Gale ran towards the town. The town was an inferno, the flames seeming to grow by the second, but that only made him run harder. He could practically feel time running out.
He had known the moment the television screen went dark that something bad was about to happen. Somehow he just knew. There had always been rumblings of rebellion in the mines, but it was limited to talk. Nobody in Twelve was willing to risk their precarious existence on open revolt. But someone, somewhere, obviously was. Gale was sure of it the moment the power died. The idea elated him, but he also knew it wasn't safe in District 12 anymore. He and his family were already leaving when fire began raining from the sky. He left Rory with the job of retrieving Mrs. Everdeen and taking everyone out of the district, and took off running for the town, his only thought that he had to get to Katniss before it was too late. Once again, her insistence on staying in town with that damned baker was ruining everything.
That last thought was motivated entirely by practical concerns and not at all by jealousy, he struggled to reassure himself.
Everything was happening too fast. The fire was spreading too fast, the flames were growing too fast. Everything was going up like a tinderbox, fueled by decades of coal dust ground into every surface. He had to change his route several times, as the usual paths were cut off by huge craters left behind by bomb detonations, or by walls of flame. He was beginning to despair of ever finding a clear path to the bakery, when he thought he heard her voice. He looked around, seeing nothing, when suddenly just a hundred feet in front of him he saw a large body burst through the flames and collapse to the ground. A moment later a much smaller body came through as well, a body whose movements and posture were nearly as familiar to him as his own.
"Catnip!" he called out, but she didn't hear him. He ran over as Katniss struggled to drag Peeta away from the flames. As he approached, he could see that they were both in pretty bad shape. Katniss had a nasty burn on the outside of her thigh that was red and oozing, and welts on the palms of both hands that she paid no mind to as she knelt by Peeta's supine form and patted out flames that had caught on his clothing. Peeta made no move to get up; his lower leg had been mangled somehow, and as Gale got closer he could see that Katniss had used a torn shirt twisted around a rolling pin to cut off blood flow to the wound, an emergency medical dressing he himself had learned about when he started working in the mines. The miners taught it to each other in case of an accident; it had saved the life of a woman named Ripper many years ago, though it cost her her arm.
Gale knelt opposite Katniss on Peeta's other side and finally got her attention. When she looked up at him, her eyes held a crazed, feral look he hadn't seen since Prim was reaped. "Help me," she pleaded. "I can't carry him, he's too heavy."
For just a moment, the familiar jealousy that always accompanied any thoughts of Katniss and the baker consumed him. He knew they had only a friendly relationship, but he lived in constant worry that it would grow into more over time. At first he had hoped Peeta would try something and scare Katniss away. As the years had passed, he grew to fear the idea of Peeta trying something, afraid that Katniss would be receptive.
But he knew there was no time for his jealousy right now, not when all their lives were at stake. He hauled Peeta up onto his good leg and threw one of the injured man's arms over his shoulders. Katniss moved to Peeta's other side to offer what support she could, but it was slow going. Two people of such different heights were ill equipped to help a man along, and the herky-jerky motion was causing Peeta intense pain in his injured leg. The second time they dropped him, Peeta decided it was enough.
"We'll never make it at this rate," he told the others.
Gale had come to the same conclusion, but had been reluctant to voice it, and he was glad of his restraint when he saw the angry look on Katniss's face. "Shut up, Peeta. We're trying to save you, dammit!"
"Katniss, you have to leave me behind," he said far too calmly for an injured man asking to die. "It's the only way you or Gale can survive."
Katniss shook her head in denial. "No…"
"Katniss, please," Peeta begged. "Don't die for me. You won't be doing me any favors."
"I won't just leave you behind!" she said.
"Your family needs you, Katniss," Peeta said. "Your mother needs you. Gale needs you. No one really needs me."
For just a moment, Gale felt his heart soar at the fact that Peeta has casually included him as part of Katniss's family. But as much as Peeta had just renewed his hope of rebuilding his relationship with Katniss, a moment later Katniss shattered it.
"I do," she said emphatically. "I need you." Peeta shook his head, and opened his mouth to say something, but Katniss stopped his lips with her fingertips. "They've taken so much from us already," she said. She moved her hand from his mouth to take his hands in hers. "Don't let them take you from me."
Peeta shook his head again. "No, I don't want to…"
"Stay with me," Katniss cut him off.
