After watching Catching Fire and having to deal with the heart wrenching goodbye scene between Katniss and Peeta, I decided to explore how things could have changed if the rescue mission had gone successfully, and Peeta and Johanna made it to District 13 too.
When she wakes, the first thing she notices is the chill in the air. Cool, and so dry that every breath leaves her throat feeling sore. She struggles to sit up, pressing her palms against the thin cot to prop herself onto her elbows, but a thick leather strap holds her in place.
She's too weak to fight against the restraints , and her tongue is like sandpaper, making it impossible to make sound when she tries to call out for him.
"Katniss?" he says. His warm hand touches her cheek and she has to blink rapidly to clear the tears blinding her eyes when he comes into view. It takes a moment for her eyes to adjust to the harsh lighting, but soon she can make out the outline of his face.
"Peeta," she barely manages to croak in response.
He unbuckles her restraints and gathers her into his arms. Her right arm screams from where Johanna dug a knife into her, and she notices that Peeta wears a matching bandage.
"Where are we?" she says.
He frowns, his eyes flitting away from hers. "Do you remember what happened? In the arena?" he says.
"I blew it up, I think." The memories flash by in broken images. "Johanna and Finnick were trying to kill us, and there were canons. I thought you were dead." A wrack of sobs overtakes her and she doesn't want to think about the Games anymore. "I was dead," she insists. "The hovercraft came to get me, just like all the other dead tributes."
"You rescued us," he says.
She narrows her eyes. How has she rescued them when they're back in the Capitol's hands? The image of Plutarch Heavensbee as he slipped her eyelids shut still haunts her.
"There was a plan all along. Finnick, Johanna, Beetee – Haymitch too, they were all in on it. Beetee was going to jam his knife into the force field when the lightening hit the tree. All the stuff with the wire in the water, it was all a distraction to fool the Capitol. But when Beetee heard the canons, I think he thought it was the lightening storm starting. We don't know, he hasn't woken up yet."
"Johanna knocked me out," she says, then waves her bandaged arm around for good measure.
"She was cutting out your tracker."
"He was in on it too. He's on our side, I guess. The rebellion."
Her eyes widen at the thought. "The rebellion? It's happening?"
"Katniss…" his voice softens. Words always come easy to Peeta, but in this moment he struggles to find the right ones. "That's not all." The cot shifts when he sits down beside her, and he cradles her hand in both of his. "They bombed District Twelve after you destroyed the arena. It's all gone."
Her lungs feel heavy when she drains her last breath. "Prim?"
"She's safe. Your mother too – and Gale… most of the Seam made it to the fence."
"Your family?" she says, and he shakes his head wordlessly. "Peeta." He's quiet for a long moment. She never really understood the relationship he had with his family, and she doesn't know how to comfort him. "Where are we going then?" she asks.
"There's some sort of underground headquarters in District Thirteen."
District Thirteen is real, just as Bonnie and Twill had said.
"I don't trust them," she says.
He lays down beside her on the narrow mattress and holds her against his chest. "I don't trust them either," he says.
District Thirteen is unlike anything she could have imagined. They're issued uniforms and a hygiene kit, then assigned compartments in the medical wing.
"Quarantine," one of the doctors explains with no further detail. Apparently all the District Twelve refugees went through the same procedure, but Katniss doubts they got medical bracelets, too, declaring them "mentally disoriented."
Gale is the first to see her. There are burns along the side of his face, disappearing beneath the collar of his shirt, but all she can focus on is the military looking insignia on his breast pocket. He hugs her tightly and steadies her when her legs begin to collapse beneath her own weight.
"I never thought I'd see you again," he whispers into her hair.
"I know," she says.
"It's happening," he says. "The Districts have all rebelled and Thirteen has the firepower we need to fight back."
She wants to feel relief, but she can't. "Where were they before?"
He can't answer.
After a few weeks of observation, Katniss is allowed to move into an apartment with her mother and sister. The room is no bigger than their old home in the Seam. A pair of bunk beds, a stiff sofa, and a small kitchenette with a sink and electric kettle for tea.
At night, she unfolds the silver parachute she saved from the arena. The doctors confiscated the tube of medicine, but she still has the spiel, the locket, and the pearl tucked safely inside. She unhinges the clasp on the locket and brushes her thumb over each picture. This was the freedom she was fighting for, she reminds herself. Prim's safety. A possible future for her and Gale.
She drops the locket and picks up the pearl, rolling it between her fingers. It's still clutched in her fist when she wakes the next morning.
