don't kill them, they pump them so full of tracker jacker venom that they don't know which way is up anymore. You're never quite right in the head after that much TJV."
"So you're saying… Peeta is with the Careers?" Katniss asked.
"It looks that way," Abernathy said. "We've seen other victims with nonsensical stories before."
"This guy's different," Aurelius said. "He must have had some previous mental deficiency to come up with all of this, and he must have been a freaking genius to make it so detailed and intricate."
"So there's no chance that he was telling the truth?" Katniss asked, already aware of what the answer would be but somehow not ready to accept it.
Aurelius gave her a pitying look. "Chance that there's actually a robot from the future out to kill you so that your future son can't fight back against a minor weapons manufacturer? No, no chance."
Abernathy gestured toward the second door in his office. "There's a couch in the next room, why don't you lie down and try to sleep for a bit, Sweetheart?"
"I don't think I could sleep," Katniss said. "Not after everything…"
"Go ahead," Abernathy said. "You're safe here. There's thirty cops in this building. Try to get some rest."
Katniss found herself nodding her head. "Okay. I'll try. Thanks, Lieutenant Abernathy."
Once everyone left, before she drifted off, Katniss could just make out the conversation out in the hall.
"Come on, Haymitch. The guy's a whacko."
"He'd better be."
Katniss was startled awake by a loud crash. No, no, he's crazy, they said so, she thought frantically. Then she heard the sounds of gunfire and her stomach sank. She knew what was happening.
She never should have believed those smug jerks Darius and Aurelius. She should have believed her boy with the bread.
She listened carefully with her hunter's senses. The gunfire was coming closer. She frantically searched the room for a weapon of some kind when the door burst open. Thankfully, it was just Lieutenant Abernathy. "Stay here!" he said quickly before leaving again, locking the door behind him. As if a locked door would stop the CATO.
Katniss was still looking for a weapon when the florescent fixture in the ceiling exploded, and the room was plunged into darkness. After a moment emergency lights came on, casting an eerie red pallor over everything.
I can't stay here, Katniss thought. She was just about to try the door when she heard someone trying the knob. She froze in place, knowing there was nothing in the office that could protect her form the CATO. As gunshots shattered the lock, Katniss stood her ground, ready to face death on her own terms.
Finally the door burst open, and Katniss took in the figure standing behind it. "Peeta!" she exclaimed. She was so happy to see him she ran up and hugged him.
Peeta just grinned at her. "We'll have plenty of time for that later, we gotta get out of here."
The police station is a mess of shattered walls, smoke from the heavy gunfire, and of course bodies. Abernathy had said there were thirty officers in the building, and Katniss couldn't imagine that many of them were still alive.
She and Peeta slowly made their way through he station, trying to stay quiet and stay out of sight. They managed pretty well, until they came across Lieutenant Abernathy. He was sitting on the floor at the end of one hallway, propped up against the wall, a grisly wound covering his abdomen. Katniss knew there was nothing they could do about a wound like that.
Without preamble, Abernathy held out his sidearm. Katniss, being the unarmed of the duo, took it. "I wanted you to be crazy," Abernathy said. "I hoped you were crazy. But something told me I should have believed you." Abernathy shook his head, as if trying to clear it. "I unloaded an entire clip into that thing, and it didn't even faze him." Finally Abernathy looked up at them. All three of them knew this was the last thing he would ever say to someone. "It's up to you two now. Run. Hide. Do what you have to do. Stay alive."
They drove until their stolen car ran out of gas, pushed it off the road, then walked another few miles to get away from it, before they stopped to rest at a spot where the road ran over a storm drain. After all of that, it wasn't until they huddled together under the same blanket for warmth that she realized that he was bleeding from a wound in his upper thigh.
Peeta tried to shake it off like it was nothing. "Yeah, I caught one back there."
"Caught one? You mean you got shot?"
"It's not bad," Peeta said with a shrug.
"You got shot! Of course it's bad! We have to get you to a doctor!"
"No!" Peeta said vehemently. "If we go to a doctor we'll be right back where we were, in custody, sitting ducks for the CATO. No, we have to keep moving, keep off the grid."
"At least let me look at it," Katniss said. "My mother was a nurse, and my-" she suddenly found herself unable to speak at the thought of Prim. Prim would never finish medical school now. With fleeing for her life and all, she had actually managed to forget about her for a few hours.