Peeta seemed to be wavering, warring with himself over his response, when a loud crash from nearby spurred Gale to action. "We're wasting time," he said, ignoring his broken heart. No matter what he was feeling, he had a very great desire to live long enough to feel it. He took Peeta's hands from Katniss and used them to pull Peeta up into a sitting position, then back up onto his good leg. "Sorry about this, baker boy, it won't be very pleasant for you." He grabbed Peeta around the waist and hauled him up and over his shoulder like he was a large pack of tools.
"Can you carry him very far?" Katniss asked timidly as she stood.
"Far enough," Gale grunted. "Let's go."
It was strange watching her mother work. It always had been. Even in the good years before her father died, her mother became a different person when she was working on patients. Stronger. More focused. More efficient. And even as she changed through the years, even after she lost first a husband and later a daughter, this person she became in the presence of illness or injury had never really changed.
These thoughts occupied Katniss as she watched her mother treat the refugees from what used to be District 12. Broken bones were set, cuts were stitched, and of course burns were bandaged. Katniss herself had a large bandage wrapped around her thigh. Thankfully most injuries were rather minor; it seemed that anyone with more serious injuries never made it out of the district.
Except for one, of course.
They had made camp at her father's lake; part of Katniss resented having all these people at what she had long thought of as a private place, but when they fled into the woods she hadn't been able to think of any better destination. The lake offered clean water, good food sources, and it was far enough from the district to be safe without being too far of a hike. At first Katniss tried to assist her mother with treating people, but found that regardless of being only other person there with any medical knowledge, she was singularly unsuited for the task as she always had been. Soon she was replaced by Delly Cartwright, a friend of Peeta's who was one of the few survivors form town. She shared Peeta's empathy and compassion and was instantly more of a help than Katniss could be even after a lifetime of watching her mother and sister at work. Katniss's role was reduced to retrieving requested plants and herbs from the woods around them.
They had left their most difficult patient for last. It was almost midday when they all finally gathered by Peeta's side. He lay stretched across the hearth in the little concrete house by the lake's edge, oblivious to the world around him after being dosed with almost half their remaining supply of sleep syrup. Filling the small structure were not only Katniss, her mother, and Delly, but also Gale and his mining crewmate Thom, who seemed to have some sort of prior relationship with Delly that Katniss didn't feel like taking the time to unravel just then.
Mrs. Everdeen gave Peeta's mangled leg one last look, and sadly shook her head as she stood. "It's no use, there's nothing we can do."
A part of Katniss knew her mother's diagnosis had been inevitable, but still she rebelled against it. "There has to be something. The fires have died down, maybe we can get something from the district-"
"That won't do any good, Katniss," her mother said. "If we had a hospital, a real hospital like they have in the Capitol, and we had gotten him there last night, then maybe they could have done something. But now it's too late for even that." She gestured to the injured limb. "Peeta's leg is rotting, Katniss, you know that as well as I do. The only thing protecting him from blood poisoning is that tourniquet. We have no choice but to amputate."
"What do you mean we have no choice!" Katniss screamed. "Of course we do! We can't just chop off his leg! He isn't even awake! Who are you, anyway, to decide this for him!"
Peeta began stirring in his drug-induced sleep. He tried to move his leg, as Mrs. Everdeen and Delly moved to hold him in place. "Take her out," Mrs. Everdeen ordered. Gale and Thom had to literally carry Katniss out the door while she shouted obscenities at her mother. At Gale's direction, they brought her down to the lakeshore a bit away from the house, and held her there until her fight gave out and dissolved into sobs.
When Katniss eventually calmed herself, Thom had left, and she was alone with Gale. He gave her some food he had gathered, some nuts and berries and katniss tubers roasted over a fire. They ate in silence until Katniss spoke up. "I'm sorry."
"It's alright," Gale said. "After last night I think we all need a breakdown."
"No, Gale-" she paused, unsure how to explain herself, but she felt like she had to say this now. "I'm sorry I hurt you."
Gale stared at her intently for half a minute, then shifted his gaze to look out over the water. "I never stood a chance, did I?"
Katniss didn't answer directly. "I never wanted the same things you did." They had discussed it since they were kids, really. His desire to marry and have children. "I tried to. I wanted to. It would have been so much easier if I did. But I just couldn't."
"And now?" Gale asked. "With him?"
