A/N: Guys . . . I have an announcement to make . . . it may come as a shock to you all, but . . .
I LOVE YOU! YOU ARE ALL RAYS OF SUNSHINE ON A CLOUDY DAY!
Also, I have another reason to be very excited (aside from your awesomeness). I wrote the preface for my own novel the other day and I am SO FREAKISHLY EXCITED.
So, I'm in a better mood, thanks to you guys . . . unfortunately I don't think you guys will be too happy with me. Just know beforehand that I have proven to be quite cruel at times with these flimsy things called "cliffhangers."
Random Disclaimer: I do not own The Hunger Games Series. As the past two stories show, my version of events would have been quite different.
Me: Okay, guys! Let's move! Move! Move! Move!
Rye: What's with the excitement?
Me: I'm finally rescuing Peeta, that's what's with!
Peeta: It's about damn time. Seriously, this place is not sunshine and daisies.
Haymitch: I think that's the point of prison.
Me: Especially when you're in there for treason.
Katniss: WILL YOU JUST RESCUE HIM ALREADY?!
Chapter 10: Bring Him Home
God, on high hear my prayer
In my need, you have always been there
You can take, you can give
Let him be, let him live
Bring him home
Arms wrap around me. Haymitch. He's soothing me like he did the morning before we went back to 12. After I had the nightmare about Peeta. The nightmare where he blamed me for his torture. The nightmare when he told me that it was all my fault.
He's right. All this time, I thought I was fighting to save him, but that's not true. My fighting has been slowly killing him. It's all my fault.
"I can't do this anymore," I sob into Haymitch's chest, clutching onto his shirt as though it's the last thing connecting me to the world. "I can't . . . it's my fault . . . if he dies . . . because I . . . I . . . I just can't . . . do this . . . anymore . . ."
Haymitch holds me tighter. "I know, sweetheart."
The rest of the day is a blur to me. Sketchy memories of being carried back into 13. Vague voices shouting orders. An angry, demanding Haymitch. A persuasive Gale. A pleading Rye. A crying Finnick. A determined Boggs. Flashes. Chaotic flashes of memory.
Eventually, I manage to come to my senses, but I still feel like a specter. Like I'm not really here. And I realize that I'm not. Gale was right. I can only live with half of myself for so long.
An achingly hollow feeling consumes my heart, which is pained with each pump of blood it's forced to make. Each breath feels like I'm inhaling thousands of needles. Sharp and gasping. My eyes are tired and burning from shed tears. My entire body aches from the force of my sobs. I hurt. Physically and emotionally, I'm in agony.
I just want to let go. This slow suffering that's sucking all the life out of me . . . death would be an escape. An easy escape. No more pain. Nothing. I would feel nothing, and I would be nothing. The thought almost makes me smile.
And then my stomach flutters, reminding me that I'm not alone.
The baby. Our baby. The reason that I'm still here. The reason that I'm living. The only reason. The baby is the reason. For everything. I can't give up. The baby is what connects me with Peeta. The baby is a piece of Peeta, a reminder, a living memory. I can't let go.
I may be broken, but I'm not giving up.
The sound of a door opening and closing draws me from my thoughts and forces my mind to truly make sense of my surroundings. A small room, practically identical to my previous compartment except for the warmer grey tones on the wall. I'm lying on an uncomfortable bed, buried under scratchy sheets. A slightly damp, lumpy pillow rests under my head, and I realize that I must have managed to shed more tears in my sleep.
"You look like shit," Haymitch says as he settles into a creaky rocking chair by the bed.
I give no reaction, and instead study his features. Waxen skin. Bloodshot eyes. Nappy hair. "You're one to talk," I finally reply, my voice hoarse from crying.
I imagine if he were truly capable at the moment, Haymitch would have smiled. If only because I just proved that I'm not completely lost, that there's still a part of me deep down that refuses to break, at least not completely.
