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Hundreds of miles away, there is an intersection in Chapel Hill across the street from a car dealership flying a ragged American flag, where a twenty-two year old champagne Volvo V5 sits rusting. It is missing both front tires, and its tank was emptied long ago. The passenger side front and back doors are located some way up the road, twisted and rusted from both bleaching in the sun and dripping in the rain. The back axle is bent, long past the point of needing to be replaced. As for the frame, it is irreparably misshapen, which, given the rest of the damage, is no surprise. But the truest damage this car has sustained has nothing at all to do with all it's injuries, and more, in fact, to do with what it contains.


That specific damage lies in its trunk, in a white Piggly Wiggly bag, stuffed into the far back corner behind a crate of old tattoo magazines and a ragged sun shield. It cost three dollars and ninety-nine cents, was worn once, and became, like most things that have been partially crushed by a milkcrate, a secret source of shame. Tonight, the bearer of that shame is sleeping miles away, wrapped in the arms of a blue eyed boy who is staring into the darkness in front of him, unable to sleep. 


He has realized something horrific: somewhere in the world, someone is saying goodbye to someone they will never see again. Somewhere in the world, someone has lost someone they loved, and they don’t know it yet. And somewhere in the world, someone has had their heart broken for one final, terrible time. Would he know, when the time came, that he had lost the last person in this world he loved? 




Closing his eyes is impossible. Every time Peeta does there's nothing left to distract him from how hard it is to breathe. Minutes become an hour. One hour becomes many more, and each feels longer than the last. Pins and needles crawl up his thigh from his amputation site, and he is beginning to feel the first prickling, nauseating foretellings of a migraine. He winces through the semi-darkness at the water stain on his ceiling. Man, he’s really going to regret not unwrapping his amputation site when tomorrow rolls around. 


Do people still date after a zombie apocalypse? Or do you just immediately jump to the part of the relationship where you fight tooth and nail to keep each other alive? Somehow it doesn't seem like he’d be taking Katniss to an upscale Italian bistro any time soon. Would she have even wanted to go to a place like that? 


He tries to imagine it. Katniss in a dress. Him in a dress shirt. Stylish brick walls. Faux edison bulb lights hanging from the ceiling. Handwritten menus. The entrees come with a basket of fragrant, freshly baked bread, yeasty and warm. Would he be having the ravioli or the steak? And the lady? Perhaps a salad? A glass of wine? 


It's so bizarre he almost laughs, and then somehow he’s crying again. It's caught him off guard, how badly he wants that, and how badly he wants to do this right. Shake her dad's hand, and promise to have her home by ten. Open doors, push in chairs, give her his jacket in the cold. Instead, he can only give her this. A mattress on the floor. A room in a cold, concrete box. A hunger that never really feels sated anymore. The ravenous howls of the dead for a lullaby. 


How did things get this fucked up? It was never supposed to be this way. Even if the infection was cured tonight, there are surely by now more of the dead than the living. How could they even hope to rebuild? Maybe there was a point, some months ago, when he had expected infection would one day be cleared up and everything would go back to normal, but somewhere along the line- quietly, slowly- he had given up. 


Someone shuffles past his door, their light footfalls echoing as if made by drum beats in his ears. Acid surges into his throat and he stifles the impulse to rip his door open and tell them to go to bed already. Why would it ever be ok to pace the halls outside someone’s door after all that’s happened? He’d almost be less pissed if they were infected.


It’s a cold comfort knowing that there is someone else who can’t sleep tonight. He wonders if Katniss can feel it too- the restlessness that's been building since Wilson benched the Runners. All the exchanged glances where nothing is said. The rooms that fall silent when Wilson walks in. The clusters of people talking fast and low, their words dying on their tongues whenever someone else walked by. More and more he’s starting to understand something Katniss has probably known this whole time: Sanctuary is an ironic name for where they ended up. Maybe that’s why she spent her evenings staring at some dead guy from up on the wall. Only the living lied. You always knew what the dead wanted from you.