Peeta immediately saw the change in her demeanor. "Katniss? Katniss, are you okay?" He started to panic when she didn't respond. "Katniss, talk to me. Are you okay? Are you hurt? Are you shot?" He started examining her, looking for wounds, but after a moment she took his hands to still them.
"No, Peeta…" She struggled to speak through the tears. "They told me, at the station, the CATO, it went to my apartment, it, it, killed my sister-" At that point her nerve to speak ran out, and Katniss broke down in sobs once again. Peeta, not knowing what else to do, pulled her into a hug and held her, stroking her head and rubbing her back and whispering into her ear trying to sooth her. To Katniss's complete and utter shock, she actually found herself calming. Something about Peeta's touch calmed her. Something about Peeta's touch made her feel safe.
"Prim and her boyfriend, they were at my apartment, and I guess the CATO went there looking for me. Oh god, I got Prim killed!"
"No," Peeta said emphatically. "You can't think that way. None of this is your fault, Katniss. This is all because of Snow, this is all their doing. And I swear to you, they'll pay. Not for a while, it'll be a long hard road, but we make them pay."
After a few minutes, Katniss remembered why she had thought of Prim in the first place. She wiped the tears from her face and did her best to compose herself. "Let me look at your leg," she told Peeta, who reluctantly agreed after trying again to pass the wound off as nothing.
It quickly became apparent that Katniss wasn't going to be able to see much like this, and she flushed with embarrassment. "Um, Peeta…"
"Um, you're going to have to, um…"
"What is it?"
Katniss sucked in a breath and spoke quickly. "You're gonna have to take off your pants."
Peeta gave her an amused look, so she explained. "I can't get at the wound when you're wearing those. You have to take off your pants."
"Okay," Peeta said with a smile in his voice. He hitched himself up and slid the garment off easily, and it was then that Katniss realized he wasn't wearing underwear. She blushed even harder and quickly turned away.
"Peeta! You're naked!"
"You're the one who told me to take off my pants."
"I thought you'd be wearing underwear!"
"I traveled through time and landed stark naked in the middle of the city. Completing my ensemble wasn't exactly high on my priority list."
After another moment, Peeta said, "I don't care if you see me, Katniss."
"I care, all right? Cover yourself with something."
Peeta bunched up his pants and placed them in front of his privates. "There, better?" he asked.
Katniss reluctantly looked back. "Better," she allowed.
Finally able to get a good look at the gunshot wound, Peeta was right, it wasn't bad. She wasn't about to tell him he was right, though. Luckily they had pulled a first aid kit from the car before they abandoned it, so she set to work cleaning and dressing the wound.
As usual, Katniss paled at the sight of blood. She was not her mother or her… she did not have the healer's instinct. But she had some knowledge.
"You don't look too well," Peeta said teasingly.
"Ugh," she said. "I hate blood. This is gonna make me puke."
"Didn't you say you're a hunter? You're kind of squeamish for such a lethal person."
"Animal blood I don't mind. People blood I can't take. Eugh! Can you talk to me about something?"
"Anything. Just talk." Katniss tried to come up with a topic. "Tell me about this son I'm supposedly going to have. Is he tall?"
"About my height," Peeta says. "He has blond hair like mine, too. Sometimes from a distance, people mistake us for family. But he has your eyes."
"What's he like?" Katniss asked.
Peeta stops to think for a moment. "You trust him. He's got that strength, when he talks you just trust him, you want to follow him. He makes you believe in him. He can sway thousands with his words, that's how the rebellion happens. People are willing to die for John Everdeen."
Katniss couldn't help but think of Peeta and how easily she trusted him. Lieutenant Abernathy had had the same instinct. Peeta had blond hair, too…
"Well, at least I know what to call him. I don't suppose you know who the father is, so I don't tell him to get lost when I meet him?"
"John never really talks about his father. He died before the war-"
Katniss cuts him off. "Stop, I don't want to know. I've lost too much of my family to start mourning people I haven't even met yet." She begins wrapping Peeta's leg with gauze from the kit. "So was it John that ordered you here?"
"No, I volunteered," Peeta said.
"You volunteered? Knowing you could never go home?"
"It was an honor," Peeta said. "A chance to meet the legend. Katniss Everdeen. Who knew weapons, survival, organization, how to fight, how to stay hidden. Who prepared John to lead the rebellion from when he was a kid, even when you were in hiding before the war."
Katniss just shook her head. "You're talking about things I haven't done yet in the past tense. It's giving me a headache."
Peeta gave her a sheepish grin. "Sorry."
