A/N: Yes! Finally getting back into writing (I've been on a block lately) and I'm glad I got this update all done today. Maybe we'll see more on other stories. I've been working on another Mute chapter and.. I know The Expecting Mockingjay hasn't been touched in years, but I promise it's not abandoned, it'll be finished! Thank you for reading, thank you so much for reviews. Enjoy.


Chapter Eight

She can't move, let alone breathe.

How? she thinks. How has this happened?

Katniss is frozen, horror-struck. Gale, however, rushes forward to scoop Prim up in his arms. Blond hair falls lank over his arm and Katniss is finally stirred by the sight of the sunlight dancing over it. She takes Prim's face into hand and searches. For what, she's not sure. She certainly finds pain, and that ridiculous apology again. Prim tries to speak, but sputters, coughs, and Katniss' face scrunches underneath the spray of blood.

Hazel hauls Gale toward the house and Katniss trails uselessly behind, heart racing, begging her to run and panic and throw things and help, but she can't. She rubs the blood from her cheeks. Posy is sobbing, and a ghost of an energetic boy named Rory is supporting her. Vick is no where to be seen.

Gale lays Prim on the table. He turns as soon as Mrs. Everdeen swoops in and before Katniss can reach her sister, Gale takes her by the shoulders and corals her back outside. "No, I have to.. I have to.." she tries to object, but even the anger seems futile.

"You don't have to see, Katniss."

But I do! she wants to shout. Instead she feels the urge to punch something, to pull her hair out. A scream from the house ignites Katniss' blood and the anger isn't so useless, because she feels as though she could burn anything, something. The train whistle sounds again in the distance.

Gale tries to distract her, to calm her before he lets her go become even more anguished. "I wonder why they're back. To help?" Katniss doesn't care. She moves to enter the house again and Gale bars her way. "Do you think they have supplies?"

"No." The answer is harsh. Even he isn't that optimistic. "Everyone knows exactly why they came, they just don't want to say it." The subject already has her agitated and the sound of Posy's own scream seems to disturb Gale.

Still, he persists on the subject, pushing her shoulders back. His eyes flicker over his shoulder. "What?"

"Don't pretend the thought hasn't occurred to you."

"It hasn't," Gale says, and seems earnest. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Gale," Katniss says, sharply. He focuses back on her, blinking. "What time of year is it?"

At first he's lost, then a light goes off... and his entire face darkens. "The Games."

This distraction gives her enough time to shove him to the side and rush passed. Inside, blood has taken over the scents in the air. Hazel, too, tries to hold Katniss back, but she won't be stopped. She may not understand how this has happened or why she couldn't have noticed the symptoms, but damn the odds before they hold her back from her sister's death bed.

Mrs. Everdeen works coolly on her youngest daughter. Except Katniss doesn't think she's imagining the tremor in her hands as she packs Prim's profusely bleeding nose with cloth. Two hands are wrapped tight around her throat and Katniss tries to pull away, but her sister fights back. "Burns," she gasps, rubbing her neck. "Not – not like.." she breaks into a cough and never finishes the statement.

Katniss sits at the table. Holds tight with one hand on Prim's arm and the other running through her hair. The nose bleeds for an hour, and afterward, Prim is still breathing irregularly, weak. Katniss thinks intently of the shots. Had Madge been tricked? Were they faulty? Time limited?

"How long have you been feeling sick?" their mother asks.

Prim turns her head to look at the ceiling. "Just last night. I felt.. a tickle in my throat. Then this morning, I woke and it was burning and I.. my stomach jumped, the blood just came.. I didn't.."

"Hush," Katniss murmurs, petting her brow. She's burning up. Distressed, she looks to her mother, but the woman is staring somewhere beyond the two girls.

"I thought.. the shots.." Prim tries to say.

"Hush." Katniss' throat zips tight. I thought, too. "You'll be fine.

Will she be?

She doesn't know and she sits there for hours, thinking. Her mother comes by to scrub the blood completely from her face and question if she ingested any of it. Katniss can't answer that with any certainty (nor does she opt to mention the shot she never actually took). Next goes her boots and socks, Hazel dosing them in bleach. The table is cleaned around Prim and the cloths on her nose changed. Gale departs with Rory in tow, hoping to find some news about what's happening in Town.