Who did he know that considered him an ally? Haymitch, probably. Johanna probably not. Zeke is too close to call. Finnick did, but he’s gone. He’s met a lot of people through fixing people’s computers, burning CD’s, supplying batteries and getting family portraits printed, but it’s not enough. Dawn creeps into the room. Sugared pink light blushes on his far wall, throwing long the shadows of the bars on his window. He watches them slowly shrink as the sun rises, doing nothing to stop the hot moisture pooling in his eyes. 


Rye would know what to do. He always was the better strategist. Peeta wipes at his eye with the heel of his palm. He’s not Rye. He doesn’t even compare. Hadn’t Mom always said so? 


The shadows grow shorter, and pink light gives way to white. It stings his eyes to keep them open any longer, and his lids slide shut. Hot moisture races down his cheeks unchecked, and before it can round the sharp curve of his jaw, he’s asleep.




His face is barely dry before he feels Katniss shifting in his arms, mumbling something he can’t make out. But it’s better than any dream he’d ever had, to open his eyes in the morning and find Katniss watching him.


If he had nothing else in the world, he would live just for this. This moment, with her. Without even knowing it, he had been fighting for it all along, and now that he had it… 


“Good morning,” he says, reaching over to brush her cheek with his thumb. 


“Good morning,” she mumbles quietly, her eyes darting down to her own hand, curled against a brownish stain on the bare mattress. 


“You are so beautiful.” 


She snorts.


“I haven't showered in a week.”


He leans his forehead against hers, his heart thudding heavily in his chest. 


“I don’t care.”


And he didn’t. The Before is getting harder and harder to remember, but the details are especially hard to dredge up. It's like fishing in mud with his bare hands: even if he manages to catch something, he can't really tell what it is. Had he really spent a hundred dollars on a pair of sneakers? He knows he did, but he can’t remember why, or what they looked like. It’s harder still to recall details about other people, even the other people he dated, and even when he can remember… none of that stuff ever made him feel the way he did right now, waking up on a dirty mattress next to an unshowered Katniss Everdeen.


He brushes his lips against hers. She makes a sound that’s too soft to be whimper, but too needy for a sigh, and he feels dizzy, almost drunk, as he cradles her jaw with his hand and tilts her head back. It feels so impossible to be lying next to her in the same bed, let alone kissing her, that he almost can't understand it. There are millions of shambling, rotting reasons that she wouldn't be. But she is. 






But fragile. 


Just like the Before had always been, without him ever understanding it. His pulse throbs in his eardrums. Katniss melts into the kiss, her tongue sliding shyly against his. He wants to crush her to his chest and curl around her. He wants to pick her up and run far away from Sanctuary and never think about it ever again. He wants to throw every valuable piece of machinery on his desk across the room and scream at the back of his door. 


Wanting Katniss had been so easy. It was the having her that he hadn’t planned for. 


He pulls away from the kiss, breathing hard.


“Come back,” he pants. “Tonight. This afternoon. Whenever.”


He opens his eyes. Katniss is watching him carefully. 


“Ok,” she whispers, scooting closer to him. Her arms wrap around his shoulders, and she cradles his head to her chest. “I'll come back.”


He can hear her heart. Smell sweat on her skin. Feel the air moving in her chest as she breathes. Her fingers tangle in his hair, combing through his curls gently. He threads his arms around her narrow waist, turning fully onto his side. It’s normally a hard position for him to maintain as it’s nearly impossible to balance without both legs, but with Katniss to lean against it’s no problem. Or it is a problem, because he doesn’t want to leave. He wants to stay here, in her arms, for the rest of his life. Or as long as she’d let him- whichever came first.


He reluctantly untangles his arms from around her and falls back onto his back, wincing slightly at the rush of pins and needles that race up his thigh from his amputation site. His Cymbalta won’t even touch that today. 


“You know anyone who can cut hair in this place?,” he asks.


“Yeah,” Katniss says, a little breathily. His stomach flips. “Wiress might be able to help you. She lives on the first floor, but she won’t do it for post-its. Only trades.”


He busies himself with rummaging around the pile of clothes next to his bed for a clean shirt, wincing as his movements cause the rough cotton of his bandages to chafe against the raw skin of his amputation site. Katniss is too busy slinking to the foot of the bed to notice, and as she stands she stretches onto her tip toes before bending forward, carefully keeping her weight off her right ankle as she does. 


