I'm still alive! Sorry for the wait. School has been a drag - I just want to go to sleep everyday after my daytime job, let alone work on that! But I've been working on this chapter in bits and pieces over the past few weeks, and I really hope it came together.
Thank you again for your continued support of the story. It really means the world to me. I couldn't have found a more amazing fandom to participate in; I continue to be blown away by how supportive it is. I don't think I can express my appreciation enough.
Before I delve into the chapter, I should put a trigger warning here, just in case: There is heavier violence in this chapter, including an attempted rape. I had a hard time with it, but unfortunately they're necessary for the plot, to depict this twisted world they live in. (or is it so different from some parts of our own world?) I do try to keep it 'realistic' without being over-the-top graphic, though!
Okay then. Here we go...
Katniss stared up at the ceiling with vacant, red-rimmed eyes.
"Miss Everdeen. If you don't tell us the whereabouts of Peeta Mellark, you will held in custody here until you do, unfortunately. This can take all night, and even the next day. I hope you understand that. Is it really worth it, for this mere slave of yours?"
That was what the interrogator had asked her. And judging by the digital clock that hung on the wall in her cell, that was three hours ago. Because right now, it was almost two o'clock in the morning.
Katniss rubbed a palm over her eyes. She was in a spacious cell, and the air smelled of disinfectant, almost like the hospital. A single large bed occupied the space. To her relief, it was actually quite comfortable.
The night light bar was built into the wall next to where she laid, and despite its glare hurting her eyes, she didn't have the strength to get up and look for how to turn it off.
Fatigue was seeping through her bones, but her brain was still far too wired for her to fall unconscious. Memories from earlier during the night warred through her mind.
After parting with Peeta tonight - she couldn't bear to let her thoughts linger there yet - she hadn't originally planned to go home. She had intended to hide somewhere dark and obscure in the city; a place where she couldn't be found so easily.
But she couldn't stand letting her family worry about her all night, and she dragged herself to a payphone to call them. She remembered the horror that permeated their voices, when she told them what had happened - and what she had done.
But before her family could give her a piece of their minds, she heard a rush of noises in the background. Her mother told her frantically that the Peacekeepers were knocking on their door, and her father had gone to greet them.
At that moment, her heart had fallen into the hollow of her stomach.
"I'm gonna hang up, okay Katniss?" her mother had whispered, "Don't come home."
But before the call disconnected, her father's growl echoed in the background.
"Hey, that's my daughter! Prim, come here. Come here." A shuffling noise ensued. "Don't you push her like that, sir. I'd appreciate it if you treat us with more respect. We are law-abiding citizens. I work for the government."
"Well, your other daughter just broke the law," a stranger's voice came forth. "Big time. She let her slave voluntarily hit a citizen, and a member of the Jackson family at that. I don't care you work for the government, because guess what? You're hard-pressed to go against the Jacksons." A silence had followed. Even though it only stretched on for a few seconds; it was a few seconds that crushed Katniss' lungs with the weight of fear. "So I suggest you tell us where she and her slave is, sir, or you won't be met with any courtesy at all."
At that, Katniss had made up her mind to go home and turn herself in. She couldn't let her family suffer from the consequences of her actions. This was hers to bear alone.
When she had gotten off the night cab that took her home, she realized the Peacekeepers' patrol cars were still there, their sirens blaring, casting piercing streaks of red, blue and silver across her lawn. Some neighbors had even stepped out to watch the commotion.
Her head was throbbing and her cheeks stung, while she made the familiar trek to her own house. There was a Peacekeeper positioned at her door, and her stomach bottomed out, seeing his white uniform shine in the night - in front of a place that was supposed to be her comfort and haven.
When he saw her approach, he faltered for a second, then marched toward her.
He brought her back into the living room. The moment she stepped in, she realized there were three Peacekeepers surrounding her family, who were seated on the couch. Her father was livid, and her mother and Prim were pale and stricken. Their heads whipped around at her arrival.
"Katniss." Prim's whisper had cut her.
"I'm the one you're looking for," she told the Peacekeepers coolly. She didn't know how she managed to keep her voice steady.
The Peacekeepers then proceeded to inform her that they were here, because six people had testified against her tonight - including the streetcar driver, who was considered an impartial bystander - claiming to witness the assault by her slave against a Capitol citizen.
"Peeta Mellark," one of them had asked her impassively, his eyes boring holes into hers from behind his visor. "You had him. Where is he?"
"I don't know," she told him. She knew he wouldn't buy it. "I have no clue."
And it didn't end up sitting well with them. And after several failed attempts to demand the information out of her, they asked her to take a trip with them down to the police station for the night.
Her mother nearly had a meltdown then; she practically yelled at her daughter to tell them where Peeta was.
Katniss maintained her lack of knowledge, even as her knees threatened to buckle under the weight of their menacing stares. She couldn't tell them anything right now, not even some made up bullshit. Because even any false information she gave might lead them to zero in on him, since he hadn't had time to get far away enough - the feasible escape routes from the Capitol were so limited, and actually intersected each other at the beginning.
If she were to make a "confession" - and she was sure the time for that would come soon - she needed to at least make it sound believable.
When they put cuffs around her wrists, Prim was crying. She wanted to tell Prim it was alright; there was nothing to worry about. Her mother was trembling, and her father was paler than Katniss had ever seen him. In that instance, she almost wavered at the regret that twinged in her heart.
But they had already come this far. She would not let them get to Peeta; she would not let their rottenness win.
"Cooperate with them, Katniss, please," her mother begged her. "Just tell them. We'll get you another slave. One you'll like even more than Peeta."
Katniss' lips thinned as she remembered that now, in the confines of her cell. To her mother, Peeta was still a toy, a throwaway thing that was entirely replaceable. They didn't see the humanity in him - his amazing talents, the way he could create and mold words, and the gentle and affectionate nature he maintained, even through every single thing he had endured.
Katniss' eyes misted over, when she realized that aside from Prim, no one had ever made her as happy as he did.
She wondered which point he had made it to right now. A slow-burning fear stirred cruelly in her - what if the Peacekeepers had gone to look for him already, even without waiting for her information?