They're gone for hours. Dark comes and Hazel gets worried as she puts Vick and Posy to bed with kisses on their crown and questions about their throat. Mrs. Everdeen sits in a chair, folding clothes and setting them aside, checking on Prim's temperature ever so often. Prim herself is a bit out of it, weary eyed and foggy, if not completely asleep.

Katniss hears Rory crashing through the yard even before he hits the house. "Hide her!" he shouts. "They'll take her if they find her. She's sick and.." But Katniss is already standing and puling Prim into her chest with an arm underneath the knees and around the shoulders.

"Where?" she demands.

"Anywhere," Rory says, breathless. "Gale is stalling them, but they'll get here any minute. Go and don't come back until–"

Katniss is already gone. She doesn't know who they are, or where to go, but she goes out the back door and rushes through the moonlit grass behind the nearest house. She slinks around lights and distantly she hears commotion in the Seam. Yelled objections echo out. A "No, no! Please!" somewhere here and there. Orderly marching steps ring deathly in her ears, probing her further.

Prim is heavy, though. Sweat gathers on her brow and lower back, but the night is still a little cold for spring and she tries to ignore the pins and needles spreading up her arms and into her shoulders. Prim lulls her head at one point, and coughs. Caw, caw, cawing. "Shh, hush, Prim. They'll hear you.." and nothing is more obviously the fleeing sick if they can't stop coughing.

However, she can't. The coughs rack violet through her and her chest heaves against Katniss'. Prim tries though, to hold them back, to press her hands tight to her face and control the noise. In the end, the infection wins, and her lungs don't want the lungs to fill – blood is soon pooling between them, splattered up Katniss' throat. Her heart begins pounding in fear and adrenaline when the nose bleed starts up again in steady stream.

How much blood can she lose in her tiny body before she's dead?

She's not sure where to hide. She can't go back to their home, because from the shadows she sees the Peacekeepers – newly arrived, severe looking Peacekeepers – barging into every door they come across. Her guess is that they already swept through Town. The forest seems the best option, but that plan is ravished when she hears the buzz coming off the fence.

Lost, arms numb and shaking slightly, Katniss flees not toward Town or the Seam.

She comes across the Victor's Village.

Silence and calm gathers there, so empty. It's eerie with the commotion in the distance. There's a bench on the side of the road Katniss doesn't hesitate to slumps onto. Carefully, she brushes sweat damp hair from Prim's face. It's awkward, cradling her in her lap and against her blood soaked chest. But worth it. Not worth having any lost moment – except that doesn't matter because Prim is almost too vague to keep her eyes open.

Stories come to mind, something nice to tell her, to spare her reality for a few seconds, but Katniss can't find her voice or her breath. Her hands shake as she wipes the worst of the blood off her sister's face.

They sit for what seems hours. Eventually her back and upper legs go cold and unfeeling and she shifts to lay Prim across the bench and she unfurls on the ground beside it. Prim sleeps, but Katniss sits wide awake, watching the moon, the empty, unlit houses around them – so perfectly untouched and made – and the Town as well.

She wonders what her family is doing, what lie they said. If they even had to lie.

She worries about them, about Prim.

"What do I do?" she whispers to herself. "How can I help?"

More importantly, What is this?

After another half hour, the night not near close enough to over, Prim wakes, begging for water. When Katniss says, "Soon, soon," Prim doesn't seem to listen and begins screaming, frantic for a drink. It comes to the point where Katniss has to wrestle her hands from her throat, and still, there are bloody nail streaks marring her once untouched skin.

"Please, please." She is sobbing, thrashing feebly. "It burns, Katniss. It burns."

"Okay." The sight is too much. Seeing Prim in this state is tearing at Katniss' heart and mind in horrific ways, damaging who knows what, and she can't deny her anything. She scoops Prim up, and looks about. There's only one house with an occupant – no doubt with the door unlocked.

He won't miss a glass of water, Katniss thinks.

