a/n: I didn't plan on writing a second part to this, but I was overwhelmed with the number of people who wanted me to. One review suggested a sequel from Peeta's POV that starts when Katniss runs from him during the bombing, and that's what I decided to do. I hope it lives up to everyone's expectations! Just to warn you, the vast majority of this was written before the movie came out, and I couldn't bear to go back and change the descriptions of Thirteen based on the movie. I'm sorry! :)
"Take Penny," Peeta says, shouting to be heard. "I'll go. I'll find them. Get to the bunker."
But he knows as soon as the words leave his mouth that she isn't going to listen to him, and she shouldn't. She is better on her feet than he is; she was before he lost his leg, and his agility certainly hasn't improved now that he's short a leg. If the corridors are destroyed from the bombs, she'll be able to navigate the destruction in a way he won't. It makes sense for her to go.
How is he supposed to go to safety in the bunkers without her?
She kisses him before he can say that, and she pushes him back slightly, an apology in her gaze; she isn't going to listen to him. "I'll meet you in the bunker," she says, and she's gone, racing around the corner before he's able to stop her.
The floor tilts under them suddenly, and Peeta trips into the wall. Penny screams in his ear, and he clutches her tightly, tucking her face into his neck to shield her before he staggers to his feet. Katniss is going to make it to the hospital, and she'll meet him in the bunkers. That means he has to get to the bunkers. He has to get Pennycress to safety, and they'll meet Katniss in the bunkers.
People have started to stream for the bunkers in a wave, and he joins them, cradling Penny to his chest while elbows jostle at his side, and feet knock into his calves, and everyone seems to stumble at once, swaying in unison. It isn't until they reach a corridor that's collapsed, blocking them off from the entrance to the bunkers, that panic tears into them completely. Little fingers dig into his neck in terror, and Peeta presses a kiss to Penny's temple. "It's okay, it's okay," he murmurs, refusing to admit that it isn't.
There are multiple ways into the bunkers.
This one was simply the closest. People have started to try to to shift the debris that block the entrance, but it seems like a waste to Peeta; they don't have time for this. He starts to push his way through the crowd, shoving down the doubt that rises in him with the certainty that this is what Katniss would do. She wouldn't wait to see whether the debris could be moved. She'd run.
He leaves the crowd, turning the corner to find that the corridors are empty now, and he takes off at a spring, dodging the plaster that rains from the ceiling, struggling to keep his footing while the walls shake endlessly around him. The lights in the ceiling cut off abruptly, and he stumbles, cutting his temple on something that blinds him momentarily, but he forces himself up, forward, mumbling nonsensically to Penny while he goes.
"Here! This way!"
Peeta doesn't know who the woman is, but she appears in the hallway, screaming to be heard above the alarm, and the others with her seem to know where they're going. He reaches them, follows them blindly, choking on smoky, powdered plaster, and they make it. To the stairs, and to the bunkers. To safety.
The corridors shake with the bombs that drop, but the impact is nothing in comparison to the that in the hallways above the bunkers, and Peeta slows to a trot. The bunkers are secure. He adjusts his grip on Penny, shifting her up higher in his arms. "It's okay, it's okay," he promises.
They made it.
But his gaze trips from face to face, searching for his family. Ash finds him first.
"PAPA! PAPA! PAPA!"
He slams into Peeta at a run. Peeta sinks to his knees, gathering Ash into his arms with Penny. "I've got you," he murmurs.
Ash is crying while he clings to Peeta, and the words tumble nonsensically from him at first; it takes him a minute to explain that he was with Uncle Bannock, but Uncle Bannock was worried about Aunt Mary, and he told Ash to wait while he looked for Aunt Mary. "But he hasn't come back, and I couldn't find you, or Mama, or Uncle Haymitch, or Aunt Prim, or anybody!"
Peeta swallows thickly. "It's okay. You found me, and we're going to find Mama next. Come on."
Ash takes his hand, and they start to weave their way through the bunkers. It's clear that Thirteen wasn't prepared for this, and nobody knows exactly what's going on. People are huddled in groups, crying softly, and there are people, too, in a panic, searching for others with strained, desperate shouts. Like Peeta is.
Soldiers from Thirteen start to try to corral everyone towards the stairs, explaining that the crowds need to go deeper into the bunkers; the walls shake with a bomb to reinforce their words.
But Peeta has to find Katniss. She'll have Davey with her, and they'll retreat to safety together.
Ash stumbles in his effort to keep up with Peeta, and Penny slows him, too, and he knows he needs to pass them off to somebody, to assure that they are taken to safety no matter what. But he's loath to let them out of his sight, out of his arms, and he'll find Katniss any second.
He has to find her.
The soldiers are insistent, angry, telling him that he needs to go to safety now.
Plaster rains from the ceiling.
The security that the bunkers offered initially is gone now; they have to go deeper, but—
His spots the yellow, matted curls from a distance. His heart twists in a hundred ways at once: with panic, disbelief, hope. "Davey!" he says, clearing his throat to shout it louder, but Ash shouts it, too, and Penny shouts it, and the boy spins to face them with big, big eyes. Davey.
Relief crashes into Peeta.
Everybody made it. Katniss got to the hospital, brought Davey to the bunkers.
Peeta sinks to his knees to hug Davey while Ash ruffles his hair, and Penny kisses his cheek, and they are a tight, tangled mass on the floor of the corridor. "Where's your Mama?" Peeta asks, smiling breathlessly at his son.
But Davey blinks at him.
No, no, no!
Peeta's gaze flies up to land on Prim, and her smile has frozen in place. Rory is with her, and Madge is at his side, holding his arm. But that's it. "She isn't with you?" Prim asks.
"We separated," he breathes. He doesn't wait for her to reply, already moving up to his feet. "Take them down below. I'll get her."
"Peeta," Madge whispers.
But Prim nods, reaching for Pennycress. "We'll meet you down there," she says.
"Wait, Papa!" Ash says, panicked, and Davey locks his arms around Peeta's waist.
"I have to get your mama, buddy," Peeta says, willing Ash to understand, and Rory reaches for Davey. "I'm sorry, but I'll be right back."
Ash nods slowly, and Peeta looks away before the expression on Ash's face breaks him. He squeezes Penny's foot, brushes a hand over Davey's head, and starts for the stairs.
But the chaos from above has reached the bunkers at last; the lights flicker with a crash that makes the corridor tremble violently, and the soldiers urge everyone down, down, down. Peeta brushes off the soldier that grabs his arm, heading up the stairs rather than down. Boggs shouts after him, and Peeta starts to take the stairs two at a time.
He turns a corner, making it up a flight, and plows into Finnick.
For a moment, he is stunned. Finnick is covered in blood, limping on an ankle that's twisted at best while Annie screams hysterically from where she's trapped against Gale's chest. "Nell?" Finnick breathes, gaze wildly searching Peeta's face. "She was in the hospital with Prim? She—?"
"I haven't seen her," Peeta says.
"What about Madge?" Gale asks.
Peeta nods, but he doesn't have time to talk to them. "Everybody's that way; they're going further down. But I've got to get Katniss." He starts around them, continuing up the stairs. Finnick is at his heels immediately, coming with him, and they are a flight away when the explosion that rocks the bunkers knocks them both off their feet. It takes a moment for Peeta to recover, but he does.
Only the stairs above them disappear into ceiling.
Peeta blinks away the dust that swirls into his eyes, and disbelief burns at his throat.
"No," Finnick says, struggling to his feet. "No! NO!" He tugs on his hair, tearing at the splintered, ruined stairs that block off their exit a moment later. Peeta starts to help, trying to shift the rubble. But he hasn't managed to make the smallest, slightest dent before Boggs is behind them suddenly, grabbing at Peeta's shoulder while he shouts that they are fools, that it's a waste, that they need to get to safety before their families lose them, too. "I have to get my daughter!" Finnick screams, shoving Boggs away.
Boggs knocks him over the head, and Finnick is out in an instant. Boggs hauls Finnick over his shoulder, turning to Peeta. "I can't carry you both down," he says. "Remember your kids." He pauses, and Peeta nods. "Let's go."
The minutes that it takes them to tumble down flight after flight seem to smear into hours, and Peeta coaches himself to believe that Katniss made it to the bunkers, and he simply wasn't able to find her. But she wouldn't have retreated to the bunkers without Davey. But—but she might've reached the hospital, realized that it was empty, and known that Prim had taken Davey to safety.
She is in the bunkers. He didn't see her earlier.
She has reunited with their family by now, has Penny in her arms. Or she might've left Penny with Prim, and now is trying to push her way past the soldiers to go up the stairs to find him.
The impact from the bombs has grown into a distant, ominous rumble when they emerge into the cavern where everyone waits.
The boys spot Peeta before he spots them, and they race to him.
Katniss isn't with them.
His eyes fasten on Prim, and she shakes her head at him. "No," she breathes. "No. No! She's up there! You were supposed to get her! No!" She makes to move to the stairs, shoving Rory aside when he reaches for her; she wrenches her arm from his grasp with a fury he didn't know Prim possessed.
"The stairs were blocked," he whispers. "There wasn't a way up."
"YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO GET HER!" Prim screams.
Rory manages to gather her into his arms, but she flails against him.
"I'm sorry," Peeta whispers. "I couldn't—"
It's not real, it's not real, it's not real.
He looks away from Prim, only for his gaze to catch on Ash, who stares at him with knowing, watery eyes. "Mama isn't coming," he says. It's a question, but the answer sticks in Peeta's throat, and that's the answer. Ash looks away, nodding, and that's when the truth crashes into Peeta completely at last.
He knows the chances that she was able to survive the bombs are slim, but.
She could've found a place to hide.
There isn't a way to know for certain as long as they are trapped in the bunkers. Not really, and the days that follow are the worst in his life.
They have the supplies that they need to survive, but they are trapped; the ceiling is low, and the lights are dim, and the shock that grips Peeta at first gives way to a restlessness that makes it impossible to sleep, to eat, to think. He needs to get out, to search for her. He needs to find her.
Two days in, the message on the radio that demands they surrender immediately starts to loop.
It cuts off abruptly that night, and the radio is static.
Coin didn't make it to the bunkers, and nobody knows what's going on. Heavensbee didn't make it either. Boggs is now the impromptu, highest ranking leader, but he's at a loss for what to do.
Haymitch didn't make it. Neither did Bannock, or Mary. Johanna didn't make it. Delly didn't make it. Posy, Vick, and Mrs. Hawthorne didn't make it. Mrs. Everdeen didn't make it. Nell didn't make it. The list goes on, and it's impossible that everyone on it is miraculously going to survive the bombings. But there's a chance that someone is.
Four days in, Prim wakes in a warm, bloody pool, and her sobs echo through the cavern. Now she's lost her mother, her sister, and her baby, and she refuses to be comforted.
But she might not have lost her sister.
He doesn't say it, and neither does she, but he knows Prim harbors the same stupid hope.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. He was ready to give his life for this war, to end the Games, to stop the Capitol. But he wasn't ready to give up Katniss. He can't. He won't. He refuses.
Eight days in, Boggs gives the okay for them to leave the bunkers at last.
It looks as though the bombs have finally stopped for good.
The problem is that the ruins above them have created a prison, and there isn't a way to leave.
"There are the tunnels," Boggs says. "I don't know where they drop off, but it's a start."
Apparently, the tunnels were built to lead away from Thirteen in case the bunkers needed to be evacuated in secret. That's everything that Boggs knows about them: that they exist, and why. He doesn't know where they'll take them, or that anyone's bothered to check that they haven't collapsed in the years since they were built.
But it's what they've got.
It takes a week to clear the rubble that blocks the tunnels. Boggs suggests that only the soldiers explore the tunnels at first while the others wait with in the bunkers, but Peeta isn't about to wait, and he isn't about to leave his children either. In the end, everyone is eager to leave the cage that the bunkers have become, and they head into the dark, musty tunnels with the intention not to return.
The ceiling brushes Peeta's head, and there are rats at his feet.
He hoists Penny up, carrying her piggyback, and he keeps the boys at his sides; he's glad to have their elbows brush his, reminding him constantly that they're beside him. Alive, and safe.
The incline is gradual; when he realizes they're walking up, he doesn't know how long they have been. It doesn't matter. They emerge into a small, grassy clearing that's circled in trees, and everyone is overwhelmed with relief for a moment, laughing and crying and turning in circles to take it in. It isn't long before Wiress notices that there's a slanted, grey building in trees; it's stocked with supplies: food, water, blankets, medicine, flashlights, maps.
