If it weren't for Peeta's locked bedroom door, Katniss wouldn't even have announced herself when she stormed into the residence. After several minutes of knocking and calling out to him, he finally pulls open the door and allows her to slip inside.
"What were you thinking?" she snaps after he closes the door behind her.
"Hello to you too," he says.
"Why would you…how could you…?"
She watches him sidle over to his window and look out to the gardens beyond. She wonders if he's searching for the tree that holds Rye's playhouse, maybe thinking back to the morning of the last week when they'd watched him clamber inside, proudly announcing, "No one is gonna get me in my treehouse."
They hadn't, she supposed. They got him from someplace far more secure.
"I pledged an oath to an entire country, Katniss. To lead them. And when I found myself in a position where I could no longer lead, I stepped aside so someone more capable could do so."
"You have the power to do anything to bring him home!" she cries. "Why aren't you using it?"
He blinks at her and folds his arms over his chest. "You mean mobilize the Peacekeeping units in every District to storm into every residence and search from floor to ceiling? Compel every citizen to abandon their day's work to check in basements and storage units and up in trees, just in case someone has stashed him there? Stop and arrest every person who force marches an eight-year-old who doesn't want to go to school, just in case he doesn't belong to them?"
"You can do whatever it takes," she seethes.
"You think I don't want to?" he snaps, finally losing his cool. Anger radiates from him in waves. "You don't think all of that was exactly what I wanted to do once Haymitch told me what you found in that house? For fuck's sake, Katniss, those trackers were supposed to protect us! They were supposed to protect him! Two men are dead and my son is missing and it's all on me, because of the decisions that I made! I doomed him, don't you think I know that? Don't you think I'd tear down every building in the Capitol if it meant him being back here with me?"
"Then why won't you?" she screams back.
"Because that's what a father does, Katniss!"
He stops himself, clearly recognizing his tone has become out of control. He rubs his face roughly with clenched fists and shakes his head woefully. "That's what a father does. But I'm not just a father, am I? I'm the President of Panem. And that isn't what a president does—at least, not the sort of president I want to be remembered as. I don't want to be the next Coriolanus Snow, using my title to get what I want in the name of the few at the cost of the many. I want—no, I need to be a better leader than that. So when my first thought was how much I'd love to wring the neck of that corpse you found in that house, just to make myself feel better, I knew that I wasn't myself. And that I couldn't do it. I can't be the President right now, not when all I can feel, all I can process every second, every minute he's away from me is how scared I am. I feel like I'm going mad! I... I can't be both."
He swipes under his eyes before leaning his temple against the cool glass. "I want him back. I want him in my arms. But I'm not going to rob my nation of their sovereignty in his name. I can't do that, Katniss, I just can't."
Katniss fumes, but she knows he's doing what he can live with. And she doesn't doubt for a second the sincerity of his longing, his despair, because she feels it too. She's known Rye Mellark for less than a year, but she loves him with every fiber of her being. She understands in one sweeping, sobering moment that falling in love with the little boy was always going to happen, from the very first moment he'd turned in Peeta's arms and said hello to her.
The Mellark men have a funny way of sneaking up on people.
"It's sort of funny," Peeta murmurs, more to himself than to her. "I wanted him to be my baby forever. I wanted to keep him young and sweet and naive, but every day he's fought me, and gotten older and smarter and better than I ever imagined he'd be. And now, all I want is to see him all grown up—and that might never happen."
"You can't afford to think like that."
"So Haymitch tells me. It doesn't make it feel any less true."
She approaches him like she would a wounded animal, just in case her proximity frightens him away. (She hasn't admitted as much, but that's partially why she had to get away from him before. She'd never seen him so broken, so insular, like he is about to cave in on himself. She'd had to report to headquarters, of course, but she'd slipped away from him because she couldn't handle seeing him out of control. It frightens her almost as much as knowing Rye might be…)
Her arms slip around his waist, and his wrap tightly around her shoulders. They cling to one another, both too worn out to cry. Her lips graze his jaw as she mumbles to him, "I'm going to go find him. I promise… The next time I come back to you, he'll be in my arms."
He clutches her to him when she moves to pull away, his fingers encircling her wrist as she finally breaks his hold on her. His face contorts in an entirely new way that she can't identify.
"I can't let you do that, Katniss."
"What do you mean?" she asks warily. Doesn't he know this is her job? Her duty? "They're organizing a district-by-district search, and I don't give a damn what Jackson says, I'm going to—"
"No. You're not. I spoke with Jackson."
She snatches her hand away from him and glares at him. "About what? About me?"
"I told her that you're not to be sent to anywhere. That I need you here, where I know you're safe."
Her jaw drops. "You have no right…"
"I had full authority over the Secret Service up until I signed the letter removing myself from office. We spoke ten minutes before I put my pen to paper; it's done. You're not going anywhere."
"Why?" she hisses. "Why would you do that?"
"Because I can't lose you too!" he yells. He's trembling and his eyes are wide as he reaches for her. She continues to pull away, but he backs her up until her knees hit the footstool at the end of his bed. He kneels in front of her, finally able to take her hands in his own, and he holds them like he's petrified of what will happen if he lets go.
"I love you, Katniss. I've loved you all this time and I didn't know how to say it, but there it is. And if I lose him, I'll want to die and I might never really be happy again, but if I lost you on top of it—I'd have nothing. Nobody else I really care about. I realize how selfish I sound and how this probably doesn't seem genuine, but it's true. It's all true. I love you. And I think you might love me too. So I need you here, where I know you'll be safe, and not somewhere they can get you too. Just—I need you to stay here, Katniss. Alright?"