As she nears the house, she sets Prim to the side of the front steps, pressing a finger to her lips and promising to come back with water. This settles her sister and Katniss approaches the door cautiously.

There are no lights on inside or outside and peering into the window reveals one of the most horrendous messes she's ever seen. The stink gathers in her nose the moment she twists the knob and just barely cracks it open. She waits, listens, holds her breath. There is no sound. Only reek.

Carefully, and as silent as she can manage (which is impossible, since she can't see the floor, let alone touch it) Katniss moves through the front room. She assumes the victor is passed out upstairs or in the living. Haymitch is a famous drunkard – but she remembers the train supply taking that and wonders if he's in some painful withdrawal. Or infected and dead.

In the kitchen she finds an old, intact empty bottle of liquor on the floor. It works. She rises it out and then fills it in the sink, the water on just a dribble, agonizingly slow and every stray drop a hurricane of noise. Afterward she moves to go back out the front door, but sees an open window in the room across the kitchen and decides it will be easy to drop from there.

As she's creeping through the room, Prim screams outside.

There's a grunt, a straggled sound, and a flash of movement across the room and Katniss breaks into a run. But not before a flare of pain catches her forehead and spills red into her vision. She knows she reaches the window when her knees slam into the frame. Hefting herself up without thought, behind her back Haymitch shouts, "Sneaking up on a man while he's– you're lucky I missed!"

She's lucky that old useless man can't aim.

Outside she hits the ground wrong and a pain tears up from her heel to her backside and she stumbles onto her knees momentarily, before reminding herself that Prim is waiting. She hobbles her way around front, swiping to keep her vision clear.

Knowing she has to go, now, she hands the bottle to Prim and stoops to pick her up. The going is slow and painful, worse than before. The water is gone only minutes later, Prim scarcely satisfied. "Whe–" she tries to speak, hoarse and sad. "Where – ?"

"Where are we going?" Katniss murmurs. Prim nods. "I'm not sure."

She wants so bad to wipe the blood off her face, that slowly beads down her nose and cheek, around the eye, but her hands are full. How? she keeps asking herself. How did this happen? How did this come here? To this? There's some dread in her stomach bubbling, telling her that she has forgotten to take precaution with Prim – the infection can spread through blood. But the worry is minimal in comparison to all the others.

Again, she reviews her refuge spots. The forest is a no. The Seam is still full of lights and shouting. Madge's house is nothing but ash and charred support beams. Where in Town could she hide? Somewhere no one would give them away. Who wouldn't turn Prim out because she is sick.

Who wouldn't turn Katniss out.

She finds herself at the bakery's back door for the second time in her life not for trading, but in need.

Last time she hadn't asked. Was insulted when she received the miracle, the hope. So when she knocks – softly, and only twice, unable to put Prim down – she is reluctant, scowling, unwilling to admit even in her obvious state of desperation that she needs help. It's to the point she's going to tell herself it's not worth it – when the door cracks open.

"Who is it?" It's not Peeta, but his older brother. "What do you need?"

Katniss opens her mouth to speak, but there is something so grim about him.

"You're looking for Peeta."

She nods, silent. Prim twists in her arms, covers her mouth and tries to quiet the cough, but the infection is clear already. The Mellark isn't stupid. He turns and calls out for someone. Peeta's father steps to the door, takes one glance, and without a word pulls the door open, ushers them in and shuts it at their back. Several locks are bolted into place.

"Upstairs," the brother says.

Slowly, Katniss climbs the steps. She's never been upstairs, or any further than a step or two inside the kitchen. Both men hover behind her back, not asking questions, and though that is reliving, Katniss feels ill at ease. Where's Peeta? she starts to ask, but stops when she sees the shape laying across a couch in the living room at the top of the steps.

"The other couch," Mr. Mellark suggests and Katniss sighs when the weight of Prim is out of her hands. "I'll get something to clean that." He gestures to the knife wound on Katniss' forehead and she nods, mumbles a thank you.