It's everything they could've hoped for at this point.
But it's when they're in the open that Peeta realizes how few of them there really are, how few made it to the bunkers. It can't be more than two hundred people.
Boggs asks for volunteers to return Thirteen above the ground, saying they need to start the search for survivors as soon as possible. Peeta is ready to hand Pennycress to Prim, but Prim says that she wants to go.
"Prim," Rory starts.
"I'm going," Prim snarls.
Nobody tries to fight her. Prim goes. Peeta goes, too, leaving the children with Madge.
It starts to grow dark quickly, but they push through the night, reaching the ruins an hour after dawn. One solider from Thirteen is sick at the sight.
The smell that hits them a moment after the sight is worse.
The bombs carved Thirteen off the map, leaving a crater in the ground. Thick, black smoke drifts into the sky, meeting with the ash that rains softly around them. For a moment, their group is stunned, and everyone stares.
Finnick is the first to shake away the shock. "Nell!" he shouts.
Peeta follows, and the group splits up easily, calling for the people they care about. It's hard to see, and Peeta's eyes start to burn. But when smoke catches in his lungs, choking him, Boggs assumes him that it isn't toxic. "Don't worry," he says, and his eyes wander over Peeta's shoulder to stare grimly at the ruins. "It's done it's damage."
The ash coats his tongue, and it's a struggle to shout for her. But he does.
They find body after body, and most aren't recognizable, but plenty are. Gale carries a sobbing, screaming woman from Thirteen away from the rubble after she finds her son with his legs torn off, and his eyes wide, wide open.
Peeta strains to hear a groan from the rubble, or a faint, whispered plea for help, or anything.
There aren't survivors.
He refuses to give up, only his body seems to disagree. He shoe catches on something, and his leg twists under him; he tries to break his fall with his hands, only to cut his palms on the jagged metal piece that protrudes from the rubble. For a moment, he is dizzy from the speed at which he was brought to his knees, and he coughs violently on the ash that rushed into his lungs.
"Shit," Gale says. It takes him a moment to cross the ruins to where Peeta is. "Did you twist your ankle?" he asks. His eyes land on Peeta's black, bloody hands. "Shit." He grabs Peeta's elbow, has a hand on his back. "Come on. We have to bandage that shit before it gets infected."
Peeta shakes him off. "I'm fine."
But he isn't. His leg refuses to cooperate, and his attempt to stand is failure. He falls onto his ass, locking his jaw to try to stop the sob that rattles in his chest. It doesn't work.
One he starts to cry, he isn't able to stop. He is paralyzed, gasping breathlessly between sobs. He wants to believe it isn't real, that it didn't happen. But it is real. It did happen. He rocks forward, back, raising his hands, curling them into fists, hissing at the pain; he rocks forward, back, collapsing in on himself, and Gale takes his shoulders to hold him steady while he sobs.
Eventually, the tremors that wrack his body give way to stillness.
From across the ruins, Finnick screams for Nell.
The words stick in Peeta's throat, but he manages to say them. "She's dead."
"I know," Gale murmurs. "Come on." He stands, and Peeta is able to stand with him.
The world tilts unsteadily on his feet, but he finds his footing, and he nods at Gale. "I'm fine."
The hope that greets them when they return to the clearing where the others are is awful.
But it fades quickly; Peeta watches it drain from Madge's face.
"Where's Mama?" Davey asks. He's eager, trying to look past Peeta for Katniss. Pennycress is in Ash's lap, sucking her thumb, and she reaches for Peeta when he squats to answer Davey. "Where's Mama, Papa?" Davey looks at Peeta now, and Peeta can't answer him; the words won't come. What is he supposed to say? How is he supposed to explain that Mama's gone?
Ash realizes; his eyes widen at Peeta's silence. "No," he says. "But—" His chin trembles. "No!"
"I'm sorry, buddy," Peeta murmurs.
"Did she have to go to the Capitol?" Davey asks.
Penny lurches forward slightly, insistently, and he pulls her into his arms, trying to find his voice. "Where's Mama?" Penny asks, leaning her head sleepily on Peeta's shoulder. She isn't upset, or concerned, and it makes it worse; Peeta's throat starts to close with tears.
Ash is crying now, and Davey begins to understand, too, glancing between them.
"Mama couldn't get to safety in time," Peeta explains, swallowing thickly. "I'm sorry."
"But—but you were going to get her," Davey says, refusing to give in, and the look on his face breaks Peeta; he isn't able to blink away his tears. Davey starts to cry when Peeta starts to.
He reaches for the boys, and the tumble into his arms. He clings to them, and to Pennycress, but she doesn't understand yet, doesn't realize; she tries to wipe the tears off Peeta's cheeks, shushing him. She's a baby, and she needs her mother, and, oh, God, she isn't going to be able to remember Katniss when she's grown, is she? That's not how it's supposed to be.
This wasn't supposed to happen.
He chokes on tears, and holds his children closer, tighter. They're everything he's got left now.
It isn't safe to stay in Thirteen, and there isn't a reason to. Nothing's left for them in Thirteen.
They need to find out who is left in Panem, and where they are. Boggs thinks that Coin bombed the Capitol, explaining that the plan in place for years was to bomb the Capitol as soon as the Capitol bombed them; of course, they didn't think it would ever really, truly happen. But it did.
If the Capitol was bombed, Snow might have been killed.
Or he might've found a way to hide, and to survive, and is now in a position to win the war. If he hasn't won already, that is. The airwaves on the radio are dead, and have been since they cut off in the bunkers; they have several small, black portable TV monitors, too, but the channels are endless, buzzing static. It's useless. They don't know what's going on, and they need to find out.
It's difficult to travel with the constant, paralyzing fear that hovercrafts with bombs are going to appear suddenly in the sky above them, but they don't have a choice.
They follow the maps from the cabin, crossing quickly into Twelve, or what used to be Twelve.
The devastation is awful.
He wishes the children didn't have to see it, but there isn't a way to hide it from them.
Madge is good with them, though. She asks the boys to hold her hands, explaining that it's scary not to be able to see, and it leaves her lonely. Davey makes up stories to share with her, and Ash thinks up jokes to make her laugh; their determination to help Aunt Madge distracts them from the ruins, and their hunger. From the fact that they've lost their home, their friends. Their mother.
It takes a week to escape the rubble in Twelve.
But when they reach Ten, it's clear that it must've been bombed, too. Peeta suspects that Snow tried to bomb the country into submission, only to succeed in destroying everything. He was desperate to control everyone, and now there isn't anyone left from him to control. Except them.
Except their group, struggling to survive on dwindling, insufficient supplies.
They aren't in Ten for a day before they stumble onto proof that there are survivors in Ten.
Several rotting, mutilated bodies are strung up from crudely constructed gallows. Animals have picked at the corpses, but their clothing remains in scraps, and it's clear who they are, or who they were: Peacekeepers. Peeta turns Penny away quickly, trying to distract her, and he tries to shield the boys, too, but he isn't really, completely able to.
Annie screams hysterically at the sight.
Mostly, she passes the days in a daze, asking constantly where Nell is, and Finnick is able to keep her calm. He isn't now. Her screams are impossible to quell, and Peeta watches Boggs tighten his grip on his gun, murmuring to Gale. But nobody emerges to attack their group, or to take the credit for the Peacekeepers. Eventually, exhaustion overwhelms Annie, and she quiets.
They move on, trekking into the farmland that surrounds Ten.
It doesn't look as though the farms were bombed, but there isn't a soul in sight. Cautiously, they venture into the small, ramshackle houses that circle the fields. The electricity doesn't work, and there isn't food to be found, or medicine. It's clear that the houses were abandoned, and the occupants took with them everything valuable, or useful. "But where would they go?" Rory asks.
They spend the night in the houses, but Peeta isn't able to sleep.
His mind wanders to who might've lived in these homes, to where they are now. It wanders to Katniss, and what she would've thought about the Peacekeepers, and these houses, and everything that they've seen. He imagines a conversation with her. Closes his eyes, and sees the tension in her mouth when she eyes the ruined, strung up bodies. She whispers that Darius wasn't terrible, and he understands. "I know," he says, opening his eyes, and it's quiet.
In the morning, Boggs starts to organize them into groups to scour the houses for supplies. "Best to set off as soon as possible," he says. Nobody argues with him. But two days later, a woman from Thirteen announces that she wants to stay in Ten, and she's talked to others, and she knows that others do, too. There are houses to stay in, a river nearby for water, and land to farm.
"But why bother to stay?" Gale asks.
"Why bother to go?" Leevy asks.
He stares at her. "It isn't safe," he says at last. "We need to figure out what's going on. We don't know why the people from Ten chose to leave their homes. That matters, and we—we need to know what's going on in the Capitol, and with the war."
"If you want to go, go," Leevy says. "But I'm going to stay." She glances at the woman from Thirteen. "I've talked with Emily, and this is what I want to do."
"How many wish to stay?" Boggs asks, glancing around the group.
Slowly, most raise their hands.
"I see," Boggs says. "Does anyone wish to leave?" His gaze flickers to Finnick, to Gale, to Peeta.
"Yes," Finnick says, and there's a certainty in his voice. He isn't going to stay. Neither is Peeta. It hadn't occurred to him to stay before now, but he isn't going to. There's an emptiness to the district that makes it feel haunted, that makes it seem wrong to stay, to linger with ghosts.
The group is split close to cleanly in two, and Emily claims that numbers are enough in each for both to survive on their own; they don't need to stay in one large group. It's clear that Boggs disagrees, but he doesn't try to argue, and it's decided: those who wish to stay are going to stay, and those who wish to leave are going to leave.
Peeta is going, and it isn't a question that Prim is, too, holding Ash's hand, and Rory glances from her to Gale. "What about you?" he asks.
"He wants to go," Leevy says, staring at Gale. Her chin trembles, but she musters a sad, knowing smile. "There isn't a child tying us together, and there isn't love neither. There hasn't been in years. Not really." Her gaze doesn't waver, staring at Gale. "Not the kind that makes a marriage."
"Lee," Gale says.
"If you want to stay, stay," she says. "But if you want to go, go." She pauses. "Which is it?"
Gale is silent, and he drops his gaze at last.
Leevy nods. "Right." Her eyes flicker past Gale to where Madge stands with Davey. There's a handkerchief folded into a strip, tied neatly around Madge's head to cover her eyes; Peeta realizes suddenly that it belongs to Gale. Leevy gives a tearful, humourless chuckle. "Okay. Fine."
They leave that day. Their group is smaller. Somber. But the sky is cloudy, and there's a breeze, and Prim starts to sing to amuse the children.
In the afternoon, Gale takes Madge's hand.
Did Katniss know? She must not have, or she would have told Peeta.
Actually, that isn't true. Katniss might have known, but she thought it wasn't her business, or it wasn't important, and there wasn't a reason to tell him. It doesn't matter. Except it does. It matters because he wants to ask her what she knew, and he can't. He wants to ask her what she thinks, and he can't. He wants to ask her anything, wants to talk to her, wants to hold her hand, wants to be with her right now. But she's gone, and he can't.
The guilt crashes into Peeta in waves, consuming his thoughts. He should've stopped her when she pushed him away, sprinting off. He could've, and he should've. He should've refused to separate. He should've dropped Penny off as soon as he reached the bunkers, running after Katniss. He should've knocked Boggs off his feet, and torn his way through the rubble to find her.
It would've been suicide, but he doesn't care. He should've done everything to get to her. He should've been with her when she died.
He should've died, too.
He knows he isn't supposed to think like that. His children need him, and he knows that.
But he could've at least tried to save her. After all, he could've grabbed her arm. He could've overpowered her, and dragged her to the bunkers. He could've saved her. He should've saved her.
It takes weeks to pass through the quiet, empty farmland that comprises Ten, and winter starts to creep up on them. The cold worries Peeta; when Pennycress is in his arms, she inches her hands under the collar of his shirt to press her freezing little fingers against his skin. It scares him.
Their group is tough, but they aren't going to be able to survive a winter on the road.
Luckily, they don't have to.
They reach Nine at last, and it turns out the survivors in Nine chose to stay in their district rather than to flee. They commandeered a factory, transforming it into a fortress, and the guards that circle the factory welcome the stragglers from Thirteen into the cramped, make-shift city in a box.
They run the factory with an efficiency that puts Thirteen to shame; everything is organized, and everything is rationed, and they are reluctant to share their resources with strangers.