Her mouth falls open to speak, although she has no idea what she could possibly say to this. It's so big, and she can't really process it with how fast it's washed over her. She's terrible with words, but she knows she has to say something on account of the imploring look in his eyes that renders her speechless. Her voice is a low gurgle she doesn't recognize when a sharp rap on the door snaps them both out of it.
"Mr. President?" Thresh calls out. "Mr. Abernathy, Mr. Odair, and Mr. Watts are here. It's urgent, sir."
"I love you," Peeta whispers again, pressing a kiss to her knuckles as he gets to his feet and strides towards the door. She sits frozen on the bench, swimming in his words and her shock, until she hears the door click closed, trapping her there.
When she remembers how to use her legs, she goes to the window and presses her palms against the glass. Sure enough, four or maybe five hundred yards away is the tree that houses Rye's sanctuary. She's not sure how Peeta can tolerate looking at it; it makes her want to weep.
"There's been a development, sir," Thresh says when Peeta sits down in the wingback chair near the hearth. Haymitch studies the man's face, half-expecting to see a look of pure joy. Instead, he sees a stone-set jaw and a pair of downcast eyes. He doesn't want to hope for good news, Haymitch realizes, not after yesterday.
"A woman is being held for questioning in Eleven," Thom continues where Thresh trailed off.
"On what grounds?" Peeta asks.
"She checked into lodging in Eleven, and housekeeping found a few strange articles in her possessions, chief amongst them surgical scalpels she'd tried to clean in the bathroom sink and left out on a towel to dry. The maid didn't think too much of it, but when she made to move them to clean the vanity, the room's occupant walked in on her and accosted her. The maid reported it to the lodging manager and they were obliged to call a Peacekeeping unit. The occupant ran when she saw the Peacekeepers. It aroused enough suspicion that a search warrant has been issued, and the woman has been detained," Thresh details.
"What could that mean?" Peeta asks.
"We aren't sure yet. But the woman is known to have a connection to one of the agents who was murdered last night," Thom says.
This, Haymitch notes, piques Peeta's interest.
"How?" he asks.
"She and Agent Cato were known to have been briefly involved romantically. All the Peacekeeping units are reporting strange arrests directly to us, in case there's any correlation, and an agent who was friendly with Cato recognized the woman's face and name," Thom says.
"It could be a long shot, Mr. President, we realize. But the brutality of Agent Cato's death compared to Agent Marvel's much quicker demise could be a connection. And this woman has no medical training, so her having such high-quality surgical tools is very peculiar," Thresh concludes.
"Well, thank you. But I'm not going to put my eggs in one basket over Cato's ex-girlfriend's knife collection, not when it comes to my son. We need something more, and we need it soon."
"Of course, Mr. President," Thresh says.
"It's fine. Is there anything else?"
Thom looks sheepishly at Haymitch, who shoots him a look of "what the hell?"
Thom speaks tentatively. "Agent Jackson won't allow executive agents like Thresh and Johanna and me to take point on any district search measures. But sir, while your safety is still paramount, six agents are not necessary to guard you. That's especially true if, as you've stated, you'll be confined to the residence during your recusal from office. And my contacts in Twelve indicate that the search organization is…lacking."
"You'd like to go organize it?" Peeta says quietly.
"Yes sir, I would. Thresh has volunteered to stay on point with Agents Messalla and Mitchell. And speaking as a former resident of Twelve, sir, I'm certain that it's the wish of all its residents to not let you down in this matter," Thom replies.
Peeta bristles, and looks strongly like he wants to say no. After Gale, Haymitch has noticed that Peeta has been more than a little attentive to his guards' well-being. And he'd be lying if he didn't admit he's done the same thing, with Johanna.
"Mr. President, if I may," Haymitch says quickly, "I think Thom makes a valid point. And I'm sure your father-in-law would appreciate the help, if only for a day or two to get things organized so the local Peacekeeping units can carry on from there."
Peeta still looks wary, but finally rubs his hands over his face and nods. "Inform Effie that you need to get in contact with Mayor Undersee. I'm sure between the three of you the proper arrangements can be made."
"Of course, sir. Thank you," Thom says.
Haymitch clears his throat. To Thresh and Thom he says, "Will you gentlemen excuse us? We have more sensitive matters to discuss with the President."
The guards leave, and Haymitch summons Finnick and Beetee to gather closer. Peeta's still holding himself strangely, like he's afraid to let his guard down for even a moment.
"How is everything down in the Aula?" Peeta asks half-heartedly.
Haymitch shares a significant look with Finnick and Beetee before opening his mouth. "Coin is…getting comfortable already, sir."
"Comfortable?" Peeta snorts.
"She's having Effie schedule her private meetings with other key party players; from best we can glean, Lyme, Paylor, and Chaff aren't amongst them," Finnick summarizes.
"I did just toss her into the deep end. None of us may like the woman, but she is trying to do a job that isn't her own," Peeta says.
His men can barely believe the words are coming out of his mouth. They each think to themselves in turn that it's stress, grief, lack of sleep, the shock of his recusal from office, or maybe all of the above—because that's the only way to explain why Peeta Mellark would be defending Alma Coin.
For his part, Beetee thinks that while it's certainly not her job, it could have been, if not for the narrow margin of victory in the last election. He doesn't say it, because he doesn't think it'll help. Instead, he pulls a folded bit of paper out of his breast pocket and hands it to Peeta.