“What does she trade for?,” he grunts, making a show of tugging on his shirt as he watches his sweatshirt slide up her back out of the corner of his eye. How weird would it be if he told her he wanted to write a book of sonnets about her ass? Probably pretty weird.


“I don't know,” Katniss says as she stands back up and steps into her pants. “What do you have?”


Food. Mangled electronics. Pain medication. The tools he brought from home, which are more precious to him than air itself.


“Um. Clothes, I guess?”


“Bring pants,” Katniss says wisely, and tugs his sweatshirt over her head. Her back is to him, and even though he firmly feels like he's stared at her enough this morning, he sneaks a look over at her as he struggles to stand up from the mattress. It's just a glimpse, but that’s all he needs to see the inked wings that spread across her back, rendered in impossibly beautiful detail. His cheeks burn. Clearly Katniss would show him these things if she meant for him to see them. 


He makes it a point not to look at her again until she is fully dressed, coat and all. The transformation is utterly jarring from the small, warm girl in his bed to the woman he's sure has gutted just as many zombies as she's gutted fish. She'd be safe out of Sanctuary, on her own. If worst comes to worst… could he tell her to leave him behind? Could he convince her that he could protect Rue on his own?


“Katniss,” he says, choosing his words carefully as she waits for him to unlock his door, “I don’t trust this place."


As soon as it's out of his mouth he feels stupid.


She blinks. 


“The room service is terrible,” he continues, and swings the door open. “And there's no pool.”


For a minute he's not sure she understands, and then she snorts. A grin tugs the corners of his lips as she steps out into the hall. He follows her out, his least favorite pants slung over his shoulder.


“I ordered champagne like three whole months ago,” he says, ready to beat this horse long past dead if it kept a smile on her face. “I'm still waiting for it.”


“We haven't had that spirit here since 1969,” Katniss smirks. 


“Oh my god, you are my soul mate.”


She flushes horribly, but laughs. The impulse to turn around and catch her in a kiss is too hard to resist, and she’s still laughing even as he presses his lips to hers. 


“Tonight?,” he asks as he pulls away.




She’s winded, but says it so seriously- like a promise. 


He takes it like a lie. 


Everything he is made of wants to beg her to stay. Instead he watches, still as stone, as she gives him a half-smile, then slips down the hall and into the darkness of the stairwell. He blinks, heart pounding in his chest. Which came first, his panic or his insomnia? He mulls over the problem, staring into the darkness with glassy eyes.


When the answer finally proves unknowable, he follows Katniss down the stairs, and then down the corridor to the hospital wing. He pauses outside to dry-swallow his morning medication. All of this walking is going to wreak havoc on his shoulder. He pinches the bridge of his nose, momentarily offsetting the throbbing in his skull, then pushes through the swinging doors. 


Johanna is at the front desk, half asleep, balancing her chin on her palm. 


“Do you have them?,” he asks. 


She brightens as she sees him, then grins. 


“Snickers, please!”


She holds out her hand and makes a grabbing motion. 


He reaches into his sweatshirt pocket and pulls out the candy bar, placing it onto her palm with as much patience as he can muster. 


“Did you find them or not?”


Johanna tears open the candy wrapper with her teeth, reaching down below the desk at the same time. 


“Puh-leathe,” she slurrs. “Gib 'e 'ore cwedit than tha’!” 


He's not sure what she just said, but it doesn't matter. She's holding exactly when he needs, and they’re the perfect size, too. Johanna chomps through the chocolate with gusto, chewing with a smirk on her face. 


“Told ya I could get them.”


“Johanna... Thank you,” he breathes, as she passes him a pair of tall black boots, rounded foam platforms attached to each sole with a series of screws. “You're unbelievable.”


“Next time you need something… pass on Zeke. Come right to me.” 


The corner of his mouth twitches. Just how much does Johanna think she knows? 


“Now that you mention it,” he says, and leans over the desk. “Did Finnick ever… tell you about his little caches?”


Johanna's eyes narrow.




Peeta drops his voice. 


“He had stashes of supplies all over this place, didn’t he?”