The victors are gathered in the command center, where Katniss meets the infamous President Coin for the first time. Each are assigned a symbolic title that carries no meaning. Finnick a general, Johanna a commander, Beetee the Head of Defense, Peeta a district representative, and most laughable of all, Katniss is named the Mockingjay.
"We don't have to pretend anymore," Peeta tells her as they linger outside of the room. "In fact, they think it would be better if we didn't, since it was all for the Capitol anyway. The districts never believed our romance, and knowing that it was all forced?"
"It really rallies the troops," she says for him.
His smile is sad and he nods. "Yeah."
She supposes she should feel relieved, now that she no longer has to play Snow's puppet, but the Mockingjay only feels like another role.
"What does Haymitch think?"
"You're going to start listening to him?" he says with a chuckle. "He lied to us, you know."
"We're both still alive, aren't we?"
"It was his idea, actually. He thought maybe we'd want a break from the whole star crossed lovers thing."
She can't look at him and her eyes study the twist of shoelaces on his official, District Thirteen issued boots instead. "Is that what you want?" she says.
He brushes some loose hair from her forehead and tucks it behind her ear, his fingers catching the end of her braid as he lowers his hand.
"You're free to be with whoever you want now," he says.
She tips up her chin to meet his eye. "Like Gale?" she says. It seems cruel, but she knows that's what he means to imply.
He only nods, and again she feels it. That hum that starts in the pit of her stomach and sends heat to her cheeks. Like when they were on the beach and only Finnick and the lightening could stop them. Even when her mind isn't sure, her body insists on guiding her.
She kisses him tentatively at first. Their lips touching again and again with growing frenzy until they're wrapped around one another and the wall behind her is the only thing that keeps them standing.
He pulls back slightly, their shallow breaths echoing down the empty corridor. "You can't keep kissing me like that," he says. And it's not about the audience; it never has been for him. He can't pretend he doesn't love her anymore. Can't pretend that she could ever love him back.
Her heart sinks as she watches him walk away.
Being free from beneath Snow's thumb doesn't help the nightmares. Katniss wakes regularly through the night, shrieking into her pillow. Her mother and Prim rarely wake at the sound of her screams anymore; instead they leave a remedy of sleep serum on her bedside table to soothe her back to sleep.
She longs for the nights on the train, wrapped in Peeta's arms, safe from the terrors that waited for her on the other side of her dreams. She thinks about going to him. His apartment is only a few winding turns away, but somehow, she knows, it's not something she's allowed to do.
Playing the Mockingjay is surprisingly simple. They form a star squad of sharp shooters including her, Finnick, Johanna, and Gale. Whenever they train, there is always a camera crew covering them from every angle. Katniss doubts they'll ever see any action, but the shooting range is impressive, and it's the only time they're allowed above ground, so she welcomes the time eagerly.
The treeline is less than a hundred yards away, and each day she and Gale inch closer and closer, picking off the animals that venture to the edge of the woods. The higher ranking officers frown upon it at first, but their tune quickly changes the first time they try Greasy Sae's venison stew.
"What's it like working alongside your cousin for once," Cressida, the propos director asks, noting their easy dynamic.
"He's not my cousin," Katniss says, and it's not until the words leave her mouth that she realizes how loaded the statement is.
A week later, they debut the propos in the control room, and it's obvious what the message intends to suggest, especially when the image lingers on Katniss and Gale smiling at one another with his arm around her shoulders.
"He's not my cousin," her voice rings out, playful, as if it's a secret that the entire country is in on.
She feels a blush creep up her cheeks, and she keeps her eyes trained on the table for the rest of the meeting.
"You look happy together," Peeta says, and it's not malicious or hurt, the way he says it. He sounds genuinely kind.
That's what hurts.
District Thirteen runs on a strict schedule at such scripted intervals, Katniss is convinced that Effie Trinket is somehow involved. She wonders where Effie is. It's a question she doesn't dare ask, not after she saw what happened to Cinna.
Breakfast at 0600, training from 0700 until lunch at 1200, sharp. Then military strategy studies for the afternoon followed by reflection, dinner, further reflection, and then lights out.
Studies and training differs for civilians, but their meals still overlap, and she finds that besides the strategy meetings three times a week, it's the only time she gets to see Peeta these days.
He spends most of his time with Delly Cartwright, a merchant girl, one of the few from that side of town to have survived the bombings. Katniss remembers her from school, always too nice, always too friendly, as if that's an excuse to dislike somebody.
Peeta and Delly had always been friends, from what she had seen, but now she can't stand the sight of them together, with their heads bowed and hands touching. They've lost everything, she has to remind herself when she feels jealousy burn hot in her chest.