But they do. They share their shelter, and their food. They share the yarn that Finnick asks for, and needles to knit, which he gives to Annie. She knits mittens, hats, and scarves for Peeta's children, and for Boggs's. She knits for Nell, too: yellow mittens, a scarf to match, and a yellow hat with knitted green flowers sewn on the fringe. Peeta looks away when Finnick pockets them.
Nobody from Nine knows what's going on in the Capitol, or with the war.
The radios are static, and the televisions are, too; there hasn't been a train from the Capitol since Nine was bombed, or a hovercraft, or anything. They are convinced that Snow was killed, though, and that the government in the Capitol was destroyed. After all, he wouldn't have allowed them to flourish this long on their own without him.
Madge whispers to Gale that she didn't think this city in a factory was what it meant to flourish.
But nobody in Nine is interested in what Madge thinks. Their faces are hard, lined. Angry, and ready to defend what they have left no matter what. They aren't about to force those from Thirteen to starve to death in the cold, but they aren't happy that they have to house them either.
The winter that follows is the worst in Peeta's life.
They are trapped in the factory, living off tasteless, shrivelled vegetables that are grown within the factory. There isn't water to waste, meaning that nobody is able to bath properly, and the smell that clings to their sweaty, unwashed bodies lingers thickly in the stale, still air. It's awful.
Katniss would've hated this place worse than she hated Thirteen.
There are moments when he forgets that she's dead.
She lives in the minutes when he isn't asleep, and he isn't awake. In the pauses in his sentences when his mind is blank for an instant, and in the moments when he is distracted, and he turns to share a joke, to ask a question, to see her reaction to something that Boggs says. It makes the knot in his chest tighten painfully when she isn't there, forcing him to remember that she's gone.
In some ways, he refuses to believe it's real. How can it be?
How is possible for her simply to be gone?
But she is, and it breaks Peeta's heart when Davey screams at Hestia that she isn't.
Hestia is a small, shy woman from Thirteen whose family was killed in the bombings. There isn't a thing not to like about her; she's smart, thinks everything through, is kind, patient with Annie, friendly with Madge, is willing to watch his children when Peeta isn't able to. But after she explains to Davey that he can't leave the factory to hunt for food, Davey glares at her, and replies coldly that his sister is hungry, and he knows how to set a snare. His mother taught him.
"I know, dear," Hestia says. "But it isn't safe for you to leave, and—"
"What do you care?" Davey snarls.
Hestia blinks at him in surprise. "I care about you."
"Davey," Prim says, touching his shoulder. But he shrugs her off, and his dark grey eyes burn into Hestia's face. Peeta knows that he needs to speak up, to intervene. But he's paralyzed, seeing Katniss in their son: in his eyes, in the shape of his face, in the fury that radiates off him.
"Dear, I know you miss your mother," Hestia starts.
"No, you don't!" Davey says. "You don't know anything about me! And I'm not your dear, and you can't tell me what to do! I'm going to go hunting, and you—and when my mama finds us, I'm going to tell her that I caught squirrels like she taught me, and I—and I looked after Penny!"
Hestia opens her mouth to reply, and Peeta steps in at last.
He squats to Davey's height. Davey swipes at his tears, glaring at Peeta, and his gaze makes the words catch in Peeta's throat. He doesn't explain that Katniss is dead, and that Davey knows this. He doesn't say a word. He can't. He pulls Davey into his arms. Davey hugs him, whispering the words into Peeta's neck. "She's going to come back," he says. "She always does."
"Not this time," Peeta says. The words are hoarse, and he isn't certain that Davey heard.
"Just wait, Papa," Davey murmurs. "She'll find us. You'll see."
That night, Gale asks Davey to help him to make a snare. "I don't know that I'll be able to catch anything in the snow," he says, "but I figured I've got a better shot if you can help me. You're really good at snares, right? Can you show me how I've got to do it?"
Davey shows him, and he smiles a little when Finnick praises the snares that Davey's made.
The grief comes in waves to the children.
Not to Peeta.
The grief stays with Peeta, and time seems to crawl in that cold, stale factory without her.
The coal that was used in the past to heat the factory was brought in on a train from Twelve, which means they have to come up with a way to heat the factory without coal. Their solution is to burn what little wood they are able to gather in big metal bins, forcing everyone to huddle around the bins at night when the cold is the worst. Peeta didn't know that cold like this existed, didn't realize that winter in Twelve was mild in comparison to this bitter, brutal winter.
But days fade into weeks, and weeks turn into months.
Penny gets a horrible ear infection, and the pain makes her scream for Katniss. Peeta sits with her for day after day, staying up with her night after night, and she begs for her mama until he starts to cry, too. He can't take the pain from her, and he can't bring her mother back to her. He's useless.
Soon after she recovers, the cold starts to thaw, and they make plans to leave Nine as soon as possible. On the first warm day in March, they do.
He's learned to live with the nightmares. The come every single night, and they paralyze him. Katniss screams for him, reaching out a hand while the bombs explore around them, and he's desperate to get to her, but he can't. He's trapped, watching the rubble seem to swallow her up, and wounds open in her face, and her fingers grow blackened, bloody, and she screams his name.
He jerks from the nightmare, but there isn't relief in waking.
The worst is when there is relief for a moment: when for an instant, his sleepy, terrorized mind tricks him, and he thinks he is in Twelve, and Katniss is with him, and the bombing was a nightmare. But she isn't there, and he stares into the dark while it sinks in that she really was caught in the bombs, and buried in the rubble, and he couldn't get to her, wasn't there, left her.
Mostly, he sleeps only as long as necessary, and that gives him a respite from the nightmares; it's impossible to dream when he's exhausted. But the nightmares find a way to reach him eventually, and he knows they always will.
They pass through Eight in less than a month. The district was bombed sporadically; they walk from rubble into an empty, untouched streets and back into rubble for days. Gale claims that there was an exodus to the north, explaining that there are tracks everywhere that point that way.
But they aren't going to follow the tracks; it won't lead them to the answers they want.
They cut into Two, which looks to have been destroyed completely, and are in the rubble in One for a day when people circle around them suddenly, demanding to know who they are. They aren't given a chance to answer before a woman recognizes Finnick, and her eyes land on Peeta next, and she exclaims in delight, lowering her rifle, and that's when everything is explained at last.
The bombs that the Capitol dropped on Thirteen were meant to destroy the district.
Simultaneously, the Capitol bombed every other district to force them into submission. They were careful only to bomb the towns rather than the sections in the districts that provide the Capitol with resources. It was calculated, and it would've worked. Except that Coin fired back.
Thirteen bombed the Capitol, razing it.
The bombing on the Capitol threw everything into chaos, and that's when the rebels from Three struck. They put a bug into the system that froze the computers that run the country, and they trashed the plants that provide electricity for everyone in Panem, and left the country in the dark.
"It was easy to take the Capitol after that," Gene explains. He's a tall, reedy man with a tick in his cheek, and there's a look about him that puts Peeta off, but he seems to be in charge.
"What about Snow?" Boggs asks. "I take it he was killed in the bombing."
Gene grins, revealing two yellow front teeth that point in. "Nope. The rat was able to escape the bombs. But he wasn't able to escape us."
He leads their group to the Capitol; it's a day's walk, and they arrive when the sun is about to disappear behind the horizon, leaving a bloody purple sky above them. The light is enough to see that bodies that are strung up like the bodies in Ten were. Months hanging, and they aren't recognizable. But a sign is hung from the one in the middle to make it clear who he is: Mr. Snow.
Ash stares at the bodies until Peeta turns him away with a hand on his shoulder.
"Were there survivors?" Finnick asks. "In the Capitol, I mean."
"Besides the slick little kings that hid in their bunkers 'til we dragged 'em out, nope," Gene says.
In the morning, Gene takes them to Three.
The mayor in Thirteen is large, hard woman with frosty white hair. She greets them with a smile.
In fact, everyone in Three is thrilled at their arrival: thrilled to meet Finnick, Annie, Peeta, and his family, and to welcome the group into their district. They look at Peeta with wide, tearful eyes when he explains that Katniss was killed, and they describe in detail what Gene told in brief. That's when it hits Peeta that it's over. The war is over, and they won. They really, truly won.
But it doesn't feel like a victory; it doesn't feel like anything.
They travelled across the country, and for what? To learn that Snow was dead.
He needed something to do, and that was something. Now he knows that Snow is dead, and the war is over. It doesn't matter. Conversation buzzes around him, and he hears Madge ask the mayor about contact with survivors around the country. It doesn't bring Katniss back to life, knowing that Snow is dead. What is he supposed to do now? Where is he supposed to go next?
He is jarred from his thoughts when Ash exclaims for him suddenly. "Pick a card, Papa!"
"Uck," Davey says, making a face before he seems to force himself to swallow the slimy tomato slice that he fished from a can. "Tomatoes are gross."
"You're gross," Ash says.
"Shut up," Davey says.
"You shut up."
"Boys," Peeta says.
Davey sticks his tongue out at Ash, and Ash sticks his tongue out, too, making a face to mock Davey. But Davey shoots to his feet, kicks Ash suddenly in the shin, and races off before his brother is able to retaliate, shouting "Uncle Finnick! Do you want to trade a cracker for a tomato?"
Ash isn't fazed. "Uncle Rory taught me a trick, Papa. Pick a card!" He grins at Peeta, and Peeta smiles faintly in reply, picking a card.
In some ways, things start to get a lot better. They have everything that they need in Three, and they are safe with the reassurance that the bombing is finished, and Snow is dead.
But in most ways, things remain the same.
Katniss is dead, and that isn't okay; it'll never be okay. It'll never get better.
For Peeta, or for their children. For Prim.
The explosion happens suddenly, startling Peeta, but he knows that things have built to this for a while. Things have been tense between them for months. Actually, things have been tense between them for a year, and it comes to a head in Three. "Would it kill you to look at me?" Rory snaps at her, and his voice is loud, pointed, drawing everyone in the canteen to look at him.
Prim spins on her heel, glaring pointedly at him. "There. I'm looking at you."
His cheek twitches, but he doesn't respond immediately. His gaze drifts past her to the eyes that are trained on them. He lowers his voice. "Can we not do this here?" he asks, softening.
"Do what?" Prim asks.
"Talk," Rory says.
"What do you want to talk about?" Her face is hard.
"I—I want to talk about this," he says, and the anger in his voice is mixed with frustration, and tinted with a strained, desperate plea. "How you look at me, and—"
"I thought the problem was that I don't look at you," Prim says.
"—and how you talk to me. How you don't have time for anything to do with me, and you—"
"I'm sorry you feel that I don't cater to your needs sufficiently, Rory," Prim snaps.
"Stop!" he shouts. "Just stop!" His face seems to spasm in frustration. "This isn't you, Prim!"
She crosses her arms over her chest. "I don't know who you think I am," she says, "or what it is that you want me to say. I'm sorry that you don't . . . enjoy my company, or whatever your problem is. But what am I supposed to do about that?" She glares at him. "What do you want?"
"I want my wife!" Rory says. The words seem to break the edge in Prim's expression, and Rory continues softly, desperately. "I know you miss your sister. I know that her death was really, really hard for you. I know, and I'm sorry. I loved her, too, and I hate that you lost her. But it's like you're angry at—at the world for her death, and you refuse to—and it's changed you, Prim."
"What am I supposed to do about that?" Prim asks. "I am angry. I'm angry, and I'm lonely, and I want my sister. I need my sister." Her eyes are wet.
Rory takes a single, hesitant step towards her. "I know it's hard. My sister died, too, and—"
"Don't." Prim swallows visibly, and her hands are fisted at her sides. "Don't. Don't act like you understand. You don't. I know that you lost Posy, but it's not the same. It's not, and it's—I know that's a terrible thing to say, okay? I know. But it's the truth. It's not the same." She explodes. "Katniss raised me! I would've starved without her, and—and do you think I would've survived the Games? She was always there! Always! I wasn't supposed to lose her!"
"Prim," Rory starts.
Her tears spring free, and she shakes her head at him. "I'm sorry that I don't know how to live my life without her. I'm sorry that I haven't adjusted to a world without my sister on your schedule. But that isn't how it works! I'm sorry—I'm sorry, I can't—" She turns away from him.
He reaches for her arm, but she jerks away from his grasp, and she leaves. Rory stares after her.
Slowly, Peeta rises to his feet. He spares a smile for Davey, whose eyes are wide, and for Ash, whose face is pale, and tugs on Penny's braid to reassure her.
