Chapter 1: Thirteen
She forgot the damned cameras were there with their unblinking eyes. She forgot everything except for what was no doubt taking place in that gilded hell hole that Snow called home. She could see them as clearly as if she was there. She should have been there. She wanted to be there.
Gale, her fierce friend, her rock, her touchstone. He had always been there through thick and thin, good and bad. Peeta, her boy with the bread, who had stood between her and catastrophe more times than she could count. If she was completely honest, she would admit to herself and to them how important they were to her. Those two along with Prim represented the best parts of her. Lose either and she would never again be the same.
She didn't know where the words came from. She didn't stop to think about it. They burst forth like water from a dam and she was powerless to stop them. Are you, are you coming to the tree? Such a seemingly innocent question. One last moment together while we still have the chance. Where they strung up a man they say murdered three. A place where death walked and ruled. Surely that was the Capitol and if anyone ever had blood on their hands it was Snow. He was drenched in it. Strange things did happen here. No stranger would it be if we met up at midnight in the hanging tree. Midnight. It begins at midnight. It had begun then. One bolt of lightning had lit the world on fire. Burn down the old so that something new could take its place. But at what cost? Either one of them was worth more to her than the vague promise of peace to come. Lose one, lose everything.
The words poured from her and she quaked as the images rose around her. Smoke and fire, the metallic coppery smell of blood and sweat. Gale running as hard as he could, his breath was pumping like bellows as he hurried toward a place yet unseen. Peeta-blonde curls dark and lank with dull, lifeless eyes-plodding unsteadily at Gale's heels. Hurry. Let's go! Let's go! She squeezed her eyes shut, willing the scene to fade. It swirled around her on wings of the song that coursed through her veins like acid. It ate at her from the inside out, hollowing out her heart and cracking it wide open. Everything she was laid bare in an instant.
Are you, are you coming to the tree? The dead man called out for his love to flee. Run faster, she urged them. Stay with me. Stay with me. Always. Those words overlapping in her head. Peeta's voice, Gale's eyes. Johanna walking in lockstep with Boggs, her head lolling to the side. Bruised and battered, she kept moving even though her knees threatened to give way. She wouldn't make it. She couldn't. They were coming. They were already there. Booming thunder. The arena again. They were back on the beach under a faded pink sky. Annie, her eyes vacant and staring, was being led gently by an unnamed face. She couldn't help them. She had to try. Katniss moved and the world shifted. Annie's lips moved silently, never-ceasing. Katniss wept when she was able to make out the words. Finnick, Finnick. Over and over. Unseeing and unseen, she called his name. Where are you? Why did you leave me?
Strange things did happen here. No stranger would it seem if we met up at midnight in the hanging tree. An eddy in the smoke, diffuse light, a burst of fresh air. Gale smiling through soot and ash. Peeta, breathing heavily, unaware but still trailing after. Too far gone to care. Out into the misty morning. A rime of dew making the grass wet and slick underfoot. The flankers firing desperately as they pile inside the hovercraft. Go! Go! We've got them. Let's go home!
Are you, are you coming to the tree? Wear a necklace of rope side by side with me. Snow wouldn't forgive this. He wouldn't forget. There would be no going back now. They would have to end it or die trying. Her eyes lifted to the tree line, to that distant beckoning sun. Met up at midnight in the hanging tree. Her voice faded and silence reigned. Nobody spoke. Neither did she. Now there was nothing left to do but wait.
Cold. That was the first thing she noticed when she opened her eyes in the antiseptic confines of Thirteen's hospital ward. Her fingers found the collar fitted snugly about her neck. Her mind shied away from the memories that threatened to pull her under. It wasn't the collar that made it difficult to breathe. It was the thought of him with hate burning like wildfire in his eyes as his fingers tightened around her neck.
She could have prevented the thing. It wouldn't have been difficult. Had she not been distracted by a jolt of pure happiness at the sight of those bewildered blue eyes, she could have gotten away. She hadn't noticed it at the time. As soon as he saw her face, he pushed the doctors aside like rag dolls and bounded to his feet. She didn't think she reacted. Arms outstretched, lips whispering his name-her only thought was to run. Run right into arms that meant safety, security, and most of all-love.