If only there was some way for her know that he was still alive and well - across the waters.
Because hours ago, he had set sail across the river, which stretched from the Capitol to the waters surrounding District Ten.
It was an obscure route - but at the same time, the terrain was far more treacherous.
- Five Hours Ago -
Peeta's lips seared hers.
He kissed her desperately, drinking her in like a man going into the desert who wouldn't see water again for days. She kissed him back with equal sorrow, her hands clawing at his back while their lips mashed and scraped at each other's.
Tides of the water lapped gently against the boat behind them. This boat wasn't large, but it was in good shape and the best they could find at the moment, sitting idly by the edge of the waters that partly enveloped the Capitol Memorial Park.
Given the cold weather, the Park was deserted and almost eerily quiet in its vastness; the echoes of leaves shuffling in the wind from every direction sounded haunted, and made her want to shiver.
"Peeta," she panted out, when they broke apart. His forehead was rested against hers, and their breath mingled together, making circles of fog around them. "Do you remember everything we went over? Tell me."
"Yeah." He sounded pained. "When I'm on the water, steer straight until I get past the train bridge, then turn right and keep going."
"Yes." She nodded breathlessly. "And again, if my map here is correct -"
Here, she touched the pocket on his jacket, where her smart device and nearly all the money she had with her tonight lied. As an extra precaution, she had turned off the device's connection to the world, so it couldn't be tracked unless he turned it back on. He could still view the map, though. He had vehemently refused to take them in the beginning, but she wouldn't hear of his refusal. Did he think she'd let him run off, with nothing but the clothes off his back?
"- District Ten is about sixty or so miles from here, so it should take you about five to six hours to go there. When you're there, get food and some different clothing. According to what the device said, there are a lot of boats going between Ten and Eleven, so if you can get on one, you can probably go to Eleven by tomorrow. I'm almost certain they won't look for you there." Almost. "In the meanwhile, I'll make the Peacekeepers think you left in a different direction by train."
Peeta closed his eyes, like he was tired and ready to go to sleep. But the anguished frown that knitted his eyebrows together said otherwise.
"Katniss, I don't understand. Why do you - why would you - do all this for me?"
She inhaled sharply, because it seemed so preposterous to her that he had to ask. When her mouth winced, she realized she was dangerously close to tears.
"Peeta, your life is in danger, because you stood up for me," she replied, "You knew what that was going to cost you, but you stood up for my honor anyways. Well, I'm not going to let them take you away. I won't let it happen. This is so unfair." Her voice wobbled at that. "They can't win, okay?"
He looked at her for a long moment. "But I'm putting you in trouble too." He hedged, "Are you mad at me, Katniss?"
"Mad at you?" she echoed emptily. When he looked at her in an almost beseeching manner, she shook her head weakly. "Peeta… I feel a lot of things right now about you. But mad is not one of them."
"Katniss," he said raucously, "I'm furious at me. I was so stupid. I brought this onto us."
"Stupid for doing what? Punching Cato when he called me a cunt?" she gave an incredulous laugh at that. "Peeta, Cato deserves a thousand times worse than what you did to him. You know what he does to his own slave. If I'm mad about anything, it's this whole fucking system." She waved her arms around wildly, gesturing at nothing and everything. "None of it makes sense. None of it is fair. It brought this onto us, not you."
He exhaled. The sound was starkly akin to a hollow echo of defeat. "I… just wish. I wish we can leave together. D'you - ah, damn it. Do you want to come with me, Katniss?"
He asked the question so suddenly, the outburst made her heart stutter. She wasn't sure if she heard him right.
A shuddering breath made his shoulders ripple, and his hand enclosed around her wrist. "I can't stand it, just leaving and not knowing what's gonna happen to you. You said you won't get in trouble for this. Do you mean it, Katniss? I can't live with myself if anything happens to you. I just wish you can leave with me."
She wasn't sure what expression was on her face at that moment, but it was enough to send him gripping at his hair. A hint of agony flicked across his features.
"I know it sounds really fucking dumb. The last thing I want to do is to put you in danger. Forget I asked. I'm just worried about you, Katniss. I want you to be where I am able to see you and protect you, like you're protecting me."
"Peeta… I don't -"
"I'm just not ready to let you go." He finished with a rush. Then, he winced and closed his eyes for a brief moment, before reopening them. When she looked into them, she saw that they were hazy, almost unfocused. They haven't lost their bloodshot color all night. "Sorry, I just had to say it. You are - you're the best thing that's ever happened to me."
For some reason, she found that hard to believe. "Not the best thing," she said sadly. "You didn't meet me because of your own free will."
"No, but I don't care about that. I fell in - I mean, I grew to like you a lot, and that's from my own free will. You treated me so well. But not just that - I feel so connected to you. I care about you, and I realize how much I want to make you happy. No one but you made me feel that way."
Her heart stalled. Not only at his declaration that he felt connected to and cared about her, but also at the place where he said fell in, before he cut himself short. Was he almost about to say 'fell in love'?
No, it couldn't be. They haven't had the time to develop that yet. Right?
She didn't even understand what love was supposed to be, despite almost everyone around her being obsessed with it. The territory was as strange to her, as it was daunting.
Did it mean a longing for someone, a pull of passion? Did it mean caring for someone, to the point you'd take risks to save them? Did it mean being so content and happy with them, that just the thought of spending time with them drains the tension from your shoulders?
Because at least she knew those were the things she felt, when it came to Peeta.
But she couldn't understand why he would want to fall in love with her, even if he managed to overlook her status. She didn't have his gentle sense of humor or wicked way with words, or a pair of artistic hands. Besides her ability with a bow, what other remarkable things were there about her? Being sullen and stubborn? He, on the other hand, was a guy that was almost too good to be true.
But the way he looked at her quieted the doubts in her mind. She didn't know what to say to him; words failed her again this time.
So instead, she drew him toward her again, and her mouth met his once more. The feverish rotations of her lips against his took place of the words she wanted to come forth. Both of their breath were a little stale, whether from the fear or the toll the night had taken on them, she didn't know. But she savored the kiss, trying to commit the feel of his soft mouth molding to hers to memory.