He finds Prim behind the building with her back to the bricks. Her hand is clapped to her mouth to cover her sobs, and her body shakes with them. She folds easily into his embrace, crumpling against his chest. "I—I know that—I—" She isn't able to say the words, but she doesn't have to.
"Me, too," he murmurs. She gasps in reply, and he rubs her back, reminding her gently to breathe.
They aren't in Three for long before Gale is involved in the plans to rebuild the country. Madge is, too.
They are eager to discuss their ideas for new, democratic government, and it's clear this is a plan they've thought about for a while. They want to connect the survivors across the country, allowing them to rebuild the districts together, and giving everyone a say in the government that they want to form. They talk about the radio, and how they need to get on the air to communicate with the country. How they need to repair the trains, and that'll take help from the survivors in Six. How they ought to rebuild the Capitol, and to bury the dead, and that includes the bodies that are strung up. "It's time to move on," Madge says. "To heal."
The mayor in Three agrees with everything that they suggest.
"I have to admit, their fancy talk makes it sound tantalizingly possible," Finnick says.
Peeta shrugs. "I think that's because it is."
"Does that mean you're going to go with them to the Capitol?" Finnick asks.
Madge wants him to. She says that they need his help to rebuild the country from scratch. But he's tired. He doesn't want to help rebuild the country from scratch. He's done his part. It took everything he had, and he doesn't care about the country now, or about the government, or about the strangers across the country who managed to survive the war.
"I might stay in Three," he says. "Just start fresh, and try to make it a home."
"Sure." Finnick nods. "But if that's your plan, how do you feel about making a home in Four?" He says the words casually, but it's clear they weren't spontaneous; Peeta glances at him in surprise. "I'm ready to go home," Finnick explains. "Annie is, too." He pauses. "She's pregnant."
"Oh, wow. Congratulations."
Finnick smiles. "Anyway. It's time for us to go. And if you're up for it, we'd love for you to come with us. I talked to Annie, and she's, well, actually, she's under the assumption that of course you're going to come with us. It didn't occur to her that you wouldn't." He smiles. "She adores your kids, you know. I do, too. And, well, you aren't the worst. So. What do you think?"
Peeta doesn't have to think about his answer. Not really. There isn't a reason to say in Three.
If he's going to try to make a home for his kids, better to do it with the family they've got left. "Okay."
They stay in Three for the toasting. Penny collects dandelions to string into a crown for Madge, Gale dresses in clothing that belonged to the mayor's husband, and the ceremony is short, simple.
They use sweet apple bread that Peeta bakes for them, and Madge cries when she tells Gale that she's loved him since she was a girl. She doesn't wear a kerchief over her pale, unseeing eyes anymore, and Gale leans in to press a kiss to the thin white scar under one eye, and a kiss to the soft pale skin under her eyebrow. He kisses her cheek, and the corner of her mouth, and he takes her hands, replying that he hadn't known it was possible to love a person as much as he loves her.
Penny starts to clap, and it breaks the spell that everyone's under.
They cheer for the newly married couple, and Madge laughs, blowing Penny a kiss.
It isn't until the afternoon that Madge finds Peeta. "I'm going to miss you," she says. She smiles a little, but her face is hesitant.
She bites her lip, and he waits. "I love you," she continues at last. I love you dearly, Peeta, and I know you're going to make sure that your children never forget Katniss." She pauses, and he nods at her slowly. "But I'm afraid they're going to forget you," she says. "I mean the you that you used to be. I can't imagine what it's been like for you to lose her, and I'm not saying you have to be who you were before you lost her, but you can't—you can't lose yourself, too, Peeta."
She stares at him apologetically, and he is forced to drop her gaze.
But he finds his voice after a moment, and he tries to smile at her. "I love you, too," he says, "and—and I know what you're trying to say, and I'm trying. Honestly, I am."
She nods. "I know." It's quiet. He smiles, and she does, too, nodding more certainly before she pulls him into a hug. "I know it'll be hard to stay in touch, but you better. Listen to the radio. The mayor thinks she'll be able to get us on air soon." She draws back, waiting, and he promises.
He learns the night before they plan to leave that Rory isn't going to come with them. Hestia is, and others from Thirteen. But it turns out that Rory plans to go to the Capitol.
"He wants to stay with his brother," Prim says. "I understand."
Her voice is calm, and Peeta watches her pick a spool from her box, thread her needle, and start carefully to stitch up a tear in Ash's shirt. "But you're going to District Four with us," Peeta questions finally, and Prim nods. Her eyes stay on her work. "There are things you can't take back, Prim. This is a thing you can't take back." He pauses. "Do you really want to leave him?"
"I want to go where my family goes, and you're taking my family to Four."
"I don't have to," he says. She looks at him, and he offers a small, encouraging smile. "If you want to stay with Rory, I won't make you choose."
"But you want to go to Four," Prim says. "I know you do, and it's better for them, isn't it?" She doesn't wait for an answer. "If the situation were reversed, what do you think she'd do?" Her mouth is pressed into a line, and she stares at Peeta with a challenge in her gaze.
Peeta sighs. "She would do what you're about to," he says. "But that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do."
Prim drops his gaze, and stares intently at the neat little stitches that she's sewn in Ash's shirt. But she's finished. It's mended. "If the situation were reversed, you'd follow Katniss," she whispers, and her eyes are wet when her gaze returns to Peeta. "No matter what, you'd stay with her. Wouldn't you?"
There isn't a reason for him to answer; she knows his answer. "It's different," he says.
"It's not," Prim says, shaking her head. "I used to think that the way you loved Katniss was the way that husbands love their wives. But the way you loved her—" She swallows thickly, shaking her head. "I promise I've—I've thought about this." She manages to smile tearfully at him. "It's for the best."
He doesn't try to argue with her.
Rory isn't there to see them off in the morning, and Prim takes Ash's hand, asking him to tell her a joke.
They aren't on the road for a week before they cross into Four, but it takes longer to reach the water, and that's where they're going: that's where Finnick grew up, and that's where the survivors in Four are. The country was bombed a year ago, and Peeta is amazed what Four was able to accomplish in a year; they created a government for themselves after the bombing, and managed to clear the rubble. They managed to bury their dead, and to start to rebuild their district.
It's clear the survivors in Four aren't at a loss for what to do without the Capitol.
In fact, it is easy to settle into a life in Four.
The house that belonged to Finnick's uncle is empty, and that's where they live at first.
Finnick picks a boat from those that sit in the harbor without owners, fixing it up easily, and takes it onto the water. Most in Four make a living off the water, and Finnick is happy to join their ranks. But when Peeta learns that the bakery in Four was destroyed in the bombs, he decides to build a bakery where other new, rebuilt shops are beginning to spring up. The survivors in Four are delighted at the prospect, furnishing him with the supplies for construction.
Summer arrives, and his pale, pasty skin burns, peels, and browns.
But freckles bloom on Penny's nose, and it makes Peeta smile. "Mama used to freckle in the sun, too," he says, tapping her little, freckled nose. She pinks in pleasure, biting the smile in her lip; throughout the day, he notices her tracing her fingers carefully over the freckles on her face in awe.
Penny loves to hear about Katniss. She asks Peeta about her constantly, and she questions Prim, too, and Finnick. The stories that she loves the best are those that involve her, and Peeta is happy to tell them to her, to make it clear to her in every possible way that her mother loved her.
He tells her about the way that when she was a baby, Katniss used to take her into the bath with her, and little baby Penny always, always nodded off. "Five minutes in your mother's arms in the water, and you started to snore," he says. "Mama thought it was funny. Who slept in the bath? My baby, that's who. But she loved it. I think she took you into the bath every single night."
"Is that what she called me?" Penny asks.
"Her baby? That's what you were! Her baby. She was the first to call you Penny. She called you Pen every once in a while, too. Do you remember?"
He knows she doesn't, but she nods eagerly at him anyway.
It isn't supposed to be like this; she isn't supposed to live on stories. But it's what's left, and he gives them to her constantly, trying to make Katniss real to her.
Finnick teaches the children how to swim that summer, and they are eager to learn to fish, too.
In September, Annie's baby is born.
"Romy Odair," Finnick says, gazing at her with an awe that takes the years off his face. Romy is seven pounds, six ounces, has soft red fuzz on her head, and proves to be an easy, happy baby.
"She's pretty," Prim says.
"She's perfect," Finnick says.
But she's a reminder, too. The worst are the moments when Annie is confused, when she forgets: when she is in the kitchen, and Romy starts to fuss, and she breathes, "hush, Nell, my darling, hush." Or when she is tired, and she puts Romy in the crib, whispering, "sweet dreams, my sweet Nell," leaving the name to echo in the silence that follows.
Finnick smiles at Annie with sad, tired eyes. "Romy, my love. That's Romy."
Annie nods at him, returning his smile.
Finnick looks at the ground, and Peeta looks away.
He knows what it feels like to have a ghost at your side no matter where you go, or what you do. How everything is paler in the shadows that they cast, is washed in gray, and you aren't able to feel the way that you used to; everything is softer around the edges. Soft, and dull. Happiness isn't what it used to be, and it doesn't matter what changes in your life, or how much time passes.
The children are better, adjusting to a life without her.
They finish with the bakery in November, and Peeta moves his family into the flat that he built above the kitchen. Prim comes, too, sharing a room with Penny. It's strange not to live with Finnick, Annie, and Romy after months in such close, cramped quarters with them, but it's good.
It's healthy at least. It's what they're supposed to do: move on, start over. Flourish.
Ash likes to listen to the radio in the evenings, saying that he promised Aunt Madge. For months, he slowly, carefully turns the dial on the radio, and is met with static. But when the leaves on the trees start to change, he turns the dial, and hears Madge. He yelps in excitement, spinning up the volume. They listen to Madge until she announces that she is going to sign off for the night, reminding everyone to tune in tomorrow, and her voice is replaced with music from a tinny piano.
November come with a breeze, but it isn't really, truly cold, and Finnick claims this is as cold as winter gets in Four. He is at the bakery, lounging at the counter, when Hestia stops in for a loaf. It's ready for her; pumpernickel is her favorite, and she comes in every other day to pick up a loaf. "Smells as delicious as always!" She smiles. "I'm having it with barley potato soup tonight."
"Isn't that what you always have it with?" Peeta asks.
She grins. "Guilty. But that's my favorite!"
"Try it with potato, leek, and onion soup," he says. "It'll amaze you."
"Nope," she says.
"I promise it's better!"
She shakes her head at him. "Do you know what? Here's what we're going to do. Make another loaf in the afternoon tomorrow, and come 'round to mine for dinner. I'll serve my favorite, delicious soup, and you'll see why there isn't a reason for variety."
He chuckles. "Okay. Fine. But don't get your hopes up that you'll convert me."
She wags her finger at him, reaching across the counter to squeeze his hand before she leaves with the loaf under her arm.
Finnick clears his throat, drawing Peeta to look at him. "What?"
"Is there something that you might've neglected to share with me?" he asks.
Peeta frowns. "What are you talking about?"
"That," Finnick says, waving his hand at the door. "I'm talking about that." He stares at Peeta, and his brow creases slowly. "But you don't—Peeta, you are aware, aren't you, that Hestia asked you on a date a moment ago? And you agreed? To a date? You didn't miss that, right?"
Peeta blinks. "That isn't what—"
Finnick nods. "That is what that was, Peeta, and it isn't news to anybody that Hestia likes you, but now I sense that it's news to you." He pauses. "Do you have feelings for her?"
"Not at all."
"I didn't think so," Finnick says.
Peeta is stunned. He thought it was an invitation to dinner, yes, but he was going to bring his children, and they are friends, aren't they? He thinks about the way that Hestia touches his arm constantly, and draws him into hugs; she compliments his baking, and the way he is with his children, and she flirts with him. But it didn't occur to him that she interested in him romantically.
"I guess she didn't nudge you awkwardly," Finnick says. "Or, you know, stare at you when she didn't think you were looking. How were you supposed to know she liked you?"
"That was how Katniss liked to flirt, right?"
"Oh. Right," Peeta says. "That, and bring you dead animals."
Finnick grins, but there's a softness to his expression. "Look at you, making a joke. I didn't know you had it in you."
Peeta smiles a little in reply, turning away from Finnick.
He needs to talk to Hestia.
She lives with a friend from Thirteen, and he stops off at their cabin after he closes the bakery for the night. Hestia is surprised, but she invites him in. "Do you want something to eat?" she asks.