She didn't notice how much heavier his step was, how one leg dragged behind. She just saw him. Beautiful and alive and safe. Here. With her. Where he belonged. It was fingers closing inexorably around her throat that brought her back. The sheer shock of it cut her off at the knees. Of all the scenes that had played out in her head, this was the last thing she pictured. He loved her. He would never hurt her. She shook her head in denial even as black edged out the sight of his hate-filled, tear reddened eyes.
She doubted that Beetee would have been so forthcoming had he known she was awake. They sat in the corner speaking in hushed whispers, not realizing that she strained to hear every word, every syllable. Hijacked. That was the term they used. Snow had corrupted the one pure thing she had left, his inexhaustible love. They made him remember her as they pumped him full of poison that turned his memories inside out. That was bad enough. She would have wept a thousand tears had that been the extent of it. But no. Snow was nothing if not thorough. It wasn't enough to give him venom and hope that the fear inducing haze would be enough. Snow had hedged his bets in every way, used any tool available.
His arms and chest were covered in burns and bruises. It didn't take Beetee's detailed analysis for her to know that he had been tortured. The Capitol had reams of material to draw from thanks to seventy-five years of the Hunger Games. They were accomplished at taking a person apart piece by piece and then putting them back together in whatever form they chose. The Capitol had turned him into a mutt. It wasn't that surprising when she thought about it. What turned her stomach and curled her into a ball under the blankets was what they had done to his leg.
Beetee was quite knowledgeable in prosthetics and the mechanics behind them. Apparently, he had been involved in designing and refining the model that had been used for Peeta. The prosthetic was equipped with tiny servomotors that made it almost as maneuverable as an actual limb. The sensors and wiring were grafted directly to his nervous system through a process Beetee called "wet-wiring." The leg operated through muscle contractions and impulses sent by the brain. Snow used this to his advantage. The Capitol technicians set up a loop current in the graft that bound Peeta to his leg. This resulted in what Beetee referred to as feedback. The flow fed upon itself, growing exponentially with each passing minute. It would have felt like liquid fire consuming him from the inside out as the flux devoured his nerves and turned his own body against him. The pain must have been unbearable. That agony when paired with the fear inducing madness of tracker jacker venom had pushed Peeta over the edge. One fed into the other until there was no way to tell what was real and what wasn't anymore.
Katniss felt sick knowing what they had done. On one hand, they had replaced the limb the first Arena cost him. They needed their Victor alive and well, not the exhausted wreck the Games had left. They gave him the best they had to offer. But what was given had just as easily been taken away. They used that gift to punish and then drive a wedge between their star-crossed lovers. They shattered him to break her. She recoiled from the brutality of it, the thought of what he had suffered on her behalf. It was too much.
Prim was the first to realize that she was awake. Her little sister came to the bed and pushed aside a few strands of sweat dampened hair that clung to her forehead. "You're okay, Katniss. It looks like just a few bruises and scrapes. Just as soon as they confirm there are no broken bones, the doctor will remove the collar. You need to keep still and try not to talk. There's plenty of time for your questions later."
Katniss blinked at the determined cast of her little sister's face. Prim hardly looked like the scared girl who clung to her so tightly the night the Quell was announced. She watched as Prim took hold of her clenched fist and gently pried it open. She worked each finger separately, bending and straightening each digit before kneading the palm and rotating the wrist. After ministering to both hands, she massaged the taut muscles of her arms and manipulated the joints until they cracked in protest.
Katniss swallowed a few times to force the moisture back into her dry mouth and throat. Seeing this, Prim stopped long enough to give her a drink of water. Katniss gratefully accepted the straw and sucked the water down greedily. "Go slow," Prim admonished. "You don't need to get sick on top of everything else."
She let the coolness of the water soothe her desert dry throat before attempting to speak. Prim's disapproving frown pulled a flicker of guilt from her but she forced herself to choke out the word. "Peeta," she rasped. Rising up on elbow, she looked from Prim's resigned expression to where the others sat in startled silence. "Peeta," she choked out again.
Prim knelt beside her on the bed and pushed her back into the pillow. "Peeta is fine. He's resting comfortably down the hall. He'll be alright, Katniss." She pulled up the blanket and tucked it around Katniss's shoulders. "You can see for yourself later. Right now, you need to take care of you."