“Well, he obviously showed you where his snacks were. You can bet if he showed me that, I wouldn't be sharing. But he didn't have to show me anything. We came here together, in the same truck. The same truck where he hid the only stash of something I know of. And I'm not telling you what it is.”


“But there are others, aren't there?”


Johanna purses her lips. 


“Yes,” she says. “But besides from you and Katniss, I don't know who else knows about them.”


“Wait- Katniss?”


“Yeah. But ask her to tell you about it. I don't want this turning into a conversation.”


Yeah, because it's not like Katniss never kept secrets or anything. Or, for that matter, tried to wriggle her way out of important conversations.


"Well, thanks anyway," Peeta says, then fishes some energy bars out of his pocket and puts them on the desk. Johanna stares at him. 


“We had a deal. The boots for one Snickers bar." 


"Yeah," Peeta says. "But you really went above and beyond. I want you to know how thankful I am."


Johanna cocks an eyebrow at him. 


"You really think I'm that easy?"


“No,” Peeta says. “But if you keep raiding Zeke's stash he'll catch you, and he'll be insufferable when he does.”


“This is why Finnick told you, and not me, about the food.”




“Because he knew you'd share.”


Peeta's chest is uncomfortably tight, and Johanna goes quiet, and that's the only reason he hears it- a soft rattle at the end of the hallway. Peeta spins around, hand already flying to his pocket. It’s a stupid move for two reasons. One, he accidentally drops the boots, and they hit the ground with a loud whump , and two, all that’s in his pocket is a small screwdriver. Some apocalypse survivor he turned out to be. 


“Who is here?,” he whispers to Johanna. 


“No one,” she whispers back. “Just Rue.”


He inches forward, the click of his crutch echoing loudly against the polished concrete floors. The hallway is empty and still, no shapes shifting in the doorways nor long shadows leering out from the rooms. He pauses, heart in his throat, waiting for something to fly out into the hall. Nothing does. He swallows and keeps moving, fist tight around his screwdriver as he passes the door to the first exam room. It’s empty- and so is the next one. In fact, all of them are. All except for the one at the far end. Even with the door fully closed, Peeta can hear movement inside. What would Katniss do? Rip open the door and shoot the first thing her eyes landed on? He closes his eyes. No- Katniss wasn’t the guns blazing type. She’d hear a noise and then quiet disappear herself without even an ounce of curiousity as to what made it. 


But he’s not Katniss.


He opens his eyes and grasps the doorknob with a clenched fist. 


“Wait,” Johanna whispers, jogging up with a small hatchet in her hands. She lines herself up behind Peeta, hatchet high and ready, and nods. He hardly dares to breathe. It has been so long since he's been stupid enough to get into trouble without a real weapon that he's actually afraid he won't know what to do if an infected charges at him. Of course, the last infected to really do that was his mother, and he came out of that one alright…  sort of


Before he can give himself a chance to chicken out, he rips the door open and lunges into the room, screwdriver held in front of him like a tiny sword. Haymitch, who is leaning over Rue's prone form in the bed, jumps back, then bursts out laughing. 


“Go on kid,” Haymitch chokes. “Show me what you were going to do with that thing.”


He wipes at his eyes, and Peeta flushes so hard he can feel the heat creeping all the way into his hairline. Even Johanna is laughing- he even hears her snort.


“Were you gonna offer to tighten some screws or something?,” Haymitch says. “Is that what you were thinking?”


“I fought off an infected with less,” Peeta blurts, but he realizes as soon as its out of his mouth that he sounds a little too defensive.


“No offense,” Haymitch says, “I am sure that thing could be dangerous in the right hands. I'm just not sure those hands are yours.”


“Ha ha,” Peeta grumbles, then turns to Johanna. “I thought you said this place was empty.” 


Haymitch rolls his eyes. 


“How would sleeping beauty know? She was snoring when I walked in here.”


“And it's not even that big of a screwdriver,” Johanna wheezes, tears rolling down her face. He is never going to live this down. 


Haymitch pats his arm. 


“You don't get brownie points for being chivalrous. Let the girl with the ax go in first. That's what her mother fought for.” 


“Mine… is… bigger…,” Johanna gasps as she stumbles out the door, “than… yours!”


Now it’s Peeta’s turn to roll his eyes.