After checking Peeta's forehead, the brother lays out a few gauze and a shirt, then departs in a detached, wondering sort of way. They have to be for Katniss, because aside the cold sweat soaking through his clothes, Peeta has no other signs of bodily fluids that are in need of mopping. She uses all of them cleaning up Prim's face and stopping the nose bleed. So absorbed in the work, crouched over her sister, she doesn't notice when Mr. Mellark steps back in the room, placing a towel, rubbing alcohol, and a bowl of water on the coffee table. Not until he speaks; "Feel free to anything you can find, call us if there's anything you can't. It's better the lights stay off, only use the lamp, or we'll have trouble with the Peacekeepers.." a pause, and she looks up at him through sweaty, bloody flyaways. "I hope she gets better."

"Me too."

The man leaves her to the silent, dim living room that smells of stale flowers and butterscotch pudding.

Once she's all patched up to the best of Katniss' ability and has a new shirt, Prim falls asleep rolled in a blanket found on the arm of the chair. For awhile Katniss just sits there with her, closing her eyes, glad to rest.

It's in the early hours of the morning when she sets herself down beside the bowl of water and uses the towel to blot at her face and neck and chest. Her shirt is ruined and since there was only one shirt set out she goes down the hall in hopes of finding a closet or dresser. Mr. Mellark had said feel free. She finds a room, clearly male, and rummages in the drawers, but the shirts are too big. They must have been Rye's. The oldest brother had always been noticeably heftier.

The next room is locked. And the one after that a bathroom.

On the third she finds a smaller one, with two beds. One occupied. He sits up. "Something the matter?" the brother asks sleepily. "Is Peeta.."

"He's fine," she whispers. "I just need.. another shirt."

"Oh." He lays back down, rolls over. "The dresser closest to the door. That's Peeta's."

The idea of wearing his clothes is unnerving for more than one reason, but Katniss shakes herself. It's silly. To care about that stuff. It's just a shirt, fabric. She picks up the first one and marches down the hall. In the living room she pulls off her top without pausing and picks up the towel to mop up the blood – when a figure catches her attention.

"I must be sicker than I thought," Peeta says, and Katniss flinches, clutches the towel to her chest. Heat jumps in her face, unbearable, and she has to wait until her eyes adjust to the lightening to make out Peeta sitting against the arm of the couch, a glass of water in his hand, eyes somehow dull in the way Prim has been lately. It twists her heart – to see first her heartfelt, delighted Prim so vague, but then the eternal optimist Peeta to also be so lost.

Peeta squints at my face, his forehead scrunches in concern. "You're hurt."

And shirtless, but he doesn't seem to notice or care. "I –"

"Why would I dream that?" he asks, not to her, but himself, she realizes. He thinks he's dreaming. He sighs. "Can't even be good in.. and of course.."

"Peeta," Katniss says, voice hoarse.

"Is that my shirt? I hate that shirt.. that's weird.."

"Peeta."

Startled by the intensity, his eyes fly to hers. "Love?"

The name kick-starts her heart, but she ignores it. "You're not dreaming. You have a fever." Her eyes stray to Prim and Peeta turns and when he sees her, tiny body twisted around the blanket, lips stained with blood Katniss couldn't rub away – suddenly he is looking up, away.

"I'm sorry.. I.." He doesn't seem to know how to excuse anything. "I thought you weren't coming back."

Hundreds of things come to mind, to say. Each one more true than the last. The train, the Peacekeepers, Rory, Haymitch.. but all she says is, "I had no where else to go." She won't apologize, won't thank him, but she can stand there, until he nods.

Picking up the rubbing alcohol, still holding shirt and towel, Katniss leaves and goes to the bathroom she saw before. Carefully, silently, she goes about cleaning herself using the sink and towel, then hissing when she sanitizes the cut on her forehead. It's not too terrible, but if that old victor had been any more accurate she would have need stitches.. or a new eye. Blind luck, she decides as she balls the filthy towel up and returns to the living room.

This time Peeta is entirely moved. He sits beside Prim, who he is supporting up and aiding in drinking from a glass of water. She gulps greedily, and when that one is empty he already has another for her to down.