It wasn't that she didn't want to leave with him. She might have considered it, or might have even done it in a heartbeat, if not for the fact she would be leaving Prim and her parents behind. Besides her family, she didn't give a shit about what she had in the Capitol; it was a beautiful, but really cold cage. She wanted to explore the world outside with him; she wanted her life to mean something.
But as impulsive as her decisions tended to be sometimes, she would never break her family's hearts like that. She wasn't that selfish.
When they broke apart again - with a lingering reluctance on both of their parts - Katniss knew it was time for them to move along. There was only so many hours during the night for Peeta to get to District Ten; she didn't want him to be still on the waters by the time the sunlight breaks over the horizon.
She thought of the flashlight on the device she'd given him. She prayed that it could work to some extent to guide him along the path, if he found himself lost in the darkness.
Gently, she placed her hands on his arms, and stared at him, willing him not to break eye contact with her.
"Get home safely, Peeta." Her throat strained with the effort to pronounce every syllable. "And I know you can't write me… but if there's some way you can contact me… just let me know…" she wavered then. She thought she could be strong, but her voice betrayed her then, cracking pathetically. "Just let me know."
By the time he drew her to him again, crushing her to his chest, tears had flown down her cheeks and she was gasping with the effort to choke back her pitiful cries. She hated being this weak; it was selfish to make Peeta feel more distressed than he already was, but she couldn't stop. She was powerless against the pain.
"I will, Katniss. I will do everything in my power to reach out to you again," he said gutturally in her ear. His chest shuddered against hers. "I don't want to make you worry. This isn't goodbye, you know."
"It's - it's not g-goodbye," she stuttered out.
Later, when Peeta stepped onto the boat, it rocked and tilted in the water, sending gentle ripples across the silky blackened surface. When he got settled in, he picked up the paddles that rested on the boat's sides. His eyes found their way back to her.
She stared back at him. Her eyes were dry now, but every inch of her bones felt like it could shatter into dust.
Maybe she should wave or something, but her heart was frozen and her limbs were numb, like they were asleep and rendered useless. Maybe the blood in her body had stopped flowing.
When he pushed the paddles' blades against the tides, the boat creaked with his effort, before it started to slide away from the shore. She kept her eyes on him, watching his shoulders rise and lower with each stroke he delivered. He had his eyes fixed on her the entire time, too - she could feel the weight of his gaze anchoring her, even when he was far away enough that she couldn't make out his features anymore.
His hat was covering his hair, and she almost wished it wouldn't, because she wanted to look at his unruly curls one more time.
When she looked at the river that seemed to stretch on endlessly behind him, her heart rate sped up. The waters melted into the darkness, beyond the colorful lights that dotted the city at night. Like a shadowy tunnel that waited to swallow anything drifting into it.
Even the moonlight couldn't seem to reach it.
- Now -
The sound of a banging door startled Katniss awake. She blinked blurrily, before shifting into a sitting position. She didn't even know she had fallen asleep.
How long was she out for? Was time was it now?
She tried to glance surreptitiously at where she knew the digital clock hang. To her shock, a blank screen stared back at her - its image was wiped clean.
What the fuck?
But she couldn't dwell on it. Her cell's door was open, and a Peacekeeper was standing in front of it, staring impassively at her. She swallowed, hoping her expression didn't betray her nerves.
"The Detective will see you now," he announced.
Five minutes later, Katniss was escorted into an investigation room. She was promptly seated at the large metal table in the centre.
The detective was already there - he sat in the chair at the opposite end of the table, facing her. His expression was almost as cheerful as the black suit and the white tie that he donned.
From her peripheral vision, she saw that a large mirror also hung on the wall to her left side, her reflection wavering in its shiny dark surface.
But she couldn't see a clock or timer anywhere, to her chagrin. Did the fuckers knowingly take away her ability to judge the time?
"I'm hoping to make this a quick and painless process, Ms. Everdeen," the detective announced, bypassing any pleasantries.
She said nothing in return. The singular light source in the room hung above them, but at least the shine wasn't so piercing that it hurt her eyes.
"Okay." He nodded, as if she had given him an answer. He glanced down at his papers, his fingers clasped together in front of him. Katniss realized that the Peacekeeper who escorted her here was still present, having moved himself to a corner of the room. Her lips thinned with a flare of apprehension and annoyance.
"Where were you last night," he began, "After you got off the streetcar that stopped at the corner of Cove and Fawn Street?"
"Well, detective," she forced herself to keep her tone civil, "I think Cato Jackson can give you a better answer about that. He followed me and Peeta from the streetcar, and proceeded to harass us and shout profanities at me."
The detective's expression didn't budge. "Mr. Jackson said you might say that," he said coolly. "All of the witnesses testified that you and your slave said words of defiance against the Capitol, before stepping off the car, and that's what prompted Mr. Jackson to go after you. Your slave shouted, and I quote, 'I want to kill all of you' to the people on the vehicle."
Katniss' mouth nearly dropped open. She couldn't speak for a moment, because the accusation was so absurd, it was almost surreal. For a few agonizing seconds, the rage closed her throat too harshly to allow her voice to escape.
"Do you really believe that?" she finally managed, her strangled words sounding funny. "Does it not occur to you that those 'witnesses' are lying? They're all Cato's friends! Of course they'll say anything to -"
The detective held up a hand, stopping her short. "Mr. Jackson said you're very indulgent of your slave," he proceeded to say, as if he hadn't heard her. "You even dressed him in Capitol clothing. It's understandable he got the idea that he can act in whichever way he wants, due to your encouragement."
Katniss felt the wind being knocked from her lungs.
Maybe dressing Peeta up was a terrible idea. She just thought it was brilliant at the moment, because if she had brandished him around the city in a typical slave outfit, she was also expected to treat him like a slave, not as an equal whom she was so affectionate with.
"I'm not indulgent of him," she forced out.
The detective's expression finally shifted at that - he simply arched an eyebrow. She swallowed hard, and fought the urge to glare at him or the table. Before she could stop herself, she blurted out another thought that hounded her.