“No good deed goes unpunished around here,” he says. 


“And that is the greatest truth of all,” Haymitch says as he snaps on a pair of gloves and bends back over Rue. There is color on her cheeks, and her eyes don’t have that sunken, dark look anymore.


“Is she… better?,” he asks.


“No,” Haymitch grunts as he peels back Rue’s lip. Her gums are a blanched, murky white, almost lavender in hue. 


He lets her lip fall, then tugs down her bottom eyelid.


“You know, I'm pretty sick and tired of watching kids die. I'd like to save one at some point.”


“What's wrong with her?”


“Pneumonia. TBI. Myalgic encephalomyelitis. Malaria, maybe. Lyme disease... Tetanus.” Haymitch says it sardonically, like Peeta’s supposed to know what joke he’s making. Haymitch stands up and yanks off his gloves, snapping them at the trash can in a move so practiced Peeta can almost see him doing the same thing a thousand times before. “No way to know for sure.”


“Lyme disease?” Peeta asks incredulously. “And she’s going to-?”




“How are you so sure?”


Haymitch stares at him, his lips pressed together. 


“This is what it was like, before modern medicine. If you got sick, you died. What do you think is going to happen to any of the babies born now? Without vaccinations, a lot of them will die of some backwater infectious disease like Whooping Cough or the mumps before they're even two years old.”


Peeta glares. 


“You're giving up on her.”


“I’m a doctor, not God. If there was something left I could do, I would have already been doing it.”


“Does Katniss know?” Peeta asks. 


Haymitch wipes his nose and stares hard at him. It’s something both he and Katniss do- like they’re having some sort of conversation with him that is entirely implied, instead of spoken. Irritated doesn’t even begin to describe how he feels about this. Haymitch rolls his eyes, curses loudly and limps for the door, the sting of old sweat and alcohol following him out. Peeta leans all his weight on his crutches and maneuvers himself around.


“What would you need?” he calls after the older man. “To treat her?”


Haymitch shakes his head without looking back.


“A whole damn hospital.”




Wiress shaves Peeta’s head for a pair of pants. Ever so grateful, Peeta throws in a granola bar for good measure, and as he's leaving, he pauses in the doorway. 


"You wouldn't happen to know where I could get some sewing supplies, do you?"


She did know: Anna, in the tent settlement outside. Anna darns the holes in Peeta's pants for two double A batteries, and Peeta throws in a granola bar, he's so thankful for her help. And just as he's leaving, he pauses, hesitant anxiety clear on his face as he asks-


"You wouldn't happen to know where I could trade for a new pair of socks?"


And wouldn't you know it, she did. 


Terrence trades him a pair of socks for a small flashlight, John trades him some hand sanitizer for some WD-40, and Tinnika trades him a 6 toy cars for his second least favorite pair of pants. And wouldn't you know it, Peeta was so grateful to all of them that he threw in a granola bar. 


And then, with his left shoulder on fire, his amputation site throbbing angrily and his migraine full blown, he limps tiredly back to his room to choke down some utterly useless Advil and wait. 


It doesn't take long. 


The first knock is frantic- and Peeta almost feels bad as he swings open his door. A woman with grey streaked hair streaked and darting eyes asks him if they can talk. Two minutes later she walks out with a laptop bag filled with Cheez-its, peanut butter and granola bars. The second knock is the same, as is the third. He had expected there to be a fair few people who were hungry and desperate, but he hadn't known how truly dire it had become. It's awful, what he's doing. The guilt is doing things to his stomach that his headache never could. 


It just proved everything he had always thought about why Rye was much better at all this than he could ever be. He could be objective, pragmatic, even downright cold when he had to be- the machinery was never as important as the end goal. 


It goes on for hours- knock after knock- and as the stash of food in his room dwindles, Peeta is less and less sure he is doing the right thing, until a young woman just barely older than he is asks him for whatever he can spare. The infant propped on her hip is glassy-eyed and oddly quiet, even when her mother starts to cry when he hands over a five pound jar of Skippy. All he can do is stare at the child, who stares blankly back, blinking slowly. He tries not to wonder what will become of her. He tries not to think about what her short life has already been like. How old could she have been when all this started? A few months, maybe?