"I don't know," she answered honestly. "I know what everyone thinks, but it's never been like that between us. We've never even discussed it, really." She left out the one time they had discussed it, the night Prim died when Peeta had confessed to having feelings for her. Gale didn't need to know about that, and besides Peeta himself hadn't mentioned it again in the years since. "It's just, last night… If he died, I don't know what I'd do." She shook her head in disbelief, shocked at her words even as she was saying them. "I can't lose him."
They didn't speak again until Delly came to them. "We're done," she said simply. "You can go see him if you want."
Katniss looked quickly to Gale. "Go on," he said. "You should be there when he wakes up."
Katniss flashed him a quick smile, and moved quickly to return to the house. Inside, Peeta hadn't moved. His leg ended with a large bandage just above where his knee used to be. Katniss looked away from that quickly. She sat on the floor by the hearth, facing Peeta's head, with his leg hidden behind her. Alone with Peeta for the first time since Gale had found them the night before, she took his hand and held it tightly in both of hers, pretending not to let her fingertips wander to check his pulse every so often.
He looked younger with his features relaxed in sleep; in the dim light from the windows it was easy to see the boy he used to be. The boy with the bread, who had braved his mother's cruel punishment to throw her that crucial sustenance. She let her fingers wander to his face, tracing the outline of the swollen bruise that had been on his cheek the next day at school. The eye that had been blackened. She brushed some of his unruly blond hair out of his face. She gently ran the pads of her fingers across his forehead. Down the side of his face. Along the stubble covering his jaw.
Would things have been different if she had talked to him that day? What could they have been, a starving Seam girl whose father was dead and a popular town boy whose mother beat him? Would they have been friends? Could they have been more? Would she have wanted different things from life if she had had someone she wanted them with?
For just a moment, she pictured this alternate Katniss and Peeta. Friends as kids, growing into teenagers together. Supporting each other through the reapings. Helping ease the pain of an abusive mother, or one who was mentally absent. She would have met Rye in person, and been there for Peeta when he was reaped. Peeta and Prim would get along better than any two people she could imagine, she was sure of it, and he would have been as devastated by her death as Katniss was herself.
She couldn't help but envy this alternate Katniss, who grew from a child to an adult with Peeta as a constant presence in her life. She had no doubt that the alternate Katniss was a better person than the real one had turned out to be.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered. She lifted Peeta's hand from her lap and pressed it to her lips. "I wasted so much time. It was almost too much time." She felt tears escaping her eyes, and furiously brushed them away with her free hand. "I won't waste any more," she promised, as much to herself as to Peeta.
She didn't remember falling asleep, but she woke with a start when someone jostled her shoulder. She realized she was leaned awkwardly over Peeta's sleeping form, and groaned at the stiffness in her back as she sat up.
She looked up to find her mother examining Peeta's leg. "I just need to check the wound and put on a fresh bandage," the older woman explained. Katniss just nodded in reply.
Katniss took a moment to admire the way her mother went about her job. The skin around Peeta's new stump didn't even look irritated. And where had she managed to find a needle to stitch the wound closed? Or a saw to cut the bone, for that matter? Operating in conditions like this made her usual scrounging for instruments in the Seam look easy, but somehow she had managed, just like always. Peeta was lucky she was here among their little group of survivors. They all were. Katniss knew there were more people than just Peeta who wouldn't even be amongst the survivors if nor for her mother's efforts overnight.
"I'm sorry," Katniss said. "About screaming at you before."
Mrs. Everdeen waved off her apology. "I've heard worse," she said. "You've seen how people are, when someone they love is in pain."
Someone they love. The words crashed against Katniss's psyche. That's what she had been thinking about earlier, wasn't it? She had never thought to put the name to it, but there was no other word that fit. Wanting a life with Peeta. Wanting the kind of life with him that Gale had always wanted with her. Feeling bereft at the idea of losing him. That was the feeling that she hadn't realized she'd been refusing to name. That was love.
"Yeah," was all she said out loud. Soon enough her mother finished her work and she was once again left alone with Peeta. And her thoughts.
It was growing dark again when she felt Peeta's hand twitch in hers. She looked up to see his eyes flutter open, just slightly. "Hey," he grunted.
"Hey," she replied around the lump in her throat.
"You stayed," he said.
"I'm not going anywhere," she said. "And that means you can't either."
"Never crossed my mind," he got out before drifting off again.
Later on, he would think that he'd dreamed the smile on her face.
Here's the huge cliffhanger for the next chapter: How will I count the years now that the rebellion is beginning and there presumably won't be any more Games?