He shakes his head. He doesn't need to come in, or a reason to beat around the bush. He needs to say what he came to say. "I don't mean to be presumptuous, but it occurred to me after you left the bakery that you meant to ask me on a date." He pauses.
Her smile drops slowly, and she nods. "Yes. I did." She looks at him knowingly, and he plows on.
"I care about you, Hestia, and I'm glad that you're in my life. But, honestly, I'm not ready to—I'm never going to be ready to—to move on. Katniss—she was my wife, but—but she was my friend, too, and my protector, and my life." He shrugs. "She was my life. I think she's always going to be my life. It's been over a year, but I don't miss her less today than I did a year go. I mean, I'm used to it. To missing her, and to being without her. I'm able to live with it. But I'm not okay with it. Actually, it amazes me that I am able to live with it. If it weren't for my children, I don't think I could, and that—that isn't about to change. Not for a very, very long time, and that's optimistic."
He starts to apologize to her, but she interrupts him. "Don't. It's okay. I understand." She offers him a sad smile, and he leaves with that.
On some days, he lives in the imaginary. He dreams up scenarios in which she made her way to the bunkers in time; his mind places her in his memories from the year on the road, and he imagines her life in Four now. He passes day after day like that, living a better, imaginary life in his head.
But there are days, too, when he lives in the past.
He replays his memories on a reel, trying to relive them.
The smallest, most inconsequential moments are suddenly moments that he wants to crawl into, that he wishes desperately he could've stayed in. He thinks about the Games, and about the months after the Games. He thinks a lot, too, about when she fell in love with him. He knows it happened slowly, but he remembers the certainty in her admission when it came at last.
He wonders when it started, and when she loved him but didn't know it yet.
He remembers when he caught sick with a fever. Ash was a baby at the time.
He was in bed for days, and those are mostly a fog to him now. But he remembers vaguely the way that Katniss cared for him, stroking his hair, pressing a cold, damp towel to his face, singing to him, and he remembers when he woke to find that his fever was gone, and his head was clear. But when Katniss noticed that he was awake, touching a hand to his forehead, he refused to open his eyes. He felt her smile against his cheek. "Seems like the fever's passed," she told him.
"Nope. I'm sick. Cuddle me."
She laughed. "I don't want you to be sick," she told him. "It's boring when you're sick." The words were laced with such warm, honest affection, and she pushed her fingers into his hair, scratching lightly at his scalp.
"If you're bored, I suppose I—" He heaved a sigh. "—might be able to muster the energy to have sex."
She laughed, nosing his cheek, and her eyes were bright when he met them at last.
He decides that she must have been in love with him that day, and he wants to go back: to that day, to that bed. But that day's gone, and he rolls over in the bed he's in now, wiping his eyes.
They celebrate Annie's birthday in December with a bonfire. It's nice, gathering on the beach; they have grilled, salty catfish, and there's cake from the bakery, and moonshine that Finnick makes, and three older, toothless men from Four play their fiddles when Annie wants to dance.
Peeta plays on the beach with the children until pain starts to flare up in his leg.
It takes him a moment to find where Finnick sits on a blanket a ways off from the chaos, and he joins him. "I think I need to get my stump looked at," he says. Finnick nods in reply, taking a swig from the jug, in his lap and it's clear he isn't in the mood to talk. But that's fine with Peeta.
He rubs at his leg, and his gaze wanders to his children.
Penny trips, but Ash is at her side instantly, setting her on her feet.
"Ash is good with her," Finnick says.
Peeta glances at him, but Finnick stares at the children. "He is."
It's quiet. Finnick offers the jug to Peeta, and he takes a sip; the liquor burns in his throat, sitting warmly in his belly. "Today is Nell's birthday, too," Finnick says. "She was born on Annie's birthday." His fingers pluck at the threads in the blanket under him. "She, um, Annie, I mean, she told me once that Nell was the best present I ever gave her. She was an accident, obviously. But."
"Do you know, you've never really told us about that," Peeta says. "Hiding her, and everything."
Finnick raises his eyebrows, although he doesn't look at Peeta. "There isn't much to tell. Snow knew. There wasn't really a way to hide a baby from him." He pauses. "I always wanted children, but I was terrified when we realized that Annie was pregnant. I didn't know what Snow was going to do, and I knew there wasn't a way to hide it, or to act like it wasn't—like she wasn't mine. It got worse when I realized what it meant for there to be two people I cared about."
He stops to drink from the jug, and Peeta knows to wait.
"Before it was easy in a way. I knew that he wouldn't kill Annie. If he did, he wouldn't be able to control me, and he knew that. My life was hellish, but I knew that he couldn't kill Annie. But once there was a baby in the picture, that went out the window. If he killed Annie, he'd still be able to control me. He'd be able to use the baby for that. Or he could kill the baby, and I'd have to continue to fuck when he told me to fuck, or he'd kill Annie, too. It was torture, knowing that. I guess you know what's that's like, though."
"I tried not to think about it," Peeta says. "But it was all that Katniss thought about."
Finnick nods, passing him the jug.. It's quiet for a beat. "She was trying to find me," Finnick says. "Did I tell you that? She was in the hospital with Prim, but she ran before Prim could stop her. Prim says—says she wanted to find me. Except I was busy with Annie." He shakes his head. "I wanted to search for Nell, but everything was starting to collapse, and Annie was hurt, and—and I chose to get Annie to safety."
"If you hadn't, Annie would've died, too," Peeta says.
But he knows his words are worthless.
"She ran off to find me," Finnick says, and there's anger in his voice now, "and I didn't—I didn't try to find her. I used to promise her when she was little that I'd always come back to her. I had to leave her constantly go to the Capitol, and she used to make me promise her that I'd come back, and I would. I promised a hundred times. But when it counted, I didn't come back for her."
The idea occurs to him suddenly. "Katniss could've found her," he says.
Finnick glances at him.
"Nell was running from the hospital, right?" Peeta asks. "Katniss was running to the hospital. They might've run into each other. They might've been together when—"
—when they died.
It takes Finnick a moment to respond. "I hope they were," he murmurs.
Their conversation is brought to an end when Annie dances her way to them, insisting that Finnick dance with her, and he musters a smile, pushes himself to his feet, and takes her hand.
He is in the kitchen when the bell above the door to the bakery rings, and voices carry in from the street. He wipes his hands on his apron, starting for the front.
"—from District Twelve like you!" Mrs. Sherman says.
He's startled at the words. In the second before he comes face to face with the group, he realizes that a group must've come from the Capitol, and Mrs. Sherman brought them to Peeta; it's Madge, or Rory. Suddenly, he's hopeful that it's Rory, and that he's come to reconcile with Prim.
"Mr. Mellark!" Mrs. Sherman exclaims. "Look who wandered into town this morning!"
It isn't Rory. Or Madge.
The group with Mrs. Sherman have clearly been on the road for a while: they're unwashed, need to shave, and are in grimy, worn clothes; they have circles beneath their eyes, and bags thrown over their shoulders, and Peeta gapes at them. It's impossible. His mind is playing a trick on him.
Sammy Cartwright died. He didn't make it to the bunkers, and he died.
Even as he thin as he is, there are dimples in his cheeks when he grins. "Peeta Mellark," he says.
"Oh! Do you know each other?" Mrs. Sherman asks, smiling.
"We grew up together," Sammy says. "He was friends with my sister." His grin seems to grow impossibly wide. "I can't believe this." He starts to shake his head, laughing, and he surges towards Peeta suddenly. "I can't believe this!" The embrace startles Peeta, but he returns it, and the reality begins to sink in when Sammy pulls away after. Sammy didn't make it to the bunkers.
But he isn't dead.
"How are you not dead?" Peeta asks.
Sammy grins at him. "Sheer dumb luck. The bombs didn't get me at first, and I ran for the woods as soon as I had a chance. The bombs fell in waves, you know? I got out between waves. But what about you? Did you make it to the bunkers? I mean, you must have. But we searched the rubble, and we couldn't find anything. It was a while later—months after, but there wasn't anything. Nothing. We had to figure the bunkers didn't hold, and everybody in them was killed."
Peeta stares at Sammy, and his heart picks up, pounding wildly until he feels it everywhere.
"Who else—who made it to the woods, and—and made it?" he asks.
Sammy blinks at him for a moment before grin loosens slowly into a smile, and he nods. "She made it, Peeta," he says. "She's alive. Katniss is alive."
The breath leaves Peeta in a rush, taking his voice.
"She's in Eleven with Mary Mellark, and that little girl, Nell. Finnick Odair's daughter."
It's impossible. How is it possible?
Shaky, tearful laughter rises up in Peeta, and he pushes his hands into his hair. "She's alive," he says, trying to soak the words in. "She's in Eleven?" he asks. "Is she okay? Is she—?"
"She was hurt in the bombings," Sammy continues. "I mean, she was hurt real, real bad. For a while, I didn't think she'd make it. But she recovered, and that's when we tried to find a clue about y'all in the ruins. But we couldn't, and she—well, Mary was afraid that she might starve to death, 'cause she couldn't bother to eat. She was—" He pauses. "Peeta, your kids didn't—"
"They did," Peeta says. "They made it to the bunkers with me."
Sammy grins. "Well, that beats it all. Good. Good, I'm glad."
"But she thought they were dead," Peeta goes on. "She thought everybody was dead." The idea makes his chest tighten, bottling his breath. She thought that she lost everybody she loved.
But she didn't, and she's alive.
"It was hard for her," Sammy says. "But one day it was like she woke up, and she—woke up. I guess she realized that we needed her. She was better when I left. That's why I left—'cause I knew that she'd look after Mary, and Nell, and the twins." His eyes widen. "That's right! It turned out Mary was pregnant with twins, and we didn't know until she went into labor! One girl, Lettie, and a boy, George."
He claps Peeta on the shoulder, and Peeta shakes his head. "That's—"
"It's amazing, I know," Sammy says. "Hey, but you haven't told me who's with you? Did your brother make it? Or Delly . . . ?" His eyes search Peeta face, and Peeta knows the answer's clear.
"I'm sorry," he murmurs. "Bannock isn't with us, and neither is—neither is Delly."
Sammy clears his throat. "It's okay." His smile isn't as bright as it was, but he squeezes Peeta's shoulder, turning, and starts to talk about the men that he travelled across the country with, introducing them to Peeta. But it's hard to keep up with him; this is too much to take in at once.
She's in Eleven.
Sammy talks about when they were in Six, and Peeta thinks about the route he'll take to Eleven.
He isn't eager to leave his children, but he knows that Finnick's right when he says they have to.
If they take the children with them on the road, it'll double the time it takes them to cross the country, and Prim agrees to stay in Four with them. She cried when Sammy told her that Katniss was alive, but her tears gave way to laughter, and her excitement is irrepressible now; she is overjoyed, constantly breaking into smiles at nothing. "Get her back as fast as you can," she says.
He promises that he will, and Prim beams at him.
Annie is going to stay in Four, too, and she'll be able to help Prim look after the kids.
"But I can help!" Ash protests. "I won't slow you down!"
"Me, neither!" Davey says. "I'm fast, Papa! I'm really, super fast!"
"What about your sister? If you come, who'll look after her?" Peeta asks.
They exclaim that Aunt Prim is going to.
He smiles. "But she needs her brothers, too," he says. "I know you want to come, but you have to believe me when I promise that I'll be back with her soon. I'll bring her back to you."
They agree at last, hugging him before he leaves with Finnick.
"I knew she wasn't dead," Davey whispers.
Peeta smiles into Davey's shoulder, and kisses him on the cheek.
Sammy isn't going to come with them, and Peeta understands; he was on the road for months. But he draws them a map, showing them exactly where to go in Eleven, and they start off on their own. Peeta suspects that Finnick is tempted to try to sprint to Eleven. Since he learned that Nell was alive, Finnick's been a whirlwind, asking Sammy about her, preparing to leave Four, worrying that something is going to happen to her in the time that it'll take them to get to Eleven.
"Nothing's going to happen to her while she's with Katniss," Sammy assures.
His words make Peeta happy in a silly, stupid way. That's right. There isn't a reason to worry about Nell; she is safe with Katniss. It's strange, realizing that Katniss lived a life that was separate from him for a year. He wants to know everything that happened to her, everything that she thought, and felt. She's alive. What is she doing at that moment? Is she with Nell? Is she hunting, or skinning the game that she's caught? Or is she with Mary, helping her with the twins?
He'll know soon. He'll be with her soon.