"Dr. Riley ordered two full days of bedrest," Haymitch informs me. "She scares me."
"She has a soft side," I defend meekly. "It's just really, really, really deep down."
"Anyway, they ran a few tests on you while you were out," he continues. "Just to see how things are going. Everything's fine."
I relax a little. I hadn't even given a thought to how the stress of the past few days may have affected the baby. Wait, how long have I been out in the first place? Haymitch must see the question in my eyes because he says, "You've been out of it for a day. One more day of being useless."
There's something in his tone, or maybe his choice of words. Useless. Instinctively I know that something is going on, something that has Haymitch stressed and trying to hide it. I take in his appearance once more. Waxen skin—fatigue. Bloodshot eyes—hours without sleep. Messy hair—too busy to care about hygiene.
"What's going on?" I ask, trying to put some modicum of strength into my voice.
Haymitch studies me for a moment, ascertaining if I'm strong enough to receive whatever news he's about to deliver. I try to make myself look as commanding and strong as I can, though I think I come off more as a desperate, broken girl pleading for some ray of hope. But apparently Haymitch sees what he's looking for and says something that makes my broken heart hammer against my ribcage.
"Plutarch's sent in a rescue team."
It takes a moment for my mind to truly comprehend what Haymitch just revealed. Plutarch sent in a rescue team. To the Capitol. The Capitol where Peeta is prisoner. They are going to rescue him. Peeta is being rescued.
I'm getting my husband back.
"We're going to get him back, Katniss," Haymitch says, confirming my thoughts. "It's costly, but we were able to convince Coin. Covers will be blown. People may die, but keep in mind that they're dying every day. And we're getting Johanna and Annie out, too."
I nod, happy that Annie is being rescued as well, but I still barely give her a second thought. My thoughts are consumed by Peeta. Peeta is coming back to me. I'm getting him back. I'm going to see his face.
And yet a wisp of doubt clouds my mind, almost as though it's too good to be true. I won't be able to feel the explosive amount of joy that's threatening to burst my heart until I see Peeta for myself. Until I hear him say my name. I have to see him to believe that he's truly with me.
Anxious energy suddenly encompasses me and I feel the need to pace, which is counterproductive to my order of bedrest. Haymitch must see the change in my eyes because a ghost of a smile haunts his lips. "Yeah, I'm ready to see the kid, too, sweetheart."
To distract myself, I ask him another question. "Who's leading the team?"
"Boggs, naturally," Haymitch replies immediately but I sense something he's holding back. "He pretended to ignore my raised hand. See? He's already demonstrated good judgment."
Something's not right. "Haymitch, who else volunteered?"
"I think there were seven all together," he answers ambiguously and my hammering heart is threatening to burst out of my chest as anxiety and fear begins to twist my stomach.
"Haymitch," I demand, though it sounds more like a plea. "Who else?"
My mentor sighs in defeat before looking me in the eye knowingly. "You know who else, Katniss. You know who stepped up first."
Of course I do.
Gale and Rye.
There's nothing more to say between Haymitch and me. There's nothing that we can do, and neither of us are the type to console someone with comforting words. We don't have the patience. So we spend the hours in silence, slowly filling the room with anxious tension and nervous energy.
It's suffocating, but neither of us flinches. Sometimes I'll struggle for breath, fighting back pointless tears. I blame hormones. Haymitch, in an action that is both comforting and irritating at the same time, rocks back and forth in the chair, causing a steady metronome to pulse through the room.
There's a knock on the door some three hours after I first woke up, and Haymitch grumbles, his bones creaking in protest as he rises from the rocking chair. I don't bother to roll over to face whoever is at the door, but a distinct whine causes me to tense in recognition. Not a second later, the bed suddenly sinks beside me, and a wet tongue begins to lick my face.
"Maya." I manage to turn to face her, and am rewarded with a pair of indigo eyes staring back at me. My fingers tangle in her fur as she settles down to lie beside me, resting her head on her paws. She exhales deeply, content, and I relax. Another silent sentinel to watch over me.