"The…speech you asked for when we spoke this morning in my office, sir. It's done."
Beetee had agonized over the correct words. Not being a father, he isn't entirely sure what words would accurately express one's joy at having their missing child returned. The speech worries him, as Peeta's eyes begin trailing over it, but a tiny, reluctant smile tugs at the corners of the President's mouth. It sets Beetee's nerves at ease.
"It's excellent, Beetee, thank you," Peeta says, refolding the page and handing it back. As quickly as the smile came, it disappears and his face is set in stone. "And, ah… The other?"
Beetee clears his throat. "I'm sorry sir, but... I won't be writing the second speech."
Peeta narrows his eyes. "And…why not?"
"Because I refuse to believe in a world where your son is not brought back to you safely."
The President's men watch as the younger man clearly bites down hard on the inside of his cheek and palpable emotion glints in his eyes. He has to open and close his mouth several times before any audible words come, and those that do are strangled and very quiet.
"I hope you're right, Beetee. Thank you."
Peeta gets to his feet and makes for the hallway. He turns when Finnick calls out to him, but his body is still prepped for flight.
"Mr. President, I just wanted to say—I respect your decision to step aside. I'd have done the same thing if I were in your shoes. And while I serve at the pleasure of the President of Panem, I swore that oath to you, not Alma Coin. If you were to give a conflicting order to that of one Coin were to give, I'd daresay that every person in this building would observe your command in a heartbeat rather than hers."
"It's a noble sentiment, Finnick," Peeta says. "But at the moment, it's also something of a coup d'etat. And that's exactly why I won't be giving any orders. At least, not until all of this is finished."
"Yes sir," the three men say in unison, slightly disheartened. "Thank you, Mr. President."
When Peeta steps back into the bedroom, Katniss rounds on him, her entire body shaking in righteous anger.
"I have a job to do and I can't do it if you're standing in my way. You can't just tell me that…whatever and then expect I'll submit to your every beck and call. You might be the leader of the nation, Peeta, but I'm a trained member of the Panem Secret Service and my job is always supposed to come first. Rye is my job! Bringing him home to you is my job! You can't stand in the way of—"
It shocks her into silence when his arms encircle her and crush her to his chest. His palms cradle her lower back and the nape of her neck, and his eyes shine with just a hint of madness before he seals his lips over hers. She tenses in his embrace before she sinks into it, and allows him to kiss her deeply enough that she loses the ability to breathe. There's nary an inch of space between their bodies, and when he moves to pick her up, she doesn't struggle. She loops her legs around his waist and permits herself to be carried and kissed, neverminding that her brain is going dizzy from lack of of air. There's only his hands, his mouth, his tongue, and the sinuous way his body moves against hers as he presses her against the regally carved bed post.
Their kiss breaks with a loud smack, and they both gasp. She looks into his eyes, dilated wide so they're more inky-black than azure-blue, but before she gets the chance to speak, his mouth falls open and his words come in waves.
"I didn't tell you I love you to manipulate you," he says. "I told you I love you because I love you. And I can't lose anyone else I love, not today, not tomorrow… Not ever."
He pivots her body so the bedpost no longer digs into her back; instead the back of her thighs hit the supple mattress and he dips down to press his mouth to hers again. He sighs gratefully when his tongue slips in between her lips and meets her own. For a fleeting second, she wants to push him away so they can speak rationally, so she can argue that he can't possibly love her after such a short amount of time, that no matter how he feels, it doesn't change the job she has to do. But the urgency of the swelling of his trousers against her belly and the heat in his kiss make her better judgment slip away in exchange for a promised moment where passion replaces grief.
She nips his bottom lip with her teeth and hooks her fingers into the loose knot of his tie. For a second their eyes flutter open, and her stare gives him the permission to press forward. Their hands are shaking and clumsy, like they've never undressed one another before, and there's a periodic rip of fabric or grunt of frustration when something just won't give way. He has to step back to rid her of her pants and step out of his own, but then he's hovering over her, naked and imposing and feral in the way his eyes drink in her nude form.
He doesn't say a word as he flips her onto her belly, her legs dangling off the side of the bed and her fingers clutching for purchase on the smooth duvet cover. His fingers wrap around her left thigh, propping her knee up on the mattress so she's spread for him, but there is no teasing, no testing touch of his fingers before she feels his swollen cock slide inside her. She wasn't quite ready for him, and she yelps softly into the coverlet at the unaccustomed pain. He stills behind her, his lips grazing lovingly along her spine, her shoulder blades, the curve of her shoulder into her neck, and he mumbles something that could be an apology. She lets her tensed body melt into the mattress and juts her hips back—the residual pain is shrouded in pleasure, and when she yelps again, it's in relief.
His arm loops under her waist, repositioning her center so he can slide in at a better angle, and the subtle change is enough for the tip of him to hit the spot that makes her toes curl. His thrusts are shallow enough at first that she barely realizes he's moving. Then his hand holding her thigh tightens its grasp and he slams forward hard enough to press her entire body deep into the mattress.