"Two months," Finnick says. "If we cut right into Eleven, we'll make it to them before summer."
The humidity is awful, worsening the longer they're on the road, and the sun that beats on their backs slows their progress. But it turns out that there are villages across Eleven that are populated with survivors, which makes it easy to travel the district: the villages are places for them to rest safely for a night, and to stock up on supplies; they cross through close to a dozen.
In a little over a month, they reach village that Sammy circled on the map.
Peeta imagines the moment when he sees her, and what it'll be like when she sees him. He might see her before she notices him, and he thinks about how he'll approach her, and how she'll react. Is she going to believe her eyes? She might spy him before he's able to spot her. Is she going to whisper his name? Is she going to run to him? He thinks about what he'll say to her, what she'll say to him. He might not say a word at first. He thinks about how it'll be to hold her. To kiss her.
He plays the scene his mind a thousand times in a thousand ways.
It doesn't matter how it happens; it's going to be perfect no matter what.
But when they try to cross the field that separates them from the village, a voice barks at them to stop, and a woman levels a gun at them. "Whoa!" Finnick says, stepping away from her in surprise. They were excited to be this wonderfully, tantalizingly close; she caught them off guard.
"Make a move, and I'll blow your balls off," she says, stalking across the distance to them.
"Noted," Finnick says.
"What do you want?" she snaps. Her face is shadowed under a floppy straw hat, but her hands are steady, and she points the gun directly at Peeta's chest. "Answer me!"
"We came to find our family," Peeta says. "We don't want to hurt you, or anybody. I'm—"
But the woman tilts her head up, and the hat slips off to hang from a ribbon her neck. "I know who you are," she says. Her face is weathered, but there's a slow, growing smile on her face. "Peeta Mellark, and Finnick Odair." Her eyes flicker to Finnick. "I didn't recognize you at first."
"But you recognize us now," Finnick says, questioning.
"I do," she agrees, and she lowers the gun. "Who wouldn't? My name's Addy Weaver."
"It's nice to meet you, Addy," Peeta says. "I'm sorry that we frightened you. We came to find my wife, Katniss, and Finnick's daughter, Nell." He gestures at Finnick, who smiles. "We thought they were killed in the bombing, but we learned recently that they weren't, and that they were—" He falters, seeing the look on Addy's face. "—were in Eleven," he says. "In this village."
There's an apology in her gaze. "I'm sorry, but they're gone."
"What do you—what's gone?" Finnick asks. "What are you talking about?"
"They left," she says. "They were with us for a while. Katniss, and her sister, and her sister's twins, and—and that sweet little girl. Little Nell. But they left, oh, must've been six, seven months ago. I don't know where they went. It was abrupt, happened quick. They didn't give us more than a day's notice."
Finnick states at her. "They left," he repeats.
"Do you know why they left?" Peeta asks, trying to swallow his panic.
"To find—well, to find you, I think," she says. "There was a lady from Twelve on the radio. Do you know there are folks in the Capitol, broadcasting on the radio now? Our folks, good folks, and Mary told my cousin that a lady from Twelve was on, which made her hope that others from Twelve might have survived, and they wanted to find them. But that's everything I know. I'm sorry. I'll ask about, see if anybody knows more than I do, and I'll—I can take you to where they lived? Nobody's moved in after them. How's that? I'm sorry, it's the best I can do for you."
"That's fine," Peeta says. "That's—" He nods. "Thank you."
Katniss heard Madge on the radio.
Addy takes them into the village, and she drops them off at a cabin that's far off from the front. "I'll ask about," she promises. The cabin is empty, and there isn't a trace to show that it was lived in, or to give a hint where it's occupants might've gone. Two cots with a trunk between them, a stove, a sink, a cabinet, and three chairs around a table, and that's it. That's what's left.
But they'll figure this out.
She's alive, and they'll figure out where she is.
"Okay, we know they heard Madge on the radio," Peeta starts. "That's how they found out they were wrong about the bunkers, and that we might be alive, and that's why they left. It must be."
"Right," Finnick says. "But where are they now?"
"They would've gone to the Capitol," Peeta says. "That's where Madge is, and she says it every night before she signs off. I bet they decided to follow the tracks for the train. I mean, that's how Katniss knows to get to the Capitol."
"Right. But you haven't answered my question, detective. Where the fuck are they now? If they left seven months ago, where are they? It doesn't take that long to reach the Capitol."
"It took us that long," Peeta says.
"We started in Thirteen, and we stopped for the winter," Finnick replies. "Do you think Katniss would have stopped for a break? That after she thought you and her kids and Prim were dead for a year, only to learn there was a chance that you were alive, she decided—Peeta, do you really think she stopped off for a break along the way? Katniss?" He shakes his head. "It would have taken three months at the most to make it to the Capitol, and that's generous. Once they reached the Capitol, it would've taken, what, a month to get to Four? That means they should've reached Four at least a month before we left, and that's at the least. So. What happened? Where are they?"
"We'll figure it out," Peeta says. "They're alive. We know that much."
"Do we?" Finnick asks.
Peeta stares at him. "Yes," he breathes. "Yes. Look, I know you're—disappointed. I am, too. But they're out there somewhere. They've been alive this whole time, and that hasn't changed. They're out there, looking for us, and now we're looking for them, too. We're going to find them."
Finnick looks away, nodding. "I know, I'm sorry." He clears his throat. "I know."
They look at the map, trying to decide where to go. But there's really only one possible option: they have to head to the Capitol, taking the path that Katniss would've taken, and hope that eventually they catch up to wherever it is Katniss, Mary, and Nell must have been forced to stop.
He isn't able to sleep that night. He curls up on a cot that Katniss might've slept in, and he wants to do it over. To go back, and refuse to give up on her.
But that's what he did.
He gave up on her, and he left her.
He didn't think to look for her away from the ruins, didn't bother to imagine that she might have escaped Thirteen during the bombings. He left her. She was hurt badly; Sammy told him it took months for her to recover. That was when she needed him the most, but he wasn't there. He left.
He's going to find her. He has to.
He presses his face into the cot, wishing that it smelled like her. That something was left to prove that she lived in this cabin, that she isn't a ghost, living only in his memory. To make it real that she wasn't killed, and that she was alive for the years he thought she was dead. That she is alive.
That she is older, and scarred, and alive.
Light starts to creep into the cabin, and his head is stuffy in a tired, painful way.
He left her, and he can't take that back, but he'll make up for it. He'll get her back, and he'll never, ever let her go.
Mostly, the road is quiet. They keep to the tracks, and there isn't a soul in sight for days.
But they stumble onto spots where it's clear that fires were stomped out, and they pass a grave that's marked with stones. They pass a body, too, and stop to bury him; his skull is bashed in, and it's clear that his things were rifled through.
They cross into Nine, wandering into a small, empty town, and that's where they meet Gretel.
She recognizes them immediately, and welcomes them into her home, offering them dinner, trying to smooth her hair across her cheek to shadow the pockmarks that scar her face. She talks nervously, saying they were lucky not to run into scavengers on the road. "They'll slit your throat for the penny in your pocket. But listen to me, prattling on, and you can't get a word in. What brings you to Nine? What are you on the road for?"
Finnick explains. "Have you seen them?"
"I haven't," she says. "I'm sorry. We used to see travellers a lot on the tracks like we are, but it's been a while since things were busy like that. Not since the twitches got us. Seems like it got everybody, don't it? That's how it is now. If the scavengers don't get you, the twitches does." She says the words bitterly, only to glance suddenly at Peeta in apology. "But I—I'm certain nothing's gotten to Katniss!" She flushes. "I'll reckon she's gone on to the Capitol, you know—"
"What are the twitches?" Finnick asks.
"The sickness," Gretel says, looking between them in surprise. She explains that the survivors in Nine left their city in a factory a while ago, building this town for the traffic that followed the tracks. "It was a sight to see," she says. But that was before the sickness. It came suddenly, and it spread quickly. Only a few were able to survive. "If it gets you, it makes you twitch. Makes you jerk in your bed, you know, and claw at your sheets. But that isn't what kills you," she says. "It's the diarrhea, and the dehydration, and the fever. That's what gets you. It cooks your brain."
Her explanation leaves Peeta without a voice.
But she continues with wide, apologetic eyes, volunteering to ask in town about Katniss, Mary, and Nell. "If they passed through, chances are that somebody remembers. We aren't the town that we used to be, but a few of us are left, and nobody would forget meeting Katniss Everdeen."
He manages to smile, thanking her.
It isn't until later that Finnick says what Peeta refuses to. "I don't know which is worse: to think that scavengers brutally murdered them, or that they got the twitches, and died slow, painful deaths." He stares at Peeta. "But it's got to be one, right?"
Peeta curls his hands into fists.
No. It can't be like this. He can't have learned that she was alive only for it turn out that it was too little, too late. That she might as well have died in the bombing, and he might as well have stayed in Four. No. No. She came back to life; he got her back. He was supposed to get her back.
"We don't know that they're dead," he says. "Not yet." He looks at Finnick. "I won't believe that until I see it with my own eyes. I'm not giving up on her that easily a second time."
No matter how long it takes, he is going to find her.
For thirteen years, they've been star-crossed. But that's going to change. He's going to find her.
The plan is to scour the town for information in the morning, but they don't have to.
Gretel shakes Peeta awake, exclaiming that she talked to Stan, "and he thinks he remembers when Katniss came though!" Her eyes are bright, and Peeta is stunned for a moment, trying to process her words. But he does, and hope swells in his chest. They need an actual, proper place to start, and this is it. This is their lead. Gretel ushers them to the door, talking a mile a minute about Stan.
Stan is a middle aged man with about three wiry black hairs on his head, and he purses his lip in annoyance when Gretel introduces them to him.
"Tell them what you told me," Gretel says, "about Katniss, and—and everything."
"I told you that I'm not sure it was Katniss Everdeen," he replies, rubbing at his neck.
"But you remember a woman who might've been her!" Gretel exclaims.
Reluctantly, he starts to nod. "I remember two women who came through with a girl, and two little ones. It was months ago. That's what I told you." He looks at Peeta. "I don't know that one was your wife, but she did have real dark hair." He pauses, and Peeta nods at him. This needs to be real; this needs to be something. "She was small, and—and had this awful scar on her face. The other lady was blonde, and—well, I remember them like I do 'cause the girl had the twitches."
"The girl," Finnick repeats.
"They had this little girl with them. She was five, I guess. Or six. Real little thing with dark hair." He hesitates, but Gretel waves a hand at him to continue. "It looked like the fever hadn't gotten her yet, but you could tell she had a week at best. We told the women to put her in the red house—that's the house where we put the sick to keep them from—from, well, you know. But they wouldn't. They wanted to go up to Eight. There were rumors at the time that there was medicine up in District Eight. Even if there were, we told them the girl wouldn't make it that far. But they wouldn't listen, and—and that's it. They left. I don't know what happened to them."
"And you don't remember their names, or anything?" Gretel asks.
He shakes his head.
"But that sounds like them, doesn't it?" She looks eagerly at Peeta.
"It does," he says. He glances at Finnick, but Finnick's gaze is on the ground.
"I guess that isn't what you wanted to hear," Stan says, apologetic.
Peeta smiles at him. "It's what we needed to hear," he says. "Thank you."
It hadn't occurred to him that there was a possibility they'd get one back, and not the other. That Katniss might've survived, but not Nell. He assumed it was all or nothing. He figured if they found one, they'd find the other. They'd get them both back. Looking at Finnick, he knows that Finnick figured the same. Now that they know better, he isn't able to hold Finnick's gaze.
There isn't a reason not to go to Eight. It's their lead.
But they make their way through the town that day anyway to be certain.
They talk to everyone, learning that others remember what Stan remembers. But if Katniss was the scarred, dark-haired woman that they remember, they didn't realize it. Peeta doesn't know what to think, or what he wants the truth to be. If it was Katniss, it's likely that Nell's dead now.
If it wasn't, where does that leave them?
In the morning, they leave for Eight.
It doesn't take a day to reach the district, and the place is as desolate as Peeta remembers. Gretel says the survivors are in a city in the north, and they head in that direction, following the line that she drew on a map for them. It's easy to follow the path that others have taken before them; they count over a dozen small cooking fires along the way, find a lost cloth dolly, and are faced with six freshly dug graves before the one remaining city in Eight looms suddenly in the distance.
They are welcomed into the city, and it is a city.
It's larger than anything that's left in Panem at this point, or that Peeta thought was left.