"Figured you could use her." I look up to see the Lieutenant Caine standing in the doorway. Our eyes meet. "We're still with you, Mockingjay."
"Thanks," I say, even though the support of District 13 is the last thing on my mind.
Caine returns a brief nod in reply and then leaves. Haymitch shuts the door behind her, and then resumes his place in the rocking chair. He glances at Maya disdainfully, not at all thrilled with her presence . . . and then his nose crinkles before he sneezes violently. "I hate that damn mutt," he mutters darkly, glaring at my furry friend.
Really, it shouldn't have taken me this long to figure out, practically a year, but it's just now dawning on me. "You're allergic," I say, almost in wonder.
"Brilliant deduction, sweetheart. Really, I'm blown away by your deductive powers," he retorts dryly.
I feel my lips twitch as I fight a smile. "I'm sure the hospital has something."
"Not a chance in hell I'm going in there before I have to," he replies, though his tone lacks its usual bite. "I'll be in there long enough as it is."
What condition will Peeta be in when he arrives? I flinch as I remember the last time I saw him. His skinny form—how much weight had he lost?—sitting in a metal chair in the film room of the Capitol, an uncontrollable tremble in his hands and anxious, pain-filled eyes. To the rest of Panem, I doubt they noticed much of his condition. Maybe they had seen the weight loss, but Peeta's true suffering was hidden. Though his face had seemed unscathed, I've learned over the past year to never underestimate a prep team. I think of Peeta's black suit. What lay hidden underneath? Scars? Bandages?
Evidence of what he has endured.
How long will it take him to recover? District 13's medicine is good, but it's nowhere near Capitol standards. Will he be in the hospital for weeks? Months? How long will it take him to heal? Physically, I know that Peeta will recover. His wounds will heal. His bones will mend. He will gain back the weight he's lost. But what about his mind?
How does being tortured for more than a month change you?
"Tell me what's going on," I say quickly, needing a distraction. "What happened after I . . ."
"Collapsed?" Haymitch offers and I nod. 'Collapsed' sounds much better than shattering into tiny little pieces. "Well, we took care of you first," he says. "Gale carried you to the hospital, and Rye was going to stay with you while the rest of us went to talk to Coin." I frown as a muddled memory of an argument congeals in my mind. Haymitch sees my face and explains with a scowl, "Coin was already at the hospital, so we ended up having it out right there outside your room. It took an hour to convince her that rescuing Peeta was the right thing to do." Haymitch shakes his head in disgust. "Bitch can't stand to be proven wrong," he mutters to himself before looking at me and continuing. "An extraction team was assembled on a volunteer basis. Gale and Rye were the first to sign on. Finnick wanted to go too, but he's too compromised. Instead, they found him something else to do."
Anger glows dimly in Haymitch's eyes, but I don't know if it's directed toward Finnick or someone else. "We decided that we would need a distraction. Something that would keep Snow's attention and the rest of the Capitol distracted while we rescued Peeta. Plutarch kept saying that it had to be big, something that couldn't be ignored. They wanted to use you, to have you tell about how Peeta led the Capitol hovercraft away from you the last night in the arena, but Dr. Riley wouldn't have it. Too much stress. And so Finnick volunteered."
"Volunteered what?" I ask, and Haymitch hesitates.
Finally, he replies, "Secrets."
My mind briefly flashes back to my first encounter with Finnick, at the chariot before the parade.
"Oh, I haven't dealt with something trivial as money in years."
"Then how do others pay for your company?" I'd asked.
Finnick had smiled, but now that I know him better I realize that under the mischievous twinkle, there were years of sorrow and haunted pain. "With secrets."
Pay for his company with secrets. The words roll around in my head as I try to decipher them. The phrase ruminates in my head for a minute before the realization hits me like a ton of bricks. Pay for his company.