"I love you, Katniss," Peeta grunts, setting a pace of shallow...shallow...deep, the deepest punctuated by the hard consonants in his words. "I've loved you for decades… I've loved you when I didn't realize it… I've loved you when I thought I loved someone else… And I've loved you from the moment you stepped into my office and couldn't find your way out…" Only his talented oratory can make such simple declarations sound so sexy and intoxicating, and Katniss mewls in agreement with every solid thump of his cock against her inner walls. Her fingernails could be clawing holes in the coverlet for all she knows as she listens to his words and feels him fucking her hard for emphasis. When he runs out of ways to tell her how much he loves her, he whimpers in her ear and resets his pace, lifting her hips even higher and snapping into her with abandon. She cries out into the blankets, feeling his length hit every spot inside her that guarantees a hard, swift orgasm, and his balls slap against her clit in just the right way to make her putty in his hands. Behind her, he's given up making any noise at all, seemingly content to listen to her scream mutedly for him until every muscle in her core, her legs, her chest clenches, and lets go with a shuddering, aching finality.
"Oh, fuck," he whimpers, and snaps his hips even harder until he finally grunts and slumps on top of her. His superior weight wedges her deep into the bed, and she has to wiggle under him to convince him to pitch his weight away so she can draw a deep breath. Her vision is fuzzy when she takes in his shivering form, his skin stretched taut and red from exertion, and she crawls towards him to press herself against his chest.
The words are foreign to her. She hasn't said them to anyone in years, decades maybe, and certainly not with the voracity with which she feels them now. But it doesn't feel wrong or disingenuous at all when she wraps her arms around him, cradles his face between her hands, and nudges his nose with hers to coax his drooping eyelids open to meet her gaze.
"I love… I do love you, Peeta."
"I knew it... I knew you did," he gasps, a look of bliss spread wide across his face. He kisses her deeply and they huddle together as terror slowly seeps in, replacing the ecstasy of their pronouncement.
Finnick's press room is once again exploding with reporters' voices, and it seems that little can be done to quiet the excited throng. Finnick has to ask over and over again for questions to be repeated so he can actually hear them. When he finally reaches his wit's end and shouts at them all to wait their damn turns, the silence is, by comparison, eerie.
"Yes, Caesar?" he says, squaring his shoulders and getting himself together.
"There's still been no demands for ransom? Any bartering tools at all?" Caesar asks.
"No, nothing of the sort yet."
"Doesn't the Secret Service find that incredibly odd?" Caesar follows.
"I can't speak for the Secret Service, Caesar, but I'd bet if you asked them they'd tell you they don't comment on sensitive matters such as these, nor do they ever comment on procedure. Flavius?"
"Is there any concern at all that the boy is being tortured? Or moles—"
The hair on Finnick's neck stands on end and his fierce green eyes silence Flavius before he finishes the word. "For the sake of everyone watching these broadcasts, I'll kindly ask you not to speculate on such atrocious things. Let's all remember we're talking about a little boy, and that his distraught family here in the Capitol and in District Twelve may be tuned in. That's all for right now."
Finnick pointedly ignores the shouts of his name as he storms out of the briefing room and down the hall to his office. He nearly slams the door in Maura Cressida's face, so quiet is she that he hadn't even realized she'd followed him.
"This isn't a question, Finnick, hold on one second!" Maura cries out, and Finnick grabs the door by the handle before it swings shut all the way. "Have you… Have you seen what's going on outside?" the woman presses.
Finnick rubs his temples and shakes his head. "No, I haven't been outside since I got here."
Maura gnaws on the corner of her mouth and sighs calmly. "You should take a look out at the front fence when you get a chance. And… The President should really see it, too."
The vigor with which Peeta has made love to her seems to have worn him out. After slumping down on the mattress when he'd softened and slipped out of her, Katniss had practically had to drag him up towards the pillows and pull the duvet up around his shoulders. He's still fighting sleep, she can tell, but she pulls him against her breasts, smoothes his hair, and hums softly until she can feel his entire body let go and his breathing becomes shallow and even. She wiggles just far enough away that she can curl up next to him rather than hold him, and she watches as his face, such a bizarre mix of obsessed and agonized mere moments before, soften as sleep fully envelops him. It's so tempting to drift off as well, but try as she might, she knows sleep will never come for her. Not restful sleep, anyway. She slides towards the edge of the bed as deftly as she can, continuing to look over her shoulder as she gets to her feet and gathers the clothes he'd stripped from her and tossed haphazardly on the floor.
He stirs once or twice while she dresses, but he's still fast asleep when she leans over him and brushes her lips along his temple. She's sure he'll forgive her in time, but only as long as she's gone before he wakes up again. If she doesn't expect that her sleep would really be all that peaceful, she can hardly expect that his will be at all—she needs to be quick about it.
She doesn't run into anyone as she's leaving the residence, and the new guards pay her no mind. Maybe they already know how powerless she is, and if they don't, they will soon enough. Her feet carry her quickly down the stairs instead of the elevator, and through the labyrinth of hallways that lead to Jackson's office. She wraps on the door quickly, and strides through when the woman barks out a reply.
It is without pomp or circumstance that Katniss removes her gun and holster, Secret Service identification badge, her communicuff, and sets them in front of her supervisor. Jackson looks positively befuddled until Katniss finally says the words, "I quit", turns on her toe, and stalks out of the office.
Katniss gives no thought to the guards that might try to stop her, or her friends who might try to talk her out of her decision. She's out the secured facility as fast as she was out of Peeta's bedroom, and as soon as she's off the mansion property she finally breaks into a run as she heads for the train station. If Thom is taking a train to Twelve, she's certain she can catch up with him—but only if she hurries.
Delly Cartwright sits in a rocking chair by the fireplace with a cup of tea that must be lukewarm by now. She's staring at the flames and saying nothing, but Haymitch figures there's really nothing to be said.