The mayor says their names before they do. "Finnick Odair, and Peeta Mellark," she greets, shaking their hands. "Lucrecia Niemenn. It's an honor to meet you."
"It's nice to meet you, Ms. Niemann," Peeta says, nodding.
Finnick doesn't waste a second before he explains why they came.
She frowns. "I'm sorry, Mr. Odair. I'm afraid you've come this way for nothing. They haven't come through. It's true that travellers come this way in droves, coming for the syrup, and it's impossible to keep track of them all. But I'm certain I would have heard if Katniss came through."
"If it helps, she wouldn't have looked like a sixteen-year-old girl with her hair in a braid," Finnick says. "That seems to be difficult for people to grasp." There's an edge to his voice.
She blinks at him, and Peeta steps in, asking her about the syrup. It turns out that the rumors in Nine weren't wrong: there is medicine for the twitches in Eight. There was a shortage in the winter, though; they were forced to ration the syrup. Children received it without question, but adults were put on a list. But that means that if Katniss got Nell to Eight, Nell would've gotten it.
He tells that to Finnick, and Finnick nods. "But didn't you hear? They didn't make it to Nine."
"She doesn't know that, and you know that," Peeta says. "This place is huge."
If they have to, they'll search every damn inch.
They start in the market, talking to everyone they see. But person after person directs them to the cemetery, and Peeta grits his teeth, thanking the person, and talks to the next.
He isn't going to search for them in the cemetery. It's pointless.
Finnick disagrees, and they split up. Finnick searches the cemetery, which stretches endlessly into the distance, and Peeta searches the streets. One week, and he starts to think about how kind everyone is to him. He knows that people are willing to help him without question because they recognize him. But if nobody recognizes Katniss, who helps her?
Herself. Katniss doesn't need anybody to look after her; she never has.
She's fine. She got Nell to this city, and she got her the medicine. She's alive, and she's fine.
He works his way from the market in the center of the city to the smaller, crowded streets that twist off into alleyways. The tenements on these streets are rickety grey buildings that are packed with people. They are busy, and nobody bothers to notice Peeta until he forces them to.
Honestly, it's strange.
He's grown used to how people notice him immediately; it's been that way for years.
But it's nice, too. He is able to move through the crowds easily, and it gives him hope that this is where Katniss is. That this is where he'll find her.
Except after three weeks in Eight, there isn't a trace to be found.
He knows that Finnick's given up. He didn't find their names on the stones in the cemetery, but he's convinced that they died before they made it to Eight, and Peeta hasn't found a thing to prove him wrong.
He's about to go into another towering apartment to knock on doors when the voice floats to him.
"Down in the valley, the valley so low." It's a girl, singing in a high, off-key voice, and Peeta turns from the door to the tenement, searching for her. "Hang your head over, hear the wind blow." His eyes catch on the children that are gathered in a knot in the street, shooting marbles in the dirt. "Hear the wind blow, dear, hear the wind blow. Hang your head over, hear the wind blow!"
He knows that song.
It's from District Twelve.
The girl sings it with such familiarity, singing like it's been sung to her a hundred times.
"Roses love sunshine, violets love dew, Angels in Heaven know I love you."
He spots her at last. She's small, bony, and tanned, has long brown hair down her back, and red raw scrapes on her elbows. Her song breaks when she laughs at something, but she continues happily, "Know I love you, dear, know I love you, Angels in Heaven know I love you!" She grins.
It can't be.
His breath stops in his chest, and it can't be.
"Nell." It comes out at a whisper. He clears his throat. "Nell!"
She looks up, and his heart begins to pound in his throat. It takes a moment for her eyes to land on him. He is paralyzed, staring at her, and she stares back. Until suddenly she breaks his gaze, snatching up a marble from the ground before shooting to her feet as quick as a dart. He blinks, and she takes off down the road.
"Wait! Nell, wait!" He chases after her.
She's quick, disappearing from his sight for seconds at a time. But he's desperate not to lose her, straining to keep his eyes on her. She turns the corner, and his way is blocked. He shoves the stranger, earning a curse, and turns the corner, too, running down the alley that she must have run down to emerge into another crowded street, and he's lost her. She's gone.
No. No. He turns in a circle. "Nell!" Nothing.
Until there she is, gesticulating wildly in explanation to a woman.
His heart bangs against his ribs in disbelief, and he can't move, can't speak, can't take his eyes off her. Dressed in a shirt without sleeves, dark trousers that disappear into worn dark boots. Dark hair that's cut short, curling at her ears. Her back is to him, but Nell's isn't, and her eyes widen in alarm when she notices Peeta.
Nell stabs the air with her finger, pointing, and the woman turns to see at what.
The breath leaves him in a rush. Her face is thin, and melted pink scars mar her cheek, tugging at the corner of her lip to pull it down. But he knows that face, would know it anywhere.
She stares at him, and he sees her lips move, sees the shape of his name.
It spurs him into action, making tearful, choking laughter bubble up. His eyes blur with tears, and he starts towards her.
But she reaches him first, shouting his name when they collide.
Her arms circle his neck, and her fingers dig into his back, and he clutches her to him; he can't believe she's real, runs his hand up her back, listens to her sob his name into her ear. She's crying, repeating "Peeta, Peeta, Peeta!" She turns her face into his, and kisses wildly at his ear, his cheek, his mouth. Her hand fists into his hair, and her breath washes hotly against his face. She laughs through a sob, kissing him, and he stares and stares at her, drinks in every single detail in her face.
"Aunty," Nell says.
Katniss seems to nod a little, and her feet touch the ground. But she doesn't take her eyes off Peeta, and she doesn't pull away from his arms. She stays right where she is. He runs his hands over her hips, up her back, trying to memorize her shape, to make it certain that she's real, and there.
She hiccoughs, and he laughs.
Her hands cup his face. He presses a kiss to her palm, smiling into her skin. "Peeta," she whispers.
He pushes his hands into her hair, drawing her into to kiss her, but the words pour from him suddenly. "I found you," he breathes. "Katniss. I'm sorry, I thought—I left, but—it's you, Katniss, it's you. I found you. Katniss, I love you, I found you, Katniss, I'm sorry, I love you—"
She laughs. "My sweet boy." But a moment later, her fingers curl into his shoulders, and the joy in her eyes gives way to something different at last: something like fear, and hope. "Peeta, does this meant that Pennycress—?"
He nods, grinning at the relief that floods her face. "I got her to the bunkers, and she's fine. She's in Four with Prim—"
"Prim?" Katniss says, clutching at his shoulders so tightly that it hurts. "And Davey? Did—?"
"Yes, Katniss, yes, Prim, and Davey, and Ash—they made it. They made it to the bunkers, and they've been with me, and they're safe, and they're waiting for you. They miss you so much." She isn't able to smile through her sobs; her tears overwhelm her, making her gasp for breath, and he pulls her into his chest. "They're okay. They made it. They made it, and we'll all be back together soon." She clings to him, and he closes his eyes, breathing her in. It's okay. They made it.
He knows it'll take days to catch up on everything that he's missed in the years they were apart.
There's a lot that he needs to explain, too. He starts with how Sammy came to Four, and that's when they learned that Katniss, Mary, and Nell were alive. They set off for Eleven, only they weren't in Eleven.
"We thought—" He shakes his head.
In rushed, breathless words, Katniss starts to explain. Peeta was right to believe they set off to find Madge in the Capitol after she came on the radio. They followed the tracks for the train, only Nell caught the twitches, and they were forced to drag her up to the city in District Eight.
"We had to separate as soon as we arrived," she says. "Mary from us, I mean. We didn't want the twins to get sick. If we didn't have to worry about scavengers on the road, I would've insisted that Mary stay in Nine with the twins while I take Nell to Eight. Actually, I tried to, and she wouldn't have it." She grins tearfully. "But we split as soon as we got to Eight."
"Do you know where they are now?" he asks.
She nods. "That was months ago. We split, and she and the babies never caught sick. I did, but I was able to sweat out the fever, and Nell—they had medicine for Nell. I couldn't have done it without help, though." She pauses. "I owe my life to Effie."
He blinks. "Effie," he repeats.
"Effie." She grins.
It turns out that Haymitch insisted that Effie was rescued from the Capitol, but they couldn't get her to Thirteen. Instead, she was hidden in Eight. That's where she stayed, and that's where she found Katniss. "Once I recovered, we got ready to leave. Me, Nell, Effie, Mary, and the twins. But we didn't get far from the city before the scavengers got us. Just two, and we got away, but—" She pauses. "Effie was a force to be reckoned with; after Mary knocked one off his feet, Effie beat him to death with her shoe."
"What about the other?" Peeta asks.
"I got him," Katniss says, and Peeta waits. "He tried to take me with him when he went, though. He stabbed me." Her smile is ready, knowing; she expects his panic, and she's right to: he is stunned. But she takes his hand, pushing it under her shirt to press his fingers against a thick, raised scar an inch long. "Obviously, I'm okay," she says. "But they had to drag me back to the city, and it took weeks for me to recover fully. I was stuck in bed until a week ago. That's why we haven't left before now. But we were going to soon. The plan was to go with a group that's headed out next week."
He stares at her.
"What?" she says, smiling. "What is it?"
He kisses her, cups her face in his hands. "The twitches get you," he starts, "and scavengers get you, and you—" He shakes his head, and she presses her cheek into his hand, smiling.
"I always was a survivor," she replies.
"I shouldn't have given up on you," he says. "We searched the ruins for you, but we should have—we didn't think to search the woods, or—I shouldn't have given up like that. I'm sorry."
"Don't. It doesn't matter now." She kisses him. "It's okay now. I've got you back."
He nods. "I know. I know, and I'm never letting you out of my sight again. Not for anything."
It turns out that Nell's run off. He panics when he realizes, but Katniss shrugs, saying that Nell isn't easy to pin in place. She'll have gone to the apartment to tell Mary, or into the market where Effie is. "She didn't know who you were," she says. "She didn't recognize you." The words make worry bloom in her expression, and he knows about what: Nell is older than Penny.
But he isn't Nell's mother. He's nothing to her.
Katniss is everything to Penny. And to Davey, and to Ash.
He starts to talk about the children, making Katniss laugh a little at the stories. She tears up, too. "They didn't give up on you. Davey swore that you weren't dead." He kisses her small, trembling smile, promising that Penny is going to know who she is. "She's missed you so much."
They cross through the city to where Finnick is in the market, bartering for supplies to get on the road.
He doesn't see them approach. "Finnick," Peeta starts, and Finnick glances at him briefly in acknowledgement, asking him what he thinks is fair to trade for a flashlight. "Finnick."
Finnick looks at him, and this time his gaze moves to the left. To Katniss.
He stares, and Katniss smiles. "Did you miss me?" she asks.
In reply, Finnick makes a noise in his throat.
Katniss laughs, surging in to hug him. Finnick is stunned, and it takes a moment for him to return the embrace. He starts to smile when she pulls away. "Sure, I missed you," he says. His eyes flicker across her face. "Nice scar."
"Nice beard," she replies, and he grins. His eyes are bright with tears, but he swallows visibly, and—"Nell?" he breathes. But he shakes his head before she answers. "I know she got sick."
"She did," Katniss says. Finnick's jaw locks, and he drops his gaze, nodding. "But she recovered."
His face snaps up.
"Do you want to see her?" Katniss asks, smiling.
"Is that—you—she's—?" He breathes a laugh, glancing at Peeta, and Peeta nods.
Katniss leads them from the market, to the street where Peeta found her, and into a tenement. She talks about how she found Nell in Thirteen when the bombs started to drop, and she blacked out. Her story merges into what Sammy told them, but Peeta drinks in the words, keeping his gaze on her. She's alive. He found her.
Six flights up, and voices float to them. "—kissing him," Nell says, and Finnick sways on his feet.
Katniss puts a hand on his shoulder. "Nell!" she calls.
There are footsteps above them, and Nell's head pops into view over the railing from the landing above them.
"Nell!" Finnick says, gaping at her.
Nell stares at him. "Daddy?" she asks, halting. Finnick starts up the stairs, tripping over his feet with his eyes on her, and Nell's face breaks into a grin. "Daddy! Aunty, it's my daddy! DADDY!"
Nell starts to tumble down the stairs, but she doesn't fall when her feet catch on a stair; Finnick reaches her, scooping her up, and skinny little arms wrap around his neck, skinny little legs around his waist. He starts to cry, telling her how much he missed her, and how much loves her.