She thinks of Prim, and her mother, and Gale, and his family. All of them are safe. Peeta and Delly didn't just lose their families; most of their friends were caught in the flames too. When Katniss thinks of the people in her life, the living still greatly outnumber the dead. Even Greasy Sae is still scooping out stew as if it were any old day at the Hob.
But the loss still weighs upon her shoulders so heavily that every day becomes a challenge. Her father, Rue, Cinna, and now Madge too. Peeta and Delly must be haunted by these thoughts every second with nobody to reach out to for comfort.
Katniss sits at Peeta's table along with Finnick, Johanna, and Gale. They talk idly about the supply route that has been secured between District Thirteen and Four, which will bring more food and medical supplies to the District Headquarters. Finnick is more animated than Katniss has ever seen, talking a mile a minute about Annie Cresta, who will be arriving on the first hovercraft by the end of the week.
Katniss only pays passing attention to the conversation, stirring her stew until it's cold and casting glances in Peeta's direction. Her roll sits untouched on the corner of her tray. They cook their bread in large batches once a week, and by Thursday the crust is sharp and stale and nearly impossible to chew.
She misses the fresh bread Peeta used to leave on her kitchen counter every morning. The warm hearty bread with raisins and nuts, he tossed to her when she was dying.
She reaches for the roll and places it on his tray. The gesture's too small, but she hopes that he understands. When she had nothing, he gave her hope. She could never find a way to repay that debt, but now she can at least try.
He hesitates to pick up the bread, and then turns it in his hands a few times. Their eyes meet briefly, but she can no longer hold his gaze when he smiles at her.
"Thanks," he says, tearing off a corner with his teeth, and she can feel him watching her throughout the rest of the meal.
"Was it real?"
She has to blink a few times to remember where she is. The lights are bright and they shine from every corner of the room making it impossibly hot. She sits on a sofa between Peeta and Johanna. Finnick and Annie are seated on a smaller loveseat beside them and Beetee is alone on a plush chair.
Plutarch has taken on the role of Caesar Flickerman and looks far too pleased about it.
"Excuse me?" Katniss says, folding her hands in her lap to hide her slick palms.
"Your relationship with Peeta," he elaborates.
A red light flashes behind the lens of the camera that's trained on her. Out of habit, she turns to Peeta with wide eyes.
"Parts of it," Peeta says, taking the lead as he does so well. "Not the berries." Across Panem, Katniss can imagine hoots and hollering in the streets at the confession. "It wasn't about love, it was about doing what was right. I only wish we had taken a stand sooner. There could have been 22 less casualties to the senseless violence. Thousands even." His eyes look directly at the camera when he makes his next statement. "How anyone could stand by and watch those Games go on for so many years without doing anything? It's sickening."
The light on the camera abruptly dies and Plutarch switches focus to Finnick Odair and his Capitol affairs. The truth about Finnick's past is brutal, and Katniss finds herself reaching for Peeta's hand without thought. If they had been lone victors they may have suffered the same fate.
Peeta's just as charming and handsome as Finnick Odair, and she wonders how free he would have been as the victor of the 75th Hunger Games.
"You look upset, Katniss," Plutarch says, and again, she feels the camera on her. "Did you ever feel sold? President Snow forced you into a marriage then made a mockery of it."
"The wedding was my idea," she says.
"But did you want to marry Peeta?"
She laughs nervously. "I didn't want to marry anyone. I just wanted a choice. I think that's what we all want. Instead of being a piece in some game." She looks at Peeta and he smiles at her. Her relationship with Peeta had been the Capitol's design, and now Thirteen's destruction of their love feels no different. "But where does the game end?"
"Thank heavens for the rebellion then!" Plutarch cheers, and Katniss can't help but notice the forced grins on the other victors' faces.
The interview sends a buzz of excitement through her. Something powerful. Something no one can take away. When the propos ends she catches Peeta's arm.
"I would have died for you in the second arena," she says. "It was real."
They send her to District Eight without warning. The morning of, her schedule simply reads: REPORT TO THE MAIN HANGER. Squad 451 has mostly assembled by the time she arrives, and Beetee is waiting for her with a custom bow and a series of elaborate instructions. Point and shoot, she boils it down to.
It seems that no time has passed before she's being ushered onto a hovercraft behind Finnick and a camera crew.
"Where are we going?" she asks, feeling dread rise from the pit of her stomach.
"A propos on the battle lines," Finnick says. "Nobody told you?"