It's odd for him to be sitting here in the residence instead of in his office, toiling away at something with a hard deadline. But Alma Coin has brought her own Chief of Staff, a wisp of a woman called Leeg, making Haymitch effectively useless. Not that he really wants to serve under Coin, anyway. He'd much rather try to make himself useful to Peeta and Delly.
"Is this why you never had a family, Haymitch?" Delly suddenly asks, snapping Haymitch to attention.
"There's a lot of reasons I never had a family," Haymitch says quietly, allowing her to fill in the details of his known past all on her own. "But a part of the life of a politician includes an element of danger where people you love are concerned. It can't be avoided, I'm afraid."
"Rye didn't choose this life. Peeta didn't give him a choice."
"And I understand you're upset about that, Delly," Haymitch says, trying to maintain some control over the conversation. "But he's beating himself up more than you possibly could. Surely you know that."
"I do. I do," she sighs. She takes a sip of her tea and returns to silence.
The next interruption comes just a minute later, when Peeta tears into the living area in his robe, his face a new shade of pale that Haymitch didn't believe was possible. He gets to his feet out of concern more than obligation. "What's wrong, sir?"
"Katniss? Did you see Katniss leave?" Peeta rasps.
"I didn't realize she was even here. When was this, sir?" Haymitch says.
"It was…it was…what time is it? Have I… I fell asleep and when I woke up, she was…" Peeta slumps onto the couch while his fingers tear through his disheveled curls. Haymitch wonders how the boy has any hair left for how much he seems to do that.
"It's nearly dark now, Mr. President. It's alright that you slept—you needed to." Haymitch decides that's the safest thing to say.
Peeta is still frantic. "Where's Johanna? She'll know, won't she? Don't they have a way of—"
"I can call her up."
Haymitch's attempts at keeping Peeta calm don't seem to do much, but as soon as the younger man makes eye contact with his sister, something in his air changes, and he sinks back against the cushions. He wraps his arms around himself and stays incredibly still, watching as Haymitch strides to the front door and asks one of the guards to summon Johanna up from headquarters. He returns to his chair between the two distraught siblings, but finds himself again at a loss of anything to say that might be soothing to either of them.
"Did you dream about him?" Delly says quietly, still staring at the flickering flames.
Peeta seems to know exactly what she means, but only nods in response.
As soon as Johanna comes through the door, Haymitch knows he's missed something huge by not being down in the Aula for the last several hours. Johanna looks as though she's been pacing, and Haymitch steels himself for news he'll find horrific—he can't imagine how Peeta and Delly might find it.
"There's no news yet, Mr. President," Johanna says as Peeta's eyes seek hers out hopefully. He slumps back against the couch, and grabs a pillow to clutch against his chest. "But there is—about Agent Everdeen?"
"Where is she, Johanna?" Peeta squeaks.
"We're… We're not sure, sir. A few hours ago she walked into Commander Jackson's office and resigned."
Peeta makes a noise reminiscent of a pathetic, dying creature, and clutches the pillow that much harder.
"What do you mean, 'she resigned'? You… can't just do that, can you?" Haymitch knows the question is ridiculous even as he asks it.
"She did. And Jackson wasn't about to stop her. She didn't say anything about where she was going, and without her communicuff, we can't track her. She isn't in her apartment. But I have a feeling she…"
"Check the train stations. See if she boarded a train for Five or Twelve," Peeta says, finally finding his commanding voice rather than his meek one.
"Of course, Mr. President. But surely you'd rather have us focus our efforts on—"
Peeta stands, and despite his informal dressing gown get-up, he has every ounce of his bravado and presidential air back. "I need you to tell me where my family is, Johanna. All of them. And I need answers as soon as possible."
He spins on his heel and stamps his way back to his bedroom. Haymitch rubs his jaw and looks at Johanna apologetically.
"Always get stuck giving him the bad news, don't you, Jo?"
"Well, at least now I know what it's like being you," she says with a sigh.
"Go away," the President shouts petulantly through his bedroom door, but Effie continues to tap politely at the door frame until Peeta yanks the door open. She remarks how haggard he looks, but she hardly expects anything different.
"I'm sorry to disturb, sir. Before you ask, no, there isn't news, but… Haymitch and Finnick would like you and Ms. Cartwright to come down to the front courtyard. Thresh has your coat ready," Effie says sweetly, trying to break through the man's surly demeanor.
"Why?" Peeta asks suspiciously.
"It's… It's better if you see, sir. Please, if it isn't too much to ask…"
"Doesn't the acting President need you, Effie?"
Effie bristles at the mention of Coin. "No, sir. She's brought her own assistant from the Parliament building and has advised me to find other things to do."
The President looks like he wants to say no, so Effie scoots forward an inch or two and clicks her tongue softly. "It'll do you a bit of good, sir."
She isn't sure if that's what does it, but the man shoves his feet into a pair of shoes and leaves his bedroom, her close at his heels. They ride the elevator down and to the grand foyer at the front of the cut building. As promised, Haymitch stands with Finnick and Beetee, a row of agents behind them, and the men whisper conspiratorially until the President strides up to them.
"Mr. President, Madam First Lady, there's something we all thought you ought to see out front. Before you ask or feel concerned at all, I've sequestered my entire press corps in the briefing room, and they've no idea you are out of the residence," Finnick says.
"And there is a crowd beyond the gate, but they've been pushed to the other side of the avenue and there are guards to keep them there. When you cross to the other side of the fence, you'll have as much privacy as we can allow you," Johanna picks up.