But maybe it's better that way. 


She won't remember losing anyone.


Peeta pins a smile on his face and turns back to the mother. 


"Hey, if you need anything, anything at all, just let me know." 


She nods, wiping furiously at her face with the heels of her palm as she melts away into the dark hallway, the infant in her arms staring back at Peeta over her shoulder. What was it Rye had said about the difference between economics and government? It’s so hard to remember anything from the Before, it’s almost like a dream he’s woken up from. Rye’s pencil had been tapping on the glossy page of one of Peeta’s textbook- was it AP American History in sophmore year? Or AP World History in junior year? He tries to call up other memories but they’re jumbled, incoherent, incongruent. All that makes is Rye, and the pencil, the textbook and- 


“Economics is the science of who gets what, when and how. Government is why they get it. But true power? That’s owning it all to begin with.”




It’s all downhill from there. None of Peeta’s medication makes a dent in any of his pain- not his phantom limb shocks, not his migraine, not his shoulder. The Advil bottle says not to take more than directed, and warns not to take more than six in a 24 hour period. Peeta washes down five with a gulp of water and an oxy. Isn’t this what he took all that Cymbalta for? He blinks at the diffused amber square of afternoon light glowing from his window. Screw it. A little sumatriptan couldn’t hurt.


He downs it and gingerly lowers himself back onto his bed, blocking the light of his room from his eyes with an arm thrown across his face. Could he sleep away the oxy high before Katniss came back? Acid gnaws at the bottom of his throat. Was it all the Advil he just took, or existential disgust? It was a sick twist of fate that Rye loved opioids but it was Peeta who ended up with a lifetime supply. He hated them- everything about them- but especially the drooling moron they turned him into. He remembers wondering, the first time he took one, if he would end up like Rye. The jury’s still out- the world hasn’t run out of Oxy yet, but he’ll find out one way or the other once they’re all gone.


Back in the early 2000’s when Dawn of the Dead got re-made, Peeta saw a news show that posited that the zombie fever that was sweeping the US was caused by political polarization. He always suspected it was actually the world waking up to the opioid crisis. 


With a tired sigh Peeta wriggles out of his pants- they fit a little looser now- and carefully unwraps his amputated leg. The skin below is raw and taught, the scar tissue so sensitized the shock of cold air on it lifts him high onto another cresting wave of nausea. He scrunches up his boxers to keep the fabric off his tenderized skin and flops back down. In a few minutes he’ll wipe it down with a baby wipe and rub some lotion on it, but, frankly it stunk, and needed some air. 


A few minutes turn into an hour. Peeta sinks gratefully into a gauzy, opioidal sleep, his pain creeping slowly away as the light in his small window deepens. He isn’t aware of the pin pricks of sweat that develop on his skin as his constricted blood vessels drive his blood pressure higher, paints his cheeks a rosey glow, loosens the muscles in his face. He isn’t aware of the serotonin burst in his brain as his migraine fades, can’t feel the slow silencing of the raw nerves in his amputation site or the cool air soothing it’s inflamed skin, nor the throbbing in his crutch-sore shoulder ebb away. Lost in this crescendo of release, he is dead to the world, and, importantly, dead to the knocking on his door. At least, at first.


And it’s important, this slight delay, in ways Peeta will only understand later. It’s less that he awakens and more that he finds himself standing, crutch already tucked in his armpit as he maneuvers his way to his door high, glowing, half dressed. It’s in this condition that Peeta Mellark does what he will later understand as one of the most important things he’d done since he left his home to find Katniss: open his door.


“Zeke,” he mumbles. “What’s up?”


Zeke blinks, face hardening as he takes in Peeta’s appearance, his eyes skating over Peeta’s shoulder and then back to his face. 


“I found them,” he says, lifting what appears to be four thin metal strips, joined with a series of leather straps.


“Oh awesome,” Peeta says. Does he sound high? “Hang on.”


He ducks back into the room and grabs Katniss’s computer and a pink post-it he had scrawled all over. He cracks the door open and hands them to Zeke, who in turn hands him the metal strips. 


“I got the entire sequence written out for you. All you need to do is open the terminal and execute the query.”


“How do I do that?”