Katniss stubbornly pushed swung her legs off the bed and nearly toppled to the floor in her haste to find her feet. "Katniss," Prim shouted. "You can't do this. You don't know how badly you might be hurt. Wait for the doctors." Katniss grimaced as cold metal dug into her throat but she persisted until she swayed unsteadily and met Prim's equally determined glare. "Why won't you listen for one time in your life? Is that so hard to do?"
Katniss patted her shoulder reassuringly but looked over the girl's shoulder to meet a pair of angry gray eyes like hers. "Well, sweetheart, I'm glad to see that some things never change," a surly voice cut through the tense silence. Haymitch wore his habitually irritated frown. The time in Thirteen had not been kind to her mentor. There was no alcohol in the District. He had been on forced sobriety ever since the Rebels had broken them out of the Arena. Whatever patience the man possessed had already been spent. He shook his head as he draped a companionable arm over Prim's thin shoulders. "Don't waste your time with this one. She's too mule-headed to care about how her actions affect others."
"I care," her voice was hoarse and thick. Pushing her disheveled braid over her shoulder, she tottered to an empty chair and eased into it. "You're wrong, Haymitch. I do care."
Haymitch tipped his head in her direction. "I've watched you in two Arenas not to mention a Victory Tour. You do things your own way and in your own time. If the boy was in his right mind, he would agree with me. You're worse than I am. That's why we understand each other."
Katniss scowled at the not so veiled accusation in his tone. "I know," she muttered. "It's bad. He's bad." Prim sat beside her and took her hand. "Want to see him," she croaked. A shuffling noise drew her attention to the others crowded together in the corner of the room. Beetee's face was the first to register. His eyes were somber, his face pinched and white as he met her uncertain gaze. He surreptitiously shook his head. Katniss gave no sign that she had seen the warning gesture. She avoided Haymitch's knowing look and focused all of her attention on her and Prim's intertwined hands. "Want to see him, Haymitch."
Prim's eyes were wet and a few tears slipped silently down her cheeks. "You can't," she whispered miserably. "Coin won't let you. You're too important, Katniss. You're the Mockingjay. They won't risk your being hurt again." A stifled sob escaped her. Katniss flinched at the sound of her sister's obvious distress. "He almost killed you. If Boggs hadn't been there, he would have killed you."
Haymitch took up the argument before Katniss could come up with a suitable retort. "The boy's going to be kept under lock and key until the doctor's figure out how to fix him. They already have a team going over him with a fine tooth comb. She's right though, sweetheart. They won't risk you. If the Rebels can't have their star-crossed lovers, they will have the Mockingjay. Coin's already made that clear."
The door creaked open and Gale slipped silently into the already crowded room. His eyes were dark with fatigue and the olive skin had a grey cast. He had aged ten years since the raid on the Capitol. He crossed the room and knelt before her chair, his fingers gently tracing the bruises just visible above the collar. "Catnip," he murmured.
"Am okay," she said roughly. "Don't worry."
"He hurt you," Gale retorted fiercely. "You could have died."
Katniss yanked her hands free and shook her head. "Not himself," she grated. "Couldn't help it." Gale tried to reply but before he could, she covered his mouth with her hand. "Don't Gale. Don't."
Haymitch watched the exchange with interest. He chewed his bottom lip as he watched them. "You have some decisions to make, sweetheart. You have a little time but not much. Coin won't wait much longer." He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "You can't do anything for the boy. We're just going to have to wait and see if he pulls out of it. Coin wants to send you to one of the Districts. She thinks that it will bolster the troops to see that you're still alive and well. She doesn't care which one but she wants you gone before the end of the week."
Katniss felt her eyes widen in disbelief. She shook her head angrily. "Staying here," she announced tersely. "Not leaving. You promised me."
Haymitch's lips quirked up but his voice gave nothing away. "I made a couple of promises, sweetheart. Keeping one meant breaking the other. You know that."
"You promised," she countered. "Help me now." Haymitch exchanged a resigned look with Prim as if this was exactly the reaction he'd expected. Katniss coughed gutturally and pinned her mentor with a resolute stare. "My fault. Hurt because of me. Have to help me, Haymitch."
Haymitch snorted and climbed to his feet, "Yep, some things never change. You really are a piece of work." He climbed to his feet and shuffled toward the door. "Try to stay out of trouble. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Prim also rose to leave. "Katniss, I'm going to get you something to eat. The medicine will make you sick unless you have something on your stomach. Gale, will you stay here until I get back?" He nodded and gave Katniss a tentative smile. "I'll be back soon."