"Are you even sure you have the right person?"
""I'm sure," Peeta said, and that strange intensity that he added to certain statements was back.
"Katniss found she couldn't look at him. "What if I don't want to be?" she asked in a small voice.
Peeta brought a hand up to her chin, and turned her head to face him once again. His touch was surprisingly gentle for such an intense, hardened soldier, and Katniss found that she missed it once he dropped his hand. "Katniss, I don't know how this stuff works. I don't know if the future is written or if it can be changed. But if the future is changed, if John Everdeen isn't born, then all of this, all of this, was for nothing. Because there may as well not be a human race anymore, all there'll be is Snow and its machines. And its slaves."
Katniss didn't have anything to say in response to that, so she didn't say anything. After a moment, Peeta tried to fill the uncomfortable silence. "This is a solid field dressing."
Katniss managed an unsteady laugh. "You like it? It's my first."
Peeta had insisted on a motel room with a kitchen, and then immediately went out to get supplies. So now, the two of them sat at the tiny table in their room, assembling pipe bombs.
"Make sure there's none on the threads, like this. Now screw the end-cap on. Very gently."
Katniss huffed at him. "Believe it or not, this isn't my first pipe bomb."
Peeta just grinned at her again. "That doesn't surprise me in the least."
Katniss had to fight her body's reaction to Peeta's smile. Ever since the other night, when they slept huddled together hidden in the underpass, Katniss had been having the strangest feelings around Peeta. His smiles, his laugh, his occasional touches, had begun lighting a fire within her. She wasn't an idiot, she knew what she was feeling. But she had always promised that she would never let herself feel this way about someone. And certainly not about a stranger from the future.
As they're packing away their newly-constructed bombs and getting ready to sleep for the night, Katniss's desires began to get the best of her self control. "So, Peeta, you seem to know everything about me but I don't know anything about you. Tell me about yourself."
Peeta shrugged his shoulders. "There's not much to tell. What do you want to know?"
"You said District 12 mined coal. Did you work in a coal mine?"
"No. Each district had a small number of service workers to cater to the Peacekeepers, and the occasional visiting Snow Industries official. I worked in the kitchens."
"You were a cook?"
Peeta nodded at her. "My specialty was baking. All the Snow officials loved my decorative cakes and cookies."
"Wow," Katniss said around a laugh. At Peeta's raised eyebrow, she explained. "Around here, cooking and baking are generally regarded as women's work. Not the work of a big tough soldier."
Peeta raised both eyebrows now. "Your women and your men do different work?"
"Less and less these days, but it used to be that certain work was very closely associated with gender roles."
"So does that mean that you can cook and bake?" Peeta asked playfully.
"Good god no! I can barely order take-out."
"And what about hunting and guns and guerilla warfare? Would that be men's or women's work?"
"So between the two of us, you can do the men's work and I can do the women's work." Peeta grinned at her again. "I'd say we make a good team."
Katniss couldn't help but grin back. "Yeah, we're matched up well."
They both seemed to sense at the same time that they were drifting into dangerous territory. Just as the silence was starting to become uncomfortable, Katniss asked, "What are the women like where you come from?"
"Same as the men," Peeta said. "Good fighters."
"Was there someone special?"
Peeta gave her a confused look. "Special?"
"You know, a girl. Did you have a girl back home."
Peeta's eyes widened in understanding. He looked almost embarrassed, but nowhere near as embarrassed as Katniss felt asking the question. "No. No one special."
"Oh, come on. Handsome guy like you. There must have been someone."
"No," Peeta reiterated. "Never."
Now it was Katniss's turn to be surprised. "Never?"
Peeta shook his head. "No."
"Oh, Peeta…" Katniss felt her heart break a bit, considering everything Peeta had gone through in his life. "All that pain, all that struggle, and never a love to help shoulder the burden?"
"Well, what about you?" Peeta countered. "You just told me the other night that you were never going to fall in love. You've been through plenty of pain and struggle in your life, you've never sought out love."
"No, I haven't," Katniss acknowledged. And then, in a move that required more courage from her than facing down the CATO, she added, "Not until now."
Peeta stared at her with his jaw hanging open. Katniss tried not to shrink under his gaze and waited impatiently for him to respond. She had never put herself out there like that before, and she had no idea what she would do if Peeta rejected her. She had no idea what she'd do if he didn't, either.
Finally, Peeta asked her, "Did I ever tell you about the first time I ever met John Everdeen?"