"Wait, you told me that Cato and his friends said Peeta shouted at them on the car. Well, what about the driver? He was there too. Surely he can tell you it's a lie."
She hated the desperate hope that tinged her voice. If the driver had any decency, maybe he would have told the truth of what he saw.
"Enough, Ms. Everdeen. You're not the one asking questions here," the detective berated her. "But for your information," he cleared his throat, "The information that the driver provided did align with what the other witnesses said." He looked almost smug, when he informed her.
Her blood went cold. Of course. Cato would have bought the driver off.
She couldn't believe that was the courteous man who had wished her and Peeta good evening last night, when they got on the streetcar. He had looked like such a decent person.
"Now," the detective continued, oblivious to the way she struggled to contain her shivers, "You know what we're interested in. You've had a night to think over what's right and wrong. Let's not waste your, or my time here. We want to know where Peeta Mellark is."
She lowered her gaze. 'You've had a night', the detective said. Night. So that should mean it was at least the morning now, right?
"Well, Ms. Everdeen?" he prompted, "It will be smart for you to tell us, so you can save us the trouble - and save yourself. We will find out one way or another, I guarantee you. If you don't tell me… well, we will have to make you," he stated it, almost like he was informing her of the weather.
"So what?" Katniss said bitterly, glancing up at him from beneath the slant of her brows, "Will you torture me?"
He sighed. "Of course, we don't want it to come to that. You're a citizen, and your family does contribute to the government. But if you refuse to cooperate with us, more than you already have, you're further defying the law. Defiance leads to severe punishment, do you understand?"
Her fists clenched reflexively on her lap. "Yes," she whispered.
"And your family will be affected too. Think of your father, Katniss. Your poor, heartbroken mother. Your sweet little sister -"
"Stop," she cried. The detective leaned back, as if he was satisfied that he had finally gotten a real emotional response from her. "Where's my family?" she demanded.
He smiled at her. "Oh, you'll see them, Ms. Everdeen. But unfortunately, they won't be able to visit you until Peeta Mellark is found."
Her eyes widened a fraction, before she forced her expression into a more neutral one. No. They wouldn't do anything to them, right? Her family had absolutely nothing to do with this.
"Well, I know how Peeta left," she muttered. She had been preparing for this moment. But it was still bizarre, hearing the words echo from her mouth, with the detective staring at her and no place left to hide. "But whether he can be found is another story."
He leaned slightly forward across the table. "Is that so? Well," he crowed, "Now you're on the right track, Ms. Everdeen."
"Get up. We're moving you to another cell tonight."
Light suddenly flooded the space that Katniss occupied, piercing through her closed eyelids. She gave a whimper, and shielded her eyes with her forearm.
"What?" she whispered. Her tongue still felt woollen from the container of mashed potatoes and spicy ham they'd given her earlier for dinner.
"The team leader ordered that we move you to another cell," the Peacekeeper announced once more by the door. He sounded like the same one who came to collect her this morning.
"Why?" she protested. Even though the answer already formed in the back of her mind.
"The detective can tell you about why."
When she left the comfort of her bed and shuffled toward the door, the Peacekeeper actually reached out and grasped her by the arm. Alarmed, she struggled away from him.
"Don't touch me!" she blurted out, "What are you doing?"
"You're moving too slow. Just hurry up. The detective wants to see you. He hasn't got all day."
When she was brought into the familiar investigation room, the equally familiar face of the detective greeted her; this time, it looked a lot stonier.
"Ms. Everdeen, let me ask you something," he said, by way of greeting. "Do you think this system is a joke? Do you think you can make a fool of it?"
"N-no," she stammered.
"You said Peeta Mellark left on the night train that went to District Four. Well, that train has been searched. Nothing was found, not even his fingerprint. Can you explain that to me?"
Her throat worked reflexively. "Well, maybe you haven't looked hard enough."
"Don't you fucking bullshit me," he snapped. She reeled back at the anger that suddenly filtered into his tone. "I may have been nice to you, Ms. Everdeen. But even I have my limits. I have a job to do here. Look, I'll give you one more chance," he stated. It was apparent that his patience was gossamer thin. "Where did you let Peeta Mellark go?"
She hid her fists behind her back, in an attempt to hide their shaking. She knew it was futile.
"District Four," she insisted.
The detective scoffed, and slammed his palms against the table.
"Okay. Fine then, it's obvious you haven't learned your lesson," he said, "I won't be sending you to the confession room. Yet. But you have about a day, before you're put in there. In the meantime, I'm putting you in another cell. One that's not so comfortable as your current one."
Katniss gawked at the condition of the cell visible to her from behind the bars, and the people - nearly all men, except one woman - that lounged inside it.
There was a single toilet in the cell, and it looked as if more waste had gathered on top of or around it than inside. The walls looked like they were rusting over; coppery stains seeped through almost every crack along the paint. Even from a distance away, the smell of unwashed bodies and human waste hit her. She felt like she wanted to retch.
The Peacekeeper jammed his key into the lock, and the prisoners inside looked up at the sound. When the lock gave way, the Peacekeeper grabbed onto one of the handles and pulled the bars aside; they screeched deafeningly with the movement. The facility didn't even use any technology to maintain these types of cells.
"In you go," the Peacekeeper nodded at her, before sparing a glance toward the prisoners. "By the way, most of these are from the Districts. Since you love them, it's great you'll be spending some time with your friends!" he joked, followed by a loud cackle.
Katniss' eyes blurred with tears, as she was ushered into the cell. The smell almost overpowered her, and she clutched her arms around her middle, while the Peacekeeper snapped the bars shut behind her again.
She didn't know what she had expected, but she truly didn't expect this.
"What have we got here?" a husky, weathered voice piped up by the corner of the room. She looked up fearfully, to see a tall, dark-skinned man sitting on top of one of the beds there, his elbow propped up by his bent knee. "A Capitol girl?"
Katniss looked down at the outfit she was wearing, wondering if it were that obvious. She hadn't changed out of the clothing she wore since the previous night. It did look so out of place, a million miles away from the tattered clothes that hang on these people's bodies.