"I don't understand, why are we going outside the—" Delly begins, but trails off when Thresh pushes open the door separating them from the chilly, dark evening. Beyond the expanse of snow-covered grass and the ten-foot wrought iron fence, a different sort of light flickers. It's a far cry from the gleaming lights of the Capitol Peeta and Delly have become accustomed to since leaving District Twelve—it's softer, and appears to be twinkling. Peeta gently grabs his sister by the arm and pulls her close.
Effie moves to the doorway and waves her fingers to the pair and the men who stand behind them. "Come, come," she says, her usual perky trill replaced by something far more somber as she leads them down the path and through the gate that seems to open on its own.
When Peeta and Delly cross to the other side, Haymitch and Finnick can hear their audible intake of breath at the sight that lies before them. The flickering they'd seen from the grand foyer is, in fact, glimmering candlelight flickering through luminaries and tucked between bouquets of wildflowers. Stuffed animals, not entirely unlike Maysi the cat, are stacked along the fence, along with hand drawn cards and pictures signed For Rye, from… Looped between the fence posts, larger signs printed with phrases like District One shines for you, Rye, Let our lighthouses guide you home—District Four, and We'll search and find you, sweet boy—Love, from District Nine. Small tokens from each District are tucked in the furry paws of the stuffed animals—discarded microchips from Three, small swatches of child-esque, patterned flannel from Eight, and bittersweetly, small bunches of dried rye grain from Ten and Eleven. The fence line spans an entire city block, separating the front lawn of the mansion from the avenue, and trinkets like this cover every square inch of it.
Between Haymitch and Peeta, Delly begins to softly weep. Effie loops her arm into the President's free one, pulling a handkerchief from her jacket pocket to offer the man, who politely declines it. They walk along the fence-line slowly from end to end, reading every sign, marveling at every picture clipped from the news circulars showing a boyish looking President Mellark with a toddler Rye in his arms, shots of them lighting the Festival of Lights tree in Twelve that past year and waving jubilantly to the crowd, and Rye's school photograph, reluctantly released to the press to help in the nationwide search effort.
Every so often, Peeta or Delly gasp or murmur something about not knowing how many people love the little boy; Effie squeezes Peeta's arm as if to silently assure him that yes, they all do. They look over everything again as they walk back to the gate, and as they're about to step through it, Effie sees the President finally look up at the throngs of people behind the Secret Service barricade across the avenue. Many are holding candles, and their faces glow dimly in the faint light. Children Rye's age and younger sit on parents' shoulders and strain for a glimpse of the President and First Lady, but what strikes Effie the most is the silence—the crowd is completely quiet and still, as if waiting for their President to say something first.
Effie sees what she thinks is a hand raise up in the air to wave at the President, but next to her he stiffens and stands a little straighter. He nudges Delly, who looks out across the expansive crowd as well, as more hands rise in the air. Effie, Thresh, and Johanna don't recognize the gesture as Peeta, Delly, and Haymitch do. The three from District Twelve return the wave—not wave, Effie realizes, the three-fingered salute—back to the crowd in turn. The President holds his hand up the longest, scanning the crowd as though trying to make eye-contact with every single one of his people before turning towards the mansion, attempting in vain to make it back before his walls crumble around him.
The sun rises over District Twelve on the second day Rye Mellark is missing, and Thom is getting frustrated. He's checking off points on the map of the surrounding woods that the overnight search party cleared, and there is still a lot of ground to cover. Unfortunately, the day's volunteers are far fewer in numbers—the plummeting late winter temperatures mean higher than usual coal quotas, and the mines can't spare the same volume of workers. Despite their willingness, Thom can't allow anyone under the age of sixteen into the woods, and that leaves the few merchants who can afford to close their shops for a couple of hours to round out the squads. The disappointment throughout the District is palpable: Peeta and Rye Mellark are Twelve's pride and joy. Not a single citizen wants to let their leader down.
Thom's preparing his firearms to go out with that morning's group when a familiar voice clears her throat and says his name. Thom's own throat closes when he looks up and sees Katniss, bedraggled and sunken-eyed, standing behind him.
"Agent Everdeen, you have very specific instructions to…"
"Don't call me 'Agent,' Thom," Katniss says briskly. She pulls up her sleeve to show off her bare left wrist. "I'm not a Trib anymore. It took three high-speed trains to get here, so can we please skip the small talk, and you can tell me where you need me?"
Thom chews the inside of his cheek. He'd overheard President Mellark and Commander Jackson's conversation about sequestering Katniss in the Capitol, and the President had been, to put it mildly, insistent. Tribute or not, if the President were to find out that Thom put Katniss in charge of a search squad without phoning in her whereabouts to Headquarters, there would be hell to pay.
But then again, she's here. Willing. Very capable. Desperate to help. And he needs able, of-age bodies.
"We have a five-mile strip on the Eleven side of the boundary woods—including the two-mile circumference of the lake—that I want covered. But I already have a scheduled call-in to Thresh at noon, Katniss, and if he asks—"
"Fine. Just let me help in the meantime before Peeta drags me back home in handcuffs."
Wow, Thom thinks, startled by Katniss's casual use of the President's first name. They really are serious for one another.
"I'm putting you in charge of a group of ten." He hands her a radio, a set of red flags, and a flare gun. "Use this to check in every fifteen minutes, mark anything you see as suspicious with these so the Peacekeepers can take a look at them, and signal with this if you come across any wildlife that might be dangerous. Got it?"
"Anything else?" Katniss says flatly.