Katniss silently picks up the empty glass and goes to the kitchen to fill it. On her return Peeta smiles at her and takes it, helping with that one too. And it bugs her, because she has an urge to push him aside and take his spot – instead, she sits on the edge of the couch he had occupied.

Prim is fast out again once she's had her fill. Peeta hand lays heavy on her forehead. "How long has she been sick?"

"Started this morning."

"It can take up to three days to take the strong ones," he says, intoning hope.

"Or months, for the strongest," she whispers. Her eyes catch his, but dance back to Prim.

"I don't have the same thing."

"But what else could it be?" Katniss shakes her head. "It just has to be a mutation."

"Even if that were true.." Peeta frowns at her. "You're forehead. It's bleeding through."

Katniss touches the bandages, her fingers coming away red. Sighing, she moves to heft herself up, but Peeta reaches for the gauze and medical tape and tosses them to her. As she starts to go about re-bandaging she can't help but notice his disapproval. "What?" she snaps.

"Have you ever done that before?"

"Of course," Katniss says, heavy sarcasm. "It's an off day when I don't get knifes thrown at my face."

"Peacekeepers?" he asks, disdainfully, and doesn't wait for an answer. "Do you want help with that?"

Grudgingly Katniss just hold out the objects. He takes them and moves to sit beside her and she crosses her arms over her chest, lifting her chin to scowl beyond his shoulder. Peeta is unfazed. Though he sits closer to her than he's ever done, and she can feel his breath feather her cheek, he seems completely focused on the bandaging of her forehead. Katniss notices only the heat of his fever radiating off of him.

"How long have you been.." Sick isn't the right word, because he's been sick since Delly. "..laying there?"

"Awhile. A couple days. I guess I collapsed and couldn't really get back up."

Katniss tries to look at his leg, but Peeta steadies her face between his hands and tilts it back upward and forward. "Can't make it straight if you move all around," he says. Her eyes stray down as far as they can, then. "I'm wearing sweats," he adds, when he has to straighten her face again. "Besides.. you don't want to see it."

"Has it gotten worse?"

Peeta presses his lips together and doesn't answer.

"It's gotten worse." Dread fills Katniss' chest. "How.." and she is surprised by the pressure in her throat, because she is thinking of Prim now. Of her family. How she gave them all the shots, even Peeta, and even he is not better – but more importantly, how they didn't work. How she failed. "How did this happen?" she find herself saying, soft and near so unstable she should be embarrassed. "What's happening?"

Her and Gale have spoken their theories, and her and Prim have whisper their fears, but Katniss hasn't let the situation overwhelm her. Not until she's watching Prim struggle for her every breath in her sleep. She's exhausted, aches all over, and it takes her a moment to realize that the sudden thing she is clutching in her hand is Peeta's.

He deliberates to answer her.

The dullness of his eyes is better now, but still remaining.

She wonders if he even really knows or believes what's going on.

"There's a meeting tomorrow, in the square. That's what the Peacekeepers were saying, at least. They say they'll have answers, they spoke of cures.." he shares this, almost reluctantly. As if afraid to give falseness. "But.."

"But?" Katniss whispers, squeezing his hand, hoping she is encouraging.

He looks at their intertwined fingers, dazed. When he lifts his head his eyes seem glazed and his other hand pushes hair behind her ear. She shrinks away from the touch. Peeta notices; his hand drops and he draws back – and she is about to protest, but then she realizes he's rolling up his pant leg.

Already she sees it's worse. His toes are black, completely. His feet to the ankle. To the shin. The knees is a tangle of veins that are overlapping, like overgrown ivy vines, climbing to the top of a wall. Slowly but surely the leg is becoming a solid dead color. When I skim a finger down his calf, the skin is ice cold to the touch and he doesn't even shiver.

Peeta is staring hard at the limb, in thought. "Katniss."

"Yes?"

"Do you know what year it is?"

"I–"

"Do you know which Hunger Games this is?"

Katniss stares at him for a moment. The conversation is too similar to her and Gale's. "Of course."

Peeta runs both palms down the sides of his leg. "The reaping is in a week."

"But – "

"The winner of the Seventy-fifth Hunger Games wins their district the cure, Katniss."