"You're right, Chaff," another man interjected. If she thought the voice of the man who first spoke - Chaff - was throaty, this new one was a lot more gravelly. Like its vocal cords had been damaged by years of alcohol, or cigarettes.
Her head swivelled around, to see a black-haired, paunchy man hunched against the wall, his gray eyes searching her warily.
"It's been a while since I've seen a pretty girl," Chaff said with a laugh, his teeth gleaming with the movement.
Katniss cringed. Oh no. She had no protection here, she was like a virtual prey to them -
"You're scaring the poor girl, Chaff," the other man said again.
"Sorry, Haymitch. Couldn't resist myself," Chaff said with a shrug, still grinning at her.
The man named Haymitch snorted. "Don't worry, sweetheart. He's harmless," he directed at her.
Chaff scowled. "Speak for yourself, you son of a bitch," he retorted, but good-naturedly, "You're fucking harmless."
A loud snort echoed from the other side of the room. It was from the only other woman occupying the room.
"Men," she shook her head. Her voice was just as hoarse as the men's, and thin wisps of hair flapped about her face. "Always thinking with your pricks instead of your brain. What, you gonna fawn over her?" her eyes roved over Katniss in unbridled contempt. "This little bitch spent her whole life in luxury while we were starving!"
"Oh, please. She can't be having too good of a life since she ended up in here with us," Haymitch said.
"What did you do, girl?" Chaff asked her.
"It's… kind of a long story," she hedged. She was still standing awkwardly by the bars. Perhaps she should try to make herself comfortable, but she was still too frightened to get closer to them, especially that woman who didn't seem to like her very much. At least the assault of the smell on her nostrils was dimming now; she didn't know if that was a good thing or not.
"We can hear it," Chaff said, "We got time. Right, old chap?" he looked to his left. Katniss saw he was addressing what looked like a decrepit figure lying on a cot in the middle of the cell. The old man looked like he was sleeping; his eyes were closed, and his frail chest was rising and falling, strands of his white hair trembling with the movements.
"We don't know his name." Chaff told her, "Not that he can tell us. The Capitol cut off his tongue twenty years ago."
"Shit," she choked out.
She stepped closer, finally, her feet shifting carefully across the cracked concrete floor. Tentatively, she took a seat by the edge of the bed where Chaff was situated. Everyone's eyes were on her, drilling holes into her.
"Well, I am in here, because I helped my slave escape." She said. The room got silent then, to the point that one could almost hear a pin drop. Katniss swallowed, and glanced at her balled up fists. She was no good at telling stories. "He was going to get a death sentence, if he stayed here."
"What did he do?" the woman asked.
Katniss couldn't help a sad smile from flitting across her face, when she thought about last night.
"He punched a Capitol citizen. No, a deplorable asshole."
Haymitch whistled, and leaned back. Chaff was shaking his head in amazement. "Damn. Your boy had some nerves!"
"I know." Katniss said, her throat closing. "That's one of the reasons I love him."
The words escaped her, before she even thought about them. Her eyes widened, and her hands clasped around her mouth in regret.
Why did she say that? She had never even said that to him, and she just uttered it, to a roomful of strangers.
"Whoa. Whoa," Haymitch held up a hand, "So you're telling me you're in jail, slumming it up with us… you're protecting this boy this much, all because you're in love with him?"
"That's some high quality romance novel shit right there," Chaff cracked up.
"No." Katniss glared at them. "Well, even if I didn't love him, I'd want to do what's right," she said stubbornly, "I won't be a part of this rottenness."
The smile stilled on Chaff's face. Haymitch blinked slowly, and rubbed a palm over his eyes.
"Well, you don't hear that everyday," he said.
The room went silent for a moment. Katniss was so tense, her thumbs literally started to fidget in her lap as she stared at her hands.
"I want to hear more about this boy," the woman said suddenly, breaking the strange silence. "Tell me more. What is he like?"
By the time two-thirty rolled around in the morning, almost everyone was fast asleep. Katniss kept drifting in and out of consciousness, because nightmares interspersed between her blank moments.
She dreamed of Peeta's boat catching flames on the river, and the wooden frames sinking into the water while the fire melted away his skin. She dreamed of the Peacekeepers grabbing Prim's hands, and pulling her sister away from her, a gun trained at Prim's temple.
When she woke up once again, a cold sweat had broken over her forehead, from the vision of a bullet travelling through Peeta. She decided to stay awake for the rest of the night. It was much easier for her to bear.
But the seconds seemed to tick by, agonizingly slowly. The sound of wheezing and snores filled her ears, coupled by distant echoes of bars periodically opening and banging shut from down the corridor. She sighed helplessly. For the lack of anything better to do, she closed her eyes again. She just refused to let herself fall asleep again.
She was caught between the wake of sleep and consciousness, her arms dangling limply from the bed, when the sound of a bomb detonating crashed through the building, jostling her eardrums and insides.
She scrambled to sit up, quelling a scream in her throat. Haymitch jostled immediately into consciousness from the bed next to her, his arm swinging around wildly.
"What the fuck!" Chaff's yell cut across their confusion.
Suddenly, lights flooded the corridor outside of their cell, illuminating the entire place harshly.
"What the fuck is going on?" the woman cried out, having woken up too. Only the old man was still asleep.
The next thing they knew, another thunderous crash careened through the building; the impact of it made the walls shake and dirt fly over their heads. Katniss grasped onto the meager blanket around her, and flung it off her legs quickly.
"Fuck me," Haymitch growled, "It's a bomb!"
The entire row of cells seemed to come to life; an ocean of noises poured into the lighted corridor, some distraught screams, and a lot of shouting and swearing. Haymitch had sprang to his feet; he darted to the bars that held them in and looked outside.
"Fuck," he spat.
"What's going on?" Katniss demanded, scrambling to her feet and running forward to join Haymitch in looking outside. She couldn't see much, aside from the frantic people in the cell on the opposite end doing the same thing as her.