Peeta seemed to be trying to change the subject, and Katniss didn't have the will to do anything but let him. "I was eleven years old. I was working in the kitchens of the Peacekeeper barracks, and I was throwing out some extra food one night – Peacekeepers always threw out their extras rather than let anyone else have it. I was out back with this sack of day-old bread and pastries, and I came across a man trying to break the lock on the trash bin. It was pouring rain, he was soaked, and he was so thin, even thinner than the miners who were kept on starvation rations. He looked almost feral. The rebellion was in its early stages back then, but I still recognized him. I offered him the sack, told him they were only a day old. He was very wary of me, but he took the food."
"The boy with the bread," Katniss said with a weak smile. "I told you it was a good name for you."
Peeta smiled back. "Well, as he was leaving I called after him, told him I wanted to join the rebellion. He just smiled at me, like you do when you're indulging a little kid. He asked me what my name was and how old I was, and I told him. He got this look on his face, like he was seeing a ghost. He told me I was too young, that I should come find him in five years. And then he gave me a picture of you."
"He gave you a picture of me when you were eleven?" Katniss asked, trying to wrap her head around the temporal mechanics of the situation.
Peeta just nodded. "It was old, faded a bit, torn a bit. You were young, like you are now. You had this sad little smile on your face, like you were thinking of something happy but still laced with pain. I always wondered what you were thinking of in that moment."
"Always?" Katniss echoed. "That picture lasted a while then?"
"Katniss, I carried that photo with me everywhere I went for the next thirteen years. I memorized every line, every curve. The set of your jaw, the wave of your hair. John never told me why he gave me that picture and I never asked, but I always kept that picture with me. I looked at it every day. It gave me the strength to carry on. When people were dying all around me, I looked at that picture and I counted down the days until I could join the rebellion. I ran away from District 12 on my sixteenth birthday, and when I was shivering and starving in the woods, on my own for the first time in my life with only a vague idea of where I was heading, I looked at that picture and drew strength. When the training was too hard, I looked at that picture and drew strength. I kept that picture with me every day of my life, until I handed it back to John right before I went through the time portal. It was the only time since he gave it to me that either of us spoke of it. I knew I had to go through naked, so I took out the picture and gave it back to him and said, 'Guess I can't carry this with me anymore.' He looked astonished for a moment, then he hugged me, and he told me, 'Always remember Peeta, there's no fate but what we make for ourselves.'"
Katniss was speechless for a long moment. "You got all of this from a picture?"
Peeta looked straight into her eyes now, with his impossibly blue eyes and his startlingly intense gaze. Katniss couldn't have looked away now even if she had wanted to. "Katniss, I would die for John Everdeen, but I didn't come through time for John. I came through time for you. I love you, I think I have ever since I first saw your picture. I came here for you."
Suddenly the distance between them was intolerable. Katniss pulled them together, and leaned up and pressed her lips to his. He didn't react at all for a moment, he was shaking as if he was fighting a war with himself. But when she allowed her tongue to graze his bottom lip, the war was lost. He returned her kiss, and her embrace, passionately, forcefully. It was as if a dam broke within each of them, neither of them could get enough of each other. Clothes were shed, inhibitions were shed, They pressed up against the wall and slid slowly to the floor, and neither of them for one second considered separating long enough to get up and move to the bed. When he finally pushed himself into her, the moment was so overwhelming that he needed to stop and adjust for a minute just as much as she did. It was beautiful; it was exquisite; it was their one moment of utter bliss in a world grown cold and threatening.
And after, as they laid tangled up in each other on the cheap motel carpet, their sweat-slicked bodies cooling rapidly in the night air, it felt like hours before they regained the power of speech. And when they did, their conversation was limited.
"I know, me too. But let's move to the bed first."
Later, they laid together in bed, neither of them wanting to sleep and lose time they could spend together. They luxuriated in the presence of the other, the feel of them pressed together. Their hands were never still: They played with each other's hair; they felt each other's bodies; they memorized every tiny detail of each other's faces.
"I'm so glad you're here with me," Katniss said.
"So am I," Peeta replied. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
"I don't want you anywhere else," Katniss said. "Not ever."
"Not ever?" Peeta asked.
"No," Katniss said. "Just stay with me."
"Always," Peeta replied, and kissed her again.
Written for Day Two of Prompts in Panem's AU week. I may do a Chapter Two on this at some point, I have some ideas of how to finish the story that I couldn't do in time for PiP.