Effie follows her down the stairs. That is Effie, right? Peeta isn't certain for a moment, staring at the pale, lined face. Light brown hair is tied in a bun with a shiny green ribbon, and she gasps dramatically, beaming at Peeta. "My dear," she says, holding out her hands. He grins. It's Effie.
He pulls her into a hug. "Is Haymitch with you?" she asks. "Or is he back in—well, wherever it is you came from? Where did you come from?"
"District Four," Peeta says. "But, Effie, Haymitch—he didn't make it."
She blinks. "Oh." She looks away from him, touching at her hair.
He looks at Katniss, and she tries to smile for him. "What about Bannock?" she asks. But she knows the answer. "He didn't make it, did he? Or he'd have come with you."
"He dropped Ash off in the bunkers," Peeta says, "and left to find Mary."
It's quiet while the words sink it. But when Finnick looks at them with Nell's cheek pressed to his, Katniss smiles. "Come on," she says, taking Peeta's hand. "Let's go up. We have a lot to catch up on." She nods at Effie, who straightens, mustering a smile, and hooks her arm in Peeta's.
Their apartment is three rooms: a living space that's merged with a kitchen, a small bedroom, and a smaller bathroom.
Mary is speechless when they file in.
Nell isn't, exclaiming to "Aunt Mary" that this is her daddy. Mary looks from Nell to Katniss to Peeta, and Katniss starts to explain quickly that Sammy made it to Four, and that's where everyone from the bunkers was. He told them that Katniss, Mary, and Nell were alive. "They came to find us," Katniss says.
There's a boy in Mary's arms with a pacifier in his mouth; he's got blue, blue eyes, and frizzy yellow fuzz on his head. Bannock's son, and it doesn't take long for Peeta to spot Bannock's daughter, sitting on the couch; her hair is similar in shade to Mary's, but her eyes are identical to her brother's. Katniss starts for her, and the girl lifts up her arms expectantly before Katniss picks her up. Her fists curl into Katniss's shirt, and Peeta swallows back the tears in his throat.
Mary listens quietly when he tells her about Bannock, and she excuses herself to the bathroom. Katniss follows, passing the baby in her arms to Peeta.
"Hey, Lettie," he says. "Hey, sweetheart." She blinks, sucking on her fingers, and he tucks a yellow baby curl behind her ear.
"She's darling, isn't she?" Effie asks. Her eyes are glassy with tears she hasn't cried yet. "But you haven't told me yet. Did your sweet little ones make it?" He smiles, and she gasps before he's able to answer. She presses a hand to her heart in relief. "Thank goodness," she says, sighing.
Eventually, Katniss emerges from the bathroom with Mary. Peeta smiles at her, and she manages to smile back with red, watery eyes.
Usually, Mary sleeps in one bed, and Nell joins Katniss in the other while the twins sleep in the crib between the beds. Nell is confused when Katniss says that Finnick is going to sleep in the bed with her tonight. "Where are you going to sleep?" Nell asks, and Katniss tells her not to worry, that she'll sleep on the sofa in the other room. "But—" Nell starts, and Mary hushes her.
In the dark, their kisses are sloppy, rushed.
She tugs on his boxers, shoving them down, and he pushes her nightgown up to her waist; he kisses her, rocking against her, and it makes her whimper into his mouth. She pulls on his shirt, tying to yank it up, and he draws away from her to tug it over his head while she scrambles to get her underwear off.
He settles between her legs, and her ankles hook behind his knees.
She holds his gaze when he sinks into her.
They breathe in sharply together, and her fingers dig into his back; he presses a kiss to her open mouth, but he doesn't look away from her gaze when he draws out, pushing back in.
Tears gather in her eyes. "Don't—don't leave me," she gasps, staring at him. "Don't ever—"
"Never," he breathes. "Never again, never." He thrusts into her sloppily, choking on a groan when she aches into him. "I'm never going to leave you," he swears. "I'm always—"
"Always," she says, gazing up at him with something close to awe in her eyes.
"Always," he pants, and he kisses her cheek, her mouth. There's a tearful, slack smile on her mouth, but it melts into a gasp, and her head presses back into the sofa, her whole body tightening against his. Her eyes stay on him when she comes, and she takes him with her; the moment she clenches around him, he starts to come, too. She hugs his shoulders, smiling against his mouth. "I love you," he says, crying now. "I love you."
He drops his forehead to rest against hers, and her hands run up his back.
But he needs to roll off before he crushes her; he collapses beside her, grabbing her arms to tug her against his chest. "Careful," she breathes, turning onto her side. "Or I'll fall off the sofa."
"We can't have that," he says. "Guess I'll have to keep you closer." She smiles. He runs a hand up her arm, and they stay face-to-face like that for a moment.
But he isn't able not to lean forward, kissing the flush in her cheek. He bends to kiss the scar on her throat, to kiss her collarbone. It's easy to pull down the thin, loose strap of her nightgown, baring her breast, and he kisses the pink, scarred skin that's bared, too. He kisses the top of her breast, feeling her heart race against his lips. He kisses her nipple, and her fingers slip into his curls, stroking his hair. "I love you," she murmurs.
He presses his face to her breast for a moment, breathing in, and lifts his head to kiss her on the mouth. "C'mere." He tugs her into his chest before he turns, flatting with his back on the sofa, and she settles into his side with her head on his chest. "Let's stay like this forever," he breathes.
He smiles. "Then you'll allow it?" he asks.
"I'll allow it," she whispers, and she turns her head to press a kiss to his chest. "Just like this."
It takes what's left in the summer to reach Four, and longer to make their way to the water.
But they do, arriving in September.
Katniss starts to fidget, and Peeta squeezes her hand, smiling in reassurance when she looks at him. It's evening, and the sun is low in the sky, dying the sky a brilliant, glowing orange; everything is quiet, recognizing that the day is done. But as soon as they step onto the street that leads to the bakery, there's a shout.
The boys stumble onto the street, and Peeta hears Katniss breathe in sharply before she takes off.
Ash reaches her first.
She drops to her knees to hug him, and Davey piles on a moment later, wrapping his arms around her neck. "Mama, I was waiting," Davey says. "I was waiting, and—and every day I waited, and I knew, and—" He can't talk fast enough, and Katniss laughs tearfully, littering kisses on his chubby, flushed cheeks. She kisses Ash, too; his eyes are squeezed tightly shut while he hugs her.
Peeta squats to kiss Davey on the head, brushing a hand over Ash's hair.
It's Prim, gaping at her for a moment before a grin starts to spread across her face.
Katniss laughs, only to choke when Penny stumbles into sight at Prim's side. Penny stares at her, and her eyes flicker to Peeta. "Papa," she says, but her gaze is back on Katniss, and her eyes are wide, hopeful. "Mama?" she asks, taking a step to her, and Katniss starts to nod quickly in reply.
"Hey, baby," she whispers.
"Mama," Penny repeats. "Mama!"
Katniss reaches for her, and Penny's hesitant, halting steps give way to a run; Katniss is crying when Penny surges into her arms at last. Prim reaches them, trapping Penny against Katniss when she hugs her. "Little Duck," Katniss says, smiling, and Prim breaks into tears. She looks at Peeta over Katniss's shoulder, and he grins at her, hugging Davey, and Ash, and Penny, and Katniss.
This is it.
This is the moment that he wants to live in forever: this moment with his family in a knot on the ground, hugging and crying and kissing.
In some ways, everything seems to fall into place after that. Katniss is home, and it is home now that she's with them. In their apartment over the bakery, they are safe, and together, and it's home. The children won't know the Games. They don't have to fear the Snow. They are together, and everything about the future seems bright, hopeful. It seems like something to look forward to.
Rory is with them now, too; it turns out that he arrived only days after Peeta left.
"He followed me," Prim says.
"Who wouldn't?" Katniss replies.
Prim moves into the apartment over the apothecary with Rory, and Mary takes the room in their apartment that Prim stayed in. Eventually, she'll have to find a place for herself; after all, the twins aren't going to be able to share a room with their mother forever. But it's nice to have her with them for now. Katniss is close with Mary, and it startles Peeta in the most strange, wonderful way when Katniss tells the cobbler that she lived in Eleven with her sister for a while.
He's glad to know that she wasn't alone for years.
That she was able to count on Mary, her sister.
It's hard to find the words at time, but in the quiet, in their bed, he explains the years without her, and Katniss listens, stroking his hair, and she talks about those years, too, describing how she was trapped in bed for months after she thought she lost everyone, how she forced herself to live.
Slowly, they start to recover from those years.
But in other ways, things are tough. There are always going to be ghosts, and it's tough.
It's tough to know that Haymitch didn't live to see Snow brought to justice. It's tough to know that Posy died when she was a child. It's tough to think that the twins are never going to know their father, and he is never going to see them grow up, to know they're safe, and always will be.
It isn't only the past that haunts them either; it's what they've missed, and the way things have changed.
Katniss struggles to adjust to way that the children are older than she remembers. That they have grown, and things have changed them, and they aren't exactly who she lost in the bombing. But that'll get better with time. She'll adjust, and she's with them now, gets to see them grow up now.
Nell flounders, too, trying to fit in.
She is attached to Katniss, and she wants to live with Katniss, doesn't understand why she can't. It's hard for her, too, to understand that Romy wasn't meant to replace her. She runs away from her house at night, and nobody realizes until she crawls into bed with Katniss. Finnick tries to talk to her, but she screams at him that he abandoned her, and she hates him, and she hates Annie.
"Give it time," Katniss says. "She's little, and she's been through the worst."
But when Nell is gone, Katniss sits on Davey's bed, and she asks the boys. "Do you understand where I was, and why I wasn't with you?" They claim they do, but Peeta listens to her explain softly to them why it looked to everyone like she was dead, and how she thought they were dead.
"I knew you weren't," Davey says. "I knew you'd find us eventually."
"I knew, too," Ash says.
Katniss smiles. "Did you look after your siblings while I was lost?" she asks. Ash nods eagerly, and Katniss brushes his hair away from his face. "I knew you would."
"I did, too," Davey says, and Katniss smiles at him.
"But you aren't going to have to leave again, right?" Ash asks. "Like to go to the Capitol, or—or?"
"Nope, never," Katniss says. "Never, ever in a million years. Now you're stuck with me. How's that sound?" In reply, Davey hugs her, and Ash holds up a pinky; she hooks it with hers. "I double dog pinky swear," she says. "Now—it's time for bed. What do you want to sing tonight?"
His nightmares haven't stopped, and there are times when the nightmares seem to find him in the day, and he imagines that something terrible has happened to her when she isn't in his sight. That's why he keeps her in his sight, why he's always with her, and he knows she feels the same.
She wants to hunt, and he goes with her.
If he's in the bakery, she's on a stool beside him.
Peeta knows that people notice. Finnick comes into the bakery in the morning, only to pause, looking around, and shake himself. He raises his eyebrows at Peeta. "Where's the other one?"
"In the back," Peeta says.
"Naturally," Finnick replies.
But nobody blames them, and it isn't a question that they'll be together when the nightmares come at night.
He sees Katniss in the rubble while bombs explode, and blood pools around her head; Nell shakes her, screaming, Katniss stares unseeingly in reply, and Peeta wakes with a jolt. He is in bed, breathing heavily. His eyes find Katniss. "I'm here," she says, kissing him. "It's okay. I'm here."
His heart slows, and the tension leaves his body. He smiles, nodding at her, and she wipes the sweat off his forehead with her sleeve. "I'm good," he breathes.
She turns, settling back into the bed, and she reaches for his arm.
He spoons her, and the baby moves under his hand.
It was an accident, but it feels like it was a choice. Katniss says that everything feels like a choice now. That if it hadn't happened the way it happened, it would've happened another way. Not because it was inevitable, but because she would've chosen for it to happen. Their marriage, their children. This baby they made when they were so happy to be together that they forgot to bother with contraception.
Annie thinks it's a girl, saying that Katniss is carrying the baby low, and that means it's a girl.
Katniss shrugs, replying that it doesn't matter to her. If the baby's a girl, she'll be a sister for Penny to love, to adore, to care for. If the baby's a boy, he'll be their third, but he'll have a mother who loves him dearly, and wants him dearly, and he is going to know that he's wanted.
He presses his fingers to her belly, and the baby presses back.
Katniss hums a little, mumbling "go to sleep," and he doesn't know if she's talking to him, or to the baby. He closes his eyes, giving into the warm, sleepy tug that quiets his mind. "I love you," Katniss whispers. He smiles into her neck.