"I don't know," Haymitch snarled, "But if they keep us in here much longer, we might very well die. Motherfuckers!" he shook at the unyielding bars violently.
"Well, I don't want to die in this shithole," Chaff's voice joined them, as his hulking form appeared beside Haymitch. He grabbed a hold of the bars, and pushed his face outside of them, as much as the space between the metal rods allowed. "Will someone open these fucking bars?" he yelled, "Help!"
No one answered Chaff's pleas for a few minutes, while he kept yelling. Haymitch decided to join him too, along with the prisoners in the cell opposite theirs. Their voices grew into a cacophonous combination, bouncing off of the walls and the floor.
Then, another explosion ricocheted through the building, and this time, it made the walls shake even more violently than before. A piece of the cement cracked away from the ceiling, and proceeded to crash onto the floor, shattering into pieces.
Katniss looked around frantically. She wondered if this was going to be her end, in this smelly, inhumane hole with these people. She was unable to come to terms with this.
Mom, dad, she thought pleadingly. Prim, I love you. I'm so sorry. And Peeta -
"Hey man!" she suddenly heard Chaff yell. His hands were stretched out of the bars, and there was a burgeoning hope in his voice. "Fuck, help us here."
"I'm coming man." A stranger's voice echoed from outside the cell. Katniss whipped her head around, to see a redheaded man dashing toward them. He was a Peacekeeper; at least, half of his uniform appeared to be on. A key jingled in his hand.
At that moment, her knees nearly gave out in relief.
That Peacekeeper jammed the key into their lock, while her, Haymitch and Chaff looked on tersely. Even though it only took a few seconds for the lock to turn, it felt like a small infinity to Katniss. Finally, it gave way, and all of them worked together to shove the bars aside.
Chaff, Haymitch and Katniss stumbled into the corridor, followed by the others. The people in the other cells rattled their bars, clamoring for the Peacekeeper's help.
"What the fuck is going on, man?" Chaff shouted.
"It's a bomb! Someone set up a chain of them downtown and around this area," the redheaded man volleyed back, while he dashed away to free the other people at the same time. "Run to the left, then follow the stairway to reach the exit!"
"Thank you, my man," Chaff called out, "This will not be forgotten!"
The Peacekeeper grunted in acknowledgement, before jerking the other set of bars he was working on. The prisoners spilled out, some grasping onto his shoulders to gasp out their thanks before sprinting away.
Katniss knew she should run away; Haymitch was beckoning all of them. But before she could think about what she was doing, she ran up to the Peacekeeper, and placed her hands on his arms. He looked at her.
"Thank you, you kind person," she whispered. She didn't know why she felt compelled to say this to him. But she had met so few kind people in this world lately, she couldn't even comprehend this act on his part. The other Peacekeepers must have run for their lives by now, because she couldn't see a shadow of them. This guy was the only one who stayed behind to save them.
He nodded at her. "Go now," he said, and touched her hand fleetingly, "Be safe."
She nodded back furiously, before turning around to join the others in running.
But she had lost sight of her previous companions. None of the faces around her looked familiar. More people poured out of their cells as they were freed; she was jostled this way and that as she hurdled forward. Her head was spinning, and the smell of sweat and bodies disoriented her.
The prisoners burst through the stairway door, before charging for the staircase. Katniss had to grasp onto the rail to make sure that she didn't get knocked down as she ran. Someone rammed into her elbow painfully, and she gritted her teeth and tried to bear it. They ran down about three sets of stairs, before reaching a side door with a panic bar across it and the sign "EMERGENCY EXIT" displayed across its middle.
When the people ahead of her shoved it open, a piercing alarm started to resonate. Nobody paid any mind to it, however, as they started to spill out of the exit.
When Katniss finally reached the open door, her body nearly couldn't hold against the shove of the people from behind her. She was squashed against someone's back, struggling to catch her breath.
She didn't even register being released into the cool night air, until about three seconds in. Once the crowd flocked out of the building, it finally became dispersed as the prisoners scattered in every direction, the oppressive weight of the bodies against her suddenly letting up. She stumbled and gasped, desperate to catch her footing.
When she looked up, the sight that unfolded in front of her stole her breath once more.
A few hundred feet away from the facility, houses and buildings stood in various forms of damage; some had crumbled to the ground, lying in a myriad of concrete and metal ruins. Piteous echoes of wails and screams filled the night. Aside from the thinning horde, a few lingering people were visible to her in the distance, running down the street toward a destination unknown to her. Parents were grasping onto their children, and most were still in their pajamas and sleeping robes.
In the dead of the night, the fires danced and twitched on top of the ruins everywhere.
Katniss' hands trembled. She had no idea where to run, because she didn't know this area at all. What if there were more bomb traps around, and she ran straight into one?
Suddenly, the sound of a lone, ear-splitting gunshot pealed through the chaos, not more than forty feet from where she was standing. She nearly jumped out of her skin.
When she pivoted around to see what was going on, her dread over how to escape was immediately forgotten. It was replaced by a much sharper tug of fear.
A Peacekeeper had his gun trained on a retreating woman, who looked like a prisoner. She looked like she had been shot in the shoulder by him; a heart-wrenching agony tore at her face as she clutched at it.
"Don't you run now, mutt." He advanced toward her, "I won't let you."
But the injured woman tried to, anyways. Katniss' eyes nearly bugged out, as the Peacekeeper shot at her again - this time straight in the thigh. She screamed, and fell onto the ground in an unceremonious tangle of limbs.
Katniss glanced around. She was torn between running, or helping this woman. Just run, you fucking idiot, her mind screamed at her. You can't help her. Everyone else has run.
But the moment she saw the Peacekeeper lift his gun again, and direct it between the sobbing woman's eyes, something inside of her seemed to rupture.
"Stop!" she yelled, "stop it!"
The Peacekeeper paused. His shoulders were heaving, but he didn't deliver the bullet into the woman. Instead, he turned around, and fixed his glare directly on her, like he was seeing her for the first time.
Katniss took a step back. Her legs were strung as tightly as a pair of springs, from the tension thrumming through them.