Her eyes widen. They're going to war. Prim, her mother, Peeta. She didn't get to say goodbye. She turns to run, but the ramp has already fallen away and the hovercraft is lifting fast.
She sees Peeta run out onto the tarmac with three soldiers on his heel. He waves his arms frantically, shouting something that's swallowed in the hum of the engine.
"Peeta!" she screams until her throat is raw.
Her mind flashes back to the final minutes in the arena, when they were forced to separate and all hell had broken loose. She can't go without him. She refuses.
Boggs and Finnick have to restrain her and they sedate her with sleep serum for the flight.
When she wakes, Peeta's name is still on her tongue. Johanna has changed her into her Mockingjay uniform and they're pushing her out of the hovercraft.
It takes her eyes a moment to adjust to the haze. It's too foggy to see more than a foot in front of her, but when she reaches out to touch it, she realizes that it's not fog, it's ash. The justice building has been turned to rubble and when a low flying plane passes over, it releases a whistling capsule that explodes a few kilometers away.
"Take cover!" Boggs commands and they all begin to run.
"Was that our plane?" she asks, but nobody answers.
They break apart. Katniss with Finnick and Johanna with Gale, each team accompanied by their own camera pod. The rebels have taken most of the town square, but there are still Capitol security cells around the perimeter that must be deactivated. Finnick points out each target and tells Katniss where to fire. Most of them explode, but some are different kinds of traps, with sharp, barbed wire, and thick, steel claws.
"We have a problem, come quick," Johanna's voice sounds in her earpiece. "It's Gale," she adds, almost like an afterthought.
Katniss's feet move so fast, the world around her becomes a blur. She finds them in an abandoned warehouse, where a pod has Gale's foot trapped. It's different from the ones she was shooting with Finnick outside. A small vessel that's filled with a milky looking gas, like the fog in the arena.
"Get water!" she shouts to no one in particular. She trails her fingers along the hinge of the pod, looking for a latch. Gale cries out in agony as the acid eats away his boot, then his sock. She finds the switch, and the hatch pops open, evaporating the poison into the air. Her cheeks singe as the thin stream of fog floats by, but the sting is nothing compared to what she had experienced in the arena.
She cradles Gale in her lap, stroking the side of his face. "You're okay," she chants over and over.
The scene begins to feel too familiar. A camera trained on her as she nurses her lover back to health. Her eyes lock with Gale's and she searches his imploringly. He shakes his head, as if coming to the same conclusion.
They're to be the star crossed lovers of the rebellion.
She leans in close so that her mouth is shielded by his face. "I do love you," she whispers in his ear where the cameras can't see.
"I know," he says, his voice pained, but there's a hint of a smile. "Just not like that."
When they return to District Thirteen, Peeta's dressed in a military uniform with 451 sewn below the breast pocket and some made up ranking. She falls into his arms before her feet touch the tarmac, holding onto him so tightly, she thinks her arms may snap.
That night, there isn't even a debate, and she wordlessly slips into Peeta's compartment and that's where she stays.
Sleeping beside Peeta is different now, since their kiss on the beach. She had felt a stirring before, in the cave, but the craving was manageable then. Now, she's drowning in it.
When she's lying in his arms, she can't sleep. Her mind is too busy racing. She remembers the urgency of their kiss, the pleasant pressure between her legs when she had straddled his lap. Her body bows, back arching, hips pushing into his. This is when the touching begins.
It's lucid at first, when they're half asleep – or at least pretending to be, and they shift and stretch until she feels him hard against against her thigh and his hand is ghosting beneath her rib cage. As the nights go by, they grow bolder. They rock their hips together until their breath goes ragged, and she rides his fingers when they slip into her underwear.
Soon, they're both naked and he hovers above her, his cock poised at her entrance. "Do you have anything?" he says, and it's the first words they've spoke about this new arrangement.
They gave her a shot when she was in the Capitol before the Games, but she doesn't know how long it lasts. District Thirteen doesn't have that type of birth control, in fact, she's never seen so much as a condom in the medical wing, only pamphlet after pamphlet about fertility treatments. There's already a dozen women from the Seam with child and the District Thirteen doctors fawn over them endlessly.
"Do you think you can pull out in time?"
He groans and sits back on his haunches, finishing her with his mouth instead.
"I couldn't risk it," he tells her after he's come in his hand. "I wouldn't do that to you."
A baby. The thoughts sour the moment. The rebellion is as good as won, and she doubts there will be a Games come summer. She refused to even consider having a child then, but at least she had a choice.