Thom drops his voice and approaches her cautiously. "It…it was a cold night last night, Katniss. Even if we get lucky out there, just…don't get your hopes up, alright?"
Katniss steels her jaw but Thom can see his words make her flinch. It's callous, and he knows it, but every second they spend not knowing where the boy is, the less and less likely it becomes that they'll find him—alive, or at all.
Thom calls for his squad to take a short break for water and to catch their breath. They've been hiking nearly a half-mile straight uphill, and with the rough, icy terrain working against them, even he has a stitch in his side. He slurps down some water and brings his radio to his lips.
"Agent Ever—Katniss, come in."
"Katniss here, over."
"Has your squad reached the lake yet?"
"We're still a few minutes away."
"When you do, follow the bankline and search to the west and north; my group will cover the south and east. Copy?"
"Roger that. Katniss out."
Thom calls for his group's attention and sets pace again. The ground is level, but the trees are denser here, and he calls out a warning for the younger volunteers to stay in pairs. He keeps his ears pricked for any cracking of branches or rustling of dried leaves he can't account for, which is why, five minutes later, the screech of a female party member startles him so much.
He bolts to her side, and even he is disgusted at what she's found. It's most definitely a body, but one large and female with a shock of blonde hair tumbling over her shoulders clad in an olive green windbreaker. The jacket wouldn't have been warm enough last night, but Thom can see from the husk of the nest next to her that exposure isn't what killed her.
Funny, he thinks. They were meant to have eradicated tracker jackers.
He hands his map and flag markers to a pair of seventeen-year-olds with instructions to take the shaking woman back to town and get her warmed up and calmed down, then send a few Peacekeepers back with the flags so they can investigate and collect the body. He listens for any tell-tale buzzing of the wasps that might still be around, and when he hears none, he crouches next to the corpse and tries to move her. He inadvertently breaks a couple of her fingers trying to get her bloated body to turn, but there's just enough specifics left of her swollen face for him to begin to place her. He thinks back to Thresh's report about the woman caught in Eleven; just a moment or two, he wonders if he could possibly be correct, or simply grasping at straws.
He tries to patch into Thresh on his communicuff, but the trees are too dense for anything but static to get through to the satellites, so he instructs his astonished volunteers to move along—he'll have more luck near the lake. The group has a dozen questions he can't actually answer, not without breaking protocol, but he hears the optimism in their voices that maybe this means something. After all, even Townies like the Mellark family are nowhere near that fair.
His radio crackles, and Katniss's voice comes through. He presses the call button, but has to ask her to repeat herself several times before he makes out enough of her words to realize why she's whispering.
"There's a small cabin about 500 yards to the north of my group, Thom. And there's smoke coming out of the chimney."
Thom wishes he hadn't given up his map, but he can't recall any sort of dwelling marked on it near the lake. That would have registered to him earlier.
"Katniss, send up a flare. We should be less than a mile from one another, but I want to back you up when you…"
"I'm searching it, Thom. Over."
"Katniss, no, stand down. You're unarmed."
"I'll be fine, Thom."
"Katniss! Stand down and send up a flare! That's an order!"
"If I signal, it might scare them away…"
"What are you talking about? Katniss, stand down!"
The noises are muffled, but it sounds like Katniss has pushed down on the call button and locked it, making his efforts to radio back to her unachievable. He can hear the crunching of leaves under her feet, and without a word to his party, he breaks into a run to make it to the lake. He darts along the shoreline, leaping over stumps and obvious hunting traps, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. He just barely hears the squeak of door hinges and Katniss gasp, "Oh my g—" when the radio finally goes silent.
He can't be far away now, but he also can't possibly be close enough that, even at top speed, he can stop whatever might be happening to Katniss. He prays she's alive when he finds her, that he can get her back to the Capitol in one piece, because he can't let Peeta Mellark down. It's unthinkable.
He sees the cabin Katniss described looming in the not-so-far distance, and despite his tired lungs from running, he's just able to call out to her bewildered search party to stay back as he rushes the door of the cabin, brandishing his weapon as he kicks it in and squats down with the trigger primed. There's just one room, wide and open, and what he takes in after his cursory sweep is enough to make him drop the gun and suck in a deep, baffled breath.
Katniss is kneeling on the floor, rocking back and forth, with tears pouring out of her eyes. Her lips are buried in a mess of matted, dirty, blonde curls, and at first, Thom thinks the tiny body is limp and lifeless. When the creature she holds stirs and murmurs something that sounds like, "I w-want my Daddy…" Thom finds he's able to breathe again.
He steps to Katniss's side, who looks up at him with joy in her eyes despite the tears. Thom tilts Rye Mellark's face up to his own and smiles at the little boy, who looks dazed and confused.
"It's alright, Little Duck. I'm gonna call your Daddy right now," Thom says, his own voice thick with emotion.
Katniss continues to cling to the child, rocking him slowly while Thom raises his communicuff and dials in Thresh's call signal. He has to clear his throat a couple of times in order to get the words out, but finally he manages, "Thom to Thresh. We've found him. Alive. I repeat—Little Duck is secure."
He isn't listening. Not that Haymitch expects he would. He's rubbing his knuckles along his pursed lips and staring out the window, but not a single word Thresh is saying to him is registering. Haymitch supposes it's alright—he has plenty of time to talk to with them about Rye's new guard, new security measures, what he'll need to do to make sure that Rye has the mental and emotional support he'll need after such an ordeal as this, but Peeta doesn't have to hear it right now. Haymitch puts his hand on Thresh's shoulder, and the two men share a nod before Thresh gets up and leaves them alone. Haymitch takes the seat next to the President, but doesn't expect that anything he says will get through to Peeta, either.