Her heart stopped, when he lowered his arm with the pistol, and advanced toward her instead.
No. He can't. He won't dare -
"I'm from the Capitol!" she told him, "You can't touch me -"
"I don't give a fuck," he came to a stop in front of her. The next thing she knew, he reached out, and grasped onto a fistful of her hair. The shock warred through her, followed by the pain tingling in her scalp from his unrelenting grip.
"I've had a very bad night," he slurred, "Since you stopped me from delivering a justifiable punishment, why don't you make up for it and help me feel better, you little bitch?"
She didn't understand what he meant, until he pushed her head down with a force that was enough to make her fall on her knees; the jagged pebbles scraped at her skin even through her pants.
He put the gun back into the hoop on his belt, and kept his vicious grasp of her hair, while his now freed hand worked fervently at his belt buckle. She gritted her teeth against the burn that razored across her scalp.
"Suck my fucking cock," he told her, his guttural tone dripping with lust. "Be a good girl now. And I won't kill you."
Breathing heavily through her nose, Katniss gave a watery glance toward the pistol that was strapped to his waist. Terror welled up in her chest.
"Hey, what are you doing? Get off of her!"
Before Katniss could process the source of the voice, a pair of arms had hooked around the Peacekeeper's neck, taking him by surprise. He emitted a yell, but the awful noise was strangled in his throat. His fingers loosened around her hair.
She hurled his hand off of her head, and crawled backwards until there was a safe distance between them. Her frightened eyes finally found who had the Peacekeeper in a headlock.
He had come back for her.
His teeth were bared with the effort, because the Peacekeeper was no small man, either. Both men's faces were bursting into shades of puce, while they shoved at and struggled with each other. Katniss noticed the uniformed man's hand had disappeared into his belt, and it was then that the senses came fully snapping into her.
"NO!" she screamed, "Chaff! He's got a gun!"
Chaff grunted, and his fist made a sharp blow to the Peacekeeper's head, making it snap jerkily to the side. While the man was reeling from the blow, Chaff tried to seize the opportunity to seize the gun from his grip.
But the other man howled and refused to let go. While Chaff grappled for the weapon, the clumsy, desperate set of their movements accidentally activated its trigger.
The ensuing bang nearly turned Katniss' eardrums inside out.
Perhaps it wasn't accidental on the Peacekeeper's part.
Her world was swaying and tilting, and she didn't exactly see what happened next. But Chaff must have stumbled back, because it was then that the Peacekeeper gained the momentum, and swivelled around to train the gun directly against his stomach.
The next bang sounded more muffled than the one that just took place. Chaff's eyes went wide as saucers, and he hunched over against the Peacekeeper's shoulder. His blood splattered against the dirt behind him.
She hurtled forward, just as the uniformed man stepped away, leaving Chaff to collapse to his knees, then onto his back.
But when she tried to reach Chaff, the Peacekeeper stepped forward and kicked her directly in the chest, sending her careening backward.
She coughed wetly, clutching at the place that bore the brunt of the impact. When she looked up through her watering eyes, she saw the Peacekeeper looming over her.
His teeth were bared with his snarl. He had his gun pointed right at her forehead.
Katniss lifted up her hands. She was shivering violently, and her gaze was fixated on the pistol. Somewhere in the distance, the crumbling of bricks in the fire echoed.
"Please, I'll do whatever you want," she begged, followed by a soft sob. She kept her eyes trained on his face, above the gun point.
Slowly, slowly, she sat up to rest on her haunches, to not set him off with any sudden movements.
"I'll do anything. Just don't hurt me."
His ferocious grimace slackened, replaced by a burgeoning leer. He huffed, and lowered his gun, though he still kept a firm hold on it.
"Well then, what are you waiting for? Do it already!" he barked. "I don't have all day."
The hammering of her heart became a savage rhythm in her ears. She swallowed, but there was no moisture in her desert dry throat. Carefully, she lifted her hands toward his partially undone buckle.
He swatted them away impatiently. "I can do this part," he growled, and reached down to undo it himself.
Katniss inhaled sharply. Her eyes drifted toward his gun. And her throat seized, when she saw the hold of his fingers appear to slacken around its handle while he struggled to pull his dick out.
It was now or never. If Chaff couldn't manage to secure this gun, she might at least be able to dislodge it from him.
She would die before she surrendered to this scum lowlife.
Her face twisted fleetingly with feral determination.
Before he could make sense of her intentions, she had already flung her elbow up, ramming it into his hand with the entire weight of her body thrown into it, a choked cry bursting from her lips.
He let out a surprised howl, and the gun slid from his grasp, flying across the dirt to land a distance away from them. Her elbow throbbed from the impact.
"You - bitch -"
He lifted his hand, and brought it down to strike her. She half-anticipated the movement and tried to duck to the side, but his palm still connected with the right side of her head. For a split second, pain exploded across her scalp; the impact reverberated through her and made her teeth rattle.
"I don't need a gun, I'll fucking kill you with my bare hands," he snarled. He let his foot fly into her middle, the force sending her sprawling across the dirt. She gasped and wheezed as she lay there, clutching at her stomach.
She needed to get to that gun.
When he approached her again - no doubt to deliver more punishment on her - the fear-induced rush of adrenaline numbed the pain that flamed through her body. His boot aimed for her face, and the front of it knocked into her jawline.
But despite the pain that tilted her world, her arms shot out and anchored around his calf with a death grip. He yelped, and tried to escape her grasp by kicking at her with his heel. She yanked at his leg instead, and the momentum actually made him lose his balance, sending him to the ground with a thunderous crash.
Showers of dust and dirt flurried around them, while she released him and scrambled to get to her own feet. He was stunned and sputtering, screaming curses at her, his arms and legs flailing as he struggled to right himself again.
But she had already pushed herself off off the dirt. Spots swam in her vision as she darted toward where the weapon lied, and every inch of her body flamed in protest of the pain, but the desperation gave her the strength to bear it. The muscles in her legs burned as she collapsed besides the gun.
"No!" she heard him bellow after her.
She looked up, just in time to see him tumbling toward her - or his weapon - like a vulture who just lost his favorite piece of meat.