There aren't any children in Thirteen, yet they welcome them eagerly. Too eagerly. She feels unsettled about the whole thing, like another aspect of her life is out of her control.
Finnick and Annie are wed in a grand ceremony that's filmed for the whole world to see. The feast is standard rations, but they serve the bland meal on decorative plates, and Ripper is compensated well for the confiscated moonshine she provides in lieu of wine.
Katniss rarely leaves the dance floor, spinning endlessly with Prim to every song and even teaching Johanna a few of the District Twelve jigs.
As the evening draws to a close, the music slows, and so does the dancing. Katniss finds Peeta, who has sat out most of the night due to his bad leg, and guides him onto the floor. His hold is formal at first, but soon both his hands are settled on her hips and they gently lull back and forth as if floating on ocean waves.
"Not quite a Capitol Waltz," he murmurs into her ear.
"Effie would be horrified," she says, before she can catch herself.
He senses the sudden tension. "She's watching right now," he assures her. "Shrieking 'Posture! Posture! Are you even counting anymore?'"
She straightens her spine and he does the same and they do a few perfectly choreographed spins, before settling back into the mindless rocking.
"Do you think she's okay?" she says.
"I hope so."
"They're not awful, the people in the Capitol," she says. "Not all of them. They just don't know any better."
"We're all guilty of that," he says. "We're all a little bit selfish."
"Not you," she says quickly.
He laughs. "I'm very selfish. I've never been able to let go of you."
She kisses away his sheepish grin, catching him off guard. He blinks rapidly in surprise, but then he's smiling again and he kisses her back.
"Peeta," she says, when they fall back into the steps of the dance. "We can't fight for these people. It's all going to end the same way."
"I'd be surprised if there's anyone left at the end of this war," he says. She narrows her eyes, prompting him to continue. "You ever wonder why the Capitol ignored District Thirteen for so long? It's obvious they knew that they were here." Katniss remembers the loop footage of the justice building that the Capitol played during every report. "District Thirteen has the type of bombs that could level the entire Capitol with a single hovercraft."
"Then why didn't they?"
"They didn't need us before," he says.
His eyes dart around the banquet hall to see if anyone is watching. He kisses her abruptly and instantly she recognizes what kind of kiss it is. They shared a hundred of them on the Victory Tour. When he pulls away, she takes his hand, a suggestive smile on her lips as she guides him out of the room.
They make their way back to his compartment and he closes the door behind them.
"Didn't need us?" she prompts for him to explain.
"District Thirteen is infertile, probably from radiation from the Dark Days," he says. He picks up a textbook off his shelf and flips through the pages, extending it to her.
She accepts the book, but can't hide her amused smirk. "You actually read this?" she says. They all received the book when they were first registered into Thirteen's system, and it was the same text used for strategy studies.
"I knew you wouldn't," he says, sitting beside her on the bed and pulling the book back into his lap. "Haven't you noticed that all the soldiers are over forty? There was only one generation born after the Dark Days, and it was only a tenth of the size," he says, his finger tracing along a population chart in the text. "They'll go extinct unless they find new breeding stock."
"That's one way to put it."
No wonder they trip over themselves for the expecting Seam women. But the Games, before, how could they watch so many children die?
"I don't understand why they're doing it this way, though," Peeta says, shaking his head. "At the rate this war is going, there won't be anyone left."
"Only the strongest," she says. "It's their very own Hunger Games."
They make a list of people they can trust. Gale, Finnick, Johanna, Haymitch. They cross out all the names then write them again. This time Katniss adds Boggs to the list, Beetee, and a few victors she met briefly in District Eight. Coin and Plutarch don't make a single draft.
"They already hate Snow, all the districts have rebelled," Peeta says. "We need to overthrow the government, officially, and we need to put someone else in charge before Coin can take the presidency."
"It should be you," Katniss says. "They'll follow you."
His smile is nervous and he doesn't linger on the topic. "She can't be in charge of Thirteen's military or we're dead in the water."
"Beetee's in charge of the weapons, and if we can get Boggs, he has a lot of loyalties."
"That's what we have too," he says. "Both sides have been using us in their game for so long, all to get the country to listen to what we have to say. May as well finally say it. What we really think."
They make a plan. Boggs, Gale, and the District Twelve soldiers will take Thirteen from Coin. Beetee will deactivate the weaponry to protect them from Coin's loyalists. Haymitch will act as the liaison with the Capitol spies, and they'll use Finnick's knowledge of the Capitol defense system to disarm the palace. With nothing to guard it, the riots can reach the President's door, and he will be captured and forced to stand trial.
Operation Nightlock, they call it.
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