Katniss grabbed her hand and waited until her sister's eyes found hers. "Check on him," she said haltingly. "Please."
Prim's bittersweet smile didn't belong on such a young face. It was one that had seen too much in too short a time. She cupped her sister's chin, fingers skimming along the line of the collar. "Always putting everyone else first, Katniss. I'll check on him first thing."
Gale waited until the door slid shut behind her before rounding on Katniss hotly. "You don't owe him anything, Catnip. You don't have to stay here." His voiced softened and grew hesitant as if he was unsure of what he was doing but determined to get the words out. "My family is safe now. Your mother and Prim are fine. It's what we wanted. Now we can do what we want, be who we want. We don't have to play their game anymore." He covered her hands with his and looked at her intently. "I'm leaving for Two soon. It's the last holdout before we can move on the Capitol. You can come with me. We can finish this." Her eyes widened and she tried pull free but his hold tightened almost to the point of pain. "I didn't speak up before because I didn't want to scare you off. I couldn't offer you any kind of future. That's changed now. The world is changing. Come with me, Katniss. We could be happy."
She couldn't keep the shock from her face at his offer. Why did she never see these things coming until they blindsided her? Her fingers tightened ever so slightly on his before letting go. Understanding flickered in his eyes before he gave an acknowledging nod to her unspoken answer. A rueful smile turned up the edges of his mouth. "I had to ask," he said quietly. "I had to know one way or another. I knew the chances of you taking me up on it were slim but I had to try."
"Gale," she rasped in her hoarse, faltering voice. "Can't leave him like this. Snow did this to him because of me."
Gale laughed. He actually threw back his head and laughed uproariously. Katniss stared at him in disbelief. "I should have known that you'd be the last to know," he chuckled. "As good as you are in the woods; you have no clue about people. Everybody knows it but you, Catnip. We all saw it a long time ago. It's about time you faced it yourself." The look he gave her was a strange combination of amusement and pity. She didn't like it one bit.
"You don't know what you're talking about. I promised to keep Peeta alive. That's all." She stated emphatically as her eyes bore into his.
"Yes, you did." Gale responded. "You wanted to keep him alive even though the only way it could happen is if you died. You promised even though it meant leaving your mother and sister behind." He grabbed her shoulders and shook her slightly. "You went to the feast to get him medicine knowing that you could die. You went anyway despite the promise you made to Prim to win and come home. Don't you see it, Catnip? Don't you know?" Gale pulled playfully on her braid. It was a thing he had done countless times before. This time, she felt the meaning behind it. He had accepted a truth that she had yet to comprehend. Whatever it was, he was determined to make her understand it. "You love Prim. You love me. I know you do. But you're in love with Peeta. We can all see it. Hell, the world saw it. You think it was a ruse to get out of the Arena alive. You've managed to fool yourself. It's time to face facts, Catnip. You love him. That's why you won't leave. "
She shook her head furiously, the collar biting into the soft skin her neck. "No," she whispered. "I owe him. It's my fault he's hurt. I don't….I can't…"
Gale smiled sadly and let her go. He stepped back and met her pained gaze with the gentlest look Katniss had ever seen. It was a look he only gave Posy. "You can and you will. Coin won't back down easily. She wants the Mockingjay. If you want to stay with Peeta, you're going to have to fight for it. It might as well be for the right reasons, Katniss."
The determined look that flooded her eyes was all that Gale could have wished for. He knew that look, had seen it a hundred times. She had made up her mind and nothing or nobody would stand in her way. She took the glass of water he handed her and gulped it down in one long pull. Her hands busied themselves with tidying and straightening her frazzled braid. "I'm not leaving him," she stated firmly. "I won't."
"Then don't," Gale replied, just a hint of sorrow in his voice and eyes. He tamped it down and forced a smile that the girl hesitantly returned. "When Prim gets back, we'll let them know what you've decided. I'll help you as much as I can." He turned away before she could see how much this hurt. She had enough pain to deal with. He wouldn't burden her with his on top of it.
A small hand clenched his firmly and her soft words loosened the taut muscles in the back of his neck, "Thank you for being my friend."
Gale closed his eyes and returned the squeeze giving no outward sign that his heart had cracked into. "I'll always be here for you, Catnip." He vowed quietly. "Always."
End Part 1