Instantly, my mind is filled with images. Every single time I turned on the TV during the Games and saw Finnick parading around the Capitol with a woman on his arm. Different women every day, varying in age and beauty. Pay for his company.
Bile rises in my throat as another flashback invades my mind. The morning after the fog. Finnick and I sitting on the beach as Peeta slept. Finnick cracking open shellfish and placing them in one of the many grass-woven bowls he had crafted.
"So Peeta doesn't get jealous?" Finnick asks me, reverting back to our previous conversation.
"Nope," I pop another piece of shellfish into my mouth. "Possessive, maybe. Especially when we're in the Capitol."
A light shines in Finnick's eyes. A haunted, very knowing light. I don't understand, but I don't question him. "I could understand why," he eventually says.
Yes, I bet he could.
"President Snow forced him into prostitution," I say, horror building in my eyes as hundreds of thoughts begin flying a mile a minute through my mind. "Are all the victors . . ." I trail off and Haymitch nods.
"Practically. It's good money," he says derisively. My morbid mind formulates a question that I don't necessarily want the answer to, but as always, Haymitch seems to know. "It didn't happen to me," he says. "I'd already made fools of the Capitol. I came home from the Games to find my family dead. My mother, my brother, even my girl." Haymitch trails off, years of sadness aging him fifty years. "I was planning to marry her," he adds softly. "Ellie. That was her name."
"I'm sorry." The words are useless. They don't change anything, but I can't help but say them.
"So am I," he replies before the previous softness in his eyes hardens to stone. "Anyway, Snow sells all the victors. If a victor is desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. If you refuse, he kills someone you love." Haymitch growls in anger and frustration. "Only one victor ever refused, and she paid the price."
"Johanna," I answer, and Haymitch nods. "That's why she wasn't afraid of the jabberjays. She had no one left." We're silent for a moment before I say, "That would have happened to me, wouldn't it?"
"And Peeta, too," Haymitch says. "Both of you would have made good money. Peeta probably would have given Finnick a run for his money, and you would definitely have been the most popular of the female victors."
The mere thought of someone other than Peeta touching me so intimately makes bile rise in my throat. A random Capitol stranger. My hands find my swelling stomach, horror skyrocketing within me at the thought that under different circumstances, had Peeta and I not been in love, the child within me would have been a stranger's.
"You and Peeta were lucky," Haymitch says, as if following my thoughts.
I nod, horror clogging my throat, preventing me from replying.
"Finnick is up there now," he continues. "Talking. Telling the Capitol all the secrets he's learned over the years. All of them involve the higher-ups of Snow's regime, but the most important—the ones that will grab the Capitol's attention—are about Snow himself."
Haymitch checks his watch, and then looks at me. "The propo should be airing about now," he says.
I nod, telling him that I want to watch it, and so Haymitch gets to his feet and turns on the television that hangs from the ceiling. Immediately, I see my mockingjay pin, it's golden flames filling the black screen. Music plays in the background for a few seconds, when suddenly Finnick's gorgeous face fills the screens. Though he's pale, determination shines brilliantly in his sea green orbs. The fierceness of his gaze immediately garners my attention, and I know that everyone in Panem is watching with equally rapt attention.
"President Snow used to . . . sell me . . . my body, that is," he begins in a flat tone. "I wasn't the only one. Any desirable victor shared the same fate. We could be bought for an egregious amount of money as a reward. Even passed around as a favor to someone. And as much as you want to, you can't refuse, because you know that if you do, someone you love will die."
"Like I said, I wasn't the only one, but I was the most popular," Finnick continues. "And perhaps the most defenseless, because the people I loved were so defenseless." Annie, I think. "To make themselves feel better, my patrons would make presents of money or jewelry, but I found a much more valuable form of payment."
"Secrets," he says, echoing my thoughts. "And this is where you're going to want to stay tuned, President Snow, because so very many of them were about you. But let's begin with some of the others."