"Your parents, brothers, and in-laws are with the kiddo already. The girl, of course. And the navigator says we're just a few minutes outside the Dis—"
"Why did they give him morphling?" Peeta says suddenly, drawing his eyes away from the window to look at Haymitch head on. "Why wouldn't they just use chloroform to keep him knocked out, or whatever other drugs Six pumps out by the gallon-full? Why something that would make him…happy?"
Haymitch rubs his jaw thoughtfully, but finally has to shrug his shoulders in defeat. "I'm not sure, sir. But at some point, we probably ought to discuss who the real target in all of this was."
Peeta looks out the window again. "They wanted to get to me. They knew they could get to me through him.
"I'll kill them, Haymitch," Peeta says after a beat. "I'll kill them when we find out who did this."
"Mr. President, you can't say things like—"
"I can say whatever I please. And I mean what I say."
The younger man gets to his feet and throws his jacket on. He leans over the couch in the corner and retrieves the little stuffed cat—Rye's stuffed cat—that Thresh had brought back to him after the investigating agents cleared it of any trace evidence. Peeta holds it tight to his chest as he stamps through the door to the entry hall, where Delly is pacing, waiting just as nervously for the craft to land. Neither sibling pays any mind to the warning for every occupant to take a seat and strap in for landing, and neither Haymitch nor any of their assembled guards says anything to push the subject. The landings are always soft, anyway.
They've touched down in the Meadow between the Seam and the Town, and as soon as the hatch is opened, Peeta and Delly loop arms and practically run between Thresh and Mitchell. Haymitch follows close enough that he can hear Thom greet the President at the base of the stairs, and attempt to inform him of all the circumstances that lead to finding the boy, and what preliminary medical findings they've gleaned so far.
"Other than the crudeness of the removal of his trackers, he shouldn't have any lasting physical damage. His captors kept him warm enough. I think he'll need comfort and sleep more than anything else," Thom says.
"My father has him now?" Peeta says tersely.
"Yes, sir, And Agen—Katniss is with him, too."
They're led to a small hut that Haymitch surmises they'd been using as a base of operations for the search effort. Delly drops back out of respect for her brother, who's hastening his steps to get to his child at long last. As Haymitch looks on, a sea of blonde-haired Mellarks, Cartwrights, and Undersees part enough to show the elder Mr. Mellark holding Rye, wrapped in a blanket and clearly fussy, in his arms.
Peeta's voice is pained and sharp when he cries out, "Rye!"
The boy wiggles free of his grandfather's embrace and breaks into a run, calling out, "Daddy! Daddy!" as he races towards his father. Peeta only has to take a few steps, then falls to his knees and holds out his arms before Rye rushes into them with enough force to knock Peeta backwards. He tucks his son under his chin, places his nose on the crown of the boy's head, draws in a deep breath, and then bursts into tears. His arms completely envelop the child, and he rocks to and fro, clearly unable to do anything but hold his child and weep happily.
In his haste to get to Rye, Peeta dropped the stuffie, and now Haymitch tosses it back and forth between his hands before pressing it into a sobbing Delly Cartwright's trembling arms. A minute later, a muffled, whiny voice complains, "Daddy, you're hugging too tight…", and Peeta releases his grip, wipes his eyes quickly, and presses his forehead against his son's to allow a few inches of space between them.
"I'm sorry, Duck… I just missed you, that's all," Peeta says thickly, and presses a long kiss to his boy's cheek.
"We can go home now, right?" Rye says pathetically, and Peeta nods.
"Yeah, Ry-Ry… We're going home right now."
Peeta rises to his feet with Rye propped on his hip. Peeta beckons Delly closer, and allows her to take the boy into her own arms and cling to him tightly. As excited as the boy appears to be to see his aunt, he seems even happier to see Maysi, and clutches it to his chest.
The crowd behind them parts, and as Peeta takes just a second to stop staring at his son, a weary-looking Katniss Everdeen steps towards him. In the blink of an eye, Katniss launches herself into the President's arms, and while it doesn't surprise Haymitch in the slightest, the President's assembled family gasp softly as the lovers' faces tilt together in a passionate, desperate kiss. Their mouths move in tandem and their embrace is solid to the point that they begin and end together. When they finally surface for a breath, Haymitch can clearly hear Katniss whisper, "I told you… I told you I'd find him."
A/N: First of all, please allow me to apologize for the gap of time between these two chapters - it was supposed to be a quick turnaround time between the last chapter and this one, but writer's block and RL had other plans for me. To all of you who have been so unendingly patient and excited for this chapter...well, I hope it lived up!
My thanks always to the fabulous sohypothetically and the epic Court81981 for their help polishing this chapter (though I proofread with a fuzzy, cold-addled brain, so any further mistakes in grammar or continuity are mine and mine alone!).
This chapter and the one preceeding it got their titles from Aimee Mann's "Humpty Dumpty", while the chapter itself was strongly influenced, of course, by the Zoey Bartlet kidnapping arc of The West Wing. TWW probably recognized my nod to the staple line of "I serve at the pleasure of the president," - I couldn't resist putting it in!
Finally, and most importantly, the continued response this story has received has flattered and floored me. Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for following, favoriting, kudo-ing, and reviewing! I treasure every ounce of feedback you all give me, and appreciate it more than you can possibly know.
I'm baronesskika on Tumblr as well. Speak to you all soon, and happy reading!