The sentence knocks her breathless. It bewildering for a moment, unbelievable – then it becomes completely understandable. This time Peeta slips his hand into hers and holds fast. "It'll make for one of the most desperate fights they've ever seen," he says. "They're not saving themselves, but their entire district. Their mothers, fathers, brothers.. sisters.. cousins, neighbors..."

It does make sense. It does. She just can't image the same plague haunting the other districts, such as 1 and 2. But they must be. She wonder if the train supplies ignored the other districts, too. If they thought to make all the districts feel as though they were goners. And then to show up, promising a cure.. but only if.. only at the cost.. only with victory and if they are entertained by it.

"District Twelve hasn't had a winner in at least twenty years," Katniss intones.

By his face she sees Peeta is already well aware of this fact. He is watching her carefully.

"You think I'm going to volunteer?" she asks.

"Yes."

"Are you going to try to convince me not to?"

"You may be the only one in the district who can win," he says, but immediately he adds, "But I'd hate to see what the Capitol does to you. To anyone put in the arena. What they're making us do simply to save the people we love.." she can tell he is sickened by the whole thing. Anyone should be.

Prim still stutters in her sleep, coughing sometimes. "It'll be too late. Three days isn't long enough. A week until reaping, then a week until the Games even start.. then who knows how long they'll last.."

Peeta stops her. "That's why they took the sick, Katniss. They'll keep them alive for the time being."

"What?"

"The Peacekeepers came around today to put all the sick in quarantine. They say it'll prolong them, but only just."

"Guess they couldn't have the source of their motivation dying, huh?" Katniss mutters, rubbing a temple, and then – after a slight hesitation – letting both her hands sit in his. His thumb rubs up the length of her wrist, soft, light, soothing. Then something hits her. "Why aren't you in quarantine?"

More importantly, why had Gale sent Rory to tell them to hide Prim? Did they not know what was going on? Were they convinced they'd kill her? Gale is always suspicious and might not have believed their promises for prolonging the infection at all. Then again he would believe the Capitol's sick new Quarter Quell special –

Katniss is distracted by the way Peeta laughs. "What?" she asks.

"Nothing, it's just.." He shrugs, looking down. "I figured I would.." Again he shakes his head.

"You would what?"

He runs his hand through his hair. Much like the way he had when he confessed to her that he had.. feelings. He's nervous, doubting himself, and when he leans back in the couch so he's half laying down she realizes just how spent and out of it he really is. Has he just been trying to be strong? Is she so unobservant in this thought to be two-sided conversation?

"It was a stupid idea."

"Tell me anyway."

"Just thought, since I was dying anyway.. that if no boy volunteered.. if the one pulled was.. I don't know.. young, or healthy, that I would take his place. Or something. I'm not sure if I was really awake when I thought up this plan." His smile is dim and sheepish, face red, palm sweaty in hers.

Katniss pulls my hands free and stands, allowing him to lay out all the way. The idea is a strange one. Even with a fully functioning leg he would have not done well in the Hunger Games – at least not any better than most. Especially compared to Careers. But it's the compassion behind the almost child-like thought that drives her to put a blanket over him. Even on the verge of death he's thinking of sparing others pain –

Then she halts. No. He's not on the verge of death.

He can still live. Prim can still live.

She looks at both of them; Peeta now muddling in sleep that he must have been fighting, and Prim choking slightly before rolling over and burrowing deeper in the pillows. There's still hope. Peeta just told her all about it. Only.. at a price. For Primrose, though, that has to be worth it. To watch her drown in her own blood, or face the Hunger Games? Which would be worse?

The answer is obvious.

Peeta's words stick with Katniss as she walks toward the group of Peacekeepers standing in the middle of the street. With a hand tangled in the too large shirt, that smells of musk and sweat and faintly, peppermint, around her stomach, the words play over and over again: "You may be the only one in the district who can win."

Until she's standing in front of them, and she must steel herself.

"Yes?" one barks. "What is it?"

"There's two more, in the bakery, upstairs. Someone tried to hide them."

They don't ask how or why she knows, and she doesn't stay long enough to watch it happen.