“Uh… I can’t really show you right now…”


Zeke’s lips tighten.


“I can see that.”


Peeta rubs the back of his neck.


“Plug the computer’s internal modem into the phone jack, boot it up, sign in as a guest, then hit the magnifying glass icon on the right hand side of the screen. That will open up a search box. Type ‘terminal’ and hit enter. That should take you approximately two and half minutes. Once the terminal is open, you have around seven and half minutes to type what I got written out for you, then hit enter to execute. From there, it’s all you man. I can’t guarantee Facebook is still operational either. But I hope you find her.”


“Thanks,” Zeke says with a nod, then- “You’re consolidating.”


Peeta’s heart stops. What would Rye do?


“I’ll need the laptop back when you’re done,” Peeta says, consciously stopping himself from swallowing. 


“I don’t need convincing,” Zeke says, throwing his free arm wide and sneering like he had rolled eyes. “I’m done with this shit.”


Peeta blinks, a bland smile stretching his lips.


“That laptop belongs to Katniss,” he says, his smile twitching, his eyes trained on Zeke’s and his pulse thundering in his ears. “I don’t want her to wake up and not know where it is.”


Zeke purses his lips. He understands. Soon, Wilson will too. Muscles Peeta hadn’t even known were tensed release in his neck. 


“When you’re ready to make your move,” Zeke starts, his brow knitting together, “let me know.”


Peeta blinks. 


“Printer paper,” he says. “I’ll need nine sheets. And more sauter.”


“Done,” Zeke says. “And then I’m in, ground floor?”


“Ground floor,” Peeta says, and extends a hand.


Zeke takes his hand and shakes once. 


Peeta pulls back and closes his door, heart pounding so hard it’s all he can hear. Rye was right- of course he was right - when had he ever been wrong about this stuff? He called the race for Obama when Florida swung blue and went to bed at 8pm like McCain didn’t have a suite of data scientists crunching out probabilities for months. 


Standard deviations are bullshit. Pseudo poli-sci. Pop mathematics. Owning it all is what really matters- it’s the only thing that matters. Peeta blinks at the darkened glow of his window, his brain sluggishly churning. The oxycodone pumping through his veins is melting the connective tissue of his thoughts. They won’t stick together nor stay around long enough for him to think them out fully. It’s like staring in a fractured mirror- no matter how he tries he can’t put the pieces together and make them show him a full picture.


How is that no one will stand up to Wilson? How is Wilson still in charge? They were going to starve to death- didn’t they care? Didn’t they see that Wilson was at fault for what was happening to their children? To their friends? The people they love? People would die- and there are so few left of them now. A jolt of pure pain strikes his heart, knocking the air out of his lungs. Rye, dead.  Finnick, dead. Why? Why them, and not Peeta? His throat tightens.


He can’t do this. He can’t. Not for his own life, not for Katniss’s. He’s not quick like they were, like she is. He can weld some dumb wires together, calculate a differential, build a stupid Python web crawler- what good is any of that now? He doesn’t even know Zeke that well- what if he’s playing him too? What if he’s playing everyone to pit them all against each other? Peeta closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, filling his lungs until they stretch to the point of pain. He holds it there, feeling his heart slow as it converts all that air into life force and pumping it from his chest outward to every part of his body. This game has become so dangerous- who is it turning him into? He doesn’t know the hand moving all these pawns around even though he’s had it his entire life. 


He fills his lungs again, his head clearing even as the blood still throbs in his neck.


Is this what it was like for Finnick? That’s what he was doing, wasn’t it? Playing the game. Moving his own pawns. Maybe he wasn't planning to overthrow Wilson, but he was certainly trying to destabilize his power.


Peeta leans hard on his crutch, his high receding, his thoughts beginning to congeal. Katniss and Johanna- two of the best runners in this hellhole- and beloved for it- each knew where a stash of goods were in the Boneyard, and as such, they could decide how to use them. Johanna had said it herself, Finnick showed him the stash of food because he knew Peeta would share. All this time, Peeta had it dead wrong. Wilson just had the guns- he wasn’t really in charge here. The person who was died, leaving in his wake an empty throne for anyone who could put together the puzzle of his power.