"You bitch!" he screamed at her, "Don't you dare touch that, don't you dare -"
She grappled at the gun with jelly-like fingers. C'mon, cooperate with me, she cursed at her trembling digits.
When she managed to hold it up, its weight nearly dragged her hands down. For an object which looked so light when people on screen used it, how it actually felt in her hands shocked her.
But she had no more time to consider how it felt, when the Peacekeeper scurried to close the last bit of distance between them. She lifted the pistol with both hands and pointed it at him, her forefinger hooking onto what she guessed was the trigger. Her hands were sweating profusely, threatening to slip from her wobbling grasp.
"Don't come, or I - I'll shoot!"
His expression shifted. And perhaps the sight of the gun turned on him jarred him, because he slowed in his steps. "Careful now. You don't want to play with that, little girl," he said through gritted teeth.
"I'm not," she said in a tremulous voice. Her temple was throbbing with the rhythm of the blood pounding in her ears. When he started to advance toward her, she tightened her hold on the pistol frantically. "No, stay."
He sneered. It was clear he could see the trepidation on her face.
"Look at you, a pitiful little thing threatening me. Look, you don't even know how to hold the gun properly. The game is over. Now, give it back," he ordered, "And I won't hurt you. Too badly."
Katniss choked back a whimper. His promise merely convinced her that the pistol was the only safety barrier between her and an imminent, excruciating death by his hand.
She didn't come this far - and have someone sacrifice their life trying to save hers - just to give up now, even if her psyche quivered at the thought of killing another man.
The Peacekeeper scowled deeply, when he saw she wasn't letting go. "I said give it back to me," he said in an icy, livid tone that slid toward dangerous.
It felt as if a vacuum had sucked all of the heat from this space, despite the fires that dotted the landscape around them.
"No." When she trained the point of the gun on his face, then his chest, his eyes widened in disbelief. "You killed Chaff. I kill you!"
"You won't dare," he breathed out, "I serve the President!" when she lifted her head defiantly, the edge of tone became tinged with hysteria. He hurled himself forward, and his hand stretched out toward her. "I said give it back, you dumb bitch, or I swear to God I will -"
At the sight of him jostling toward her, her body reacted before her mind even processed it. Her forefinger pressed down on the trigger, as if it acted of its own accord.
The blast that proceeded split her ears - she screamed along with the Peacekeeper's drowned-out yell. The pistol seemed to rebound in her hand, its force crushing her finger and travelling through her palm with an impact that reached inside and rattled her bones.
She dropped the gun hastily, staring at it in utter shock. But then, a choked, gurgling wheeze made her head snap up. The Peacekeeper was clutching at the space above his ribs, where redness started to blossom across the dirt on his once white uniform.
"You…" his eyes were impossibly wide, and he clawed at his wound, "No…"
Her teeth couldn't stop chattering. She had just done that. She.
When the man stumbled and fell to his knees, her insides went cold. Her jaw clenched and unclenched with her effort to swallow back the bile in her throat.
Seeing him crumble to the ground, an odd, nearly surreal sensation suddenly washed over her, because the realization hit her then - for all his imposing uniform, his status, or the fear he induced in people - his only true power lied in this gun. Without it, he was nothing but a pathetic mass of flesh.
"You- you're a scum," she choked out, his shrivelled form blurring in her vision. Then, she remembered the other man lying a few feet away from them, unmoving. "Chaff," she called out, "Oh god. Chaff!"
She looked to him frantically. He was lying in the dirt, the dust gently layering over his still form. Blood glistened across his torn shirt and skin. His eyes were open and vacant, and his arms splayed across the ground at an awkward angle, his fingers curled.
She crawled over to him. Falling into a heap beside his torso, she reached out blindly to grasp onto his shirt. When she realized the material felt warm and wet, she let go immediately, her stomach lurching dangerously. She brought her trembling hand up to her eyes.
At the sight of the unmistakable red smeared across her palm, she let out a long wail.
"Chaff," she cried. It was no use. He was long lost to the world.
She sobbed, and scrubbed her hand on her dirty pants furiously, because the feel of his blood on it threatened to choke her alive.
Please. Please get it off.
The efforts proved to be futile. Even as she chafed her skin raw, the feel still didn't come off of her hand - warm and slippery and acidic.
Finally, she lurched away from him, and her fingers dug into the dirt beside her knees, while she emptied what little content remained in her stomach.
She crawled away from her sickness, and once again planted herself beside Chaff. Her vision swam precariously, and she knew she couldn't fight the urge to succumb to the darkness much longer.
When a bout of light-headedness seized her, she collapsed alongside him, before she was even aware of being on the ground.
But even the mercy of unconsciousness seemed to evade her. When her senses snapped back into her after a few minutes, she opened her eyes painfully. Her hooded gaze roamed over their deserted surroundings, seeing nothing but the aftermath of destructions.
When she saw the dying Peacekeeper, whose limbs were still twitching as he struggled to hang onto his last breath, she choked back a pitiful sound, and tried to shut out the fact that she was his killer.
When she squeezed her eyes shut, she tried to escape everything taking place around her. To blot out the lingering feel of the gun and the blood, she tried to think of a happy place, a place where she felt safe and warm and at peace.
Almost instantly, her thoughts turned toward blue eyes, and a pair of strong arms holding her.
When she burrowed her face into the crook of her arm and imagined harder - ignoring the metallic smell of her clothes and skin - she could somehow feel his large presence right here, like it was protecting her. She nearly registered the soft sensation of his lips against her aching temple, and his front shifting against her back - the position they liked to assume when they fell asleep.
And it seemed so real in her muddled state for a moment, she almost wanted to smile. For a split second, she couldn't remember where she was. She thought she was on Peeta's bed again, having climbed into it after a nightmare.
But when she twisted her body around and opened her eyes again, nothing but the empty, smoky sky filled her searching stare. The fog cleared from her brain.
Her chest caved in then; the pang of loss struck her without warning. Tears traced down her temples, biting into her bruised skin, while she struggled to hold against the weight of the regret that threatened to crush her.