And then Finnick proceeds to weave such an elaborate tapestry of lies and deceit that no one can doubt its truth. I don't know any of the people's names, but I'm sure that they are important people in the Capitol community, otherwise Finnick would not be sharing them. I can understand why these people would divulge their secrets to him. Who would he tell? Who would believe him? Finnick was just a slave to them. A handsome one for sure, but still a harmless slave.
Not so harmless now.
Finnick goes on to talk about everything from incest to backstabbing to blackmail to arson. After fifteen minutes of talk about the officials, Finnick gets to the part that I, along with everyone else in Panem are waiting to hear, the part about President Snow.
"And now, on to our good President Coriolanus Snow," he says with a mirthless smile. "Such a young man when he rose to power. Such a clever one to keep it. How, you must ask yourself, did he do it? One word. That's all you really need to know. Poison."
Finnick then proceeds to tell the tale of the President's political ascension, complete with mysterious deaths of both enemies, and worse, allies who had the potential to become threats. Some would drop dead at a feast with no explanation at all. Some would descend into the shadows, slowly succumbing to their fate. Deaths would be blamed on anything from bad shellfish to an elusive virus.
To deflect suspicion, Snow would drink from a poisoned goblet, though an antidote would always be on hand. However, the antidote isn't always effective. This explains why he always wears genetically enhanced roses in his lapel—to hide the stench of the blood. The stench of blood that reeks from his mouth, from bloody sores that will never heal . . . the secrets go on and on . . . Snow has a list and no one knows who will be next.
The perfect weapon for a snake. Poison.
Only a few minutes later, Finnick goes silent, having said all that he needs to. Finally, after seconds of silence, he is the one who says, "Cut."
The screen goes black.
"If they're not out of there by now, they're all dead," Haymitch says. "It's been an hour."
There's nothing for me to say to that, so I simply close my eyes, pretending to sleep. Maya snuggles closer to me, as if sensing that I need the extra comfort. My fingers tangle tighter in her fur, causing her to lick my face. I see it as her trying to make me feel better, and the thought would normally bring a smile to my face, but I'm just not capable at the moment.
Behind my closed eyelids, all I can see is Peeta. Sometimes he's as robust and healthy as he was during those months leading up to the Quell. Other times he's skinny and weak, as I saw him in the Capitol's propos. Sometimes he's grinning at me. Sometimes he's glaring, as if he blames me for what he's gone through.
I try to steer my thoughts toward memories, to the whispers that tickle my ears. A flailing Peeta as I spontaneously push him into the lake for his first impromptu swimming lesson. Lazy days spent inside his house accomplishing absolutely nothing and loving every minute of it. Adventures in the kitchen. His laughing face as he saw yet another of my failed attempts at baking. Sleepy blue eyes and an equally sleepy grin greeting me when I woke up in the morning.
The love that would follow . . .
I don't know how much time passes, but eventually the door opens, and Boggs steps into the room. Immediately, I sit up in the bed as quickly as I can nowadays. He's tired, looking barely able to stand on his feet, but there's a look in his eye—triumph.
I stare at him, tense and hardly breathing, waiting for him to make my world spin again by saying the words that I need to hear. Finally, his lips quirk up in a smile.
"We got him."
And it's done! Technically, Peeta is officially back in this story. Woo! Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride! Prepare to enter the spectacular world of PTSD drama and all the tension it shall bring. Oh, yes. Be prepared. Although, I suppose you guys still have a chapter or two before we're really submerged in wonderful angsty glory.
So! Summary time: Katniss and Maya have a cuddle; Haymitch took a walk down memory lane; Rye and Gale are off being heroes; Boggs declares that, "Victory is MINE!"; Coin is off in her cave sulking; Finnick finally tried reality TV and has captivated audiences everywhere!; and Peeta has finally been voted off the Capitol Island!
Quote from the next chapter comes from . . . Peeta!
Lots of love,